Fri Feb 21, 2003

That's Just Ancient History

Two mentions on Junius today. First, let me say that when Chris says “Kieran Healy has persuaded me of … the beauty of LaTeX” he of course means the wonderfully powerful, free, professional-grade typesetting system designed by the great Donald Knuth. You weren’t thinking he could have meant anything else, now were you?

Chris also brings up G.E.M. de Ste Croix and his amazing The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Here’s an obituary of Ste Croix that conveys something of the man. (I remember reading a better one that I can’t find right now.) Iain Murray is somewhat contemptuous in his dismissal of the book, describing it as a “ludicrous attempt to paste modern theories on the ancient world”. He invites me to defend Ste Croix, so I will—- though I hasten to add that I am not even remotely expert in ancient history.

As an alternative to Ste Croix’s approach, Iain cites Paul Cartledge, who says of the divisions between rich and poor in the ancient world:

Since the root of their antagonism lay in differential ownershop of the means of production, and the aim of their struggle was very often the control of the organs of government, this looks very much like class struggle—except that the classes are defined not purely by economic but by a mixture of economic and legal criteria, and the solidarity of ‘the poor’ was less organic and more soluble than that of ‘the rich.’

I’m not sure how much a Marxist would object to this. (Partly because I’m not one myself.) Cartlege is happy to define classes in terms of “ownership of the means of production”. The problem of legal definitions of property, and hence classes, is a longstanding one amongst Marxists. (It’s a problem because Law is part of the ‘superstructure’ and class relations part of the ‘base’—- things in the former shouldn’t determine the latter.) And as for the solidarity of the rich being stronger than that of the poor—- well, any Marxist would tell you it was ever thus. There’s no class consciousness like ruling class consciousness.

At any rate, as I say in my Amazon review of the book, I’m not competent to judge Ste Croix’s analysis of the ancient world—- and certainly not expert enough to dismiss it as “ludicrous”. I do know his discussions of Marx are first rate, though, as is his analysis of Weber. The thing about Ste Croix is that, to borrow a phrase of Art Stinchcombe’s, his is clearly a mind of the same order of magnitude as Marx and Weber. That means that reading him is a very profitable experience, even if you end up rejecting his view. The scholarship on display is just amazing. What’s more, he’s more humane than either of them. The frontspiece of The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World is a color plate of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. Ste Croix chose the painting because of its honest and unsentimental depiction of a peasant family eating food they have dug out of the ground themselves—- a rare thing, before painters like Van Gogh. He says of it, in a phrase that has stuck in my memory since I read it, that

These are the voiceless toilers, the great majority—- let us not forget it—- of the ancient Greek and Roman world, upon whom was built a great civilisation which despised them and did all it could to forget them.

Do yourself a favor and buy it, along with some Moses Finley. You won’t regret it.