Taking a lesson from history … the not so obvious connection between unrestrained war and wealth disparity

As I do some preliminary preparation for a proposed (possible) travel seminar to Rome/Italy for summer 2020 (the topic of which is Roman economy of dominance and exploitation of enslaved peoples and its impact on the New Testament), I found a short segment of Rostovtzeff’s The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire to have a poignant (if not downright chilling) prophetic relevance for our American context today. Describing Greek economic conditions during the Hellenistic period Rostovtzeff writes:

“The primary cause of the steady decline of economic life in Greece proper was the constant, almost uninterrupted, succession of wars in which the cities were involved in the fourth and third centuries B.C. These wars, in spite of many efforts to minimize their ruinous effects and to subject them to some inter-state regulation, became ever more bitter, more cruel, and more disastrous for all the participants, whether victors or vanquished. The practice of devastating the enemy’s land, of destroying his crops, his vineyards and olive-groves, of burning down farm-houses, of carrying off and selling men and cattle as war booty, of feeding the troops from the resources of the invaded lands, became increasingly common. Some states, for instance the Aetolian league and the Cretan cities, specialized in conducting wars of robbery on land and sea, and the other states, not excepting the great Hellenistic monarchies, followed them on this fatal path.

“Concurrently with the external wars there raged within the Greek cities, alike in Greece proper and in most of the islands, an unceasing class-warfare, which originated in the steady growth of a well-to-do bourgeois class and the corresponding impoverishment of the masses. This class-war made the growth and development of a sound capitalistic system very difficult. Indeed, it made a healthy economic life within the city-states almost impossible. The strife in the Greek cities assumed more and more the character of an almost purely social and economic struggle. The main aim of the struggle was, not the increase of production by the betterment of labour conditions and the improvement and regulation of the relations between labour and capital, but the redistribution of property, which was generally achieved by violent revolutionary means. The war cry was the immemorial one of gēs anadasmos kai chreōn apokopē, redistribution of land and abolition of debts. This cry was so freely used as early as the end of the Peloponnesian war that the Athenians introduced into the oath of the Heliasts in 401 a clause which forbade the putting of such an issue to the vote. In the fourth century the fear of a social revolution was constantly present to the minds of Aristotle and Isocrates, and in 338 the League of Corinth formed a sort of association for protection against it. It is significant of conditions in Greece during the third century and later that a clause forbidding the redistribution of land and the cancellation of debts was introduced into the oath of the citizens of Itanos in Crete.

“The revolutions which aimed and such a redistribution of property were utterly disastrous for Greece. Revolution and reaction followed each other with brief delays, and were marked by the wholesale slaughter or expulsion of the best citizens.”

Rostovtzeff’s insights were critical of state run economies within Hellenistic monarchies. In other words, what in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we would refer to as Fascist nationalist states, not social democracy or democratic socialism where the workers (rather than the state) have a much greater voice in the choices that are made regarding the distribution of wealth and the means of production (as labor is assigned a greater value in terms of means of production). Those who equate social democracy with state (Fascist) control of the means of production are lying to you. Rostovtzeff was critical of unregulated capitalism that trampled on the rights of the laboring classes. His interpretation of Hellenistic social and economic history is a poignant message for us today. Constant warfare in the Hellenistic period was transformed into a form of entrepreneurial capitalism by some Hellenistic cities. Privatization of warfare by the American politic reflects our ignorance in repeating this historic Hellenistic failure. Unfettered capitalism run amok, capitalism that doesn’t take into consideration the well-being of its working class, combined with an unrestrained engagement in self-interested and endless warfare, is a threat to a nation’s social and economic stability, and ultimately in the long run to the survival of the people themselves. May we please not be forced by the powers to have to learn this lesson again?


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