This paper explores the hitherto rebuffed possibilities of using Marx to read ancient texts. I shall argue that, far from being a frame that paralyses literature through historical determinism, Marxist criticism is one of the best available tools for unsettling our experience of ancient culture by chasing its conspicuous absences, the things that are not there. In this way, such criticism becomes a fundamentally creative way to embrace antiquity’s gaping gaps. Marx is especially helpful in allowing us to crack even further, and more productively, the wrecked texts of antiquity.
We know the bind well: as products of an elite male universe, ancient literature often keeps silent about the things we would most like it to expatiate on; women, slaves, ‘common experience’ are shrouded and crowded into the irrecoverable ether. But Marxist criticism can transform these texts not just by paying attention to the etiolated forms of such sidelined figures (a slave here, a woman there), but also by using the silence itself as a way to radically reframe the text. In this, I suggest that Marx helps classicists get over the pathological need always to start with what is present, and to work from there. This is an urgent issue for how we read classical texts, and for how we imagine that they were produced.
I shall start with what’s not there in, and work my way back through, a famous text of Latin literature: Virgil’s Georgics. This rusticated didactic, long ago a target for Marxist reading in the underread Lambert 1988, is famous for writing out a key aspect of contemporary agricultural production: slavery (cf. Fitzgerald 1996). Virgil, supposed victim of the Augustan fashion for retro in literature as in life, revives the vintage of good old citizen farmers doing it for themselves, without a calloused slave in sight. The magic of thinking of slaves as prosthetic extensions to the free body is perhaps one way to rationalise slave absence here, or to claim this absence as unmarked presence: when Virgil tells us to sow our seeds, ‘we’ dutifully oblige, but by ‘we’, we mean the slaves who are doing it for us. Roman slavery is a remarkable mode of production in how brazenly it refuses to acknowledge who is doing the work, and how slickly it folds the slave agents into the sovereign body of the master.
The Georgics performs this sleight of hand impeccably, until the very end. When Aristaeus enacts his mother Cyrene’s instructions to set up the fantastic bougonia, Virgil describes his actions in the singular. But when the bougonia unfolds before his very eyes, he becomes strangely plural (aspiciunt 4.555). Mynors 1990 makes this jarring non-sequitur mean that, retrospectively, Aristaeus had had invisible helpers with him to perform these difficult labours all along. I agree; and I see this as a logical lunge that betrays the poem’s fudged relationships of power and agency, and its sly blending of individual and collective labour. Virgil’s pose of didactic authority has so far threatened to make slaves of us, but the end of the poem shows us how the work we are told to do is really fobbed off onto unseen underlings, as it should be. I shall show how this lapse adds to the larger power dynamics of book 4, in which wealthy humans begin to retire, and leave all the hard work to their miniature avatars (the bees). I shall then test how far we can extrapolate this concealment of labour’s true hands to the context of literary production. We know that slaves were deeply involved in the heavy labour of reading, writing, editing: so how often was the pen of the Georgics in the hands of a slave? The poem puts to us the big Marxist question of who is doing what for whom - and that goes for literature as well as agriculture.
Marx and Antiquity