Rich and Poor in the Ancient World

Fergus Millar

‘When Herakleides was badly received by the citizens and was subjected to a storm of protest, he induced Hippon, one of the demagogues, to urge on the people to a distribution of land, on the grounds that equality of property was the source of freedom, and poverty the source of slavery for those without possessions. But the people, like men making a sudden attempt to stand up after the long illness of tyranny, and to play the part of free men at the wrong moment, on the one hand failed in their undertakings and on the other hated Dion for his attempt to act like a doctor and keep the city on a strict and moderate regime.’ So writes Plutarch, in his biography of Dion, describing a moment in the turbulent politics of Syracuse in the 350s BC, when the tyrant Dionysius II had lost control, and the opposition at once divided between Dion, the friend and pupil of Plato, and those who sought the restoration of full democracy. Plutarch’s typically brief and tantalising narrative also allows us here to catch a glimpse of a political ideology, openly expressed in an ancient Greek city, which saw an incompatibility between the fact of economic inequality and the effective exercise of political freedom. A similarly explicit expression of such an ideology would not be easy to find elsewhere. But from the sixth century BC to the first we do have a mass of evidence – or at least an accumulation of items of narrative evidence – for an overt, vigorous and conscious class struggle in the Greek cities, in which the temporary dominance of one class could often only be achieved by violence, frequently with the aid of outsiders.

There is a major historical theme here, attempted, for instance in Andrew Lintott’s interesting book, Violence, Civil Strife and Revolution in the Classical City. It was also the conflict over who should have power, and how the possession of power should be justified, which formed the context for the production of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works on political theory – the subject of the challenging work by E. M. and N. Wood which appeared in 1978: Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory. So we ought to know what to expect from a book called The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, by Geoffrey de Ste Croix, whose career as an ancient historian began after the war when he was a mature student at University College, London under the great A. H. M. Jones. Jones’s Athenian Democracy (1960) remains the best analysis (and defence) of that historic institution. De Ste Croix’s own Origins of the Peloponnesian War would have prepared us for the breadth of learning, the eye for the meaning of a text, the vigour of argument, and the profound moral commitment and partisanship, which characterise the book. But this is a book which covers a far wider canvass and a complex variety of themes. The publication of so massive a work – far longer, in number of words, than even its total of pages would suggest – is a tribute to the courage and energy of Colin Haycraft of Duckworth. It also reflects the influence of Jones, as embodied in The Greek City from Alexander to Justinian and The Later Roman Empire: the vision, that is, of a society centred on the Greek cities, evolving from the Classical to the Byzantine age and profoundly affected, and distorted, by the consequences of Roman rule.

Jones wrote in a spirt of social commitment which was emphatically left-wing in character but did not seem to owe anything to any explicit political theory or ideology: Momigliano once suggested that his greatest work recalled the Webbs and other English reformers, and might be thought of as a ‘Jones Report on the Later Roman Empire’. De Ste Croix retains, in much more explicit and self-conscious form, the same social and political commitment: ‘I am a historian who tries also to be a sociologist, and my interest in our own society is a primary one.’ This interest informs the book throughout, imparting gravity and moral energy when the book is at its best. At its worst, it takes the form of an obtrusive and tedious moralising, which sometimes descends to a sanctimoniousness painfully reminiscent of the Christian Church to which he is so deeply opposed. Past and present make an inappropriate match, for instance, in his comment on the ‘Nika riot’ of AD 532: ‘That ... is the sort of price that may have to be paid for the total suppression of proper democratic rights.’ Compare also his remarks on the population of Rome in the late Republic: ‘If indeed they were to some extent demoralised and depraved, it was largely because the oligarchy had made it impossible for them to be anything else, as our own ancestors preferred to keep the English labouring classes ignorant and uneducated and without a voice in government until well on in the 19th century.’

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