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.’

But if the driving force of the book is a moral one – namely, the desire to deliver to the contemporary reader a moralising lesson about economic exploitation and its consequences in the Classical world – its intellectual structure is owed to Marx. Its purpose is to expound and defend Marx’s view that the most fundamental social relationships are economic ones; that the role of groups in society is best analysed in terms of ‘class’ (as opposed to ‘status’, as argued by Weber, followed by Finley; that class is to be defined in terms of economic exploitation, and that it is a ‘class’ analysis, in this sense, which is best fitted to explain major historical changes. Contrary to what the reader might have expected from the title, the major historical change of which an explanation is offered is the fall of the Roman Empire.

Since I began by emphasising that we have abundant evidence in Greek history for what can, without any strain on ordinary language, be described as a ‘class struggle’ – i.e. open political or physical conflict between conscious socio-political groups – it must be stressed that de Ste Croix argues throughout (and especially on pages 42 to 49) that we need not, and should not, use the term only in this way. ‘I use the expression class struggle for the fundamental relationship between classes (and their respective individual members), involving essentially exploitation, or resistance to it. It does not necessarily involve collective action by a class as such, and it may or may not include activity on a political plane.’ This demands some discussion, not least because the author is inevitably engaged in confusing the logically distinct processes of demonstrating both that this was what Marx really meant (given that Capital breaks off just before a definition of class was to be provided) and that it is for us a viable interpretative structure. In the event, the exposition of Marx seems sketchy and unsatisfying: a recent ‘reading’ of Marx by a Classical scholar (and archaeologist) from which much more is to be gained is contained in Andrea Carandini’s L’Anatomia della Scimmia (1979). De Ste Croix can certainly quote Marx (on the peasantry of 19th-century France) for the conception that a group may be, in one sense, a class in itself, even though it is not (consciously) a class for itself. But nothing that he says justifies the claim either that Marx did or that we should extend the ordinary-language sense of ‘struggle’ to cover any relationship of exploitation. Similarly, ‘resistance’ must either be made to mean simply ‘suffering exploitation’ or must denote some actions by those who resist. But while de Ste Croix offers a few feeble speculations on possible ways in which slaves might have ‘resisted’, he curiously shows no interest at all in the great slave wars of the second and first centuries BC. Isolated as these were, they were at least perfectly clear examples of ‘resistance’ or ‘class struggle’. The moving and powerful narratives of the two earlier of these in Diodorus, discussed in Chapter Three of J. Vogt’s Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man (1974), are among the most important pieces of social history from the ancient world. The conclusion must be that since what de Ste Croix wanted to write about was economic exploitation and not, by and large, in the common-language sense, the ‘class struggle’, it would have been better not to have attempted illegitimately to extend the sense of the one term to mean neither more nor less than the other. To say, as he does, that keeping to the more limited sense of ‘class-consciousness’ and ‘active political conflict’ ‘makes nonsense not merely of The Communist Manifesto but of the greater part of Marx’s work’ will not deter all readers from this view.

It does not, in fact, make nonsense either of Marx or of de Ste Croix. What we are left with here is the emphasis on the central (and indubitable) fact of exploitation, and a large series of major propositions about its changing forms and their relevance to other changes. Great though Marx’s own concern was with physical interchange between man and nature, de Ste Croix’s interest does not lie in the processes of production themselves. Apart from a reminder of the low level of technology and of aids to human muscle power achieved in the ancient world – epitomised in a reference, which will be familiar to those who used to hear his excellent lectures in Oxford, to the absence of wheelbarrows in Antiquity – his interest is not in production itself as a physical process, but in its social relations. ‘My point is that the most significant distinguishing feature of each social formation, each “mode of production” ...is not so much how the bulk of the labour of production is done, as how the dominant propertied classes, controlling the conditions of production, ensure the extraction of the surplus which makes their own leisured existence possible. That was the view of Marx which I follow’ (his italics). Other people – above all in Italy – have drawn a rather different lesson from Marx, and have used his categories as a means of interpreting the ‘material culture’ which the spade reveals.

This almost complete indifference to the physical conditions and processes of production does seem to me to be an acute limitation. De Ste Croix, who repeatedly and often rightly takes issue with Finley’s positions on ancient social and economic history, has perhaps accepted too easily the general proposition, principally advanced in Finley’s The Ancient Economy and arrived at implicitly by a superficial and elementary process of comparison with the modern world, that manufacture, industry and trade were insignificant elements in the structure of Classical society. Since this is patently true by comparison with the 20th century it is barely worth saying. What is worth saying is that, by comparison with other societies of the same period, the production of an immense volume of refined consumer goods, sophisticated building techniques, a conscious application of agricultural skills, both local and long-distance trade, the circulation of coins – in short, a market economy – are among the primary characteristics of Graeco-Roman society. It is, moreover, precisely the physical reflections of such an economy which the archaeologist will take as indicating the advance of ‘Hellenisation’ into the Near East, or of ‘Romanisation’ into Western and Central Europe and North Africa. Some understanding of the technology of production, including that of agriculture (the economic predominance of which, obvious and banal as it is, provides another of the parrot-cries of contemporary thought on ancient society), is essential if one is to grasp how there was a surplus at all. If the actual processes in which millions of primary producers engaged (not to speak of shopkeeping, shipping and so forth) are all just taken for granted, as they are in this book, the notion of the crucial importance of the relations of production seems empty.

What is said here about the social relations of production, or rather of the extraction of a surplus by the propertied classes, is in any case confined to a number of broad propositions, even if (as we shall see) these are of exceptional interest and importance. But the propositions are essentially confined to the producers (slaves, serfs, debt bondsmen, free labourers). One of his central arguments, or rather assertions, is that wage labour was economically unimportant, and that it must – for lack of any clear alternative – have been specifically the exploitation of slaves which provided the Greek upper classes with their surplus. The ‘possessing classes’ themselves are by and large taken for granted, whether in Classical Greece, the Hellenistic world or the Roman Empire. But it makes a crucial difference whether we are talking of descent-groups which enjoyed a stable possession of wealth inherited over generations (and how stable that possession will itself have been in individual cases will have depended in part on how restrictive the laws of inheritance, gift and dowry were), or whether people could easily rise or fall in the scale of wealth. This is not only a matter of wealth made by manufacture, retailing and trade, or by investment and money-lending – though J. H. D’arms’s Commerce and Social Standing in Ancient Rome shows how, even at the level of the Senate, the direct and indirect involvement of the Roman upper classes in ‘commerical’ undertakings could be very considerable, and de Ste Croix’s own evidence shows repeated Roman legislation to prevent those engaged in trade from rising into town-councillor status. De Ste Croix also refers to the famous and moving inscription from Mactar in Africa in which a man records his rise from foreman of a migrant group of reapers to landowner and town-councillor. But he treats this as an exception. Even within the bounds of the established enjoyment of a surplus from landed or urban property there could have been, say in Classical Athens, considerable fluctuation in the composition of the ‘possessing classes’, from the effects of war or of good or bad management of property. But was there? After reading his book, I still do not know.

Nor do I really know how a surplus was extracted, or how at certain periods the existence of a democratic regime placed limits on this process of extraction. On page 96 we meet the interesting and potentially very important proposition: ‘Greek democracy was essentially the political means by which the non-propertied classes protected themselves against exploitation and oppression by the richer landowners.’ He does not explain this proposition, except to give the familiar examples of the confiscation of property by the courts, and the imposition of expensive liturgies. But elsewhere, in the course of his extremely valuable discussion of the decline, or suppression, of Greek democracy in the Hellenistic-Roman period, he represents the performance of expensive individual liturgies as a device by which the possessing classes both kept the poorer citizens out of office and avoided the (theoretical) alternative of direct taxation. There is no necessary contradiction here: there is likely to have been an evolution in the political character of the liturgy, as Paul Veyne suggested in Chapter Two of Le Pain et le Cirque (1976). But de Ste Croix insists that it was specifically through the exploitation of slaves (rather than of free hired labour) that the Greek upper classes gained their surplus. So, first, how in fact would the changes in the balance of political power as between the rich and the free poor, such as undoubtedly occurred, have affected the crucial question of the extraction of a surplus? We are not told. Secondly (to repeat), it was between the rich and the free poor that nearly all the cases of overt and undeniable class struggle known to us occurred. I do not doubt in principle that the support given by Hellenistic rulers to oligarchy and tyranny in the Greek cities in the late fourth and third centuries (very inadequately discussed here), and the conscious imposition by the Romans of upper-class rule (an uncontroversial fact, but more fully set out here than anywhere else), must have had some effect on property relations and economic exploitation. But if that can indeed be demonstrated, for the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, it is not demonstrated in this book.

The main proposition at which the whole book aims concerns the relevance of class relations and exploitation to the fall of the Roman Empire. To put that in context, the author offers a sweeping survey of Roman history and of the role in it of the class struggle and of economic exploitation. Much of this is elementary, but it also offers many fresh insights and constitutes a unique 50-page essay which all future students should read. This then brings him, after a rather erratic chapter dealing with ‘the class struggle on the ideological plane’, to his basic propositions about a shift in property relations under the Roman Empire. Here, too, the physical processes of production are largely ignored, and even the central social mechanisms of the extraction of a surplus are not really discussed. But what he does is to start from the familiar proposition that the ending of major wars of conquest will substantially have reduced the flow of new slaves, and to argue that the rate of exploitation of an existing stock of slaves – necessarily to be maintained by breeding – will have fallen drastically in consequence. The picture of a slave-based villa economy may well be itself too simplistic, as Dominic Rathbone suggested in the Journal of Roman Studies in 1981, arguing that these villas always depended vitally on hired free labour as well. But in any case the proposition is that the drop in the rate of exploitation possible for the available slave labour necessitated the increased extraction of a surplus from the free peasant population. This depressed the legal status of the lower classes and led to their exposure to torture and to cruel and degrading penalties, including various forms of hard labour; and it also led to the emergence of the legal principle that peasants, at least in certain areas, were ‘bound to the soil’ and could not move from it without the consent of the landowner. These developments undoubtedly occurred, at the very least in the pages of the Digest and the Theodosian Code, and de Ste Croix has offered a novel and potentially important explanation of them. But he does not fully put them to the test of such real-life evidence as we have. Ramsay MacMullen in ‘Social Mobility and the Theodosian Code’ (Journal of Roman Studies, 1964) provided examples (if no more) of many individuals in the fourth century who moved from place to place and from status to status, largely unconscious of being bound to anything; and the fundamentally important social change represented by the monastic movement illustrates the fact that many of the poorest classes could and did escape the exploiting hand of the rich. Once again, a real social history of ‘exploitation’ in this period would demand an answer to two questions. In what form or forms were the peasants on the land supposed to deliver their surplus? And how was the extraction of this surplus enforced?

De Ste Croix comes finally to the proposition that the late Roman state, with its vastly increased army (a point which is not now as certain as it used to seem), and its much more elaborate bureaucracy, served to intensify the total burden of exploitation suffered by its economic base – the impoverished peasants on the land. The richer classes benefited doubly: by the removal of legal barriers to direct exploitation of the poor, and by the vast legitimate and semi-legitimate profits to be made from the public purse through the holding of office. In consequence, the period of the barbarian invasions saw remarkably little commitment to the defence of the Empire by the vast mass of the population, and a substantial amount of collaboration and of spontaneous flight beyond the Empire.

Whether this was the ‘cause’ of the fall of the Empire is (obviously) not a question which allows a simple answer – and especially not in the context of this book, since most of the Greek-speaking part of the Empire took a very long time to fall, or be pushed. To this as to all the other fundamentally important questions raised by de Ste Croix I do not know the answer, and do not expect that I ever will. What he has done is to present a consistent and vigorously argued case for seeing not just the Greek world but the whole of Antiquity in a different way. The argument is often unconvincing or partial, and the structure sometimes loose and self-indulgent; in his incapacity to resist an interesting byway he more resembles Herodotus than Thucydides, whom (along with Aristotle) he so much reveres. On the other hand, it is precisely this width of reference, both ancient and modern, which contributes most to the book’s uniquely personal tone. What I have said about the book above does nothing like justice to the variety of its contents, which include the exploitation of women via reproduction and the (heinous) social attitudes of the Church. If its central propositions are not likely to win an easy general assent, it is indubitably a major work – and perhaps even a great one. It does, however, leave me wishing even more strongly than before that someone would now write a serious book on the overall pattern of economic relations and social structure in one ancient society, for which Classical Athens is the obvious candidate; and that somebody would now produce a detailed study of property, class, the mechanism of economic exploitation, and the struggle between rich and poor citizens, in the ancient Greek world.