Land, Political Power, and Violence in Republican Rome and Contemporary Zimbabwe: A Comparative View.

AuthorMlambo, Obert Bernard


This article demonstrates cases of organized violence and corruption in politics of the Roman Republic and proceeds to extrapolate this scenario to the case of contemporary Zimbabwe. In this sense, the article advances a study of power politics and political violence that cuts across historical epochs and political boundaries by comparing antiquity with present-day manifestations and vice versa. Comparative investigations of a similar nature have been done by Finley (1986: x, 131), (3) whose work introduced new concepts to the study of classics derived from his wide familiarity with modern social theory, thus widening scholarly appreciation of antiquity. Finley's study is a multifaceted anthropological approach drawing upon a comparative interrogation of literate, post-primitive, pre-industrial and historical societies based on the thesis that in a post-modern world where national and cultural boundaries are increasingly crossed and redefined, ethnic essentialism seems outdated. (4)

Our basic argument echoes Michel Foucault's view that power is seen in its external visage, at the point where it is in direct and immediate relationship with that we can provisionally call its object, its target, its field of application; that is where it installs itself and produces its real effects. (5) Force/violence as a form of power is in certain cases at the foundation of the distributive system in societies where there is perceived wealth to be divided. Men and women struggling over control of the surplus of a society (land as the means for producing surplus in the case of Zimbabwe and Rome) will not acquiesce for as long as there is cause for disgruntlement. While people will not resort to armed revolution for trivial gains, when control over the entire surplus of a society is involved, the prospect is more enticing. (6)

Domination over land and political power produced by the exchange relationships within the two societies of Rome and Zimbabwe is viewed to be the main cause of violent political behavior. The comparative approach taken in this article ties in with Widlok's (7) examination of the economy of sharing in a variety of social and political contexts around the world. Widlok's comparative approach spans a wide range of material from hunter-gatherer ethnography alongside debates and empirical illustrations from globalized society.

We may also note that some academic work has already been done comparing the ancient world and Africa. Mention may be made of Francis Machingura's work (8) which refers to Mesopotamian, Old Testament, Hellenistic and traditional Shona views of kingship and the New Testament idea of Jesus' Kingship as a prelude to discussion of Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe (at the time of writing). We may also mention the study of Thompson (9) which sought to inquire whether "racism" against Black people of the kind seen in colonial Africa existed among the ancient Romans.

In this undertaking we attempt to use a single aspect of Marx's social theory not only as a way of justifying the study of an ancient society and a contemporary society side by side, but also with the aim of seeing certain universal characteristics and trends of human political behavior and their culmination in violence.

Why Ancient Rome and Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe is embedded in a capitalist world and dependent on commerce and other economic relations with the world. Rome was not similarly pressured by a more powerful corporation-dominated global community, and so one might initially suppose that its economy was not subject to the same pressures of development as that of Zimbabwe. Yet this is true only to a certain extent. The economy of traditional African societies is agriculture-dominated, like that of ancient Rome, and the presence of cities in Africa did not destroy traditional African society immediately or totally; aspects of it carry on in rural areas. If we take further into consideration the traditional resistance to change, and the fact that industrial infrastructure is certainly not as strong in Zimbabwe as it is in the First World, particularly under Zimbabwe's economic pressures, the difference from ancient agrarian society is not so sharp as it might appear initially. (10)

If a comparison of Roman politics with Zimbabwean politics sounds forced and unreasonable, one may need to consider for a moment the historical setting of Zimbabwe, a country that has been involved in the 80s in a bitter civil struggle with the accompanying horrors of bloodshed, violence, divided families, destroyed lands, a disrupted society, a ruined economy, massive unemployment of war veterans, and a re-distribution of land. (11) And we might ask: why is land still a central factor for Zimbabwe, as for ancient Rome? Why are similar political phenomena taking place in both societies, as will be later indicated? Could they economically and politically have more in common than we suspected?

Consider, firstly, the dynamics of land politics that intensified since the year 2000, and consider how Zimbabwe continues to experience serious economic and social problems as well as redistributive challenges in the spheres of land and the economy. Then consider events during the Roman revolution in general, and post-Actium Rome in particular. Political violence started in Roman politics with the attempted land reform of the Gracchi (133 and 123 BC). One main feature of the history of the last years of the Roman Republic was the use of more or less organized violence in politics, in which bribery and corruption were rife; Caesar's agrarian law was carried 'per vim'/through violence with the aid of Pompey's veterans; he (Caesar) instituted in 59BC a policy of land reform designed to take away land and property from his political enemies. (12) Earlier on, Marius and Sulla had recruited private armies more loyal to themselves than to the state. They recruited poor and landless citizens by offering them bounties of land upon discharge. Moreover, Augustus' and Antony's veterans engaged in violent confiscations of land in Italy after the battle of Philippi in 42 BC and also after the battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Marx and History: Zimbabwe and Roman Politics

We rely in the conceptual framework for this comparative study on Marx's social theory of production. We are aware that the application of Marx's theory to the history of the Roman Republic causes a problem of historical methodology. However, the theory enables us to read the two societies. We may thence derive, if not a full formal theory, then at least an approach, a habit of thought, a methodology that enables the reading of post-colonial Zimbabwe alongside the Roman Republic.

It should be noted that we are not here attempting to swallow whole the theory of Marxism, but only to look at parts of it that seem to be useful or credible for the cases at hand. Just as one who accepted the Pythagorean Theorem in mathematics as valid would not be expected to adopt Pythagorean mysticism and numerology as a whole, or even necessarily to be broadly "Pythagorean" in their philosophy, so one who finds useful material in Marx is not thereby committed to an uncritical or quasi-religious adherence to Marxist ideology. Similarly, one who finds even a part of Marxist ideas applicable to a situation should not be afraid of, nevertheless, dissenting from Marx where prudence or the evidence requires it, or nuancing their agreement with what Marx points out.

Marx writes: "In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity. It is the particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it." (13)

This is an example of an area where critical acceptance of Marx's pronouncements may be warranted.

On the one hand, it is true that there are forms of economic production which predominate in particular societies, and it is part of Marx's merit to recognise that economics is not artificially separate from society, but rather the economist must take into account aspects of the social process other than "those aspects which could be treated unambiguously as economic." (14) And this of course applies to us as non-economists who do not simply ignore those aspects of life that are economic but realize that our field of study may be affected by them. Marx referred to Asiatic, Ancient, Feudal and Bourgeois modes of production, as well as looking forward to a future communist revolution in which there would be no more productive relations of a constraining type. (15) Without holding ourselves bound to follow Marx's exact typology, we may appreciate the insight that different modes of production predominate in different societies.

On the other hand, one might ask whether all societies absolutely rely on one form of production, or whether the rule of predominance of one or the other mode of production in a society might be a "by-and- large truth" rather than an absolute rule. For instance, could industrial farming and subsistence farming coexist in an African society? And would this not imply the coexistence of different economic modes of production, rather than just one kind of economy in Africa? With this in mind we can modify our attitude to Marx so that we can admit exceptions in real life to what he lays down, without thereby denying that he has raised valid points. We can look for dominant and socially influential modes of production in society, without necessarily, for ideological reasons, ignoring the possibility of multiple coexisting modes of production.

Marx talks of forms of society in which one kind of production predominates. With respect to pastoral peoples, certain forms of tillage occur. (16) Konstan (17) explains how, where settled agriculture predominates, a...

To continue reading

Request your trial