Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.11

Peter W. Rose, Class in Archaic Greece.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 439.  ISBN 9780521768764.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Wenghofer, Nipissing University (


Peter Rose’s aim in this book is to address “a general tendency of classicists to eschew theory” (2), and to demonstrate that Marxist conceptions of class, class struggle, and ideology are useful tools for understanding the evolution of social and political structures in Archaic Greece. Rose’s approach to his subject is to demonstrate how many scholars who have examined the social and political histories of Archaic Greece employ the language of Marxist class analysis in their work, even if they are unaware of having done so (1-2). His book thus reads more like a critical review of the scholarly literature on the emergence of Archaic political institutions than as a direct examination of the archaic evidence in Marxist terms.

Rose divides his book into seven well organized chapters. In his Introduction, he challenges the standard criticisms typically leveled against Marxist analytical categories, especially those offered by Moses Finley1 and provides a full explication of key Marxist concepts, with particular emphasis on “class,” “class struggle,” and “ideology,” (4-36) before demonstrating the heuristic value of such concepts for understanding Archaic political institutions (36-55). Rose criticizes the tendency among classical scholars to avoid theory as an abdication of the historian’s duty to explain events rather than merely describe them, adding that asking questions of the past that are relevant in a contemporary context, even if they were not important questions in antiquity, is useful and intellectually relevant to the present.

In Chapter I Rose, following Donlan,2 argues that the Dark Ages can best be described as a meritocracy where the common people enjoyed a face-to-face relationship with a “big man” or basileus. The basileus received gifts and honors in exchange for protection of land and justice. Rose cites the rather undifferentiated archaeological evidence to argue that Dark Age communities were relatively egalitarian. However, as competition between basileis intensified, each basileus enlisted the help of wealthier landowners for their military support, securing their loyalty through gifts of land, marriages, and other public honors. This nascent aristocracy sought in turn to protect their wealth and privileges collectively, providing the impetus for the creation of the polis. The new aristocratic class in turn offered the demos protection of property in exchange for military support and contributions of surplus production for the common good (i.e., fortifications, temples etc.). However, the creation of the polis itself engendered a new set of tensions between the aristocracy and the demos. Aristocracies enlisted the support of the demos for the common good reified in the polis, while they simultaneously claimed primacy for the aristocracy, shutting the demos out of the political process. This contradiction between the common good and the rights of the aristocracy was thus embedded in the ideology of the early polis.

In Chapters 2 and 3 Rose turns to the Homeric texts in an attempt to identify class conflict and expressions of class ideology at the precise historical moment of the formation of the polis. According to Rose the epics were not recited exclusively for the aristocratic elite; rather, different parts of the epics were likely recited to different audiences on different occasions. Thus while both epics contain celebrations of aristocratic virtue, they also reveal competing and contradictory class ideologies, especially within the ruling class itself. In the Iliad Achilles’ alienation from Agamemnon suggests a tension between an ideology, represented by Achilles, that looks back to a fading quasi-democratic and meritocratic Dark Age period, where the assembled basileis controlled social surplus in the form of honors and wealth which were distributed solely on the basis of merit, and a new age, represented by Agamemnon, where inherited wealth and power are employed in the pursuit of private interests against the welfare of the polis, which is represented by the assembled host of propertied, aristocratic warriors (130-133). Similarly in Chapter 3 Rose argues that in the Odyssey Odysseus’ rule does not rest on his lineage per se, in stark contradistinction to the suitors, but on the wealth and power that he has acquired through his own wit and ability. The anti-aristocratic subtext is taken further when the suitors abuse Odysseus when he is disguised as a beggar, behavior which Rose contends parallels that of the wealthy landowners in Solonian Athens and so must reflect broadly similar conditions throughout Greece in the mid-eight century BCE (160).

In Chapter 4 Rose explores the Hesiodic texts, arguing that in Theogony Zeus is effectively the meritocratic big man of the Dark Ages whose rule does not rest on inherited status but is acquired through wit, strength, justice, and fair distribution of social honors on the basis of merit (172-174), and whose image is intended as an exemplum for other basileis. Works and Days, however, is aimed at middling and poor farmers as is most clearly suggested in the attitude the poem takes toward hard manual work and the precariousness of human livelihood, an image which stands in stark contradiction to the economic realities and cultural values of the aristocracy. Rose sees Hesiod’s emphasis on divine justice, the injustice of gift-gobbling basileis, and his warning of the fluidity and arbitrariness of wealth and status as an indictment of the aristocratic class and as a call for a just basileus of the Dark Age type to redress the injustices of the greedy aristocrats, and thus looks forward to the emergence of tyrannies (180-186).

In Chapter 5 Rose examines the emergence of tyranny in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, as well as how the demos both shaped and was shaped in turn by the emergence of tyrannical government. This chapter uses the fragments of Solon’s poetry to identify the existence of class consciousness among the middling and poorer farmer class, a consciousness that sees itself in an antagonistic relationship with the aristocratic/oligarchic elite specifically over the relations of production. Rose argues that the tyrant, already prefigured in the meritocratic basileuscelebrated in the Hesiodic texts, and to some degree in the Odyssey as well, is turned to as a solution to the crisis of intra- and inter-class conflict. Rose then examines the tools employed by tyrants to ameliorate this conflict without actually altering the relations of production. Tyrants assuaged the intra-class conflict between aristocrats and wealthy non-aristocrats by fostering a common lifestyle resting upon luxury, the symposium, eroticism, literacy, athletic competition, and an ideology of innate superiority to the common people. Rose finds evidence for such policies in the great patronage given by tyrants to contests, both athletic and artistic, public feasts and festivals, and to the production of lyric poetry celebrating the aristocratic lifestyle and the innate superiority of those who live it (251-262). Tyrants also defined polis identity more sharply through the sponsoring of public building campaigns and the production of art for public consumption aimed at fostering a sense of belonging among all citizens of a polis through the creation of a nascent nationalism (245-251). However, while such measures went a long way toward reducing the factional conflict within the ruling elite, it did not alter the tension engendered by the exploitation of the demos upon which aristocratic/oligarchic wealth and status rested.

Chapter 6 examines the role class conflict played in shaping the Spartan constitution and the ideology that underpinned it. Using the fragments of Tyrtaeus and the Aristotelian Athenian Constitution Rose argues that the Spartan constitution evolved as a response to political pressure from the demos and was aimed at inoculating the aristocracy against a wholesale slide into tyranny or democracy as was occurring elsewhere in Greece (277-280). Yet in spite of the redistribution of land once held by the Messenians and the exploitation of helot labor to work that land, Rose reveals evidence for substantial class differentiation in Sparta. The Homoioi constituted an oligarchic elite not only with respect to Messenian and Lakonian helots, but also among the Spartiates themselves, many of whom were too poor to contribute to the Spartan mess system and were therefore too poor to qualify for fully participatory Spartan citizenship (280-286). Rose notes that the apparent equality articulated in Tyrtaeus’ poetry can be viewed simply as a tightening of class solidarity among what is essentially an oligarchic class of wealthy landowners whose status rests on land ownership and the ability to command the productive surplus of helot labor.

In Chapter 7 Rose argues that class struggle between a politically self-aware demos and an oligarchic elite jealous of its monopoly on productive relations helped shape the democratic institutions of Athens that emerged under Kleisthenes. This chapter continues and expands upon the argument addressed in chapter 5, namely that the reforms of Solon and of the Peisistratid tyrants attempted to assuage class tensions over debt, the uneven distribution of land, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an ever-narrowing oligarchic elite by making political concessions to the demos without actually altering productive relations in any material way (338-350). After the expulsion of the Peisistratid tyrants in 510 BCE, the aristocrat Kleisthenes continued the long established practice of appealing to the demos for support against his equally aristocratic rivals who were backed by Spartan military might (359). However, Kleisthenes went further than any other political figure in Athenian history in ameliorating the economic conditions of the demos. This he did by seeking land for the demos in the form of kleruchies in Euboea and Salamis. Such a policy had the effect of reducing the material causes of social and political tensions without disturbing established land ownership patterns in Attica itself (360).

On the whole Rose’s thesis succeeds admirably. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are particularly well argued and well supported by the primary source evidence. Chapters 1 and 2 are a little less convincing. The argument that a lack of differentiation in Dark Age graves and homogeneity in pottery types necessarily translates into a politically egalitarian society is somewhat tendentious. Moreover, to say that the Achaean host in the Iliad somehow represents the emergent polis also requires considerably more corroboratory evidence than Rose has provided. Rose is certainly not the first scholar to use Marxist theory in order to understand social and political change in antiquity, but the list of English titles dedicated exclusively to the study of class in ancient Greece is extremely small and dated.3 Ste. Croix’s, Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World is 32 years old and is chronologically extremely wide ranging. Rose’s decision to focus on a narrower chronological period is therefore prudent and allows for a more detailed and nuanced analysis of class formation under specific historical conditions. Above all, Rose deserves kudos for drawing attention to the importance of theory in the study of antiquity. In a time when policy makers are increasingly calling into question the relevance of Humanities scholarship in general, and Classical Studies in particular, Rose’s admonition to classicists to make the study of antiquity relevant to contemporary social and political concerns is imperative. I sincerely hope that his call will be heeded.


1.   Moses Finley (1973). The Ancient Economy. Berkeley.
2.  Walter Donlan (1999). The Aristocratic Ideal and Selected Papers. Wauconda, IL.
3.   G. Thompson (1955). Studies in Ancient Greek Society. London; Margaret Ogilvie Wason (1972). Class Struggles in Ancient Greece.. Rome; G.E.M. de Ste. Croix (1981). Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Ithaca, New York.

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