Two books have helped my understanding of humanity. One is by Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into The Forces of History (1995) which I’ve blogged about here. The second is by David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) with its brilliant introduction.
Bloom shows us that first and foremost we must understand our own animal biology in order to understand humanity and war.
Graeber takes the analysis the next step. He shows us how to understand humanity via the tight nexus between the oppression of women, warrior cultures, slavery, money and economies. Did you know, for example, that veiling of women was begun by the Greeks, those paragons of Western Culture. It’s worth quoting him beginning at page 186:
The world of the Homeric epics is one dominated by heroic warriors who are disdainful of trade. In many ways, it is strikingly reminiscent of medieval Ireland. Money existed, but it was not used to buy anything; important men lived their lives in pursuit of honor, which took material form in followers and treasure. Treasures were given as gifts, awarded as prizes, carried off as loot.56 This is no doubt how timí [τιμή] first came to mean both “honor” and “price” — in such a world, no one sensed any sort of contradiction between the two.57
All this was to change dramatically when commercial markets began to develop two hundred years later. Greek coinage seems to have been first used mainly to pay soldiers, as well as to pay fines and fees and payments made to and by the government, but by about 600 BC, just about every Greek city-state was producing its own coins as a mark of civic independence. It did not take long, though, before coins were in common use in everyday transactions. By the fifth century, in Greek cities, the agora, the place of public debate and communal assembly, also doubled as a marketplace.
One of the first effects of the arrival of a commercial economy was a series of debt crises, of the sort long familiar from Mesopotamia and Israel. “The poor,” as Aristotle succinctly put it in his Constitution of the Athenians, “together with their wives and children, were enslaved to the rich.”58 Revolutionary factions emerged, demanding amnesties, and most Greek cities were at least for a while taken over by populist strongmen swept into power partly by the demand for radical debt relief. The solution most cities ultimately found, however, was quite different than it had been in the Near East. Rather than institutionalize periodic amnesties, Greek cities tended to adopt legislation limiting or abolishing debt peonage altogether, and then, to forestall future crises, they would turn to a policy of expansion, shipping off the children of the poor to found military colonies overseas. Before long, the entire coast from Crimea to Marseille was dotted with Greek cities, which served, in turn, as conduits for a lively trade in slaves.59 The sudden abundance of chattel slaves, in turn, completely transformed the nature of Greek society. First and most famously, it allowed even citizens of modest means to take part in the political and cultural life of the city and have a genuine sense of citizenship. But this, in turn, drove the old aristocratic classes to develop more and more elaborate means of setting themselves off from what they considered the tawdriness and moral corruption of the new democratic state.
When the curtain truly goes up on Greece, in the fifth century, we find everybody arguing about money. For the aristocrats, who wrote most of the surviving texts, money was the embodiment of corruption. Aristocrats disdained the market. Ideally, a man of honor should be able to raise everything he needed on his own estates, and never have to handle cash at all.60 In practice, they knew this was impossible. Yet at every point they tried to set themselves apart from the values of the ordinary denizens of the marketplace: to contrast the beautiful gold and silver beakers and tripods they gave one another at funerals and weddings with the vulgar hawking of sausages or charcoal; the dignity of the athletic contests for which they endlessly trained with commoners’ vulgar gambling; the sophisticated and literate courtesans who attended to them at their drinking clubs, and common prostitutes (porme) — slave-girls housed in brothels near the agora, brothels often sponsored by the democratic polis itself as a service to the sexual needs of its male citizenry. In each case, they placed a world of gifts, generosity, and honor above sordid commercial exchange.61
This resulted in a slightly different play of push and pull than we saw in Mesopotamia. On the one hand, we see a culture of aristocratic protest against what they saw as the lowly commercial sensibilities of ordinary citizens. On the other hand, we see an almost schizophrenic reaction on the part of the ordinary citizens themselves, who simultaneously tried to limit or even ban aspects of aristocratic culture and to imitate aristocratic sensibilities. Pederasty is an excellent case in point here. On the one hand, man-boy love was seen as the quintessential aristocratic practice — it was the way, in fact, that young aristocrats would ordinarily become initiated into the privileges of high society. As a result, the democratic polis saw it as politically subversive and made sexual relations between male citizens illegal. At the same time, almost everyone began to practice it.
The famous Greek obsession with male honor that still informs so much of the texture of daily life in rural communities in Greece hearkens back not so much to Homeric honor but to this aristocratic rebellion against the values of the marketplace, which everyone, eventually, began to make their own.62 The effects on women, though, were even more severe than they had been in the Middle East. Already by the age of Socrates, while a man’s honor was increasingly tied to disdain for commerce and assertiveness in public life, a woman’s honor had come to be defined in almost exclusively sexual terms: as a matter of virginity, modesty, and chastity, to the extent that respectable women were expected to be shut up inside the household and any woman who played a part in public life was considered for that reason a prostitute, or tantamount to one.63 The Assyrian habit of veiling was not widely adopted in the Middle East, but it was adopted in Greece. As much as it flies in the face of our stereotypes about the origins of “Western” freedoms, women in democratic Athens, unlike those of Persia or Syria, were expected to wear veils when they ventured out in public.64
Money, then, had passed from a measure of honor to a measure of everything that honor was not. To suggest that a man’s honor could be bought with money became a terrible insult — this despite the fact that, since men were often taken in war or even by bandits or pirates and held for ransom, they often did go through dramas of bondage and redemption not unlike those experienced by so many Middle Eastern women. One particularly striking way of hammering it home — actually, in this case, almost literally — was by branding ransomed prisoners with the mark of their own currency, much as if today some imaginary foreign kidnapper, after having received the ransom money for an American victim, made a point of burning a dollar sign onto the victim’s forehead before returning him.65
One question that isn’t clear from all this is, Why? Why had money, in particular, become such a symbol of degradation? Was it all because of slavery? One might be tempted to conclude that it was: perhaps the newfound presence of thousands of utterly degraded human beings in ancient Greek cities made any suggestion that a free man (let alone a free woman) might in any sense be bought or sold particularly insulting. But this is clearly not the case. Our discussion of the slave money of Ireland showed that the possibility of the utter degradation of a human being was in no sense a threat to heroic honor — in a way, it was its very essence. Homeric Greeks do not appear to have been any different. It seems hardly coincidental that the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles that sets off the action of the Iliad, generally considered to be the first great work of Western literature, is a dispute over honor between two heroic warriors over the disposition of a slave girl.66 Agamemnon and Achilles were also well aware that it would only take an unfortunate turn in battle, or perhaps a shipwreck, for either of them to wind up as a slave. Odysseus barely escapes being enslaved on several occasions in the Odyssey. Even in the third century AD, the Roman emperor Valerian (253-260 AD), defeated at the Battle of Edessa, was captured and spent the last years of his life as the footstool that the Sassanian emperor Shapur I used to mount his horse. Such were the perils of war. All this was essential to the nature of martial honor. A warrior’s honor is his willingness to play a game on which he stakes everything. His grandeur is directly proportional to how far he can fall.
Was it, then, that the advent of commercial money threw traditional social hierarchies into disarray? Greek aristocrats often spoke this way, but the complaints seem rather disingenuous. Surely it was money that allowed such a polished aristocracy to exist in the first place.67 Rather, the thing that really seemed to bother them about money was simply that they wanted it so much. Since money could be used to buy just about anything, everybody wanted it. That is: it was desirable because it was non-discriminating. One could see how the metaphor of the porne might seem particularly appropriate. A woman “common to the people” — as the poet Archilochos put it — is available to everyone. In principle, we shouldn’t be attracted to such an undiscriminating creature. In fact, of course, we are.68 And nothing was both so undiscriminating, and so desirable, as money. True, Greek aristocrats would ordinarily insist that they were not attracted to common porne, and that the courtesans, flute-girls, acrobats, and beautiful boys that frequented their symposia were not really prostitutes at all (though at times they also admitted that they really were), they also struggled with the fact that their own high-minded pursuits, such as chariot-racing, outfitting ships for the navy, and sponsoring tragic dramas, required the exact same coins as the ones used to buy cheap perfume and pies for a fisherman’s wife — the only real difference being that their pursuits tended to require a lot more of them.69
We might say, then, that money introduced a democratization of desire. Insofar as everyone wanted money, everyone, high and low, was pursuing the same promiscuous substance. But even more: increasingly,they did not just want money. They needed it. This was a profound change. In the Homeric world, as in most human economies, we hear almost no discussion of those things considered necessary to human life (food, shelter, clothing) because it is simply assumed that everybody has them. A man with no possessions could, at the very least, become a retainer in some rich man’s household. Even slaves had enough to eat.70 Here too, the prostitute was a potent symbol for what had changed, since while some of the denizens of brothels were slaves, others were simply poor; the fact that their basic needs could no longer beaken for granted were precisely what made them submit to others’ desires. This extreme fear of dependency on others’ whims lies at the basis of the Greek obsession with the self-sufficient household.
All this lies behind the unusually assiduous efforts of the male citizens of Greek city-states — like the later Romans — to insulate their wives and daughters from both the dangers and the freedoms of the marketplace. Unlike their equivalents in the Middle East, they do not seem to have offered them as debt pawns. Neither, at least in Athens, was it legal for the daughters of free citizens to be employed as prostitutes.71 As a result, respectable women became invisible, largely removed from the high dramas of economic and political life.72 If anyone was enslaved for debt, it was normally the debtor. Even more dramatically, it was ordinarily male citizens who accused one another of prostitution — with Athenian politicians regularly asserting that their rivals, when they were young boys being plied with gifts from their male suitors, were really trading sex for money, and hence deserved to lose their civic freedoms.73
56. On Homeric honor: Finley 1954:118-19, Adkins 1972:14-16 Seaford 1994:6-7. Cattle are again the main unit of account, and silver. Is also apparently used As Classicists have noted, the only actual acts of buying and selling in the Homeric epics are with foreigners (Von Reden 1995:58-76, Seaford 2004:26-30, Finley 1954:67-70). Needless to say, Homeric society lacked the legalistic precision of the Irish notion of “honor price” but the principles were broadly the same, since time could mean not only “honor” but “penalty” and “compensation.”
57. timí [τιμή] is not used for the “price” of commodities in the Iliad or the Odyssey, but then prices of commodities are barely mentioned. It is, however, used for “compensation,” in the sense of wergeld or honor-price (Seaford 2oo4:i98n46). The first attested use of timí [τιμή] as purchase price is in the slightly later Homeric Hymn to Demeter (132) where, as Seaford notes, it seems significant that in fact it refers to a slave.
58. Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 2.2. He is referring to the great crisis leading to Solon’s reforms, the famous “shaking off of burdens” of c. 594 BC.
59. Greek chattel slavery was in fact much more extreme than anything that appears to have existed in the ancient Near East at the time (see e.g., Westermann 1955; Finley 1974, 1981; Wiedemann 1981; Dandamaev 1984; Westbrook 1995), not only because most Near Eastern “slaves” were not technically slaves at all but redeemable debt pawns, who therefore at least in theory could not be arbitrarily abused, but because even those who were absolute private property had greater rights.
60. “Self-sufficiency is an end and what is best” (Aristotle Politics 1256-58; see Finley 1974:109-11, Veyne 1979, for classic discussions of what this meant in practice.)
61. The argument here follows Kurke 2002. On the public brothels, see Halperin 1990, Kurke 1996. There actually were Temple prostitutes in Greece too, mostly famously in Corinth, where Strabo (8.6.20) claimed that the Temple of Aphrodite owned a thousand of them, apparently, slaves who had been dedicated to the temple by pious worshippers.
62. As noted in the quote from David Sutton (2004) above. For a sampling of the anthropological literature on honor in contemporary Greek society, see: Campbell 1964, Peristiany 1965, Schneider 1971, Herzfeld 1980, 1985, Just 2001.
63. On the impropriety of women’s work outside the household, see Brock 1994. On segregation of women in general: Keuls 1985, Cohen 1987, Just 1989, Loraux 1993.
64. The evidence is overwhelming, but until recently has been largely ignored. Llewellyn- Jones (2003) notes that the practice began as an aristocratic affectation, but that by the fifth century, all respectable women “were veiled daily and routinely, at least in public or in front of non-related men” (ibid:i4).
65. van Reden 1997:174, referencing Herodotus 7.233, Plutarch’s Pericles, 26.4.
66. A woman who one of them, Achilles, had personally reduced to slavery. Briseis was from the Trojan town of Lyrnessus, and after Achilles killed her husband and three brothers in the Greek attack on the town, she was awarded to him as a prize. (On learning of this, her father later hanged himself.) In the Iliad, Achilles insists he loves her. Briseis’ opinions were not considered worth recording, though later poets, uncomfortable with the idea that the greatest epic of antiquity was a celebration of simple rape, concocted a story whereby Briseis had actually long been in love with Achilles from afar, and somehow manipulated the course of events so as to cause the battle to begin
67. Homeric warriors weren’t really aristocrats at all, or if they were, as Calhoun puts it (1934:308) they were aristocrats “only in the loosest sense of the word.” Mostly they were just a collection of local chieftains and ambitious warriors.
68. See Kurke 1997:112-13, 1999:197-98 for Greek elaborations on the theme. So too Seaford: “Whereas the Homeric gift is invested with the personality of its heroic donor, the only kind of person that money resembles is the prostitute. For Shakespeare it is ‘the common whore of all mankind'” (2002:156, emphasis in the original. For what it’s worth, Seaford is slightly off here: Shakespeare described the earth as the “common whore of all mankind,” whose womb produces gold, which is money [Timon of Athens 4.3.42-45].)
69. Seaford 2002 in his review of Kurke notes that Greek sources regularly go back and forth on this.
70. In the Odyssey (11.488-91), famously, Achilles, when trying to invoke the lowest and most miserable person he can possibly imagine, invokes not a slave but a thete, a mere laborer unattached to any household.
71. Free porne were always the daughters of foreigners or resident aliens. So, incidentally, were the aristocrats’ courtesans.
72. The reader will observe that even in the anecdotes that follow, women simply don’t appear. We have no idea who Polemarchus’ wife was.
73. Recall here that pederasty was technically against the law. Or, to be more exact, for a man to submit to the passive role in sodomy was illegal; one could be stripped of one’s citizenship for having done so. While most adult men were involved in love affairs with boys, and most boys with men, all did so under the pretense that no intercourse was actually taking place; as a result, almost anyone could be accused of former impropriety. The most famous case here is Aeschines’ Against Timarchus (see van Reden 2003:120-23, also Dillon 2003:117-28.) Exactly the same dilemmas resurface in Rome, where Cicero, for instance, accused his rival Marc Antony of having once made his living as a male prostitute (Philippics 2.44-45), and Octavian, the later Augustus, was widely reputed to have “prostituted” himself, as a youth, to Julius Caesar, among other powerful patrons (Suetonius Augustus 68).