Ancient History

Cole Thomas The Course of Empire Destruction 1836“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, we read in The Communist Manifesto. In ancient history, we see the proof of this statement. Contrary to the common prejudice, the history of the ancient world is much more than just a procession of kings, pharaohs and emperors. Then, as now, beneath the wars and intrigues on the surface was a raging struggle between the various classes that made up these societies.

There is much we can learn from a study of the origin and history of the class struggle in all periods and places. Marx and Engels studied many ancient civilisations in detail, and not only in Europe. Using the method of historical materialism, they discovered that the powerful social forces which shape our lives, such as private property, money, the state, and even traditional family roles, have not existed from time immemorial, but are the product of a long and dialectical process of development in which revolutions play an inevitable and necessary role.

In grasping the origin and essential nature of institutions like the state, and the development of different class societies over time, we can acquire a much deeper understanding of the capitalist system, how it arose, and how it will be overthrown. This is not merely of academic interest. Not for nothing did Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht take up the name of Spartacus, the leader of the greatest slave revolt of ancient times, as the name and emblem of their new party of the German working class.

Ours is the continuation of the struggle of Spartacus and the Roman slaves: the liberation of humanity from the exploitation and oppression of the many by the few. We must learn from them and from all revolutionary movements if we are to succeed.

We publish here In Defence of Marxismeditor, Alan Woods's brand new introduction to a German edition of his important series, Class Struggles in the Roman Republic. After explaining the historical materialist method, Alan explores the class forces in ancient civilisations, the role of the individual in history, the falsehood of 'objective' history, and the contradictions underpinning slave society that were ultimately the reason for Rome's descent and decline. He then relates the lessons of the ancient world to modern capitalist society, which like the last days of Rome is also teetering on the brink of collapse. The choice before us is socialism or barbarism.

This important series by Alan Woods, provides a Marxist explanation of the processes that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Here the method of historical materialism is used to shed light on an important turning-point in world history. For Marxists the study of history is not just a form of harmless entertainment. It is essential that we do study history for the lessons we can learn from it. To paraphrase the words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”

In the first century BC, a slave named Spartacus threatened the might of Rome. Spartacus (c. 109 BC-71 BC) was the leader (or possibly one of several leaders) of the massive slave uprising known as the Third Servile War. Under his leadership, a tiny band of rebel gladiators grew into a huge revolutionary army, numbering about 100,000. In the end the full force of the Roman army was needed to crush the revolt.