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Golden Fetters and Economies of Cultural Exchange

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image of Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions

In W. Burkert's Orientalizing Revolution, itinerant craftsmen and other specialists moving from East to West are the primary vector for the movement of Near Eastern ideas and practices to the Greek world in the archaic period. In this model, the incentive for movement is a choice between western economic freedom and the despotism of eastern palace-centered economies. When set in the context of theoretical debates over the ancient economy, and particularly the important studies of C. Grottanelli and C. Zaccagnini on the mobility of specialists, Burkert's model appears to accept that modern divisions between eastern and western economies were also salient for ancient actors. This supposition is tested through a reexamination of Herodotus' story of the Greek doctor Democedes and the golden fetters awarded to him by Darius (Histories 3.125, 129-137). Though Herodotus uses the symbol of "golden fetters" as a focal point for the construction of cultural difference, parallel Greek and Egyptian evidence of specialists in royal service suggests that such gifts could also function as cross-cultural prestige items, and that the royal economies in which they circulated could facilitate and even stimulate the adoption and dissemination of notionally foreign ideas and practices.


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