friendship, ritualized

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A bond of trust, imitating kinship and reinforced by rituals, generating affection and obligations between individuals belonging to separate social units. In Greek sources this bond is called xenia; in Latin, hospitium. The individuals joined by the bond (usually men of roughly equal social status) are said to be each other's xenos or hospes. As the same terms designated guest–host relationships, xenia and hospitium have sometimes been interpreted as a form of hospitality. Xenia, hospitium, and hospitality do overlap to some extent, but the first two relationships display a series of additional features which assimilate them into the wider category called in social studies ritualized personal relationships, or pseudo‐kinship. The analogy with kinship did not escape the notice of the ancients themselves.

A lexicographer defined xenos as ‘a friend from abroad’, and this definition holds good for Roman hospes: a ritualized friendship pair could consist of an Athenian and a Spartan, or a Roman and an Epirote, but very rarely consisted of two Athenians or two Romans. From its first appearance in Homer onwards, ritualized friendship has been abundantly attested in both Greek and Latin sources from all periods and areas of classical antiquity.

One feature that ritualized friendship shared with kinship was the assumption of perpetuity: once the relationship had been established, the bond was believed to persist in latent form even if the partners did not interact with one another. This assumption had two practical consequences. First, the bond could be renewed or reactivated after years had elapsed, a variety of symbolic objects signalling that it once existed. Secondly, the bond did not expire with the death of the partners themselves, but outlived them, passing on in the male line to their descendants. The beginning of the relationship had to be marked with a ceremony, as did the reactivation of a relationship after many years. The rites of initiation into xenia and hospitium consisted of a diversity of symbolic elements enacted in sequence: a solemn declaration (‘I make you my xenos’, and ‘I accept you’), an exchange of symbolic gifts (see gift, greece), a handshake, and finally feasting.

Ritualized friends were, by virtue of their prescribed duties, veritable co‐parents. A xenos or hospes was supposed to show a measure of protective concern for his partner's son, to help him in any emergency, and to save his life. Acc. to Euripides' Electra and Orestes, Orestes was brought up, following the murder of Agamemnon, in the household of Agamemnon's xenoi. Neglect of co‐parental duties was strongly disapproved of. Betrayal of ritualized friendship in general sometimes appears as a sin against the gods.

Ritualized friendship was an upper‐class institution in both Greece and Rome. The people involved in it belonged to a small minority, renowned for their wealth and identified by lofty titles such as ‘hero’, ‘tyrant’, ‘satrap’, ‘nobleman’, ‘consul’, ‘governor’, ‘emperor’. Throughout antiquity, such people lent each other powerful support, often at the expense of their inferiors, so often that ritualized friendship may be regarded as a tool for perpetuating class distinctions. The forms of mutual support practised included the exchange of valuable resources (e.g. money, troops, or corn), usually called ‘gifts’, and the performance of important services, usually called ‘benefactions’ (see euergetism). The circulation of these goods and services created networks of ritualized friendship. The Greek and Roman worlds differed markedly in how these informal networks were integrated into their wider political systems.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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