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Feasting in the ancient Greek world: negotiating institutional innovation

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Feasting in the ancient Greek world: negotiating institutional innovation

The theme Anchoring innovation in polis institutions comprises four projects in the domain of Politics (listed here as a, b, c and d) which also support the strategic theme Institutions: understanding the dynamics of open societies. Between ca. 800 and 300 BCE, the Greek poleis developed into a network of small-scale but resilient and politically self-conscious political units spanning the entire ancient Mediterranean world. In a relatively short time span most poleis developed into societies based on pluralistic institutions with various degrees of access, stable legal procedures, a quite high level of shared knowledge and some redistribution of wealth among the citizen population. Polis institutions were typically embedded, embodying the coherence of social, economic, religious and political interests of the polis in various ways. In response to both external and internal pressures, institutional innovation took place continuously, but innovation itself was not considered a social good; to be acceptable, institutional change needed to be anchored in existing values and structures. The four projects examine how such processes of institutional innovation came about.

Feasting in the ancient Greek world

In the ancient world, feasts were the crucial place where institutional innovation was negotiated, expressed and disseminated. Feasts, which mark the rhythm of the seasons, the

life cycles of individuals and the (re-) configuration of communities, provide venues for social cohesion and exclusion, formal and informal authority and economic redistribution. Comparative anthropological and historical analysis illuminates how feasts act as a driving force of social interaction, with the communal consumption of food and drink serving as a tool for status negotiation. Social change was reflected in the way feasts were organized with respect to consumption patterns and the rituals conducted. Since such elements of change were incorporated organically and almost imperceptively into the largely traditional frameworks of the feasts, public feasts were the place par excellence where institutional innovation could be anchored.