Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.19

Claude Eilers, Roman Patrons of Greek Cities.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. xiii, 334.  ISBN 0-19-924848-6.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Koenraad Verboven, Ghent University, Belgium (
Word count: 3158 words

After a decade of relative quiet, patronage is back to the fore of ancient history research. Besides Eilers' study, based on his 1993 Oxford PhD dissertation, no fewer than 4 other monographs have been published on the topic the past 2 years.1 Roman city patronage has been treated before by a number of scholars, mainly however for the western part of the empire. The hitherto only monograph on city patronage, by Harmand, dates from 1957. Eilers' study is, therefore, a welcome update on the topic.

1. Content

Eilers opens with an introduction (p. 1-18) on the concept of patronage. Roman patronage should not be seen as a vaguely defined unequal "relationship of reciprocal exchange" (p. 7) but as a specific kind of relationship, an unambiguously identifiable "social institution in which the roles of patroni and clientes were governed by societal norms" (p. 7).

Chapter 1 ("Becoming a Client", p. 19-37) examines how a patron-client relation was formed. Eilers rejects the common idea "that clientela was an automatic result of the performance of beneficia" (p. 31). According to Eilers one could become a client only in two ways: either through manumissio (leading to a patron-freedman relationship) or through "self-commendation" (what Premerstein called applicatio. By analogy with patronage over individuals, city patronage could be established either voluntarily through an act of self-commendation or involuntarily through conquest or (in the case of coloniae deductae) foundation. The former resembled the patron-client bond, the latter the patron-freedman bond.

The next chapter examines the question of "Patronage by Conquest" (p. 38-60), arguing that the institution faded shortly after the Second Punic War. Eilers shows that the alleged cases of patronage over conquered enemies in the Late Republic are all highly dubious. The latest known possible case dates to the early second century BCE. Cicero describes patronage over vanquished enemies as part of the mos maiorum, assigning it to a more or less distant past. Chapter 3 ("The Inheritance of Patronage", p. 61-83) argues against the possibility of inheriting a patron-client bond. Voluntary patronage was never automatically passed from one generation to the next, although it did create goodwill facilitating the formation of a new patron-client relation between the patron's and/or client's children. Eilers' arguments are persuasive and should settle the matter once and for all.

Chapter 4 ("What City Patrons Did", p. 84-108) deals with the value of having city patrons. Under the Republic cities expected substantial help from their patrons, mainly in the form of mediation, the exercise of influence and advocacy. In turn client cities provided various services, ranging from laudatory testimonials in court cases to political murders. The main advantage for a patron, however, was the prestige he derived from his patronage. Under the empire city patronage became "increasingly honorific and lost much of its patronal character" (p. 101). Patrons were increasingly recruited among the local elites and equestrians, who were not generally in a position to exert much influence on behalf of their clients. It has been suggested that in turn euergetism became the main obligation of city patrons. Eilers rejects this theory, arguing that patronage and euergetism were not usually overlapping categories.

Chapter 5 ("The Appearance of Patrons in the Greek East", p. 109-144) studies when and how Roman city patronage was introduced in the Greek east. According to Eilers, the event can be dated no earlier than the late second century BCE. The development may be linked to the specific provincial arrangement of Asia, giving great scope to Roman businessmen and publicans. While this led to an increased familiarity with Roman institutions such as patronage, it also caused tensions with the Roman publicani against whom the Roman governor -- with whom relations were likewise often strained -- was mostly powerless. The cities' only refuge was to appeal to the senate for relief, and access to the senate was precisely what Roman patrons had to offer.

The spread and effectiveness of senatorial city patronage in the east is the subject of chapter 6 ("Patronage of Cities in the Late Republic: Incidence and Effectiveness", p. 145-160). From early in the first century BCE onwards, senatorial patronage over Greek cities became common. Brunt argued on the basis of Cicero's Verrine orations that provincial patronage was ineffective. According to Eilers the Verrines don't support such a general conclusion. The ineffectiveness of patronal intervention in the orations is "not so much the result of a failure on the part of Sicily's patrons to act, but a sign of the singular brazenness of Verres" (p. 159). Extortion trials by their very nature force people to take sides and easily lead to conflicts of interest, but "conflicting obligations do not show that they were not taken seriously; rather they show that the system was dynamic and vital. Only real obligations can collide" (p. 159).

Chapter 7 ("The Decline of Patronage", p. 161-190) examines the decline of senatorial city patronage. From Augustus onwards the number of city patrons in the Greek east decreased. Eilers shows that the decrease occurred gradually in the early years of Augustus' principate, refuting Nicols' theory that an edict of Augustus forbidding peregrine communities from co-opting their governors as patrons was responsible. In the western provinces senatorial city patronage declined at a much slower rate. Whereas city patronage in the Greek east all but disappeared after the Julio-Claudians, in the west patronage became an honorific title, and senators were increasingly replaced as patrons by equestrians and local notables.

Eilers explains the decline by a change in senatorial attitudes. The need to impress the people and fellow senators decreased as promotion became increasingly dependent on imperial favours. Having a large clientela became potentially dangerous because it might arouse the emperor's suspicion. Consequently, for senators patronage became both irrelevant and unwelcome. At the same time, the need for cities to have senatorial patrons diminished as the emperor replaced the senate as the prime decision-maker in provincial affairs.

In his conclusions (p. 182-190) Eilers adduces some implications of his double thesis that Roman patronage was "a specific kind of relationship" and that city patronage provides an excellent starting point for analysing Roman patronage in general. Eilers argues that the ideas that the emperor was patron of all communities and inhabitants of the empire and that Rome's relations with its international allies were patronage relationships should be rejected as mere metaphors.

The conclusions are followed by 6 appendices (p. 191-292) presenting the source data for Eilers' study. The first and by far largest appendix (p. 191-268) lists 164 texts documenting Roman patronage of Greek cities in the east until the late first century CE. All texts are cited in full with an English translation, concise bibliography and a short prosopographical commentary. Apparently, Eilers limited himself to texts explicitly mentioning patrons for Dyrrhachium -- a city undoubtedly in Cicero's clientela (cf. p. 96) -- is not included in the list. The book closes with an extensive bibliography (ca. 450 titles), an index locorum (p. 315-326) and a general index (p. 327-334).

2. Conceptual framework

Before going more deeply into some of Eilers' ideas and arguments, we should first survey briefly the ambiguous conceptual framework used in research on Roman patronage for the past 20 years, because it very much affects how Eilers' book will be appreciated by other scholars.

Since the publication of Saller's Personal Patronage, scholars have been divided about how to analyse ancient patronage. Saller introduced a sociological approach, arguing that patronage should be seen as a lopsided "friendship", not as an institution of its own. Thus, the borderline between amicitia and patronage was fluid. Saller's view was taken over by many scholars but was also rejected by many who argued that it was at variance with how Romans themselves thought about patrocinium.2

Both parties tend to forget that they are simply not talking about the same thing. Patronage as a sociological concept denotes a specific type of social exchange relationship or a system based on such relationships that can be found in widely different cultures and societies throughout history under widely different names and appearances. Roman patrocinium on the other hand was a social and cultural phenomenon sui generis, with its own history, rituals, signs and symbols, and, although it may usefully be analysed from the perspective of the sociological concept of patronage, it cannot meaningfully be reduced to this theoretical concept.3

The value of the sociological approach lies in the possibility it creates of cross-cultural comparison and of analyzing the dynamics of specific social systems. Saller's Personal Patronage is a perfect illustration of how such an approach can enhance our understanding of the Roman political system. Eilers himself sometimes refers to a similar social dynamics-analysis, for instance when assessing the exchange-relation between patron and client and concluding that "whereas having a patron in Rome was vital for provincial cities, having city clients in the provinces was, although not valueless, optional for senator" (p. 97). Or as a sociologist would put it: the patron-client relation was characterised by asymmetrical reciprocity.

Eilers, nevertheless, firmly places himself in the "classical" tradition. The reasons why are revealed in the introduction, where he makes a number of objections to the sociological concept of patronage. Not all arguments are to the point, and Eilers doesn't always seem to have a sufficient grip of the concept itself. For instance, the relation between Cicero and Atticus does not fall under the sociological concept of patronage because Atticus never needed Cicero's help and could often muster more resources than Cicero could; slavery does not fall under the heading of patronage because it is not a voluntary relationship (p. 6-7). To claim that it is "methodologically backwards to define 'patrons' and 'clients' as those who fit a given definition of patronage" (p. 7), is to miss to entire point of taking a sociological approach, viz. to uncover the dynamics of a specific type of social exchange relation and the system(s) built on it. To assert that the sociological concept of patronage is deficient as a definition for Roman patronage is beside the point, because, although it has been treated as such by ancient historians, it was never intended to be such a definition. It does not follow, of course, that Roman patrocinium is not a challenging and interesting object of research of its own. Eilers makes a excellent case for his choice of the "classical" approach, but such an approach is not in contradiction to the sociological approach but should rather be seen as complementary.

3. Non-persuasive arguments.

Although Eilers' study is on the whole very persuasive, there are some aspects which in my view are less convincing. I will limit myself to the two most important: the degree of formalization of the patron-client bond and the historicity of patronage through conquest.

Eilers (following Premerstein and Rouland) believes that the establishment of a patron-client relation required a specific act of "self-commendation" by the client. Without such a formal initiation act, it would be impossible for contemporaries to distinguish between patron-client relations and other social relations, something which they clearly did, given for instance the legal privileges and exemptions accorded to patrons and clients. However, apart from two dubious lines in Terence's Eunuchus (ll. 886, 1039) such acts of "self-commendation" are unattested for patronage of individuals. Even in the well-documented case of Cicero and M' Curius, who explicitly addresses Cicero as "patrone mi", there is not a trace of a such an act. Neither is there any indication in Martial or Juvenal, where patron-client relations are omnipresent, or in Horace's story of the auctioneer Mena, where the very beginning of a patron-client bond is described.

Conversely, the link between beneficia / gratia and the initiation of a patron-client bond is often adduced in our sources. Cicero's remark that the rich and fortunate think it bitter as death to be called clients or to have accepted a patron (Off. II,69) is explained by Eilers as not meaning that "people were happy to be clients as long as they were not called such, but that to a certain class of people, being a client was itself abhorrent". This may be, but Cicero's remark is firmly set in an survey of the duties arising from gift-giving, suggesting that one could easily end up as a client if one became beneficiis obligatus. The passage is echoed by Seneca, who claims that some would accept beneficia only in secret out of fear of being thought clients (Ben. II,23,1-3).

This does not mean that patronage was not seen by the Romans as a very specific relationship between patron and client -- different from that between amici -- or that beneficia alone sufficed to create patron-client bonds, but it does indicate that becoming a client was a matter of both social opinion and (presumably) public avowal by patron and client. Hence the tension between being classified as a client when one became dependent on the support and benefactions of a "great friend", and the public avowal or denial of it. The dependence on benefactions created a moral burden on would-be clients to accept the role of client. Any prospective client was free to reject the bond, but only at the risk of being branded as an ingrate. Repetitive symbolic acts publicly and privately signifying the existence of a patron-client relationship (such as the salutatio) were of course required to visualise and thereby confirm a patron-client relation, but nothing indicates that an explicit act of self-commendation was required to initiate the relationship.

Eilers' main argument for a formal initiation rite is built on the assumption that patronage over communities was modeled on personal patronage. However, it should cause no surprise that the situation for patronage over cities differed from interpersonal patronage. The collective identity of the prospective client inevitably called for a substantial formalisation, which was less imperative in the case of interpersonal relations. Eilers come close to the same conclusion, when he acknowledges that "in the case of individuals, one might want to allow for greater flexibility, including allowance for the effect of non-verbal, symbolic actions such as regular appearance at the daily salutatio" (p. 34). Yet, even in the case of city patronage, we should beware of placing too great an emphasis on formalities. Caesar and Hirtius, for instance, have no trouble classifying dependency relations between individuals and tribes as patron-client relations (see mainly B.G. VIII,32,2).

Eilers doesn't go into the problem of how patronage in courts was related to general patronage. Of course he is right in pointing out that by the Ciceronian age, court patronage had gone its own way and not every court patron was or became a general patron. As shown by Deniaux, however, former legal 'clients' often continued to be denoted as clientes of their former patrons long after the trial was over.4 Eilers himself seems to admit that Cicero's patronage over Caecina grew out of his defense of Caecina in court (p. 71). Presumably Cicero's patronage over at least a number of Sicilian cities originated from the trial against Verres. The case of ad hoc court patronage leading (sometimes!) to more enduring patron-client bonds fits the idea of patronage arising out of gratia for beneficia received but is hard to explain from the perspective of patronage as arising out of an act of self commendation.

Eilers' approach to Roman patronage is structured by the dichotomy between "voluntary" and "involuntary" patronage, the first denoting ordinary patron-client bonds, the latter denoting patron-freedman bonds and patronage over cities acquired through conquest. The dichotomy risks covering up more than it unveils and may be in part responsible for Eilers' unnecessary attempt to ascribe the same formalities to personal patronage and to patronage over communities.

The comparison between city patronage through conquest and patronage over freedmen is no more than a theoretical construct. The relation between patron and freedman had a strong legal component with privileges and duties on both sides; comparable rights and duties were absent in the case of city patronage. It may be that Romans of old saw some analogy between a merciful general not destroying a vanquished city and enslaving its inhabitants (p. 34-35), but in fact there is very little evidence they ever did and even less that -- if so -- it would have been anything more than a propagandistic metaphor.

Eilers convincingly shows that patronage through conquest was not a reality in Cicero's day. However, reviewing the evidence adduced, one cannot help wondering whether it ever was. Cicero's claim that patronage over vanquished enemies had once been the custom of the maiores in a (distant) past should not be accepted at face value; the mos maiorum is not a reliable reflection of ancient custom but a living ideology of the pristine virtues ascribed by contemporaries to their ancestors. Clear-cut cases of patronage through conquest are exceedingly rare. Of the four cases analysed by Eilers, only three pass the test. One of these -- the case of L. Aemilius Paullus' patronage over Spain, Liguria and Macedonia -- is more dubious than Eilers is prepared to admit. There is no mention of patronage in our only available source (Plutarch), and Eilers' own conclusion that Roman city patronage in the Greek east dates only to the later second century contradicts identifying Paullus as patron of Macedonia.

What remains is the famous example of the Marcelli and Syracuse and the example of M' Curius Dentatus as conqueror and patron of the Samnites. Livy relates that the Syracusans were accepted into Marcellus' clientela only after an explicit request by a Syracusan embassy. Eilers waives the account as an attempt to explain the curious fact that the Syracusans had become clients of the Marcelli, who had conquered the city by storm, a practice no longer in use in Livy's time. Surely, however, Livy must have been familiar with the tradition that conquered enemies became clients of the conquering general, so why would he have felt the need to rewrite history in this point? The example of M' Curius Dentatus is likewise dubious ; the story is at least half-legendary, one of the only two sources available on Dentatus' presumed patronage is muddled and neither of these sources claims that Dentatus' patronage resulted automatically from his conquest.

If patronage through conquest was ever a reality, we would expect at least some unambiguous examples to show up among the literally hundreds of stories of heroic conquests by Roman generals collected by Livy, Dionysius, Cassius Dio and others.

4. General conclusion

I have focused my review on some points where Eilers' ideas, in my view, should be adjusted. This is of course a bit unfair, but it seemed better suited to serve the ongoing debate on Roman patronage. Eilers' study is on the whole very persuasive. The book is well written, and almost every chapter yields new and refreshing insights. Some will be confirmed in future studies, others adjusted, still others rejected, but to me there is no doubt that Eilers has set out lines of research for years to come.


1.   Bowditch, Phebe Lowell, Horace and the Gift Economy of Patronage, Berkeley, 2001 (Classics and Contemporary Thought 7); Canali de Rossi, Filippo, Il ruolo dei patroni nelle relazioni politiche fra il mondo greco e Roma in età repubblicana ed augustea, München & Leipzig, 2001 ; Nauta, Ruurd, Poetry for Patrons: Literary Communication in the Age of Domitian, Leiden, 2001 (Mnemosyne Supp. 206) ; Verboven, Koenraad, The Economy of Friends. Economic Aspects of Amicitia and Patronage in the Late Republic, Bruxelles, 2002 (Coll. Latomus 269).
2.   Saller, Richard P., Personal Patronage under the Early Empire, Cambridge, 1982. Contra Badian, Review of Saller (1982) in CPh 77 (1982) p. 348-349; John H. D'Arms, Review of Saller (1982) in CPh 81 (1986), p. 95-98.
3.   For an explicit warning along these lines see also Johnson, Terry & Dandeker, Christopher, Patronage: relation and system, in: Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew, Patronage in Ancient Society, London & New York, 1989, p. 219-242.
4.   Deniaux, Elisabeth, Clientèle et pouvoir à l'époque de Cicéron, Rome, 1994 (Coll. EFR, 182).

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