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Moses Finley and the Ancient Economy  

2010-03-01 13:15:47|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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From: "Graham M." <mailto:gkmilner@DOMAIN.HIDDEN>

The essay below was written in 1999. Finley is unquestionably a major
figure in classical studies, and his book 'The Ancient Economy', examined in
some detail here, is without doubt one of the gems of modern classical
scholarship. But a closer acquaintance with other, more formally Marxist
work on this subject, such as Geoffrey de Ste Croix's 'Class Struggle in the
Ancient Greek World' (which actually covers the whole of classical
antiquity), and Perry Anderson's 'Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism', and
Anderson's essay on de Ste Croix in 'Zone of Engagement', has made me less
uncritical of Finley than this essay suggests. Still, Finley deserves to
be read by all socialists, in my opinion. His works are a monument of
left-wing scholarship and will endure.

In solidarity,

Graham Milner


Sir Moses Finley (1912-86), possibly one of the 20th century's most
charismatic and controversial figures in the field of ancient history, will
be remembered for his important contributions in many areas of classical
studies, but he is especially revered for his writings on the subject of
slavery in classical antiquity, and for his path-breaking analysis of the
ancient economy.

Born in the United States, Finley trained in law before turning to the study
of ancient history.1 During the 1930s, he worked as an editor and
translator at the famous Institute for Social Research at Columbia
University in New York.2 The left-leaning Institute had been brought to
the USA by Max Horkheimer from Frankfurt in Germany in 1934, after the Nazis
had assumed power in that country.3 The 'Frankfurt School' constituted one
of the most important streams within 'Western' Marxism, a broad current of
largely academically-orientated Marxist research and writing based outside
the Soviet Union, from the 1920s onwards.4

According to his friend Arnaldo Momigliano, Finley 'had been familiar with
Marx from his very beginnings...But he was never a Marxist in any ordinary
sense'.5 A stronger influence on Finley's approach to the study of ancient
history was undoubtedly Max Weber, the great German sociologist, who had
made an immense contribution to the founding of the sociological discipline
at the turn of the 20th century. Weber, although much influenced himself
by Marx's formulation of historical materialism, strove for a more
'objective' form of social science, and devoted more attention to the study
of ancient society than had Marx.6

In the early 1950s, Finley became involved with a group around the Hungarian
scholar Karl Polanyi, then developing new insights into the economy of the
ancient world, and Polanyi's circle had some influence of him.7 By 1954
however, Finley had come under attack for his left-wing opinions during the
McCarthyite witch-hunt in the USA, and he was dismissed from his teaching
position at Rutgers University.8 He emigrated to England, took up a
position at Cambridge University, and there he was to spend the rest of his
academic life.9

Another important influence on Finley's approach to the study of ancient
history was the French 'Annales' school around Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre and
Fernand Braudel.10 The whole orientation of historical studies has changed
under the impact of the new social sciences over the last century,11
particularly in the post-World War Two period, and some of these important
gains in approach and methodology were brought to the historical study of
the classical world by Finley and his associates at Cambridge.12 Finley
developed an international reputation as a great scholar and

Keith Hopkins, who succeeded Finley as professor of Ancient History at
Cambridge, wrote in the early 1980s that the 'ancient economy is an academic
battleground'.14 This situation has however endured since at least the
late 19th century. Three major schools have contended with each other for
supremacy in the debate over the nature of the ancient economy - Marxists,
'primitivists' and 'modernists', and Finley, great controversialist that he
was, contributed enormously to this continuing debate during his career.

It is generally agreed that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, although both
were educated in the classics and were deeply interested in classical
antiquity,15 did not devote the same attention to pre-capitalist forms of
economy and society that they did to the form of economy prevailing in the
advanced world of their era.16 In particular their interest in
pre-capitalist systems was concerned primarily with the origin of modern
capitalism and its evolution in Western Europe from the prevailing feudal
'mode of production'. Hence the ancient world was only briefly dealt with
by the two thinkers and, as Finley pointed out, on the question of slavery
in antiquity for example, 'the total of Marx's scattered comments...amount
to no more than a few pages'.17 Neither Marx nor Engels systematically
studied antiquity, and although texts such as Marx's 'Grundrisse'
("Formen"), which have become widely accessible only since World War Two,
contain some valuable insights into the ancient economy, it is as well to
remember, as Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, that when the "Formen" were
written in the 1850s, Marx had access only to literary sources, and

the great bulk of archaeological work and the collection of inscriptions,
which have since revolutionized the study of classical antiquity, were not
available to [him]...and neither were the papyrii.18

The evolution of Marxist scholarship on the ancient economy has turned
around the question of the so-called 'slave mode of production', and
although during the Stalin era some of Marx's more sophisticated concepts,
including his characterisation of the 'hydraulic' socio-economic formations
of the east as the 'Asiatic mode of production',19 were reduced to a series
of crude formulae,20 later Marxists have debated and disagreed with each
other about the most basic interpretative positions on the whole issue of
antiquity and its economic system.21

The 'primitivist' school, which emphasised the underdeveloped,
pre-industrial character of the ancient economy, emerged in the 1890s in
German scholarship, with the contribution of Karl Bucher,22 although the
origin of the 'primitivist' position has been traced back to Rodbertus'
concept of the 'oikus', or subsistence household economy, allegedly at the
base of ancient society - a position developed as early as the 1860s.23 It
is important to realise, incidentally, that Marxist ideas during this period
were confronted with what Marx referred to as an attempt by academic
historians and economists to 'kill [them] by silence',24 and it was only
with the emergence of powerful Marxist labour movements towards the end of
the 19th century that Marxist ideas began to penetrate academic scholarship
to a significant extent.25

Bucher argued that complex economic life, with a high degree of trade and
exchange of goods and services, was no older than the modern state,26 and
this position was immediately challenged by Eduard Meyer, who put forward a
radical 'modernising' view, claiming that the ancient world '...possessed a
highly developed system of transportation and an intensive exchange of
commodities',27 a position he also applied to the ancient near east.28 Max
Weber brought the debate to a new level of sophistication in his brilliant
survey of ancient civilisation, which focused on the uniqueness of the
ancient city when compared with medieval urban centres. Weber stressed the
very different economic dynamics of the ancient world as it culminated in
the Roman Empire.29 Weber's arguments, and their later restatement in the
1930s by Jonannes Hasebroek,30 were challenged by the great exiled Russian
historian Michael Rostovtzeff, who published in the 1920s important,
path-breaking studies of the Hellenistic and Roman imperial socio-economic
systems. In his work on the Hellenistic world, Rostovtzeff claimed that
'the difference between the economic life of this period and that of the
modern world is only quantitative, not qualitative'.31 The Russian
historian's idiosyncratic exposition of the social structure and economic
dynamics of imperial Rome, although based on massive pioneering research
into archaeological and epigraphic evidence, make strange reading today,32
and it is partly because of the subsequent contribution of Sir Moses Finley
that Rostovtzeff's 'hyper-modernist' view of antiquity now appears so dated.

Turning to a more detailed examination of Finley's contribution to the
debate over the ancient economy, and the Roman economy in particular, the
most important text in this respect is the published form of the Sather
Classical Lectures delivered at Berkeley in 1972, issued under the title
'The Ancient Economy' in 1973.33

In chapter one of 'The Ancient Economy', Finley first establishes that the
ancients lacked any concept of 'the economy' in the modern sense, an
important reason why reliable statistical information is so rare in the
literary and epigraphic sources. Citing Weber and Polanyi, Finley argues
that a market-orientated analysis is inappropriate. He attempts to
establish that the Graeco-Roman world (as against the ancient Near East) in
the period from archaic Greece to the collapse of the Western Empire (c.1000
B.C. to A.D. 500) may legitimately be treated as a unit.

In chapter two, Finley argues against the validity of the Marxist concept of
'class', and utilises instead the Weberian category of 'status' in assessing
the structure of Roman society. He points out that the senatorial and
equestrian orders were effectively barred from commerce and industry and
that these economic activities were in the hands of persons of low status.
He cites Cicero's 'De Officiis' to illustrate the disparaging attitude of
the ruling stratum in Rome to any activity connected with labour or trade.
Nevertheless, Finley acknowledges that 'political' money-making in the form
of loans, provincial taxes and booty benefited both the public treasury and
private interests; 'the nobles in the first instance'.34

In discussing slavery in chapter three of 'The Ancient Economy', Finley
emphasises the economic and social differentiation among slaves, drawing
attention to the 'peculium' institution, through which slaves and freedmen
engaged in business, often on behalf of their masters. He points out that
slavery in the Roman Empire was not important on the land in Asia minor,
Egypt or Syria and that, although slavery was predominant in general
employment, free labour also existed at all times alongside it. He
criticises Rostovtzeff's notion of a 'bourgeoisie' in Roman society,
distinguishing early modern European society from imperial Rome. Finley
is, however, prepared to acknowledge that both Greece and Italy were 'slave
societies',35 and argues that in fact slavery was a reasonably efficient
labour system in the Roman Empire, and that large surpluses were generated
on the 'latifundia' (slave estates), for example. He rejects as simplistic
the notion of a manpower shortage due entirely to the sources of slaves
drying up with the closure of the frontiers, when accounting for the decline
of the institution of slavery in the later Empire. Finley points instead
to the general decline in status of the lower classes, as an explanation for
the emergence of the colonate system of dependent labour that replaced
slavery in the classical heartlands of the West in the 4th and 5th centuries

According to Finley, subsistence farming constituted the basis of
agriculture in the ancient world, and technical improvements on the larger
estates were stymied by absenteeism and fragmented tenancies. Economies of
scale were not sought, and the absence of economic rationality (in Weber's
terms) meant little productive investment took place, and the lack of a
productive ethic on the part of the aristocracy (despite the acquisitive
search for luxurious display) prevented the development of a
market-orientated agriculture.

Finley describes the prevalent reality of the 'consumer city' in the Roman
economy - Rome itself being the best example. Unlike medieval cities,
Roman cities were not based, in Finley's view, on manufacture, producing for
the market of the rural hinterland, but were mostly urban centres of
landowners and drained their income from the surrounding rural area, or from
the exploitation of special resources (silver mines, oil-bearing crops,
etc.) or from trade and tourism or imperial sources (tribute, taxes, etc.).
There was no fiduciary money, only coin, and there were no corporations or
business partnerships in the general economy (apart from tax-farming
concerns). Few inventions and innovations were in evidence after the 4th
or 3rd centuries B.C.

When discussing the state and the economy, in chapter six, Finley argues
that Roman imperialism was motivated by military-strategic considerations,
rather than simple exploitation of an economic type, but this assessment is
contradicted by accounts in some of Finley's other works.36 He
acknowledges that state budgets existed in the sense of attempts to balance
government receipts and expenditures. The burden of taxation became
increasingly loaded onto the poorer section of the population in the later
Empire, and Finley is prepared to acknowledge an economic explanation for
the collapse of Rome, as its social and political structure, embedded value
system, and its lack of successful organisation and exploitation of its
productive forces, all contributed to the breakdown.

In a new edition of 'The Ancient Economy', published in 1984, Finley offered
some 'Further Thoughts', taking the opportunity to amplify his views and
reply to some of his critics. Once again, he attacks the Marxist notion of
the 'slave mode of production', pointing out that chattel slavery was simply
not prevalent in large sections of the Graeco-Roman world. He criticises
the 'transition' model in Marxist approaches that fail to account for the
gap of several centuries between the collapse of Rome and the onset of
feudalism under Charlemagne (arguing after Marc Bloch). He reiterates the
need for models on the Weberian pattern of 'ideal types' and restates his
commitment to the Weber/Sombart/Bucher view of the radical difference
between the ancient and the medieval/modern city, emphasising again the
'primitive' character of urban production in the ancient city, with its
absence of guilds and bourses.

The above is a bald summary of a highly sophisticated and well-presented
argument. It is probably, as Keith Hopkins has pointed out, by far the
best model available' of the ancient economy in general, and of the Roman
Empire's economy in particular.37 But Hopkins himself, while endorsing the
overall outlines of Finley's 'primitivist' perspective, has argued in favour
of a modified standpoint, allowing for a modicum of economic expansion and
development, followed by decline, during the period of Roman ascendancy in

Hopkins details seven points in qualification of Finley's analysis of the
overall period of antiquity.38 These are: a rise in agricultiral
production; an increase in population; an increase in the division of
labour; an increase in non-agricultural production; and an increase in
average per-capita productivity, the result of institutional innovations in
business practices (affecting maritime loans, tax-farming and mining) and
commercial exploitation of slaves (to increase return on capital
investment), as well as the prevalence of peace and the freedom from piracy
under the Empire. Furthermore, taxation and rents levied on primary
producers increased, tightening 'the screws of exploitation'39 and
stimulating the production of a larger surplus, particularly in the western
provinces. Lastly, trade was stimulated by expenditure at a distance from
where taxes were raised. Hopkins concludes that these

...seven clauses taken together imply that overall in the first two
centuries A.D., total production, consumption and trade were greater than
they had been in the previous centuries.40

Hopkins considers that the Finley model is 'sufficiently flexible to
incorporate this modest dynamic, without undermining its basic
primitivism'.41 This seems a judicious assessment.

In an earlier review of the first edition of 'The Ancient Economy', M.W.
Fredriksen concurs with much of Finley's analysis, and comments that few
readers, on putting down Finley's book, 'will want to return to Rostvtzeff's
vision of a bourgeoisie for whom 'so far as I can judge, the main source of
large fortunes...was commerce...'.42 Nevertheless, Frederoksen expresses
doubts about Finley's status model and cautions '...that even for
[senatorial circles] the evidence attests a wider variety of money-making
activities than Finley will allow'.43

Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, in his large-scale 'Class Struggle in the Ancient
Greek World', chides Finley over his championing of the Weberian categories
in preference to the Marxian ones,44 and Finley duly replied in his 'Further
Thoughts', attacking the inconsistencies and lacunae in Marx's usage and
definitions of 'class' concepts.45 Elsewhere, Finley caustically dismissed
Ste. Croix's book as an example of an 'over-simplified, unilinear view...,
defended at great length by an eccentric, Procrustean definition of the
essential Marxist categories'.46. This assessment may have been a trifle
polemical, and Perry Anderson has judged de Ste. Croix's work in much more
positive terms.47

In conclusion, it could be said that Sir Moses Finley's contribution to the
understanding of ancient society and its economic system, to say nothing of
his popularisation of classical studies and ancient history in general, has
been an enormous one, and his analysis still constitutes, well over a decade
after his death, the starting point for any modern appreciation of economic
life in the ancient world and the Roman Empire.


1. For details of Finley's career see F.W. Walbank's entry in C.S.
Nicholls (ed.), 'The Dictionary of National Biography: 1986-1992' (Oxford,
1996) pp.134-36, and the entry in John Cannon et al. (eds.), 'The Blackwell
Dictionary of Historians' (Oxford, 1988) pp.131-32

2. Walbank, D.N.B., p.135. See also Ian Morris, "The Athenian Economy
Twenty Years After "The Ancient Economy"", 'Classical Philology' Vol. 89
(October 1994) p.352

3. Perry Anderson, 'Considerations on Western Marxism' (London, 1976) p.33

4. 'Ibid.', passim

5. 'Moses Finley and Slavery: A Personal Note', M.I. Finley (ed.),
'Classical Slavery' (London, 1987) p.3

6. Finley's 'Ancient History: Evidence and Models' (Harmondsworth, 1987)
shows the influence of Weber's conceptual approach. On Weber's position in
social science see H. Stuart Hughes, 'Consciousness and Society: The
Reorientation of European Social Thought' (London, 1974) ch. 8. Weber's
essay "Science as a Vocation", H.H. Gerth and C.Wright Mills (eds.), 'From
Max Weber: Essays in Sociology' (London, 1970; original ed., 1948)
pp.129-56, argues for objectivity in social science. For two critical
commentaries on this approach, see Anderson, 'Max Weber and Ernest Gellner:
Science, Politics, Enchantment', 'Zone of Engagement (London, 1992)
pp.182-206, and Alvin Gouldner, "Anti-Minotaur: The Myth of a Value-Free
Sociology", 'For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today'
(Harmondsworth, 1975) pp.3-26

7. Morris, 'The Athenian Economy...', p.352; Walbank, 'D.N.B.', p.135

8. 'Ibid.'

9. 'Ibid.'

10. M.W. Frederiksen, "Theory, Evidence and the Ancient Economy", 'Journal
of Roman Studies', Vol. 95 (1975) p.164

11. On the intellectual revolution in historical studies at the turn of the
20th century, see Carlo Antoni, 'From History to Sociology: The Transition
in German Historical Thinking' (London, 1962)

12. Post-World War Two developments, mainly with reference to modern
studies, are analysed by E.J. Hobsawm, "From Social History to the History
of Society", T.C. Smout and M.W, Flynn (eds.), 'Essays in Social History'
(Oxford, 1974) pp.1-22

13. A good example of Finley as controversialist is his essay 'Crisis in
the Classics', J.H. Plumb (ed.), 'Crisis in the Humanities' (Harmondsworth,
1964) pp.11-23

14. "Introduction" to Peter Garnsey, et.al. (eds.), 'Trade in the Ancient
Economy' (London, 1983) p.ix

15. Marx benefited from the classical emphasis in the German gymnasium
(high school) system, as did Engels. See David McLellan, 'Karl Marx: His
Life and Thought' (London, 1973) pp.9-14. An insight into Marx's
capacities in this regard is provided by the school examination essay he
wrote (in Latin) in 1835: "Does the Reign of Augustus Deserve to Be Counted
Among the Happier Periods of the Roman Empire?", Karl Marx and Frederick
Engels, 'Collected Works' (London, 1975) Vol. 1, pp.639-42

16. Hobsbawm, "Introduction" to Marx, 'Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations'
(New York, 1965) p.20

17. 'Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology' (London, 1980) p.40

18. "Introduction" to 'Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations', p.21

19. This concept has been the subject of continual debate. See Ernest
Mandel, 'The Asiatic Mode of Production and the Historical Pre-Conditions
for the Rise of Capital', 'The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl
Marx: 1843 to "Capital"' (London, 1971) pp.116-39; George Lichtheim, 'Marx
and the "Asiatic Mode of Production"', Tom Bottomore (ed..), 'Karl Marx'
(Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973) pp.151-71 and Anderson, 'Lineages of the
Absolutist State' (London, 1974) Note B. "The 'Asiatic Mode of Production'"
pp.462-549, who concludes mordantly that this notion should '...be given the
decent burial that it deserves'. p.548

20. Finley, 'Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology', pp.57-8. Stalin's text
"Dialectical and Historical Materialism", Bruce Franklin (ed.), 'The
Essential Stalin: Major Theoretical Writings: 1905-1952' (New York, 1972)
pp.300-33, with its unilinear dogma, became canonical during this period

21. See Finley's comments in "Ancient Society", Bottomore et al. (eds.), 'A
Dictionary of Marxist Thought' (Oxford, 1985) pp.19-23. Major recent
Marxist accounts of the ancient world and its economic system have included
Anderson, 'Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism' (London, 1974); Barry
Hindess and Paul Hirst, 'Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production' (London, 1975)
and Geoffrey de Ste Croix, 'The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World:
>From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest' (London, 1981)

22. Harry W. Pearson, "The Secular Debate on Economic Primitivism", Karl
Polanyi et al. (eds.), 'Trade and Market in the Early Empires' (Glencoe,
Ill., 1957) p.6

23..'Ibid.', pp.4-6

24. Marx, 'Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist production' (Moscow,
1961) Vol. 1 "Afterword to the Second german edition", p.16. On the
reception of Marx's ideas in the English-speaking world in the later 19th
century see Hobsbawm, 'Dr. Marx and the Victorian Critics', Labouring Men
(London, 2nd ed.,, 1968) pp.239-49

25. A point emphasised by Anderson, "Components of the National Culture",
Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn (eds.), 'Student Power: Problems,
Diagnosis, Action' (Harmondsworth, 1969) pp.222-23

26. Pearson, 'The Secular debate on Economic Primitivism', p.6

27. Cited in 'ibid', p.7

28. 'Ibid.' See also Finley's comments in 'Ancient Slavery and Modern
Ideology' pp.45-9

29. See Weber's great work 'The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient
Civilizations' (London, 1976: originally published in German in 1909) esp.
Part II, ch. 7, and Part IV

30. See Pearson, 'The Secular Debate on Economic Primitivism', p.9

31. 'Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World' (Oxford, 1941)
Vol. III, p.335, n.1

32. 'The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire' (Oxford, 2nd.
rev. ed., 1957; orginial ed., 1926) 2 vols. A History of the Ancient World
(Oxford, 1927) Vol. II 'Rome', esp. ch. 20

33. (London, 2nd ed., 1985)

34. 'Ibid.', p.55

35. 'Ibid.', p.79

36. See, for example, "The Year One", 'Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries
and Controversies' (Harmondsworth, 2nd ed., 1977) pp.185-201, where Finley
claims that 'there seems to have been much less effort than in modern times
to disguise or deny the open exploitation of empire', p.187. Compare this
view with Lichtheim, 'Imperialism' (Harmondsworth, 1974) p.22

37. "Introduction" to 'Trade in the Ancient Economy' p.14

38. 'Ibid.', pp.xiv-xxi

39. 'Ibid.'

40. 'Ibid.', p.xxi

41. 'Ibid.' For a further elaboration of Hopkins's views on the Roman
economy specifically, see his 'Roman Trade, Industry and Labour', M' Grant
and R.Kitzinger (eds.), 'Civilization in the Ancient Mediterranean (New
York, 1988) Vol. II, pp.353-77, and 'Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire
(200 B.C. - A.D.. 400), 'Journal of Roman Studies' Vol. 70 (1980) pp.101-25.
Hopkins's modification of Finley's position is generally endorsed by Garnsey
and R. Saller, 'The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture' (London,
1987) ch.3

42. 'Theory, Evidence and the Ancient Economy', p.170. The Rostovtzeff
quote is from 'The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire', p.153

43. 'Theory, Evidence and the Ancient Economy', p.170

44. Ch. 2, Section 5

45. 'The Ancient Economy', p.184

46. "Ancient Society", 'Dictionary of Marxist Thought' p.22

47. "Geoffrey de Ste. Croix and the Ancient World", 'Zone of Engagement',

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