G. E. M. de Ste. Croix

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Aardappeleters ("The Potato Eaters") by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885. G. E. M. de Ste. Croix used the picture as the frontispiece for his book The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World.

Geoffrey Ernest Maurice de Ste. Croix (8 February 1910 – 5 February 2000), known informally as Croicks[1], was a British historian who specialised in examining the classical era from a Marxist perspective. He was Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at New College, Oxford from 1953 to 1977, where he taught important scholars including Robin Lane Fox, Robert Parker and Nicholas Richardson.


De Ste. Croix was born in Macau and was educated at Clifton College, in Bristol. He left school at the age of 15 and become an articled clerk, which allowed him to train as a solicitor, without a degree in law. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1932 and practised until 1940.[2]

He had a strong physique and was a talented tennis player, competing in the singles and doubles tournament at Wimbledon from 1930 to 1932.[3]

During World War II he joined the Royal Air Force, and was stationed for a time in Egypt, where he had the opportunity to expand his knowledge of ancient languages.

After the war ended, de Ste. Croix studied ancient history at University College, London. From 1950 to 1953 he taught at the London School of Economics and Birkbeck College, before being appointed a fellow of New College, Oxford. He lived at Oxford for the rest of his life.


Within the circles of classical scholarship, de Ste. Croix—as an exponent of a Marxian epistemological approach—was frequently involved in debate with Sir Moses Finley, an advocate of Weberian societal analysis. The two often exchanged letters and their disagreements were always civil.

De Ste. Croix is best known for his books The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972) and The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (1981). He was also a noted contributor on the issue of Christian persecution between the reigns of the Roman Emperors Trajan and Diocletian. Of particular note in this regard are the articles written by de Ste. Croix and A. N. Sherwin-White, each challenging the opinions of the other. There were four in total, displaying just the sort of light-hearted banter evident also in de Ste. Croix's correspondence with Moses Finley.

The Character of the Athenian Empire[edit]

De Ste. Croix's influential article The Character of the Athenian Empire, which first appeared in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte (1954, 3, pp. 1–41), provoked a fresh debate about the nature of the Delian League and the Athenian Empire which continues to this day. The article was based on a paper The Alleged Unpopularity of the Athenian Empire delivered to the London Classical Association on 14 June 1950.[4]

The Origins of the Peloponnesian War[edit]

The Origins of the Peloponnesian War made several major contributions to scholarship on the subject, the major one being a reinterpretation of the Megarian Decree, passed by the Athenian Ekklesia in 432 BC. Most scholarship hitherto had considered the decree to involve economic sanctions by excluding the Megarian state and Megarian traders from access to ports throughout the Athenian Empire. De Ste. Croix instead interpreted it as a religious sanction (drawing an analogy with the Spartan demand—in response to the Megarian Decree and other Athenian policies — that Athens expel some religiously-tainted citizens). De Ste. Croix maintained that the sanction was exercised not to hurt the Megarians—which it could not do, given the nature of trade and economics in the ancient world, but on religious grounds felt to be genuine by the Athenians. This argument has not achieved general acceptance among historians.[5]

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World[edit]

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World was an attempt to establish the validity of a historical materialist analysis of the ancient Greek and Roman world. It covers the period roughly from Greek pre-classical times to the Arab conquest. Part one addresses fundamental topics. After an expository plan chapter II (Class, Exploitation, and Class Struggle) begins with an apologia of De Ste. Croix's understanding of basic classical Marxian theory (§ I The nature of class society) and some specific terms (§ II 'Class', 'exploitation', and 'the class struggle' defined). The remainder of Part One is a detailed analysis of these concepts applied to the Ancient Greek World (Chs. III Property and the Propertied and IV Forms of Exploitation in the Ancient Greek World, and the Small Independent Producer).

Part II contains the historical analysis per se and begins (Ch. V The Class Struggle in Greek History on the Political Plane) with an exposition of how the economic processes addressed in part I lead to a gradual but complete eradication of Greek democracy by the middle of the Roman principate. The remaining chapters (VI Rome the Suzerain, VII The Class Struggle on the Ideological Plane, and VIII 'The Decline and Fall' of the Roman Empire: an Explanation) focus primarily on Rome and put forth the thesis that it was the increasing dependence on slave labor and diminishment of what would be considered in a modern context the middle classes that was the actual cause of the collapse. There is also a lengthy discussion of the significance of the mode by which surplus value is generated. De Ste. Croix makes the point that the mode of surplus extraction is not necessarily the same as the mode of production engaged in by a majority of the population. Specifically, that while a relatively small portion of the work force were slaves, Rome under the principate nonetheless became essentially a slave society.

Selected publications[edit]

  • "The character of the Athenian empire" in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 1954, 3, pp. 1–41.
  • "Greek And Roman Accounting" 1956.
  • The Origins of the Peloponnesian War. London: Duckworth, 1972.
  • Early Christian attitudes to property and slavery. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975.
  • The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. London, Duckworth, 1981.


  1. ^ "Geoffrey de Ste Croix" by David Harvey, The Guardian, 10 February 2000. Archived here.
  2. ^ "British Academy biographies"
  3. ^ http://www.wimbledon.com/en_GB/scores/draws/archive/players/7bb1b614-b303-472f-8645-212a3e939580/index.html
  4. ^ de Ste Croix, G.E.M. (1954) "The character of the Athenian empire", Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 3, p. 1.
  5. ^ Chester Starr, in The American Historical Review (v. 78, no. 3, p. 663) described The Origins of the Peloponnesian War as "superb in its argumentation and wrongheaded in its thrust."

Further reading[edit]

  • Cartledge, P.A. and Harvey, F.D. (eds) (1985) Crux: Essays Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix on his 75th Birthday. London: Duckworth in association with Imprint Academic.

External links[edit]