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 (Wiedemann’s collection of sources should now make it more feasible to write it.) 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…

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