Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Heinz Heinen (ed.), Antike Sklaverei: Rückblick und Ausblick. Neue Beiträge zur Forschungsgeschichte und zur Erschließung der archäologischen Zeugnisse. Redaktion: Andrea Binsfeld. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei Bd. 38. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. x, 247; xxxi pp. of plates. ISBN 9783515094139. €42.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jonathan S. Perry, University of South Florida—Sarasota-Manatee (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Gauging Moses Finley's influence on the study of ancient slavery—and the "climate of opinion" in which he began to exercise that influence—Arnaldo Momigliano observed, "We were both present at the International Historical Congress in Stockholm of 1960 where the conflict erupted. We learned more about modern Europe than about ancient Greece or Rome."1 The aftershocks of that famous eruption have continued to reverberate over a half-century but, happily, have diminished in scale over time. This was so much the case by 1998 that Brent Shaw could describe the "ideological battle lines" drawn in Stockholm, "unfortunately deeply imbued with personal animus," as belonging "to the history of a bygone generation."2

While memories of precisely what happened at Stockholm have dimmed over time, the rift between German and Anglo-American scholars has persisted, and an attempt to bridge that divide was made at a sort of summit meeting (appropriate for a Cold-War-era conflict?) in Edinburgh in September 2007. Organized by Ulrike Roth, the conference included prominent members of and those influenced by the Mainz Akademie Projekt titled "Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei," established by Joseph Vogt in 1950. This book is one of the products of what must have been a highly stimulating meeting. It is composed of seven papers in German and three in English, with introductory remarks by Heinz Heinen, biographical information concerning the participants, and several pages of plates.

The themes of "retrospect" and "prospect" were ideal for a meeting of this sort, and most of the speakers paid tribute to the achievements of Vogt and his successors while also looking forward to new opportunities for current students of slavery in the classical world. Although he does not deal in depth with the Mainz Project, Keith Bradley's contribution ("Römische Sklaverei: Ein Blick zurück und eine Vorschau," pp. 15-38) illustrates the usefulness of this Janus-like vision.3 Attributing his own interest in Roman slavery—and his signature use of "die komparative Methode"—to his exposure to "das goldene Zeitalter" of scholarship on antebellum American slavery in the 1960s and 1970s, Bradley argues that this line of approach should continue to be pursued in respect to three new avenues of inquiry. This hopefulness is, however, couched in a cogent warning: regardless of his salient contributions to ancient historians' views of slavery, even Finley's legacy is "sadly negligible" among historians at large, and we too risk remaining in "a backwater" unless we can engage with modern historians of slavery on their own terms.

Building on previous investigations of the tangled historiography of ancient slavery,4 Niall McKeown ("Inventing Slaveries: Switching the Argument", pp. 39-59) demonstrates that philosophical differences, compounded by vague suspicions and unexamined prejudices against fabricated "straw-" and "bogeymen", have prevented understanding in the past. The most disturbing conclusion here is that these differences may survive today, well beyond the "bygone" era of the Vogt-Finley dispute. Anglophone scholars, given their training, politics, and, especially, historical contexts, may have unearthed forms of resistance—and a corresponding "anxiety" among slaveowners constantly fearing slave revolt—mainly because they "wanted to see such anxieties." As one of Bradley's new directions for scholarship is an analysis of "slave psychology" and the masters' mental states, McKeown's diagnosis is certainly timely.

There follow two papers focusing squarely on the Vogt-Finley conflict, and these convincingly demonstrate that much (though perhaps not all) of the feud was based on misapprehension, misunderstanding, and misdirection concerning the intentions and implementation of the Mainz project. Herself a leading figure and close associate at Mainz throughout its several phases, Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto ("Das Projekt 'Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei' an der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz," pp. 61-75) mounts a vigorous defense of Vogt's approach and methods, placing him in the ideological context of the 1950s. She underscores the diversity of approaches undertaken by Vogt's Mitarbeiter from the beginning of the project and argues that, whatever his political beliefs and "humanitarian" attitudes, Vogt deliberately incorporated, and often favorably, the work of Warsaw Pact and Soviet scholars. A glance through the several bibliographies, compiled in 1971, 1983, and 2003,5 and containing titles in Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Russian, et al., confirms the legitimacy of Herrmann-Otto's contention. However, it is also fair to say that the tendency to collect evidence, even in contemporary initiatives such as the multi-volume Handwörterbuch der antiken Sklaverei, does not reflect the most up-to-date "interdisciplinary" and "globalizing" trends in the field.

Offering a thorough recasting of the famous dispute that separated the Mainz project from trends in the Anglo-American world, Johannes Deissler ("Cold Case? Die Finley-Vogt-Kontroverse aus deutscher Sicht," pp. 77-93) dates the conflict not to 1960, but rather to Finley's caustic 1975 TLS review of the English version of Vogt's Sklaverei und Humanität. Finley, in his view, misconstrued the "humane" aspects that Vogt supposedly found in ancient slave systems, insisting that "a mitigated evil remains an evil" and that slavery could in no way be described as "humane." The problem was largely one of translation, as "humane" and "humanitarian" were difficult terms to swallow when slaves are, as a precondition to enslavement, dehumanized and their personhood annihilated.

While Deissler may be correct in the essentials concerning "misunderstandings," it is easy to see from reading Wiedemann's translation of Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man, the source of these "Mißverständnisse." On the one hand, Vogt noted that "a slave's life must have been tolerable" (5), but then later in that chapter maintained, "it would not be right to say that either the practice or the idea of slavery current at Athens was humane" (9). Vogt could lament the "touch of tragedy" in doomed slave revolts, attempting "to achieve the impossible" (91), but he could also comment on the tenderness of relationships between slaves and masters as proof of the ability of "real humanity" to prevail "over the callousness of oppression" (104-5 and 120). It is important to observe that, while Vogt's contention that "Slavery and its attendant loss of humanity were part of the sacrifice which had to be paid for this achievement" (25)—the very sentence that probably sent Finley over the edge?—may have been part of the 1950s Zeitgeist, it was also a significant departure from a much older tradition regarding ancient slavery. In his 1847 Histoire de l'esclavage dans l'antiquité, Henri Wallon had insisted that the root cause of the decay in all states, ancient or modern, was the institution of slavery—and thus the only solution to this decay was to abolish slavery, root and branch (e.g. Tome I, pp. 336 and 455).

Deissler is on firmer ground when he, like Herrmann-Otto, draws attention to the unfairness of Finley's allegation that Vogt deliberately took an anti-Marxist line and chose to ignore the scholarly output from communist countries. In what may be the strongest and most penetrating paper in the collection, Heinen draws on a wide range of material—most of it available only in Russian—to sketch out the phases of scholarship on slavery in the USSR ("Aufstieg und Niedergang der sowjetischen Sklavereiforschung. Eine Studie zur Verbindung von Politik und Wissenschaft," pp. 95-138). The main theme of this investigation is that, despite the brutality of the Stalinist regime that enforced a "Katechismus," "Orthodoxie," and "Dogma" (109-11), there still remained "immer neue Freiräume zu gewinnen und die Fesseln des Dogmas zu lockern" for the energetic, perspicacious, and internationally-engaged scholar (111). It is also significant to note that destalinization itself may have led to the remarkable renaissance of publications on the topic in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, Heinen may overreach when he concludes that a "Seven Year Plan" to study ancient slavery resulted directly from the contretemps at Stockholm (123).

Although Elena Štaerman's career has been studied in more detail by Yavetz and McKeown,6 Heinen's essay incorporates the subtle reflections of Štaerman's daughter, which were included in an obituary when the scholar died in 1991. While she followed the official and obligatory Marxist line, which she may herself have believed, she also sought to widen that line into "die Freiheitsräume der marxistischen Theorie." Although offered as a "Postscriptum" (132-6), Heinen's analysis of the remarkable work of Marija E. Sergeenko (1891-1987) is the most enlightening portion of the article, illustrating that, while her themes of lower-class urban and rural laborers in Rome may have been dictated by Marxist-Leninist principles, she "did not allow herself to be bowed under" by the oppressive system.7

The method Heinen employs here—careful reading of material in unfamiliar languages, assessing the impact of political ideologies, and engaging with modern historians—could be applied even more widely, perhaps to Bulgaria, where a conference in honor of the 2050th anniversary of the Spartacus uprising was held in Blagoevgrad in 1977,8 or to Poland, where Jerzy Kolendo and Eva Biežunska-Małowist published articles that were known in the West as well as the East.9

The second half of the book, comprising five papers, addresses the second of the new directions Bradley advocates, namely the discernment and interpretation of images of slaves in ancient art. Bradley suggests that this is a theme as yet "noch in den Kinderschuhen" (29). All five papers face the critical and perhaps insurmountable difficulty of determining whether a person depicted in art represents someone actually enslaved. Michele George ("Archaeology and Roman Slavery: Problems and Potential," pp. 141-60) here, as in several other pieces, makes the strongest possible case for using artistic evidence, but she concedes that, as in other fields of investigation, one must settle for "probability" over "certainty" (145). Andrea Binsfeld's prospects for a Bilddatenbank zur antiken Sklaverei are optimistic—given the evidence, probably overly optimistic—since it is composed of images coupled with texts, wherever these are available (177).

The most compelling contribution of this group of papers is Henner von Hesberg's bleak assessment of the odds of finding slaves in images of war-captives ("Die Wiedergabe von Kriegsgefangenen und Sklaven in der römischen Bildkunst," pp. 179-91). Arguing that the images of captives are designed to glorify the Roman state and its commanders, and that they have little to do with the reality of the newly-enslaved captives' lives, he draws attention to an important and curious lack of visual information, i.e. images of the sale of slaves. Here, as so often, we must supplement meager sources with our imaginations and, with Louis MacNeice, "lastly…think of the slaves."


1.   A. Momigliano, "Moses Finley and Slavery: A Personal Note," in M. I. Finley (ed.), Classical Slavery, London, 1987, p. 4.
2.   B. D. Shaw, "'A Wolf by the Ears': M. I. Finley's Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology in Historical Context," in Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, expanded edition, Princeton, 1998, p. 52.
3.   An English-language version of the paper is available as "Roman Slavery: Retrospect and Prospect," Canadian Journal of History/ Annales canadiennes d'histoire 43 (2008): 478-500.
4.   N. McKeown, The Invention of Ancient Slavery, London, 2007, esp. Chapter 2.
5.   The most recent of these is H. Bellen and H. Heinen (eds.), Bibliographie zur antiken Sklaverei, Stuttgart, 2003.
6.   Z. Yavetz, Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Rome, New Brunswick, 1988, pp. 135-9; McKeown (2007), Chapter 3.
7.   As part of her investigation of working life among the laboring classes, Sergeenko also published an article on the Roman collegia in 1972. For analysis, see my book The Roman Collegia (Leiden, 2006), p. 204f.
8.   The papers were published as C. M. Danov and A. Fol, Spartacus: Symposium Rebus Spartaci Gestis Dedicatum 2050 A. (Blagoevgrad, 20-24.IX.1977), Sofia, 1981.
9.   In her recent contribution on "Slavery in the Hellenistic World" for the first volume of The Cambridge World History of Slavery (Cambridge, 2011), Dorothy J. Thompson finds Biežunska-Małowist's 1974 book "the most useful discussion of slavery in Ptolemaic Egypt" (p. 213).

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