Idealism & Materialism – Assignment 3: Theoretical Evaluation

From first reading Neville Morley’s explanation of Idealism and Materialism to our class discussions on the topic I have been positive that these are the most interesting of the Approaches we have studied this term. Perhaps because I have a fondness for the grandiose historical debates and perhaps because this debate is one which I can see pervading many aspects of the study of antiquity but which has not been wholly explored in certain areas of scholarship.

This is why my Theoretical Evaluation will feature a case-study demonstrating how the Idealism vs Materialism debate can be seen in the context of Alexander the Great and scholarly perceptions of his world-view. The Hellenistic period is one which I have been studying in detail in another of this term’s lecture series so it is pleasing to be able to combine the two areas.

It also gives me a good excuse to read more deeply into Hegel, Marx and co. This has been made much easier by the excellent Marxists Internet Archive ( an incredible resource of information: reviews, commentaries and of course transcripts of all the relevant works.


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‘Doing a Morgan Freeman’

I have decided to very consciously avoid the topics of gender and ethnicity in history, not out of laziness, but because I am a strong believer in doing a Morgan Freeman – to “stop talking about it.” We are still too close in time, in this author’s opinion, to be able to have a completely impartial discussion about these topics. The wounds from gender and racial inequality are still too raw for people not to be subliminally biased in discussion. By contrasting a topic such as slavery, which has much less controversy in scholarship of antiquity we can see how there needs to be a significant time gap before certain topics can be impartially discussed.

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Economics 2 & Book Review

Further from the previous discussion on the ancient economy, I’ve found it interesting to note that primitivism and modernism are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of approaching the ancient economy. Formalism, substantivism, inductivism and deductivism, all different methods of quantifying and analysing the ancient world.

My interest in the ancient economy has shaped the topic of my second essay piece. The book which I will review, by Constantina Katsari, is one which played an important part in an economic analysis of the late Roman empire in an earlier essay of mine. Her work is primarily numismatic in its focus, and covers the primitivist/modernist debate in an interesting way.

The field of numismatics itself is one of great interest to me. Antiquity was a pivotal point in the development of monetised societies. Added to this, the way modern scholars envisage ancient perceptions of coinage and the extent of their economic thought is an important topic in the area of ancient economic history.

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Marx on History

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Economic analysis is a unique way of approaching the classical world, and one that is relatively new in the scale of historical analysis since antiquity.

Also unique about economic analysis is that we have no evidence to indicate the ancient Greeks or Romans perceived their world in such terms: they had no concept of market forces or even inflation (as seen in Diocletian’s ‘Edict on Maximum Prices’ ).

It is this lack of economic concepts which seems to bring about the great polemic issue of the ancient economy – whether we should examine it in the same way as the ancients percieved (primitivist), or use the models developed over many years of economic development and apply them to the ancient world (modernist).

At first it seemed obvious that a modernist view was superior – why should we not use the developments made my great thinkers such as Smith and Keynes? However, it soon became clear that it would be ignorant to assume that the primary motivations of those in the ancient world were the same as our own today. The capitalist mode of production has dominated western economic thought (with the obvious exception of Marx) but we must not allow this to cloud our understanding of the ancient economy. 



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Assignment 1 & Historical Narrative

I have decided to focus my first assignment on narrative, which we have recently been looking at in our lectures. This area of history seems one of the strongest at influencing the way the classical world is written about and analysed. Moreover, it also tells us about the period in which a certain historical work was written. For example, an early 20th Century article about Alexander the Great by W.W. Tarn, ‘Alexander and the Unity of Mankind’, shows unmistakable imperialist narrative in its praise of Alexander’s policies towards non-Greeks. Furthermore, the way in which this narrative was so fully deconstructed by scholars after the 2nd World War (see Badian’s 1958 article of the same name) gives a similar insight into the disillusionment of those postwar years.

I have decided to focus my first analysis on an article which emerged during that postwar disillusionment, and featured a narrative which was emergent during the time, that of Marxism: more specifically, Marx’s idea of ‘class struggle’. The author, Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, is an important Marxist scholar whose work I was pointed toward by a special edition of Helios journal focusing on ‘Marx and Antiquity’ edited by none other than Bristol’s Neville Morley.

This edition, published in 1999, shows that Marxist reception of the classical world is still strong, as is de Ste. Croix’s relevance to it. Hopefully my article successfully identifies the narrative of his article which focuses on the Athenian Empire as described by Thucydides.

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Humanistic vs Social Scientific Historical Approaches

Something that has resounded with me from the opening section of our lectures is the conflicting and changing ways academics of the last century ‘see’ the role of historians. Morley grapples with this issue early in his book: 

As a result of both inclination and training, many historians tend to follow the path of the humanities, favouring the striking detail and the revealing anecdote; they are suspicious of grand theory precisely because it devalues such details and obscures the differences between individual cases and even between historical periods. For those inclined to theoretical approaches, of course, this is precisely why they should be preferred. (Morley 2004)

 Morley uses this idea to introduce his chapter’s focus of theories (in particular, generalisations). This is correct, but makes the error of leaving unexplored an area which can be attributed to more than just historical theory. Theory, and thus generalisations, are a by-product of a wider change in scholarship. 

The humanities, especially historical and classical schools, face an ever-increasing struggle to stay relevant in a period where science and technology are experiencing their most rapid expansion ever. Resultantly, classicists and historians attempt (whether consciously or otherwise) to make their work appeal to this forward-thinking culture in various ways. Some, such as the Bristol’s Thucydides Project attempt to reinterpret the ancient world along modern lines. Others, such as those referenced by Morley above, have changed their methodology to reflect a more social-scientific reporting style. This is perhaps best shown in Duncan-Jones’ highly analytical approach to the Ancient Economy, and how this contrasts to earlier work in Finley. 

Morley associates the social-scientific school primarily with theory, however as was discussed in our lectures, this is not necessarily always the case. Source-heavy, scientific works do not have to have grand theories and generalisations behind them. 

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