Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology Analysis

M. I. Finley

Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

“Slave society did not immediately give way to feudal society.” In this deceptively simple sentence, Sir Moses I. Finley concludes his brilliant analysis of what is known, and not known but suspected, about the emergence and decline of ancient slavery. Universally praised by historians and social scientists alike, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology is truly a master’s piece. After reading the well-written, well-reasoned, well-documented text, one can experience only a feeling of deep gratitude for having been given so graceful a gift. Ancient slavery may appear to be a subject unrelated to our ordinary concerns, but not in the way that Finley has presented it. He has used the subject to raise the most fundamental issues: how has the coming and passing of an evil practice been conceived in the past and how should it be conceived today?

Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, a series of four lectures presented in 1978, begins with a revealing account of how the Cold War has not only affected much of what is considered acceptable scholarship on ancient history, but also how it has distorted that scholarship on both sides. The divisions of Germany into East and West is itself suggested as a contributing factor in the currently heated debate on ancient slavery. Marxist historians, taking their lead from Karl Marx’s injunction against regarding ancient Greek and Roman societies as merely forms of capitalism, look to an explanation that involves progressive stages of economic development. Finley, however, does not concentrate on this now voluminous scholarship because, as he says, “it is automatically criticized for its ’bias’” in the West. Instead, the focus is on extreme examples of West German polemical publications of the 1960’s.

One such book, described as an unrelenting attack on Marxism, opens with the prejudicially incorrect assertion that the view that the use of slave labor was an obstacle to technical progress was originated by Marx, and goes on incorrectly to imply that only Marxists have held this view, which is an assertion maintained only by unrelenting selectivity in citing modern authorities. Another such book partly abdicates intellectual responsibility by identifying as “Marxist” all authors who claim to be so, and completes the abdication by proceeding to ignore all recent Marxist writing that has appeared in English, French, and Italian. The monolithic picture that the author then draws is, says Finley, a political act. Similarly, politics reigned when the German periodical Saeculum devoted its entire 1960 issue (a year before the Berlin Wall) to a critique of Marxism—especially in the scathing article on ancient slavery that failed to deal with the evidence, being content merely to refer the reader to Edward Meyer’s lecture on the subject in 1898. Still another example of the current anti-Marxist bias in the study of ancient slavery is found in the journal Gymnasium, where, again, Meyer’s 1898 lecture is cited, this time to show that it “destroys the notion of the supposedly regular development from Primitive communism . . . to the proletariat of modern capitalism.”

Meyer, reflecting one widely held Germanic doctrine, believed that the state is the decisive organism of history and thus in order to provide a realistic account of antiquity, all conceptions of historical stages determined by economic structures must be rejected. Finley calls his lecture on slavery a series of steps rather than an argument. “There is only a succession of ex cathedra assertions, in highly rhetorical dress, without either evidence or a discussion of the views under attack.” After elaborating in detail on the defects of Meyer’s lecture, and noting that it violated not only the canons of historical...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)