Sunday, April 26, 2015


Filippo Carlà, Maja Gori (ed.), Gift Giving and the 'Embedded' Economy in the Ancient World. Akademiekonferenzen, 17. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014. Pp. 437. ISBN 9783825363314. €48.00.

Reviewed by Anders Klostergaard Petersen, University of Aarhus (

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In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the old Maussian problem of the gift. The renewed interest has been spurred not least by the work of French philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists like Alain Caillé, Jacques Godbout, Maurice Godelier, Marcel Hénaff, and Alain Testart. They have in particular inspired the disciplines pertaining to the study of the ancient world to resume themes that relate to gift-giving, exchange, the monetary economy, and their interrelations. The current anthology lucidly demonstrates how this area of scholarship may stimulate studies of the ancient world to redirect interest into old questions. And in fact, Gift-Giving is the second recent volume on gift-giving in the context of the ancient world.1

The present volume consists of an extensive introduction by the editors and 18 contributions covering four main subjects: 1) Gift giving, gift exchange, gift economy; 2) gift and society; 3) gift and religion; 4) the object gift. Each article has its own bibliography, but unfortunately one looks in vain for a comprehensive bibliography and indexes.

The introduction is delightfully free from being a paraphrase of the individual contributions. The editors have indeed provided one of the best articles of the volume by their meticulous and original attempt to rethink the concept of the gift in the context of the scholarly disciplines involved. Over and against studies in the wake of Mauss' classic Essai sur le don they point to the fact that gift-giving and commerce should neither be seen as incompatible systems nor should they be conceived of as chronologically successive to each other. It is the basic idea of the volume and its claim to scholarly merit that it focuses on this problem by highlighting "the interaction of wealth, performance and status in the mechanisms connected to gift-giving and gift-exchange, starting from the mentioned 'tension' existing between gift and commerce and with a particular awareness, therefore, for the interactions between different forms of exchange and their repercussions on social capital and social visibility" (9f).

Although the editors do not agree at all points with the work of Bourdieu on gift-giving, it is obvious that their own contribution is situated in a trajectory of post-critical thinking that conceives of essentialisation as detrimental to a proper understanding of gift-giving. In the vein of a tradition that argues for the polyvalence and multifarious occurrences of every phenomenon designated by second- and third-order concepts, the editors endorse the view that "[g]ifts can be, and often are, multilayered phenomena, whose characters and aims can be seen differently from different perspectives or which can assume very similar forms even if caused by completely different reasons" (30). Yet they point to six functions held to be essential to gift-giving, although their omnipresence is not presupposed by every transaction. They are: 1) The giver; 2) the receiver; 3) the mediator; 4) the divinity, supervising, judging, rewarding; 5) the audience – who assists or knows of the gift and on which it works in terms of performance, status and visibility; 6) the object.

It is a bit astonishing that a volume that pays much heed to the French anthropological tradition does not include references to the French semiotic tradition, which still has much to contribute when the formalisation of basic components in any gift-giving or exchange is concerned. Although the editors have made it unequivocally clear that the book is not devoted to the general discussion of gift-giving and its rules in the ancient world, their constructivist approach does have a slightly shallow tenor by the development of a typology encapsulating six intrinsic features and the fact that they ignore a tradition that potentially could have contributed to further analytical refinement. Be that as it may, this criticism is not meant to diminish the importance of the essay, which really is worth the whole book.

Needless to say, it is beyond the scope of this review to do justice to all 18 contributions. Therefore, I shall draw attention to those essays that in particular caught my interest. One study is Beate Wagner-Hasel's on "Karl Bücher and the Birth of the Theory of Gift-Giving" (pp. 51-69). Although it has become a scholarly commonplace to point to Mauss as the first to call attention to the importance of gift-giving, Wagner-Hasel emphasises the German national economist and pioneer of empirical social science studies Karl Bücher, who subsequently fell into oblivion. She draws attention to his novelty by emphasising how he laid the foundation for a typology of economic history followed by notable scholars like Max Weber, Werner Sombart, Richard Thurnwald, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Karl Polanyi. She also stresses how Bücher was more prolific than his contemporaries in his use of empirical-scientific methods to develop economic theories that enabled him to differentiate between different economic systems (56). Wagner-Hasel convincingly demonstrates why Bücher should not be forgotten for his role in the discussion of the gift: "…Bücher pre-formulated the obligatory character of giving, a fact Marcel Mauss did not tire to emphasize" (58).

Like the editors, Wagner-Hasel espouses the view that any claim to a 'great transformation' in the history of gift-giving – be it with respect to the rise of Christianity or with regard to a divide between the ancient and modern worlds – fails to pay heed to the diversity of the evidence: "To understand ancient gift-giving practices we should forget all these ideas of a fixed kind of giving with common features and become aware of the plurality of gift giving in former societies" (65). Voiced in different ways this view runs as a red thread throughout the book.

A decisive figure in recent discussions of the gift has been Marcel Hénaff. In the article "Is There Such a Thing as a Gift Economy?" (pp. 71-84), he problematises the question whether a gift economy exists at all. He takes up the question by paying close attention to ceremonial gift exchange and comes to three important and interrelated conclusions. Firstly, the exchange of ceremonial gifts leads to human reciprocal recognition. Secondly, this awareness supported by the exchange leads to acceptance and establishment of a state of peace. Thirdly, the exchange of precious objects causes a mutual recognition between the parties involved. Following these observations, Hénaff resumes the over-all question of the essay and emphasises how it gives rise to confusion when ceremonial gift-exchange is mistaken for gifts given out of solidarity as in charity gifts. Although the latter may be termed a gift economy in the sense that it involves non-profitable exchanges, it has nothing to do with ceremonial gift exchange, since such exchanges "…are primarily commitments through precious goods that serve as symbols, whereas economic activity involves commercial goods that are primarily useful" (77). Hénaff is right in giving emphasis to the difference between the two, but is it entirely unthinkable that the former may be seen as a ritual stabilization of the latter, which would allow for the perpetual river-run of economically based exchanges?

Another thought-provoking essay is Konraad Verboven's on "'Like a Bait on a Hook': Ethics, Etics and Emics of Gift-Exchange in the Roman World" (pp. 135-153). He argues that the explanatory power of the gift-giving concept has been exaggerated and surmises that in several instances gift-giving "was no more than a symbolic frame of reference actively used to justify social claims and actions that had little to do with gift-exchange as such" (153). Verboven also emphasises how gift-giving should not be studied per se but in relation to other institutions such as markets, money, law, political assemblies, etc. (142). Ultimately, he concludes that from an etic perspective gift-exchange served primarily to facilitate interaction in an economic context and in a milieu characterised by the absence of bureaucratic procedures (147). At the emic level of analysis, however, gift-giving was assigned to institutional arrangements that were definitely not based on reciprocity (149).

Verboven's study is one among several that touch upon the institution of euergetism. This question is also dealt with in the article by Lucia Cecchet on "Gift-Giving to the Poor in the Greek World" (pp. 157-179), in Sabien Colpaert's contribution on "Euergetism and the Gift" (pp. 181-201), and in Lellia Cracco Ruggini's examination "From Pagan to Christian Euergetism" (pp. 203-212). Much is to be learned from these essays. Colpaert, for instance, in continuity of Ileana Silber, 2 places emphasis on the difference in approach between Mauss' general study of gift-giving and Paul Veyne's 'thick description' of euergetism, in which Veyne makes it patently clear that "il n'existe pas de modèle general au niveau du vécu."3 As already mentioned this is a main point in several essays of the book.

How much can one allow oneself to give to the other without causing social embarrassment and exemplifying economic irresponsibility and prodigal behaviour? This question is analysed by Marta García Morcillo in her essay on "Limiting Generosity: Conditions and Restrictions on Roman Donations" (pp. 241-266) in which she discusses limits of generosity. She comes to the conclusion that patrimonial ideology sets the real limits of generosity in ancient Rome (263). In the same vein, Irene Berti highlights the question of how much should be donated to the gods in a study on "Value for Money: Pleasing the Gods and Impressing Mortals in the Archaic and Early Classical Age" (pp. 289-313). She concludes that the god "returned (or not!) the gifts and the favors he received from the dedicators and responded to the relation in terms of reciprocity" (309). That may well be the case, but ultimately the sacrificial system involving the gods was not one based on the raison d'être of do ut des as implied by Berti, but was rather founded on the logic of dedi quia dedisti. The gods had already given and, therefore, one should give back. Berti approves of Parker's view that the concept of charis is the key to understanding interactions between deities and humans: "It is an exchange of favors, a voluntary – even if socially prescribed – relationship of friendship. The exchange between men and gods never took place automatically, the price was never the point and the value of the exchanged goods could not be calculated in relation one to another" (309).4

Other contributors include Lucio Bertelli on gift-giving in Homer, Andreas Fleischer on the institution of the peculium, Maja Gori on metal hoards from late Bronze Age Europe as ritual gifts, Michael Satlow on markets and tithes in Roman Palestine, Luigi Canetti on Christian gifts and exchanges from late Antiquity to early Middle Ages, Luca Peyronel on the role of silver in the ancient Near East during the late Bronze Age, Thomas Blank on contestations between sophists and philosophers who did not require money for their teaching, and Filippo Carlà on gift-giving in the context of commerce of relics. These essays could also have been highlighted here. They are definitely worth reading. There is no doubt that anybody interested in the overall question of exchange in the ancient world – be it in the context of the monetary system or that of symbolic gift- giving only – should consult this anthology. Ultimately, the challenge raised by the book is to what extent these more narrowly focused studies relate to a more general human system of gift-giving: something the majority of authors defy, but to do that they must by definition rely on a conception that entails a more comprehensive concept.


1.   See also Michael Satlow (ed.), The Gift in Antiquity, Malden, MA., and Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell 2013.
2.   Ileana F. Silber, "Entre Marcel Mauss et Paul Veyne: pour une sociologie historique comparée du don," Sociologie et sociétés 36 (2004), 189-205.
3.   Paul Veyne, "Panem et circenses: l'évergétisme devant les sciences humaines," AnnESC 14 (1969), 785-825, 788f.
4.   Robert Parker, "Pleasing Thighs: Reciprocity in Greek Religion," in Christopher Gill, Norman Postlethwaite, and Richard Seaford (eds.), Reciprocity in Ancient Greece, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1998, 105-25, 118f

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