Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


8 August 2016

‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’: reciprocity in Mycenaean political economies

Daniel J. Pullen Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 29.1 (2016): 78-88


Reciprocity has seen much less attention by Aegean archaeologists than other economic concepts such as redistribution, largely because of an assumption that reciprocity is characteristic of ‘egalitarian’ or less developed societies, as well as a related interest in political economies of more complex (palatial) societies, which are assumed to be characterized by redistribution. In Aegean archaeology, consideration of reciprocity is usually limited to gift exchange, either royal in the context of Late Bronze Age interactions with other societies in the eastern Mediterranean, or among elites in a Homeric model. Yet reciprocity has great potential to help us understand better the political economies and social organization of the Late Bronze Age Aegean. Reciprocity encompasses the social dynamics of any exchange between individuals and how these social relationships form the structure of social organization. Of particular interest here is how the standard categories of reciprocity—that is generalized (gift exchange), balanced (trade or immediate discharge of debt), and negative (one-sided benefit)—are manipulated through strategies such as competitive generosity and asymmetrical exchanges, leading to indebtedness of one exchange partner to the other; this can be institutionalized into hierarchical social structures. Feasting is one important category of exchange that can result in asymmetrical relationships and social inequality, and the Mycenaean evidence allows us to examine feasting in detail. Recent work in Linear B texts has suggested that palatial elites manipulated reciprocity through feasting as a strategy for maintaining social and political power. Likewise, elites utilized gifts of prestige items within their own polities to forge alliances and maintain social power.


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