William Morris. Commonweal 1890

Development of Modern Society (Part 2)

Source: “Development of Modern Society” Commonweal, Volume 6, Number 237, 26 July, p. 237; the second of five parts.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofing and HTML: Graham Seaman

BUT further, you must not fail to remember that the aspirations and nobility of sacrifice of the ancient city life were for [a] limited class only. In the old tribal life the slaves were not an important class, and also had easements, and even a kind of position which we do not associate with slave life, scarcely even with serfdom; as one may see in Homer, who, writing at a time when the tribal society was rapidly merging into city-life, gives us, for example, such a picture of a slave as Eumœus[A], who had at any rate plenty of pigs to eat, and also had a slave of his own “bought with his own wealth.” But as the power of production increased and commerce with it, such laziness and pieces of unthrift went out of fashion, and though when a slave was valuable as a grammarian, a schoolmaster, an astronomer, or what not, his position was not intolerable; yet the general condition of slaves is best indicated by such facts as that they could not contract marriage, their evidence in a law case could only be taken under torture, and so forth. Among the Romans the idea of slavery was understood according to the pitiless logic characteristic of that people, e.g., the debtor when delivered over to his creditors as a slave, could be divided among them in the most literal manner; they could cut him up in pieces and carry away each his dividend to do what they pleased with.

The equality, therefore, of the classical period, that splendid ideal of equality of duties and rights, only applied to the freemen of the clan as in the earlier times; but, as aforesaid, those outside the pale of that equality were of much more importance than they had been. At first, both in Greece and Rome, a great deal of the field-work was done by the freemen; the family were only helped in it by the slaves. Also a great deal of the handicraft was done either by poor free citizens, who could not afford to possess slaves, or by the strangers (metœci), who had no political rights, but were nobody’s property; though even then the great mass of production was performed by the man or woman out of the labour-market, in which the selling of a human being was more obvious than it is at present. But as society in general grew richer, and the occupations fell more and more under the division of labour system, slave labour increased very much, till in the last days of the Roman republic the proportions of slave to free labour relatively to the handicrafts and agriculture had quite changed. The land, the ownership of which had been common in the early days, and the use divided among the citizens, had now got into the hands of big and very big landlords, who cultivated them wholly by slave-labour, superintendence and all, the livelihood being doled out to these poor devils on strict commercial principles, such as regulate the feed of a horse or cow, or an English labouring man. The despair of men so treated shook the Roman State in one tremendous slave-mutiny, that of Spartacus, and tormented society for centuries in countless minor mutinies by sea and land, till in the novels of the later Græco-Roman civilisation (which are doubtless mere imitations of earlier works), adventures with organised bands of brigands and pirates form the stock incidents of the tale.

All this had been developing from the hey-day of Greek civilisation, but it did not blossom fully till the rise and growth of a monied middle-class in Rome had exaggerated and confirmed all the evils that were sure to be born out of a system of privileged freemen, who as they got richer got idler and more corrupt, and chattel-slaves, who as their masters got more corrupt, lost more and more of the alleviations of their lot which they had in earlier times; probably because their masters worked with them and lived pretty hardly like themselves, and could feel that instinctive sympathy which fellowship in labour instils into a man. Indeed, that loose easy-going generosity, that good-nature, in a word, of which there are indications in the Homeric poems, and which is found in fuller measure though in a more brutal form in the old English Tory squire ideal, you must not expect to find in the highly cultivated Greek citizen, who was mostly a prig; or in the energetic public-spirited Roman, who was mainly a jailer.

By the time I have been speaking of, Roman civilised society had come to be composed in the main of a privileged class of very rich men, whose business was war, politics and pleasure; and money-making as an instrument of these enjoyments; of their hangers-on forming a vast parasitical army; of a huge population of miserable slaves; and of another population of free men (so-called) kept alive by doles of food, and contented with peoples palaces in the form of theatrical and gladiatorial shows. That is, the free citizen had become an idler, either a rich luxurious one, or a pauper, and the work was done by men under the most obvious form of compulsion.

Thus was classical society, founded on the corruption of the society of the tribes by the institution of private property, brought to a dead-lock, the history of which is indeed a dreary page of the world's story. Art and literature are not forgotten, not buried, but for want of courage and invention are allowed to walk about like galvanised corpses of what was once so gloriously alive. Virtue? Does it exist at all? In high places there is none of it, nay, not even a sense of the lack of it. Virtue is to be found only in such places as the ranks of wild sectaries, outcasts from society. Warlike heroism? Time was when Hannibal a conqueror beset the city, and the stout-hearted citizens coolly bought and sold the use of the land he encamped on, and the greatest general that the world has seen drew off hopeless. Time was again and a Gothic chief lay before Rome preparing for its storm, and his estimate of the valour of the Roman citizens when the envoys appealed to his prudence and asked him not to drive such a huge population to despair, was given in the words “The thicker the hay, the easier to mow.” In short, virtue had been used for acquiring power and riches; the bargain had been made, the riches spent, and the virtue gone; nothing was left. So it has been, so it will be, while violence and greed are the foundations of prosperity.

Such was the result of the organisation of Rome. If the ancient civilisation had been alone in the world then, if there had been nothing strong and progressive outside the world of civilisation, as is now the case, what would have happened? Who can say? Probably a more complete break up than that which followed on the downfall of Rome. As it was the world was delivered from its deadlock by the advent of the tribes of the North and the East, who were, when the Romans first showed consciousness of them other than by meeting them in battle, as specially in the pages of Tacitus, in a condition not differing much from that of the Latins themselves when they first began to wall round the hills beside the Tiber. They were, in fact, in their later days of tribal society. The story of the way in which they over-ran the empire and furnished fresh blood to its worn-out population is well known enough. I can only wish that we had the story as told by the conquerors to set beside the naturally querulous one of the conquered, who, of course, did not like the process of their being improved out of existence. The story would then have been less empty of local and individual interest than it is now. In any case, however, the broad facts remain, which resolve themselves at last in the foundation of the feudal system; which was, in the main, the development of the customs of the Celtic, Teutonic, and Gothic tribes, customs which differed little from each other, and not much from those of the classical peoples before their development of the city and its life. In all parts of Europe remote from the influence of Rome this development was simple and traceable enough, but where the Germanic and Celtic races took the place of the Roman dominion and colonies, it was natural enough that they should wear the dress, so to say, of the older institutions, which in many cases they never quite shook off, though in essence they were everywhere the same.

The Teutonic and Gothic invaders of the empire had not got to the stage of city life, and did in fact miss that stage altogether. The feudal system was based not on the city and its wards, urban and rural, as was the case in ancient society, but on the country district, the manor and its townships. When our Anglo-Saxon forefathers first conquered Romanised Britain, they did not know what to do with the cities they won; they let them lie in ruins, and went to live down the dales on the borders of the streams in their homesteads, just as their ancestors had done in the clearings of the great central forest of Europe.


( To be continued.)

(A)The typesetter seems to have been missing the character æ and in this and the following sections of this essay has used various shifts to make up for it. From here on I have corrected these silently. GS.