Some comments on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years

There’s a lot to like about David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) which is essentially a history of the relationship between money and morality from the dawn of civilization in Sumeria up to the present day. However, in a work that spans so many centuries, regions, and academic disciplines (anthropology, economics, history), some minor errors are bound to crop up. I offer the following comments on Graeber’s references to ancient history in the hopes that they might be fixed in a future edition:

Territories that had never been under Roman rule – in Ireland, Wales… [Graeber, page 61]

The Romans did conquer Wales.

Nehemiah… received permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier… [Graeber, page 81]

This implies that the Temple had been in ruins for two hundred years but rebuilding began in the sixth century with help from the Persian king Cyrus [see the beginning of the book of Ezra]. Perhaps Graeber meant to refer to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls?

[Annikeris] A Libyan philosopher of the Epicurean school… [ransomed Plato] [Graeber, page 197].

Epicurus lived after Plato so this Annikeris cannot be an Epicurean philosopher.

A man did not have total power over his wife, since she was still to some degree under the protection of her own father [Graeber, page 201].

There were different types of Roman marriage. In a manus marriage the wife came under the power of her husband while in a sine manu marriage the wife remained under the authority of her father or guardian.

Herodotus remarked about the Persians: ‘To tell a lie is considered by them the greatest disgrace…” (Later, Herodotus reported a story told to him by a Persian about the origins of the gold that the Persians had acquired in India: they stole it from the nests of giant ants.) [Graeber, page 215-16]

The Persian may not have been lying to Herodotus as it now seems quite possible there was a kernel of truth to this story and Herodotus’ account is the result of a garbled translation. See this New York Times article.

As David Scheidel, one of the premier contemporary scholars of early money, notes… [Graeber, page 220]

That should be David Schaps, author of The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece.

Of the Phoenicians:

They were also great inventors, having been the first to develop both the alphabet and the abacus [Graeber, page 227].

Alphabets did emerge from the area where the Phoenician cities were located but I’m not sure it’s still possible to give the Phoenicians credit for an ‘invention’. The development of alphabets seems more complicated and uncertain than it once was. See, e.g., Jo Ann Hackett, “Phoenician and Punic” in Roger D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages (2004):

The Phoenician stage of the [consonantal alphabet] is part of a long history of alphabetic development that can be traced in inscriptions from earlier Canaanite-speaking peoples. [page 367].

On to the Punic Wars:

Carthage.. the city itself was razed and its fields sowed with salt. [Graeber, page 228].

The Romans did not sow the fields of Carthage with salt (or at least there is no ancient evidence for them doing so). See Ronald T. Ridley, “To Be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage.” Classical Philology 81, no. 2 (1986): 140 – 46.

city-states developed endless ways to distribute coins… sometimes just as outright distributions, as Athens did most famously when they discovered a new vein of silver in the mines at Laurium in 483 BC. [Graeber, page 228-9]

At the urging of Themistokles, the Athenians decided against distributing their windfall to citizens and instead used the money to build warships. See Herodotus 7.144 and Plutarch Themistokles 4. Graeber is right about the phenomenon of outright distributions but his ‘example’ is actually an exception.

In Athens, it was taken for granted that only a country bumpkin would be entirely illiterate. Without mass literacy, neither the emergence of mass intellectual movements, nor the spread of Axial Age ideas would have been possible. [Graeber, page 237]

There’s a considerable amount now written on ancient literacy. Graeber might want to have a look at (e.g.) W. V. Harris’ book on the subject:

literacy on a large scale is the product of forces such as did not exist in antiquity; and a society which is about to bring forth mass literacy shows symptoms, in particular an ample and expanding school system, which we cannot find in the ancient world… [Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989) 327]

Back to Graeber:

Greek city-states did not have kings, and the collapse of private interests and affairs of state was in principle universally denounced as tyranny [page 241]

Sparta had two kings. Many city-states had kings at least at the beginning of the Archaic period. I’m not sure precisely what Graeber means by “the collapse of private interests and affairs of state” but given that Greek tyrants were popular leaders (i.e., individuals ruling with the support of the non-aristocratic members of the community), I’m not sure the words ‘universally,’ ‘denounced’ or ‘tyranny’ are quite right in this context.


5 Responses to Some comments on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years

  1. Nick Nicastro says:

    Nitpick of your nitpick: the ant part of Herodotus’ story is what makes it interesting! When we say Herodotus is a “liar” we also can mean “credulous repeater of outrageous BS”. If I told you I’ve seen giant flying cats, and somebody pointed out that there are indeed flying BIRDS in my neighborhood, would you consider me “partly vindicated”?

  2. DBH says:

    In defense of Herodotus, why should a giant ant have seemed so outrageous to him? Check this out:

    • Nick Nicastro says:

      I’m quite confident that any ant Herodotus would have seen would be have been…ant-sized. That’s why H. repeats the story, to provoke wonder. I prefer Eratosthenes’ approach: he doesn’t go just by hearsay.

      I know there’s a fashion right now for “vindicating” Herodotus the historian. It’s has gone too far. Herodotus the entertainer, absolutely. But Thucydides probably wasn’t the only one in antiquity to think Herodotus was yanking peoples’ chains.

      • DBH says:

        I’m not saying Herodotus wasn’t credulous, maybe even gullible at times. The numbers he records for the Persian army alone are enough to cast strong doubt on his judgement. I just don’t think the ants are the best ammunition for that case. But I do think ‘liar’ is unfair and he does emphasize – though not often enough – that he doesn’t necessarily believe everything he’s writing down. Here’s what he says after repeating one unlikely story (7.152, Landmark Herodotus translation): “I am obliged to record the things I am told, but I am certainly not required to believe them – this remark may be taken to apply to the whole of my account.” A cop-out, sure, but the guy was pioneering an entire discipline…

  3. […] David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) has recently generated considerable debate on the topic of debt. You can find a fascinating interdisciplinary discussion of this book at Crooked Timber here and further related posts here. My own comments (mainly about Graeber’s use of ancient history) are here. […]

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