Sunday, September 18, 2016


Julien Zurbach (ed.), La main-d'oeuvre agricole en Méditerranée archaïque: statuts et dynamiques économiques. Actes des journées 'Travail de la terre et statuts de la main-d'oeuvre en Grèce et en Méditerranée Archaïques', Athènes, 15 et 16 décembre 2008. Scripta antiqua, 73. Athènes; Bordeaux: École française d'Athènes; Ausonius Éditions, 2015. Pp. 263. ISBN 9782869582552. €25.00.

Reviewed by David M. Lewis, University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In this valuable volume on agrarian labour in the archaic Mediterranean world, Julien Zurbach has assembled a formidable cast of scholars who analyse an impressive range of ancient societies.

In his introduction, Zurbach situates this volume in terms of recent French scholarship on archaic Greece. By choosing the theme of agricultural labour, Zurbach moves away from the preoccupation with practices of social cohesion (e.g. banquets and associations) that have been studied by Pauline Schmitt-Pantel and Paulin Ismard, and with the dynamics of elite competition studied by Alain Duplouy. Zurbach carefully qualifies this choice: there is no need to set the fluid dynamics of competition for social status at loggerheads with the more rigid categories of juridical status. Both must be integrated to produce a fuller picture of archaic social history.1 He makes the innovative and timely choice to study Greek labour history in comparative perspective alongside other Mediterranean societies; this volume represents a pioneering work of collaboration with experts outside the narrow field of 'classical' history.

Juan Carlos Moreno García examines evolutions in the Egyptian agricultural workforce between the New Kingdom and the Saïte period. He warns against a view of the economy of this era based either on the notion of decline, or on the notion of continuity in which the gaps are filled from the more abundant earlier evidence, on the (false) assumption of Egyptian immutability. What emerges from the documentation reveals a rather different picture: changes in economic relations as we progress into the first millennium, with growth in private enterprise at the expense of institutional control of resources, the appearance of agrarian contracts, and increased private trade with the Eastern Mediterranean world. These changes in turn affected the status of the agricultural workforce: the loss of foreign empire reduced access to war captives, and more reliance came to be placed on the corvée system along with other forms of labour, especially private cultivators.

Francis Joannès provides a brief but useful survey of agricultural labour in Mesopotamia from the Neo-Assyrian period to the Achaemenids, summarizing much recent work on the Assyrian and Babylonian economies in the first millennium BC.2 He discusses deportees, slaves, and dependents in Assyria and the so-called 'Haran census.' He then moves on to Babylonia, examining modes of land exploitation by institutions (e.g. temples) and entrepreneurs, and tracks changes that followed the onset of Persian rule.

André Lemaire provides a valuable overview of the textual evidence for agricultural labour in the Iron Age Levant (especially Israel). He draws on Hebrew texts (particularly the books of Samuel and Kings as well as the prophetic collections) that occasionally provide insights into economic realia, from peasant smallholdings to elite and royal estates. Given the well known methodological problems relating to the composition, dating, and redaction of the Hebrew Bible, Lemaire is cautious in his conclusions; but, like Roland de Vaux over fifty years ago, he accepts (p. 80) that slaves played an important role labouring on the estates of the elite.3 Lemaire stresses the relatively modest scale of slave labour in Israel, but as Finley rightly pointed out, overall numbers are less important than the location of slave ownership, and the fact that slavery was likely the most important source of labour on elite estates in Iron Age Israel is a significant fact telling against Finley's other, and rather more dubious view that slavery played 'no role of any consequence' in the Near East.4

Carlos G. Wagner and Luis Alberto Ruiz Cabrero discuss rural labour in the Phoenician Western Mediterranean. They begin (pp. 85-6) by asserting a rather out-dated position on the nature of the ancient economy, citing Polanyi, Austin and Vidal-Naquet in order to justify rejecting any role for markets in the acquisition of dependent labour.5 (One wonders how Hannibal Gisco managed to buy (êgoraze) 5,000 slaves to serve in the Carthaginian fleet without a network of slave traders and markets: App. Pun. 2.9.6) The first half of their chapter sets out the textual evidence, but much of this amounts to grafting passages from the Hebrew Bible onto a western Mediterranean context, with little reflection on the methodological pitfalls of this venture. This represents a missed opportunity to set out some of the evidence for Carthage's large slave population (largely ignored in Anglo-Saxon scholarship since the 1950s); on this issue, readers will better profit from consulting the studies of Ameling, Flaig, Matilla-Vicente and Lemaire.7 Wagner and Ruiz Cabrero's discussion improves when they move on to the archaeological evidence for rural occupation in the Phoenician colonies, raising interesting questions on the nature of interaction between settlers and local populations.

François Lerouxel studies the institution of debt bondage (nexum) and agricultural labour on the lands of aristocrats in archaic Rome. He notes (p. 111) that the nexus was a free citizen who could not be sold; one would hope for more terminological clarity here, and a distinction between debt bondage and enslavement for debt, rather than labelling nexum as 'esclavage pour dettes.'8 Lerouxel argues that loans were designed to be defaulted on in order that the creditor could acquire the labour services of the debtor, and that the introduction of weighed bronze in exchange helped the patricians exploit the labour of plebeians. Eventually the Lex Poetelia banned nexum, forcing the patricians to shift towards using imported slave labour. Lerouxel's explanation of the rise of slavery in Rome therefore has elements in common with the views of Finley9 and Descat10 on the rise of slavery in Greece.

Lin Foxhall provides another critique of V.D. Hanson's view of archaic Greek agriculture. Instead of playing a transformative role in early Greek farming, Foxhall argues that oleiculture and viticulture were long-established features of agrarian life, and draws on archaeobotanical evidence from several Mediterranean regions to establish this point (these processes, she argues, were simply scaled-up in the later archaic period).

Jean Ducat intervenes in the recent debate set in motion by Nino Luraghi on the origins of Sparta's helots. On Luraghi's view, traditions of early mass conquests represent nothing more than charter myths serving to explain to later generations why the helots were a monoglot, agrarian slave population; their true origins more likely lie in complex processes of 'internal differentiation' in which a variety of dependent relationships coalesced over time to form the homogeneous helot population visible in classical-era sources.11 Ducat follows Luraghi in rejecting Book IV of Pausanias as 'invented tradition'; but he is more reluctant to accept the idea that Messenian identity was created ex novo following the Theban liberation of Messenia in the 360s, arguing that some continuity in traditions of local identity must run back to the early archaic period. On Ducat's view, the Messenian helots originated, at least in part, from conquest. He finishes with the stimulating suggestion that the Homeric poems might furnish us with clues about the early history of slave populations such as the helots.12

Alexandre Baralis follows Ducat's chapter with an analysis of one slave population that was often compared to the helots, the Mariandynians of Heraclea on the southern Black Sea coast. His study employs careful Quellenkritik to analyse the tradition of lists of helot-comparanda; in particular, he wrestles with the problem of the origins of the Mariandynians' enslavement and whether any value can be accorded to traditions of an original 'contract of servitude.'

Raymond Descat provides a short and rather disappointing discussion of the origins of 'slave society' in archaic Greece. He claims (p. 236) that 'L'état de la réflexion historique peut se résumer à l'heure actuelle autour de deux interprétations, celle, classique, de M.I. Finley et celle, plus récente, de I. Morris.' In focusing on these two views (and Morris' article has key weaknesses 13), Descat not only sidesteps a great deal of important recent work on Solon, but misses some of the most significant recent criticism of Finley's model of the 'rise' of slave society in Greece, especially two articles by E.M. Harris that have demonstrated that (i) Solon abolished enslavement for debt, not debt bondage14 and (ii) 'slave society' already existed in the time of Homer, and was not a sixth century invention.15 Descat's own view that the introduction of silver to commercial exchange represents the key moment in the formation of Greece's 'slave society' depends on a tendentious reading of Theopompus FGrHist 115 F 122; not only is it doubtful that Theopompus had any special knowledge of the origins of Greek slavery, but he also does not say that the Chians were the first to pay silver for slaves (the word argurônetos appears only in Athenaeus' introduction to the quotation from Theopompus).

One might have hoped that Homer and Hesiod would feature more prominently in the volume, which, furthermore engages rather unevenly with some of the more important work on archaic labour published in English (for instance, there is little discussion beyond Ducat's essay of the work of Hans van Wees). But quibbles aside, Zurbach is to be congratulated in blazing a trail towards a more integrative approach to archaic labour history, bringing into the debate scholars working on areas of the ancient world outside Athens and Rome. We should look forward to further contributions from Zurbach and his collaborators in the years to come.


Julien Zurbach, Avant-propos 9
Julien Zurbach, Introduction 11
Juan Carlos Moreno García, L'évolution des statuts de la main-d'œuvre rurale en Égypte de la fin du Nouvel Empire à l'époque saïte (c. 1150-525 a.C.) 15
Francis Joannès, La main-d'œuvre rurale en Assyrie et en Babylonie au Ier millénaire a.C 49
André Lemaire, Esclavage pour dettes et autres formes de travail dépendant au Levant : tradition biblique et épigraphie (x - v s.) 67
Carlos G. Wagner, Luis Alberto Ruiz Cabrero, La mano de obra rural en los asentamientos fenicios de Occidente 85
François Lerouxel, Bronze pesé, dette et travail contraint (nexum) dans la Rome archaïque (vi -iv s. a.C.) 109
Lin Foxhall, Technology in Context: Questioning the Transformative Powers of Olive and Vine Cultivation 153
Jean Ducat, Les Hilotes à l'époque archaïque 165
Alexandre Baralis, Le statut de la main-d'œuvre à Héraclée du Pont et en Mer Noire 197
Raymond Descat, Autour de la naissance de la société esclavagiste en Grèce archaïque 235
Julien Zurbach, Conclusions 243
Index des sources citées 251


1.   Pp. 11-12. Cf. Zurbach's 'La formation des cités grecques. Statuts, classes et systèmes fonciers' Annales HSS 68.4 (2013): 957-98.
2.   For Assyria, see e.g. M. Fales, L'impero assiro. Storia e amministrazione (IX-VII secolo A.C.) Rome & Bari 2001; for Babylonia, see e.g. M. Jursa, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC. Münster 2010.
3.   R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (London, 1961): 167.
4.   M.I. Finley, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (London, 1981): 114-15. On Israel see chapter 9 of my Greek Slave Systems and their Eastern Neighbours: A Comparative Study (Oxford, forthcoming).
5.   Here is not the place to engage in this debate; but talking of markets need not involve a pledge of allegiance to the discredited modernist view of the economy. For useful remarks on the problem, see J. Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge 2006): 42-6.
6.   Cf. E. Flaig, Weltgeschichte der Sklaverei (Munich 2009): 55: 'eine solche riesige Zufuhr setzt eine stattliche Lieferzone in Nordafrika voraus.'
7.   W. Ameling, s.v. 'Karthago' in H. Heinen (ed.) Handwörterbuch der antiken Sklaverei. CD-ROM (Mainz 2012); E. Flaig, op. cit. pp. 55-6; E. Mattila-Vicente, 'Surgimiento y desarrollo de la esclavidad Cartaginesa' Hispania antiqua 7 (1977): 99-103; A. Lemaire, 'L'esclave' in J.-A. Zamora (ed.) El hombre fenicio: estudios y materiales (Rome 2003): 219-222.
8.   For the distinction, see E.M. Harris, 'Did Solon abolish debt bondage?' CQ 52 (2002): 415-30.
9.   Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London, 1980): 67-92, who focused on the alleged abolition of debt bondage (but see n. 8, supra).
10.   'Argyrônetos: les transformations de l'échange dans la Grèce archaïque', in P. van Alfen (ed.) Agoranomia: Studies in Money and Exchange presented to John H. Kroll (New York, 2006): 21-36, who focuses on increased trade following the introduction of weighed silver as a means of exchange.
11.   See his essay 'Helotic slavery reconsidered' in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (eds.) Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (London 2002): 227-48.
12.   Ducat pp. 193-4. I had independently arrived at the same conclusion, and pursue the idea further in a forthcoming essay, 'The Homeric roots of helotage' in M. Canevaro and J. Bernhardt (eds.) From Homer to Solon: Continuity and Change in Archaic Greek Society (Leiden, forthcoming).
13.   I. Morris, 'Hard Surfaces' in P. Cartledge, E. Cohen and L. Foxhall (eds.) Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece (London 2002): 8-43. This essay aims at fusing traditional historical methods with New Institutional Economics. However, in his case study on Solon, Morris absolves himself from any source criticism (p. 31) and makes extensive, uncritical use of late sources, meaning that his argument is not so much a fusion of the old and new ways, but a purely social-scientific endeavour.
14.   See n. 8, supra.
15.   'Homer, Hesiod, and the "Origins" of Greek slavery' REA 114.2 (2012): 345-66.

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