Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 5.

Sitta von Reden, Exchange in Ancient Greece. London: Duckworth, 2002. Pp. xii + 244, incl. 8 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-7156-3179-9. £16.99.

Matthew Trundle
Classics, Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand

This reprinting in paperback of Sitta von Reden's 1995 Exchange in Ancient Greece is desirable both in light of much recent scholarship on the subject of coinage and exchange as well as allowing us to revisit the issues with which it dealt. The paperback edition has not been substantially revised since the original publication. There is, however, a new preface and introduction that discusses more recent bibliography along with an updated bibliography attached to the original. Forms of interaction through trade and gift-giving amongst the elite and their evolving relationships within the emerging city-communities have received a good deal of attention recently, as has the emergence and spread of the use of money and wages in the polis period. Von Reden's book was at the forefront of recent work on exchange networks and relationships, but considering it was widely well received it is surprising how few academic reviews dealt with the work. Readers can only be directed towards Van der Vliet's review.[[1]]

Von Reden surveys differing forms, types and meanings of exchange and their associated relationships in the ancient Greek world mediated through our sources from Homer's poetry to the plays and speeches of the fifth and fourth century and the later polis period. She steers a separate course from those economic historians who follow the likes of either Karl Polanyi or Moses Finley by looking at exchange in a broader framework than just its economic concerns.[[2]] She considers the metaphysical aspects of exchange and its meaning for Greek society. By viewing exchange in all its forms and in a wider context of the relationships that it mediated, Von Reden creates a new theoretical model for considering the ancient Greek economy. This model emphasizes the symbolic nature of forms and objects of exchange. Markers other than those of material value determined the worth of an artefact. Gifts and goods took on symbolic value depending on their context or their environment. Van der Vliet's review criticized the book for its overly theoretical approach, and asked the question of what actual practice might have been in antiquity. He distrusts the notion that so-called 'professed norms' related to actual behavior (van der Vliet, loc. cit. p. 500). Indeed, this seems a valid criticism. It does seem likely that many goods circulated in a context separate from any symbolic value. Nevertheless, there is much evidence by which Von Reden can illustrate a symbolic value in operation and certainly the notion is thought- provoking in a status-conscious world of ambiguous relationships and complicated exchange systems.

The book divides into three parts. The first part discusses abstract notions of exchange in Homeric poetry, specifically in the Odyssey (Chapters 1 and 2). Here we learn the importance of self- interest in many exchange relationships. Significantly, 'self' and by this we probably ought to read 'heroic self', was determined by gifts from people and the gods. Gifts illustrated the status of the recipient as well as the giver. The book challenges notions of reciprocity in the Homeric world highlighting incidents in which pure self- interest fuelled several exchanges. The craft of Diomedes (p. 26) to carry off Glaukos' golden armour is an obvious paradigm (Iliad 6.120-236). To Von Reden the exchange is a public affirmation of an exploit to the benefit of Diomedes, both materially and socially. But surely both heroes could claim some klêos in this relationship, even if Diomedes knowingly and deliberately receives a better gift. Von Reden refers to the way that Odysseus carries off gifts 'time and again' to raise his own status, but we should note that in a world of broader values than the material worth of an object, reciprocity can be achieved via any number of media. Despite the one- sided self-interest of the recipient the giver can still glean something from the exchange. Thus, the Phaeacians, as Homer attests, gave Odysseus gifts so that their recipient will speak well of their kingdom (more klêos) in the outside world. Readers might note that Hans van Wees recently showed the regularity with which guests profiteered in the changing (real) world of the Archaic age.[[3]] He saw that where mutual dependence was not strong there was greed and the pursuit of profit, but when dependency between the two increased so greed gave way to generosity. This is an important consideration for the distinction between real and Homeric practice.

Von Reden highlights the inequality -- or asymmetry as she more regularly styles it -- between the giver and receiver, in which the giver achieves a higher status as a result of the gift. Von Reden, however, illustrates several instances in which the reverse appears to be the case. A good example of this is the gift-eating chieftains in Hesiod (Op. 246-65). If status came from giving rather than receiving then surely they ought to cement their positions by giving rather than taking from the poor in the world of eighth-century Boeotia. Von Reden makes the good point that the chieftains show themselves base by not giving but devouring rewards (pp. 81f.), which is, of course, Hesiod's point. But once again I would add that there are differences between the characters of these chieftains in Hesiod and the characters of the epic poetry of Homer. Hesiod's world is real, while Homer's is fantasy. The reality of the world of Hesiod, in which the powerful increased their material wealth to the detriment of the weak, differed from the heroic world of epic. Homeric heroes, by contrast, sought gain as an attribute of their fame and glory and in their world neither real nor weaker members of society featured prominently, nor did they suffer as a result of acquisitive behaviour. Von Reden traces the relationship between the status of objects and the objects of exchange. The difference between commerce and gift exchange was 'ideologically rather than empirically founded' (p. 219). Thus any gift could be commercially traded and all people might look like traders rather than aristocrats worthy of gifts (pp. 58-74). Social context and presumably status drove the identity of gifts and individuals.

Part Two analyses exchange within the Athenian polis. Von Reden identifies the problems associated with individuals spending and receiving money within the city community (pp. 88f.). She also highlights the asymmetry of status between the giver and the receiver within the emerging poleis communities. The receiver often relinquished to the giver a superior position. The introduction of coins and payment of wages or misthos were important for the development of the civic community and for the relationship between those of higher and lower status. In other contexts outside of Athens, and in less cohesive civic communities spending money for and on the community was honourable, and Von Reden points out that Pindar's victory odes and the victor's ability to spend money were an important and related theme (p. 195). The city, and its associated community, benefited from a victor's generosity as they did from his victory. There was thus reciprocity between the victor as communal beneficiary and victor as a product of that community. Herein is one of the many ambiguities associated with coinage and spending. Von Reden notes that the Athenians avoided honouring excellence with money because it was incompatible with equality (p. 99). Misthos, as Von Reden states, 'unequivocally signified unequal relationships' (p. 92). But I suggest that it is always important to remember that misthos facilitated and even drove the rise of more solid civic identities, it financed the Athenian fleet and Athenian democratic institutions like the law-courts. Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, money and wages drove specialization, professionalization and the destruction of the amateur polis ideal and with it the polis itself.

This brings us to Part Three, which deals with the introduction of money in the emerging poleis. Von Reden addresses the notion that money disembeds the economy, but concludes that in Athens money actually helped to reinforce an embedded civic society. The state used money to assert its dominance over its citizens. But as civic development coincided with the standardization of obverse types on coins at the turn of the sixth century and coinage came to symbolize community identity money played an important role in the creation and development of poleis. But Von Reden rightly sees that money created potentially ambiguous feelings and relationships in the developing cities for poor and rich citizens alike. Taking a misthos (or wage) in coin was considered base if it came from an individual as it symbolized a lack of independence and a kind of slavery. It therefore represented an obligation that did not stem from friendship. As poleis developed better infrastructures and took greater responsibility for their communities, so many beneficiaries of coins (such as citizen- soldiers, rowers, and politicians) were not debased by receiving coins as remuneration even if they became dependent upon their income. The state was far larger than any individual and the relationship between the state and the citizen was never one that could theoretically be called equal. Thus state remuneration operated independently from wages from any one person. Von Reden thus explains what she had identified as the 'double-bind' in which money placed citizens, for as she shows correctly, the context of a money-exchange (actually like all other exchanges) was crucial. The payer remained powerful over the payee, but the kind of relationship in which each citizen found himself was central to how that relationship was viewed. To illustrate this point, Von Reden explores sexual relationships, specifically through scenes on vase painting that contain money pouches (Chapter 9). She claims that scenes of pederasty between male citizens in which the erastês offers a money pouch to a younger male ought to be distinguished from citizen encounters with female prostitutes in which we might see a similarly offered pouch (pp. 200-11). Money in the one case symbolized the gift and the power of the erastês over the erômenos, but in the other it emphasized the commercial nature of the relationship between the male citizen and the female prostitute. The money did not make a pornos of an erômenos as Von Reden has earlier pointed out (p. 121) because it was his slave status that defined the pornos as it did the pornê. Von Reden argues that vase painting seems to arrive at a distinction between the two functions of money. In the case of pederasty money was a means of exchange, and in that of prostitution it was a means of payment. Von Reden concludes (p. 199) that the money pouch is an 'attribute' of the erastês. Pouches are therefore 'symbolic details describing the erastês and his attitude to the erômenos and not the social status of the erômenos' and thus the passive partner is not necessarily a boy prostitute. But I think that there is more that needs to be said on this subject because despite the acceptable context of an erastês- erômenos relationship it was one that was fraught with dangers for both individuals. The erastês might be too aggressive, the erômenos too keen and the symbolic gift could quickly become a payment for sexual-services-rendered thus transforming erômenos into pornos (as he behaves like a slave) with disastrous political and legal ramifications even if the initial context was an acceptable one.

Von Reden's bottom line is that symbolism is paramount and we need to note the obsession that the Greeks had specifically with the 'political symbolism'. Thus Von Reden can find common ground with Aristotle, that money made just relationships possible (Aristotle EN 1133a6-1133a27) within the city and thus made society possible (p. 211). In her conclusion (p. 217) Von Reden states that 'We are all accustomed nowadays to thinking of exchange, markets and money in terms of economics' and not in terms of 'the social and the metaphysical statements that it entails.' This may be so in the very disembedded society in which we live today. But Von Reden's thesis is a good one and the notion of exchange in ancient Greece as abstract and part of the social fabric rather than simply economic environment will lead us to new ways of thinking about society and economy in the ancient world. Even the Greeks of Hesiod's time, however, were aware of the power and the realities of financial wealth and the threat that posed to the embedded status quo. Pindar (Isthmian 2.11) could write that chrêmata made the man in the early fifth century and the Athenians and Spartans knew well the power of Persian or Delphic gold in international realpolitik from at least the third quarter of the fifth century BC (Thuc. 1.143). Nevertheless, despite the need to keep our focus on the value and uses of the precious gift or wage payment in the real world, Von Reden makes us rethink the symbolic nature and importance of the meaning of exchange in the complex world of the ancient Greeks.


[[1]] E. Ch. L. Van der Vliet's review in Mnemosyne 51.4 (1998) 497-500.

[[2]] K. Polanyi, 'Aristotle Discovers Economic Analysis' in C. Arensberg, H.W. Pearson and K. Polanyi (edd.), Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (Glencoe, Illinois 1957) 65-94. M. Finley, The Ancient Economy (London 1973).

[[3]] Hans van Wees 'Greed, Generosity and Gift Exchange.' in Willem Jongman and Marc Kleijwegt (edd.), Essays in Ancient History in Honour of H. W. Pleket (Leiden 2002) 341-78.