The Ancient Working People

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William Bailie, "The Ancient Working People," The Arena, XXVII, 6 (June 1902), 630-4.


We have hardly yet arrived at the conception of history, as an interpretation of the economic activities and intellectual development of the race, that Buckle, in his monumental effort, attempted nearly half a century ago. Accounts of dynasties, baffles, sieges, and political intrigues still occupy a preponderant place in popular historical writing. To be at once an economist, a sociologist and a political philosopher, attractively combining these qualities to illumine the history of peoples, demands gifts as high as they are rare.

Especially difficult is the task of a writer who sets out to depict a widespread social and industrial movement of ancient times. Not only are authentic records meager and imperfect, but from authors whose opinions on other matters may be considered trustworthy no impartial or accurate statement with respect to the condition and aspirations of the laboring classes can either be expected or obtained. Nor is this due so mach to inability or lack of veracity on the part of ancient writers as to the prevalent class bias incident to a society based upon slavery and in which consequently labor was habitually looked upon as a degradation.

About thirteen years ago there appeared from the pen of C. Osborne Ward, a brother of Lester F. Ward, the eminent American sociologist, a remarkable book containing the fruits of much learning and extensive research in a field seldom trodden by the historian. A second volume of the same work, “The Ancient Lowly,” has been recently published. The first was devoted to the uprisings of slaves in early times, for which the data were found chiefly in the fragmentary remains of ancient writers, some of whom were contemporaries of the events recorded. It also described the organizations of the slaves and other ancient workers. This study is carried down in the second volume to the year 303 of our era. Inscriptions preserved to the present day on stones and monuments that have been discovered in the ancient cities of Italy and Asia Minor form the basis of these investigations. The so-called trades-unions are traced by Mr. Ward to the laws of Salon and the Twelve Tables of Numa.

His enthusiasm for paternal socialism carries the author quite beyond his function as a historian. In the religious rites and ceremonies of the lowly his fervid imagination sees the fraternal labor union. In their sacramental feasts he discovers the common table of the socialist community, uniting in brotherly love thousands of humble toilers. He appears to confuse the plebeians of ancient Rome with the laboring classes who possessed no political status at that period of her history. But the plebs, whose legally recognized leaders were the tribunes, had struggled for centuries to gain political rights and finally succeeded; while the servile working people, who were then the economically productive class, remained to the end outside the pale of citizenship.

When we approach the study of ancient society from the standpoint of sociology, we learn that the family hearth, the domestic altar and worship, formed the strongest bond that held together the men of those times. Religion was the keystone of the social structure. Yet Osborne Ward hesitates not to classify as labor unions, fraternally bound by an economic tie, associations that were primarily religious. He concedes, however, that these tutelary organizations cultivated the belief in the coming of a Savior who would redeem the world, and that they erected temples to their chosen gods. We might add that “Saviors” were not infrequent phenomena in those days—the Great Nazarene being but one among many.

With undisguised admiration, Ward expatiates upon die circumstance that the unions were modeled after the family, having meals in common a paternal head wielding much authority, besides other patriarchal characteristics. But this merely indicates the stage of social development, the family and not the individual forming the unit of society. Not only vas it die social unit, but the family was also the fountain of religious worship. No family, no religion; and without a form of worship man became a social outcast. He could have neither political nor legal status.

Again, in the blending of the family, religion, and society, does Mr. Ward recognize socialism, and he deduces s communistic basis for his ancient labor unions. In later times, however, as Mommsen has shown, the original religious character of the unions becomes merely a cloak for other objects.

It is in his explanation of Christianity that this investigator best displays his peculiar genius. If not novel, his views have at least the merit of sincerity. Jesus is no longer a great spiritual teacher, not to say divine, nor merely a moral lawgiver. Rather is he a walking delegate, a peripatetic labor agitator, an itinerant social reformer. The apostles are all connected with their respective trades-unions. Luke, who was their historian, was in fact president of a union of journeymen doctors. Paul likewise was a walking delegate and a powerful agitator. Christianity, in short, from the beginning was an industrial movement, spreading among the working class, who saw in this new religion a promise of economic emancipation.

Let us candidly admit that this picture of the early Church is not wholly destitute of truth. Yet the evidence as here presented is by no means conclusive. Nor need we deny that, on a thread of conjecture supported by hypothesis, he has woven a texture displaying some interesting and instructive historic truth.

Throughout this pretentious work the partizan palpably usurps the place of the historian. Except perhaps in pointing to sources of original information, serviceable to the special student, Osborne Wards book conspicuously fails as a lasting or important contribution to sociology. Its style is diffuse, florid, and bristling with needless repetition. Few readers would have the patience to go through the twelve or thirteen hundred close-packed pages; and it is doubtful if they would find enough reward for their pains. The author indulges in a display of languages both living and dead, which, while evidence of his linguistic accomplishments, is more likely to repel than attract the class of readers who desire to learn about the struggles and organization of the ancient workingmen.

If the conclusions set forth in this work are sound, trades-unionism in ancient times was ramified over the then civilized world, embracing millions of laboring men and women within its beneficent folds. Its members were the first to accept the Christian gospel, with its ideas of universal brotherhood and equality, which thence spread from the bottom upward through all ranks of society. The unions were friendly societies, supporting, without the taint of charity, disabled and out-of-work members. It would appear indeed from numerous extant inscriptions that these associations of laborers were ostensibly burial clubs. Among other activities they conducted free schools for the children of the workers. From the Roman government they took contracts for many kinds of industrial undertakings, erected public buildings, constructed roads and bridges, and supplied munitions of war to the imperial armies. They threw their influence in favor of candidates for public office who promised to turn over such contracts to organized labor. In a word, they aimed to become privileged monopolists, seeking their own immediate ends like their successors, the guilds of later times, or the great corporations of to-day, that exploit the general welfare for their own emolument.

To Osborne Ward, however, those ancient working-class politicians are worthy [of] the emulation and imitation of their modem descendants. Let us go back, he cries, “to that pure, sweet, lovely, self-supporting socialism outlined by the great law of Solon!”

Though they flourished, we are told, for about nine centuries, an appalling tragedy seems to have at last terminated the commendable efforts and growing power of these vast economic associations. About the year 303 A. D., the emperor Diocletian allowed himself to be persuaded to countenance a wholesale massacre of organized toilers. They were charged with harboring Christians, whom persecution sought to devour. Notwithstanding our author’s habit of jumbling indiscriminately together all matters pertaining to the unions and Christianity, it is evident that the ghastly scheme of extermination perpetrated in numerous cities of the empire was after all only one of the many attempts officially to stamp out the robust and rapidly spreading religion of Jesus Christ. Mr. Ward closes with a lament that after the date of this massacre all records of the labor unions disappear. But he passes over a more potent cause of the decay and ultimate obliteration of the ancient workingmen’s movement. This was the gradual rise of feudalism as a new economic basis of society, which began with the overthrow of the empire by the barbarians.

William Bailie.

Boston, Mass.