Class Struggle in the Roman Republic

The history of the ancient world provides a treasure trove of lessons for anyone who seeks to understand the class struggles and social transformations that have shaped the world we live in. We publish here the introduction to Alan Woods' book Class Struggle in the Roman Republic, in which he draws out some of the fundamental principles of the Marxist view of history and gives a concise explanation of the causes of the rise and eventual downfall of the Roman Republic, particularly the phenomenon of Caesarism.

[Get your copy of Class Struggle in the Roman Republic now!]

For Marxists the study of history is not an academic exercise but an important way in which we can learn how society develops and how the class struggle unfolds. In saying this, I am conscious of the fact that it flies in the face of the recent fashion for postmodernism, which informs us that it is impossible to draw any conclusions from history, since history follows no laws that can be understood by the human mind. From this point of view, either the study of history is merely a form of entertainment or a complete waste of time.

Despite the pompous way in which this idea is put forward, there is nothing new about it. Shorn of all its pseudo-philosophical pretensions, it merely repeats an idea that was already put forward far more succinctly by Henry Ford who said that “history is bunk”, or even more amusingly by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who defined history as “just one damn thing after another.”

None other than the great English historian and outstanding scholar of the Enlightenment, Edward Gibbon, wrote in the 18th century that history was “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”.

Anyone who reads the pages of Gibbon’s great masterpiece could be excused from drawing similarly pessimistic conclusions. Nevertheless, we must beg to disagree with a method that denies any lawfulness to the history of our species.

If you think of it just for a moment, this really is an extraordinary claim to make. Modern science has firmly established the fact that everything is governed by laws: from the smallest subatomic particle to the galaxies and the universe itself. The idea that, alone in the whole of nature, the history and development of our own species is so special that it stands outside of all laws, is quite preposterous.

Rather than being a scientific theory, it flows directly from the biblical notion that humankind is a special and unique creation of the Almighty – so special and unique that it defies all attempts to understand it. Such supreme arrogance flies in the face of everything we know about nature and the origin of all animal species. And for all our pretensions of superiority, we humans are also animals and subject to the laws of evolution.

It is true that the laws of our social evolution are infinitely more complex than those of other species. But the fact that something is complex does not at all signify that it cannot be analysed, explained and understood. If that were the case, the development of science would have come to a full stop a very long time ago. But science continues to advance, penetrating the most complex mysteries of nature, and is not deterred by all the attempts to place a barrier in its way, upon which is inscribed the words: No admittance!

What is historical materialism?

History presents itself to us as a series of actions and reactions by individuals in the field of politics, economics, wars and revolutions and the whole complex spectrum of social development. To lay bare the underlying relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism.

At first sight, the multiplicity of factors that in various ways affect the direction of social change appears to defy any precise analysis. Many historians take refuge behind the mere assertion of this multiplicity, contenting themselves with the idea that history is the result of the constant interaction of different factors. But this is an explanation that explains nothing at all.

Just as the waves of the ocean, which at first sight appear to be unpredictable and arbitrary, are only a surface reflection of invisible currents and changes in the wind, so the actions of individual actors in historical dramas are the unconscious expression of deeper subterranean processes that work their way silently through a complex web of social interrelations, and which ultimately condition the actions of individuals and determine their final outcome.

The great men and women who appear to be the moving force in the historical drama turn out to be merely the unconscious, or semi-conscious agents of profound changes in society that occur unknown to them and which provide a determining framework within which they perform their historical function.

If we seek to define one element that is always present and which ultimately must play the most decisive role, that element is to be found, not in the subjective consciousness of individual players in the historical drama, but in something far more fundamental.

In every interplay of forces, it is always the case that some factors will weigh more heavily than others. Without doubting for a moment the importance of such things as historical accidents, the competence or incompetence, bravery or cowardice of individuals, the influence of religious fanaticism, or even philosophical and oral ideas, the most fundamental condition for the viability of a given socio-economic system is its ability to satisfy basic human needs.

Karl Marx uncovered the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society from the earliest tribal societies up to the present day. Before men and women can think great thoughts, produce great works of art and literature, create new religions or schools of philosophy, they must first of all have food to eat, clothes to cover their nakedness and houses to shelter them from the assaults of the elements.

It is here that we will find the ultimate cause of the rise and fall of civilisations, of wars and revolutions and all the great dramas that make up the history of humankind. That was already understood by the great Aristotle, who wrote in his Metaphysics that philosophy began “when practically all the necessities of life were already supplied.”

Dominus Julius mosaic in the Bardo National Museum12240864473 croppedThe materialist conception of history is a scientific method, which for the first time enables us to understand history / Image: public domain

This statement goes right to the heart of historical materialism – 2,300 years before Karl Marx. The materialist conception of history is a scientific method, which for the first time enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process.

As Marx explains in a celebrated passage from his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. […] The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

In Anti-Dühring, written much later, Engels provides us with a more developed expression of these ideas. Here we have a brilliant and concise exposition of the basic principles of historical materialism:

“The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”

The Communist Manifesto reminds us, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In the ancient world we already have clear proof of this assertion. The first example of a strike in recorded history is to be found in the so-called ‘strike papyrus’ in the splendid Egyptian museum in Turin, where a very interesting account of a strike of the workers building the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramesses III is explained in detail.

The history of ancient Athens is one of the most violent and continuous class struggle, revolution and counter-revolution. But the clearest and most fully documented history of the class struggle in ancient times is the very rich record that has come down to us of the history of the Roman Republic. Marx was very interested in this phenomenon, as we learn from a letter that he wrote to Engels on 27 February 1861, in which we read the following:

“… for recreation in the evenings I have been reading Appian’s Civil Wars of Rome in the original Greek. A most valuable book. The fellow comes of Egyptian stock. Schlosser says he is ‘soulless’, probably because he probes the material basis of the said civil wars. Spartacus emerges as the most capital fellow in the whole history of antiquity. A great general (no Garibaldi he), of noble character, a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times. Pompey a real shit; acquired spurious fame only by misappropriating, as Sulla’s ‘young man’, etc., Lucullus’s victories (over Mithridates), then Sertorius’s (Spain), etc. As a general, was the Roman Odilon Barrot. As soon as he was brought face to face with Caesar and had to show what stuff he was made of – a mere louse. Caesar perpetrated the most stupendous military blunders, deliberately crazy ones, to discountenance the philistine opposing him. Any ordinary Roman general – Crassus, say – would have annihilated him six times over during the battle in Epirus. But anything could be done with Pompey.”

The secret of Rome’s greatness

In its heyday, the Roman Empire presented an impressive sight. Its buildings, monuments, roads and aqueducts stand even today as a mute but eloquent reminder of Rome’s greatness. But it must never be forgotten that Roman power was based upon violence, mass murder, robbery and deceit. The Roman Empire was, like every subsequent empire, a massive exercise in oppression, slavery and common theft.

The Romans utilised brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery and slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the gladiatorial games. Yet the Roman Empire began its existence as a tiny, almost insignificant state that found itself at the mercy not only of its Latin neighbours, but of the far more powerful Etruscans and even, at one point, by the Celtic barbarians that defeated and humiliated the Romans.

In the beginning it did not even possess a standing army. Its armed forces consisted of a militia based upon a free peasantry. Its cultural life was as poor as the peasants themselves. However, within a few centuries, Rome succeeded in dominating not only Italy, but the whole of the Mediterranean and what was then known as the civilised world. How was this remarkable transformation brought about? The answer to this question is still a closed book for some modern historians.

Some time ago, I saw a series about Roman history on British television in which a well-known historian put forward the idea that the secret of Rome’s greatness was somehow implanted in the genetic make-up of the Romans themselves. From this point of view, its conquests were a foregone conclusion.

At this point we leave science behind and enter into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. By what magical process the secret of greatness was implanted into the genes of early Romans is a mystery known only to those who believe it.

Using the Marxist method of historical materialism, I have tried to explain the process whereby Rome was transformed from a humble city state – one might almost say an outsized village – into a powerful and aggressive imperialist power.

The Capture of CarthageThe Romans utilised brute force to subjugate other peoples / Image: public domain

I might add that this case is by no means unique in history. History shows the proof of the dialectical law that things can change into their opposite. It is generally forgotten today that the most powerful imperialist nation on earth, the United States of America, started out as an oppressed colony of Great Britain.

Likewise, Rome spent its early life under the dominion of its Etruscan neighbours. Forced by circumstances into an interminable series of wars, Roman society was compelled to develop a powerful military machine, which eventually drove all before it into submission.

But these continuous wars – which were initially wars of defence – turned into wars of offence, aimed at conquering territory and subjugating other peoples. This changed the very character of Roman society and the nature of its army. In turn, it undermined the very existence of the factor that had given early Roman society its coherence, stability and strength – the free Roman peasantry.

Class struggle

From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between plebeians and patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. It is true that Livy’s writings, produced at a much later date, have more the flavour of myth than actual history. Yet it is equally possible that these accounts carry the imprint of a distant historical memory of real events, perhaps derived from far older originals, now, alas, lost to us. It is impossible to tell.

The beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterised by acute social and political upheavals and class war. The conquest of foreign states provided the basis for a transformation of productive relationships through the introduction of slavery on a massive scale.

When Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival, Carthage, we saw what was, in actual fact, a struggle for the division of the spoils. The free peasants, who were forced to spend long periods far from their homeland fighting in foreign wars, returned only to find that their lands had been seized by the big landowners who were making vast fortunes out of the labour of the slaves who were now thrown onto the market at a very low price as the spoils of war.

Here we find the real reason for the ferocious class struggles that characterise Roman history in the last years of the Republic, as Marx points out in Capital: “[It] requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property.”

In a letter to Engels on 8 March 1855, he wrote:

“A short while ago I took another look at Roman history (ancient) up to the time of Augustus. Internal history resolves itself plainly into the struggle between small and large landed property, specifically modified, of course, by slavery relations. Debtor-creditor relations, which play so large a part from the origines of Roman history, figure merely as an inherent consequence of small landed property.”

It is at this point that the class struggles in Rome reach their greatest intensity. It is a period that is inseparably connected with the names of two brothers: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His central aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated and murdered by the nobles and slave-holders. This was the victory of large-scale landed property over small-scale farming, the victory of slavery over free peasant labour.

It was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry – the backbone of the Republic and its army – drifted to Rome where they constituted a non-productive class, the proletarii (proletariat), living off handouts from the state.

Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves – the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire – and Rome’s imperial subjects.

Vincenzo Camuccini La morte di CesareCaesar was assassinated by a conservative faction who wished to preserve the Republic / Image: public domain

The great slave revolt led by Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity. Though, in fact, it was only one of many slave risings that occurred at this time, it stands out as a unique event in the annals of history of revolts of the poor and oppressed.

The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world’s greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered.

A reading of Roman history, and particularly the moving story of the revolt of the slaves led by that towering revolutionary giant Spartacus, can be a source of great inspiration for the present generation. Although our only record of this great man was written by his enemies, his actions come across sufficiently clearly to shine like a beacon, the light of which has remained undimmed after two millennia.

The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves were unable to link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible. But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive but a purely parasitical class, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact.


The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman Republic. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. Eventually the deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism.

The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander – the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired. The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side was able to win a decisive victory. As a result, the state (which Lenin described as “special bodies of armed men”) began to acquire increasing independence, to raise itself above society and to appear as the final arbiter in the continuing power struggles in Rome.

A whole series of military adventurers now step onto the scene: Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey and lastly Julius Caesar – a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip service to it. His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction who wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed.

After Brutus and the other conspirators were defeated by the Second Triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognised. This pretence was even kept up by Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, after he defeated his rivals and made himself the first Emperor, Augustus. The very title ‘Emperor’ (imperator in Latin) is a military title, invented to avoid the title of king that was so offensive to republican ears. But a king he was, in all but name.

Contradictions of slavery

By the period of its demise, the political regime of the Republic stood in complete contradiction with the slave system that had become central to the Roman economy. The establishment of the Empire was therefore necessary for the preservation of the property of the great slave-owners, who were forced to submit to the arbitrary rule of a single man, but by this purchased an end to the instability and civil wars of the late Republic.

But like all forms of class oppression, slavery contains an inner contradiction that led to its destruction. Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive (slaves must be compelled to work), the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and plantations (latifundia) in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus.

At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale. The rich consumed the wealth of society in idle luxury, while the poorest citizens lived in conditions of unimaginable squalor, dependent on state handouts to survive.

But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline. Since slave labour is only productive when it is employed on a massive scale, the prior condition for its success is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost. But slaves breed very slowly in captivity and so the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare, further and further afield.

Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult. The decay of the slave economy, the monstrously oppressive nature of the Empire with its bloated bureaucracy and predatory tax collectors, was already undermining the whole system.

The failure of the oppressed classes of Roman society to unite to overthrow the brutally exploitative slave-state led to an inner exhaustion and a long and painful period of social, economic and cultural decay, which in the end prepared the way for the final collapse of Roman power and a descent into barbarism.

Trade steadily declined, while huge numbers of people flocked from the cities to the countryside in the hope of scratching out a living on one of the estates of the great landowners. The barbarians merely delivered the coup de grâce to a rotten and moribund system. The whole edifice was tottering – they merely gave it a last and violent push.

What are the lessons for today?

Rome Ruins of the Forum Looking towards the CapitolWe can draw many valuable lessons from the rich experience of the class struggles of the past / Image: public domain

It would be a pointless exercise to speculate on what would have been the result of a hypothetical victory of the great slave rebellion led by Spartacus. But whatever that may have been, it could not have put an end to class society. The material basis for a genuine communist society was absent at that time, and would remain absent for a further 2,000 years.

It was necessary to pass through a series of stages of social and economic development – each of them marked by the barbarous oppression and exploitation of the masses, before the productive forces under capitalism had reached a sufficient level for a classless, communist society to exist. For that reason, it is both futile and wholly unscientific to approach the past from the standpoint of the present or the future.

Does this mean that we can learn nothing from a study of the past? Such a conclusion would be radically false. We can draw many valuable lessons from the rich experience of the class struggles of the past, and Roman history provides us with very rich material in this respect.

The rise of modern capitalism and of its gravedigger, the working class, has made much clearer what is at the heart of the materialist conception of history. Just as the rise and fall of Rome was the result of the inherent contradictions of the slave mode of production, so the rise and fall of capitalism is explained by the internal contradictions of the so-called free market economy.

In the period of its ascent, capitalism developed the productive forces to a degree that has no parallel in history. But that period has long since receded into history. The capitalist system has long since exhausted any progressive role that it may once have played.

The capitalist system in its death agony bears a striking resemblance to the monstrous decadence that characterised the Roman Empire in its final stages of degeneration and decrepitude. The symptoms of senile decay are everywhere in evidence.

Our task is not merely to understand the world, but to bring to a successful conclusion the historic struggle of the masses, by means of the victory of the proletariat and the socialist transformation of society. It is to hasten by every means the overthrow of a rotten and oppressive system whose survival threatens the very existence of human civilisation – perhaps of the human race itself.

It is to bring to fulfilment the dreams of countless past generations of the oppressed and exploited majority and to crown with final victory the titanic struggle that was commenced so long ago by that revolutionary giant Spartacus and his never-to-be-forgotten army of slaves.

It was no accident that the leaders of the German Revolution, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, took the name of Spartacus as the emblem of the revolutionary German proletariat. Like the hero whose example they followed so bravely, they fell victim to the forces of a brutal counter-revolution.

Today, the names of their murderers are forgotten, but the names of Spartacus, Liebknecht and Luxemburg will forever be remembered by every class-conscious worker and revolutionary youth fighting for a better future.