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date: 04 March 2021


  • Neville Morley


Capitalism is a contested term, both in the modern world and in historical studies; different theoretical traditions understand it in radically different ways and, hence, disagree both as to its utility in analysing the ancient economy and as to the meaning and significance of a claim that classical antiquity was in any sense capitalist. These questions overlap with other major debates in ancient economic history. This article identifies the theoretical issues and debates involved in the use of the term, rather than engaging with substantive questions about the nature and development of the ancient economy.

Updated in this version

Text updated and bibliography expanded.

Capitalism is a term freighted with heavy ideological baggage; its meaning and significance is disputed in the modern world, and the question of whether or not it is a useful or appropriate term for understanding classical antiquity is inextricably entangled with broader debates about the nature of the ancient economy and how it should be studied. A typical dictionary definition of the term is “an economic system characterized by private or corporation ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production and the distribution of goods determined mainly in a free market”—contrasted with systems of socialism or communism. This definition would suggest that the existence or extent of ancient capitalism can be established by studying the role of markets, the development of private property and the nature of economic decision making in Greece and Rome. However, an alternative theoretical approach, which has been relatively influential in the historiographical tradition, offers a radically different definition of the concept and also identifies a range of problems with applying the term to pre-modern societies at all. One consequence is that historiographical debates often take place at cross purposes, with those involved having quite different ideas about the nature of the concept they are disputing.

The Classical Tradition

The mainstream of ancient economic history has followed either the conventional dictionary definition of capitalism or, more rarely, the more technical but essentially similar ideas found in classical and neoclassical economics. Capitalism is associated with a wide range of phenomena, including the development of private property, free markets and trade, wage labour, rational economic decision making and mentality, and the productive employment of different sorts of assets. Capitalism, especially if it is understood in terms of different elements or institutions rather than as a complete system, is not seen as a specifically modern phenomenon, even if in modern societies capitalism and its institutions have developed to a much higher level of sophistication and occupy a far more dominant position than in earlier periods; rather, it is something that may be found to some degree within a wider range of political, social, and economic contexts, including the societies of Greece and Rome. Labelling Greece and Rome, at least in part, as capitalist does not necessarily imply that they are seen as modern or fully developed, but can mean simply that their economies were organised to some extent around free markets and the pursuit of profit; and identifying certain ancient institutions, practices, or patterns of thought as capitalist does not imply that classical antiquity as a whole was a capitalist system.

The Marxist Tradition

This is in sharp contrast to economists and historians working within a broad Marxist tradition (see marxism and classical antiquity), for whom capitalism has a specific reference to an advanced socio-economic formation, explicitly contrasted not only with socialist and communist societies but also with pre-capitalist and pre-modern ones. Capitalism is, like other modes of production, defined by the relationship between the means of production (land, energy, raw materials, etc.) and the relations of production (how the labour that derives value from these resources is organised, and who benefits).1 Within the capitalist mode of production, the mass of the population (the proletariat) have to make a living by selling their labour to the owners of the means of production (the capitalists), who pay them only a proportion of the value they create. Capitalism as a system is characterised by the alienation and exploitation of the masses, by the dominance of the mentality of the market, and by the constant cycle of the creation and destruction of economic and social structures in pursuit of profit.

From this perspective, describing classical antiquity as capitalist is regarded as a category error; capitalism is a specifically modern form of economic organisation, the latest stage in a long history of development from one mode of production to another. The existence of elements that echo modern capitalism—a free market sector, for example, or wage labour in some areas of the economy—is not regarded as evidence for ancient capitalism, insofar as these elements existed within a socio-economic system that was not itself capitalist, in which wage labour and the free market clearly played subordinate roles. From this perspective, the claim that capitalism can in fact be identified in earlier historical periods is likely to be an ideological and rhetorical strategy, intended to naturalise historically specific modern structures and attitudes by presenting them as transhistorical and universal—not least because such a claim also implies that capitalism may be eternal, since it reflects innate human behavioural traits, rather being than destined in due course to be replaced by a new mode of socio-economic organisation.2

The Debate

The question of whether or not classical antiquity can be labelled capitalist overlaps with other significant debates in ancient economic history, and the lack of precise definition often leads to confusion. To define Greece and Rome as pre-capitalist may imply also, for instance, the view that the economy as a separately instituted sphere did not exist in classical antiquity and that the ancients therefore did not, because they could not, practise so called economic analysis properly (see economy, Greek); or that ancient economic institutions with apparent modern equivalents in fact functioned quite differently from their modern counterparts or namesakes—ancient banks, for example, being seen as merely glorified money-changers and usurers rather than lenders of risk or venture capital for productive economic investment. Those who, in contrast, regard the economy of the ancient world or local sectors thereof as in some useful sense capitalist detect differences of scale and/or sophistication rather than of fundamental nature.

The dispute shows no sign of resolution in the near future, given that it is at heart a matter of the choice of a conceptual framework rather than a question of the level of trade in antiquity or the presence of modern accounting techniques. In recent years, some historians have sought to side-step the problem by calling for a focus on performance rather than structure, seeking thereby to avoid the question of how the structures of the economy should be conceptualised or labelled.3 Evidence for the scale and dynamism of economic activity in classical antiquity is sometimes then taken as a sign that it must have been capitalist and relatively modern. It is not the case, however, even within doctrinaire Marxist theory, that non-capitalist economies are considered incapable of growth and development. It is tempting to avoid using the term capitalism altogether; but even so, the broader question persists, of how far the differences between ancient and modern economies were qualitative rather than just quantitative, and the nature of those differences.


  • Bang, Peter F. The Roman Bazaar: A Comparative Study of Trade and Markets in a Tributary Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Bresson, Alain. “Capitalism and the Ancient Greek Economy.” In Larry Neal & Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds., The Cambridge History of Capitalism, Vol. 1, The Rise of Capitalism from Ancient Origins to 1848, 43–74. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Bresson, Alain. The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Eich, Armin. Die politische Ökonomie des antiken Griechenland 6.–3. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau Verlag, 2006.
  • Love, John R. Antiquity and Capitalism: Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations of Roman Civilization. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Morley, Neville. “Marx and the Failure of Antiquity.” Helios 26, no. 2 (1999): 151–164.
  • Morley, Neville. Antiquity and Modernity, 21–47. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
  • Scheidel, Walter, Ian Morris, & Richard P. Saller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy Against Capitalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.