Book Review: Slavery In Ancient Greece

Slavery In Ancient Greece, by Yvon Garlan, translated by Janet Lloyd

In reading a book like this you have to be really cautious about the sort of message it presents.  The author clearly has a perspective, and all too often this book is more about the perspective than it is about its intended subject matter.  Before the author gets to talking about slavery in ancient Greece, a subject that is at least potentially interesting to a great many people, the author spends a lot of time talking about the different perspectives of slavery with a high degree of interest in Marxist studies (apparently the author is a Marxist historian himself, it would appear) with a lot of negativity about Christian and anti-Marxist views.  The fact that this makes up so much of the book’s material is certainly something that makes this book far less enjoyable than it would otherwise be.  But when the book actually gets to talking about materials the author demonstrates himself to be well aware with the written material of ancient Greek history even if the conclusions that are drawn from it are not always very interesting or worthwhile.  But at the same time if there are other books about the subject that are better, it is clear to see why this book exists.

This book is about two hundred pages long and consists of three chapters.  There is a preface and an introduction that set up the discussion of chattel slavery in the Greek world and how it has been looked over the course of history after that.  The first chapter then looks at chattel slavery as it was practiced by the Greeks (1), which simultaneously uses the history and philosophy of the ancient Greeks and faults them for not writing systematically about the subject matter as contemporary writers would.  After that the author discusses the existence of communal slavery with regards to the helots and others who were viewed as being bound to communities but not necessarily the personal property of people (2).  After that the author discusses the theory and practice of slaveholding in the ancient Greek world, admittedly somewhat fragmentary because the written material itself is so limited in nature.  After all of this material which demonstrates the tensions and contradictions inherent in the author’s approach, the author has a brief conclusion which is followed then by a translator’s note as well as an index.

Who is this book appealing to?  The work was originally in French and presumably made more sense to that audience given the popularity of Marxist thinking about the corrupt historical community of that nation.  There is no shortage of Marxist or Marxist-adjacent readers in the United States, but a book like this is far too strident to be of interest to those with a casual interest in the classics.  This book appears to be aimed at leftist academics who are interested in looking at the classics as a way to discuss their own thinking and perspective and to engage in polemics against views and perspectives that they are opposed to.   And a book like this would only be of interest to an anti-Marxist reader as a work to largely respond polemical to.  The approach of the author is so much a part of the content of the book that it makes a big difference how one thinks about this approach as an influence of how one thinks about the work as a whole.  The fact that the author specifically disclaims any possibility for a lack of bias while simultaneously faulting the perspective of Christian historians and those who would look badly about Marxist works because of that perspective indicates a certain lack of evenhandedness.

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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