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The Olympian Economic Alternative from Ancient Greece: A Convivial Model without Market Exchange or State Coordination

Photo of Donni Wang
Stanford University
June 2015
The ancient economy in classical studies of the last two centuries has generated great interest and enthusiasm as well as intense debate and controversy. In recent years, prevailing modes of analysis under the rubrics of “new institutionalism” and “cultural poetics” have prompted scholars to explore economic issues with either data or text. Making a U-turn from the latest precedents, my dissertation apprehends economic matters in the framework of large culture-systems that combine ideas and practice through an interplay among discourse, power, and identity. Based on such conceptualization, I argue that three distinct culture-systems shaped, overall, the economy of ancient Greece and, not the least, of Classical Athens, where most evidence has survived. Against this picture, my research focuses on Olympianism, the culture-system that envisions human society without market and state institutions, in contrast to Polisism and the market system, the other two contenders. Building upon a sacred metaphysics, Olympianism promoted and put into practice two fundamental principles: ecumenicism--the potential for all social categories to become worthy religious subjects, and conviviality--the desire for the individual and the community to coalesce in a state of mutual thriving and celebration. In some instances, however, these ideals coexisted with yet were contradicted by the acceptance of violence committed against women, slaves, and non-kin. Nevertheless, the core of Olympian values—as much as it failed to eliminate the contemporaneous sentiments of misogyny, slavery, and imperialism—manifested itself strongly in the evidence for the ancient economy, particularly with regard to property and labor. After demonstrating the economic paradigms of kleros/commons and homo faber, my study concludes that the convivial model of Olympianism thwarted the process of commodification as well as the rise of concomitant state institutions which lie at the heart of the market system and Polisism. Overall, the economy of fifth-century Athens was fractured by distinctive visions of who we are and what we ought to become, a predicament that still reverberates today.