Moses Finley

Sir Moses Isaac Finley, FBA (born Finkelstein; 20 May 1912 – 23 June 1986) was an American-born British academic and classical scholar. His prosecution by the McCarran Security Committee led to his move to England, where he became an English classical scholar and eventually master of Darwin College, Cambridge. His most notable work is The Ancient Economy (1973), where he argued that status and civic ideology governed the economy in antiquity rather than rational economic motivations.

Sir Moses Finley

Moses Isaac Finkelstein

(1912-05-20)20 May 1912
New York City, New York, United States
Died23 June 1986(1986-06-23) (aged 74)
Mary (m. 19321986)
Academic background
Alma mater
Academic work
School or traditionFrankfurt School
Doctoral students

Early life

Finley was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen. About 1946, he took the surname Finley.[1]

He was educated at Syracuse University, where, aged fifteen, he graduated magna cum laude in psychology, and at Columbia University. Although his M.A. was in public law, most of his published work was in the field of ancient history, especially the social and economic aspects of the classical world.


United States

Finley taught at Columbia University and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Frankfurt School who were working in exile in America. He then taught at Rutgers University.

Red scare

On 5 September 1951, Dr Karl Wittfogel stated that Finley was a communist while testifying before HUAC. On 28 March 1952, Professor Finley appeared before HUAC and invoked the Fifth Amendment regarding connections to communism. On 26–7 September 1952, Lewis Webster Jones, president of Rutgers University, announced his intention to appoint Trustee and Faculty committees to review the cases of professors involved in government inquiries. On 15 November 1952, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover met with Jones to discuss the cases. On 12 December 1952, Rutger's Board of Trustees resolution declared that, "It shall be cause for immediate dismissal of any member of faculty or staff" to fail to co-operate with government inquiries. On 31 December 1952, Rutgers fired Finley.[2] Rutgers University records show that:

On 3 December 1952, the Special Faculty Committee issued a report stating there should be no charges against Heimlich or Finley and that the University should take no further action in the matter. However, the Trustees, who had final say in the matter, issued a resolution on 12 December 1952, stating "it shall be cause for immediate dismissal of any member of faculty or staff" who invokes the fifth amendment before an investigatory body in refusing to answer questions relating to Communist affiliation, and that Professors Heimlich and Finley would be dismissed as of December of 31, 1952 unless they conformed to this new policy. Neither chose to do so. There was protest to this decision by members of the faculty, who formed an Emergency Committee on the matter.[3]

In 1954, he appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security (SISS), which asked him whether he had ever been a member of the Communist Party USA. He again invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer.


Finley immigrated to Britain, where he was appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge (1955–1964) and, in 1957, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College. He was reader in ancient social and economic history (1964–1970), professor of ancient history (1970–1979) and master of Darwin College (1976–1982).[4]

He broadened the scope of classical studies from philology to culture, economics, and society. He became a British citizen in 1962 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971, and was knighted in 1979. He was a doctorate adviser to Paul Millett, now a senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge.


Among his works, The World of Odysseus (1954, revised ed. with additional essays 1978) proved seminal. In it, he applied the findings of ethnologists and anthropologists like Marcel Mauss to illuminate Homer, a radical approach that was thought by his publishers to require a reassuring introduction by an established classicist, Maurice Bowra. Paul Cartledge asserted in 1995, "... in retrospect Finley's work can be seen as the seed of the present flowering of anthropologically-related studies of ancient Greek culture and society".[5]

Following the example of Karl Polanyi, Finley argued that the ancient economy should not be analysed using the concepts of modern economic science, because ancient man had no notion of the economy as a separate sphere of society, and because economic actions in antiquity were determined not primarily by economic, but by social concerns. This text later came under scrutiny, with varied criticism coming from, amongst others, Kevin Greene,[6] who argues that Finley underplays the importance of technological innovation, and C. R. Whittaker,[7] who rejects the concept of a "consumer city".

Marriage and death

In 1932 Finley married Mary (née Moscowitz, who later changed to her mother's surname, Thiers), a schoolteacher, and the two enjoyed a happy and mutually reinforcing, albeit childless marriage. On the day of her death he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and he died the following day on 23 June 1986 at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge.[1] The New York Times obituary adds: "He had suffered a stroke the previous day, an hour after learning of the death of his wife."[8]


  • Studies in Land and Credit in Ancient Athens, 500–200 B.C.: The Horos Inscriptions (1951).
  • Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (1953).
  • The World of Odysseus (1954).
  • Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies, Viking Press, 1960[9]
  • The Ancient Greeks: An Introduction to Their Life and Thought (1963).
  • A History of Sicily: Ancient Sicily To The Arab Conquest (1968).
  • Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).
  • Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaic Ages (1970).
  • The Ancient Economy (1973).
  • Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973).
  • Studies in Ancient Society, editor (1974).
  • The Use and Abuse of History (1975).
  • Schliemann's Troy: One Hundred Years After (1975).
  • Studies in Roman property, editor (1976).
  • The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years, with H.W. Pleket (1976).
  • Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (1980; expanded edition edited by Brent D. Shaw, 1998).
  • The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal (1981).
  • Authority and Legitimacy in The Classical City-State (1982).
  • Politics in the Ancient World (1983).
  • Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1985).

Finley was also the editor of numerous volumes of essays on ancient history.

See also


  1. "Finley, Sir Moses I.". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/39807.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. "Additional Resources – Timeline (Red Scare at Rutgers)". Rutgers University. June 1994. Archived from the original on 11 December 2012. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  3. "Inventory to the Records of the Rutgers University Office of the President (Lewis Webster Jones)". Rutgers University. June 1994. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  4. Article on Finley in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  5. Cartledge, Paul. "The Greeks and Anthropology", Anthropology Today, Vol. 10, No. 3. (1994), p. 4 (available online).
  6. Greene, K. (2000). "Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M. I. Finley Reconsidered". Economic History Review. 53 (1): 29–59. doi:10.1111/1468-0289.00151.
  7. Whittaker, C.R. (1990). "The Consumer city revisited: the vicus and the city". Journal of Roman Archaeology. 3: 110–118v.
  8. McDowell, Edwin (11 July 1986). "Sir Moses I. Finley, A Scholar in the Classics". Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  9. Moses I. Finley (1960). Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies. Viking Press.

Further reading

  • Derks, Hans. "The Ancient Economy: The Problem and the Fraud," The European Legacy, Vol. 7, No. 5. (2002), pp. 597–620.
  • Hornblower, Simon. "A gift from whom?: [Moses Finley's book The World of Odysseus: Critical Essay]," Times Literary Supplement, 24 December 2004, pp. 18–19.
  • Morris, Ian. "Foreword [to the updated edition]," The Ancient Economy by Moses I. Finley. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1999 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-21946-5), pp. ix–xxxvi.
  • Nafissi, Mohammad. "Class, embeddedness, and the modernity of ancient Athens," Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 46, Issue 2. (2004), pp. 378–410.
  • Nafissi, Mohammad. Ancient Athens and Modern Ideology: Value, Theory and Evidence in Historical Sciences. Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley (Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement; 80). London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2005 (paperback, ISBN 0-900587-91-1).
  • Shaw, Brent D.; Saller, Richard P. Editors' introduction to Economy and society in ancient Greece (with Finley's up-to-date bibliography). London: Chatto & Windus, 1981 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7011-2549-7); N.Y.: The Viking Press, 1982 (hardcover, ISBN 0-670-28847-0); London: Penguin Books, 1983 (paperback, ISBN 0-14-022520-X).
  • Silver, Morris. Review of The Ancient Economy, edited by Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden", Economic History Services, 3 January 2003.
  • Watson, George. "The man from Syracuse: Moses Finley (1912–1986)," Sewanee Review, Vol. 112, Issue 1. (2004), pp. 131–137.
Academic offices
Preceded by
A. H. M. Jones
Professor of Ancient History, Cambridge University
Succeeded by
John Anthony Crook
Preceded by
Frank George Young
Master of Darwin College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Arnold Burgen
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