Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States

Janet Richards and Mary Van Buren
Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000, pp. 163

WHILST every collection of articles has to be uneven in quality and varied in interest, this book is excellently conceived, and most of the contributions are very impressive indeed. It is especially valuable from our point of view because it extends to other early civilisations the argument between M.I. Finley and G.E.M. de Ste Croix about the classical world – is privilege in ancient society best understood from Max Weber’s point of view, as one of status, or that of Karl Marx, as one of class? This book’s formative essay by Baines and Yoffee would seem to come down very firmly on Weber’s side with the remark that ‘if we look to comprehend wealth, we should therefore see it as a social and civilizational phenomenon, rather than a technological or simply economic one’ (p. 15).

Yet the propositions upon which this judgement is based (summarised on page 21) come in for some sharp handling in the case studies to follow. As regards ancient Egypt, criterion no. 3, that ‘“city” development does not occur’, has already been challenged by the work of Barry Kemp. Now David O’Connor’s examination of the burial patterns in the Thinite nome (pp. 23–4) also questions criterion no. 4, that with the growth of civilisation ‘living standards deteriorate’ for the masses below, and criterion no. 6, that ‘the broader society, excluded from concepts and symbols monopolized by the élite, lacks a distinctive material culture’ and ‘does not display an aestheticised, ritualized life-style, or even the ‘proper burials’ which guarantee a privileged afterlife’. O’Connor suggests that ‘élites and the broader society were not sharply differentiated from each other and shared important customs’, and that ‘impoverishment may not have been the factor behind the apparent poverty of the relevant graves … the actual archaeological record at Nag’ el-Deir, as well as at Reqaqneh, contradicts this conclusion’ (p. 24). We might add that by showing a cultural identity between their own tombs and the mighty pyramids over on the plateau, the current excavations in the workmen’s settlement at Gizeh would seem to bear out his argument. Janet Richard’s following essay (pp. 36–45) also argues that the élite itself widened during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom.

Nor do Baines and Yoffee’s views remain unquestioned in what follows. Mary Van Buren’s analysis of the Inca Empire (pp. 77–87) considers that ‘the almost complete separation of élite high culture from the rest of society … discounts the rôle played by non-élites as an audience for state ideology, and suggests that alternative value systems did not exist in archaic states’, concluding that ‘it is here that the model’s fit with the Andean material breaks down’ (p. 77). She shows quite clearly how the local élites integrated Inca ideology into their own systems, and even ignored or rejected it, that ‘Inka control of conquered groups was highly variable and often mediated through local élites’, and that ‘they relied on local notions of social order to legitimate their control of conquered populations’ (p. 81). And she ends by suggesting that ‘the rôle played by non-élites in the transmittal of civilization is probably not unique to the Andes – only more visible’ (p. 87). The same pattern is demonstrated by Elizabeth Brumfiel’s concluding remarks about the Aztec empire in the valley of Mexico (pp. 134–8).

It is true that the Aztec and Inca empires were latecomers to their areas, conquering states that took over cultures more advanced than their own, which they may have been able to assimilate more thoroughly given time. From that point of view, they are perhaps closer to the position of the Greek polis within the Roman empire analysed by Susan Alcock’s case study of Aphrodisias (pp. 110–9).

But a superb essay by Bennet Bronson drawing upon the records of the great Han historians (pp. 120–7) shows that Baines’ and Yoffee’s contention that ‘the principal focus of high culture was the very élites themselves, at whose behest it was created, and for whom it was sustained, and the great gods’ (p. 16) barely fits the case of China either. He shows how the founder of the Han Dynasty manipulated élite culture to legitimise his rule and assure the future of his dynasty, whilst at the same time appealing to society below it by means of omens and portents, about which the Confucian élite was even more sceptical than that of the Romans (pp. 123–4). But in neither case was the top level of the state’s ideology – the cult of the ‘Son of Heaven’ in the one case and the emperor cult in the other – largely supported by the élites themselves. ‘The Roman and Chinese cases should make us cautious about accepting the general applicability of Baines and Yoffee’s thesis that civilizational collapse can be defined by the eclipse of traditional cosmologies’ (p. 125), he notes. ‘Cultural arbiters who do not belong to a political inner élite can certainly be discerned in the histories of Greece, Rome, India, the Islamic world, and the recent West’, he reminds us: ‘Kings, royal scribes, and high priests may have controlled the high cultures of the Egyptians and Sumerians, but their counterparts did not do so in China.’ (p. 126)

But those of us who find all this exciting from a Marxist point of view should not leave this splendid discussion without a suspicion that in the last analysis it is something of an artificial argument to counterpose status and class in the ancient world. The only society in which classes can be ranged against each other in their chemically pure form is advanced capitalism. Classes also have histories, new privileged classes have always emerged from differentiation within previous élites, and privileged groups can take centuries to evolve from status to private ownership, especially in less dynamic societies. The achievement of this book is that it shows us just how difficult the whole question is.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011