Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.23

Aldo Schiavone, The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West. Translated by Margery J. Schneider. Revealing Antiquity, 13.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2000.  Pp. viii + 278.  ISBN 0-674-00062-5.  $45.00.  



Reviewed by Phiroze Vasunia, University of Southern California (vasunia@usc.edu)
Word count: 1707 words

This book is an English translation of Aldo Schiavone's La storia spezzata: Roma antica e Occidente moderno, first published in Italy in 1996. Schiavone's book is an extended meditation on an important subject, and he writes with an elegance that is hard to come by in contemporary classical scholarship. This translation, which for the most part manages to capture the flair of Schiavone's Italian, will make the book accessible to a wider audience. The End of the Past is also the first book by this distinguished scholar, who is a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Florence, to appear in English. As such, it will introduce the Anglophone world to the writings of an important and prolific scholar who has written elsewhere about ancient slavery and the Roman law traditions. The appearance of La storia spezzata in translation is a welcome event, and Harvard University Press is to be commended for undertaking its publication.

The English title of Schiavone's book is not a literal translation of the Italian. But the translated title alludes to, among other things, Santo Mazzarino's useful work, La fine del mondo antico, which also dealt with questions concerning the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. On the very first page of his introduction, in fact, Schiavone invites comparison not only with Mazzarino, but with Gibbon, Mommsen, Rostovtzeff, Burckhardt, Fustel de Coulanges, Moses Finley, Syme, and Dumézil. What arrogance, one thinks! What overconfidence! This list of great names is not just a display of hubris, however. Schiavone invokes these figures as scholars who wrote for broad reading publics, and he laments the intensive specialization practised today within the discipline of ancient history. His work is a reaction against academic over-specialization, he says, and an attempt to engage a wider audience with questions of historical importance. And it is certainly true that Schiavone's book is more accessible and more fluently written than most books on ancient Roman history. Nevertheless, even this work requires some background in ancient history. The reader with little or no knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman world will find parts of the main text obscure, quite apart from the details in the more than fifty pages of notes that are placed at the end of the book.

The question that Schiavone presents to the reader at the beginning of his book is as follows: "Why did the historical course of the West contain within itself the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilization -- a rupture of incalculable proportions -- the extent of which seems unchanged even if we look at it not as "the end of the ancient world" but as a dramatic transition to the Middle Ages?" (p. 2). This is an old and famous question, the one posed by Gibbon, among others, and the one traced through various ancient and modern works by Mazzarino. It is the question that haunts Schiavone's book, and it is repeated in one form or another at various times in the text. Why did the western Roman Empire suffer through a crisis, or "rupture", that brought to an end civilization and society as these existed then? Why did the ancient Roman world not develop in a different direction? According to Schiavone, it took the West more than a thousand years to recover from this "historical thrombosis" (p. 31), and when the West did recover, moreover, it moved in directions considerably different from those that had defined the contours of the ancient Roman world. Schiavone suggests that European civilization practically began anew in the Middle Ages and that it bore little resemblance to the Roman culture of the ancient era. The European modernity that evolved in the West was influenced more by a society and culture that arose subsequent to the collapse of the Roman Empire than by institutions, ideas, and technologies from the period of the classical Roman past. Thus, for Schiavone, the crisis of the Roman Empire not only brought to an end a vast economic, political, and imperial hegemony it also was responsible for a cultural and epistemic break between ancient and modern societies in the West.

The author holds that various factors were the cause of the crisis that afflicted the Roman Empire by the second century C.E. These factors include the aristocrat's disdain for manual labor, the attitude to agriculture and agricultural production and distribution, and the unwillingness to transform nature and one's external surroundings. But the heart of the argument, and the heart of the book as a whole, revolves around issues of slavery and economy. Slavery affected every aspect of the Roman economy, Schiavone writes, and the crisis of the Empire was due to the limitations caused by the system of slavery. The slave system itself corrupted and deformed the Roman economy to such an extent that the collapse of the Empire was almost bound to occur. The economic system was incapable of producing slaves like any other commodity; the system conceived of slaves as part of the labor force, but this labor force proved to be an "extramercantile" constraint and was not "an element intrinsic to the economic cycle" (p. 107). Moreover, slavery affected the uses to which public and private capital was put, it interfered with technological potential, and it concealed the effects of technological stagnation. Thus, slavery was an essential element in the economic system of the Empire, but it was also uncontrollable, and it ultimately had a ruinous effect on the economy and on Roman society at large.

We have seen some of these arguments before, especially, in Marx's writings on the slave mode of production. Schiavone has a wider range of evidence at his disposal than Marx did, and he is more knowledgeable about the data concerning the ancient Roman economy than Marx was. He refers in passing to "the wave of neo-Marxism in Italian classical studies in the 1970s and 1980s" (p. 51), and his own book at times reads as if it were neo-Marxist in orientation. Schiavone is himself a forceful and seductive writer, just as Marx was, and he makes his claims about ancient slavery with cogency, nuance, and subtlety. Chapters 6 to 9 -- the book has 12 chapters -- are a powerful analysis of the role of slavery in the Roman world, of the attitudes of the ruling class to slaves, and of the far-reaching effects of slavery on the culture. Moses Finley wrote that no aspect of life in the ancient world was untouched by slavery, and Schiavone provides here an elegant demonstration of that observation. Indeed, many of the details presented by Schiavone in his book will be familiar to scholars of ancient society, but he often succeeds in showing the material in a new light.

Schiavone's most stimulating passages concern the difference between European modernity and antiquity. In reflecting on the differences between the ancient and modern worlds, Schiavone writes about the ancients' sense of boundaries and limits. The anxieties of a figure such as Aelius Aristides "reflected the fears and neuroses of a time capable of recognizing no goals beyond self-preservation and no satisfaction except in the greatness it had already achieved; it lacked new scopes and distant objectives to pursue" (p. 204). Or again, the preference on the part of some ancients to view history as cyclical was, according to Schiavone, connected with a strong sense of limits. Following a passage in Marx's Grundrisse, Schiavone further observes that "the ancients confused the intellectual and material boundaries (even the geographic ones) of their own civilization with the extreme margins of time and history, and mistook the one-sidedness of their own perspective for natural or metaphysical constraints" (p. 205). This strong sense of limits prevented the Romans from changing their attitudes to slavery, labor, technological innovation, and economic production.

The "revolution of European modernity", Schiavone notes, was to challenge the limits naturalized in the ancient world and, indeed, to question the notion of the natural limit as such. With the advent of modernity, European civilization came up with new ideas of labor and developed new sciences that radically transformed older notions of time, progress, and history. By this definition, "modernity is infinity that has become history -- or the infinite productivity of human labor and intelligence, in the circumstances made possible by the new course of events. It is also the unlimited growth of needs, desires, and individualities, with dissatisfaction as its justification and battle standard" (p. 206). Modernity is fueled by dissatisfaction since it is dissatisfaction that causes individuals to surpass their current lot and to aim for something else, perhaps even a chance to feel a new level of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction of this kind has a productive, transformative value, and it can go hand in hand with progress and with the desire to break through a circumscribed cultural space. Thus, an important difference between the ancient and modern worlds, according to Schiavone, lies in the ancients' inability to question the permanence of limits and in the moderns' facility for doing so.

Critics of the Italian edition have already expressed their doubts concerning Schiavone's arguments. They have found the emphasis on slavery misplaced, for instance, and have indicated that slaves were probably not a principal part of the agricultural labor force in places such as Gaul and North Africa. They are also sceptical regarding the severity of the break that Schiavone describes and see a greater degree of continuity than he does between late antiquity and the Middle Ages. And they have suggested that Schiavone relies too deeply for crucial economic data on work that is still open to interpretation and debate. There is some validity to all these criticisms, and I would like to raise the further objection that Schiavone fails to define modernity clearly or consistently. At times, he even seems to be saying that modernity extends from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. In general, Schiavone's treatment of the relationship between antiquity and modernity is too brief for a book with this subtitle, although the sections of the book that do concern this relationship are often the most original and provocative.

In subsequent printings and editions, the Press should correct the few typographical errors and stylistic infelicities that mar the text of this otherwise polished publication.

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