Friday, July 24, 2009

Politics in the Ancient World

Sir Moses Finley’s Politics in the Ancient World—he meant Greece and Rome, societies where there was genuine politics rather than merely seeking the favour of some autocrat—is an excellent and revealing read. Finley was engaged in a similar exercise for ancient history as Susan Reynolds (notably in Fiefs and Vassals) has done with medieval history—telling colleagues to stick to the evidence and stop believing entrenched notions. But, unlike Reynolds, Finley is a very clear writer and conveys an excellent sense of the wider society he is writing about. By contrast, in Fiefs and Vassals, Reynolds rarely rises above annotating antiquarianism and one is often required to stop and re-read to try and work out what she is actually saying.
To be fair, I enjoyed Reynolds’ Kingdoms and Communities, though much of what she says there is already in Bloch.

Finley takes us on a tour of different aspects of ancient politics. I found his discussion (Pp 122ff) of the absence, in the Ancient world, of any notion of political legitimacy (since the medieval period, a central concept in political discourse) fascinating. Similarly, his discussion (Pp 127ff) of the almost total lack (Cicero and Sallust aside) of political reflections by Romans of the sort Greeks had been producing since the fifth century BC. But, as he says, Romans did not have to deal with the complexity in political forms that Greeks did. (Conversely, Roman military forms evolved to be far more flexible and effective than Greek ones precisely because Rome had to deal with a more diverse range of enemies: but that is not Finley’s concern here.)

Finley offers no reason for the lack of any discussed notion of political legitimacy. I suspect it was partly a result of a lack of any sense of universalism. Power did not have to be justified to foreigners (they didn’t count ethically or politically: they were the people you conquered, dispossessed and enslaved -- who cared what they thought? And they didn't speak the language) while a form of pragmatism (what worked and for whom) carried the rest of debate (which was entirely internal).

I particularly like the way that Finley is extremely unsentimental about the limits (in the case of Rome, the severe limits) on popular participation in politics without then lapsing into the notion that such participation was merely empty. He is also prepared to say political beliefs matter in a causal sense – the book concludes with
when the ideology began to disintegrate within the [Roman] elite itself, the consequence was not to broaden the political liberty among the citizenry but, on the contrary, to destroy it for everyone (p.141).
This is where Finley is so much a better historian than Reynolds and far more persuasive. Finley understands that evidence speaks in context, that what we have is the sparse leavings of people dealing with a various problems. (Medieval haircuts, for example, make more sense once one starts wearing helmets.) Reynolds is dealing with a society where literacy was extremely limited and manuscript expensive, yet she is very limited in how much context she places documents in. She can go as far as talking about what a particular figure was trying to deal with and what is not happening, but the wider context is left murky. But that context is precisely what the documents were created out of and spoke to. Finley, dealing with an area of history with far more limited sources, precisely because he is wide-ranging in his use of evidence and never loses sight of the fact that we are dealing people in a society, says far more, far more usefully, far more clearly, with a lot less words.

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