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Reviewed by:
  • Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern
  • Larry W. Yarak
Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern. Edited by Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 390 pp. $103.99 (cloth).

The editors state that this book is part of a larger project to explore more intensely than heretofore the comparative history of "slave systems" in the ancient and modern Atlantic worlds. As such, this collection represents a stimulating and at times provocative start, despite the fact that the papers range widely and lack a common problematic. Not surprisingly, individual contributors, many of them distinguished scholars of slavery, often reach disparate, even conflicting, conclusions [End Page 727] regarding the proper approach to the study of slavery in antiquity and the modern Atlantic. Nevertheless, on balance the collection enriches the scholarly debates concerning both the methodology and empirical findings in the historiography of slave systems in antiquity and the Atlantic.

The book comprises an editors' introduction and ten substantive chapters, organized thematically into five parts. The first part, on methodology, which takes up nearly a third of the book, includes the editors' introduction. Dal Lago and Katsari define the concept of "slave system" quite broadly, in essence extending the widely known concept of "slave society" so that the ancient Mediterranean and the modern Atlantic world each constitute single systems. Oddly enough, the only contributor to address this concept directly is Joseph Miller, who in fact rejects it. Miller's fascinating chapter on methodology argues for an entirely different approach to the study of slavery in antiquity and the Atlantic, one that eschews two of the traditional concerns of slave studies: the master-slave relationship and the structural place of this relation in society. Instead, Miller directs attention to the historical process of "slaving," that is, the strategies employed by slaveholders in their struggle for supremacy with competing political and mercantile elites. This approach has the advantage, he argues, of avoiding many scholars' "static" concern with structures and their seeming obsession with defining "slavery." Miller's analysis of the history of "slaving" strategies concludes with a set of tables that lay out a periodization scheme of "epochs of the past and strategies of slaving" in world history, which should be of considerable interest to readers of this journal.

Orlando Patterson's contribution to the methodology section begins by reprising some of the key arguments made in his pathbreaking Slavery and Social Death. He then proceeds to an extended discussion of the factors that seem to explain the presence or absence of slavery in a given preindustrial society, focusing on the role of gender. Using data derived from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample developed by G. P. Murdock and Douglas White, Patterson finds that polygyny and bridewealth are causally linked to slavery, and that the "interaction of polygyny and warfare … enormously increases the odds of slavery" (p. 37). This analysis he then applies to ancient Greece of the Dark Age, concluding that, despite a dearth of direct evidence, it was "a collection of genuine slave societies" (p. 65). This finding is in keeping with his characterization of Keith Hopkins's oft-cited claim that there were only five genuine slave societies in world history as "too absurd to be taken seriously" (p. 33 n. 5). [End Page 728]

Part 2, on economics and technology in ancient and modern slave systems, begins with Walter Scheidel's contribution on the economics of slavery in the ancient world. Adopting Hopkins's view regarding the rarity of genuine slave societies in world history, Scheidel discusses a number of cases to isolate two factors—high wages and low slave prices—associated broadly with the emergence of societies that made "large-scale" use of slave labor. He cites new evidence on wages and prices in antiquity to conclude that the slave-based economies of ancient Greece and Rome are best explained by these factors, plus the "high demands on the free population, rapid accumulation of capital within the elite, easy access to slave markets, and the growth of markets for goods and services" (pp. 124–125).

Tracey Rihill's chapter on the relation between slavery and technology in antiquity speculates that skilled slaves, because of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 727-730
Launched on MUSE
2011-02-03
Open Access
No
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