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Orlando Patterson, property, and ancient slavery: the definitional question revisited

Lewis, David


David Lewis


John Bodel

Walter Scheidel


This essay provides a critique of Orlando Patterson's analysis of property and slavery. Traditionally, the notion that the slave was the property of his or her owner was seen as the distinguishing characteristic of slavery. Patterson criticised this approach on several counts, replacing the traditional formulation of slavery as the ownership of human beings with his own sociological definition, which holds that the condition should be defined as 'the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonoured persons.' First, it is shown that the concept of property attacked by Patterson has little in common with the concept of property as understood in jurisprudence and comparative law, meaning that none of Patterson's objections carry any weight. Two ancient case studies - classical Athens and Achaemenid Babylonia - show that the approach of modern comparative law maps accurately on to the legal contours of slave ownership in these two very different societies. Finally, the paper highlights several shortcomings of Patterson's reformulated definition.


Lewis, D. (2016). Orlando Patterson, property, and ancient slavery: the definitional question revisited. In W. Scheidel, & J. Bodel (Eds.), On human bondage: after slavery and social deathWiley-Blackwell

Acceptance Date Feb 7, 2014
Publication Date Dec 23, 2016
Deposit Date Sep 7, 2017
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Series Title The ancient world: comparative histories
Book Title On human bondage: after slavery and social death
ISBN 9781119162483
Keywords Orlando Patterson; Slavery; Property; Ancient Greece; Babylonia
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