Monday, 30 August 2010


This a correction to my blog Supplementary Notes for a further Article on the True Levellers Part Two. I have already apologised to him for the error.

Christopher Thompson Wrote:

Keith Livesey has given some details of his ideas for working on the Levellers here. I was surprised to see my 1980 Past and Present article cited as the basis for a claim that Petty had supported a restricted franchise in the Putney debates of October, 1647 on the first Agreement of the People. In fact, I argued that Petty's position had changed: he came to it as a supporter of manhood suffrage but, towards the end of the debate, sought consent on a more restricted franchise excluding Royalists, servants and other dependents.

My argument was a criticism of the claims of C.B.Macpherson that the Levellers were consistent supporters of a restricted franchise. But it must be said that the view held then that the First Agreement of the People was a Leveller document no longer seems tenable. Elliot Vernon and Philip Baker have recently argued in The Historical Journal (Volume 53. No.1 (March, 2010), Pp.39-59) that the document was the product of a group of London radicals, including Maximilian Petty, around Henry Marten and not a Leveller tract at all.

This means that the assumption upon which Macpherson, Keith Thomas, Monk, Aylmer and I worked was wrong. I am grateful for their research on this point.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The English Civil War-Essential Readings-Edited by Peter Gaunt. Blackwell 2000

"The Debate over the English Revolution" has been transformed out of all recognition during the past thirty years or so,"

David Underdown.

'a miserable, distracted time' in which 'when thou wentest to bed at night, thou knewest not whether thou shouldest be murdered afore day.

Sir John Oglander

Peter Gaunt's The English Civil War: The Essential Readings (2000) is a collection choice of essays chosen by Gaunt. It is an excellent introduction to the study of the English revolution allowing us to study the previous historiography.

Gaunt was given the unenviable task of putting together sixteen essays that were divided into four parts that sum up the historiography of an extraordinarily complex subject. Gaunt's choice of essays was made harder by copyright difficulties and problems of format.

Gaunt starts with three politically disparate historians John Morrill, Brian Manning, and David Underdown, who attempt to answer 'What Was The English Revolution?' the article first being published in history Today in 1984.

John Morrill[1] first essay starts with an explicit rejection that the civil war was the result of any long-term developments. He describes England after 1600 as a peaceful and prosperous place with little or no civil disturbances and certainly no reason to have a civil war
The main thrust of Morrill's argument is if it was not for Charles blundering and political inexperience England would have carried on its merry way. As he states "In 1640, however, Charles blundered away his initiative. He tried to impose his will upon his Scottish subjects twice, both times without adequate means. He could have made painful concessions, resumed his personal rule in England and looked to divide-and-rule tactics to regain his power in Scotland. But by attempting to impose his own brand of Protestantism on the Scots through an unco-ordinated force of Irish Catholics, Highland Catholics and an English army containing many Catholics, all to be paid for with cash to be provided from Rome and Madrid, he turned the anti-Catholic fears which his policies and his cultural values had already stimulated into a deep paranoia. The Scots' occupation of northeast England, and their demand for war reparations guaranteed by Parliament, created a wholly unanticipated and wholly unique situation: a meeting of Lords and Commons over whose determination he had no control. The MPs who gathered for the Long Parliament knew they had a once-for-all chance to put things right. They did not set out to organise for war but to restore the good old days."[2]

Morrill then expands on his theory that religion was the leading cause of the English revolution. According to him "Out of England's wars of religion came the modern secular state".[3]

Although not covered in this essay Morrill was extraordinarily vocal in his opposition any historian who even remotely argued that there was a revolution. This hostility was aimed mainly at the left-wing historians Christopher Hill and Brian Manning. Quite why Lawrence stone provoked Morrill's ire is beyond me as Stone was not even remotely interested in Marxism,

However, even Stone's limited defence of there being an English revolution bothered Morrill who said "I have no doubt at all that Lawrence Stone's Causes of the English Revolution (1972) were the thing people reacted against, with its rather triumphalism claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English Revolution. It was that I think which some people quite independently reacted against".

Morrill was not the only historian to attack Marxist historiography forming a popular front with other revisionist historians. In an interview for Making History Morrill describes the origins of the "revisionist Revolt",  Well, I think the exciting thing about revisionism was how a whole series of people came to the same conclusions simultaneously without really knowing one another. I had not met Mark Kishlansky or Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe when we all published our 1976 works which were the original canon of revisionism, and that is one of the most exciting things. "It is also worth saying that almost all the revisionists were people who had studied in Oxford and then been made to leave, for whom jobs could not be found in Oxford. We reacted to some extent against a previous generation of Oxford-trained historians like Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper and Hill."[4]

Brian Manning, in the same essay, attempts a definition of the word "revolution". The standard definition of revolution "involves the replacement by force or threat of force of one political or social system by another".  For Manning, the English revolution “was a revolution in that it involved a change of the political system by force and it was not just the substitution of one set of rulers for another. However, the constitution devised by the Levellers was not implemented nor was the political revolution followed by a social revolution".

Manning did not begin writing on the English revolution with a clear-cut class analysis or even a Marxist one. In his book The English People and the English Revolution he says "I do not see the 'middle sort of people' as a capitalist class, but as small independent producers, and I do not see the struggle as being between a declining feudal class and a rising capitalist class, but as a conflict between the aristocracy or governing elites and small independent producers".

Like Christopher Hill Manning was attracted to the "history from below "genre. This coincided with his joining of the International Socialists forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party(SWP). The SWP was attractive to Manning as they also supported the history from below genre. The Communist Party historians Group heavily influenced historians inside the SWP apart from Norah Carlin. This was not a good influence as Ann Talbot explains "The Communist Party sponsored a form of "People's History", which is typified by A.L. Morton's People's History of England in which the class character of former rebels, revolutionaries and famous leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition".

Jim Holstun correctly states for Manning "English workers at the very centre of the English Revolution as innovative political actors and theorists in their own right. His approach contrasts strongly with the usual somnambulist turn to the ruling class initiative and frequently inverts its causal sequence".[5]

David Underdown was a historian caught between a rock and a hard place. Neither Marxist or revisionist Underdown steered a middle course very successfully. According to Mark Kishlansky, Underdown's work "displayed two abiding qualities: a mastery of archival sources faithfully reported, and a compelling prose style that carried both story and argument. He was a craftsman's craftsman, a master of sources, of historiography, and of method which had few equals even among a flashy generation of generalists whose significant theses dominated discussion but faded over time while his firm conclusions persevered".[6]

Underdown was a gifted historian who was able relatively successfully to navigate the choppy waters of the study of the English revolution. As he relates in his essay "As always, each historian has his or her own solution. My own starts from two innocuous premises: first, that the revolution was not a mere accident (though the fortuitous and unpredictable certainly played a part in it); secondly, that to understand it we need to look back once more over the history of the previous century. When we do so we find, I suggest, a profound division emerging among the English people about the moral basis of their commonwealth, a division expressed in a cultural conflict that had both social and regional dimensions. The revolution was an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the conflict by imposing a particular notion of moral order, articulated in the culture of the Puritan' middling sort', upon the rest of the kingdom".

He continues "In any discussion of a political situation as chaotic as this one, we always need to look at the relative strength of the countervailing forces of tradition and change". This is what Underdown has attempted to do all his life and has been very consistent.

From any objective standpoint Mary Fulbrook's, the English Revolution and the Revisionist Revolt', Social History, is one of the most critical essays in the book. Not everyone was enamoured by her article leading one blogger to write it was  "more proof that revisionists and Marxists will never understand each other because they just do not want to understand each other". [7]

Mary Fulbrooks article is probably one of the most multi-dimensional attacks on the revisionist's positions. In the opening paragraph, she explains that "One of the most contentious problems of English history is the English Revolution, or English Civil War, of the mid-seventeenth century. Even the very name, the most appropriate characterization of the phenomenon, is contested. Was it a major historical revolution, requiring analysis in terms of long-term political, ideological and socio-economic causes? Or was it rather a mere rebellion, of a familiar and recurrent type, developing by a series of mistakes and ineptitudes which require short-term analysis of power struggles, patronage and personalities? In recent years, a flurry of writings by scholars such as Conrad Russell, Paul Christianson, Kevin Sharpe and others, have sought to revise what they term the 'traditional' approaches to English seventeenth-century history: the so-called 'Whig', 'Marxist' and 'sociological' approaches which share a grand conception of the revolution and a grand approach to explanation. These revisionist writings, revolting against major traditions of interpretation, have been met with a growing wealth of rebuttals from historians concerned to defend older approaches. It seems that the battle over the Civil War will continue.' In the meantime, however, recent debates have involved issues of more general historiographical interest".[8]

Fulbrook, while being heavily critical of the revisionist misrepresentation of Marxist views, had sympathies with the lot of the revisionists. Sitting on the theoretical fence is a skill both Underdown and Fulbrook have mastered. The rest of us do not have that luxury.

Conrad Russell,s 'Why Did Charles I Fight the Civil War?' History Today, 1984. Is a typical piece of Russell's work. For Russell there was no English revolution, no clash of class forces he believes that "Civil wars are like other quarrels: it takes two to make them. It is, then, something of a curiosity that we possess no full analysis of why Charles I chose to fight a Civil War in 1642. Yet the early seventeenth century was in many ways a good period for the gentry, and a bad period for kings. If we were to search the period for long-term reasons why the King might have wanted to fight a Civil War, we would find the task far easier than it has ever been to find long-term causes why the gentry might have wanted to fight a Civil War[9].

It is not for nothing that Jim Holstun described Russell's historiography as a 'manifesto for historical revisionism',

Christopher Hill, 'A Bourgeois Revolution? (1980) is the most important essay in the book. Hill's original 1940 essay outlining the theory of the English bourgeois revolution is what all historians have to define their work by. Whether they are for or against, they have to deal with this theory in one way or another.

As Ann Talbot correctly states "Hill's achievements were twofold. Firstly he identified the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly, he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change, since a few people at the top do not make revolutions although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance Today when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators".

She continues "Hill, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. He had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into a struggle against the King and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing".[10]


It was always going to be a problematic and personal decision of what historians to leave out.  Articles by Ann Hughes or Kevin Sharpe would have improved the book. As one reviewer correctly stated, Gaunt has "managed his task with sensitivity and imagination. Anyone approaching the subject for the first time could do no better than study this collection of essays.

[1] See Review-More Like Lions Than Men-Sir William Brereton and the Cheshire Army of Parliament, 1642-46-Andrew Abram -Helion & Company.
[2] What was the English-Revolution?John Morrill, Brian Manning and
  David Underdown Originally appeared in History Today 1984
[3] What was the English-Revolution?
[4] Professor John Morrill-Interview Transcript-Selwyn College, Cambridge, 26 March 2008-
[5] Brian Manning and the dialectics of revolt-Issue: 103-Posted on 29th November 2004-
[6] Obituary of David Underdown by Mark Kishlansky.
[8]  The English Revolution and the revisionist revolt-Social History, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1982), pp. 249-264
[9] Why did Charles I fight the Civil War?- Published in History Today Volume 34 Issue 6 June 1984
[10] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss

"As an astute judge of character, Spartacus might have chosen some men without prior military experience to lead units of his army."

Barry Strauss

The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss is an excellent introduction to understanding Spartacus and the most famous slave revolt in history. The book is well researched and not bogged down with footnotes and is certainly not a dense academic tome. As one reviewer said, "In the Spartacus War, Barry Strauss presents a historical portrait of Spartacus to a mass audience".

Strauss was not just content with researching his subject from the confines of Cornell University but made numerous trips to the Italian countryside in order to see where many battles. Took place.

Strauss is no tourist historian, and his knowledge stands out in the book. Strauss displays admiration for Spartacus. For Strauss Spartacus was no ordinary Slave but a "murmillo gladiator". Strauss also describes Spartacus battlefield tactics "not as intuition but reveals that the former slave had served as a Thracian auxiliary to the Roman army where he learned about Roman military tactics".

Strauss presents a good case for his historiography. His task was made more difficult due to the lack of information on his chosen subject. As one reviewer said, "Not content to give the evidence, Strauss usually picks a version of the events and backs it up, or works from multiple hypotheses."

Strauss mixes his interpretations with useful knowledge of the history and background of the period. Unlike many figures from ancient times, Spartacus has a resonance down the centuries even today his name is used by anyone who purports to fight "tyranny and totalitarianism". Even the most right-wing figures had claimed Spartacus for themselves according to The Sunday Times review by Mary Beard "When Ronald Reagan addressed the British parliament in 1982, he used Spartacus, the Roman rebel slave, as a symbol of the fight against. For Reagan, Spartacus stood for the struggle of western democracy against Soviet oppression."[1]

However, it is on the left both politically and historically that Spartacus lies. He was principally an egalitarian; all the loot captured from the Romans was shared amongst his troops. Karl Marx said that Spartacus inspired people in the battle against Capitalism in his words he described him as "a great general, a noble character, a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat". These sentiments were echoed by Vladimir Lenin co-leader of the Russian Revolution. A hundred years earlier, the great Voltaire called Spartacus's rebellion "the only just war in history".

Many people's understanding of Spartacus is informed by the Hollywood movie starring among others Kirk Douglas. The film itself was a struggle against "oppression" not Roman but American Capitalism. The 1960 Kirk Douglas film was based on a struggle against McCarthyism. The film script was based on the book by one blacklisted author, and the screenplay was written by another.

According to Marty Jonas "Kirk Douglas was impressed with Kubrick and brought him on as director of Spartacus, which Douglas starred in and produced. Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann, who had already shot the beginning and several scenes. Though a cut above the usual big-budget historical films, and with a worthy subject--the massive slave revolt in ancient Rome--it still suffered from the bloatedness and heroics of most Hollywood epics. Kubrick described himself as a "hired hand" and had significant differences with Douglas. It was not a happy time creatively for him. But Spartacus showed the studios that Kubrick could be a responsible Hollywood director, and, conversely, demonstrated to Kubrick that his place was not in Hollywood. His disillusionment with the studio system brought him to England, where he made Lolita (1962) and settled for the rest of his life".[2]

In an interview given to publicise the book Strauss elaborates further on the movie, Yerxa: Who was the "real" Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film?
Strauss: "Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn't complete fiction, but offers some historical truth. The fact is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it's even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie. But there are some real differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent to today's Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent".[3]

Strauss makes clear that there is a problem writing on Spartacus and that is that the majority of evidence of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73BC, was written more than 100 years after the event. Most of this was written by Roman historians who were far from objective. Straus also makes clear that political issues were in play. Although that is not to say that some Roman historians were favourable to Spartacus, Strauss says "I was personally struck by the degree to which later Roman writers presented him as a good guy,". "They respected him and blamed themselves for the war." The historian Plutarch writes "And seizing upon a defensible place, and they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are."

I thought Strauss could have made more use of Plutarch, in his book on Roman History, the Life of Crassus: writes "The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiatus trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping-knives and spits and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are."[4]

Beard writes "What preoccupied serious Roman historians, looking back to the rebellion, were two political issues. First, why did it take the Roman forces two years to crush this band of runaways and their hangers-on, as they wandered to and fro around Italy? (The answer must be that, to begin with, the senate underestimated the danger and sent second-rate generals with untrained armies to deal with it.) Second, which Roman commander ultimately gained most, in honour, prestige and career advantage, from finishing off Spartacus's uprising? Was it Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier in the film), who infamously crucified the defeated rebels, by the thousand, all along the Appian Way? Or was it Pompey the Great, who hurried back from his campaigns in Spain, and tried to rob Crassus of the credit by wiping out a stray group of runaways and claiming the victory for himself"?[5]

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss makes the point that it is neither Crassus who led the victorious war against Spartacus or Pompey who came in later came out with any credit or prestige with history both have been largely forgotten yet it is the loser Spartacus who is arguably the more famous and certainly looked up to.

As one reviewer put it "Both Crassus and Pompey, were as doomed as Spartacus: Crassus was soon to be massacred in a battle against the eastern Parthians (a much more formidable enemy than Spartacus), while Pompey was brutally decapitated in his civil war against Julius Caesar. The political future lay elsewhere, with the one-man rule of the first emperor Augustus. Ironically, it was Augustus's undistinguished father, Octavius, who, ten years after Spartacus's death in 71BC, finally crushed the last remnants of his supporters, still living rough (and annoying the local population) in southern Italy".

To conclude, the book is not without its weaknesses. Not even a good military historian as Strauss undoubtedly can paper over large gaps that appear in the Spartacus evidence. Reading Strauss, you almost get to feel his frustration as well as your own in attempting to understand Spartacus's motives.
Reviewer Tony Williams also makes this point "why they revolted in the first place. Strauss is simply not clear. Spartacus was "a man of destiny," the author tells us. He was a "man of passion, thirsting for freedom." But the revolt was neither to free slaves generally nor to escape into freedom far from the clutches of the Roman Republic. If we learn little of the why Strauss does not fall short on the how of the Spartacus revolt".

This frustration was shared by many who reviewed the book in the mainstream press one writer asked "What, for example, were Spartacus's strategic plans? Once he had broken out of the gladiatorial barracks at Capua and gathered together a sizeable force of other runaways, why did he march all the way north to the Alps, then back down south again? Was this, as I half-suspect, aimless wandering with no game plan at all? Strauss is more generous, and guesses that Spartacus was let down by his followers: they took one look at the mountains they would have to cross if they were to make their way to freedom in the north, as Spartacus planned, and beat a hasty retreat".

Strauss has his ideas on what motivated Spartacus. Strauss portrays Spartacus wife as having a significant influence on his motives, but little or no evidence exists to back this up. We do not even know her name. Some things are contradictory in the book. While describing what revolutionary acts were, Strauss downplays the revolutionary aspect of Spartacus. Strauss makes no suggestion that Spartacus had any revolutionary plan to abolish slavery as an institution. But that is not the point. Spartacus was not a conscious Marxist revolutionary wanting overthrow the Roman State.

It was just that objectively Spartacus could not take the revolution further than he did. While you get to learn little of Strauss's political leanings he has made some wayward comparisons between the rebellions which he describes as probably the most successful insurgencies in world history. He has also made parallels between the slave revolts American' War on Terror'.

"It's the story of an insurgency like ours in Iraq and Afghanistan," Strauss says. "The great power can't fight him, because it's bogged down in another war. The war is a test of the great power's moral fibre. And a charismatic leader inspires men to fight using liberation theology like jihad. The similarities leap off the page."

While comparisons with the United States imperialism and the Roman Empire are fraught with danger, I would draw the line to say there is any comparison between Spartacus and a bunch of clerical fascists like the Taliban.

[2] Stanley Kubrick--an appreciation-By Marty Jonas-27 March 1999-