BMCR 2023.02.12

Antonio Gramsci and the ancient world

, , Antonio Gramsci and the ancient world. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 402. ISBN 9780367193140.



Antonio Gramsci’s original Marxist Prison Notebooks are one of the philosophical underpinnings of Italian academia after World War Two. His influence has reached the field of ancient history, and this interesting volume is the first collection of articles in English assessing his importance. The importance of Gramscian thought has been greatest in Italian proto-historical and classical archaeology, of which the 1980s series Dialoghi di Archeologia that published Marxist archaeology stands as a reminder. However, this book does not contain any archaeological articles, which is a pity.

Before reviewing the contents, a few words of Gramsci: Antonio Gramsci was one of the Leftist intellectuals imprisoned by the Fascist government in Italy. He was in prison between November 8, 1926 and August 24, 1935, when he was moved to a medical facility on health grounds. He died on April 27, 1937. His Prison Notebooks were started on February 8, 1929, and his last note seems to have been drafted in June 1935. He did not write the Notebooks as a finished item, but returned to different notebooks at different times trying to keep different themes together. He can be contradictory in places, as his thoughts were not finalised. Unfortunately, the first edition that came out between 1948 and 1951 was a thematic one and this gave the impression of a greater integrity than was there originally. This edition has not been translated in its entirety into English; an edition of selected writings was published in 1971. The chronological full Gerratana edition came out in Italian in 1975 and currently there is an ongoing initiative to translate a full English edition.

The volume starts with one of its best articles, Zucchetti’s “Introduction: The reception of Gramsci’s thought in historical and classical studies.” This long essay is followed by 14 articles by different scholars, arranged more or less chronologically, starting with the different Greek themes, moving towards Roman, Late Antique, and more recent economic history. The book concludes with three articles under the title “Afterthoughts.” The three articles also include the editors’ assessments of the volume: Cimino discusses how Gramsci’s ideas can be used to “re-read” ancient literature, and Zucchetti suggests possible further developments, especially the exciting idea of combining Foucault’s and Gramsci’s ideas of power.

Most authors take one of two approaches to the subject matter: either they discuss the way the different concepts defined by Gramsci can be used to analyse different themes in the ancient history, such as the descriptions of hegemony in early Greek poetry (Swift), the democracy of Athens (Canevaro), or Polybios and the rise of Rome (Nicholson), or they look at how Gramsci discussed different issues, such as ancient philosophy (Horky), the Etruscan question (Di Fazio), or ancient and modern imperialism (Bellomo). A few papers try to analyse how modern historians have discussed Gramsci or Gramscian themes, in studying either the rise of Augustus (Smith) or economic history (Viglietti). Paterson’s approach is worth mentioning for his juxtaposition of the perceptions of power in Gramsci, Tacitus, and the apostle Luke. The last example makes a different, novel reading of the gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

Swift’s article lucidly presents the different concepts. She signposts the hegemonic process that is central in understanding the relationship between culture and power: that common sense and shared values create cultural and social ideology that upholds the power of the ruling elite. Thus, the works of artists cannot be seen in isolation, but must be understood in relation to social and cultural forces. She looks at the representation of coercion and consent, the two sides of power in Gramsci’s writings and the relationship and tension between the ruling and subordinate classes in the works of Homer, Hesiod, and Archilochus. She shows how all three poets engage with how the social norms upheld the expected behaviours and how hegemonic behaviours were presented as “common sense.” Thus the early poets were active agents in communicating and influencing social norms and they were sensitive to the power balance in the society. Likewise, Canevaro’s article on the importance of the free lower classes in the workings of the Athenian society and administration is clear and well-argued.

Vlassopoulos discusses the more usual topic for ancient Marxist discourse: slavery. It is exactly the kind of oppressed group a Gramscian analysis is made for. Vlassopoulos paints a nuanced picture of slavery as an occasion of ultimate bad luck in Antiquity. He underlines the importance of hegemony and the double consciousness of the subaltern classes in their understanding it. He characterises the way slaves could actively acting as agents in their own lives and consider their position as a contract where they hoped to be rewarded for good service. He also emphasises the importance of alternative communities, such as religious communities, that slaves took part in, sometimes alongside the free and freed. His analysis shows how truly the cross-fertilisation between Gramscian Marxism and the study of ancient history is overdue.

As a scholar of central Italy of the first millennium BC, I was especially interested in Di Fazio’s discussion on the Etruscan question (the origins of the Etruscan language). But Di Fazio does not spell out clearly the argument in the text. He writes about Gramsci’s view on Alfredo Trombetti’s work on deciphering the Etruscan language without explaining what Trombetti had presented in his talk. Thus, the lament about Trombetti’s method—or lack of it—is somewhat hollow. This same problem is apparent in the two articles that concentrated on Caesarism by Santangelo and Giusti: they expect the reader to know what was discussed. Similarly, Di Fazio does not explain Alfredo Trombetti’s theory when writing about Gramsci’s view on Alfredo Trombetti’s work on deciphering the Etruscan language. Similarly hollow are the discussions by Santangelo on Caesarism and cosmopolitanism and by Giusti on caesarism as stasis when the essence of the concept is not properly signposted. It is clear that the concept is self-evident to the authors, who bring out the same examples of Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Napoleon III as Caesarian Caesars and the existence of progressive and regressive Caesarism.

I find Nappo’s article on Late Antiquity enchanting. It combines two different approaches apparent in the book: the study of Gramsci’s thought and that of the researchers of his thought more widely. In his article Nappo observes the transition from ancient to Medieval times and how Gramsci treats Late Antiquity as a concept embracing the Zeitgeist of the period in its own right instead of seeing it only as a time of decline and discontinuity. He points out how both views of Late Antiquity were visible in Gramsci’s writings and how history writing has proceeded from the histoire événementielle to social and structural history.

It is a pity that Cimino only suggests, but does not develop the idea, that Gramsci’s concepts should be used to study Virgil and his Aeneid. She suggests that the use of hegemony and Gramsci’s idea of intellectuals could help to show how Virgil put himself in dialogue with Augustan discourse. Even if Smith’s theme is the Roman cultural revolution during the Augustan period, he is not as much interested in the thoughts of the Romans, but rather the different views of the researchers studying the Romans. The articles by Balbo, on the Late Republican intellectuals, Nicholson, on Polybios and Paterson, on Gramsci, Tacitus, and the apostle Luke, show how many interpretative possibilities there are in the concepts provided by Gramsci. They discuss the case of intellectuals and widen the understanding of the term to cover more varied professions that convey and formulate common sense to the masses.

All in all, this volume provides an extensive introduction to Gramsci’s thought and its uses in contemporary historical research. However, I think the main strength of this volume is that it does not take Gramsci’s ideas as a static canon, but something that should be used and transformed in order to better describe society and its power structures. It invites reader to improve and engage, which is a wonderful and ambitious suggestion from any volume.


Authors and Titles

Introduction: The Reception of Gramsci’s Thought in Historical and Classical Studies, Emilio Zucchetti
1. Negotiating Hegemony in Early Greek Poetry, Laura Swift
2. Upside-down Hegemony? Ideology and Power in Ancient Athens, Mirko Canevaro
3. Gramsci and Ancient Philosophy: Prelude to a Study, Phillip Sidney Horky
4. A Gramscian Approach to Ancient Slavery, Kostas Vlassopoulos
5. The Etruscan Question. An Academic Controversy in the Prison Notebooks, Massimiliano Di Fazio
6. Polybios and the Rise of Rome. Gramscian Hegemony, Intellectuals and Passive Revolution, Emma Nicholson
7. Antonio Gramsci Between Ancient and Modern Imperialism, Michele Bellomo
8. Plebeian Tribunes and Cosmopolitan Intellectuals: Gramsci’s Approach to the Late Roman Republic, Mattia Balbo
9. Between Caesarism and Cosmopolitanism: Julius Caesar as an Historical Problem in Gramsci, Federico Santangelo
10. Gramsci and the Roman Cultural Revolution, Christopher Smith
11. Caesarism as Stasis from Gramsci to Lucan: an “Equilibrium with Catastrophic Prospects”, Elena Giusti
12. Hegemony in the Roman Principate: Perceptions of Power in Gramsci, Tacitus and Luke, Jeremy Paterson
13. Gramsci’s View of Late Antiquity: between longue durée and Discontinuity, Dario Nappo
14. Cultural Hegemonies, ‘NIE-orthodoxy’, and Social Development Models: Classicists’ ‘Organic’ Approaches to Economic History in the Early XXI Century, Cristiano Viglietti

1. The Author as Intellectual? Hints and Thoughts for a Gramscian ‘Re-reading’ of the Ancient Literatures, Anna Maria Cimino
2. Hegemony, Coercion and Consensus: A Gramscian Approach to Greek Cultural and Political History, Alberto Esu
3. Hegemony, Ideology, and Ancient History. Notes towards a Development of an Intersectional Framework, Emilio Zucchetti