Reciprocity in Ancient Greece

By Christopher Gill; Norman Postlethwaite et al. | Go to book overview

2
Political Reciprocity in Dark Age Greece: Odysseus and his hetairoi

WALTER DONLAN


I. RECIPROCITY

The rule of reciprocity, that one gives of one's own accord, with the expectation that a suitable return will follow, was a powerful regulator of social behaviour at every stage of Greece's history. The Homeric epics provide our earliest observation of its operation. In Homer's 'world', reciprocity is a very strong cultural value, manifested in a myriad of ways, both friendly and hostile. In this chapter I explore what may properly be called 'political reciprocity' in Homeric society, that is to say, the nature of the relationship between the leaders and the people.

Reciprocity, whether a friendly something-for-something or a hostile 'payback', motivates the social behaviour of both individuals and groups. Among the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey, which are classic examples of Karl Polanyi's 'embedded economy' ( 1944, 1977), gifts are equated with honour, and many of the dramatic encounters between individual heroes occur in the context of gift transactions. All the leader-people 'dramas' in the poems involve (and frequently revolve around) affirmation or rejection of the customary standards of reciprocity.

I have observed ( 1981-2) the occurrence in Homer of Marshall Sahlins's three degrees of reciprocity ( 1972): the altruistic giving of 'generalized reciprocity', giving without obligation to return; 'balanced reciprocity', or quid pro quo; and 'negative reciprocity', taking without returning. It turns out, not surprisingly, that generalized reciprocity is confined to the circle of philoi (close kin and close friends), that negative reciprocity within the dêmos is condemned, and that the ethos of exchange situations inclines towards the middle point of equivalence and balance, what we generally

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