Skip to main content

The Glory That Was Greece

ISSUE:  Spring 1983
Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. By M. I. Finley. Viking. $22.50.

All my life,” the nonagenarian Bernard Berenson wrote in 1957 in a letter to the Swedish archaeologist, Axel Bolthius, “I have been reading about Homer, philological, historical, archaeological, geographical, etc. Now I want to read him as pure art only, as commensurate with the heart and mind while humanity retains both. There appeared recently a book about the Odyssey which talked of it as a sociological document only. It had a fabulous success, and the American author was at once offered chairs in Oxford as well as Cambridge.”

The book was Sir Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus, in the second edition of which Finley quotes Berenson’s remark, with the comment that it was “not free from inaccuracy.” Still, most of the honors that an ancient historian may hope for have come his way. He was eventually appointed to a chair at Cambridge in 1971; he gave the Sather Lectures at the University of California in 1972 and, in 1979, was apotheosized with a knighthood. His books are generally slim and his style remains readable, even when he is hacking his way through a tangle of scholarly underbrush, and hence the general reading public knows him much better than it knows most students of the ancient world. The great value of the book under review, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, which has been put together and edited by two of Finley’s students, Brent Shaw and Richard Sailer, is that it collects between two covers essays reflecting Finley’s specialized interests that are scattered through a variety of journals which are not daily reading for the classicist.

Finley graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University at the age of 15 and moved on to Columbia University to take an M. A. in Public Law two years later. He was to remain at Columbia through the 30’s, and eventually to write a doctoral dissertation there. The intellectual ferment at Columbia was yeasty enough during the Depression, and adding to it were some of the best minds from Germany, forced out by the Nazis. It was probably the Institute of Social Research, which arrived in New York from Frankfurt in 1934, that most influenced Finley in this period. Its thinking was Marxist but not dogmatically so. But Karl Marx, Finley wrote later, “put an end to any idea that the study of history is an autonomous activity, and to the corollary that the various aspects of human behavior . . .can be seriously treated in isolation.” Later, Finley was to be influenced by the Hungarian exile Karl Polanyi, who pointed classicists to the kingdoms of precolonial Africa and peasant societies of Asia for comparisons with the economy of ancient Greece. By 1954, when Finley left the United States for Britain, he was already the best of a rare breed: a social historian of ancient Greece. At least the breed is rare in the English-speaking world; France has had her own genus of sociological and anthropological ancient historians for a generation, and Finley’s reputation among them is high.

The essays in Economy and Society in Ancient Greece are divided, like Caesar’s Gaul, into three parts. The first group, gathered together rather uncomfortably under the rubric, “The Ancient City,” includes pieces on the nature of the polls (city-state), on Sparta, which was a very odd polis, though none of its features were, I think, entirely unique, and the Athenian Empire, where Finley pursues the question of who profited from Athenian imperialism of the Periclean age and concludes that it was the poorer class which profited most. That is true of few empires; offhand I can name no others. Imperialism was a democratic policy in classical Athens, though the affluent classes gave their support too, as long as the empire was a success. But what the well-to-do got out of it was a chance at a political role on a bigger stage; the empire did not, it seems, line their pockets.

The last two essays of part 1 are on land, debt, and personal freedom in ancient Greece, and point forward to part 2, which deals with one of Finley’s particular interests: slavery and unfree statuses in their various forms. Slavery as a moral issue concerned no one in the ancient world, and statistics, which are never plentiful in any area of ancient history, are particularly sparse here. Slaves were an important commodity in trade, particularly slaves from the area of the Danube and Black Sea which poured their human products into the Greek world, but the sources mention them only casually. Areheologists have found only one ancient slave-dealer who saw fit to advertise his profession on his tombstone: one Aulos Kapreilios Timotheus, of the first century A.D., himself a freed slave. Yet slavery played an important, if not quite definable, role in the ancient economy. It was a profitable institution. It may have impeded technological progress, but it was not the only reason for the strange—to moderns like us—failure of the Greeks and Romans to interest themselves in labor-saving devices. It did affect the psychology of the ancients; the belief that practical work was something to be despised may be based on the notion that that sort of thing was the province of slaves. In any case, the Greeks had developed a lively prejudice against applied science and technology by the 5th century B.C., though there are some hints that in an earlier era engineers and master-builders were respectable folk. But Greek science, as it developed, became exceedingly pure.

Part 3 consists of three essays on Mycenae and Homer, the subject matter of Finley’s best-known book, The World of Odysseus. Since Finley first examined the Odyssey as a sociological document, the Linear B tablets from Bronze Age sites such as Pylos, Mycenae itself, and Cnossos have been read, studied, and tabulated—and have added little to our knowledge of Homer. Linear B writing seems to have been invented for the Mycenaean equivalents of laundry lists and income tax returns, and it was probably the preserve of a class of trained scribes. The world of Homer is a different construct, and Linear B has virtually nothing to say about it.

In the final essay in this collection, Finley turns to another problem from Homer’s world: marriage. Did the bride come with a dowry, or did her suitor purchase her? In the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector’s wife, Andromache, is called, at one point, a wife who brought many gifts, and, at another, we are told that Hector won her with many gifts of wooing. Finley puts the question in the context of gift exchange, the Homeric equivalent of the West Coast Indian potlatch, and removes it from later legal concepts about dowries and bride prices. The approach is typical. To understand the ancient world, one must try to understand how the ancients saw themselves. Comparisons with the modern world are not always invalid, but the scholar must know what he is doing or he will be misled. We can read Homer as pure art, as Berenson wanted to do in his old age, but, like most literature, the Homeric epics are sociological documents too.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading