Tuesday, May 14, 2019


Response: Zurbach on Mackil and Nakassis on Zurbach, Les hommes, la terre et la dette en Grèce, c. 1400-c. 500 a.C. Response to 2018.08.06

Response by Julien Zurbach, ENS, AOrOc, IUF (Julien.Zurbach@ens.fr)

Version at BMCR home site

E. Mackil and D. Nakassis have offered a detailed discussion of this book, with a clear-cut conclusion: their last words are about the "inaccuracies, omissions, and fruitless returns to old debates". It deserves a response, however, because it is unfair in many aspects. As a matter of fact, the judgment that "Zurbach seems not to make the important distinction between debt slavery and debt servitude" when a whole subchapter (I, 350-357) is devoted to 'esclavage et servitude pour dettes' is astonishing enough to justify a more detailed discussion. I will not, however, reply to every criticism, and I will leave the details for the readers to judge, concentrating on those points that in my opinion reveal existing tensions in the field of the history and economy of Early Greece. For the sake of clarity, I will divide the question into four parts.

1. Some detailed criticisms are taken as a sign of a general lack of information. – The reviewers hold that Perpillou's [not Peripillou, sic] views on the possibility of an owner having rights to land in the name of his brother are outdated. The problem lies in the reading of one text and the phonetic value of Linear B sign *34, on which there has been much discussion. I should certainly have mentioned more literature on that sign. However, the discussion is not closed, as the reviewers seem to believe, and the new reading they consider consensual does not make any sense in that text. This point is not fundamental in the chapters on Mycenaean landholding, on the contrary: it is a problem I do not pretend to solve. It may be removed without changing anything else, so this is not a "key argument". – The reviewers consider the Late Helladic IIIC Middle date for Building T at Tiryns as false. It is not correct, but not false: J. Maran has dated the building to Late Helladic IIIC. It is an error – mea culpa. Again, it has no consequence on the whole chapter. – The reviewers hold that I argue "from the fact that pottery in the Early Iron Age was handmade rather than wheel-made, that this was a 'peasant economy' in which domestic production took precedence over specialized production". No: I hold that the shift from wheel-made to handmade cooking and storage vessels has most probably something to do with the level and organization of production. I stand by this claim and I am not alone.1 But again this point may be suppressed without altering anything in that chapter. – The 'common land' I discuss as a new feature of Archaic city-states is the communal land, the 'commons' in an agricultural sense, not the political public spaces, so the discussion on the organization of the urban center of city-states is not relevant.

2. On three important points the judgment of the reviewers is informed by ongoing debates on central points of the economic history of Early Greece, but they fail to give a clear account of the question for the non-specialist reader.

The reviewers state that Mycenaean landholding texts mention "perhaps slaves (if Mycenaean do-e-ro always has the same meaning as δοῦλος, as Zurbach believes it does)". What does this mean? There is a debate among specialists on the significance of the expression 'slave of the deity' in some Mycenaean texts. Some colleagues, among them Nakassis, hold that it is a honorific title; they have good arguments, but I have argued against this position.2 A particular point in that debate is the possibility that these 'slaves' were enslaved for debt or indentured for debt. It is given here as a marginal hypothesis, because it has no bearing on the whole debate, on p. 886. The reviewers, however, seem fascinated by this possibility and turn back to it in a sort of broad and inexact presentation of the importance of debt slavery; I never wrote that peasants were enslaved for debt "throughout", from Mycenae to Solon.

An even more important point is the criticism for having taken seriously the question of land inalienability. I am criticized for going back to Niebuhr and Marx, and this ushers in a general accusation that "long-dismissed theories are extensively aired, usually only to be dismissed again". Here again there is more to say for the general audience. Mackil holds that all land was simply alienable in ancient Crete, for instance. But others disagree.3 Who, then, says that this theory is long-dismissed? The reality is that there is still no agreement on that point. The most regrettable is that this kind of biased, dishonest presentation prevents any evaluation and discussion of the attempt I have made to renew the terms of the question, on the basis of all available sources, and with the works of J. Manning on land ownership in Egypt in mind,4 to define a new framework by to historicize the evolution of property rights beyond any schematic opposition between inalienability and alienability. On a methodological level, I contend that the historian cannot ignore any problem stemming from the sources, even if this problem has been the object of long discussions, and that going back to Aristotle, and also to Niebuhr, is sometimes unavoidable and even better than to remain stuck in the developments of the last few years. There may be outdated theories, there are no outdated sources and problems; it should belong to the reviewers' job to make the difference.

The reviewers state that "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". From what follows, this seems to refer to two very different debates, on the nature of the Protogeometric communities, and on the relative importance of trade in the Archaic period. On the first point, the old idea that Protogeometric communities were poor and isolated is in fact discussed and nuanced p. 760-762; and on the second point, a discussion relying not only on literary sources (as claimed by the reviewers) is to be found on p. 720-723.

3. Historiography. – The reviewers repeatedly state that the book does not take into account recent developments in research. The attitude towards the huge literature available today is stated on p. 18-19. I am definitively against considering that the most recent work is the better. According to the reviewers, it is regrettable that there is a priority given to French-speaking literature against the Anglophone one. Two aspects may be distinguished here. 1) The norm nowadays is to demand that the review of literature should be exhaustive, at least as far as the scientific field of the research is concerned. On that point, I accept everything that might be attributed to a lack of information. I will limit myself to stating that this book has been written in a French context, and that the literature taken into account is not only in French or English but in Italian, German, Spanish, and Greek. 2) The only book mentioned as missing, however, is Paul Halstead's Two oxen ahead. Halstead's work is a wonderful account of modern life in the Greek countryside. It is, however, a work of ethnography, and the question is therefore not exhaustiveness in one's field but the choice of references in neighboring fields of research. I should have quoted it, but at the time I was writing the book, my main references on Mediterranean agriculture were Parain, Haudricourt, Albertini, Jouve, and before all the work of François Sigaut and all his collaborators, which are duly mentioned. All this is in French, relatively unknown outside of the Francophone literature, but is it illegitimate? Through their concentration on harsh criticism, the reviewers fail to give any account of this different scientific tradition.

4. Sources. – According to the reviewers, the book shows too much confidence in written sources, and a lack of any "serious engagement with archaeology". To avoid this kind of dichotomy – texts vs archaeology – I chose to present the sources in a more elaborate way (p. 16-19, apparently to no effect). I adopt a now widespread attitude on the textual tradition, judging on a case- by-case basis rather than dismissing all literary sources; a discussion on hypercriticism is to be found among others in the pages on Miletus (p. 434-439) and similar discussions are now to be found in other works.5 I would underline that the archaeology of the Archaic period, concentrating on sanctuaries and rich graves, shows at least as much 'elite perspectives and biases' as do the texts. I discussed the territories of Metaponto and Croton, the Punta Chiarito farmstead on Ischia, the quantitative aspects of Archaic trade, and so on, with references to archaeological literature. What is not there is perhaps "theory"; or, better, it is not the expected "theory". I will however stand by the conclusion that what is presented today as 'the' theory of archaeology is in fact in many cases a precise social theory downplaying the role of the economy. This explains also why the reviewers find that I allow too much place to 'community' when they would have expected the 'agency' of individual or smaller groups. Once again, all this is expressed in negative judgments, when these discrepancies could have been the occasion of opening the debate we urgently need between a dominant individualist and liberal sociology and another stream of social history drawing on peasant studies, material issues and the Annales school.

At the end, we may turn again to the very definition of the object of the book. The reviewers chose a quite loose formulation of it ("a synthesis ... broadly conceived") and do not pay any attention to the opening pages defining what a système foncier is. This is a notion from the social sciences, and more attention to it would have avoided a misconception of the object of the book, which is not meant to be a loose synthesis. This is probably one explanation for the hostile and reductive stance taken by the reviewers. In doing this, however, they missed some points I would consider interesting, as the Mediterranean perspective so brilliantly argued for by Lewis,6 or the use of the work of the British Marxist historians, or Jack Goody's Theft of History – from the Anglophone world. Are they all already outdated?


1.   For a nuanced discussion of the handmade wares from the 13th and 12th centuries see B. Lis, "Hand-made pottery groups in Mainland Greece during the 13th and 12th c. BC as a sign of economic crisis?", in I. Caloi, C. Langohr, Technology in Crisis. Technological changes in ceramic production during periods of trouble, Louvain 2018, 139-149
2.   See D. Nakassis, Individuals and society in Mycenaean Pylos, Mnemosyne Supplement 358, Leiden-Boston 2013, 14-15, and J. Zurbach, "Esclaves, dette, monnaie en Grèce mycénienne", in H. Landenius Enegren, M.L. Nosch (ed.), Aegean Scripts. Proceedings of the 14th international colloquium on Mycenaean Studies, Copenhagen, 2-5 September 2015, Incunabula Graeca CV, 659-672.
3.   E. Mackil, "Property Claims and State Formation in the Archaic Greek World", in C. Ando, S. Richardson (ed.), Ancient states and infrastructural power, Philadelphia 2017, 63-90; Mackil herself refers to other opinions expressed before all by Cl. Brixhe and M. Bile, "La circulation des biens dans les lois de Gortyne", in C. Dobias-Lalou (ed.) Des dialectes grecs aux Lois de Gortyne, Nancy 1999, 75-116, part. 108-111, and A. Chaniotis, "The Common Institutions of the Cretans", in E. Greco, M. Lombardo (ed.), La Grande Iscrizione di Gortyna: Centoventi anni dopo la scoperta, Athens 2005, 175-194.
4.   J. Manning, Land and Labour in Ptolemaic Egypt, Cambridge 2003.
5.   G. Seelentag, Das archaische Kreta. Institutionalisierung im frühen Griechenland, Klio Beiheft 24, Berlin 2015, 93-128; see also the use of sources on Archaic Greece in H. van Wees, Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute : A Fiscal History of Archaic Athens, London-New York 2013 and D. Lewis, Greek slave systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c. 800-146 BC, Oxford 2018.
6.   D. Lewis, Greek slave systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c. 800-146 BC, Oxford 2018.

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