August 15, 1835, as part of his Abitur examinations at
the Gymnasium in Trier, the seventeen year old Karl Marx
composed in Latin (how many modern students could do that?)
an essay on Roman History entitled Does the Reign
of Augustus Deserve to be Called One of the Happier Periods
of the Roman Empire? As I found when editing it in
the Archiv Für Kulturgeschichte, apart from a couple
of sentences in S. S. Prawer’s Karl Marx and
World Literature, this piece remains largely neglected
or slighted by modern students of Marx, being (e.g.) left
out of Geoffrey de Ste Croix’ survey of Marx as
a classical scholar in his brobdingnagian The Class
Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, and curtly dismissed
as “uninteresting” in David McLellan’s
Karl Marx: his Life and Thought. Marx’
examiners called his handwriting “abominable”
and were severe - sometimes unduly so - on his Latinity.
And we would not expect to find mature Marxism springing
fully armed from the head of a schoolboy. Yet, just as
the remark “To some extent our social relations
have already begun before we are in a position to determine
them,” made in another of his Abitur essays (A
Young Man’s Reflections on the Choice of a Career
- with Marx envisaging the “noble calling”
of a scholar), has been understood as the germ of Marxism,
so also these first thoughts on the interrelationship
between the cultural and economic histories of the Romans
may be taken as an always fascinating and sometimes suggestive
prelude to his mature thinking.
is a translation of his essay, word for word, except that
I have compressed some of the prolix repetition complained
of by his examiners, also a few purely ancient details,
e.g. the list of tribes defeated by Augustus:
are many ways to judge the Augustan Age. First, compare
it with other periods of Roman history. Then enquire what
the ancients felt, what foreigners thought of the empire
- did they fear or despise it? Finally, what was the state
of the arts?
this as short as possible, I shall adduce the finest epoch
before Augustus, one made happy by moral simplicity, a
striving for excellence, and the unselfishness of both
the politicians and the people; then, the reign of Nero,
the worst of them all.
the Punic Wars, the Romans were quite uninterested in
the fine arts. Learning was ignored, since the top statesmen
devoted most of their energy to agriculture. Fine talk
was eschewed. They spoke crisply only of what they had
to do, preferring substance over style. No fine writing
either: their literature was confined to purely factual
annals. But the entire period was largely a struggle between
the upper and lower classes, each side fighting for its
own self-interest, along with the fierce personal battles
between politicians of all stripes. Nero’s reign
is easy to sum up: a monstrous tyranny, the best citizens
liquidated, the laws flouted, the city burnt down, peacemongering
generals afraid to seek glory lest this count against
mild regime of Augustus was completely different. True,
all freedom, even its semblance, was gone; the emperor
adopted laws and customs to suit himself; the powers previously
vested in elected officials were now in one man’s
hands. However, the Romans accepted the fiction that they
themselves ruled through this one man, and refused to
see that real freedom was lost. But this very double-think
is a cogent proof of imperial mildness.
military power reached new peaks, with their enemies crushed
in both East and West. Above all, their most dangerous
foes, the Germans, whom even Julius Caesar had failed
to conquer, were overcome by a combination of citizenship
grants to individuals, military might, and their own tribal
Rome, by contrast, since Augustus had concentrated all
authority in himself, the sovereign power remained centripetal,
thereby avoiding the pitfalls of a diminished central
government and political vendettas that put private ambition
above the public good.
Augustan Age was no utopia, being inferior to early times
in terms of freedom and morality. Still, the personal
virtue of Augustus and his purging of the senate to replace
immoral old-timers by able and bright newcomers did much
to consolidate the post-civil war reconstruction. The
emperor himself could dissimulate when it suited him,
but was a genius at making autocracy seem beneficial.
All political institutions are products of prevailing
conditions. The early Roman Republic suited early Roman
hardihood and morality; in an age grown soft and decadent,
autocracy confers an ersatz freedom that can work better
than the real thing.
Romans themselves thought Augustus more divine than human.
This is not just the poetic licence of Horace; that great
historian Tacitus also describes his reign in terms of
respect, admiration, even love. His reign marked a cultural
apogee, producing as it did a flood of great writers from
whom, as though from a fountain, all people imbibed their
his Rome flourished; he genuinely wanted the best for
the people; political strife was eliminated; he appointed
good men to put his best intentions into effect; cultural
flowers bloomed. The Age of Augustus may be called a golden
one, thanks to the placing of unprecedented one-man rule
at the genuine service of all.
is evident, the notion of class struggle is already formulated.
So is the importance of private ownership, also man as
a product of his environment. In Capital, Marx
would write, “The secret history of the Roman Republic
is the history of its landed property,” while he
invoked its collapse to illustrate his polemical The
Civil War in France where Nero is also used as a
paradigm of evil in his attack on the scholarly statesman
Adolphe Thiers. The fair-minded appraisal of ancient German
virtues and vices is preferable to his sometimes militant
attempts in later life to equip them with primitive communist
qualities. The only egregious error in this school essay
is his claim that Tacitus spoke highly of Augustus - the
reverse is nearer the mark. But later at university he
would come to know the Roman historian better by translating
him as a stylistic exercise: in his Herr Vogt,
a pamphlet at once rebarbative and dazzling in its parade
of quotations from classical literature, Marx dubs his
victim “a Tacitus of the antechamber.” By
no coincidence, in a fragment of his abandoned novel Scorpion,
Augustus has been downgraded to a “buffoon”.
graduated from Trier with an excellent report on his Classics,
indeed on all subjects save French and Physics; his examiners
sign off “cherishing the hope that he will fulfill
the favourable expectations which his aptitudes justify.”
Six years later at the University of Jena he submitted
his doctoral thesis on the atomic theories of Democritus
and Epicurus, a study characterised by the great Lucretian,
the emphatically non-Marxist Cyril Bailey, as “astonishing”
in its knowledge and “arresting” in its conclusions.
Marx has by now come a long way from the third of his
Abitur essays, a more or less obligatory profession of
Christian faith in which the “frivolous philosophy”
of Epicurus is derided. Greece and Rome remained with
Marx for the rest of his life, underpinning his major
writings and engaging both his intellect (e.g. Horace
is often quoted with sympathy, in Capital and
elsewhere, while Juvenal’s Third Satire on Rome
enlivens his disgusted journalistic account of Victorian
London) and his emotions - witness this outburst in a
letter to Engels in 1861: “Spartacus was a capital
fellow, a great general, a true proletarian; Pompey was
a turd.” In September 1837, the 16-years-old Friedrich
Engels produced an 80-line Greek poem on the Theban civil
war between Eteocles and Polyneikes. I edited this some
years ago (QUCC 33, 1989, 51-9). As with Marx' school-leaving
Latin essay, it deserves inclusion in the history of the
European classical tradition, the enrichment of which
by these juvenilia of the founding fathers of Marxism
has gone largely unnoticed.
not surprising that Engels' Greek hexameters are Homeric
pastiches. The choice of metre, though, is perhaps unexpected.
The theme belongs more to Attic tragedy, above all Aeschylus'
Seven Against Thebes - the first Western. Aeschylus,
though, has had a mixed Marxist reception. Trotsky disparaged
him, Ismael Kadare, in Enver Hoxha's Albania, penned a
book entitled Aeschylus: The Great Loser. The
Marxist scholar George Thomson composed a mammoth volume
Aeschylus And Athens, and also edited his Prometheus
one who was required to do it at school, I can painfully
attest that composing Greek verses of any quality is no
easy thing. And the poem's theme may prefigure the adult
Engels - civil war and communist revolution went ineluctably
left school with a good report on his Greek and Latin.
For the rest of his life, he held his own in trading classical
allusions with Marx and stoutly defended study of the
classics in his Anti-Duhring; for full references,
see the East German J. Irmscher's article in Eirene
2, 1964, 7-42.
the age of 7, Lenin entered the Simbirsk Classical Gymnasium.
He survived 8 hours of Latin a week, began Greek a bit
later, read the major historians and poets, translated
classical poetry into Russian, and wrote original verses
in Greek and Latin, earning high marks and golden opinions
from his teachers.
letter from his sister Anna says his zeal for Latin was
such that he coached her in it, despite him being 6 years
younger. Robert Service puts it well in his excellent
biography (London, 2001): "Lenin the writer-revolutionary
owes as much to the literary heritage of Athens and Rome
as to Marx and Engels. It may even be that he first learned
from Demosthenes and Cicero how to discern a crack in
the wall of an opponent's argument and prise it open -
and perhaps the stories of heroism in Homer, Xenophon
and Livy predisposed him to give high value to the potential
role of the individual leader."
1914-18, Lenin returned to the classical authors, above
all Aristotle who, according to Service, helped him to
sharpen his Marxism and his strategy for revolution. Lenin
evidently devoured Aristotle's Metaphysics -
and, surely, his Politics too. He was following
Marx and his debt to Hegel who emphasised the primacy
of Aristotle - what would they have thought of the Monty
Python ditty Now Aristotle Was a Bugger For The Bottle...?
by contrast, was sometimes less admiring, disaparaging
"the old Greeks" and Greek thinkers as "the
formalists of their day." But the finale of his best
book, Literature And Revolution (1924) parades
Aristotle along with Goethe as the paradigm of human achievement
and expanded his view of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos
as the ultimate play - "It expresses the consciousness
of a whole people." Summing up, Trotsky wrote: "A
new class does not begin to create all of culture from
the beginning, but enters into possession of the past,
assorts it, rearranges it and builds on it."
was one of Stalin's poorer subjects at school in Gori,
but as a seminarian he coped well with it and with Latin.
The schoolboy Stalin wrote poems, at least one of which
is classically tinged: "The rose opens her petals,/And
embraces the violet./The lily too has awakened,/They bare
their heads in the zephyrs."
in power, he replaced current educational experiments
with the old strict classically-based curriculum, the
one that had produced Lenin and himself. He memorably
dubbed writers "engineers of the human soul"
- neither his ghost nor that of Trotsky will thank me
here, but on this they did agree.
final reflection, the Marx Brothers may be classics, but
the Marxians - Karl, Fred, Vladimir, and Joe - are more
2006 by Barry Baldwin