Monday, August 6, 2018


Julien Zurbach, Les hommes, la terre et la dette en Grèce, c. 1400-c. 500 a.C. (2 vols.). Scripta antiqua, 95. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2017. Pp. 850. ISBN 9782356131799. €45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Emily Mackil and Dimitri Nakassis, University of California, Berkeley; University of Colorado, Boulder (;

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Julien Zurbach's long and detailed book originates in two straightforward premises. The first is that access to and control over land was, throughout Greek antiquity, a major determinant of social relations, and therefore deserves more sustained attention than it has received in the last four decades. The second is that the disciplinary bifurcation between prehistorians and historians has created a misleading impression that the Bronze Age and Archaic Greek worlds were wholly distinct places. Thus he situates his project, a synthesis of the economic and social history of agricultural labor and access to land in the Greek world, broadly conceived, from the fourteenth to the end of the sixth century BCE.

Part One reviews and analyzes the Mycenaean textual evidence for landholding over five chapters. Chapter 1 provides a review of texts relating to land, as an introduction for the general reader. Chapter 2 examines rural structures, attempts to determine whether there was private property in the Mycenaean world, and examines the distribution of landholdings. The relationship between the palace and land is probed in Chapter 3, including the thorny question of whether Mycenaean palaces controlled large agricultural estates and the complex relationship between the palace and the lands of rural communities (dāmoi). Chapter 4 deals with land and religious institutions: the Pylian texts are full of landholding religious officials of various statuses, including perhaps slaves (if Mycenaean do-e-ro always has the same meaning as δοῦλος, as Zurbach believes it does). The status of Mycenaean rural communities is examined in Chapter 5, which considers the role of the dāmos and the officials who constitute it. A brief conclusion summarizes the main features of the system as Zurbach understands it: the palace does not seem to exploit directly any large agricultural estates but rather acquires agricultural goods through taxation and by mobilizing production from the land holdings of rural communities, whereas the temple is essentially an outgrowth of the palace. For Zurbach, the regional elite likely controlled the finances of the dāmoi and were connected to palatial systems; the individuals designated as "slaves of the god" (te-o-jo do-e-ro/do-e-ra) were, Zurbach thinks, members of the peasantry who were enslaved because of debts to the temple.

Zurbach's discussion of the Mycenaean evidence is extremely dense and detailed, and will be tough sledding even for Linear B specialists. Zurbach is a careful reader of the documents and makes a number of new and useful observations, although this section is not without problems. Most concerning are bibliographic lapses, even in key arguments. For instance, Zurbach (89, 162- 3) suggests that the Pylos tablet Eb 472 indicates that land could be transmitted, because he reads the phrase wo-jo *34- to, following Perpillou 1984, as hwoio phratros, "of his brother," but none of the recent work on the unassigned signs (of which *34 is one) suggests that this reading is even remotely possible. Ever since Chadwick's 1992 discussion the standard reading has been hwoio aitos, "of his own share".1 Other key discussions largely ignore scholarship since 2001, especially but not exclusively work in English. The total absence of any discussion of Paul Halstead's work since 1999, and the robust debate it sparked about the extent and nature of the palatial economy and the palace's relationship to other institutions, is particularly regrettable.2

Part Two addresses what we know of the disposition of land and its exploitation from the Homeric poems. Zurbach surveys references in both Iliad and Odyssey to kleros and temenos, the two types of land most frequently attested in the poems. These passages point to the use of kleros for the small holding of an independent landowner (e.g., Il. 5.486, 15.661), whereas temenos is taken to designate "une parcelle de statut particulier, que le damos ou les gerontes qui le représentent donnent à un héros qui s'est distingué ou à un roi au titre de sa fonction" (232). The third part, "les cités archaïques et la terre," comprises a chapter on Hesiod and Askra, eight regional chapters offering surveys of issues related to land and labor from Asia Minor to Italy and "l'Extrême-Occident" (Massalia and its emporia), and a lengthy summary chapter that attempts to draw the threads together. The regional chapters, subdivided by individual communities, may prove useful to those interested in land-related evidence in a particular place, but offer little that is new. The fourth part, consisting of a single chapter, returns to the question of whether land rights, the distribution of land, and control over labor changed dramatically from the Bronze to the Iron Age.

The diachronic survey of landholding, labor, and debt from the Bronze Age through the Archaic period has more potential. The picture that emerges is one of both continuity and change. The nuclear family is portrayed as the primary landowner, agricultural producer, and consumer throughout this period. Private property existed in the Bronze Age and became more widespread through the early Archaic period; in no period or context, including new settlements (contra David Asheri), were the plots of land belonging to individuals equal in size or quality. People were enslaved for debt throughout: in the Bronze Age to an institutionalized "temple" (although this is far from certain), and in the Archaic period to private lenders (though Zurbach seems not to make the important distinction between debt slavery and debt servitude).

Changes in land regimes over this long period, and their relationship to both political and social developments, are more complex. Although Zurbach insists upon the existence of private property in the Bronze Age, he recognizes that the collapse of the palaces both intensified and extensified property ownership, as lands monitored by palatial authorities became untethered from any larger institutional system. Whereas in the later Bronze Age he sees some community land prerogatives in the hands of the dāmos (187–198), by the Archaic period instead communities, in the form of poleis, were offering entitlements to their citizens, whether in the form of guaranteed labor performed by enslaved populations or the import of price-controlled grain (766). He argues that public or common land was created as a new institution when "the community" claimed land for itself that had not been claimed by any private individuals. Although this makes some sense of eschatiai, it cannot account for the very deliberate demarcation of land for public uses in the center of a polis. Archaeology tells us that this is more haphazard in "old world" poleis than in apoikic ones (e.g., Metapontum), but it is nevertheless deliberate (Azoria being a particularly clear example). What is more, the assertion that "the community" stakes a claim over this land obfuscates the question of agency and envisages a more communitarian environment than is likely to have existed; inter-elite competition, social power, and the military needs of the emergent state are very likely to have played a role. Private land ownership, on the other hand, became more unequal over time as a function of alienation, the division of estates by inheritance, indebtedness, and the enslavement of entire groups.

Zurbach ultimately adheres to a traditional narrative about the economy of the Greek world in the Iron Age and Archaic period that is now widely rejected. He argues from the fact that pottery in the Early Iron Age was handmade rather than wheelmade that this was a "peasant economy" in which domestic production took precedence over specialized production, taking no notice of studies of Protogeometric pottery that suggest these vessels were "products of specialized workshops which often display skill and expertise."3 He offers a "minimalist" assessment of the role of trade in the Archaic period (718–723, 767) that flows from relative neglect of archaeological evidence in favor of literary sources that privilege elite perspectives and biases.

The book also suffers from several methodological shortcomings. Long-dismissed theories are extensively aired, usually only to be dismissed again (e.g., the debate about the alienability of land, which he traces from Niebuhr to Marx to Finley), whereas recent developments are too often neglected; we have cited a few particularly egregious examples above. There is also a tendency to neglect Anglophone scholarship in favor of Francophone. We also note an unduly trusting approach to the sources upon which Zurbach relies. From the fragmentary and highly specific Linear B tablets to Hesiod to late sources about archaic lawgivers, he seems to suppose that what we have in the texts is indeed representative of what there was, so as not to countenance the possibility that what we don't have could change the picture significantly.

Finally, Zurbach refrains throughout from serious engagement with archaeology, which is crucially important for our understanding of the period covered by the book. This neglect manifests itself both empirically and theoretically. The former is evident in errors of fact (e.g., Building T at Tiryns is wrongly dated to LH IIIC middle [756]) and interpretation. The latter is evident in Zurbach's repeated criticism of post-processual archaeology (16-19, 771-74), the exemplar of which is, bizarrely, Ian Morris. Zurbach decries Morris' approach, in which "[l]es individus et leurs pratiques créent une société sans structures" (772), but the pages of Morris cited make no such claim; Morris rather argues that the archaeological record is not the passive product of everyday life and that human practices cannot be entirely reduced to the operation of hard socioeconomic structures.

Zurbach's book will prove useful to those with a specialist interest in land and labor in the early Greek world, who will wish to consult it for points of detail and will need also to be aware of his arguments about private property in the Bronze Age and persistent land inequality in the Archaic period. But it is precisely these specialists—prehistorians and historians alike—who will be most troubled by the inaccuracies, omissions, and fruitless returns to old debates. It is not a book for the general reader, or for the faint of heart.


1.   See recently J.L. Melena, "Filling gaps in the Mycenaean Linear B additional syllabary: The case of the syllabogram *34," in Agalma: ofrenda desde la Filología clásica a la Manuel García Teijeiro, ed. A.M. Fernandez (Valladolid 2014), 207-226. J.L. Peripillou, "Les syllabogrames *34 et *35," SMEA 25 (1984) 221-236; J. Chadwick, "Pylos Va 15," in Mykenaïka. Actes du IXe Colloque international sur les textes mycéniens et égéens, ed. J.-P. Olivier (Paris 1992) 167-172. Neither Chadwick 1992 nor Melena 2014 (or indeed any of Melena's work on the values of unidentified signs) is cited by Zurbach.
2.   Especially noteworthy is the omission of P. Halstead, Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean (Oxford 2014), but also earlier articles such as P. Halstead, "Mycenaean Wheat, Flax and Sheep: Palatial Intervention in Farming and its Implications for Rural Society," in Economy and Politics in the Mycenaean Palace States, ed. S. Voutsaki and J.T. Killen (Cambridge 2001) 38-50.
3.   I.S. Lemos, The Protogeometric Aegean: The archaeology of the late eleventh and tenth centuries B.C. (Oxford 2002) 97.

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