Image: Berlin Foundry Cup,Foundry Painter, Red figure kylix, c. 490
From lecture podcast on Ancient Greek Slavery by Dr Gillian Shepherd
Below is a book review written for my Classics class on Ancient Greek History I had fun writing it but had to edit it down for the class. Perhaps I will post the long version at a later point in time. I focus on the issue of slavery in the ancient Greek world as well as agriculture and the creation of the classical Greek demos.
Burford, Allison. Land and Labor in the Greek World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1993.
Allison Burford’s study of the ancient Greek agricultural world is based primarily on the extant ancient literary sources with some reference to archeological research, epigraphic and papyrus material as well as numerous secondary sources. As she states in the preface, Burford has not written an exhaustive reference work on the legal and technical aspects of land ownership, nor is it a statistical study of land tenure and agricultural practices over the course of the period, roughly the Eighth through the Second centuries BCE (Burford, ix). Basing her study upon a suggestion by M. I. Finley, she examines aspects of ancient Greek agricultural practices (x). The author argues that Greek civilization was based in agriculture and the ability to find free time from agricultural labor to via the labor of others, indicating that chattel slavery in Athens, and the institution of helotry in Sparta, for example provided much of the means for this freedom (1-3). She focuses more on the fundamental relationship between town and country emphasizing that agriculture concerned much of the population’s interest (3, 10). She also argues that the farming practices described in Hesiod’s Works and Days, were essentially the same as those of the time of Xenophon in his Oeconomicus written some three centuries apart, negating much of the idea of a transition from pastoralism, or the concept of an agricultural revolution in the Fifth century BCE (8-9, Morris, 1294). For Burford “the Classical city-state is, then, the developed image of the early community, not an entirely different creature” (12). Burford is interested in showing the continuity of the dependence upon agriculture and how it shaped ancient Greek civilization (12).
Alison Burford Cooper published studies in ancient social and economic history, including The Greek Temple Builders at Epidaurus (1969), Craftsmen in Greek and Roman Society (1972), and Land and Labor in the Greek World (1993). Born in England, she read Classics at Cambridge University. After teaching at the University of Nebraska and the University of North Carolina–Asheville, she and her husband Guy L. Cooper retired in Ann Arbor (Cooper, 1). The work under consideration, written near the end of her academic career seems to sum up her position regarding the importance of agriculture in the ancient Greek world building upon the work primarily of M. I. Finley.
Burford describes the dependence upon domestic food production and anxiety over the annual harvest as being primary to the Greek economy and civilization (Burford 2-3). She describes agriculture outside of Attica and Athens, especially descriptions of the Spartan system, but because of the dearth of literary source material, her focus is primarily, almost necessarily, upon Athens and Attica. She goes into some detail on the types of agricultural practices, division of land between productive agricultural and the more marginal upland where grazing occurred. She asserts that it was the exchange of surpluses locally and not dependence on international trade, even in Athens, except briefly during the Imperial period, was the driving force of daily life and policy of ancient Greeks (3).
Burford focuses on the mechanisms of land ownership, asserting that the state had overriding concerns and that the polis could and would intervene in private ownership, calling the polis “proprietor in chief of all landed assets within its boundaries” (16). This was true in Athens as well as the more obvious case of Sparta. She goes into some detail on efforts to make land distribution among citizens equal, not only in the new colonies but within the polis, citing Aristotle among others and examples from city states besides Athens (28). She then discusses the actual inequality of land distribution and the “concept of ‘ancestral portions’” asserting that the relationship between families and their land as going back to the foundations of communities and the preservation of the oikos through the “assured transfer of inheritance within the family, preferably from father to son” (29, 34-35). The legal dispute over distribution of the estate of one Hagnias of Athens, who had no children, became a multigenerational affair involving increasingly distant relations, to me indicates the power of families in property rights and privileges of the citizens within the context of the polis, whereas Burford sees the fact of intervention on the part of the courts as an indication of state power (43-45). Litigation rather than blood feuds is an advance of sorts.
She goes into some discussion of the position of the female inheritors, the epikleros who “had no independent rights to property,” but essentially used as a means of insuring that property stayed within the greater family or oikos to the extent that a male relative designated to marry an epikleros, had to divorce his existing spouse (46). Burford sees this as an indication that the community was more concerned with maintaining the stability of the oikos as the basis for the polis, citing Solon’s law providing for the dowry of an epikleroi with no estate by proscribing that the members of the pentakosiomedimnoi provide for epikleroi of the thetes within a family group (47). It seems to me that the state control of property is exaggerated and the families of the oligarchs still seem to have undue influence in the countryside even after the reforms of Solon as I will discuss further.
For the most part Greeks rejected feudal like peasantry an unacceptable status, one of being subservient to a greater lord, as was the case in Athens when Solon abolished indentured servitude. Defining helotry as feudal peasantry, according to Burford is not helpful, although I personally did not clearly understand the distinction she was trying to make other than to insure that readers would not look to medieval equivalency (85-86). The popular rebellion against indentured servitude by the citizens led directly or indirectly to the increased slavery of foreigners in Athens in my mind.
M.I. Finley’s contention that Athenian democracy was a result of chattel slavery, is taken up by Burford with her initial assertion that “chattel slavery became concomitant of radical democracy, and at the same time many landowners took a hand in working their own land” (3). Michael Jameson, agreeing with De Ste Croix, says “one might almost say that in the ancient world there was no true freedom without slavery” (Jameson, 122). Finley asserts that large scale agriculture of the wealthy classes was largely undertaken by slaves, including the overseers, indicates in my mind an oligarchic reaction to labor cost increases and the desire for control (Finley, Was Greek Civilization based on Slave Labor, 149).
Burford argues that in “Attica as in Chios and numerous other places, chattel slavery became the most important form of labor, not because the pelatai or thetes, the ‘nearby dependents,’ were reduced to slavery but because they were emancipated” (Burford, 209). This is an important point, as Finley points out using the analogy of the USA slave states before the American Civil War, he notes that three quarters of the land owners in the south had not connection to slavery and were small holders, yet close to one third of the population in the slave states were slaves, whereas in Classical Greece the practice of slave holding was more widespread (Finely, Was Greek Civilization, 151). Burford, discussing Attica, believes that the reforms of Solon reduced the availability of easily coercible labor, increasing the dependence on chattel slavery (Burford, 209). Burford cites Homer’s story of Eumaeus (Od. 15.415-84), Odysseus’ swineherd who had been kidnapped by Phoenician traders and sold into slavery as an example of piracy as a source of slaves as well as an example of the prevalence of slavery (Burford, 208). The question of Athens increased participation in the slave trade as a driver of empire, especially mass collusion versus resistance on the part of the thetes is an interesting issue. Were the oarsmen active slavers?
Contrasting Burford’s decidedly landlocked views on the shaping of Greek civilization are the views of those who would emphasize trade and naval power especially during the period of the Athenian Thalassocracy. Ian Morris, in his review of Burford, claims she doesn’t give enough weight to the “new model” of Greek agriculture with a shift to a market orientation Athens in the Fifth century BCE (Morris, Review, 1294). John Hale in his Lords of the Sea claims that without the navy there would not have developed the extreme form of Athenian democracy, the degree of democratization was due to the dependence of the Athenian Navy upon the urban poor for oarsmen (Hale, xxvii). David Lewis notes that trade with Barbarian parts of the world was required to maintain the extensive slave population required in the Athenian economy (Lewis, 91). This would tend to support the contention that there were economic drivers to the expansion of the Athenian Empire. Lewis considers the Greek Comedies as rich source of information on Greek attitudes about slavery; Aristophanes Scythian archers, the slave police force of Athens, are prominent in Lysistrata (Lewis, 100; Findley, Was Greek Civilization, 152; Lis. 15-24). Burford gives little if any information about the complexity of the relationship between overseas trade, slavery and agriculture.
I think that exploring further the implications of the slave trade and the economic basis of the more industrial aspects of Athenian agriculture in particular would have been helpful as Jameson points out the locus of slavery in Athens, unlike the more feudal like conditions in Sparta, where helotry actually inhibited urbanization similar in some ways to the American pre-civil war south, rather he points to slavery as being indicative of the importance of Athens as a trade and industrial center (Jameson, 123). One could be tempted to see the relative sympathy of the Oligarchs in Athens to the Spartans due to a confluence of interest in maintaining a lucrative slave market, with Nicias having some one thousand in the silver mines alone, the would have been sufficient economic reasons for a convergence of interest (Finley, Was Greek Civilization, 149). Aristophanes reminded his audience of the Athenian rescue of Sparta from the helots, (even if this was fictional, it would seem to have been a popular fiction) “Then Cimon went, taking four thousand infantry, /and saved the whole of Lacedaemon for your state,” indicating a resounding normalcy of slavery in Athens making a keener focus on the nature of dependence on slavery to be of even more interest (Lys. 42).
As the entire world population at least until the nineteenth century was primarily agricultural, and much of that of a subsistence nature, Burford’s focus on what the majority of the population did for a living is a good idea. D.W. Rathbone, reviewing Burford, is critical of the lack of focus on the growth of monetization, or any exposition of the field surveys and excavations of rural sites in more than a cursory manner (Rathbone, 330-331), to which I would add lack of geographic and topographic imagery in the form of maps, charts or photographic information, is to be regretted. Stylianos Spyridakis although largely praising her work, found the omission of evidence for a stronger case to be made for wealth generation outside of the purely agricultural sphere, pointing to trade in particular (Spyridakis, 107). Overall the impression is that Burford certainly went to great pains and into great detail to prove her point as to the rural nature of the Greek economy, but it presents a relatively static view of Greek agriculture. The book presents a massive amount of research mainly from the literary sources. The author tends to focus on detailed information giving the impression of a relatively static rural society over the time period with Hesiod and Homer side by side with Xenophon and Aristotle, where things happen, but there is not the focus on trends in population pressure, climatic conditions, the slave trade, etc. that would create a more dynamic model of the Greek world as it relates to the natural systems and practices of the populace over time. The book provoked a desire in this reader for more statistical data to verify the literary sources.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translation and introduction by Donald Sutherland. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 1961.
Burford, Allison. Land and Labor in the Greek World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1993.
Cooper, Alison Burford. “Feasting and Fasting in Classical Greece.” Repast Quarterly Newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor. 20. 4. 2004.
Finley, M. I. “Was Greek Civilization based on Slave Labor?” Historia: Zeitshrift fur Alte Geschichte, 8.2 (1959): 145-164.
Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy. Updated Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999.
Hale, John R. Lords of the Sea The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Viking Penguin. 2009.
Jameson, Michael J. “Agriculture and Slavery in Classical Athens.” The Classical Journal. 73. 2 (1977- 1978): 122-145.
Lewis, David. “Near Eastern Slaves in Classical Attica and the Slave Trade with Persian Territories.” Classical Quarterly, 61.1 (2011): 91-113.
Morris, Ian. “Forward.” The Ancient Economy. Updated edition, Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. ix-xxxvi.
Morris, Ian. “Land and Labor in the Greek World.” The American Historical Review, 99.4 (1994): 1293- 1294.
Rathbone, D. W. “Burford, A. ‘Land and Labor in the Greek World’ (Book Review).” Classical Review, 44.2 (1994): 330.
Spyridakis, Stylianos. “Land and Labor in the Greek World.” Agricultural History, 68.1 (1994): 106-107.