Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern

Article excerpt

The presenters of the BBC 2 programme on civilisations seem unable to decide what civilisation is. Socrates would therefore wonder how they could make a programme about it. Still, that's academe for you. Let the Romans help out.

First, the root of 'civilisation' is Latin civis, 'citizen'. That implies a law-bound society. Secondly, in his epic Aeneid, Virgil described how Aeneas, fleeing Troy in flames to found the Roman race, consulted his father Anchises in Hades on the future that awaited him. Anchises duly 'foresaw' the whole history of Rome down to Virgil's day, and defined Rome's mission: the arts and science, he said, were for others (he meant the Greeks), but Rome's raison d'être was 'to rule an empire, teach the ways of peace, spare the defeated and overpower the arrogant'. No civilisation, then, without peace -- which could be won, in the ancient world, only by war -- and the fruits of war, wealth.

'Law-bound society', 'peace' and 'wealth' added up to the conditions under which civilisation could flourish. What then would be its product? Otium, Latin for 'leisure'. For the plebs, that meant state-sponsored bread and circuses (= circuits, i. …

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