March 12, 2008

Niall McKeown The Invention of Ancient Slavery

As a PhD student, you sit for hours and sometimes days trying to work out how a set of evidence fits together and becomes a theory. Hopefully you find yourself a way out of the morass, and put together something which can be vivaed and be the starting point for an academic career. But always lurking in the background is a suspicion that what you are investigating actually doesn't exist or even worse, that its impossible to find the answer of the question you have set yourself. I used to wonder a lot about writing an anti-PhD thesis- a thesis that demonstrated that there was no answer to this particular conumdrum, that this particular question was just impossible to resolve without some surprising discovery and a proof that future scholars need not follow in my wake. A destructive PhD you might say and yet there is more merit than just fortifying a depressed PhD student in doing that kind of exercise: because it demonstrates that there are some questions that are incredibly hard to answer, some problems that we may never solve and some ideas that though attractive cannot be proved.

Dr. Niall McKeown, a lecturer in Ancient History at the Birmingham University, has taken my half imagined possibility and converted it into a book. His study analyses the history of Roman slavery- how many slaves were there, who were they, how were they treated, what did they think of slavery, what were their relations with their masters and each other. McKeown examines several answers to these questions from a variety of scholars from the past hundred years. His history of the historiography of slavery starts in the decades just after the Great War and continues roughly to the new millenium. He analyses people who he asserts (and others will have to verify this) are typical of historians of slavery: we have racist interpretations of Roman decline through ethnic mixing, communist interpretations that see class war with slaves continuing throughout Roman history and different national interpretations- German, French and Anglo-American- which perpetuate other ideas. McKeown also moves to consider how specialists from other fields- literary and demographic- have considered slavery and how they too have put forward interpretations of the institution and how it functioned.

McKeown takes us through these different ideas about what ancient slavery was- and does it brilliantly. He summarises their arguments and then demonstrates how the same set of evidence, used by those scholars to make one point can be turned around to make another. He points to the ways for instance that rhetoric in Martial or Juvenal is highly difficult to understand- these were the comedic writers of the day and we don't really 'get' the joke. Afterall would you use Blackadder as a guide to British eating habits in the First World War- were all British soldiers eating 'rat o'van' (rat run over by a van). Comedy exists to exploit what may be unusual or just funny situations- and without knowing a culture inside out it is hard to separate the funny joke from the context. McKeown skewers various historians who take too literally the words of literature- he also suggests that all historians are limited b what they study. For example, great German historians have put a lot of effort into studying the words of slaves to Oracles- but that is obviously a self selecting sample or it may not be? But we just don't know.

This point of ignorance is made again and again. When Bradley, the great scholar of slavery in English, argues on the basis of Roman legal documents that there were a great variety of crimes committed by slaves and therefore that slaves and masters were antagonistic naturally to each other, Mckeown pulls him up. Afterall the legal texts that he examines give no guide to the frequency of the crimes that they discuss. Furthermore those crimes might be merely interesting legal problems created by law and of interest to intellectually minded lawyers. Its fascinating to think about what happens should a slave commit a crime and then be freed, should he be tried as a slave or freedman? That might just have been a Roman lawyer trying to solve a specific if rare puzzle or even a Roman law lecturer puzzling over a particular problem: it doesn't mean that there were armies of slaves out there trying to murder their masters.

Evidence is difficult to work with and Mckeown demonstrates some of its problems. But this goes further into the work say of demographers. He is very good at exposing the fact that demographers work on the basis of assumptions. Most modern demographers of Roman slaves work on the basis that 10% of the Roman population was enslaved. McKeown points out that there is basically no evidence for this figure- beyond a survey of 1000 people over three centuries in Egypt which produced a figure of 11% as slaves. But those 1000 were biassed- they lived in Egypt- furthermore even within the sample we can tell that there were biases- in the city 13% of the population were slaves, in the countryside 7% and it happens that our sample is biassed towards urban areas. If say 5% of the Roman population were slaves then it changes all of our calculations about how many were indigenous, born from slave mothers, how many of them were abandoned children and how many were born outside the empire and then caught and captured and brought to the Empire.

This doesn't mean that McKeown is relativistic- far from it. Its because he accepts there is such a thing as evidence that he can suggest ambiguities within it. The work he provides is positivistic in that it assumes that there is such a thing as an eventual absolute truth- its just that it might not be accessible, that the limitations within the evidence might make it difficult to get to that absolute truth. There were slaves and they did live in a particular way- its just that its very hard to get to the generality of slaves because they left no records behind them and because the records of the slaves we do no about are atypical, precisely because they are recorded slaves. We can deceive ourselves as well- and Mckeown is very conscious of the way that we can imagine pasts which go way beyond the evidence that we have in front of us. Another image I have from my Phd is that evidence in the dark whilst you are dreaming up your theory seems to coalesce, turn the light on and it scatters in front of you- anyone who has honestly done historical research knows that feeling and McKeown brings it back to life at least for me.

Its an interesting problem that we face. On the one hand there are definite historical truths- or rather there are definite historical falsehoods. Were I to say that there were no slaves in ancient Rome I would just be wrong, categorically and unquestionably wrong. But its much harder to say much more that is definite about those slaves. In the end history is about piecing together evidence using imagination- and there is always the danger that the imagination, the art of history, takes over from the evidence collection and begins building houses on sand. Furthermore what McKeown provides us with is evidence that there will always be legitimate contestation within history about the meaning of evidence- Michael Oakeshott said in his essay on history that the past had left us artefacts out of which historians created narratives. And Oakeshott was right- the problem is that the artefacts can be connected in other ways. If you deny the presence of the artefacts from the past, you are talking in falsehood- but there may be several ways to understand the past.

In that sense, McKeown's book sits less readily with the extreme post modernist relativism- the kind of sentiment that argues that there is no truth- than with a doubting scepticism about the validity of interpretation. Relativism is a stupid policy- but scepticism is a sensible one and it allows one independence of mind and also the readiness of self criticism that is the mark of the true historian. Furthermore the kind of scepticism that McKeown in this book creates is scepticism based on the evidence- not a generalised cynicism- but a specific scepticism coming out of genuine problems in the detail. In that sense his work provides a useful corrective to the over imaginative historian- and indicates a way forward- a waryness about our own capacity at intellectual discovery and a commitment to the dry work of evidence collection that is thoroughly to be welcomed.