Mikhail Rostovtzeff: Capitalism Writ Small in the Ancient World

Economics, Marxism

Mikhail Rostovtzeff is barely remembered in our time. Yet the paradox he embodied – a staunch anti-communist who championed economic analysis of classical Greece and Rome – is worth reconsideration. To his great credit, Rostovtzeff set out to shift the focus of ancient historiography on politics and military matters to economic concerns. Classically trained, a man of prodigious learning and without fear of grand narratives, Rostovtzeff boldly reconstructed the economies of ancient Greece and Rome in terms familiar from capitalism, that is, in terms of neoclassical economic theory.

Mikhail Rostovtzeff is barely remembered in our time. Yet the paradox he embodied – a staunch anti-communist who championed economic analysis of classical Greece and Rome – is worth reconsideration. To his great credit, Rostovtzeff set out to shift the focus of ancient historiography on politics and military matters to economic concerns.[1] Classically trained, a man of prodigious learning and without fear of grand narratives,[2] Rostovtzeff boldly reconstructed the economies of ancient Greece and Rome in terms familiar from capitalism, that is, in terms of neoclassical economic theory. So we find bourgeoisie and proletariat, a market economy operating in terms of banking, industrial innovation, agricultural progress, boom and bust. His two great works were The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire and the even more comprehensive three-volume magnum opus, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World.[3] Although the specifics vary, the underlying thesis is remarkably similar: the bourgeoisie was responsible both for the great success of Greek expansion, the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic world that followed, and for their respective collapses. How? The bourgeoisie failed to enable the largely rural proletariat to rise above their lowly status, thereby generating a situation in which the proletariat took over and sidelined the bourgeoisie.

By now the anti-communism of Rostovtzeff should be clear. Personally, he was a one of those among the bourgeoisie who fled St. Petersburg in 1918, soon after the communist revolution, and eventually, after passing through Sweden, Norway and then England (Oxford), settled in New Haven, at Yale. I will return to his opposition to all communism offered a little later, for now I want to pause for a moment in order to see how this argument works itself out in each case. As far as Rome is concerned, its success as an empire depended upon a class alliance, between the senatorial and equestrian classes, that is, between semi-feudal land-owners and businessmen. As long as the senatorial class and later emperors fostered the urban bourgeoisie, that class formed the backbone of the state. Matters took a fatal turn when the rural proletariat, denied access to the benefits of the urban bourgeoisie, began making demands. Later emperors made the mistake of attempting to appease this rabble. Eventually, however, the rural proletariat joined forces with the army, which was itself drawn from the same class: this proletarian army, filled with class hated, eventually marched on Rome and became the source of later emperors who pandered to its wishes.

In the case of Greece, the subject of Rostovtzeff’s most comprehensive study, the energetic bourgeoisie was once again the secret to Greek success and decline. When it thrived, so did the economy, cultural production, intellectual development and religious observance; when the bourgeoisie declined, so did society itself. In short, the Greek economic system was ‘based on freedom and private initiative’,[4] and its expansion was the result of entrepreneurship, trade and the expansion of markets. By contrast, the state economies further east, of Persia especially, were ‘supervised, guided, and controlled’.[5] The conquests of Alexander – their success being the signal of the clear superiority of the Greek model – were an effort to overcome these proto-communist states, as well as deal with challenges to Greek production and markets from areas such as Thrace, the Bosporan kingdom, Italy and Sicily. Yet this vast conquest was a gamble, one that eventually did not pay off, for the successors of Alexander failed to maintain political unity, peaceful cooperation and a durable balance of power crucial to economic success. The outcome was economic decline, constant wars and the increased piracy of the fourth and third centuries BC. Above all, however, decline was due to the inability to solve class antagonism, between the rulers and ruled, between city and country, the bourgeoisie and the working class. By this time, the Greek world was an easy harvest for the Romans: ‘It was in the main the inability of the Hellenistic world to find a solution of these problems, at least an acceptable compromise, that was responsible for its easy defeat by Rome and its incorporation in the Roman Empire’.[6]

What are we to make of Rostovtzeff’s grand construction? At the time, critics focused on his argument – in relation to ancient Rome – that the rural proletariat joined forces with the essentially proletarian army and thereby brought about the decline of the Roman Empire. Not so, argued A. H. M. Jones, for the army was hardly proletarian, being a professional, paid army with its own internal culture.[7] Others quibbled over his lack of attention to the complex problems of political liberty, that he oversimplified economic structures, or that he neglected the social structure of peasant life. Or they focused on his obvious class allegiance to the bourgeoisie, his hatred of communism and the rabble of the proletariat, which he then transposed onto the ancient world. As Momigliano put it:

The Russian Revolution surprised Rostovtzeff. Although he could accept the Marxist idea that class warfare was the dominant factor in history, he was not willing to accept the dominance of the proletariat over the more enlightened bourgeoisie he came to idealize in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds and who he saw as a thriving class, building the economy of their society and raising the standard of civilization.[8]

Obviously, Rostovtzeff’s virulent anti-communism was bound to affect his work. While at Oxford he became an anti-communist activist, writing articles in Struggling Russia, The New Russia and other periodicals bemoaning the fate of high culture, morality, religion and learning under the Bolsheviks, who offered nothing better than ‘a regime of violence, bloodshed, dictatorship, slavery and enmity towards true culture’.[9] After he arrived at Yale, Rostovtzeff became a popular speaker across the USA and Europe, in part due to his anti-communist stance. Transposed onto the ancient world, it meant that ‘the red army of the third century ruined the Roman State of the Caesars, just as the Red Army of the twentieth century ruined the Russian State of the Czars’.[10]

All that stood in the way of such uneducated and uncultured barbarism was a relatively fragile middle class. But what does Rostovtzeff mean by ‘bourgeoisie’ in ancient Greece and Rome? Briefly, a bourgeois is an average citizen, ‘a middle class landowner, a business man, or a rentier, well-to-do but not extremely rich’.[11] Or in more detail:

This typical citizen for whom Menander wrote his comedies and whom he and Theophrastus chiefly portrayed in their works is not an aristocrat by birth and wealth, nor is he a pauper or a proletarian … He draws his income from his farm, which he manages personally in a rational way with the help of slaves or hired labour, from his commercial operations, mostly marine ventures, or from money-lending … The Athenian bourgeois is well-to-do. He lives in a small comfortable residential house and owns one or two domestic slaves. He is not stingy, and on great occasions spends money freely; but he is careful about his affairs. His family is not very large; he generally has one or two children.[12]

Although this ancient ‘bourgeoisie’ fostered liberty, learning, high culture, and was devoted to the traditional Greek pantheon of gods, building new temples, and maintaining the traditional festivals and games in honour of their gods, Rostovtzeff’s argument is primarily economic. It was a class the members of whom had become successful due to their own efforts or by means of an inheritance that they had effectively invested. The bourgeoisie was distinguished from other classes by the fact that they were not craftsmen or employees, but the owners of capital, investors and employers of labour.[13] In other words, this ancient ‘bourgeoisie’ implemented nothing less than a profit-motivated capitalism.[14] In Rome too they were the leading economic and social force, so much so that on this class rested the power of the emperors.[15]

The daring of Rostovtzeff’s reconstruction was to take an essentially Marxist distinction – the primary class differentiation under capitalism between bourgeoisie and proletariat – and apply it to ancient Greece and Rome. Of course, against Marx, Engels and Lenin, he favoured the bourgeoisie as the bulwark of society. The catch is that this class structure and its conflict is one that has arisen under a determinate economic formation, so Rostovtzeff cannot avoid describing the mode of production of the ancient world as merely an earlier version of capitalism.[16]

However, I would suggest that at a deeper level Rostovtzeff’s framework has been accepted by the majority of those working on the social and economic structures of the ancient world. This happened by means of a smoke screen of criticism, behind which those assumptions became part of the mainstream. To shift the metaphor, that criticism constituted a sideways look that missed the fundamental claim that ancient Greece and Rome operated with capitalism writ small, a look that gave all the appearance of being critical and yet missed and thereby absorbed the main agenda of his argument. As Momigliano put it, Rostovtzeff was ‘essentially correct in assuming that both the Hellenization and Romanization of the territories of the Roman Empire resulted from the activities of the urban middle class’.[17] Much research on ancient economies has been following the wrong path ever since.



[1] As Rostovtzeff puts it: ‘For long, history was mainly political history, and historical narrative was confined to an account of the most important crises in political life, or to an account of wars and great generals. But even the Greeks realized that if these facts, the incidents of man’s history in politics and war, are important, it is still more important to ascertain the causes of these incidents and their connexion with one another and with the other phenomena of the life of communities. It has become clear that war, in spite of the profound impression it produces, is only one phase of man’s life, and not the most important phase, and that the origin and course of wars are closely connected with the development of economic, social, and religious life and civilizations’ Mikhail Rostovtzeff, History of the Ancient World  (Oxford: Clarendon, 1926), 7.

[2] Glenn W. Bowersock, “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire by Michael Ivanovitch Rostovzeff,” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 103, no. 1 (1974): 15-23, 16-17.

[3] Mikhail Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire  (Oxford: Clarendon, 1926); M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1941).

[4] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World: vol. 2: 1131.

[5] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World: vol. 2: 1131.

[6] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World: vol. 2: 1031-32.

[7] A.H.M. Jones, “M. I. Rostovtzeff: 1870-1952,” Proceedings of the British Academy 38(1952): 345-61, 359.

[8] Arnaldo Momigliano, Studies in Historiography  (New York: Garland, 1985), 98; see also Reinhold Meyer, “A Critique of Rostovtzeff,” Science and Society 10(1948).

[9] M. Rostovtzeff, “Why the Russian Intelligentsia is Opposed to the Bolshevik Regime,” Struggling Russia 1(1919-20), 793; see also M. Rostovtzeff, “Should Scientists Return to Russia?,” Struggling Russia 1(1919-20); M. Rostovtzeff, “Proletarian Culture in Bolshevik Russia,” Struggling Russia 1(1919-20).

[10] Momigliano, Studies in Historiography: 100.

[11] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World: vol. 1: 163.

[12] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World: vol. 1: 163.

[13] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World: vol. 1: 1115-16.

[14] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire: vol 2: 453, note.

[15] Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire: vol. 1: 103.

[16] Rostovtzeff was by no means the first to argue for a primitive capitalism in the ancient world. He had read and relied in part on Guiseppe Salvioli, Le capitalisme dans le monde antique  (Paris: Giard & Brière, 1906); Eugène Cavaignac, Population et capital dans le monde méditerranéen antique  (Strasbourg: Librairie Istra, 1923). Yet his proposal was the most comprehensive and influential.

[17] Momigliano, Studies in Historiography: 103.

 

References

Bowersock, Glenn W. “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire by Michael Ivanovitch Rostovzeff.” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 103, no. 1 (1974): 15-23.

Cavaignac, Eugène. Population et capital dans le monde méditerranéen antique.  Strasbourg: Librairie Istra, 1923.

Jones, A.H.M. “M. I. Rostovtzeff: 1870-1952.” Proceedings of the British Academy 38 (1952): 345-61.

Meyer, Reinhold. “A Critique of Rostovtzeff.” Science and Society 10 (1948).

Momigliano, Arnaldo. Studies in Historiography.  New York: Garland, 1985.

Rostovtzeff, M. “Proletarian Culture in Bolshevik Russia.” Struggling Russia 1 (1919-20).

———. “Should Scientists Return to Russia?”. Struggling Russia 1 (1919-20).

———. The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World. 3 vols Oxford: Clarendon, 1941.

———. “Why the Russian Intelligentsia is Opposed to the Bolshevik Regime.” Struggling Russia 1 (1919-20).

Rostovtzeff, Mikhail. History of the Ancient World.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1926.

———. The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1926.

Salvioli, Guiseppe. Le capitalisme dans le monde antique.  Paris: Giard & Brière, 1906.

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