G. E. M. de Ste. Croix  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Geoffrey Ernest Maurice de Ste. Croix (10 February 1910 – 5 February 2000) was a British historian who specialized in examining the classical era from a historical materialist perspective.

De Ste. Croix was born in Macau and was educated at Clifton College, in Bristol. He left school at the age of 15 and become an articled clerk, which allowed him to train as a solicitor, without a degree in law. In 1926-40, De Ste. Croix practised as a solicitor.

He had a strong physique and was a talented tennis player, who once defeated Fred Perry. De Ste. Croix competed at Wimbledon in 1929.

During the Second World War he joined the Royal Air Force, and was stationed for a time in Egypt, where he had the opportunity to expand his knowledge of ancient languages. After the war ended, de Ste. Croix studied ancient history at University College, London. In 1950-53 he taught at the London School of Economics and Birkbeck College, before being appointed a fellow of New College, Oxford. He lived at Oxford for the rest of his life.

Within the circles of classical scholarship, de Ste. Croix — as an exponent of a Marxian epistemological approach — was frequently involved in debate with Sir Moses Finley, an advocate of Weberian societal analysis. The two often exchanged letters and their disagreements were always civil.

The two books for which de Ste. Croix is best known are The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972) and The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (1982). He was also a noted contributor on the issue of Christian persecution between the reigns of the Roman Emperors Trajan and Diocletian. Of particular note in this regard are the articles written by de Ste. Croix and A. N. Sherwin-White, each challenging the opinions of the other. There were four in total, displaying just the sort of light-hearted banter evident also in de Ste. Croix's correspondence with Moses Finley.

The Origins of the Peloponnesian War

The Origins of the Peloponnesian War made several major contributions to scholarship on the subject, the major one being a reinterpretation of the Megarian Decree, passed by the Athenian Ekklesia in 432 BC. Most scholarship hitherto had considered the decree to involve economic sanctions by excluding the Megarian state and Megarian traders from access to ports throughout the Athenian Empire. De Ste. Croix instead interpreted it as a religious sanction (drawing an analogy with the Spartan demand — in response to the Megarian Decree and other Athenian policies — that Athens expel some religiously-tainted citizens. De Ste. Croix maintained that the sanction was exercised not to hurt the Megarians — which it could not do, given the nature of trade and economics in the ancient world, but on religious grounds felt to be genuine by the Athenians. This argument has not achieved general acceptance among historians.

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World

This is his major work. It is an attempt to establish the validity of a historical materialist analysis of the ancient Greek and Roman world in two parts with four appendices. It covers the period roughly from Greek pre-classical times to the Arab conquest. Part one addresses fundamental topics. After an expository plan chapter II (Class, Exploitation, and Class Struggle) begins with an apologia of De Ste. Croix's understanding of basic classical Marxian theory (§ I The nature of class society) and some specific terms (§ II 'Class', 'exploitation', and 'the class struggle' defined). The remainder of Part One is a detailed analysis of these concepts applied to the Ancient Greek World (Chs. III Property and the Propertied and IV Forms of Exploitation in the Ancient Greek World, and the Small Independent Producer). Part II contains the historical analysis per se and begins (Ch. V The Class Struggle in Greek History on the Political Plane) with an exposition of how the economic processes addressed in part I lead to a gradual but complete eradication of Greek democracy by the middle of the Roman principate. The remaining chapters (VI Rome the Suzerain, VII The Class Struggle on the Ideological Plane, and VIII 'The Decline and Fall' of the Roman Empire: an Explanation) focus primarily on Rome and put forth the thesis that it was the increasing dependence on slave labor and diminishment of what would be considered in a modern context the middle classes that was the actual cause of the collapse. There is also a lengthy discussion of the significance of the mode by which surplus value is generated. De Ste. Croix makes the point that the mode of surplus extraction is not necessarily the same as the mode of production engaged in by a majority of the population. Specifically, that while a relatively small portion of the work force were slaves, Rome under the principate nonetheless became essentially a slave society.

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