A Marxist look at the legions

Issue: 119

Steve Roskams

Neil Faulkner, Rome: Empire of the Eagles (Pearson, 2008), £21.99

Neil Faulkner’s new book should be a welcome publication for the readers of this journal, following his earlier articles here (for example in International Socialism 109 and 116). 1 Its attempt at a “grand narrative”, its explicit anti-imperialist stance, and its willingness to relate our understanding of past societies to the modern world, in particular the anti-war movement, are all important and delivered here in a refreshing, accessible style.

Tackling the Roman Empire in this way is particularly valuable, the ancient world having been used by apologists for more recent empires. The classically educated generals and bureaucrats, who ran these modern systems, sought to justify their excesses in terms of bringing “civilisation” to uncivilised regions, just as Roman legions had previously claimed. Indeed, such sentiments are retained by many who study antiquity today. Thus the author’s target is an important one.

Yet this is no conventional historical materialist account of Rome. Following Marx’s own, admittedly slim, writings about the ancient economy most Marxists have depicted the slave mode of production as its pivotal, underlying dynamic (see, most obviously, the great work by Geoffrey de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World). Faulkner takes the opposite stance. Slavery did not produce the majority of surplus then and, anyway, was not different in kind from other forms of exploitation. Thus the concept has little explanatory value in analysing Roman imperialism (even when discussing the latifundia at Settefinestre—for many, a site central to debates over the role of slave labour in Italy—he makes no mention of the proposed slave quarters there).

What, then, does Faulkner want to put in the place of Marxist “conventional wisdom”? His core thesis is that foreign conquest was the central mechanism for surplus extraction under Rome: a “system of robbery with violence” (as stated on the front and on the back of the dust cover of the book, and twice in its introduction).

The reviewer faces two problems in trying to assess the validity of such a major change in our thinking about the classical world. First, there is no proper referencing system within the text, so it is difficult to see where some sources of evidence derive from. Second, the account is avowedly empiricist: interpretations are “not imposed on the evidence” but portrayed as “growing out of it”.

Despite these obstacles, Faulkner’s central point comes over quite clearly in the text. Its five chapters are organised along chronological lines, running from the founding of the Roman city state, around 750 BC, to AD 476, when the Germanic leader Odoacer established the Kingdom of Italy, seen here as marking the fall of the Western Empire. At almost every stage the account concentrates on military and political dynamics and bases itself on documentary evidence.

This focus and the lack of archaeological evidence mean that the material conditions that faced producers in the landscape are rarely discussed in any detail. The realties of such exploitation are something which written sources would always struggle to elucidate, being produced in the main by elites with their own interests and perspectives.

It would be wrong to suggest that Faulkner considers solely military and political dynamics. The opening chapter provides a convincing account of the material conditions of early Rome, of how social cohesion grew and elites emerged from this melting pot.

The underpinning explanatory framework here owes much to standard Marxist thinking: a classic case of the increasingly prevalent mechanisms of production, structured around the basic households, coming into contradiction with an increasingly outmoded framework for surplus extraction, the higher-order clan. (See Chris Harman’s article on “Engels and the Origins of Human Society” in International Socialism 65 for the core argument.) Faulkner also describes how fragmentation within the ruling class generated the specific context in which such contradictions came to a head, another historical materialist perspective—so far, so good.

However, in what follows, such ideas are deployed merely to hint at ways to take analysis forward, rather than as a developed argument—and a critical part of that argument is missing. In the context of an increasing tension between clan and household, warriors are said to arise to provide protection against insecurity. Yet the sources of such uncertainty are not discussed. Later Faulkner charts the move from war carried out by equal citizens to war involving specialist military personnel. This development must have required considerable extra outlay but, once again, it is unclear why these investments are made.

The professionalised army is based, initially, on heavy infantry (hoplites) supplied by citizens of a “middling sort”, but the latter category is not explained in relation to economic processes. Understandably, the author appears wary of simple equations with later social formations, most obviously those at the core of the move from feudalism to capitalism (see Christopher Hill’s God$7_$_s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution). Yet subtly acknowledging this with quotation marks is no substitute for real definitions. By the same token, urbanisation arises out of nowhere: cities were founded for “political reasons”, with no reference to underlying forces.

The failure to link the process of militarisation and the development of central places to the contradictions embodied in the mesh of means and relations of production is significant. Yet such developments are pivotal to all subsequent arguments on the army as the driving force behind Roman society.

Later chapters chart the army’s rise to political power. Maintaining military forces was clearly a burden on the poor, but a price the latter were generally willing to bear because the fruits of conquest replaced surplus from farmland. Peasants, bought off by expansion, are thereafter portrayed as bit part players in history.

Many words are devoted to discussing which emperor was put into power by whom, with explanations of the processes residing in the upper echelons of society, whether machinations among military blocks in various parts of the empire, or between these and senatorial factions back in Rome. For example, when Elagabalus, the choice of the “Syrian” faction, was to be replaced by Severus Alexander in AD 222, the mob had simply to be “courted in the usual way” to guarantee success. Once bribed, it became peripheral. The real danger to the process of succession was not what happened at home with the mob, but abroad with the army. This focus, on external factors rather than internal tensions, brings us very far from any notion of a history from below.

Because of this approach, Faulkner is driven to some very non-Marxist ideas when interpreting the context in which the empire expanded, consolidated its position and fell into decline. One of the most unconvincing is the tendency to explain the past in terms of the character of individual emperors (Augustus: “a truly disgusting man”). It may be useful to remind us that members of a ruling class were not, as often portrayed, paradigms of virtue and civilisation. Yet knowing this hardly takes historical understanding forward much.

A more fundamental problem concerns the process of military expansion and its impact. The Samnites were attacked repeatedly until defeated, a victory pivotal to the development of the Roman state. A century later Phyrrus was tracked across Italy rather than engaged in direct battle, and eventually ground into defeat. Where did Rome’s resources come from to sustain such long-term efforts?

On the other side of the equation, what of the fruits of empire? The author states that “glory, booty, slaves and indemnity payments were the principal ways by which surplus was pumped out of producers”. Yet no emperor, however astute or devious, can produce more surplus by applying “glory” to the economic process. “Booty” and “indemnity payments” pose questions concerning how one converts gold talents into increasing production at the core and the impact on economic relations in the newly-acquired territories. None of these are examined in any detail.

Finally, “slaves” can only be profitable if one considers their role in domestic service, extraction of minerals and rural production—but Faulkner has already denied himself this form of explanation.

Insofar as the author acknowledges any economic impact of militarisation, he gets perilously close to another favourite technique of bourgeois scholarship when discussing past empires—finding capitalist enterprise in pre-capitalist societies. The maintenance of the empire required larger drafts of soldiers from the land, decimating peasant holdings and allowing elites to expand their property. For Faulkner, these land-grabbing aristocrats become wealthy by producing “cash crops or stock for a burgeoning market”.

This idea owes much to Rostovtsev, an ancient historian who fled from the Russian Revolution to the US. His Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1957) characterised early Rome as a golden age of marketing on the Adam Smith model (in contrast to a late Roman period of intervention by an oppressive state, which caused the empire’s downfall—something else which appears in Faulkner’s discussion of Late Antiquity).

Beyond these vague notions of “the market”, economics gets little mention. Rome is roundly condemned for being voracious and violent, and rightly so. However its competitor, Carthage, is portrayed as being more humane since “powered by merchant profit”. Faulkner ignores Rome’s engagement in long-distance trade entirely, even when such exchange networks are clearly relevant to his political processes.

For example, Roman emperors came from Italy up to the 1st century AD, from Spain at the start of the 2nd, and from North Africa by the end of that century. This correlates significantly with changes in the regions producing the vast surpluses of olive oil which flowed around the Western Mediterranean over that period of time. Yet this important trade system is not even mentioned in the text.

Finally, environment becomes the main determinant in tackling the ending of expansion. When the empire reached the limits of the plough, and thus the limits of sufficiently complex, relatively sedentary societies that were worthwhile/feasible for Rome to incorporate within its boundaries, it stopped growing. (Hadrian is credited with recognising this and turning it into imperial policy.) Such a suggestion is not only empirically questionable (for example, the position of Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain does not divide an agricultural south from a pastoral north), it is also theoretically weak: there is far more to explaining complex social and economic processes than the “givens” of environmental contexts.

Subsequent crises and ultimate decline are explained by corresponding “conventional wisdom”. Rome was now on the back foot, subject to the increasing dominance of an intrusive state (see Rostovtsev, above) and an easy prey for disease. This new situation required a more mobile army but this merely served to plug one gap, only to see another appear elsewhere. The centralism of the state in contrast to the regionalism of the army, plus the growth of tribal proto_states on the margins of empire, has some real power to explain late Roman tensions—but linking them to rampant plague and an interfering state is a real limitation.

Faulkner is driven to these sorts of interpretations because he sees the key explanatory concept as “a state-army nexus built on a tax-pay cycle”. This may be a fair description of what happened in one important sphere, but it is not an analysis of the whole process, still less a Marxist analysis. Taxation is a way of organising surplus at a gross level, but is not itself a mode of production. So the state which seeks to organise this taxation will take different forms depending on an underlying dominant mode of production (hence talk of “state capitalism” in the modern world). In ignoring this, Faulkner fails to deploy the fundamental Marxist tools of historical materialism. This is why class conflict makes so few appearances and why, when it does, its roots are unclear. It is very telling here that he believes we can have social revolutions “without a revolutionary class”. And when a “peasants’ revolt” occurs late in the 2nd century, it becomes significant only when army deserters join with “endemic social banditry”—it is the military component that is, for him, fundamental to the crisis.

Separating the military machine from the rest of society in this way limits the coherence of his critique. It also limits its relevance to the present day, especially in relation to the current anti-war movement. Among non-Marxists protesting against Western intervention in the Middle East there is a common notion that, if only military dynamics in particular, and imperialism in general, could be separated from the more benign aspects of capitalism, we could have a better world by reforming, rather than overthrowing, the present system. This is not possible today—and it is no more feasible when trying to understand imperialisms in the past.


1: This review has benefited considerably from conversations with Chris Fuller, long term comrade and committed anti-war activist. I am, of course, responsible for the outcome of those discussions in this text.