The Economics of Gift Giving in "The Iliad" of Homer

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The Economics of Gift Giving in the Iliad of Homer

The exchange of property and value in the Iliad is central to its entire plot. Before the muse can sing of the “anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus,” they must first tell the story of Chryseis and her ransom. Book 9 sees an embassy approach Achilleus with an offer to reenter the battle, book 23 is splattered with various competitive prizes and book 24 sees the exchange of riches for the body of Hektor. Scattered within the remaining books are a plethora of different negotiates for goods, lives, and honor. In total, 27 different negotiations occur in the Iliad, 17 of which are successful (Wilson, 2002). These frequent negotiations and implied exchanges underpinned Greek life and something many modern readers are oblivious too.

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This paper takes a very brief, closer analysis of this social practice and how ancient Greek gifts were not completely selfless. For the modern reader, Richmond Lattimore’s translation succeeds in making spontaneous exchanges of gifts, sometimes on the open battle field, as foreign but limits itself in engaging the reader with this ancient culture. For example, upon the surprising losses of the Achaians in the first third of the epic, Agamemnon decides to offer a massive number of gifts to Achilleus to hopefully lure him to defend the ships and defeat Troy (book 9). Agamemnon on his own accord agrees that he was in the wrong (9.115) and provides enormous compensation. This arguably pivotal point in the plot of has an overwhelmingly large number of gifts, something Lattimore’s translation seems to shed positive light on. However, Agamemnon’s gifts would have not brought back the dignity that Achilleus had lost. Due to the massive abundance, they “elevate [Agamemnon’s] own prestige and put Achille[u]s under severe obligation. The offer, if accepted, would have made Agamemnon the 'winner' and would have given him power over Achille[u]s" (Donlan, 1989).

This hidden meaning of these gifts as debt, I believe is lost in Lattimore’s translation and instead, unfairly characterizes Achilleus. He complains that he is in agony “when I remember the disgrace that [Agamemnon] wrought upon me before the Argives. . . as if I were some dishonored vagabond” (9.646-648). Upon first read, this alienated Achilleus from me and created frustration as the demi-god would not fight for his own army, even after being offered repayment of unimaginable wealth. In fact, when reporting to Agamemnon, the Odysseus says “that man will no quench his anger, but still more than ever is filled with rage. He refuses you and refuses your presents” (9.678-679). Lattimore’s translation continues this perpetuation of Achilleus as morally culpable through the rhetoric of Phoenix (9.496-501) and Aias (9.628-33). Even in the face of Achilleus however, uses the same tactic to participate is acquiring a more superior status than Agamemnon in the funeral games of Patroklos (23.29, 166, 237).

At the funeral games, his large distribution of treasures as prizes may be much more egocentric than Lattimore’s translation gives the English reader. In the final game, the demi-god gives Agamemnon the top prize without a competition (23.884). Beyond just a compliment and a move towards friendship, it also signifies a debt and power that Achilleus will hold over the Shepard of the people for the rest of the epic. Between the final bestowing of prizes and being able to take Agamemnon’s gifts while entering by his own decision, "The poetic message is that Achilles emerged the ultimate winner, because he took the gifts of Agamemnon on his own terms .And then outdazzled his rival with a brilliant display of generosity" (Donlan, 1989).While the conclusion of Achilleus is perturbed, it is inevitably still a decision left to the reader. Whether the gifts were a debt or gracious offer does not detract from a moral question of when does the hero stand up and fight.

The book ends with a semblance of alliance between the two but a realization that the poet and oral culture of ancient Greece would have understood that both heroes used gifts in their war or agon over superiority is critical to submersion into the world of the Iliad. It may also influence the readers view of Agamemnon as well. The gifts catalogue seems to show an egregious character that is self-centered, especially in his self-aggrandizement. This comes notably after having his leadership challenged by Thycides and Achilleus. It is after all, an unwillingness to wait for the sacking of Troy for more women that has caused the King of Men to be impatient and take the rightful property of Achilleus. “The king [Agamemnon], however, by insisting upon immediate recompense, reveals himself to be a less discriminating agent of exchange, a fact that makes him a more unsympathetic character to an audience already alerted to the debate about his worthiness to be the leader of such a host” (Widzisz, 2012).

This fascinating cultural difference in gifting is not as foreign as we may expect. Christmas gift exchanges can create a sense of inferiority if there is an obvious awareness of value discrepancy. However, the Greek culture appears to have used this to a larger extent in the creation of power structures and even strong bonds between leaders and followers. Walter Donlan explains the commonality of gifts and dedications throughout Homer by saying “[c]eremonies of giving, especially at the elite level, convey important information about rank and prestige" (Donlan, 1989). This prestige and ability to dedicate hecatombs (literally meaning 100 oxen) displays them above ordinary men and almost to the level of heroes. Men of similar social status however, use gifts as a form of competition and designation of who is superior. When no clear differential exists, the transaction of valuables creates a specific relative social standing of the participants. The gifts or thus carry a hidden burden or weight. This logic can be applied to the small microtransaction between Glaukos and Diomedes in book six. Seeming to take character from the Odyssey and time of peace, both warriors “spr[ang] down from behind their horses” (6.234)

In the middle of battle to complete a microtransaction that has confused scholars for centuries. Zeus intervenes to steal away the “wits of Glaukos” who in turn, “exchanged with Diomedes… armor of golf for bronze, for nine oxen’s worth the worth of a hundred” (6.235-236). Some critics that I read suggested it is an intentionally humorous act in the epic. However, I believe it really focuses on this same economical approach that baffled Agamemnon and Achilleus. Rather than showing supremacy through exchanges of gifts, now valuables are demanded as a form of submission. While it could be read that Glaukos simply furnished more on purpose, and in doing so, he displayed his dominance, it seems far more likely that Diomedes was the more powerful and far superior warrior. Thus, the greater gift symbolizes submission, almost a friendly ransom. Inferably a character of wit, Zeus allowed the character to live by removing his wits and forced him to give up the armor as a truce.Furthermore, this logic can be taken analytically further by taking into account both transactors situational status.

The exchange of gifts between Aias and Hektor (7.283) before a return to camp shows an explicit use of gifts to view unequal positions of power. Hektor is combatively inferior and his own people were “made happy when they saw him coming alive and unwounded out of the combat” only to “escape” the “unconquerable hands of Aias” (7.307-310). After initiating the exchange (7.299), he gives Aias a “sword with nails of silver” along with the sheath and belt. However, in return Aias gave a war belt of seemingly much lesser value. “Ajax's answering gift is unmistakably of lesser worth than Hector's. The audience will have understood this unequal exchange as a sign of his superiority and of Hector's submissive status. The symbolic content is heightening by the fact that the unglamorous [war belt] is a purely defensive item, while the sword is the instrument of attack at close range" and when analyzing the book, all other mentions of the belt, (except 6.220) have it failing and allowing serious wounds (4.132) or death (5.539, 17.519, 20.414) (Donlan, 1989). This likewise is a gift of submission, something that personally seems foreignizing. Similar to a bully taking a child’s lunch money, this transaction seems counter intuitive to be initiated by the loser and have large valued items given without question.

Gifts and market exchanges also play a role in maintaining the divinely inspired system of leadership for the Achaian army. It is a culmination of all the inferior warriors giving gifts to their superior. This summation of war prizes and privileges given to the leader are simply an exhibition of his power and dominance. However, the Greek army is not that of a war monger that demands tribute but more of a quizi-oligarchy that also provides some benefits to the warriors. While miniscule in comparison to the lines of soldiers lost, there is conversely somewhat of an obligation of the subjects to the king or [image: βασιλεύς ]that demands bounty from sacked cities also flow downward. His superiority demands he also give these gifts and provide riches to the army that has won him the war. This supply and demand from both sides creates a mutual marketplace and system of exchanges. Donlan argues that “this continuous flow of mutual exchanges forms a system of reciprocities. This system is the economics of the highly personal leader-people relationship.

A reputation for generosity was an essential element of the political control of a of [image: βασιλεύς ]” (Donlan, 1989). This too is very foreignizing at a personal level but actually corresponds quite symmetrical to our government at a macro level. Our democracy takes place in the markets thanks to an upward flow of services and possessions (taxes) and in response, just like for the Achaians, downward riches should matriculate (welfare and protection). Extrapolating the somewhat foreign concepts and internalizing them provides a much more relatable engagement with the work of Lattimore. However, some topics that were natural and regular for the Greek marketplace are now completely foreign and unconscionable such as valuing a skilled woman at 1/3 of a tripod (metal stand), Object Value Location in book All-Golden Tassels 100 oxen 2.104: Object being held by Athene Gold Armor 100 oxen 2.236: Diomedes gets from Glaukos Bronze Amor 9 Oxen 2.236 Glaukos gets from Diomedes Great tripod, to set over fire 12 Oxen 23.703 Prizes for wrestling Woman skilled in much work of her hands 4 Oxen 23.704 Runner-up prize Unfired cauldron with flowers on it 1 Ox Mixing bowl of silver, very intricate > 1 ox 23. 741

First prize for foot race Half a talent’s weight of gold < 1 ox 23.751 Third place for foot raceFinally, I feel that this paper would be incomplete if it didn’t include the exchange of gifts between the mortal and the divine. Nicholas Boterf Professor of Classics at Stanford explains that heroes in Homeric Epics performed extremely large sacrifices. Writing about the Odyssey, he says, “Within the poems themselves, Odysseus owns 12 herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs (Od. 14.100-102). So a sacrifice of even a single cattle was a far from insignificant piece of outlay” (Boterf, 2012).Overall, Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad successful foreignizes many aspects of the gift exchanges and sacrifices to a modern-day reader. The Greek marketplace appears to be focused on the establishment and building of long-term family relations rather than benefits from one individual trade. In this Greek "gift economy," many distinctions are seen from America’s often egocentric focus on giving. Critical to the readers emersion in the book is an understanding that the “highest premium is placed on generosity and display; superiority in gift-giving equates to superiority in social prestige” (Donlan, 1989).

Works Cited:

Boterf, N. (2012, January 25). How much did a cow cost in Homer's time? Retrieved September 20, 2018, from Quora:

Donlan, W. (1989). The Unequal Exchange between Glaucus and Diomedes in LIght of the Homeric Gift-Economy. Phoenix, 43(1), 1-15. Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

Sammons, B. (2008). Gift, List & Stroy in Illiad 9.115-61. The Classical Journal, 103(4), 353-379. Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

The Iliad of Homer. (2011). (R. Lattimore, Trans.) London: The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved September 19, 2018

Widzisz, M. (2012). Timing Reciprocity in the Iliad. Project Muse, 45(2), 153-175. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

Wilson, D. F. (2002). Ransom, revenge and heroic identity in the Iliad.

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