Marx in the Agora

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests

by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix
Cornell University Press, 732 pp., $49.50


When Cyrenus Osborne Ward, that interesting figure in early American socialism, wanted to publish his two-volume work The Ancient Lowly, he had to arrange to do so (essentially) himself, since no established publisher would touch such a work. Ward took his task of telling the history of the ancient lower classes seriously. He traveled widely and was introduced by leading scholars to documents in the original languages. Unfortunately his intentions were more laudable than his training for the work, and despite his devoted labors, it remains a curiosity, more important in the history of ideas in the US than in the historiography of the ancient world. Ste. Croix does not cite it in his book on class struggle in the ancient world.

As far as I know, Ste. Croix’s comprehensive study is unique. Margaret Wason’s Class Struggles in Ancient Greece (1947), covering a short period, is rightly characterized as “negligible” by Ste. Croix. P.A. Brunt’s Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (1971) is rightly praised by him and much drawn on, but it covers an even more limited range. Ste. Croix’s is the only work in a Western language that has ever attempted to tell the story of the greater part of the ancient world with the interests of the lower classes as its central theme.

Ste. Croix’s title is deliberately understated. Only the subtitle explains. Where one might expect a treatment ending (at most) with the Roman conquest, he defines his topic as covering “the vast area…within which Greek was, or became, the principal language of the upper classes,” from the archaic age to the seventh century AD. Nor is even that limit to be taken strictly. While some effort is made to exclude the western provinces of the Roman Empire, the history of the Roman Republic is included in some detail (largely following Brunt as a well-chosen guide) and there is something on ancient Palestine as well.

The author has, one may say, given his life to this work, and no other living scholar would be able to produce a book to equal its sweep. Yet while he keeps the major issues constantly in view, Ste. Croix can hold his own with any “antiquarian” (his term for a specialist scholar) in discussing a point of chronology or the nuances of meaning of a Greek or Latin word, with collections of material to back his view. For unlike some who profess to deal in large issues, he knows what distinguishes the scholar from the windbag.

Needless to say, no one can be equally well informed throughout so wide a range. Ste. Croix’s own expertise lies at its two ends: early and classical Greece and the late Roman Empire. Outside those periods, he is a little less familiar with source problems and with the tone of society. Aristotle (although not, as Ste. Croix tries to make out, a proto-Marxist: he paid little attention to the forces of production and none to the part played by slaves in the…

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