Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.54

Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto, Unfreie Arbeits- und Lebensverhältnisse von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart. Eine Einführung.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2005.  Pp. xviii, 417.  ISBN 3-487-12912-4.  €48.00.  



Reviewed by Walter Scheidel, Stanford University (scheidel@stanford.edu)
Word count: 878 words

This collaborative volume inaugurates a new series devoted to the social, legal, and cultural history of slavery, servitude, and forced labor. Seventeen chapters are meant to highlight the fundamental fact that 'Unfreiheit,' unfreedom, has never been limited to slavery but extends across a whole range of related statuses and conditions. Bringing together experts of history, philology, philosophy, and law, these contributions succeed in giving a taste of the true breadth of the historical experience. They combine a strong emphasis on the ancient Mediterranean (the focus of no fewer than nine chapters) with cross-cultural excursions into later historical periods and the present.

The first six chapters deal with various aspects of unfreedom in the ancient world. S. Allam examines the case of the merit in Pharaonic Egypt, permanent dependent laborers under the state's control who were employed in farming and construction and as servants, and could be allocated (though not sold) to subordinate beneficiaries. B. Zimmermann deals with the role of slaves in Athenian drama, while G. Wöhrle reconsiders Stoic thinking on slavery and its preoccupation with spiritual 'inner' freedom that trumps external constraints. E. Herrmann-Otto notes that the Roman notion of enslavement contra naturam did not translate to a recognition of inalienable human rights: from this perspective, the loss of freedom would never constitute an immoral infringement of universal entitlements. In a similar vein, H. Ankum demonstrates that the Roman legal concept of favor libertatis did not reflect misgivings about slavery per se but merely served as a means of alleviating dogmatic strictures in order to facilitate or confirm manumission: in brief, a way to make sure that the law erred on the safe side. H. Wieling briefly reviews some ways in which late Roman legislation curtailed the freedoms of specific groups such as tenant farmers, city-councillors, and members of professional collegia. The common denominator of these otherwise highly compartmentalized case studies is that none of them manages to unearth ancient texts that betray any doubts about the intrinsic legitimacy of chattel slavery and lesser checks on freedom.

Subsequent papers deal with justifications of bondage in medieval (scholastic) thought; the resurgence of slavery in the medieval Mediterranean; discussions of the legitimacy of unfreedom in medieval German legal literature; and the experience of a seventeenth-century Habsburg officer turned Ottoman galley slave. Four additional chapters on abolition, forced labor in colonial and dictatorial settings, and modern trafficking in humans cover more recent developments.

Antiquity returns in the final section on perceptions of ancient slavery in modern art and scholarship. In a stimulating essay, W. Nippel argues that Marx, Engels and Weber's observations on ancient slavery were frequently colored by concerns about modern colonial slavery which prompted misleading assimilations and distortions. Marx and Engels were influenced by abolitionist rhetoric and only marginally interested in ancient slavery itself. Weber's work featured questionable analogies regarding a single ideal type of 'plantation slavery' that supposedly applied to Rome and America alike and the fallacious notion that the survival of large-scale slavery necessarily depended on continuing imports of unfree workers from outside. All three of them focused on the economic properties of slave labor in antiquity without paying much attention to its ethical dimension. Their pertinent remarks need to be understood in the first instance in the context of their quest to explain the distinctive character of the modern West. U. Eigler identifies a comparable preoccupation with the present in his analysis of Stanley Kubrick's movie Spartacus. Finally, H. Heinen relates the creation of the ancient slavery research project at Mainz by Joseph Vogt in 1950 to the specific circumstances of the Cold War that called for a response to the challenge of historical-materialist work sponsored by the socialist regimes.

Herrmann-Otto and her collaborators have produced a colorful mix of case studies that highlight the rich variety and complexity of historical and contemporary manifestations of unfreedom. Unfortunately, the intended audience seems ill-defined: based on a year-long lecture series held at the University of Trier in 2003/4, the contributions to this volume were originally presented to student audiences but have now been published in a conventionally scholarly format, with substantial footnoting and few concessions to readers unfamiliar with the historical background. Its subtitle notwithstanding, this kaleidoscopic tour is hardly suitable as an 'introduction.' At the same time, many (though not all) of these chapters primarily summarize existing scholarship or well-known evidence, which will limit their appeal to professional academics. In her introduction, the editor expresses the hope that this volume will help overcome German academe's reluctance to engage with post-ancient slavery (an abstinence that has been traced to Germany's limited and belated involvement in colonial ventures), and considers it a contribution to the revival of universal history. Random heterogeneity, however, does not qualify as universal history: comparative considerations, essential to the intellectual coherence and unity of purpose of any collection of cross-cultural case studies, are completely missing from this volume. As it is, it provides tantalizing glimpses of the many faces of unfreedom without so much as hinting at ways of generating analytical insights from this broadened perspective. A collection of papers designed to illustrate the potential of a comparative history of world slavery and other forms of bondage might have launched this new series with a bang rather than the whimper delivered by the present volume.

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