Off the Shelf: The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World

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Class struggle is a constant feature of history

Readers recommend an old or forgotten text that is worth revisiting. This month Phil Webster praises a hefty work of Marxist history.

It is almost 40 years since this excellent piece of Marxist history was first published. It is a wonderful example of how the Marxist method can be applied to a detailed study of a period of history: in this case ancient Greece and Rome.

In the first half of the book, Ste Croix explains the class structure in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, showing that class is the key concept for understanding it (and the medieval world), as well as modern capitalism.

Ste Croix follows Marx in showing that class is a social relationship based on exploitation. He quotes Marx: “The essential difference between the various economic forms of society (between, for example, a society based on slave labour and one based on wage labour) lies only in the mode in which surplus labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer.”

Ste Croix then shows that the three main classes in Greece and Rome were the slave-owning, land-owning ruling class at the top; the slaves at the bottom; and the large 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 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, that although Athenian democracy had severe limitations (slavery, empire, and the lack of rights for women), it was used by the free poor citizens to limit the power of the ruling class. Of course the ruling class did not like this, and eventually “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, and Rome settled for permanent frontiers such as Hadrian’s Wall. 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 was a more expensive method. 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” (ie 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”. I must also point out that the book is so scholarly and detailed that it can be heavy going. But it is worth the effort for anyone who has a serious interest in the ancient world and Marxist theory.