Book Review:

Rome: Empire of the Eagles by Neil Faulkner

Reviewed by Richard Abernethy

This is an account of ancient Rome by a Marxist historian who is also a professional archaeologist. Beginning with the archaeological and mythical origins of the city circa 750 BC – the foundation myth became an important part of the ruling ideology – Neil Faulkner scans twelve centuries of history, ending with the overthrow of the last emperor of the West in 476 AD.

Faulkner takes issue with the “orthodox” Marxist view that Roman civilization was based upon a “slave mode of production” (page xii). He argues that “most of the exploited were not slaves, and most of the surplus accumulated and consumed by the ruling class was produced by non-servile labour”.

The core argument of the book is that the Roman Empire is best understood as “a dynamic system of military imperialism”, sustained by a constant drive for new conquests.

“In a world of peasant agriculture and primitive technology, where land and labour were the basis of wealth but the return from estates was more or less fixed, plundering enemies was the easiest source of new wealth – wealth to maintain armies, build cities and reward supporters.” For Faulkner, this is “the inner secret of Rome’s whole history” (pages 24-25).

Usually, Roman policy was to incorporate the ruling elites of conquered peoples, giving them a stake in the empire and future conquests. However, enemies who were perceived as too dangerous and intractable suffered the fate of genocide. Most notorious was the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, but Corinth was also destroyed the very same year. As early as 396 BC, a Roman army obliterated the Etruscan city of Veii.

I suspect that Faulkner exaggerates the importance of plunder. A system that really depended on the plunder of the exterior would lack the resilience to recover from periodic defeats and setbacks. In fact, Rome was able to survive long periods on the defensive, such as the war with Hannibal. A somewhat similar (but presumably cruder) view was criticised by Marx in a footnote to “Capital”: “Truly comical is M. Bastiat, who imagines that the ancient Greeks and Romans lived by plunder alone. For if people live by plunder for centuries there must, after all, always be something there to plunder; in other words, the objects of plunder must be continually reproduced”.

As far as I can ascertain, Marx himself didn’t use the actual term, “slave mode of production”. Rather, he refers to the “ancient” mode of production: “In broad outline we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois modes of production as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society”. (‘Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”’) However, he stated elsewhere “Slavery remained the basis of the whole productive system”. (“The German Ideology”) So “slave mode of production” does seem to be a fair paraphrase of Marx’s view, although Marx’s notebooks from his final decade, which include copious notes on ancient Rome, remain unpublished, so it is possible that he modified that view later on.

An erudite account of “the slave mode of production” is given by Perry Anderson in “Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism” (1974). Anderson argues that slavery was the dominant mode of production in both classical Greece and ancient Rome. Earlier civilizations in Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria had some slavery, but it was not predominant. Anderson recognises that slaves were not the only productive, exploited class in Greek and Roman Antiquity: there were also free peasants, dependent tenants and urban artisans. “But its great classical epochs, when the civilization of Antiquity flowered – Greece in the 5th and 4th Centuries BC and Rome from the 2nd Century BC to the 2nd Century AD – were those in which slavery was massive and general, amidst the other labour systems. The solstice of classical urban culture always also witnessed the zenith of slavery; and the decline of one, in Hellenistic Greece or Christian Rome, was likewise invariably marked by the setting of the other”.

Anderson also notes an important difference (which I don’t think Faulkner mentions) between the Western empire, where the Romans imposed a system of latifundiae, great estates worked by slaves (a pattern first established in Italy), and the East, where Roman rule was superimposed upon an existing pattern of peasant smallholding. Eventually Byzantium would survive nearly a millennium after the fall of the Western empire.

“Empire of the Eagles” is primarily a political history. While politics are analyzed in relation to the socioeconomic background, it is not a holistic view of the society. The role of women is not discussed. In other societies of the ancient world, women could hold positions of power, at least occasionally. The enemies of Rome included Cleopatra, Boudicca and Zenobia. Roman women, at most, could exercise power behind the scenes as wives or mothers of male rulers. The book provides a comprehensive historical materialist account of struggles between (and within) classes and social groupings, external wars and conquests, and changes in the form of the state. On the whole, I find this concrete analysis of events more convincing than Faulkner’s more general remarks on the mode of production.

The Roman Republic was an oligarchy in which a few hundred rich landowning families controlled the Senate. This old establishment was challenged by a succession of populist leaders, from Scipio Africanus to Julius Caesar, who were usually victorious generals, and who appealed to the grievances of the mass of free citizens, promising reforms such as land grants to veterans. Faulkner writes “… it is necessary to stress that the conflict between reformers and conservatives – populares and optimates as they came to be called by contemporaries – was a dispute over the division of spoils”. The rule of the emperors actually had a broader support base than the earlier republican state, but their hold on power was tenuous. The legions could overthrow an emperor or, more often, determine the succession. The imperial throne rarely remained in the same family for more than two generations.

As to the limits of Roman conquest, Faulkner theorises (convincingly, in my view) that these were set by the extent of arable land capable of producing a surplus.

“Empire and civilization were based, broadly, on plough agriculture. Regions of intensive cultivation, supporting large populations and numerous settlements, produced surpluses that could be expropriated as booty, taxes, rents, tithes, interest and labour services.”

Areas of forest, steppe, moorland or semi-desert, which did not support settled agriculture on a large scale, were not suitable for conquest and incorporation into the empire. Expansion to the east was blocked by another empire, the Parthians and later the Sassanids. The reign of Hadrian (117 – 138 AD) was a turning point. Hadrian’s policy was to consolidate the empire within its existing borders. In the long term, expansion was replaced not by stability but by decline. The need for large armies to defend thousands of miles of frontier against invasion imposed a heavy burden of taxation on the empire’s economy, which ultimately it was unable to support. However, decline was gradual and there were periods of revival. Faulkner refers to a “late Roman counter-revolution” in the period AD 284 – 337. Perhaps “restoration” would be a better term. A counter-revolution needs a revolution to counter.

Two slave revolts in Sicily (136 – 132 BC and 103 – 101 BC) and Spartacus’ rebellion in Italy (73 – 71 BC) were well-organised revolutionary movements that won some battles against Roman armies before being suppressed with great bloodshed. In the brief periods of liberty, the slaves set up their own states: in the first Sicilian revolt, a kingdom of the Hellenistic type, in the second, a republic with its own senate. Much later, in the 5th Century AD, when a form of serfdom was replacing slavery, there was a series of uprisings by peasant rebels known as bagaudae, in Gaul, Spain and perhaps Britain. Although information is scanty, they seem to have contributed to the breakdown of the empire.

In his Introduction, Faulkner notes that both supporters and opponents of U.S. power have compared it to the Roman Empire. He goes on to make comparisons of his own, referring to “the American Empire”. In my view, such identifications are misleading. We are not going to understand the realities of the 21st Century, including the global projection of U.S. power, by attaching labels borrowed from past ages.

Faulkner’s book is knowledgeable, informative and readable and a welcome contribution to Marxist literature on pre-capitalist societies, but as a work of theory it needs to be read critically.

Richard Abernethy, The Hobgoblin, December 2008.