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 process of production) regarded the conflict between the rich and the poor as basic to the history of the city-state. To a large extent, of course, this is true and obvious. But it became a commonplace of interpretation, glibly applied (like some modern theories) even where demonstrably out of place. Moreover, members of the Roman upper class, after conquering the world, liked to think—and wanted it to be thought—that they had consistently supported the “best” people against the rabble and that that support had consistently been mutual. Ste. Croix, in any case predisposed to interpretation in class terms, is less on his guard against ancient propaganda and pseudo-explanation in fields less familiar to him. Still, even there the reader will find much that is interesting, stimulating, and, once noted, obviously true.
The scale of Ste. Croix’s work is worth emphasizing. Successfully understated by excellent printing and publishing (the number of printing errors, many of them noted in the errata list and a separate corrigenda page, is comparatively negligible), its scope may not fully impress itself upon the reader. About 500 pages of text, 600 words to the page, and (perhaps) 27,000 words of appendixes; over 120 pages of notes, 58 lines to the page; a bibliography of over 1,000 items (books and articles), with hundreds more casually cited in the notes; and a good analytical index of about 3,000 main entries—that would normally have sufficed for two volumes of standard size. Yet we have it in one, all legible and accurate, and comparatively inexpensive.
As the title is meant to make clear, the approach is Marxist. In fact, the title is more programmatic than descriptive: it takes only a few pages for the reader to find out that the author is not writing about such a limited theme—that he is including “situations in which there may be no explicit common awareness of class on either side,…and perhaps even little consciousness of struggle of any kind.” The term “class struggle” seems to be adopted mainly because “the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto…[has] made this inevitable.” In view of the author’s readiness to abandon other Marxian formulations (see below), his insistence here is perhaps unfortunate. He himself calls the term “not a very happy one,” and he has to define it as “exploitation or [not “and”!] resistance to it.” After a long (and very interesting) discussion of the relevant ideas of Marx and what he tries to show are various recent misinterpretations of them, Ste. Croix defines exploitation in such a way that the class of the exploited can include not only the unfree (who, as he insists, provided the bulk of the economic surplus appropriated by the upper classes), but also some free peasants and artisans, as at least indirectly and collectively exploited.
Even so, he admits that those who were neither exploiters nor really exploited “at most periods…and in most areas…were very numerous and must have been responsible for the largest share in production….” It is undoubtedly true that throughout classical antiquity political leadership, and nearly always political control, was in the hands of those who did not have to work for a living. This is universally recognized. What is not so easy to see is how the facts of history (which Ste. Croix knows with rare accuracy), as expounded throughout Part Two of the book, can in many cases be fitted into the theoretical frame he has constructed for them, which demands (as he puts it) “that class…is in the long run the fundamental element” (his italics).
Ste. Croix’s aim is to produce a contribution to Marxist thought as well as to use the Marxist concept of class as a tool of analysis (one of Ste. Croix’s favorite phrases) for ancient history. He regrets the unfamiliarity with Marx and Marxism among English-speaking historians of antiquity. (It is astonishing to learn on his good authority that A.H.M. Jones, his revered teacher and one of the most erudite and socially aware scholars in this field, “never read Marx or took the slightest interest in Marxism.”)
What he uses for analysis, of course, is his own interpretation of Marx. It has often been said that Marx, like (e.g.) Freud and the Bible, will provide almost any suitable text in the hands of a believing interpreter. What these and other “world religions” share is a developing Weltanschauung, which on a diachronic view is full of contradictions and thus forces the user to select. Ste. Croix’s own reading has been selective. It is surprising that he knows no Russian, and he confesses that he has read little of the Italian Marxists writing on ancient history and that some German work is little to his taste. (Not much of the work recently published in the DDR in this field, whether original or translated from the Russian, is in his bibliography, vast though that is.) He is no less selective in his use of Marx’s writings.
He well knows that Marx never defined his concept of class and that, inspite of his impeccable background in ancient history and Greek (and Engels’s background as well, stressed by Ste. Croix: his readers will learn, many for the first time, that Engels wrote a poem in ancient Greek at the age of sixteen), he never devoted much attention to the interpretation of ancient history. We might add that by present-day standards he had too little information available to produce a serious interpretation. Ste. Croix is scathing about Marx’s concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” (and its recent defenders): he admits it was an unfortunate theory based on inadequate knowledge. And he regrets the fact that so unsatisfactory a work as Engels’s The Origin of the Family “has had such great influence on Marxist thought.” Many of Marx’s statements about antiquity must be judged in a similar light. The result has been to create large streams of Marxist interpretations of ancient history that try to force our vastly expanded knowledge of antiquity into a framework that cannot accommodate them.
Ste. Croix has little sympathy for them. He is honest and serious, both about his scholarship and about his Marxism. The one British Hellenist who achieved real prominence in the Communist movement and won the personal favor of Stalin, whose historical and linguistic dicta he developed for the benefit of the English-speaking public—the late George Thomson—gets short shrift here, as “essentially a literary scholar and not a historian.” There is no routine approval for Marxist work: it undergoes, if anything, more critical scrutiny than that of non-Marxists, which Ste. Croix seems more comfortable about following than that of “heretics.” There are references to “self-styled Marxists” (though it is hard to imagine a body whose imprimatur he would uncritically accept), and the index offers an entry: ” ‘Marxism’ and ‘Marxists’ (genuine or not).”
Whether such individual writing as his own will ever gain that putative imprimatur is (fortunately) not for a non-Marxist to decide. He himself feels sure that he is developing the mainstream of Marx’s thought and is true to what Marx really intended. He will not accept nonsense, from Marx or anyone else. He tries to regard it as unfortunate lapses, not seriously considered—as when Marx describes the dispossessed peasants of the late Republic as “a mob of do-nothings.” But he will not stop there. We have already seen his attitude to that family Bible, The Origin of the Family, which is not Marx himself, of course. But Ste. Croix also regrets that Marx “saddled” his successors with the term “feudal mode of production.” (Though he insists that Marx never used it—well, hardly ever—except to apply to pre-capitalist Western Europe.) He himself disarmingly claims that “there is nothing in this book which Marx himself (after some argument, perhaps!) would not have been willing to accept.” The reader that way inclined will delight in picturing the imaginary debate—a dialogue worthy of Lucian’s pen.
If we are to have exploiting and exploited classes, the first step must be the definition of class. Marx and Engels never seriously considered the class status of women, for example. The progress of thought has made such consideration necessary, and Ste. Croix undertakes the task, devoting twelve pages to it. Difficulties soon appear. Prima facie, women, in most societies (including those of antiquity), are an exploited class, in the Marxian sense. Yet “if we think of women…as a class, membership of the [Marxian] class of women…will depend to a high degree on whether [their] economic and legal condition is very different from that of [their] menfolk.” This analysis in the end leads to the conclusion that upper-class Athenian women seem to belong much more to that “class of women” than Attic peasant women or foreign prostitutes in Athens. Yet again, “to place a woman in a separate class from her menfolk would often cut right across the usual criteria of ‘social stratification’…; in life-style she would rank according to the status of her husband.” (We must add: in the basic economic sense she would, like her husband, owe her luxury to the exploitation of labor.) No wonder that “this needs a great deal of further thought.”
Toward the end of the book, Ste. Croix, noting the “unconscious humour…in the supersubtle theological controversies” of the Church Fathers, singles out one within the Arian church on whether God the Father was a Father before the Son was born. Some readers, when they reach that point, will perhaps be reminded of the author’s scholastic discussion of the class status of women.
Slaves prove no easier to classify. Ste. Croix makes it the basis of his argument that the entire Greek and Roman world was a “slave economy,” in which “the propertied classes derived their surplus above all through the exploitation of unfree labour.” (He rightly uses the term “unfree labour” to avoid the questions raised by the multiplicity of servile and paraservile statuses known in early Greece.) Yet he well knows that normally free peasants and artisans had the largest share in production, and that by no means all of them lived on the edge of starvation. What about the “surplus” they produced?
To take a relevant example: at the end of the Roman Republic and in the early Empire a significant part of the income of the upper class (though, of course, we can never quantify it) was derived from the labor of free tenants on their estates and from rents received from free citizens living in their urban tenement blocks. On the other hand, as Ste. Croix also well knows, in the Roman world most slaves could expect to be freed if they lived long enough—and would then, as nominally free citizens, usually continue to be economically exploited by their former owners to almost the same extent and in the same manner as before; and even their children still might be. The economic division (unlike, in Roman law, the legal difference) between slave and free is elusive.
Of course, in some sense slave labor was basic to ancient society, since without slavery it could not have developed as it did. Whether this should be applied to the whole of ancient society or (as it is by M.I. Finley) only to some periods of it might then merit discussion. But this is a long way from Ste. Croix’s precise proposition that throughout antiquity the bulk of the surplus of a clearly defined propertied class was derived from unfree labor.
The first question is whether ancient slaves can be regarded as a Marxian class at all, as Ste. Croix insists they should. He knows that the difficulties caused by this have induced some Marxist writers (especially in France) to abandon that approach. (One is reminded of Marx’s famous remark that perhaps slaves formed only the pedestal on which the ancient class conflicts took place—which Ste. Croix, of course, would regard as a momentary aberration on Marx’s part.) Even though, as we have seen, he is willing enough to contradict Marx on other issues, he chides those heretics for “flatly contradicting Marx” and for having “failed to grasp the fundamental position which Marx states so clearly.” (Again: the choice of what is basic and what may be reinterpreted, in Marxism as in Christianity, is one that can be made in many ways.) Admittedly, most slaves at any time were exploited producers, as were many free workers. But in all periods there are others who were not.
The Athenian banker’s slave Pasion, for example, about 400 BC, was given his freedom and soon after Athenian citizenship, and died as one of the wealthiest men in Athens. His slave Phormion was launched by him on a similar career. These men are only outstanding examples of what was possible. We happen to know a great deal about them only because some speeches delivered in legal cases concerning their property are preserved among the speeches of Demosthenes.
In Rome, Ste. Croix cites the emperor’s slaves, who had wealth, power, and luxury matching those of the aristocracy. He refuses, however, to allow any verisimilitude to the fictional Trimalchio in Petronius’s famous first-century romance, whom scholars like Finley and the Annaliste Paul Veyne have discussed at length. Yet Trimalchio must have been a plausible figure to be thought funny, and whatever we make of him, we may not neglect him. And in Rome there is plentiful evidence for his remote likes at lower levels.
It is illuminating to pursue one of the byways of this theme of ancient slavery (in many ways so different from other forms in other societies) which Ste. Croix does not pursue. Ever since Odysseus’s slave, we come across slaves who own slaves themselves. In Rome, this was regarded as a matter of course and, at quite an early time, regulated by customary financial arrangements between master and slave. Indeed, some of these slaves’ slaves (vicarii) got as far as owing slaves in their turn. The custom was encouraged even by that ruthless slaveowner, the elder Cato, in the early second century BC, and appears among the less privileged country slaves as well as in the city.
Moreover, the thousands of specialized domestic slaves kept to demonstrate the conspicuous consumption of the upper class under the Empire (often hundreds to a household), like the slave looking after the pearls of a grande dame known from Tacitus (but not otherwise important) and himself master of a vicaria whose epitaph happens to survive—those slaves are hardly, in a Marxian sense, an exploited class of producers. On the contrary: they are clearly among the consumers of the economic surplus of society.
Of course, Ste. Croix in general knows this and allows that such a slave was “pro tanto [sic]…a member of…’the propertied class.’ ” He rightly stresses that in strict law all this depended on the master’s act of grace. But in Rome, certainly by the early Empire, law was in all respects interwoven with custom, some of which could in various ways be enforced. By the third century AD, if not before, we find the curious legal rule that for (very roughly) all except a slave’s actual master, it was unlawful to make an educated slave do menial jobs, and slaves had to be fed and lodged “according to their rank and dignity.” As law was characteristically hedged about by almost mandatory custom, itself tending to harden into law, slave society came to present a complex hierarchy mirroring free society, even though, in the legal sense, each slave remained his master’s “living property.”
Ste. Croix in the end admits that slaves, like women, for some purposes do and for others do not form an exploited Marxian class. But this means that for more than half, at times perhaps three quarters, of the entire ancient population his “analytical tool” simply will not work. Of course, it must again be stressed that there is no such thing as the Marxist interpretation of ancient society. But Ste. Croix’s version at times comes to resemble the hoops in Lewis Carroll’s game of croquet, which would get up and walk away when you came near them. Many readers will come away from this book convinced that Finley’s more sensitive interpretation of ancient society as a gamut of statuses (not that Finely ignores economic classes, of course—far from it), even though Ste. Croix keeps up a running feud with it as “describing” rather than “explaining” or “analysing,” is a key that fits far better.
In fact, he has to admit that his “analytical tool” is irrelevant to the political struggles in classical Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. “The internal political conflicts [during this central period of Athenian history]…seldom arise directly out of class struggle,” because Athenian democracy gave “the poorer citizen a considerable degree of protection against oppression by the rich and powerful”—and, in the fifth century, allowed the rich a major share in the exploitation of the subject cities in the Athenian empire. This, of course, is an “Aristotelian” explanation, in simple terms of rich and poor, for the democracy did little to protect the exploited slaves, who (on Ste. Croix’s view) were the large majority of the exploited producers. Yet even on this view, class struggle was admittedly irrelevant to classical Athenian politics, which we must presumably continue to explain in terms of personal power struggles and occasional differences over foreign policy and the limits of imperial ambition.
But how explain the fourth century, when there were no spoils of empire to satisfy the rich? Ste. Croix can only say that “the upper classes evidently gave up hope of any fundamental constitutional change.” I wonder whether, if pressed, he would not admit the uncomfortable fact that among the majority of the upper classes there is no evidence for any such hope. They continued to be loyal to the democracy, they largely provided its leaders, they unquestioningly paid their taxes (perhaps grumbling a bit at times), and they submitted to the verdicts of their humbler fellow citizens in the courts, however unreasonable they (or we) might sometimes think those verdicts. If there was “no practical alternative to democracy” (which is very true), it was precisely because these men, like their equivalents in the different conditions of many modern democracies, never thought of unscrupulously maximizing their individual and class advantages at their fellow citizens’ expense.
As for the late Roman Republic, there certainly was “a permanent current of hostility to senatorial misrule and exploitation” among the city plebs. But we must be sure of what we are talking about. The objection was never to the misrule and exploitation manifest in the whole of the empire, but to the failure to give the city plebs a fair share in its proceeds. Any aristocratic leader who proposed to do this was indeed sure of a ready-made following, ever since Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus had first introduced the idea into politics. (It is interesting that no Roman politician, however “radical,” ever dreamed of introducing a democratic system of government.) But that form of “class struggle” was rarely of political importance, in the conflicts that actually destroyed the Republic. The men who fought on both sides in the civil wars, nearly always without any objection, were largely the exploited peasants of Italy. The men who refused to defend the aristocracy’s Republic against Caesar (himself supported by many of the aristocrats) were the “exploiting” landowners of the Italian towns. No analysis in terms of economic classes will explain the political, and in the end military, struggles of the late Roman Republic; nor why legion was normally willing to fight against legion, under Sulla and Marius, Pompey and Caesar, Octavian and Antony. And it is surely mere special pleading to assert that there was no struggle for power between Senate and Equites around 100 BC or between emperor and Senate under the Roman Empire, merely because for some important purposes (above all, the prevention of social revolution) their interests coincided.
Admittedly, Athens is exceptional. But it is exceptional, at least in part, in the amount of detailed information we have about it. So, too, is the late Roman Republic. In each of these well-documented cases, some of the interpretations that Ste. Croix attacks are much better able to explain political struggles than his own can. And his claim that only class differences lead to major violence in political disputes is falsified by the proscriptions of Sulla and of the triumvirs Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus, by the war between Caesar and Pompey, and by countless succession wars in the Roman Empire.
Yet although there is much that most readers are unlikely to accept (including much that the author would consider important), this is an impressive work, and not only in its vast sweep and in the numerous points of detail where Ste. Croix has seen more clearly than his predecessors. No brief review can even remotely do justice to its merits. There are large stretches of the history he discusses, and major problems within them, where his challenging interpretations will make an important contribution; I would single out the fine study of the extinction of Greek democracy—a process marked, as he penetratingly formulates it, by the upper class’s conversion of what (in democracies) had been the ordinary citizen’s rights into charity handed out to him by the wealthy; and a process encouraged (in some cases initiated) by Hellenistic kings and completed under the rule of the Roman oligarchy, which felt comfortable only with cities governed by its peers.
For one thing (we may add), it was those peers whom it could draw into its vast network of personal relationships that was the basis of its control. Perhaps even more important is Ste. Croix’s dissection of the institutionalization of the Christian church, beginning with Paul, and the way in which this moved it, in important respects, in directions opposed to the proper interpretation of the Founder’s teaching. Minor but nonetheless interesting issues receive illumination along the way, e.g., the avoidance of employment in another’s service by free men, even of the lower classes, and the way in which such employment was disguised as contract work to make it respectable.*
Above all, there is his study of the decline of the Empire and the polarization of wealth within it. But this, like some of the most important of his other analyses, is the more persuasive the less we hear of strictly Marxist class analysis and the more we mix it with the simpler Aristotelian categories of the rich and the poor and with the status analysis of Finley. The curial class (the municipal dignitaries), which had in some ways been the mainstay of the Empire, disintegrated, as Ste. Croix explains, with the wealthier members joining the imperial aristocracy above and the poorer being depressed into the lower classes. Now these municipal dignitaries were a land-owning class; there is no change in the relations of production and no struggle between Marxian classes. The rich drift to the top and the less rich, of the same class, drift to the bottom, until they are in all respects treated even by the law as members of the lower orders. However, the details of this process are indeed explained by Ste. Croix in a masterly and persuasive fashion.
Ste. Croix will certainly go on writing, if only to fulfill the numerous promises of the more detailed treatment of specific problems made in this book. But this book is what he will be remembered by. It is a highly individual and discursive work. Yet the organization remains under control. The outline is sketched in a few introductory pages, and when it is all over, the reader will find that the plan has been followed. Perhaps to his surprise, for it seems that almost everything the author touches upon along the way is discussed at length: from the biography of that interesting nineteenth-century English historian E.S. Beesly, to the use of humor in writers on theology in the early Church and instances of genocide ordered by “Yahweh” in the Bible (as often, we get a complete list of passages in parenthetical notes). There is abundant personal comment, as when the author expresses his delight at finding Socrates (in Xenophon, not Plato) for once “in what one might call a heterosexual attitude.” As a result of all this, the work is not a dull treatise. The reader will learn to be constantly prepared for the unexpected. The book is fascinating, at times irritating, more often delightful; and except perhaps for some of the “scholastic” discussions, there is never a dull page.
Above all, the author’s character and motives emerge. Like every major work of history, certainly of ancient history (one thinks of Grote and Mommsen), this is not an academic exercise: it is a work of passion. Underneath the polemics, the scholasticism, and the anecdotal breadth, underneath the inexhaustible erudition and the donnish charm, there is a boiling rage at man’s inhumanity to man and at the multiple hypocrisies in which, throughout history, he has managed to cloak it. There is an overpowering compassion and, in an almost theological sense (for Ste. Croix reminds us of a Church Father), a militant charity.
Whatever a reader’s reactions to any number of particular points, on issues great and small, I suspect that the writing of ancient history, at least in English, will never be quite the same again as a result of this work.
December 2, 1982
It is a pity that so well-informed a scholar repeats—obviously at second hand—the frequent misuse of a frequently quoted passage of Plutarch (Life of Pericles chapter 2, sections 1-2) to condemn Plutarch and his whole society for contempt of artists. A glance at the context shows that it implies no such thing. It merely asserts the commonplace that a great artist is not necessarily a good man. ↩