Saturday, December 20, 2008


Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari (edd.), Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 375. ISBN 978-0-521-88183-8. $99.00.
Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, Grant MacEwan College (

Table of Contents

The intention of this volume, which originated with a 2004 conference by the same name at the National University of Ireland, Galway, is clearly stated in the précis: to chart "the rise and fall of forms of unfree labour in the ancient Mediterranean and the modern Atlantic, employing the methodology of comparative history." The editors make a very businesslike start to the collection of essays in the introductory chapter, in which they trace the recent scholarship on the broader problem of slavery, identified as a truly global topic, and attempt something of a synthesis of the subsequent contributions, each of which is summarized in turn. They embark on a careful definition of the term 'slave system', but essentially depend upon Moses Finley's 'slave society', that is, a community in whose economy and society slavery has a central place which affords effective political control to the slaveholding elite; a 'slave system' is consequently a number of interconnected 'slave societies' which form a single market area. We may thank Dal Lago and Katsari for attempting no theoretical novelties here, but their neglect of more important methodological problems is not as understandable. Despite the title of their first chapter, "The study of ancient and modern slave systems: setting an agenda for comparison," a straightforward and systematic discussion of the comparative method remains frustratingly elusive. The basis for comparison taken from Marc Bloch, "a certain similarity between the facts observed and certain differences between their contexts," or the distinction between a 'rigorous' comparison which draws explicit parallels and a 'soft' comparison which makes implicit assumptions of comparability and suggests avenues for further study is insufficient to tackle the problems of the comparative method. In avoiding these problems, the editors allow much latitude of approach to their contributors, but might suggest to their readers that comparative history is an uncomplicated method which does not require hesitation and qualification.

The utility of comparison may be a foregone conclusion in the editors' introduction, but Orlando Patterson's "Slavery, gender, and work in the pre-modern world and early Greece: a cross-cultural analysis" offers something of a defense of this method and demonstrates its practical application. He begins with a discussion of some of the broad theoretical questions, definitions, and methodological issues involved before focusing on the relation between female contribution to subsistence and the presence of slavery in a society. Patterson queried Murdock and White's cross-cultural sample of apparently independent and representative pre-modern societies in regard to the relative presence of such features as female participation in subsistence, modes of food production and agricultural types, polygyny, warfare, and, of course, slavery. I must confess I found myself somewhat out of my depth, particularly in the tabulation of the findings of this statistical work, despite Patterson's generous explanations. His conclusions are not simple but suggest that in societies which practice extensive (hoe digging) rather than intensive (plow digging) agriculture and depend upon female labour, the value of women as producers (not merely reproducers) is therefore greater and the practice of polygyny more widespread, and warfare augments the menial workforce with slaves. It is in just such societies that women have a number of opportunities to escape slavery and men have very few, and the long-term effect is to increase the number of male slaves involved in subsistence. Patterson considers his conclusions particularly relevant to the study of Dark Age Greece, which he diagnoses as comparable in its small-scale, tribal communities and agro-pastoral production to the societies of Murdock and White's sample. In terms of warfare, slavery, and the distribution of male and female labour, the comparison is probably apt, but it does not seem to take into account the essentially 'intensive' nature of Greek agriculture or the predominance of monogamy. As Patterson notes, we know little about Dark Age Greece, and while this makes it particularly tempting to fill in the gaps of our information through comparison, it also makes it hard to test the claims of the comparative method. And the most radical claim which Patterson's comparison produces is that the thetes, as a despised group without land, kin, or trade represented slaves or the descendants of slaves, and so the Athenian citizens redeemed from slavery by Solon's reforms already had servile status before they were sold. The key here is Patterson's identification of 'natal alienation' as one of the defining features of slavery, but surely it is possible to be born into and retain an alien status without being a slave. My philological instinct, moreover, is that two different words, thetes and doulos, reflect different realities.

Joseph C. Miller's "Slaving as historical process: examples from the ancient Mediterranean and the modern Atlantic" attempts to examine the problem of slave systems from the angle of the dynamic historical process of slaving, rather than the static 'institution of slavery.' Without offering a definition, Miller's discussion implies that 'slaving' should refer not only to the initial acquisition of slaves, but also to their introduction -- integration would be antithetical to his argument -- into domestic service and systems of production, as well as to the perpetuation of their servile status. As a factor in historical processes, Miller maintains that slaving allows marginal, often mercantile, interests to challenge the economic dominance of established, landed elites through the introduction of an outside commodity to the economy. His suggestion is intriguing as far as it goes, but the examples of his title do not really appear to substantiate his thesis. Rather, he presents "illustrative elements of an integrated history of the strategy [of slaving]," which, as far as it touches the Mediterranean, amounts to a survey of the development of political power, religion, economies, and slaving up to AD 1500. This survey is composed of sweeping generalizations hardly applicable to any specific society and simplistic caricatures which must irritate any serious student of the ancient world. Can the relation between military/political and religious elites in ancient Mesopotamia really be explained by saying that the latter supervised cults deifying the former? Was Egypt, in fact, a less exploitive state in any realm apart from the politically correct imagination? Can it be said without nuance or qualification that the Roman generals of the late Republic were opposed to the landed aristocracy? Miller is on firmer ground when he turns to the development of the Atlantic slave trade and America's 'peculiar institution.' His survey makes the limitations Miller places on the comparative method in his conclusion somewhat ironic: reasoning by analogy is only valid when "the similar historical contexts of the instances compared" is established.

Walter Scheidel calls upon a number of theories and models in order to explain both how slave labour was distributed in slaveholding economies and why chattel slavery was more or less prevalent in different times and places in the ancient Mediterranean in "The comparative economics of slavery in the Greco-Roman world." In the first place his models are borrowed from the study of modern slavery. The tasks of slaves can be divided into the effort-intensive, which require close supervision and 'pain incentives', and the care-intensive, which require 'reward incentives' but little supervision. A reward for good service in terms of manumission is most likely and desirable in an 'open' slave system, in which former slaves can readily enter the slaveholding society, as opposed to 'closed' systems, in which some cultural factor such as race prevents former slaves from rising above their dependant or disadvantaged station. Scheidel suggests that these factors of incentives and social openness may be combined in a comparative model. He also notes that the unavailability or high cost of free labour could also be an inducement to slave acquisition. In the New World a combination of abundant natural resources and a scarcity of manpower certainly led to a dependence on slaves. But what of the ancient Mediterranean? Sheidel proposes that the increasing political, judicial, and especially military commitments of citizens in expanding city-states with growing capital resources and escalating demands on free labour explain the recourse to large-scale slavery in fifth-century Athens and late Republican Rome.

Tracey Rihll's "Slavery and technology in pre-industrial contexts" is a furiously fast-paced and frenetic survey of technological innovation in the Greco-Roman world, and it only sporadically touches on the relation of technology to slavery. The comparative approach espoused at the beginning is also in rather infrequent evidence. She draws three main conclusions. The fact that some slaves received some pay for their output and the prospect of buying one's freedom with these earnings meant that slavery and technical progress were not antithetical. Nevertheless, she claims technical advances in antiquity were numerous but unimportant. And "slavery was perhaps the main agent of technology transfer" across linguistic, cultural, and national boundaries (although Rihll admits she cannot prove this last point).

Michael Zeuske presents a dense and involved examination of the history and practicability of comparisons between the various slave systems from Virginia to Brazil in his "Comparing or interlinking? Economic comparisons of early nineteenth-century slave systems in the Americas in historical perspective." His focus is set within quite specific chronological and geographical parameters, and the ancient world is mentioned only in terms of the cultural world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There seems to be little potential for the application of Zeuske's work to the study of ancient slavery, particularly as he repeatedly insists on the introduction of the slaves as participants and their perspective in any comparative study. Nevertheless, the rigorous qualifications and conditions that Zeuske imposes on comparisons within what might be seen as a single 'slave culture' offer useful cautions to anyone who would attempt comparisons across great spans of time and space.

The editors' own contribution, "Ideal models of slave management in the Roman world and the ante-bellum American South," a collaboration like the volume as a whole, is a comparison of the manuals of advice offered to Roman estate holders and Southern planters. Dal Lago and Katsari say they will pursue a method of 'rigorous comparison' and take the contexts of the respective comparanda into account, but there is not much in their essay beyond a survey of the contents of agronomical handbooks. They discover a number of intriguing parallels in everything from specific instructions on housing slaves and the appropriate use of the lash to the ideological tenets of benevolence, paternalism, and reciprocity, but they treat these parallels as independent responses to similar situations, and explicitly refuse to pursue the possibility that Southern slaveholders were directly influenced by Roman writers. This is unwarranted, given that the planter aristocracy of the South was well versed in the Classics and lived in a culture which sought to find models for conduct and civilization in antiquity. It is particularly baffling in light of the next chapter.

In "Panis, disciplina, et opus servo: the Jesuit ideology in Portuguese America and Greco-Roman ideas of slavery," Rafael de Bivar Marquese and Fabio Duarte Joly examine the writings of two Italian Jesuits at work in Brazil in the early eighteenth century, Jorge Benci (Giorgio Benci) and Andre Joao Antonil (the pseudonym of Joao Antonio Andreoni or, in Italian, Giovanni Antonio Andreoni). These men, as the authors indicate, wrote at a time of crisis: crisis in the markets for Brazilian sugar and African slaves, and crisis in the status of the Jesuits in Portugal's colonies. As a riposte to certain criticisms of Jesuit abuses, Benci and Antonil prepared their treatises as an attempt to synthesize Greek economics, Roman agronomics, and Biblical patriarchy in order to set up an ideal of the Christian household in which the master bore the full weight of his obligations. Their ideal had little time to establish itself before it was successfully challenged by a more individualistic and capitalistic model which emphasized production and profit rather than responsibility.

Olivier Petre-Grenouilleau's "Processes of exiting the slave systems: a typology" (an essay which might have benefited from much more extensive editorial attention) attempts an unrestricted survey and classification of the routes by which people left the state of slavery. Petre-Grenouilleau identifies three basic types of 'exit.' Among the first are all those means of conferring freedom which serve to perpetuate the slave system. Manumission at the will of the master (here the word 'enfranchisement' is rather confusingly used in the sense of the French 'affranchissement') is presented as most common, but also as a different kind of dependence, rather than real freedom. Petre-Grenouilleau also includes in this type slave revolts, because they bolster the slave system by obviating the need for change and siphoning off the least tractable slaves. The second type is an "evolution of global society, entailing a slow 'decline' of the slave system." Petre-Grenouilleau realizes that talk of historical decline is quite outmoded, and insists that the apparent decline of slave systems is more often a transformation or less obvious continuation of such systems. He concludes that abolition combined with the evolution of global society, his third type, is the only means of not simply offering freedom to slaves, but ending a slave system.

If some of the papers in this collection insist upon a rigorous and detailed comparison of different slave systems, Stanley Engerman's "Emancipation schemes: different ways of ending slavery" demonstrates a very different approach in which the topic serves to attract a diffuse number of facts and figures, dates and events, but limited analysis and insight. There is, moreover, a disconcerting and superfluous importation of modern value judgments into an historical discussion, which is otherwise absent from the collection as a whole. Widespread emancipation was by no means frequent in antiquity, and so it is perhaps fair that the Romans receive barely a mention alongside the mediaeval Scandinavians.

Stephen Hodkinson's "Spartiates, helots and the direction of the agrarian economy: toward an understanding of helotage in comparative perspective" is a significant contribution to the study of unfree labour in ancient Greece and a model of the comparative method. Relying principally on parallels from pre-colonial Africa, the plantation South, and the Russian serf system, he augments the meager literary and archaeological evidence to paint a more detailed picture of the social relations of agricultural production in the Spartan state. The helots, he concludes, paid their dues in kind as sharecroppers, which probably meant less supervisory intervention by the Spartiates. In terms of fixed tenure on the land, they may have been resettled by their masters according to the opportunities and deterioration of production. The roles of Spartiates and helots in determining the configuration of the economic system are queried, and while the Spartiates undoubtedly effected some changes after the conquest, they probably, for the most part, took over control of the preexisting Messenian peasant economy. Within Spartan territory there were differences in the helot system. Close to Sparta itself the Spartiates could exercise more frequent and direct supervision over the helots, and it is noticed that here the helots lived in several small, dispersed settlements. In Messenia, further from the site of their civic responsibilities, the Spartiates probably depended on mnoionomoi, helot overseers, and there is a corresponding concentration of the population in a small number of larger villages. There is evidence that this greater degree of independence and concentration of the population led to a sense of communal identity and the growth of community institutions, as well as to an economic and social stratification of the helot populace, with the wealthier and more influential helots collaborating with the Spartiate landowners.

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