‘Antonio Gramsci and the Ancient World’ by Emilio Zucchetti and Anna Maria Cimino (eds) reviewed by Sean Ledwith

and (eds)
Antonio Gramsci and the Ancient World

Routledge, London, 2021. 402 pp., £120 hb
ISBN 9780367193140

Reviewed by Sean Ledwith

About the reviewer

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History at York College. He is also a regular contributor to the …


The converging and intensifying traumas of the late capitalist system in this second decade of the 21st century have led many commentators on the left to allude to the ongoing resonance of Gramsci’s famous words from a previous era: ‘The crisis consists of precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born in this interregnum, morbid phenomena of the varied kind come to pass’ (281). Calamities such as Trump, COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, plus the renewed prospect of inter-imperialist war are all assimilable within a Gramscian framework of a mode of production that is imploding under the weight of its own contradictions, and yet staggers on due to the frustrating absence of a revolutionary alternative with mass support.

The authors and editors of this volume persuasively contend that this alertness to the challenges of conjunctural moments in world history that was a characteristic of the great Italian Marxist is equally insightful when applied to the ancient world. Connected to this innovative perspective is an equally enlightening examination of how Gramsci’s thoughts throughout his political career were affected by his own knowledge and understanding of the ancient world. The volume draws on the full range of Gramsci’s written output from the Pre-Prison Writings to the Prison Notebooks and including extracts from his Letters from Prison.

The outcome of this original approach to ancient history is a highly readable and stimulating set of essays that deserves to be as essential to the Marxist historiography of antiquity as earlier works by Gordon Childe, George Thomson, and GEM de St. Croix. The latter writers represent earlier periods of Marxist historiography when Gramsci’s ideas had not fully permeated academic discourse on the left.  However, unlike any of these studies, Antonio Gramsci and the Ancient World deploys the foundational concepts of the eponymous thinker, such as hegemony, passive revolution and organic intellectuals, as essential tools for investigating antiquity. The editorial philosophy underpinning the volume is very much an acceptance of the perspective outlined by Peter Thomas in his highly regarded 2009 study, The Gramscian Moment; namely that a previous stereotype of Gramsci as primarily a ‘philosopher of the superstructure’ underplays how crucial economic and political considerations were to his thinking. As Christopher Smith puts it here: ‘one can see that he was working towards a notion that civil society, political society and the state are distinct elements of the superstructure but that they are mutually reinforcing’ (224).

In some ways the obvious form of this historical appropriation in Gramsci’s own lifetime was the way Mussolini as Italian dictator in the inter-war years sought to project himself as a modern incarnation of the Roman emperors. The ‘Duce of the Italian Social Republic’ organised grand celebrations in the 1930s of the two-thousand-year anniversaries of the births of Augustus and Virgil and authorised extensive archaeological excavations in the capital city as part of his attempt to clothe his regime with the distant glory of Roman power (190). Unsurprisingly, Gramsci was not persuaded that parallels between the Caesars of antiquity and their epigones in his lifetime had any meaningful resonance.

Although he was mindful of the extreme violence that frequently accompanied Roman expansion, Gramsci also noted that absorption by the ancient empire also brought significant cultural and material benefits, in the fullness of time, to local populations. In contrast, the peoples of Libya and Ethiopia, for example, who encountered Mussolini’s invading forces in the twentieth century, derived absolutely no benefit whatever and were often the targets of policies of outright extermination. As Michele Bellomo argues: ‘Gramsci’s insistence on the willingness showed by the ancient Romans in provincializing the newly conquered territories and in pushing an integration policy with the local population was to become a milestone of his rejection of any possible comparison between ancient Rome and the modern great powers’ (169).

Mussolini’s ascent to power in 1922 triggered a debate within the left regarding the precise nature of what was then the entirely new phenomenon of fascism. Having first come to prominence in the pre-WW1 era as editor of Avanti!, the journal of the Italian Socialist Party, the dictator cleverly exploited his left-wing credentials to cultivate an image of fascism as a force that balances the competing claims of bosses and workers. Gramsci was interested how this notion of ‘Caesarism’ as mediation between rival social forces had operated in the ancient world. Marx’s concept of Bonapartism as applied in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte performed a similar function. In this context, Federico Santangelo explores how the eponymous progenitor of Caesarism is best comprehended as a figure who sought to reconcile class struggles in the first century BCE. Santangelo explains persuasively that Julius Caesar’s political and military clashes with the Roman nobility represented the transition from an Italian-based elite to a broader Western ruling class that was necessary for the sustainability of a continental empire. As Santangelo expresses the point: ‘In Caesar’s time, Italy becomes the centre of a cosmopolis, and Rome a cosmopolitan city and the revolution that leads to the emergence of Caesar’s regime is not merely the clash of Italian classes, but of social groups that are variously implicated within the fabric of the Empire: the army, moneylenders, public contractors and bureaucrats’ (205).

Caesar’s assassination makes sense in this context as the violent climax of a political career that had sought to balance the often contradictory agendas of plebeians, patricians and equestrians in the Roman social and political system. His flirtation with a monarchical restoration had proved too much for the traditional nobility; and yet the outrage among the subaltern classes sparked by his demise also marked the eclipse of the Italian-based elite. It was Caesar’s grandnephew, Augustus, who would masterfully exploit the political fallout of the assassination to construct a reconfigured imperial system with the epicentres of power distributed beyond the homeland. As Santangelo notes, ‘with the regime change the Roman nobility is effectively sidelined, and is replaced by new political forces that have a strong base beyond the confines of Italy’ (206).

Having secured political control after victory over Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BCE, Augustus was confronted with the challenge of building ideological justification for his new and precarious form of de facto one-man rule. Gramsci’s foundational concept of hegemony really comes into its own at this point as an essential tool for understanding this crucial turning point in antiquity. As defined here by Mirko Canevaro, ‘hegemony is normally understood as what makes the power of the ruling class possible, and stable, by underpinning a deceptively harmonic ideal of society in which all the classes work, however differently, towards a common goal’ (63). This perfectly encapsulates how Augustus, in the era of the Principate, disguised a ruthless military dictatorship beneath a veneer of republican piety and probity. Another Gramscian paradigm that sheds light on this Augustan consolidation of power is passive revolution, described by Emma Nicholson as ‘any historical situation in which new political formations come to power without a fundamental reordering of social relations’ (143). Much later periods such as Meiji Japan or Bismarckian Germany are usually cited as illustrative of this phenomenon but several essays in this volume cogently argue the rule of the first Roman emperor can also be usefully classified in this way.

This conceptual application of hegemony and passive revolution to describe what Ronald Syme famously described as ‘The Roman Revolution’ is tremendously valuable and it would be reasonable to say that no future Marxist discussion of this era would be complete without acknowledging this Gramscian perspective. On a critical note, it is problematic that passive revolution, traditionally defined, refers to a political revolution without an accompanying social transformation. The rise of the Principate emphatically included the diminution of the economic influence of the Rome-based nobility and its supplantation by a new Italian and provincial-based class of equites. Consequently, there was a significant shift in some form regarding the nature of class power in the first century BCE. To be fully persuasive, this section of the book would require theorisation of how passive revolution in a pre-capitalist society would differ from the more familiar examples nearer our point in time. The ideological relationship between the new regime’s conscious cultivation of the ‘golden’ age of Roman letters and this realignment among the ruling class would also benefit from further discussion.

Central to the top-down revolution conducted by Augustus and his supporters was the role of poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. These three greats of the golden age of Roman literature provided the necessary ideological ballast to legitimate the new order in the eyes of sceptical, if compliant, members of the traditional elite. Co-ordinated by Maecenas, Augustus’ cultural advisor, the poets were integral components of an ideological reformulation of the Roman state that effectively hollowed out the quasi-democratic features of the republic but, crucially and ironically, all in the name of a restoration of republican virtue. Virgil’s famous death-bed request that his magnum opus be committed to the flames has always puzzled scholars but perhaps now makes sense in light of the dialectical contradictions that Gramsci was alert to in passive revolutions. Did the poet in the twilight of life regret his role as cultural advocate of the new order? As Anna Maria Cimino observes: ‘the double-thinking of The Aeneid mirrors that of the Principate and its artificial and ideological character. For this reason, the audience of readers and listeners would find a space of resistance paradoxically internal to the Augustan communication system itself’ (335). The role of literature as a means of reinforcing hegemony in the ancient world is superbly analysed here. However, it should perhaps be emphasised more explicitly that this would have primarily been a means of intra-class reinforcement. With near universal illiteracy among the slave and subaltern classes in this epoch, the blunt coercion of the sword and the lash would have indubitably played far bigger roles in the reproduction of economic and political power.

The most influential writings to emerge in the age of the Julio-Claudians were the Christian gospels, although of course they would have been unknown to the pre-eminent political figures of that time. Jeremy Paterson devises a compelling case that Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, ‘Acts of the Apostles’, performed a dual ideological function. Firstly, submission by adherents of the newly emerging faith to the authority of the Principate; and secondly, reassurance to the hegemonic power in Rome that Christianity should not be regarded as a political threat. Episodes such as Pontius Pilate dismissing the charges against Jesus and Paul been transferred from Judea to Rome for trial are evidence, suggests Paterson, that the gospel writer acted as what Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual: ‘Luke’s case is a persuasive argument that Christians should not be treated exceptionally and should have access to the rights and respect afforded to other subjects of the empire; he achieves this by citing the precedents already set by Roman officials in their dealings with the Christians’ (266).

Paterson generously adds that his innovative perspective on early Christian literature is indebted to both Gramsci himself and the editors of this volume (267). The same might be said by future Marxist historians of the ancient world who would be well advised to make this invigorating collection an essential text.

10 April 2022

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