Slaves and Citizens

Jon Elster

  • Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology by M.I. Finley
    Chatto, 202 pp, £10.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2510 1
  • Economy and Society in Ancient Greece by M.I. Finley
    Chatto, 326 pp, £15.00, April 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2549 7
  • The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal edited by M.I. Finley
    Oxford, 479 pp, £8.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 19 821915 6

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.

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