on 29 February 2012
In the first half of this marvellous book, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix explains, using Marxist concepts, the class structure in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. He shows that the three main classes were the slave-owning, land-owning ruling class at the top; the slaves at the bottom; and the mass of small producers (peasants, craftspeople and traders) in between. (Many of the poorest of this last group were probably not much better off than some of the slaves.)
The system was based on exploitation, and Ste. Croix argues that even though slaves were not the majority of the population, their labour, especially on the big rural estates, provided most of the rulers' wealth.
Ste. Croix's view can be contrasted with that of another Marxist historian, Neil Faulkner. Faulkner describes himself as an unorthodox Marxist in that he rejects the traditional Marxist view that Roman society was based on the "slave mode of production". He instead describes it as being a system of "military imperialism", with the ruling class's surplus coming mainly from imperial plunder. (He has also argued that slaves were too diverse to be described as a class.) I am more convinced by Ste. Croix's view that Rome should indeed be described as a slave society, albeit one which of course relied on imperial expansion to provide the slaves.
In the second half of the book Ste. Croix applies the concepts developed in the first half to the history of the class struggle in the Graeco-Roman world. He shows, for example, how Athenian democracy, despite its limitations, was used by the free poor citizens to limit the power of the ruling class. Until..."Greek democracy was destroyed by the joint efforts of the Greek propertied class, the Macedonians and the Romans."
He also puts forward a convincing explanation of Rome's decline and fall. For centuries, Rome had been expanding. But at the beginning of the first century AD this expansion ground to a halt. Ste. Croix argues that the end of Rome's expansion led eventually to its decline.
Conquered provinces were a source of taxation in cash and kind. But they were also a source of slaves, especially during the process of conquest itself. But when expansion ceased, the supply of slaves began to dry up.
Ste. Croix argues that the decline in the number of imported slaves meant that Rome had to increasingly switch to the breeding of slaves. But this method was a more expensive method of providing slaves. Slaves therefore became less profitable for the Roman ruling class, so the rulers, to make up for this, began to increase the exploitation of "free" (i.e. non-slave) peasants.
These free peasants had always been exploited through taxation, but now they were gradually forced down into serfdom. Even the middle classes were squeezed. The bloated imperial bureaucracy was very costly to support. This worsening of the position of the free peasantry meant that they became indifferent to, or even welcomed, barbarian incursions. In some areas there were defections to the barbarians or peasant revolts. The Empire lost its backbone.
Of course, there were many other factors involved. For example, there was the strife and civil wars caused by provincial generals seeking the Emperor's crown. But it does seem that in the long run Rome could not stand still. It thrived on conquest: when that stopped, it had to squeeze the people within its boundaries harder and harder. Although the final collapse was a long time coming, the end of expansion marked the beginning of the end.
I don't agree with everything that Ste. Croix says: for example his view that women in the ancient world could be defined as a "class". But overall I strongly recommend this book. It is essential reading for anyone who has a serious interest in either the ancient world or Marxism, or both.
on 19 March 2008
The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World is a massive book, more than 700 pages long, and covers a vast sweep of history. It explores the social and political structures of the eastern Mediterranean from 700 BC onwards, concluding with the Arab conquests over 1,300 years later. It is more a collection of closely related essays than an integrated narrative, full of digressions and pungent asides. Yet the book has a unifying theme. It is, quite simply, exploitation. In what is in my view the best single discussion of the Marxist theory of class, Ste Croix argues that 'class is the way in which exploitation is reflected in a social structure'. Classes are defined by people's positions in the relations of production, and in particular by their control or lack of control of the means of production. Thus understood, class is an objective relationship. It does not depend on individuals being aware of their class position or on classes self consciously organising themselves politically.
Yet wherever society is based on exploitation, the class struggle goes on, usually silently as the propertied classes seek to squeeze as much as possible from 'the voiceless toilers'. Ste Croix relentlessly marshals and minutely analyses the evidence to support such a view of classical antiquity. He demonstrates that the Greek and Roman ruling classes were ruthlessly efficient exploiters, as is shown, for example, by the fact that--most unusually in pre-industrial times--ordinary country dwellers suffered worse in times of famine than the towns where the rich landowners were based.
He also argues that ancient Greece and Rome were slave societies, not in the sense that most people were slaves (in fact they were peasants), but because slave labour provided the surplus product off which the ruling class lived. Therefore, as the use of slaves became more costly in the later Roman Empire, the society went into crisis. Yet, as the empire declined, the senatorial aristocracy continued to amass yet more wealth. In a characteristic final paragraph Ste Croix compares them to vampire bats.
Using this approach, de Ste. Croix explains such events as the rise and fall of Greek democracy, the fall of the Roman Republic and later the Empire, elements in the rise of Christianity and Islam.
This is one of the finest books ever written.