Origins of the French revolution and the fall of the Roman republic

As Oxford Finals approach and I’m preparing revision sessions for my undergraduates, I’m thinking more about some very standard (or, one might say, central) topics in Roman history. I suppose it is my own educational background in what at Oxford is called Ancient and Modern History which often makes me think of them in comparative terms.

At the moment, for a number of reasons, I have found myself reading quite a bit of the (now already old) debate on social and economic origins of the French revolution. To summarise the very interesting historiography on that extremely crudely, the traditional argument (famously developed by Georges Lefebvre in his 1939 book, Quatre-Vingt-Neuf, but in many ways going back to the contemporary polemics and later to Marxist theory) was that the revolution is to be viewed as a conflict between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, resulting of course in the victory of the latter. It got heavily and increasingly criticised, beginning in the 1960s, by such scholars as  Alfred Cobban, William Doyle or François Furet, for creating anachronistic differences between the bourgeoisie and the nobility and confusing the bourgeoisie and the commercial class. The argument goes that in many ways they represented a single elite, with no impermeable walls between the two, similar attitudes towards the have-nots, and their economic and social base could be similar or indeed interchangeable, with the bourgeoisie often involved in ‘feudal’ landholding. (For some English language leads into the debate, Doyle’s Origins of the French Revolution, ‘Nobles, Bourgeois and the Origins of the French Revolution’ by Colin Lucas, or the review article on Furet by J. Goldstone seem good start points to an outsider like me.) Nonetheless, the divisions between the estates are built into the system, and once the events start in earnest, the story quickly develops into the conflict between the ‘third estate’ and nobility and struggle against ‘privilege’.

Now all of this strikes a Roman historian as eerily similar to the social conflict within the elite (what Ernst Badian memorably called the ‘officer class’ in his Publicans and Sinners) in the later Roman Republic. Again, the older views that the equestrians are to be equated with the publicans or with the commercial class have been long since debunked, and it is clear to any Roman historian that for all the emerging status distinctions, economically senators and equestrians represented a single class (recent work of Lisa Eberle, showing that negotiatores in Roman provinces did not have to be ‘merchants’ reinforces this even further). With that, old comparisons of equestrians to the ‘third estate’ (based on misrepresenting Pliny the Elder’s tertium corpus – a status of neither plebeians nor senators) went out of the window.

I wonder, though, whether a different comparison wouldn’t be more useful. What seems to unite the two situations, if that reading of the French Revolution is correct,  is that fairly artificial distinctions of status and formal privilege within the wealthy elite seem to acquire a logic of their own and dictate the development of political conflict and collapse of institutional trust in the old order (see Claude Nicolet on Varro’s famous quote about Gaius Gracchus, who left the res publica ‘two-headed’). As an institutional historian I find this fascinating.



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