Fergus Millar (1982): Rich and Poor in the Ancient World https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v04/n11/fergus-millar/rich-and-poor-in-the-ancient-world: '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.... The main proposition at which the whole book aims concerns the relevance of class relations and exploitation to the fall of the Roman Empire.... 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.... 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.... 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.... It does... 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...


#noted #2019-12-27

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