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Book Review: Politics in the Ancient World (M.I. Finley)

“Politics In The Ancient World” is a short work, a compilation and modification of a series of lectures given in 1980 by the Communist classicist M. I. Finley. Each lecture is a chapter, and while each chapter explores a different area of Greek and Roman politics, they are linked within an over-arching theme. The book’s audience is professional historians; you can be an amateur and appreciate it, but you will be immediately and totally lost if you are not already fairly well versed in classical history.

Finley’s focus is on classical Greece of the fifth to third centuries B.C., and on the Roman Republic until the last century before its replacement by the Empire (so up until about 120 B.C.). This is the “Ancient World.” That said, Finley freely admits that there is next to zero detailed information on any topic in this book from any Greek state other than Athens, with the exception of Sparta, which had such a unique system that it does not illuminate any other Greek state.

Finley repeatedly rejects the “modern” trend, which has doubtless gotten much worse since 1980, to believe that “it is wrong to speak of democracy, rights or freedom at any time in ancient history,” because of slavery and restrictions on citizenship to a minority of male inhabitants of any given polity. “That seems to me to misconceive the nature of historical inquiry, to reduce it to a game of awarding credits and demerits according to the historian’s own value system.” Finley died in 1986, but he would doubtless be horrified by the politically correct approach to history so much in evidence today (even though the Frankfurt School he was associated with, creator of the abominable “critical theory,” spawned that precise malign approach).

It seems to me this book is not fully complete in itself. While Finley writes gracefully, the book is so short and covers so many expansive concepts that most can only be touched on. From what I can tell, though, from footnotes and other sources, Finley wrote at great length on these topics in other books. So perhaps this book is a gateway drug for those keenly interested in the topics.

In any case, Finley begins, in the first chapter, by laying the groundwork of “state, class and power.” As to the state, he defines it as equivalent to the government; possessing power; and having a form resulting from the society from which it springs. As to class, Finley’s explicit premise is that ancient politics was in essence the management of conflict between the rich and poor. His focus is on “class divisions.” This is of course an orthodox Marxist approach to any historical analysis, and unsurprising given Finley’s own political background. As to power, Finley focus is power in the sense of legitimized violence, as it relates to the internal functioning of the state, especially in crisis situations (as opposed to common street crime). Finley concludes that in crisis situations involving organized opposition to the state, given the total absence of any kind of regular police force, and given that a high percentage of men had military experience “armed men could be summoned as volunteers” to enforce the will of the state. This is interesting in its own right, but Finley’s purpose in this brief first chapter analysis is to lay the groundwork for a discussion of how power functioned in daily life, in those circumstances (the vast majority) when a crisis situation did not exist.

Finley next discusses the source of authority of the state. Or, phrased another way, why did the state have any authority, such that citizens obeyed its laws, for centuries of stability (and returned to obeying them even after periods of instability)? (I learned in this book that the Greek word “stasis” actually means “civil strife,” which is pretty much the opposite of its modern English meaning.) And how did they do so over long periods of great changes in the laws, while maintaining flexibility and without becoming “petrified”? Finley rejects religion as the source of state authority, noting that ancient religions did not themselves provide justification for the state, and religious beliefs were not used as a source for political decisions. He rejects or downgrades other sources such as patriotism and the mos maiorum. After discussion, Finley locates the ultimate source of authority in a combination of “community patronage,” the system (particularly in Greece) whereby the rich were formally expected to spend lavishly for the benefit of all; and in an extensive web of client-patron relationships. Both devices favored the political power of the rich, but permitted stability and benefits for the poor—who in turn supported the wealthy in their individual quests for political power. Finley says, “inquiry into the ancient state and government needs to be lowered from the administration of rarefied concepts, by a consideration not only of ideology, ‘national’ pride and patriotism . . . but also of the material relations among the citizens or classes of citizens as much as those more commonly noticed between the state and citizens.”

The next chapter discusses politics as such, defining it as binding, enforceable state decisions reached by discussion and voting (frequently with a sizeable element of popular, lower-class participation). Finley notes that by this definition politics was rare in the pre-modern world, and therefore how inventive the Greeks and Romans were and had to be, though that is not always immediately obvious looking backward. He also notes the lack of separation between civil and military aspects of government, the constancy of war, and that those individuals who decided to go to war frequently “went straight into battle themselves.” He finally notes the frequent “breakdown of politics in favor of open civil war, [which was] a price paid for the incorporation of the lower classes into the political community.”

From there Finley expands on popular participation in politics, emphasizing here (as he does in several places in the book) how both Greece and Rome were very much “face-to-face societies,” and persuading others was done by verbal contact (and removing a person by exile therefore necessarily broke his political power). Many political struggles revolved around attempts by the upper classes to limit popular participation, usually more successful in Rome than in Greece (but ending more frequently in violence in Greece than in Rome).

Finley finally examines political issues, conflict, and ideology. Here he returns again to his class focus, theorizing that the mass of citizenry were most interested in the ability to defend themselves and their rights formally at law, and to prevent debt from having drastic effects on their lives, particularly in the area of land tenure and debt-bondage. As to ideology, Finley traces beliefs of the ancient world to a universal “the essential condition for a genuine political society, for a true polis and therefore for the good life, is ‘Rule by laws, not by men.’” This was true both for democracies and for oligarchies, and even for some monarchies. Politics, then, is what the laws are, and “who in principle shared in the law-making machinery.” For us today, this concept as a central pillar of political life is probably the single most important inheritance from the ancient world.

This book is worth reading, if narrow in interest. What is unclear to me, and probably unclear to anyone but a professional academic, is if Finley’s work in general is infected with Marxism such that it clouds his historical judgment. He explicitly denies that it is, although there is a “protests too much flavor” about his disclaimers. On the other hand, to my eye there is very little evidence in this book that the book is so infected, other than a constant focus on class conflict for which much specific evidence is adduced (and only a historical illiterate would deny that class conflict was indeed extremely common throughout the ancient world). So I would not let Finley’s dubious politics count against the value of this book.

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