Some fifteen years ago, in the course of reading up the history of technology, I came across an article by M.I. Finley, of whom I then knew nothing, on ‘Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World’, reprinted in his essays on Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Looking up my notes, and rereading the article today, I now see that I missed most of the points. Yet the overall impression it made has been confirmed by everything I have since read by Finley. I was astounded and then delighted by the multiple virtues he brought together: above all, the sheer force of argument, but also the compactness of presentation, the simplicity of language, the striking common sense, and the precision with which comparative and theoretical argument was brought to bear on the problem at hand. Of his Classical scholarship I was, and remain, an incompetent judge. Obviously this is of crucial importance in a field in which long familiarity with the sources appears to be a condition for saying anything worthwhile (although anything but a late developer – he received his MA at 17 – Finley published virtually nothing before the age of 40). Yet he can be read with immense profit by the reader who is content to take his scholarship for granted, and who seeks in his work a source of comparisons and counter-examples – the stuff of which generalisations about society are made and unmade.
Finley’s work ranges widely both in style and in subject-matter. The format varies from the expository books written for a general audience to the tightly-argued analysis of some specific ancient institution. In between are works of polemical scholarship such as Democracy: Ancient and Modern and books that offer a synthesis of a wide field of research, such as The Ancient Economy. The bulk of his work is concerned with Greece, although his analyses of slavery and other institutions also draw heavily on Roman evidence. Thematically, much of his work can be summed up in a phrase from his article ‘Was Greek civilisation based on slave labour?’ – concluding that one aspect of Greek history ‘is the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery’. The Greeks invented politics, he writes in one of his own contributions to The Legacy of Greece – and they also invented chattel slavery, as distinct from the diffuse, omnipresent slavery of the Ancient Near East. Although he strongly disagrees with Eduard Meyer’s view that there was a link between ancient slavery and democracy, he nevertheless holds the related opinion that slaves and citizens emerged in one single historical movement.
As a social theorist, Finley writes in the tradition of Weber rather than in that of Marx. He is more concerned with institutions than with change, and offers typologies more frequently than explanations. These statements must immediately be qualified. He has suggestive things to say about the internal contradictions of Spartan society, and one of the chapters in Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology is directed to the issue of explaining the decline of ancient slavery. Moreover, in his discussion of ancient technology he successfully argues that the relative technical stagnation in Antiquity is to be explained by the social psychology of the wealthy, not by lack of skill or capital. Yet I believe that his main interest is to make us understand the specificity of ancient institutions, not to explain how they came about and why they declined. In particular, he wants to help us get rid of preconceived and anachronistic notions suggested by modern language and modern writers. He observes that ‘we are in thrall to a very primitive sociology which assumes that there are only three kinds of labour-status: the free, contractual wage-earner, the serf and the slave,’ and then goes on to discuss the nuances of dependent labour in what are arguably the three most important of the essays collected in Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Or again, he usefully reminds us that ‘politics was not restricted to democracies,’ since ‘oligarchies also accepted the rule of law and also lacked an external authority or sanction.’ Moreover, ‘democracy did not necessarily entail an extension of rights, greater freedom, beyond those existing in oligarchies.’ Statements such as these are Finley’s tools of trade, and he wields them with virtuosity. Yet one should also recognise their limitations. Conceptual analysis does not go far in explaining the stability of institutions, nor in accounting for their change.
The comparison with Weber and Marx suggests itself in another respect as well, since Finley appears to emphasise ‘status’ at the expense of ‘class’ in the analysis of social structure and social conflict. In the ancient city, ‘what we commonly call “class conflict” is invariably between “rich” and “poor”, not between landowners and manufacturers, or between labour and capital, or between masters and slaves.’ For such statements he has recently been taken to task by G.E.M. de Ste Croix, in his massive study of The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Although I agree with Ste Croix that Finley’s treatment of the Marxist theory of classes is somewhat sloppy, I do not believe the substantive disagreements are large. Finley in several essays refers to the importance for the slave owners of avoiding many slaves of the same nationality, presumably because they recognised the need to ‘divide and conquer’. This, while not overt class struggle, was undertaken precisely to avoid such struggle, and one may well argue therefore that class conflict between masters and slaves was a determinant of behaviour. (For an analogy, consider the behaviour of the Polish authorities between December 1970 and August 1980: although there was little overt struggle against the regime, much of the behaviour of the authorities only made sense as attempts to prevent such struggles.) More importantly, Finley agrees with Ste Croix in characterising the core areas of Classical Antiquity as ‘slave societies, as distinct from societies in which there were slaves’. Moreover, his reasons for doing so are similar: ‘I am not saying that slaves outnumbered free men in agriculture, or that the bulk of farming was done by slaves, but that slavery dominated agriculture in so far as it was on a scale that transcended the labour of the householder and his sons’ – i.e. in so far as surplus extraction took place. Finally it may be appropriate to observe that Marx himself, no less than Weber or Finley, insisted on the ‘class struggle’ between debtors and creditors in Classical Antiquity, and even on one occasion referred to the class struggle between the free rich and the free poor.
Finley’s method is in many regards that of the pointilliste, demanding of the reader that he stand back to form a full picture. It is instructive to compare him in this respect to Paul Veyne – another outstanding writer on ancient history, and like Finley steeped in modern social theory. In one of his insightful asides, Finley writes that ‘we might consider the Pont du Gard as a fantastically expensive way of bringing fresh water to a not very important provincial town in southern Gaul; the Romans in Gaul ranked fresh water and the demonstration of power higher on the value-scale than costs. That was a rational view, too, though not economic rationalism.’ In Veyne’s Le Pain et le Cirque this and similar observations are subsumed, first under a general theory of rationality, and then under a more narrow theory of rational behaviour in the Graeco-Roman world, with full reference to economics and social psychology. Finley conforms more to the traditional image of the historian as someone who carefully removes the theoretical scaffolding before unveiling his work to the public.
Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology builds on four lectures given at the Collège de France in 1978. The corresponding four chapters of the book are of uneven length and interest, and can hardly be said to form a coherent whole. The opening essay, which lends its title to the book, is about twice as long as each of the others, and about half as interesting. It begins as an exercise in polemical historiography, with Finley fighting a two-front battle against antiquarians, on the one hand, and modernisers, on the other. The real target of the essay, however, is the German historian of slavery Joseph Vogt, who is the object of some uncharacteristically nasty snide remarks. They may well be deserved, yet their effect is to induce a suspicion that Finley’s critical powers have been somewhat blunted by passion – the very fault he is finding in his adversary, who ‘starts from the high evaluation of ancient culture and then tries to come to terms with its most troublesome feature, slavery’. Since Finley in this chapter has a great deal to say about methodology, let me note an elementary confusion when he assimilates the role of theory in guiding observation to that of theory in fixing the meaning of the concepts used in observation. Even the now-extinct defenders of a ‘theory-neutral observation language’ admitted that theory was needed in order to know which observations to look for.
Joseph Vogt’s chosen topic has been ‘slavery and humanity’, which is also the title of the third chapter of Finley’s book. This chapter, however, is less polemical than the first: also, in part for that reason, more effective. The chapter should be read together with Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, roll, which deals with the same range of problems in American Negro slavery. The common emphasis is on the ambiguity inherent in the slave-master relation – the fact that the slave sometimes appeared as a mere piece of property, at other times as a human being capable of deliberation and action. Finley suggests one important difference: the ancient slave owners did not suffer the feelings of guilt and doubt harboured by their American counterparts. I am puzzled, however, when he backs this statement by pointing to the absence in Antiquity of any observation comparable to that of Benjamin Franklin, who argued that slaves ‘pejorate the families that use them; the white children become proud, disgusted with labour, and being educated in idleness, are rendered unfit to get a living in industry.’ What I cannot understand is why this moralising by a Yankee, or by Europeans like Tocqueville, is evidence for guilt and doubt among Southerners. Furthermore, it would appear quite possible that the characteristic ‘disgust with labour’ in Antiquity stemmed in part from the psychological ambiguities of slavery.
The second and fourth chapters deal, respectively, with the emergence and subsequent decline of slavery in the ancient world, treating these two processes – separated by a millennium – within a unified theoretical framework. In the second chapter Finley first makes a number of important conceptual points, many of them familiar from his earlier work. I would like to register an objection, or a query, with respect to the incentives created by the possibility of manumission. Finley correctly observes that ‘although in law and in fact [the master] could always revoke the offer, the material gains to be derived from slavery would have been sharply reduced if such arrangements were not as a rule honoured.’ I wonder, however, whether this is meant to apply to the individual slaveholder, or to the class of slaveholders. If the latter, then one would expect to find some norms or ideological sanctions to overcome the ‘free-rider problem’ that would otherwise arise: if the former, the statement only holds for the masters who had so many slaves that failure to fulfil the promise to some of them could have an impact on the incentives for others.
Finley singles out three conditions that created a demand for slavery, and whose later attenuation led to its decline. These are, first, ‘private ownership in land, with sufficient concentration in some hands to need extra-familial labour for the permanent workforce’; next, a ‘sufficient development for commodity production and markets’; and finally ‘the unavailability of an internal labour supply’. Of these, the critical condition, both for the rise and the decline of slavery, is the third. I have already referred to Finley’s view that slavery was rendered necessary by the emergence of a community of free citizens; similarly, it became superfluous when the independent peasantry was no longer required for military duties. In addition, the decline of slavery was hastened by that of production for the market, due to the increased importance of payments in kind to the state and to the flight from the cities by the wealthy. As both the latter developments were linked to warfare, we find Finley advocating an explanation of the decline of slavery very largely in terms of changing military conditions.
The latter conclusion goes beyond anything to be found in the essays collected in Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, but on most other matters the groundwork can be found here. Unlike the essays in an earlier collection, The Use and Abuse of History, these are substantive rather than methodological – and hence more satisfactory also for the methodologically-inclined reader. I have already alluded to the articles on slavery and other forms of dependent labour, and to the essay on technical innovation. The three articles on ‘Mycenae and Homer’ are more than the others reserved for the specialist, but should be read for the sheer intellectual pleasure of following the intricate argument. I have some scattered comments on the remaining. The opening essay on the ancient city is more historiographic than the others, which at times made me uncertain when Finley is endorsing the views he is citing. For instance, he refers to Max Weber’s view that slavery was incompatible with extensive division of labour, because ‘the slave owner had to be free to dispose of a portion of his slave force at a moment’s notice.’ The argument sounds persuasive, and he does not take exception to it, as he does with some of the other views of Weber’s that he quotes. Yet it would appear to be incompatible with his argument, offered elsewhere, that it was the mentality of the slave owner rather than the presence of slaves that constituted a barrier to economic efficiency. Let me also query the assumption that Marx, when asserting a conflict of interest between town and country, differed from the view of Adam Smith that ‘we must not ... imagine that the gain of the town is the loss of the country.’ Surely industrial disputes prove every day that there are conflicts of interest where both parties lose, and international trade that exploitation may occur even if both parties gain.
The article on ‘Sparta and Spartan Society’ is a fascinating argument about the internal tensions in this apparently homogeneous society. The élite army on major occasions had to draw on helot and ex-helot hoplites; the austere mode of life was constantly threatened by inequalities of wealth; the political system was an amalgam of ‘hereditary kings, elected elders and ephors, and appointed leaders at other levels’; and there was too much social mobility for a society which in principle was completely closed and rigid. Finley concludes that Sparta became a victim of her own success: almost against her will she began to extend her military activities, and this led, among other things, to a ‘dangerously extensive incorporation of non-equals into the army if not into the ruling class’. He also suggests that Sparta until the fourth century was a military rather than a militaristic society, the difference being that, in the phrase of Alfred Vagts, ‘an army so built that it serves military men, not war, is militaristic.’ Yet he then goes on – strangely – to argue that Sparta became militaristic when ‘the sole aim of the lawgiver was war.’ Something is missing here, or I missed something.
‘The Athenian Empire: a Balance Sheet’ is a survey of the ways in which Athens did – and did not – exploit her military power for economic gain. Except by providing some land for Athenian citizens, she did not do so to a noticeable extent. In particular, she did not impose taxes on the land of the subjects, nor did she use her naval superiority to give preferential treatment to Athenian traders. True, there were economic advantages derived more indirectly, yet they were not the purpose of the empire. The purpose was economic and political security, not economic gain, which emerged largely as a by-product. The gains mainly benefited the common people of Athens, who were employed as rowers or in the dockyards. Also the prosperity derived from the empire made it possible to pay for holding public office – suggesting the bleak conclusion that Greek democracy depended not only on slavery within, but also on imperialism without. Yet this is precisely the kind of proposition never stated by Finley, who, as I have said, rarely employs the bold stroke.
The article on ‘Land, Debt and the Man of Property in Classical Athens’ was first published some thirty years ago. It must have come as a revelation at the time – one should recall that the epoch-making work by Polanyi and his collaborators did not appear until 1957. It still reads remarkably well. The main argument is that in Classical Athens ‘land and money remained two separate spheres’, unlike modern societies in which ‘everything has a price.’ The rich non-citizen traders could not buy land for their wealth. Whenever land was used as mortgage, the loans were for consumption rather than for productive purposes. I wonder what Finley thinks about the developments in social anthropology that have taken place in the meantime – notably Barth’s argument that whenever there are officially separate ‘spheres’, entrepreneurs tend to emerge with the function of facilitating movement between them. After all, in our society a knighthood can be bought, contrary to the official ideology.
‘The freedom of the citizen in the Greek world’ is closely related to the chapters that follow on servile statuses. It is here that Finley makes the important distinction between two senses of isonomia: ‘equality through the law’, which is virtually a synonym for democracy, and ‘equality before the law’, equally compatible with oligarchy. In fact, his debunking mood is especially striking in this chapter, which is virtually a graveyard of preconceived notions. The rich in some respects had fewer rights than the poor: ‘contribution to the defence of the city was a duty of the richer citizens and a privilege of the poorer.’ Democracies in some respects – for instance, with regard to women’s claim to inheritance – had fewer rights than oligarchies. Above all, he remarks – in an implicit polemic against Hannah Arendt and other admirers of the playful Greek democracy – that ‘the demos recognised the instrumental role of politics and were more concerned in the end with the substantive decisions.’ He might have added, as at other times he comes close to doing, that it was precisely because the democratic system was concerned with substantive decision-making that it produced good citizens – contrary to the view that the production of good citizens was itself the main goal of the system and of those who participated in it.
The Legacy of Greece is supposed to replace, or complement, a volume of the same title published in 1921, hence the subtitle ‘A New Appraisal’. It offers surveys by specialists of the Greek tradition in politics, arts, various academic disciplines (or what are known today as such), myth and religion. There are two contributions by Finley, who has also edited the volume. He first offers a general ‘Introduction’, trying to capture the unity and the specificity of the Greek. Although they were scattered over many communities, ‘it has been argued that the absence of any central authority contributed to the preservation of the many common ways of behaving and thinking.’ Hence the remarkable geographical mobility – in part, a consequence of the chronic political instability – was less disruptive and traumatic than one might have imagined. In his discussion of the polis Finley stresses that the ideal of community, while falling far short of egalitarianism, yet had the important consequence that ‘the many’ would not tolerate starvation – a common enough threat with the low standard of living then prevailing. Incidentally, in his explanation of why there occurred no increase in productivity to enhance this standard, Finley comes closer to talking nonsense than in any other passage by him that I have read. He asks: ‘Until the invention of machines that could be powered by energy-sources other than human or animal, what scope was there for technological growth, after all, given the inherited level the Greek started with? Significantly, they never thought of the windmill; and the water-mill – an invention probably of the first century BC – received little application.’ This is not only inconsistent with the emphasis Finley gives elsewhere to lack of motivation rather than lack of opportunity as an obstacle to technical change, but is also internally incoherent in that the second sentence points to the existence of an alternative energy-source whose absence is invoked in the first sentence to explain the technical stagnation.
Finley has also contributed a chapter on ‘Politics’, echoing many of the views put forward in the essay on the freedom of the citizen. The main idea is that the Greeks were not willing to submit to kingship or tyranny or to divine authorities. For instance,‘there is no known case when the Delphic oracle ... determined a state’s course of action (as distinct from providing a retrospective explanation of a failure).’ One wishes that present-day rulers would similarly restrict their astrologers to finding excuses. The Greeks invented ‘the rule of human self-reliance’ – a momentous step indeed. True, Finley knows well that the reality might fall short of the ideal. The fact that everybody could speak in the Assembly did not mean that ‘the ordinary citizen would have wished, or dared, to take the floor, or that he would have been listened to if he had.’ Moreover, the attendance was normally about 15 to 20 percent, and that only after the introduction of pay for attendance. Yet the Assembly mattered. The active politicians could neither ignore it nor always manipulate it. The essay proceeds in the manner characteristic of Finley, adding to the picture touch by touch, carefully qualifying his conclusions, yet not to the point of making them vacuous or vacillating. Reading him, one feels the frustration he must have experienced over the poverty of the sources, and the satisfaction of being able to arrive nevertheless at surprisingly robust conclusions.