Civilizations Book Summary - Civilizations Book explained in key points
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Civilizations summary

Mary Beard

How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith

4.1 (36 ratings)
24 mins

Brief summary

In "Civilizations," Mary Beard explores the development of civilizations and challenges the idea of a linear, Eurocentric view of history. She argues that a more diverse, global perspective is necessary for a true understanding of human civilization.

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    The meaning of artworks is shaped by the way people interact with them.

    If we want to see art, especially ancient art, we usually head to a museum or the library. But that’s not how most artists down the ages intended for their work to be seen. In fact, the meaning of many artistic creations has been shaped by how people interact with them.

    Take the two statues of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III in Thebes: their meaning was defined by what people thought when they traveled to the ancient city to see them up close and personal.

    One of the statues was a famous attraction in antiquity. Its main draw was its ability to “sing” – how it sang remains unclear; it may have been a prank played by mischievous local children or possibly just the sound of air escaping through cracks in the masonry.

    Because it depended on the weather (or naughty children), visitors weren’t guaranteed to hear the statue singing. Soon enough, however, contemporaries began to interpret it as a good omen if a visitor was fortunate enough to hear the sound.

    One traveler who made the journey was the Roman emperor Hadrian. His sojourn was recorded in verse by the courtier Julia Balbilla in 130 CE and later inscribed on the left foot and leg of the statue.

    In the poem, she states that Hadrian heard the sound and that this was a clear sign that the Gods favored him!

    It’s clear, therefore, that art in the ancient world was about more than just being pleasing to the eye, and Athenian ceramics provide another great example of this.

    Take, for example, a wine cooler crafted in the fifth century BCE. The vessel is decorated with images of naked, drunken satyrs – mythical half-human, half-animal creatures who lived in the wilderness. They are shown having a fittingly wild time: one balances a wine goblet on his erect penis, while another guzzles wine poured directly into his mouth.

    That might strike us a celebration of hedonism, but appearances can be deceptive. The real meaning is rather more sober.

    Athenians were busy building cities and settling down to urban life when the cooler was made and were bothered by the question of where to draw the line between civilization and barbarity.

    The images were designed to make the vessel’s users think – something only possible because they had been placed on something as humdrum and everyday as a wine cooler.

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    What is Civilizations about?

    Civilizations (2018) is the companion to a major new BBC documentary series co-presented by renowned classical historian Mary Beard. Divided into two parts, it takes a close look at the relationship between civilization and artistic representation. Beginning with the history of depictions of the human form, Beard moves on to cast an eye over the long and intimate relationship between art and religion over the centuries.

    Civilizations Review

    Civilizations (2018) by Mary Beard is a thought-provoking exploration of the development and impact of cultures throughout history. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With impeccable research and analysis, it offers a comprehensive understanding of how civilizations shape the world we live in today.
    • The book challenges conventional narratives by examining lesser-known aspects of history, giving readers a fresh perspective on familiar topics.
    • Through vivid storytelling and engaging anecdotes, it brings the past to life, captivating readers and ensuring a stimulating and enriching experience.

    Best quote from Civilizations

    The tomb of Qin Shihuangdi is the biggest tableau of sculpture ever made by human beings.

    —Mary Beard
    example alt text

    Who should read Civilizations?

    • Anyone who loved the BBC’s Civilisations series
    • Art lovers and museumgoers
    • Fans of large-scale comparative history

    About the Author

    Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and a bestselling author. An academic more than happy to stray beyond the confines of the ivory tower, she’s been called “Britain’s best-known classicist.” Beard is a regular contributor to TV and radio shows and is an unmissable presence on Twitter. Her previous books include SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women and Power: A Manifesto.

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    Civilizations FAQs 

    What is the main message of Civilizations?

    The main message of Civilizations is the fascinating and complex nature of human cultures throughout history.

    How long does it take to read Civilizations?

    The reading time for Civilizations varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just a few minutes.

    Is Civilizations a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Civilizations is worth reading for its insightful exploration of different civilizations and their impact on our world.

    Who is the author of Civilizations?

    Mary Beard is the author of Civilizations.

    What to read after Civilizations?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Civilizations, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Women and Power by Mary Beard
    • 1491 by Charles C. Mann
    • Orientalism by Edward W. Said
    • The Metaphysics by Aristotle
    • Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky
    • Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw
    • New Cold Wars by David E. Sanger
    • The Way of Zen by Alan W. Watts
    • The Age of AI by Henry Kissinger
    • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy