Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.44

Michael L. Satlow (ed.), The Gift in Antiquity. The ancient world: comparative histories.   Malden, MA; Oxford:  Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.  Pp. xii, 255.  ISBN 9781444350241.  $109.95.  

Reviewed by Filippo Carlà​, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz​ (


Since the publication of M. Mauss‘ The Gift in 1923-1924, the topic of gift giving and gift exchange has never ceased to attract the attention of scholars from the most disparate fields. Classicists, too, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, produced a great deal of work on the gift in ancient societies. 1 Some decades after this first flourishing, a new abundance of publications has recently appeared, on the gift in Antiquity, Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. 2 Theory in the field has now moved rejected or nuanced some of its original concepts, including the idea that primitive ‘gift economy’ preceded the rise of commerce and market exchange, and cruder versions of a “Great Divide” between gift and market economies. Recent work now emphasizes the omnipresence of the gift across different social, economic and cultural contexts; its specific relations to various forms of “capital”; and, within one and the same society, the distinctive roles of the gift and its interaction with other forms of exchange.

In the context of this thriving discussion, a conference was organized at Brown University in 2010 under the title “The Gift in Antiquity”, with the aim of better understanding gift in ancient cultural, social, economic and even personal contexts (e.g, in relationship to age and gender). This thin, but extremely dense volume, edited by M. L. Satlow, presents the conference’s proceedings. The editor’s introduction (pp. 1-11) insists on the necessity of reading the gift, with its problematic definition, from a juridical perspective as well. The gift must be seen every time in its social and cultural dimension, with special consideration of the forms of expectation that it causes and the productive tension generated by them in their comparison to reality. Satlow strongly underlines the special importance of the gift as discourse, rather than as mere form of exchange, the difference between different sorts of gifts, and poses these two aspects, together with the necessity of interpreting the gift as social fact and the problem of correctly analyzing the intersections between gift giving and the religious sphere, at the center of the volume.

The problem of the definition of 'gift' is also the topic of M. Hénaff’s paper, “Ceremonial Gift-Giving: The Lessons of Anthropology from Mauss and Beyond” (pp. 12-24). The author, one of the leading figures in the discussion,3 concentrates in particular on the obligation of reciprocation, which was postulated in Mauss’ definition. Hénaff demonstrates that reciprocity is necessary only in the ‘ceremonial gift’, which he distinguishes from ‘gracious gift’ and ‘mutual aid’: void of economic aims; the first expresses mutual recognition and absolves a function covered otherwise by political and legal institutions. In this sense, Hénaff rejects once again the concept of a ‘gift economy’ in favor of a clear distinction of different kind of gifts existing together with other forms of passages of property.

The following contributions deal with different aspects of the ancient world. D. F. Caner (“Alms, Blessings, Offerings: The Repertoire of Christian Gifts in Early Byzantium”, pp. 25-44) focusses on the Late Antique period, often seen as a watershed in the history of the gift, since it would have seen for the first time, through the Christianization of society, the introduction of forms of pure altruism. 4 Caner reconstructs the ‘repertoire’ of gifts available in Early Byzantium and analyzes the concept of eulogia which, he shows, indicated a ‘disinterested’ gift which does not require reciprocation, with a strong religious connotation drawing on the concept of God-given superfluous materials which can therefore be given.

M. Domingo Gygax (“Gift-Giving and Power Relationships in Greek Social Praxis and Public Discourse”, pp. 45-60) analyzes the uses of the gift in discourses in Greece from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period, underlining in particular their relations to the discourses of power; in this way the democratic ‘opposition’ to gifts finds its explanation, as the change perceivable in the 4th century. Gygax can thus show that the distinction presented by Hénaff between different forms of gifts is indeed a social reality, which is not represented in discourse, where the different sub-sorts are generally all defined through one word, contributing to the complexity of gift dynamics.

Z. Crook (“Fictive Giftship and Fictive Friendship in Greco-Roman Society”, pp. 61-76) tries to overcome Mauss’ view, which he perceives as too ‘irenic’, for providing a specific model for Greco-Roman exchange. He focuses particularly on ‘fictive gifts’, which are moved by other aims but presented as such in discourse, and on the connections between gifts and the language of friendship. Crook, however, adopts ‘philosophical’ definitions of friendship—particularly Aristotle’s—to distinguish between a ‘true’ and a ‘fictive’ friend which is again only his categorization of a relationship which is presented in the sources always along the markers of philia.

Latin literary texts are in the center also of N. Coffee’s contribution (“Ovid negotiates with His Mistress: Roman Reciprocity from Public to Private”, pp. 77-95), which in many points appears to contradict Crook’s model. The author analyzes the tension between the concepts of gift and payment in erotic poetry, underlining their symbolic meaning and their affective components, particularly in the topos of the denigration of the gifts, which underlines the instrumental component of gift giving and constructs the ideal of a gift-free relationship.

The intersection between the discourses about the gift and love is central also in D. Konstan’s paper (“’Can’t Buy Me Love’: The Economy of Gifts in Amorous Relations”, pp. 96-106), which studies the blurriness of the gift-commerce distinction in connection to the representation of courtesan women, particularly exemplifying these dynamics in an accurate analysis of Terence’s Eunuchus.

S. C. Stroup (“Without Patronage: Fetishization, Representation, and the Circulation of Gift-Texts in the Late Roman Republic”, pp. 107-121) shifts the attention to particular objects, texts and books as gifts, drawing a comparison between the Hellenistic and the Roman Republican periods. It is an innovative and interesting approach, which marks the difference between forms of ‘hierarchical’ and ‘horizontal’ gifts, but which should differentiate more clearly between the gift of the text (in the form of a literary dedication) and of the book as an object; even with many points of contact, they show different forms of symbolic capital and a complete different kind of ‘public’ of reference.

N. Denzey Lewis (“Roses and Violets for the Ancestors: Gifts to the Dead and Ancient Roman Norms of Social Exchange”, pp. 122-136) faces the topic of gifts given to ‘immaterial’ beings, in this case the dead, arguing that the Romans did not believe in a possible reciprocation, and understanding these gifts rather as extensions of social life and as instruments for social relations among the living. On the one side, the article overcomes Mauss’ idea of a necessity of reciprocity, but it does so still relying too much on his approach. A reference to the unmentioned model of ‘conspicuous consumption’ would have been relevant, while, on the other side, it plays down many pieces of evidence which indeed reveal the belief in the possibility of reciprocation from the dead. The quotation from Lucian’s Charon which ridicules such beliefs is pertinent, but reveals their diffusion rather than confirming their non- existence.

K. B. Stern (“Graffiti as Gift: Mortuary and Devotional Graffiti in Late Ancient Levant”, pp. 137-157) insists on this topic, confirming in Jewish culture the lack of such reciprocity and interpreting the gifts to the dead as ‘altruistic’ gift. The accent is particularly posed on the graffiti in funerary context, and this emphasis appears problematic, since the clear absence of a transmission of property (or of a renunciation of property) makes it difficult to understand them as gifts rather than as simple acts of homage.

Archaic Greece is the topic of B. Wagner-Hasel’s article (“Marriage Gifts in Ancient Greece”, pp. 158-172), which debates dowries and the Solonian regulation, convincingly arguing that the Greek phernai do not constitute a form of dowry, but represent textiles as ‘female wealth’, used to reciprocate male gifts, and that they should be interpreted in the tradition of the Homeric bride-wealth. Solon’s regulation imposing a limit of three clothes must be understood in this sense as a way to limit the ostentation of wealth, imposing a common value in full accordance with his construction of a political koinon, while leaving open the possibility of representing social stratification in the quality of the clothes.

G. E. Gardner (“Charity Wounds: Gifts to the Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism”, pp. 173-188) focuses again on ancient Jewish culture, and particularly on the Tannaitic corpus, integrating previous research by the author about gift giving at harvest time with a reflection on the forms of charity foreseen by Rabbinic literature. Charity is represented as a form of gift without (at least immediate) compensation to avoid forms of ‘offence’ to the poor, who had still the chance to refuse it and to ‘switch’ to the form of the loan. This analysis of such a discursive strategy is highly interesting and convincing, and it would be worth proposing an enlargement of the topic through a comparison with the discourses connected to Christian alms.

A. K. Gudme (“Barter Deal or Friend-Making Gift? A Reconsideration on the Conditional Vow in the Hebrew Bible”, pp. 189-201) reopens the debate about gifts to ‘immaterial’ beings, in this case to God, applying the concept of a necessary reciprocity (which is not an equivalence) and the evocation of social bonds materialized by gifts to the form of the conditional vow in the Jewish tradition. Theoretically the contribution does not move much from Mauss, while such an approach and a topic could gain much from an explicit confrontation with the models proposed by the so-called Third Paradigm School.

I. F. Silber (“Neither Mauss, nor Veyne: Peter Brown’s Interpretative Path to the Gift”, pp. 202-220) represents rather an excursion in the field of the history of historiography, which systematizes the different formulations on gifts (never resulting in a direct treatment of the topic) which can be found in Brown’s work, particularly in reference to the ‘classical’ distinction of Christian giving from earlier forms of euergetism and to the construction of the role of bishops as recipients and redistributors. The article is not only an analysis of Brown’s statements and theories, but also a further confirmation of the fact that reciprocity and non-reciprocity are not an oppositional couple, but rather the extremes of a continuum on which the concrete praxis of gift giving can be situated.

Finally, G. Hasan-Rokem (“Gifts for God, Gifts for Rabbis: From Sacrifice to Donation in Rabbinic Tales of Late Antiquity and Their Dialogue with Early Christian Texts”, pp. 221-244) analyzes two Rabbinic texts from the perspective of the relationship between gift giving and sacrifice, arguing for an evolution of the latter into the former, understood as the ‘gift of the soul’ and as form of communal generosity to rabbis and students of the Torah.

As this presentation should have made clear, the only major problem of the volume is the fact that the sequence of the articles is not clear: they do not follow a chronological order, nor can be recognized thematic blocks justifying this order, which is not explained in the volume’s introduction. The lack of a conclusion makes it also difficult to draw together the results and novelties which abound at each page and will surely make of this volume one of the reference publications about the gift in Antiquity. Its highest merit is on the other side the great attention dedicated to the ancient Jewish culture, which has been too often neglected in this field of studies, even recently. ​


1.   E.g. I. Morris, "Gift and Commodity in Archaic Greece", in Man 21, 1986, pp. 1-17.
2.   E.g. G. Algazi et al. (edd.), Negotiating the Gift. Pre-Modern Figurations of Exchange, Göttingen 2003; H. Klinkott et al. (edd.), Geschenke und Steuern, Zölle und Tributen. Antike Abgabenformen in Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, Leiden-Boston 2007.
3.   M. Hénaff, The Price of Truth: Gift, Money and Philosophy, Stanford 2010.
4.   E.g. T. Kambourova, "Le don et l’image du souverain à Byzance ou de l’apport du don en anthropologie historique des images", in E. Magnani (Ed.), Don et sciences sociales. Théories et pratiques croisées, Dijon 2007, pp. 83-95. ​

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