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The Bitter History of Slave History

Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology

by M.I. Finley
Viking, 208 pp., $13.95

Greek and Roman Slavery

by Thomas Wiedemann
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 284 pp., $8.95 (paper)


There has, in the last few decades, been as much, and almost as bitter, controversy over ancient slavery as over slavery nearer in time and place and more obviously “relevant.” M.I. Finley’s long interest in ancient slavery has made him the foremost expert on this subject—as on Greek and Roman social and economic history in general—in the English-speaking world. He has also been a major contributor to the polemics: he does not suffer fools gladly, and he loves to tell them so; nor is he one to keep ideology out of scholarship.

This book is elusive and, in the end, a little disappointing. We are at once warned that it is not a history of ancient slavery. Nor is it the textbook, the lack of which Finley noted twenty years ago and which has not yet been produced.^1 Finley’s book is a collection of four essays, unequal in various respects, the first and much the longest of which (two fifths of the text) is a highly polemical and personal survey of modern writing on ancient slavery, while the other three deal with three aspects of the subject of ancient slavery itself—two of them connected: the emergence and the decline of the ancient “slave society”; the third some reflections on the treatment of slaves.

As would be expected of Finley, the last three essays range widely, well beyond their titles, and they have much of importance to say. Some general premises of Finley’s discussion are undoubtedly true. That the slave was an item of property, like a horse, will not be denied by anyone now. That he “originated from outside the society” was observed long ago by the great German historian Eduard Meyer (1855-1930). However, we must note that this is not an inherent part of the institution: it is a development we can observe. In classical Rome, the sale of a son to a citizen was fictitious. At an earlier period, it was certainly a bona fide transaction. By the fifth century, Greeks developed qualms about holding other Greeks as slaves, as consciousness of a common Hellenism developed. When Greek prisoners of war were sold, it was regarded as a shocking atrocity. In fourth-century Athens, popular “philosophy” equated slaves with barbarians and derived the right to capture and own them from the natural enmity between Greeks and barbarians. Striking passages in the legal show that this speeches of the period show that this was taken for granted.2

As Finley stresses, the slave might form family ties only with permission from his owner. Most did, and they were lasting. We have little evidence about Greece; but in Rome the breaking up of slave families by sale, to judge by the documentary record (which twists the picture toward optimism), was always practiced, though not usual. (Beryl Rawson, in Classical Philology 61, 1966, 70-83, apparently not known to Finley, is basic.) Presumably it was more common among farm slaves, to judge by Cato’s advice that weak or aging slaves should be sold off.

But in this field of family ties a basic difference between Greece and Rome emerges. The Roman slave, at least originally and, in the owner’s actual household, probably always, had his regular place. (Again, this obviously did not fully apply to slaves working for absentee landlords in the country.) The Roman family consisted of the free (liberi—the word is used for “children”) and the slaves, both under the father’s power. The mother was technically among the liberi, though in practice she always had a special status and, in the classical Republic and the Empire, she normally did not legally belong to the family. The male liberi, when they grew up and the father died, became full citizens. The slaves never did. The word “boy” as a form of address to slaves, while certainly (as Finley notes) demeaning, was legally accurate. There was little difference between the slave and the minor son, in the early Roman family. Neither had any legal standing; both could be punished (even executed) or sold by the father at his own discretion.

When Finley remarks that corporal punishment was normally restricted to slaves, he is obviously thinking mainly of Greece (with which he is more familiar—though even there this was not universal) and to some extent of the Roman Empire, where it gradually came to be true, for a few generations. But for centuries, in Rome, not only did the father have absolute power within the family, but the rods (fasces) and axe carried before the higher Roman magistrate were more than merely symbolical. He could use them, at his own discretion, against free and slave alike, with the sole exception—even that not fully established until the second century BC—of Roman citizens.

When we remark that the slave had no legal rights, we must not think of him, in Roman conditions, as thereby distinguished from a society which (as in much of Greece) had full personal, if not always civil, rights. The personal rights of nonslaves on the whole developed very slowly and, under the early Empire, this was in fact soon followed by the development of some rights for slaves (though slaves, like children, of course never had legal personality). It is easy to amalgamate the varied Greek and Roman world into “antiquity”—an error that Finley constantly warns against, but, in this book, has perhaps not always successfully avoided.

The similarity of status between slave and son led to the further consequence that, when the father chose to free the slave (and by the late Republic every household slave would expect to be freed if he lived to see the day), he became the freedman’s legal pseudo-father (patronus, derived from pater); and the freedman, like the son, at once became a citizen and a free member of the family in which he had been a slave. (It was only under Augustus that restrictions were imposed on this process, and social traditions made it difficult to enforce them.)

Originally, the community was naturally involved in the process of freeing a slave. It was the Twelve Tables—the code of laws drawn up by a special commission about 450 BC—that, by allowing free testamentary disposition of movable property, made it possible to free slaves by testament, with the “astonishing” result (as Finley rightly calls it) that any citizen could confer citizenship. The development was probably accidental. Certainly, testamentary manumission remained the only way in which a slave could be freed without the involvement of the community. Of course, social prejudice against slave antecedents was strong among the upper class; but it seems to have been confined to that class. In Greece, laws varied greatly. Indeed, in some systems slaves could apparently never be legally freed: they could only be fictitiously sold to a god, under a contract stipulating their obligations.

The institutions of slavery in the ancient world are as varied as the ancient world itself. Some of that variety can be glimpsed in Wiedemann’s useful little selection. Nearly two hundred and fifty translated passages (some of them quite long), chosen from the whole field of ancient (including early Christian) literature, inscriptions, and papyri, are introduced by a general outline and, in each instance, by an analytical paragraph explaining the background and importance of the passage. They are arranged in twelve categories, and the author has added an excellent short bibliography on each category, as well as brief notes on the sources used. This is truly a work of scholarship, for the general reader. The translations vary in quality (colloquialisms in formal texts are distressingly common), but they are accurate. As the author admits, the arrangement chosen has the disadvantage that differences within the ancient world tend to be obscured.3 He insists that the similarities are more important. But in view of the natural tendency (especially among students, who will no doubt be the chief group to use this book) to foreshorten and simplify distant periods, it is always important to make an effort to stress differences and development.

As for the selection, much of the dreary history of slave wars (historically unimportant) and the length of some passages cited from philosophers and Christians in the section entitled “The True Freedom of the Spirit” could have been cut down, to make room for other things. The topic of the use of slaves for sexual purposes (both domestic and institutional), though well known and important, is totally excluded: perhaps it was judged unsuitable for British students. And a major omission is the inscription from Puteoli in southern Italy (frequently discussed, as now by Finley), which shows that, at least in one city, around the turn of our era, owners who wanted to have their slaves tortured or executed were required by municipal regulation to have it done by the competent public authorities for a set fee. Still, for a first selection this is a good start. Supplements, or selections differently conceived, are bound to follow this pioneer effort.


The institution of slavery, practically universal in human history, does not by itself create what is nowadays called a “slave society.” (There have been only five of them, according to Finley.) Finley does not give a definition, but it seems to mean a society to the functioning of which slave labor is essential. Rome is an excellent example. As for Athens, the case perhaps needs arguing. For, as Finley himself, above all others, has insisted, the land is the basis of any ancient economy; and we know little about conditions on the land in classical Athens. That the estates of the wealthy (not a very large part of Attic land, it seems) were cultivated by a permanent work force of slaves, as Finley holds, is a permissible hypothesis. But it is not a known fact. The suggestion that the place of the citizens whom Solon, shortly after 600 BC, freed from involuntary labor on the land of the rich was taken by slaves, and that this is the origin of the Athenian “slave society”—that suggestion is interesting, but beyond proof.

Indeed, at the first mention of this by Finley, free peasants are linked with those slaves, but the peasants are soon forgotten. Yet the possibility that agricultural work on the lands of the rich was in part done by tenants with the occasional help of free casual laborers must by no means be excluded. We simply do not know the basic facts. As for the ordinary citizen cultivating his smallholding, he no doubt bought a slave when he could afford one, as his cousin, the tradesman in Athens, did. But really widespread use of slaves in small-scale agriculture, such as has recently been speculatively suggested and as Finley seems to accept, is pure fancy. So, how basic were slaves to the economy?

It will not do to claim, as Finley does (decrying “antiquarian” attempts to investigate population figures), that numbers do not matter. If, as Finley believes, slaves made up about 30 percent of the population, then most of them might be accounted for by work in the Laureion mines (where the work force “often ran into five figures”), by domestic service, and by the occasional slave working in the family business, in the city or on the land. As any Marxist—and not only he—well knows, differences in quantity turn into differences in quality. “We have no choice but to speculate,” it is true. But the case for regarding Athens as a slave society in the same sense as the Roman Empire or the American South, though it probably can be made, needs making; and it might entail a shift away from the exclusive stress on the basic function of the land in the Athenian economy.

  1. 2

    See the passages of Lysias and Demosthenes quoted—and misinterpreted, in one instance actually mistranslated—by K.J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality (University of California Press, 1975), p. 92.

  2. 3

    It should be mentioned that the second and third pages of the preface have been accidentally interchanged in printing.

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