Moses I. Finley

Seminar V: Marxism and Structuralism – Moses Finley and Michael Grant

This week’s seminar is about two historians who illustrate important trends in the development of ideas about the Greco-Roman world in the middle of the twentieth century – in particular a marked tendency to limit the role of human agency in history, to stress the constraints imposed by a given society’s cultural systems, technologies and institutions. Though few historians during this period would have described themselves as Marxist (or Marxisant, ‘left-leaning’) many were influenced by the theory of historical materialism developed by Karl Marx (1818–83).

According to Marx the potential of any given civilisation – its capacity to negotiate its way through crises and to make the most of its circumstances – is determined by its ‘mode of production’. By ‘mode of production’ is meant both the technologies (‘the means of production’) that are employed to meet its needs and the divisions of labour (‘the relations of production’) which they encourage. Marxists believe that the mode of production determines a society’s system of property and class (e.g. slavery, feudalism or capitalism) and its prevailing ideologies (be they political, religious or philosophical). They see the emergence of new and more potent modes of production as the fundamental force for change in history: new technologies and new and more ‘efficient’ ways of ‘organising’ work enrich and empower hitherto new groups, permitting them to challenge the owners of older, obsolete, systems of production. Thus, new classes emerge to overthrow hitherto dominant élites in violent struggles, leading to the next stage of social evolution.

Michael Grant in his study writing

Structuralists also focus on the constraining influence of hidden forces, but whereas Marxists stress the primacy of economic factors, ‘structuralists’ emphasise the influence of institutional, ideological and especially inner, cultural and mental, frameworks. In their view these structures (and their interactions) profoundly limit the capacity of human agents to comprehend the situations in which they find themselves and to act outside their constraints. In the 1960s, when this tendency to diminish human agency was at its height, the label ‘structuralist’ was adopted by a particular school of French intellectuals led by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–). These thinkers identified the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) as their intellectual forefathers. For present purposes, however, it is important to note that there is a long tradition of historical analysis which emphasises the ‘channelling effects’ of constitutional, ideological and cultural factors, and that this approach is entirely compatible with political and social conservatism.

Though he refrained from making explicit his theoretical affinities, the influence of Marxist historical thought is obvious in the work of Moses I. Finley (1912–86), not least in the article which is the main subject of this week’s seminar. Its influence is especially evident in The Ancient Economy (1973), a series of lectures in which he set out a powerful vision of ancient city as a parasitic organism which consumed the surpluses generated within its immediate hinterland. That is, in sharp contrast to Rostovtzeff and Pirenne, Finley diminished the role of long-distance trade in the Roman economy, emphasising instead the part played by the ownership of labour in the form of slaves. (These lectures were delivered, it should be noted, at much the same time as his Manpower article was published.) Born Moses Finkelstein, Finley taught at the City College of New York (1934–42) and at Rutgers University (1948–52). Like many American intellectuals who were attacked for their left-wing sympathies by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Government Operations Committee, Finley fled the United States emigrating to England in 1954. He taught at Cambridge from 1955, becoming professor of ancient history (1970–79) and later master of Darwin College (1976–82).

Though by no means a structuralist work in the narrower sense of the term and though it was written for the general reader by a retired academic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1976) by Michael Grant (1914–2004) reflects the period in which it was written. It is ‘structuralism-lite’. A classicist and numismatist of some distinction and many years’ experience, Grant was alert to scholarly trends in the study of the Roman Empire. He had taught at Trinity College Cambridge, before becoming a professor of humanity (i.e. Latin) at Edinburgh University (1946–59). His ideas about the usefulness of the discipline echo those of J. B. Bury: he thought ancient history ‘worth studying in its own right, without any consideration of modern analogies’, and that ‘without Latin, people are handicapped because they do not understand their past, and cannot therefore effectively plan their futures’ (emphasis added).

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photos: Moses I. Finley (top right); Michael Grant in his Study (left).

Set Texts

  1. Finley, Moses, ‘Manpower and the Fall of Rome’, in his Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (Harmondsworth, 1966), chp. 12; rpt. in Carlo M. Cipolla (ed.), The Economic Decline of Empires (London, 1970), pp. 84–91.
  2. Grant, Michael, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal (New York, 1976; rpt. London, 1997), chp. 7, ‘The People against the Emperor’. LVS.

Worksheet Questions

  1. How does Moses Finley’s idea of how the Empire’s society and economy worked differ from those of Rostovtzeff and Pirenne?
  2. Explain Moses Finley’s theory of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. What does Moses Finley believe was the fundamental cause of the later Roman Empire’s inability to resist the pressures upon its frontiers?
  3. Identify the ways in which, according to Michael Grant, the practices and rituals of the imperial court contributed to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. What are the distinctive features of Grant’s theory?
  4. What do the arguments of Finley and Grant say about the uses to which the ‘End of the Ancient World’ has been put in modern times?

Strongly Recommended Reading

Additional Reading

(a) Moses Finley and the Marxist Tradition of Later Roman History

(b) Structural Change in the Character of Later Roman Government (i.e. theories akin to those of Grant)

  • MacMullen, R., Corruption and the Decline of Rome (New Haven, CN, 1988). Not held, but see the review by B. Ward-Perkins in Journal of Roman Studies, 83 (1993), 264–6. Journals XD6. JSTOR.
  • MacMullen, R.. ‘Distrust of the Mind in the Fourth Century’, Rivista storica italiana, 84 (1972); rpt. in his Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary (Princeton, NJ, 1990), pp 117–30. LV. 'Intellectual Decline'.
  • MacMullen, R., Roman Government’s Response to Crisis AD 235–337 (New Haven, CN, 1976). LVN.
  • MacMullen, R., Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire (Cambridge, MA, 1963). LTM.
  • MacMullen, R., ‘What Difference did Christianity Make?’, Historia, 35 (1986), 322–43; rpt. in his Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary (Princeton, NJ, 1990), pp. 117–29. LV. An important essay in which MacMullen argues, in effect, that the rise of Christianity did nothing to prevent Roman government and society becoming more corrupt.

Some Latin Terms and Phrases Used by Finley and Grant

  • coloni = settlers, sometimes with servile status (Finley, p. 88).
  • pax Romana = ‘the Roman peace’, that is, the ordered world created by Roman hegemony (Finley, p. 89).
  • salus mundi = ‘salvation of the world’, but note that the literal meaning of salus is simply ‘health’ (Grant, p. 178).

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