Research Seminar Review of ‘The Cartel: A model for socio-political organization in Archaic Greece’

Written by Lisa Doyle

This lecture by Professor Gunnar Seelentag took place on 17 October 2018. In what was quite an information-heavy presentation, Professor Seelentag informed us of his objective to understand the emergence and development of political institutions in seventh and sixth centuries BC, and the role the dynamics of competitive behaviour played in the process. His approach to this topic was to employ the socio-political model of cartel formation, in the hope that this model will explain various manifestations of institutionalisation in different fields.

He began with a description of the necessary building blocks needed for cartel formation, drawing on the theories of G. Simmel in describing decision-making situations where several participants influence each other and where competition is a means to make social connections. Seelentag argued that the socio-political environment of polis was home to such conditions. I would suggest, however, that this theory is applicable not only to the archaic polis, but indeed to many other civilisations and cities throughout antiquity.

Next, he explained the main traits of cartel-formation in Archaic Greece. Firstly, Seelentag made a point of emphasising the socio-political mobility of the time. However, when he moved on to clarify the criteria for inclusion into the cartel, things got a bit confusing. In an effort to explain these specific criteria, he claimed that they were fluid and subject to change. This gave off the impression that there were indeed no set criteria at all. This problem was also reflected in his description of the appropriate size of the cartel. His explanation was thus; when an individual is successful in entering into a cartel, he wants to secure his position in the group and close the circle after himself in order to limit the size of the cartel. But, in order for the cartel to maintain a competitive stance, it needs to be large, with the right amount of members. From my perspective, one part of this statement negates the other.

As he proceeded with his description of the traits of cartel formation, the primary sources Seelentag utilized seemed, at times, a bit random. His evidence ranged from Homer to Herodotus, Theognis to the Tomb of Megas. Although these examples seemed to illustrate his points, I feel there could have been more structure in how he chose to present his evidence. As his objective with this subject is to write a book, perhaps that will be a good opportunity to do so. For the purposes of this research seminar, however, the presentation was a little confusing.

As the discussion progressed from cartel formation, through to the structural instability of the cartel, and finishing with the signs for cartel co-operation, one came away with the impression that his theory may certainly be applicable to the poleis of Archaic Greece, but that it is not unique to Archaic Greece. Perhaps, in his development of this research, Prof. Seelentag will establish a more secure correlation with the archaic polis.


Image: View from Philopappos Hill in Athens — Acropolis of Athens

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