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New Left Review I/146, July-August 1984

Geoffrey de Ste. Croix

Class in Marx’s Conception of History, Ancient and Modern

It is both an honour and a pleasure for me to be speaking here today. [*] Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture, November 28, 1983. At the editor’s request this lecture is printed almost exactly as it was delivered, with the addition of some footnotes giving references. In the notes, the abbreviation csagw = my The Clam Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Duckworth, 1981; corrected paperback reprint, 1983). References to works by Marx and Engels are according to the standard editions: the English mecw, and the German mew, mega1 and mega2, for all of which see csagw, pp. 684–5. It is an honour to have been asked to give the annual lecture in memory of Isaac Deutscher, a man who always resolutely pursued his own line of thought with the greatest courage, and throughout his life tried to tell the truth as he saw it, undismayed by attacks from whatever direction. (I greatly regret that I never had the good fortune to meet him.) And it is a pleasure to be allowed to give this lecture at the London School of Economics, where (you may be surprised to hear) I actually had my first academic post, and taught for three years in the early 1950s—though perhaps ‘taught’ is something of a euphemism, because my field of interest as an Assistant Lecturer in Ancient Economic History was rather far removed from anything prescribed by the syllabus; and indeed I was sometimes made aware by some of my colleagues in the Economic History Department (very politely, of course) that I was really a bit of a nuisance, occupying a post which, but for my presence, might have been filled by some genuinely useful person, who could have taken on some of the burden of teaching the syllabus, as I, alas, could not. Well, I did my best to find someone who might be interested in what I had to offer; but when I went around, asking people in different departments whether I might think of giving lectures that could conceivably interest their students, they prudently rejected my advances. And then, suddenly, to my great delight, I was slotted in, if only in a very small way. I received a letter from the Professor of Accounting, Will Baxter (one of the leading authorities on his subject in the English-speaking world), asking me to lecture in his department. ‘We’d very much like to know’, he said, ‘about accounting by the Greeks and Romans, and in particular if they had double-entry: things like that’. Of course, I knew nothing whatever about the subject of ancient accounting, any more than most other ancient historians; but I duly got it up. I had to do a vast amount of work on it from original sources, as I found that there was hardly anything in the modern books that was any good at all. But I did find an astonishing amount of first-hand evidence, not only in the literary sources and the law-books, but also in the inscriptions and above all the papyri. I wrote a piece which is, I think, the only general study of the subject that makes use of all the various kinds of source material. [1] ‘Greek and Roman accounting’, in Studies in the History of Accounting, ed. A.C. Littleton and B.S. Yamey (1956), pp. 14–74. (It still seems to be cited as the standard account.) I also gave some lectures at the School, both on ancient accounting and on some kindred subjects like the ancient bottomry and respondentia loan (the precursor of marine insurance): [2] For this important invention (spreading the risks of commerce over the much wealthier noncommercial classes) see my ‘Ancient Greek and Roman Maritime Loans’, in Debits, Credits, Finance and Profits [Essays in Honour of W.T. Baxter], ed. Harold Edey and B.S. Yamey (1974), pp. 41–59. these were attended by the professor and his staff, and some ancient historians from other colleges, though not, as far as I could discover, by any undergraduates of the School itself. And even after I had left London for Oxford, thirty years ago, I was invited to come back and give a lecture at the School each year on ancient and mediaeval accounting, until the late 1970s.

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