Anglophone ancient historians have never had much time for Marx. They tie themselves in knots to avoid class-based analyses, recasting what can look an awful lot like class in terms of something else (status, say, or ‘social stratification’); or they dismiss class as an analytical category on the grounds, refuted long ago by Fredric Jameson, that it’s inapplicable in a pre-capitalist world. Few historians have confronted the problem head on, tacitly adhering instead to the Weberian understanding of ancient economic life advocated by M.I. Finley, rather than the insights of G.E.M. de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981). That masterpiece is a touchstone for Peter Rose, who like de Ste Croix insists that the formation of the state apparatus in the early Greek polis and the widespread rise of tyrants in the late Archaic period make little sense without reference to conflicts between classes. As he sees it, the dialectical responses of competing classes drive historical development, but are complicated by the power of ideology to mystify exploitation so that the exploited class accepts it and takes it for granted. By insisting on the role of ideology, Rose goes beyond de Ste Croix; his book mixes echt Marx with dashes of Jameson and Althusser.
Archaic Greece isn’t easy to write about, in part because it’s so often treated teleologically as a precursor to the Classical polis. Sources from the period are sparse and discontinuous, while later accounts share a disconcerting tendency to provide more detail the more distant they are from any plausible authority. It’s hard to avoid flattening differences of time and space, or forcing them into a pattern that will account for the rise of the polis. But a whole series of social transformations needed to occur before the Classical city-state could emerge. Historical materialism provides a framework for understanding those changes as a struggle, over many centuries, for control of the mere 20 per cent of Greece that was suitable for agriculture.
The story begins with the collapse of the Mycenaean world at the end of the second millennium BC and the subsequent Dark Age, which we know about mainly by reading backwards from the Homeric poems. The economic structure of Dark Age society is important if we are to explain the relatively sudden development of state structures in eighth-century Greece. If the Dark Age was a world of established aristocracies, what drove them to set up the state institutions that emerged as the Archaic and then Classical polis? If it was a world of few social distinctions, what accounts for the sudden rise of the socially and economically distinct groups that created new polities? Class is a central element in both of these formulations, and the historical materialist approach emphasises its explanatory power.
In Rose’s Dark Age most parts of Greece, particularly those furthest from sea routes, were divided into small chieftaincies headed by men who may or may not have been direct descendants of the Mycenaean ruling elites. Agrarian wealth was limited and they secured their power by beating up the neighbours and helping themselves to flocks, crops and women. They ruled on the basis of personal strength, and offered protection to and adjudicated disputes among the agrarian and pastoral population. Their followers were all potentially big men themselves, though their ideology stressed reciprocity within the group. Successful chiefs accumulated followers and resources as they moved away from the land and the people who worked it. Society became wealthier, more agricultural capital was stockpiled or converted into luxuries, and class distinctions grew. Expensive fortifications were needed to ensure control, and the aristocracy of little big men that had grown up in the chieftain’s shadow could overthrow him to set up a rudimentary state. By rotating power among themselves, perhaps through institutions like councils, aristocrats maintained their ability to coerce the agricultural population and hold on to the best land. The regime they created served their own interests, but it also created a demos to which the aristocrats were bound in the political dialectic of the polis. The ideology of shared citizenship aimed to hide the differences between exploiter and exploited, obscuring aristocratic privilege behind the appeal to citizen solidarity.
This is the world dramatised by Homer and Hesiod, and a class analysis of the rise of the polis makes sense of some aspects of the poems. At Troy, Achilles withdraws from the fighting although he knows that the Achaean army will be destroyed without him, angry at Agamemnon’s theft of his rightful prize, the enslaved Briseis. Agamemnon, the hereditary big man, thus exposes the hollowness of his society’s ideology: it’s no longer a reciprocal meritocracy of warriors, but a monarchy in which the cowardly inheritor of power can deprive ‘the best of the Achaeans’ of his prize. Agamemnon’s greed triggers the social breakdown of the Greek army, and the Achaeans themselves acquiesce in his breach of the social contract – the aristocratic warriors no longer control the allocation of their own resources and they know it. The Odyssey is a younger, darker and still more alienated vision of this world: the warriors and traders of the Archaic period are figured in the person of Odysseus. He represents the colonisers in Greek society who envied the aristocracy but continued to believe in their kinship to it. They were disappointed by their relative lack of wealth, and sailed forth in search of something better. Odysseus, when he returns to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, is abused by the young oligarchs who seek the hand of his wife, Penelope. In his beggar’s disguise he is the smallholder, the landless citizen: his revenge vents the frustrations of an entire class, and the pervasive viciousness of the Odyssey’s gods indicts the whole social order. Hesiod too presupposes an audience beyond kings and chiefs, and articulates its resentments. The sometimes vile misogyny of his Works and Days reflects the propensity of the exploited to blame someone other than their actual exploiters, usually someone weaker than themselves.
In its literature, Rose writes, the nascent Archaic polis is revealed as the self-serving construct of an aristocracy determined to protect its control of resources by preventing any single leader from growing too powerful. Its exploitation of a poorer but now partly self-conscious demos drives the next phase of dialectical development, characterised by the creation of tyrannies, which became widespread in the sixth century. Tyranny, in class terms, is the response of the demos to its unbounded exploitation, and a sign of the aristocracy’s adaptability in the face of opposition. As a class, aristocrats hated tyranny because it placed a single member of the exploiting class above the rest, but as individuals each aspired to the tyrant’s self-aggrandisement and populist complicity. Tyrannies appeared in Greece shortly after money did, first as stamped bullion, then as coin. As long as agricultural surplus and the human labour necessary to produce it were the main markers of wealth and status, there were limits on what any one aristocrat could accumulate. Once there was money, all structural limitations on the accumulation of wealth disappeared. With luck and talent, an aristocrat could become wealthy enough to dominate his fellows and simultaneously appeal to a resentful demos, which found the rule of one relatively benevolent individual more bearable than the capricious extractions of oligarchs. As with many modern radicals, upper-class origins were quite compatible with revolutionary ideals: the best contemporary account of Archaic tyranny is found in the poetry of Solon, an Athenian aristocrat who rose to power because the demos welcomed his help against oligarchic oppression. With his legitimacy rooted in the demos rather than the oligarchy from which he came, Solon created an elaborate ideological network of religious festivals, publicly sponsored colonisation and building projects, all of which increased citizen identification with the polis.
After a century of predation by aristocrats, the demos was receptive to this gentler form of exploitation; a formalised extraction of their labour at a set rate seemed better than the arbitrary exactions they were used to. This was hegemony in the Althusserian sense, rather than domination: a strategy of identification that convinced people they were living in a polity that was both theirs and the best polity it could be. The exploiting class, faced with the demands of the exploited, was able to adapt, and neither the Solonic legal reforms nor the later tyrant Peisistratus’ banishment of his fellow aristocrats fundamentally redistributed Athenian wealth. Instead they offered partial solutions that gave the demos a larger stake in the social order but left the interests of the exploiting class intact.
We have no grounds for thinking that the reforms of Solon or other tyrants were simply cynical ploys. And what if they were? The written law and the formalisation of governance made the demos more self-conscious, and more aware of their stake in the polis, and fuelled the struggle. Rose finds proof that class awareness was fostered by tyranny in the vigour with which aristocracies fought back. We can see this best in Sparta, which is to our understanding of Archaic oligarchy what Athens is to tyranny and democracy. Our understanding of the Spartan oligarchy and its economy comes from the martial poetry of the contemporary Tyrtaeus; his are not Homeric wars for women and spoils, but wars for control of other people’s land. The class system in Sparta originated with the conquest of the neighbouring Messenians and their dispossession into a sort of serfdom known as helotage. This permanent body of the exploited ‘other’, large and potentially dangerous, facilitated an ideology in which Spartan ‘Equals’ were a homogenised, compliant and invincible demos, even though wealth wasn’t equally distributed and many Equals were more equal than others. The elaborate Spartan education, the famous agoge, ensured that men who were oppressed as youths would be driven as they got older by the urge to dominate others: success in the krypteia, the culmination of an Equal’s education, required the murder of random helots. The constant threat of a helot uprising reinforced Sparta’s ideology of martial meritocracy and obscured the realities of class oppression, not just of helots but within the Spartan demos itself. No wonder admiring oligarchs have always found inspiration in the Spartan model.
Athens, so central to the contemporary myth of democracy’s origins, had nothing like Sparta’s continuously stable development. But behind Athens’ tyrannies, then behind her democracy, lurked the spectre of an oligarchic coup that could never be forgotten. The Athenian aristocracy – known as the Eupatrids, ‘the well-fathered’ – dominated the institutions of the Solonic state, ensuring another long experiment with tyranny under Peisistratus at the end of the Archaic period, after which democracy was ushered in more or less by accident. The Eupatrids had called on Spartan assistance to overthrow the last Peisistratid, but Sparta’s threat to abolish even a toothless citizens’ assembly caused the demos to riot.
It also convinced Eupatrids like Cleisthenes that compromise with the demos was a better long-term strategy than an oligarchy permanently reliant on outsiders. The Eupatrids would continue to dominate the government through annual magistracies, but the demos would have some voice in electing them and could also seek its fortune in an imperial enterprise that did no harm to the landed aristocracy in Attica. The long pre-eminence of Pericles, scion of a Eupatrid family, tells us most of what we need to know about Athenian class realities. Our inheritance from Athens isn’t democracy, but a philosophical language adequate to describe it.
There’s much to like in Rose’s book, but much to which many will object. The state of the evidence will never allow for proof. Weberians who understand the Archaic development of Greece to have been driven by conflicts of discourse between those of middling or wealthy status within the aristocracy are unlikely to be persuaded by what they find here. Conservative enthusiasts of the ‘hoplite way of war’ will see Rose as typical of the tenured radicals who populate their imaginary version of the academy. But Rose has nothing in common with such caricatures. His book is a serious, reasoned economic analysis, and should make it impossible to dismiss class as a category of analysis in ancient history. Economics and politics were as linked then as they are now, and Marx provided us with a vocabulary to discuss that link. It’s perverse that we remain afraid to use it with the precision it demands.