Book Review: Ancient Slavery And Modern Ideology

Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, by M.I. Finley

While this book does contain a lot of information about both ancient slavery and modern ideology, it regrettably contains more information than one would want about the latter and not as much as one would want about the former.  As a student of the history of slavery, there is a lot to appreciate here.  But in order to appreciate what it has to say about slavery in the ancient world and its parallels and relevance to the modern world, one has to address the problem of modern ideology and the heavy influence of socialism in the author’s thinking and in the writing that exists in academic history about slavery.  And so this book is a mixed bag, some of it deeply interesting but some of it also deadly dull and quite pointless if one is interested in understanding ancient history rather than the ways that people have sought to use ancient history to support their own dubious leftist agendas.  Unlike some books, though, this one has a core of interesting information as well as as perspective that is worth considering, so if you want to find out more about ancient slavery and how it is viewed in contemporary historiography, there is something of worth here.

This work is about 150 pages long and it is divided into four chapters.  The book begins with a preface and then discusses in considerable detail the questions of modern ideology, especially relating to questions of socialism.  There is a certain way in which forms of slavery have been conflated and which non-slavery has been viewed anachronistically as serfdom (1).  After that the author discusses somewhat briefly the way that slave societies develop, pointing out that they require certain conditions to develop in the first place (2).  After that the author discusses slavery and humanity, something that is clearly problematic given the status of slaves as property has long caused problems for slaves themselves and their lack of dignity in the eyes of the law of slave societies (3).  After that the author discusses the decline of ancient slavery (4) and the way it was that slave societies themselves fell into decline.  How is it that the conditions which allowed for slavery to exist in Greece and Rome failed to hold on into the middle ages?  After that, of course, the book ends with notes, a bibliography, and an index to provide further information to the reader.

For me, as a reader, what I was most interested in was the way that the author dealt with a few of the interesting mysteries of slavery in the ancient world.  To what extent did the law of slaves get passed into later societies, including the Byzantine laws and the laws of the Western European realms during the Middle Ages down to the slave codes of the United States and Caribbean?  This is a worthwhile question to ponder and the book deals with it.  To what extent is the absence of kin for slaves related to the dehumanizing process that has led slaves to be exploited sexually as well as to lose a sense of identity even after leaving slavery?  To what extent was ancient slavery less harmful than modern slavery when it came to the freedom and ability that freed slaves had to blend into ancient societies as respected people?  These are worthwhile questions too and I found the subject dealt with rather intelligently here.  I would like to see more of these matters dealt with as they are here, and that is something that I hope to find in the course of future reading.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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