Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.54

Niall McKeown, The Invention of Ancient Slavery?.   London:  Duckworth, 2007.  Pp. 144.  ISBN 978-0-7156-3185-0.  £12.99.  



Reviewed by Theresa Urbainczyk, University College Dublin (urbain@ucd.ie)
Word count: 1760 words

This is a study of the historiography of ancient slavery, mainly Roman, from the twentieth century. As its title might suggest, it is provocative and troubling, and the observations McKeown (McK.) makes are relevant to all areas of historiography. The book is succinct and tightly argued, although the topic is vast, and represents the result of extensive knowledge and deep thought. Students will love it, since it is not only short, but so directly and lucidly written that one may want to read it in a single sitting. But the challenges it presents will remain with the reader long after the book has been put down. Used in conjunction with the studies McK. discusses, this book will be an invaluable teaching tool as well as a sharp reminder to all those working in the field to make sure they know what they are doing.

Each chapter looks at the work of one or more scholars who may be said to represent different approaches to the study of Roman slavery. McK. then meticulously goes through some of the arguments used and demonstrates how easily their conclusions can be challenged (easily by McK. at least), and how often they are based on implicit assumptions, which the reader may or may not share.

Chapter one looks at how the study of Roman slavery evolved over the twentieth century and how scholars no longer express plainly racist attitudes about slaves of antiquity but show much greater sympathy towards them. The chapter, however, ends with the uncomfortable idea that our evidence can support several different narratives of ancient slavery and that even though one is more appealing to us, this in itself does not make it more correct. McK. comments, 'The problem is not so much that we invent the past as that, when we explore it, we tend to find what we are looking for. Often, when we appear to claim that 'this is the way it actually was', we are, in practice, asking the reader to share our ethical ideals, which is something very different.' (p.29). Not many historians wish to do this, yet many of us commit the sin. Nevertheless, in the study of ancient and, I suspect, modern slavery, the influence of contemporary political views on academic debate is much more evident than in other fields.

Chapter two takes the work of two historians, one German (F. Kudlien's Sklaven-Mentalität im Spiegel antiker Wahrsagerei Stuttgart 1991), whom McK. characterises as presenting a generally positive image of the lives of slaves, and one French (M. Garrido-Hory's Martial et l'esclavage Paris 1991, and Juvénal: esclaves et affranchis à Rome 1998), who gives a more negative picture. McK. examines the focus and conclusions of both, revealing the difficulties of attempting to produce a coherent account which fits either image satisfactorily. Chapter three examines the work of Shtaerman and Trofimova, which is used as an example of Soviet Marxist historiography. McK. looks at their view of the growing tensions between slaves and their masters in the Roman Empire and argues that the evidence cited to support their thesis, can be used to argue that the slave/master relations were no worse in this period than before.

Chapter four focuses on the writing of Keith Bradley, which 'forms the foundation of the current Anglophone understanding of the topic.' (p.77) After explaining Bradley's aim was to fill in the gaps of our evidence so that we had some idea of what a slave's life was like, and briefly characterising Bradley's views as seeing slaves as insecure, powerless, and vulnerable to abuse, he concludes abruptly, 'Bradley therefore has a passionate commitment to noble aims' (p.78). He proceeds to demonstrate that one can doubt some of the conclusions to which Bradley's study had led him. Chapter five, entitled "'I too want to tell a story. . .': some modern literary scholars and ancient slavery," deals with the approaches of classicists to the subject of slavery and contrasts their more 'open' reading of the ancient texts with the less flexible approach of ancient historians.

Chapter six discusses the debate between Walter Scheidel and William Harris about the origins of the slaves of the Roman empire. Were they born to slaves or were they from outside the empire? McK. describes the models used by demographers before going on to use the methods to undermine the conclusions of both participants. 'Harris may have successfully raised a number of doubts about some of Scheidel's arguments. This did not mean, however, that he was necessarily successful in proving that slave breeding was less important than Scheidel imagined.' (p.134). Chapter seven is an overview of the situation of the historiography of Greek slavery. Although it is entitled 'The Greeks do it (a bit) better,' McK. sets out to show how the writing of scholars of Greece is also riddled with hidden assumptions, and that here too the same evidence can be used to support diametrically opposed views.

McK. concludes that scholars (and readers) should not be so concerned to come up with one simple narrative but should accept that that there are problems with the evidence and that the story we read into it may only be one possibility. He remarks 'I am not therefore claiming that professional historians are 'making up' or 'inventing' their histories of ancient slaveries, but they do sometimes seem over-confident about some of the bits that really matter to them.' (p.163).

Anyone familiar with the historiography of ancient slavery will be grateful for McK.'s undertaking, since some of the literature on the topic can hardly be understood without background knowledge of the underlying, but often unexpressed, debates. But if the works under discussion 'represent' different approaches, what exactly are these approaches? McK. clearly does not think these are merely individuals labouring under their own personal subconscious preconceptions. He did explain that the scholars of the Mainz Academy were arguing against views put forward by their Anglophone and eastern European counterparts (p. 31), but does not distinguish between these two opponents. What exactly is the 'liberal Anglophone approach,' as he calls it, and how does it differ from a Marxist one?

Although he is careful not to say that the writers he has chosen to discuss are 'typical' of their colleagues, he does suggest that one can see trends in different countries (p. 160). (On a purely personal and anecdotal level, when I was on sabbatical in Berlin, I was taken aside by a German colleague and advised, quite firmly, that I should change my area of research, since people were not interested in slave revolts any more. It was suggested that I read Kudlien carefully and investigate the slave mentality.) McK. exposes the variety of possible interpretations with great verve and intelligence, but, disappointingly, pulls back from exploring fully what might lie behind them, and what might be the consequences of holding certain views.

It is probably self-evident that Russian Marxists would want to find class struggle in ancient history, but there are none of those left now, or at least none of them are publishing books on Roman slavery. That the Mainz school would wish to downplay conflict between masters and slaves simply to counteract the emphases of their eastern colleagues may explain attitudes from the 1950s and 1960s, but what views is McK. ascribing to the majority of the other authors he discusses, none of whom can even vaguely be described as Marxist? There are rather large divisions in the 'liberal Anglophone approach' -- what is going on here? We are shown how many conscious or unconscious assumptions scholars make in their academic work but neither why they do this with more regard to slavery than to other subjects or where these assumptions might come from. Or, for that matter, why we should believe that McK. himself is free from such blindspots.

As he says, we tend to find what we are looking for. This is as true for the interpretation of modern books as it is for the examination of ancient texts. I would hazard a guess that some of those whose work is described in these chapters will not recognise their own writing. Readers familiar with the works discussed by McK. may find his characterisation of them misleading or even inaccurate, because when they read the work in question they themselves noticed a different emphasis (since they were starting from a different point). Just as we interpret the same passages from ancient texts differently, so the pigeonholes into which we slot our colleagues often do not have the same labels on them. If the scholars whose works are discussed in this book have produced only their own version of ancient slavery, why here do we not have simply McK.'s version of modern historiography?

McK. says 'Bradley's books are sometimes mistaken by students for textbooks. They are in fact polemics, reactions against historians . . . who focussed on the 'success stories' of ancient slavery.' (pp. 77-78). McK.'s own book too will be used in future by students as a textbook but it may be easier for them to see that this also is a polemic, not just against one school of thought but against most of them. It is difficult not to be sympathetic to a David who wants to take on multiple Goliaths, but McK. has not been well served by the series, which presumably asked for something very short. The blurb on the back cover tells us that the Duckworth Classical Essays is 'a new series of polemical, revisionist or exploratory essays . . . the series unsettles received wisdom and will provoke debate and controversy both within and beyond Classics.' McK. has amply fulfilled his side of the bargain but, like the scholars he attacks, in order to make his point more forcefully, he sometimes may seem over-confident about some of the bits that really matter to him.

That said, this is an exemplary introduction to the study of ancient slavery, which gives the reader a sample of the attitudes of those who approach the topic. If you work on ancient slavery yourself, I cannot promise that you will like this book. It is more likely that it will make you shout out with annoyance, but examining why you find it irritating will clarify your thoughts and your arguments. What is very useful for all of us who teach and do research in this area is that, although McK. points out the distortions in the works of others, he stands back himself to allow us to make up our own minds about the way forward.

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