BMCR 2019.09.22

What is a Slave Society? The Practice of Slavery in Global Perspective

, , What is a Slave Society? The Practice of Slavery in Global Perspective. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xvii, 508. ISBN 9781316534908 £105 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Students of ancient history like myself are often gladdened to see their subject incorporated into broader comparative histories. The present volume does just that and is all the more welcome because ancient slavery has been absent from several recent thematic volumes on global slavery.1 Antiquity is crucial to this volume, whose theme is a critique of the ‘slave society’ framework set out by arguably the most influential historian of ancient slavery ever to have lived, Moses Finley. This book has significant value for advancing approaches to Graeco-Roman slavery, especially in relation to world history. As the volume is geographically wide-ranging, I will focus in this review on the essays relating to antiquity, but draw out the broader significance of the volume’s framework for ancient historians interested in global slavery studies.

As its title suggests, What is a Slave Society? questions Finley’s assertion that there have been five genuine ‘slave societies’ in history (Greece, Rome, the US South, the Caribbean and Brazil), owing to the high proportional number of slaves they contained, the reliance of elites on slave labour, and the extent to which slavery permeated their cultural output. The editors reject the usefulness of this, the titular conceit of their book, early on. They highlight three problems with Finley’s model, which are discussed throughout the remainder of the book’s chapters: the size of Finley’s list of slave societies (it is far too short), the rigid and arbitrary qualifications of the definition, and it is ethnocentric focus on Western societies.

Lenski’s opening chapter expands on these criticisms, and offers an alternative approach. He begins by briefly setting out the background to the model in Finley’s writings, and then provides a detailed overview of the pervasive effect that it has had on subsequent scholarship. Lenski also examines Finley’s “Westerncentrism” in more detail, arguing that a combination of Western exceptionalism and post-colonial reshaping of attitudes towards Western cultural heritage led Finley to forefront Western societies as deserving of this “ dis honourable… distinction” (p. 25). (The argument here is sound, but a more simple explanation might be that Finley’s historical expertise, impressive though it undoubtedly was, was largely limited to the societies he mentions). Lenski proceeds to identify five other societies outside the western tradition that nevertheless qualify for Finley’s dubious honour: Carthage, Sarmatia, Native societies on the northwest American coast, the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kingdom of Dahomey. Next, he addresses four problems with the model itself: 1.) Of Finley’s three qualifications for a slave society (see above), the first is arbitrary and the other two are vague. 2.) “Society” is vague, and is often used to compare polities, geographical areas and complex empires under the same rubric. 3.) Finley’s definition is incorrectly tied to what he perceived to be the imperatives of such a society. 4.) A binary set of categories has the potential to invite unwarranted similarities and differences between societies.

Lenski then proposes an alternative comparative model which judges a slave system by its resemblance to an “ideal type”, which he constructs by combining the two most influential definitions of slavery: the use of humans as property, and Orlando Patterson’s definition of slavery as the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonoured persons. He then sets out a number of criteria in two groups by which a society might be comparatively assessed on the value it placed on slave labour, and the extent to which its treatment of slaves corresponded to the most extreme connotations of Patterson’s definition. By assigning a numerical value to each of these criteria and adding them together, Lenski produces a single integer that expresses his evaluation of the intensification of slavery across several test cases. Lenski’s model is a marked improvement on that of Finley. By placing societies on a scale and by making its assessment through a broader set of criteria than Finley admitted, it removes the issues inherent in his binary model. I offer some small criticism: firstly, Lenski does not address the problem he identifies with Finley’s vague definition of a “society” as the subject of comparative inquiry. This is an issue raised by several of the volume’s later chapters. For example, the authors in part 3 point out considerable chronological and regional variations in the “societies” that they study, and Freamon’s chapter on the East African slave trade argues for the assessment of a slave society as a broad geographical area, in which numerous states and communities are interconnected by climatic similarities. Criticism might also be made of Lenski’s computation of these factors, for different factors in different combinations can produce the same numerical outcome. Finally, I personally have reservations about the use of Patterson’s “natal alienation” as a definitional criterion for slavery, including those expressed by Harper and Scheidel (pp. 92–3) and Toledano (p. 362) in this volume. What consequently amounts, in my opinion, to an ahistorically extreme description of the consequences of owning human beings (true of course in many, but not all, cases) should not be treated as a definition. Of course, I am sure that there are many who will disagree with me on this point, and even unattached to a definition of slavery I find Lenski’s framework useful and his model flexible enough to accommodate future tinkering with its specifics.

Peter Hunt argues (chapter 2) for the usefulness of Finley’s definition in the Greek world, providing an excellent overview of the importance of slavery to classical Attica, by pointing to (in reasonably cautious terms) the high number of slaves in Athens, the economic importance of slavery, and its permeation of Athenian culture. He argues that Sparta, conversely, was fundamentally different because of its exploitation of a categorically different servile group, the helots. Hunt argues that the agrarian, rent-paying nature of the helots’ work, in addition to their quasi-ownership over the means of production from which they paid their Spartan masters, make their status closer to that of serfs and therefore significantly different from that of Athenian douloi. However, if there was a fundamental difference between the helots and the slaves of other poleis, it was not one which was recognised by contemporary Greeks, and a fragment of Ephorus suggests that helots could be privately sold ( FGrH 70 F 117), which undermines any rights over property which the helots may be said to have had. Hunt acknowledges these issues, but stresses the actual likelihood of a given helot being sold as an issue of importance here. As David Lewis has recently argued the opposite point of view to Hunt regarding the status of the helots, I look forward to the debate which Hunt’s chapter is sure to provoke.2

In chapter three, Kyle Harper and Walter Scheidel discuss the influence of the “slave society” concept on the study of Roman history and provide a stimulating discussion on the importance of slavery throughout the history of the Roman Empire, viewing Finley’s “slave society” formulation as a considerable advance in the study of ancient slavery. However, Harper and Scheidel remain sceptical about the connection between large-scale slavery and strong notions of individual freedom first posited by Finley and more recently argued by Patterson. They offer an alternative narrative, couched in purely economic terms, which sees slaves as commodified persons, and thereby the rise of a slave society as resulting from a high demand for and supply of this particular commodity. They then provide a chronological overview of the rise and continuity of large-scale slavery across the Roman Empire until the plague of Justinian. This is a useful synthesis, taking into account of the many different regions subsumed into the Roman world, and (like Hunt’s chapter) demonstrates the value of Finley’s definition in expressing the importance of slavery to a particular society—if not in strictly comparative terms.

Chapter 4, the book’s second by Lenski, further elaborates several criticisms of Finley, and provides the qualitative groundwork for the comparison between slavery in Rome and the Antebellum South which he uses to demonstrate his model of intensification in the first chapter. He begins with a lengthy discussion on the sociological influences on Finley’s thinking—and the Greco-Roman exceptionalism Finley maintained independently. Lenski then offers a critique of Finley’s connection of slavery to a value of personal freedom, which was based almost entirely on an explanation of the rise of slavery in classical Athens that has recently been heavily criticised.3 Returning to the issue of how the label of “slave society” elides differences between slave systems, he then offers a short comparison between Athens and the US South. Lenski makes several useful points, but his insistence that slavery was of no real importance to Athenian agriculture (listed as one of the big differences between both systems) is much more controversial than he maintains, and Hunt’s discussion (pp. 71–2) provides a more robust reading of the evidence, showing that slavery was of key importance in this sector. Finally, in an admirable exercise in comparative history, Lenski compares Rome and the US South. One wonders, however, if this second chapter might better have been combined into Lenski’s first. There is much overlap between the subjects of both, and a full demonstration of the model in a single place would have been preferable. The superb analysis of Finley’s influences would have been well suited to an introductory chapter as well. Naturally, this would have resulted in an extremely long first chapter, but there is successful precedent for such.4

The contributors to Part II of the volume discuss slavery in small-scale societies. All are unified in their belief that Finley’s model is problematic for comparisons with their subjects. Part III discusses slavery in Finley’s modern “slave societies”, and here the contributors are more positive about the usefulness of the term—though they recognise its problems and limitations. Part IV discusses slavery in non-Western, modern societies. These chapters raise similar concerns to those of Part II, though a notable exception in this regard is Toledano, who fully endorses Finley’s concept of “society with slaves” (i.e. not a “slave society”) for the slave systems of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic world.

For ancient historians this book contains some important remarks on Greek and Roman slavery and a thought-provoking methodological framework in which to study them. For those with a broader interest in comparative slavery, it is invaluable. In their introduction, the editors hold that the label of “slave society” has value as a flexibly employed “descriptive term” (7). This statement is borne out by the final results of this project, which benefit in particular from its format as an edited volume. This allows specialists in different periods of history to answer the important question which Finley’s formulation prompts: how crucial was slavery to different societies throughout history, and in what ways?

Table of Contents

p1. Noel Lenski and Catherine M. Cameron, “Introduction: Slavery and Society in Global Perspective” (pp. 1–14)
2. Noel Lenski, “Framing the Question: What is a Slave Society?” (pp. 15–57)
3. Peter Hunt, “Ancient Greece as a Slave Society” (pp. 61–85)
4. Kyle Harper and Walter Scheidel, “Roman Slavery and the Idea of ‘Slave Society’” (pp. 86–105)
5. Noel Lenski, “Ancient Slaveries and Modern Ideology” (pp. 106–147)
6. Catherine M. Cameron, “The Nature of Slavery in Small-Scale Societies” (pp. 151–168)
7. Christina Synder, “Native American Slavery in Global Context” (pp. 169–190)
8. Fernando Santos-Granero, “Slavery as Structure, Process, or Lived Experience, or Why Slave Societies Existed in Precontact Tropical America” (pp. 191–219)
9. Paul E. Lovejoy, “Slavery in Societies on the Frontiers of Centralized States in West Africa” (pp. 220–247)
10. Aldair Carlos Rodrigues, “The Colonial Brazilian ‘Slave Society’: Potentialities, Limits, and Challenges to an Interpretative Model Inspired by Moses Finley” (pp. 251–271)
11. Robert Gudmestad, “What is a Slave Society?: The American South” (pp. 272–289)
12. Theresa Singleton, “Islands of Slavery: Archaeology and Caribbean Landscapes of Intensification” (290–309)
13. Matthew S. Hopper, “Was Nineteenth-Century Eastern Arabia a ‘Slave Society’?” (pp 313–337)
14. Bernard K. Freamon, “Slavery and Society in East Africa, Oman, and the Persian Gulf” (pp. 337–359)
15. Ehud R. Toledano, “Ottomon and Islamic Societies: Were They ‘Slave Societies’?” (pp. 360–382)
16. Kim Bok-rae, “A Microhistorical Analysis of Korean Nobis through the Prism of the Lawsuit of Damulsari” (pp. 383–409).
17. Antony Reid, “‘Slavery so Gentle’: A Fluid Spectrum of Southeast Asian Conditions of Bondage” (pp. 410–428)
18. James F. Brooks, “Conclusions: Intersections: Slaveries, Borderlands, Edges” (429–437)


1. E.g. the volumes by G. Campbell, S. Miers and J. Miller: Women and Slavery. Volume I (2007) and II (2008), Athens, OH; Children in Slavery through the Ages (2009), Athens, OH.

2. D. Lewis, Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context: c. 800-146 BC, Oxford (2018). Lewis builds on J. Ducat, Les Hilotes, Athens (1990).

3. E. M. Harris, “Homer, Hesiod, and the ‘Origins’ of Greek Slavery”, Revue des Etudes Anciennes, 144 (2012): 345–366; T. E. Rihll, “The Origin and Establishment of Ancient Greek Slavery”, in M. Bush, Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage, London (1996): 89–111.

4. E.g. B. Akrigg, and R. Tordoff, (eds.), Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greek Comic Drama, Cambridge (2013).