Marxism, Analogy, and Poststructural Theories in Classical Archaeology

An Academic Essay

Classical disciplines have made use of theoretical insights from anthropology, archaeology, history, literature, politics, geography, and sociology for many years (ECW 2013: 97-99). Each of these areas of endeavor contain or constitute a ‘body of theory’. Bodies of theory are groupings of explanatory ideas formulated by humans who critically reflect upon — or systemically interrogate — phenomena, events, and facts or data. For example, in dealing with ancient cultures, the dynamics of sociocultural interaction are locked in past processes, whilst the residual of those processes are visible to us in the present day in the form of data (e.g. artifacts, records, ruins, etc.). Through interpretive hypotheses, the intention of bridging a gap between historical ‘data’ and past social ‘dynamics’ is the focus of certain anthropological and archaeological models (Cf. Johnson 2010: 50-67).

However, do we really need theory in the classical world? Why should one speculate, theoretically, about how ancient Athenians perceived a statue of Zeus when all we need to do is read their writings? Prehistory is one thing, but with classical cultures we have textual based evidence to help us ‘understand’ past dynamics. And yet, can historical writings be trusted as ‘objective’? In other words, are historical writings devoid of subjective influences and equally representative of the masses of people? After all, texts are essentially tools of persuasion; pieces of rhetoric tuned to a specific audience (Pelling 1999; Potter 1999). The motivations governing the construction of ancient historical texts and literary writings is questionable (See TMC 2015: 36-40). Furthermore, what about the ‘little people’ — those whose voices are silent in the historical record? What can be said of their individual thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and customs if the veracity and motivations behind textual sources is called into question? To all of these problems, theory offers solutions — but also poses more questions.

How important is theory to the classical disciplines? To answer this I shall draw from four main bodies of theory: anthropology, archaeology, sociology, and politics. Specifically, I will narrow my focus to four theoretical frameworks: 1) Marxism, 2) Comparative Studies, Analogy, and Cultural Evolution, and 3) Poststructuralism and the American Polis. All the while, I shall attempt to underscore how deeply classical disciplines have been influenced by these theories and attempt to demonstrate how certain disciplines, such as Ancient History and Classical Archaeology, have been more deeply affected by them than others. Moreover, I will seek to answer the question: Do we really need theory to understand classical antiquity? Please note that several hypothetical frameworks have been imparted to classical studies (e.g. reception theory, historiography, feminist and gender studies), and I have only selected a few that I utilize in my archaeological studies.

Part I: Marxism

One such theoretical framework which has had enormous impact to nearly all branches of classical studies is Marxist theory. An import from Sociology, Marxism — or historical materialism — is one of the most transcending and influential bodies of theory (Johnson 2010: 95). In earlier forms of historical research, historians focused more on descriptive narratives of history instead of explanatory analysis. Culture history models of archaeology are an example of this (Johnson 2010: 15-21). Descriptive narratives, while theoretical in nature, do not emphasize explanatory methods as to ‘how’ or ‘why’ dynamics in the past occurred (ECW 2013: 98; See Johnson 2010: 97). Marxist approaches, however, seek to explain these cultural (and subcultural) dynamics as the product of ‘dialectic exchange’ and ‘social contradictions’ between groups of people which are categorized, traditionally, as materialistic or economically based ‘classes’ (Renfrew and Bahn 2008: 478-80). History is explained as a series of interactions between social groups in contention with each other, where one ‘class’ oppresses another which in turn ‘struggles’ against it (Fig.1) (Johnson 2010: 95-97).

In historical materialistic (pure Marxist) ideology, the two principal groups are the wealthy (ruling) and labor (subservient) classes — with the former exploiting the latter. Today, these classes are further subdivided along ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, and religious lines within theoretical bodies, such as Poststructuralism and Post-Processualism (Johnson 2010: 102-42). That being said, Marx’s thoughts on class and struggle — whether one is conscious of it or not — permeate most applications to classical inquiry with regards to interpretation of basic structures and how they are presented. For example, the layout of the workbook for this course (AR7553) critically enquires into the definition of the word ‘classical’ by emphasizing the word ‘class’ and associating it with an economic subsect of Roman élite society: the classici (ECW 2013: 16).

Hence, not only is a ‘class’ of Roman society divided along historical materialistic lines, but our understanding of how ‘classical antiquity’ is defined as a subject is interpreted through a prism of Marxist thought. The same can be said about the boundaries of ‘classical antiquity’ when the limits of its social-geographical parameters are questioned in light of ‘ethno-cultural associations’ between Classical and non-Classical communities (ECW 2013: 20-22). Here, Marxist interpretation identifies the use of cultural (Græco-Roman v ‘others’) and physical (i.e. Mediterranean) boundaries as a means of discriminating against non-Classical societies. Hence, a ‘struggle between classes’ is outlined in the textbook. This underscores the degree to which Marxist theory has influenced classical disciplines.

An interesting use of Marxism in classical studies regards the somewhat abstract distinctions between rural and urban cultures in the Greek speaking Eastern Mediterranean (Boer 1997). A case in point is the work of Ste. Croix (1981: 9-16) and his identification of the χώρα and its distinct socioeconomic characteristics. The χώρα, or khôra, was the rural periphery of a πόλις, or polis. By Roman times, this distinction took on a legal connotation which distinguished the two areas — khôra and polis — as two distinct sociocultural communities. According to Ste. Croix’s treatise, by the 1st century AD, the people who inhabited the khôra were economically exploited — if not politically subservient — to the citizens of the polis.

In other words, the rural hinterland was the ‘labor’ class that lived in direct contention to the ruling people of the polis. However, Ste. Croix goes further and asserts that a reexamining of the Gospels of the New Testament in light of this Marxist interpretation may shed new meaning on the social dynamics of Jesus’ ministry.  For example, Ste. Croix (1981: 427-32) describes the ministry of Jesus Christ as centering mainly around the khôra and that Christ’s work reflected an association with the common or ‘country folk’ or ‘poor’ as opposed to the élite of the city. Ste. Croix further reduces the Gospels as the story of a struggle between ‘rich v. poor’ with the rich inhabiting the city (polis), while the poor are exploited in the country (khôra). In other words, according to Ste Croix, Jesus’ mission is to be a voice of the poor or ‘less propertied’ people, leading an opposition to the urban wealthy classes of the city who oppress them. Therefore, according to Marxist theory, Jesus was a ‘revolutionary’.

While this is an interesting exercise in Marxist interpretation of ancient history, I would contend that Christ was merely railing against a ‘corrupt establishment’ which is the essence of His message to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes in Jerusalem and that the ‘wealthy classes’ in of themselves were not a target (See Gospel of Mathew 23:3). For example, contradicting Ste. Croix’s Marxist reinterpretation of the New Testament, Jesus clearly associated with more citified persons, such as the Pharisee Nicodemus, and had dinner with ‘tax collectors’ who were part of the Romano-Jewish plutocracy from the cities (Gospel of John 3; Gospel of Luke 5:27-32). Fascinatingly, Jesus was addressed as ‘rabbi’ by the Pharisees; that is to say a teacher of rabbinic law (Gospel of John 3:2; See also 1:38, 1:49, 6:25). Now, to be called ‘rabbi’ by Pharisees meant that in their eyes, Christ was one of them (See Falk 2003). How could this be if Christ was a proto-Marxist revolutionary? After all, these were the élite of the polis — the wealthy classes — who St. Croix clams Jesus was contentious with.

Later, another Pharisee, St. Paul of the city of Tarsus, became an apostle of Jesus (Acts 9:3-9, 26:5; Philippians 3:5). Paul was sanctioned by the original disciples who were themselves from the khôra. Yet, based upon the book of Acts, Paul maintained a status among the wealthier ‘citified’ members of the Sanhedrin. This may be deduced from the fact that Paul not only attended the Temple festivals and participated publicly in their rituals, but had studied law under Gamliel, and sponsored the religious rites of other Jews (an expensive process) at the behest of the original disciples (Acts 21:21-16; 22:3). Consequently, dividing Christ’s work into a city:rural or wealthy:poor theoretical dichotomy may lead to erroneous interpretations of early Christian doctrine. During the 1st century AD, Christian society along with its tenants were more ideologically complex.

There is an argument that can be made here that excessively applying Marxist theory to find ‘class struggles’ within a Christian community is not useful. Reverse projecting one’s ideology onto a past culture may inadvertently lead to ‘politicizing’ the past in ways alien to the people who were living it (See ECW 2013: 101). Another example may be the issue of slavery in the ancient world. For instance, Urbainczyk (2008: 32-33) argues that ancient Roman slaves wanted to abolish slavery, not just gain freedom. In other words, they were not revolting against their masters for individual freedom but seeking to overthrow the system. Urbainczyk (2008: 33-35) interprets their ‘struggle’ as a ‘revolution’ (whether the individuals understood that or not) (See ‘false consciousness’ in Morley 2004: 87). In other words, from Urbainczyk’s point of view, it may be argued that their ‘slave class’ contained the same characteristics as modern slavery and the impact of their revolts challenged existing institutions (Urbainczyk 2008: 118). Such extreme Marxist interpretations may distort reasonable interpretations of past social histories because they take ostensibly subjective interpretations of past actions.

Part II: Comparative Studies, Analogy, and Cultural Evolution

A statistical tool often utilized by archaeologists is comparative analogy. But I must give some background first. Probably the most intuitive model in archaeology of comparative studies is Middle-range Theory, a model pioneered by Lewis Binford in which he utilized ethnographic studies to draw analogous comparisons with living (present day) cultures to interpret dynamics of past (prehistory) cultures (Johnson 2010: 50-64; Cf. ECW 2013: 100). This Processual driven approach to archaeological study, rooted in anthropology, became a pillar of ‘New Archaeology’ and is interrelated with Cultural Evolutionary and Structuralist approaches, as well as scientific methodology (ECW 2013: 102. Today, the use of comparative analogy is a tool employed in comparative history and archaeology (See ECW 2013: 99-102; Cf. Kim 2009 and Scheidel 2011).

In Classical antiquity, the purpose of comparative studies is to elucidate answers for missing facts in the historical or archaeological record by inferring plausible explanations from parallel societies, living or dead, thus expanding our understanding (Scheidel 2013). For example, Humphreys’ (1978: 23-24, Cf. 17-18) notes comparative studies of ancient Greek socio-economies have helped to infer what role ecologies may have played in ancient demographics. The result was an anthropological hypothesis which augmented the historical record. Of course, the underlining assumption is that analogous trajectories are shared by the cultures being compared (See Johnson 2010: 151).

In this manner, comparative studies appear somewhat similar to intertextuality. A recent example of this can be seen in the analysis of early Imperial China (221 BC – AD 220) and the late Roman Republic/Imperial periods (c. 100 BC – AD 100) by Walter Scheidel (2011). Broadly speaking, the two cultures appear analogous in many socioeconomic, political, and ecological aspects. For example, both empires had similar environmental systems, chiefly because they lay in the North Temperate Zone (Scheidel 2011: 11-12). In both cases, the suggestion being that wetter climates to the south were responsible for surplus food production which would be transported north to imperial centers (e.g. Rome, Xianyang, Chang’an), thereby giving rise to ‘complex polities’ in otherwise divergent states (See also Whitley 2001: 166-67). The keyword here being ‘transportation’ and how both empires achieved it.

However, geographic differences are also noted, such as the lack of a ‘temperate sea core’ in China and a geography which hindered transportation of food and goods (Scheidel 2011: 13-14). In short, China did not have a Mediterranean Sea at its geopolitical center. If sea-lanes are essential for the dissemination of food and goods, let alone the political networking of disparate communities within a society, how did the Early Imperial Chinese achieve centralized unification? At this point, instead of comparison, we have contrast. This creates a problem because it becomes difficult to explain how a state maintained sociopolitical unity while not possessing a strategic waterway advantage for the transportation of goods, ideas, and military personnel.

Moreover, it may undermine emphases placed on Roman transportation networks in historical records. For example, in Geography 4.1.2, Strabo elaborates on the manner in which rivers in Gaul are interconnected with the Mediterranean and how these were exploited by the Romans. Elsewhere, Strabo (Geography 17.1.13) describes how Roman sea-lanes included the extensive use of the Red and Arabian Seas and their adjoining straits, thereby connecting the Southern and Eastern regions of the Empire. But could Strabo be exaggerating? Historical texts are literary constructions and should not be accepted at face value. After all, ancient authors did have audiences they wrote for (See Pelling 1999; Potter 1999).

Another theoretical approach will be necessary to further bridge a physical gap in the comparative analogy. Borrowing from Neo-evolutionary theory, the Chinese might have utilized overland transportation to greater extent than waterways to unify the country. This might be supported by the fact that both the Qin and Han Dynasties constructed thousands of miles of roads to link their empire (Fig.2) (Bulliet et al. 2014:164; See Scheidel 2011:13-14; Cf. Johnson 2010:155-56). For instance, at Wushan, a state-maintained plank road was utilized extensively to transport goods between north and south, buoyed by bridge supports over inhospitable topography such as mountainous regions (Chetham 2002: 41). In addition, Sanft (2014: 101-21) has argued that the construction of the ‘Direct Road’ was part of an elaborate highway system which may have aided the bureaucratic concentration of the state, and the cultural unification of Imperial China by the Qin Dynasty.

What can be said then? For the classicalist, this comparative study strengthens our understanding of the role transportation played in the formation of Mediterranean state polities. Additionally, by contrasting Early Imperial Chinese overland routes with Roman seaways, one may deduce that each society made technological adaptations in an independent (bilinear) fashion (Cf. Johnson 2010: 151). For the Romans, this may be exemplified in their shipbuilding techniques (Cf. 1986: Green 17-35). For example, the Madrague de Giens, a Roman mercantile ship which sank off the coast of ancient Gaul (modern France), has provided an interesting look into Roman nautical sophistication. Based on analysis from underwater archaeology, the ship’s design contained a heavy keel and wide frames for stability in rough waters, while possessing staggered planking along the hull to enhance its displacement (See Greene 1986: 26-27). This would make it ideal for carrying large cargos through turbulent waters.

Regardless, in the case of Roman and Chinese societies, technological adaptation occurred to overcome physical geography. Thus, differing conveyance methods were created to achieve a singular purpose: transportation. Why? Because both the Chinese and Romans understood that transportation was necessary for the building of an empire. This fact substantiates Strabo’s claim of Rome’s exploitation of sea-lanes from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. Moreover, this example showcases how a variety of theories enhance our understanding of Classical Antiquity. Here, comparative analogy, cultural evolution, and archaeological analysis of material remains, helped to critically evaluate the historical texts and illuminate a small portion of the political history of the Roman Empire.

Part III: Poststructuralism and the ‘American Polis’

Marxism, with its emphases on the identification of social classes, dialectic exchanges and intersocial and intra-social ‘contradictions’ identified the underlining causes of social change in history and reduces them to competing classes. While analogy, with its emphasis on comparative analyses and quantitative methods, interprets dynamics within and between classes by inferring explanations from unrelated sources. Different approaches that work, sometimes in conjunction with each other, to explain classical antiquity. While these bodies of theory have clearly influenced the classical disciplines, the question must be asked: do we really need theory to understand classical antiquity? In short, yes. Is it infallible? No.

One must be cautious when approaching past peoples from a modern theoretical position. Returning to Ste. Croix’s theory on ‘polis v. khôra’ above, people are going to act based on many individual — not necessarily class or group — needs. Both Jesus and Paul interacted with a variety of individuals from outside their social ‘class’. Indeed, it may be argued that they did not fit into any specific ‘class’. And here lies the problem with class distinctions being applied to historical dynamics: the individual — their ideas, desires, beliefs, understandings, emotions, impulses, passions — is overlooked in favor of a ‘group’ identity superimposed upon him or her through expert consensus. In other words, one risks categorizing people according to the sum of their parts, which may lead to incorrect assumptions regarding past dynamics.

For example, a case in point may be the 2016 Presidential Elections in the United States. The general consensus by experts relied on inferential statistics and historical trends of demographic groups (classes) based upon probability models from the 2008 and 2012 electorates. All of it pointed to a theoretical victory for the Democratic Party candidate (See Sabato et al. 2016a). However, demographic groups voted contrary to historical patterns in many regional areas. Arguably against their own special interests, many voted along parallel lines with other ‘classes’ defying their social groups (Barone 2016; Trende 2016). The only way to explain this is the individual was overlooked in the analysis of data. Humans are not monolithic beings. People are not necessarily herded or subscribe to ‘group mentality’ (Cf. Fromm 1941: 203, 253).

Blinded by probability, pundits forgot people are individuals — independent agents — who may act outside of ‘character’ and divorce themselves from their ‘class’ in decision (Sabato et al. 2016b; Cf. Johnson 2010:108). This is because class distinctions are subjective ideas; a product created by humans for the sake of convention. Grippingly, Foucault suggested that any form of analysis of individual identity which inferred characteristic groups — whether ‘status, class, or gender’ based — was a form of social oppression (Morley 2004:97-99; Johnson 2010:202-03). From this perspective, one may argue against the reduction of human behavior into any interpretive ‘trend’. For instance, Ste. Croix’s khôra and any (perceived) similarities between Imperial Chinese and Roman cultures are merely human invention. Taken to its natural conclusion, the entire premise of interpreting past cultures through theoretical frameworks which involve social classes contending with each other — let alone comparing such groups — dissolves. That being said, if scholars cannot correctly infer present day dynamics from more recent data, how can they accurately ascertain past dynamics from ancient data? As nihilistic as it may sound, they probably cannot.


Theory does not involve making arbitrary conclusions from abstract hypotheses, rather it is about interrogating data (what is known) and drawing sound deductions (or inductions) regarding sociocultural dynamics that are unknown. In this essay, I focused on theoretical frameworks lifted from three bodies of theory: anthropological, sociological, and archaeological. Specifically, I selected Marxism, Comparative Studies and Analogy, Cultural Evolution, and Poststructuralism, with ancillary methods directly or indirectly touched upon (e.g. quantification, probability, Maritime archaeology). At every turn, I attempted to illustrate how theory works to illuminate the dynamics of classical antiquity through an analysis of present day data. I ended with the brief deconstruction of theoretical frameworks to highlight how theorizing is a subjective endeavor, while still being necessary for perspective and to expand our knowledge. After all, knowledge is inferred (contra Ashenden 2005:202-06).


Ancient Author Cited

Strabo. Geography, trans. H. L. Jones. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library. 1923.



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P. J. DeMola is a postgraduate of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester in England.
His principle areas of interest are Roman history, archaeology, and politics, as well as Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and the political history of Middle Kingdom through Late Period Ancient Egypt. He has broad general interests in both Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerican sociopolitical structures.
Paul has studied Ancient Greek and Latin under Professor Graham Shipley, FRHistS, FSA (University of Leicester, British School at Athens), and researched Roman military history with Professor Simon James, FSA (University of Leicester).

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