Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.22

Alain Duplouy, Le Prestige des Élites: Recherches sur les modes de reconnaissance sociale en Grèce entre les Xe et Ve siècles avant J.-C.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2006.  Pp. 418.  ISBN 2-251-38076-0.  €37.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Timothy Power, University of Washington, Seattle (
Word count: 3498 words

Alain Duplouy's book, Le Prestige des élites: Recherches sur les modes de reconnaissance sociale en Grèce entre les Xe et Ve siècles avant J.-C., a revision of his 2003 doctoral thesis, offers a series of fresh, often provocative takes on the position and status of elites in the social structure of Greek communities from the Iron Age to the early classical period and on the nature of the various social practices and discourses that he sees as provisionally defining elite status. That last adverb is crucial to the author's arguments. The provisional, contingent, non-essentialized status of elite status and the behaviors that constitute it is his main theme, reiterated throughout the text.

For D. the only a priori in the always transformational play of forces in early Greek societies is the drive of individuals, regardless of the social status they are born into or at any one time occupy, "always to be the best and to surpass others," to use the Homeric phrase he cites programmatically early in the book. (D.'s vision of a fundamental, class- and era-transcendent Greek agonistic drive owes a debt to Nietzsche's Homer's Wettkampf, which he prefers to Burckhardt's more restricted picture of an archaic, aristocratic "age" of the agon drawn in Griechische Kulturgeschichte.) Accessing, mastering and customizing the social energies that activate and maintain prestige and distinction among one's foreign peers and fellow-citizens are the critical imperatives. Those who would be the best know that the struggle for prestige has no ossified, idealized rules of order, but is fluid and mutable in nature, and that winners must channel creatively their rage for recognition, making and remaking the rules in perpetuity, shaping them to their advantage and to the disadvantage of their rivals. Losers in the game fail through a resourcelessness born of too lazy a sense of self-importance and a lack of creative adaptation to changed social circumstances. One emblematic loser is, according to D., Theognis of Megara, whose elegies are by no means to be read as objective, normative expressions of monolithic aristocratic attitudes toward increased class mobility in the polis--an "archaic nobility on the defensive" against moneyed strivers--but rather the ranting of one individual frustrated at his inability to compete with the dynamic entrepreneurs of symbolic capital, both with-it old-line elites and savvy up-and-comers, working the system, playing the game in circles around him. Theognis constructs a fantasy world around a hereditary aristocratic ethos that has no real long-established objective correlate in society. He goes underground, retreating into socially unproductive ressentiment. This kind of negative gesture, though--and D. does slightly acknowledge this--has its own dark glamour and pleasures. The Theognidean discourse of resistance or denial was surely a seductive one, hardly isolate, as its diffusion and elaboration at symposia across time and space attest.

For D., in fact, it is a mistake to build on the commonly accepted notion of a Greek aristocracy as a static, monolithic social category strictly defined by its members' noble birth and hereditary wealth, and the political dominance these traits would more or less automatically guarantee. In the introduction and the final chapter D. lays out his objections to both ancient and modern attempts to reify a Greek aristocratic class. He dislikes the reification implicit in the very word "aristocrat" and the misleading suggestion of closed-off sociocultural uniformity in terms such as "aristocratic lifestyle." He argues instead for a more fluid, dynamic conception of elite status, as the field in which is enacted a perpetual contest for prestige potentially open to all manner of individuals deploying all manner of styles and strategies of self-promotion. It by nature resists essentialist characterizations, be they political, economic or congenital, although these may well be contingent factors capitalized upon in the strategic play of/for prestige. Successful actors entering this field do not necessarily conform to some preinstituted aristocratic hypostasis, but rather actively create or renew distinctive facets of elite identity through their individual behaviors vis-a\-vis the wider social body from which they hope to win recognition and esteem. D. quotes Fergus Millar's observation that "the emperor was what the emperor did" to illuminate his own anti-essentialist définition comportementale of elite status. Any established elite who invariably "rests on his aristocratic laurels," like Theognis, will soon lose, as far as his peers and the broader community are concerned, the esteemed rank to which he believes himself entitled.

D. devotes the bulk of Le Prestige to analyses of what he calls modes de reconnaissance sociale. The conceptualization of prestige-directed behaviors as such is to be preferred to defining them as "aristocratic practices," in the sense of status symbols that function as mere one-sided demonstrative markers of privilege. D.'s notion of modes of recognition permits a fuller, more accurate evocation of the complexity of social practice, integrating, as he puts it, "a double dimension, at once passive and active, sometimes the demonstration, sometimes the construction, of social position. The modes of social recognition are therefore all those practices that make evident the rank of the individual at the same time as they contribute to the acquisition of the prestige necessary for the ambitions of each" [30]. D. devotes the first six chapters to six such modes, focusing on their manifestations in practices and discourses attested in the literary, archaeological and epigraphical record from the tenth to the fifth centuries BCE and across a number of Greek cities and communities. D. casts his net wide, but this diverse range of epochs and places does not faze him. He has his eye on the longue durée, in which these different modes emerge as variant models, with provisional adjustments to discrete historical, local circumstances, of the same p.r. machine for advertising and (re)producing social prestige.

Chapter One ("Énoncer une ascendance") takes on the core essentialist criterion of aristocratic status, eugeneia. Claims to noble, heroic and/or divine descent were, according to D., whether in the geometric, archaic or classical period, above all part of an individual's self-valorizing strategy in the campaign for prestige. Eugeneia as such was a fluid discursive elaboration, "a concept subjectively perceived and socially constructed, well before being an institutionally recognized biological reality" [76]. D. adduces selected archaic poetry to show just how assailable or idiomatic was the ideology of noble birth during that period: Callinos and Phocylidean gnomic hexameter put it on a level with other personal and civic virtues, while Theognis elevates it above all else in a losing attempt to entrench his embattled prestige. Attic tragedy continues the debate over the value of noble birth and, as D. argues, at the same time actually contributes to the diffusion of genealogical rhetoric as a vehicle of social recognition in fifth-century Athens. This rhetoric was of course shot through with factual manipulation, self-aggrandizing fictionalization, political propaganda, though such deviations from or distortions of biological fact were not only tolerated but expected. D. discusses in detail the way creative distortions in the genealogy of Miltiades, in particular his supposed descent from Aktaios, an Athenian hero and grandfather to Salaminian Ajax, augmented the prestige of Miltiades and that of his son Cimon. The latter could exploit his own ancestral ties via Miltiades to Salamis and a heroic Athenian past in order to capitalize on Athenian political sentiments of his day, when Athens, as D. argues, was in dispute with Aegina over the possession of Salamis. In a less nuanced and ultimately less productive section--the same kind of material is more effectively covered in Chapter Three--D. turns to the dedication of ancestral statuary, a practice in which individuals materially instantiate reminders of the kleos of their forebears in order to recoup the bygone prestige for themselves. Brigitte Hintzen-Bohlen's study of politically self-legitimizing dedications by Hellenistic royalty provides the model here, though D. applies her ideas to dedications from the archaic and early classical periods. Thus the descendents of Miltiades and Themistocles attempt to manipulate public opinion by conspicuously dedicating memorials to their storied ancestors. By burnishing the controversial images of those great men they aim to bolster their own social standings in turn.

Chapter Two ("Contracter un mariage") features the richest and most suggestive argumentation in the book. Through his careful readings of primarily anecdotal texts, D. isolates the contours of the matrimonial strategies of Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Peisistratus, Cylon, Cimon and others. He examines these strategies within their wider domestic and interstate sociopolitical contexts, showing how capacious and varied a mode of social recognition marriage could be. As he puts it, "Marriage constituted at once a means of publicizing one's rank, an instrument of social promotion, a strategy of political alliance, or simply a way of attenuating tensions, of absorbing conflicts, of reintegrating a partner in the contest by leading him out of temporary social isolation" [113-14]. In his discussions D. separates civically exogamous from endogamous marriages, rightly seeing qualitatively if not quantitatively different tactics and lines of prestige operative in each. But he ultimately challenges an overly strict binary opposition between the two types, choosing rather to highlight the similarities and continuities between them. D. is especially critical of the idea that a prestige-generating aristocratic civic exogamy of the archaic age was supplanted wholly in form and effect by a less individually conspicuous, more civically mindful domestic matrimonial trend in the fifth century. Following Lynette Mitchell, who nuances the received notion that high-status xenia necessarily worked against the interests of the broad civic community, D. denies any substantial opposition between the personal motives and the popular reception of "aristocratic" exogamy and "democratic" endogamy. On the contrary, the archaic and the classical periods saw both types of marriage being exploited to similar ends, both to solidify prestigious connections abroad and to establish profitable alliances and individual/familial prestige within the city. The highlight of this chapter, though, are the detailed analyses of not only Cimon's political and financial manipulation of multiple marriages (to pay off the heavy fines levied against his father while stabilizing his own position in Athens) but also the colorful negative publicity these matrimonial strategies inspired among his rivals.

In Chapter Three ("Récupérer la mort") D. moves from weddings to funerals. He is interested not so much in the aspects of funerary practice--homage, commemoration--that are directed to the dead, but rather in the recuperation of death by family and friends and its transformation into prestige that the living themselves may enjoy. Epitaphs are the primary medium for this necessarily public process; D. speaks of the "social valorization of sentimental expression" effected by them. He begins by looking at epigrams for dead children. The death of a child is not only an occasion on which parents must meet societally expected measures of grief in order to retain their respectability, but it is also an opportunity for them to exceed these measures with conspicuously self-serving monuments that advertise and augment their own distinction. D. notes the recurrence of epigrams that shade over the identity of the dead child while emphasizing the name--and expenditure--of the parent who commissioned the funerary monument and/or identifying the renowned artisan who carried out the commission and whose fame in turn feeds the social ambitions of the surviving family. (Three epitaphs on children mention the sculptor Phaidimos, who seems to have made a name for himself in the youth burial market.) D. also considers cases where parents use funerary inscriptions to insert themselves into the kleos of children who died in battle or after winning athletic victories. Of course, children in turn seek to capitalize on the good name of dead parents, who are epigrammatically framed after death as "perfect citizens," their unimpeachable virtues guaranteeing those of the surviving members of the oikos. Recuperative strategy is also behind epigrams that indicate the deceased's friend or companion has made the expenditures for the funerary monument. D. discusses a fascinating archaic monument from the necropolis at Akraiphia. The stele depicts a nude youth holding a cock in one hand and a flower to his nose in the other. The youth, as the inscription makes clear, is the dead Mnasitheos; his monument was erected by his former erastes, Pyrrhichos, in memory of their "friendship long ago," and at some expense, as the signature of the "name" sculptor Philergos not so subtly reminds us. D. looks with characteristically dry eyes past the surface sentimentality: "If the setting up of the monument by Pyrrhichos is a demonstration of affection, we can bet that a work commissioned from Philergos also allowed him to publicize his own rank as well as that of his companion" [143]. The chapter concludes less satisfactorily with a consideration of non-familial funerary groups, in particular some burial sites located in the Kerameikos that Sanne Houby-Nielsen has suggested belonged to sympotic associations. D. makes the valid point that alongside individual or familial display and self-promotion in funerary practices a small, select group could through conspicuous burial also make distinct its prestige (and that of its members) within the larger community. But along the way he indulges in a digressive critique of Oswyn Murray's view of the symposium as an oppositional institution in the Greek city that functions as a restricted aristocratic status symbol. D. makes some worthwhile counterarguments for a more open, accessible sympotic culture, though his description of Murray's work is reductive. This is a complex subject that deserves its own chapter or article; its treatment seems reheated and out of place in this chapter.

The following three chapters are more thoroughly devoted to material culture. In Chapter Four ("Collectionner le monde") D. looks at the circulation of orientalia and the significance of these high-status goods in the burial deposits at necropolises in Lefkandi, Knossos and elsewhere. In a discussion that neatly synthesizes a wide array of archaeological data, Homeric epic and cross-cultural anthropological models via Malinowski, Appadurai and Pierre de Maret (on the African Luba society), D. shows how exotic luxury objects accrue symbolic valence, even the sort of mythic resonance we see attached to some significant objects in epic, in their circulation through privileged networks of exchange, and how this aura of distinction, the charged otherness of these objects is transformed into social recognition by the individuals who collect and display them. In the protogeometric period orientalia were material tokens of elusive and exclusive modes of access--access that was born of prestige and assured its continued vitality. In Chapters Five and Six ("S'inscrire dans l'espace" and "Rivaliser d'originalité") D. engages the politics of prestige as practiced in the commission and dedication of statuary. In both D. argues for a broad contextual approach to sculptural offerings, as modes of individual expression deployed in distinct fashion in order to make a unique impact on the dedicant's community. As its title indicates, Chapter Five deals with the social ambitions behind the emplacement of statuary in the physical landscape. D. focuses on the archaeological evidence available from archaic Samos and Miletos. In both places "certain monuments distinguished themselves from others by their singular placement in the sanctuary or territory. Situated at the entrance of the temenos [as on Samos] or along the route of processions [as in Miletus]. . . these offerings made their dedicants beneficiaries of a remarkable visibility, supplying them thus with a marvelous instrument of social recognition" [215]. Chapter Six moves from the meanings of space to those of sculptural style and form. Offerings in Miletos and Samos are again at issue. D. argues that the dedicant's choices of material, atelier (local or foreign), sculptural type and size are strategically made to rival his peers in originality. For again, the more singular the offering, the more it achieves an esthétique intrusive that will stand out in and against the local context, the more prestige it generates for its dedicant.

There is a brief conclusion in which D. reassesses the dialectic of individual and city. He denies that the dynamism of the former was progressively restricted during the rise of the latter. On the contrary, it was outstanding individuals who, in their interactions with one another, continually defined the contours of the city; it was they who were "at the very heart of the processus de genèse of cities" [292]. The final chapter ("Esquisse d'une dynamique sociale"), however, serves more properly as the conclusion to the preceding chapters. In it D. elaborates his relativistic view of an elite in "perpetual social recomposition," its provisional membership always engaged in the struggle to retain and elevate rank through the cunning deployment of modes of social recognition. This chapter prompts two minor criticisms I have of Le Prestige. First, I wish D. had considered the possibility that modes of social recognition could take far less predictably demonstrative, gregarious or "crowd-pleasing" forms. (Those are probably not the best adjectives for what I'm trying to get at.) He does acknowledge that even within the thoroughly agonistic culture of cities such as Athens there is room for what the sociologist Bernard Lahire calls "individual dissonances." That is, some individuals will inevitably avoid the mainstream avenues of the struggle for social prestige. D. writes that we should expect to find no trace of such people; sitting out the game means forfeiting the glory, falling out of history. But is that really true? Are those who avoid the usual tactics entirely socially disinterested? Could we not in fact see certain gestures of refusal to play along as alternative strategies of distinction? Is not the very pretense of transcending the game a means of winning at it according to one's own rules, a logic very much in line with the creative process of self-making described by D. himself? The case of Theognis and his sympotic reenactors mentioned above comes to mind here. Another could be that of Hippokleides of Athens, who notoriously "danced away" a prestigious marriage to the daughter of Cleisthenes of Sicyon [Herodotus 6.129]. In D.'s world Hippokleides thereby irrevocably loses prestige. But could we not see in his outrageous proto-break-dance peacocking and the supremely self-confident reaction to his dismissal (the eventually proverbial "Doesn't matter to Hippokleides!") not the blunderings of a sociopath unable to follow the rules of the game being played at the court of Cleisthenes, but rather a boldly counterintuitive promotional gambit, an assured display of a singular esthétique intrusive? Hippokleides loses the game from one point of view, but from another he wins at it through the memorably self-determined circumstances of his very loss. Despite the slanted coverage of Herodotus, could we not say that Hippokleides emerges from the Sicyonian agon with a share of kleos even more distinct than that of the second-banana bridegroom Megacles?

A second complaint. D. insists on the reality, not merely the ideology, of social mobility in archaic and classical Greece. Elite status in his view was potentially open to all who were willing to commit fully to the struggle for prestige, even as, D. admits, those born into money or fame had a clear advantage. The problem I see with even this qualified notion of open access to elite status is that the majority of the examples in the book of those who deploy the modes of social recognition come from already aristocratic/elite-identified backgrounds. D. argues that the career of Cimon, a recurring figure in Le Prestige, represents a case of social ascendancy fueled through the sheer personal mastery of public opinion and social interactions. But we should pause and consider this claim. Cimon did have some cards stacked against him from the start: he was an outsider in Athens, born of a Thracian mother and a father whose reputation and affairs ended in considerable disarray. Yet it would be naïve not to recognize that despite those obstacles Cimon was the inheritor of a considerable degree of "aristocratic" glamour and charisma that helped him on his way to the top; his exotic background might even have increased to some extent his allure. He had far more ancient prestige to recoup than the average Athenian and he had certainly grown up with a more intimate experience of what it took to win in the high-stakes competition for prestige. I wish that D. had devoted more space to the lives of men such as Socrates and Themistocles, both discussed only briefly, who through diverse strategies of self-publicization really did achieve remarkable trajectories of social ascendance. I understand too that in D.'s view there are relative instantiations of elite status along the social continuum, that even a foreign manual laborer in Athens could claim to be "the best of Phrygians" and a woodcutter without peer, as one Mannes does in his fifth-century epitaph [CEG 87]. But D. never delves into the experience of elites at the lower end of the spectrum of sociopolitical power and influence, and that is too bad.

But with these criticisms I do not wish to detract from the overall excellence of this original and well-written book. While I have no doubt that some readers will have more far more fundamental problems with its challenging theses than I, no one, I believe, will come away from it without rethinking some common assumptions about the social history of early Greece.

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