Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.11.11

Neil Coffee, The Commerce of War: Exchange and Social Order in Latin Epic.   Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.  Pp. xi, 326.  ISBN 9780226111872.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Neil W. Bernstein, Ohio University (
Word count: 1366 words


The violence that destroys cities and takes the lives of young men is a familiar feature of Roman epic, but not one that scholars have typically chosen to understand in terms of Roman economic thought. Other analytical models (political, religious, psychological, tragic, and so on) have most often driven scholarly discussions of the motivations that impel leaders to sacrifice their followers, or warriors to continue fighting despite their awareness of the impossibility of success. Anthropological readings of Roman epic have usually employed René Girard's theory of a 'sacrificial crisis'.1 Coffee chooses instead to assess the economic decisions made by characters in the Aeneid, Bellum Civile, and Thebaid through reference to Roman conceptions of 'economic morality,' as presented in texts such as Cicero's De Officiis and Seneca's De Beneficiis. This successful study of the thematics of economic exchange offers valuable insight on an important and hitherto understudied aspect of Roman epic.

Coffee presents a straightforward model for interpreting the economic behavior of characters in epic. He presents four different economic types: the liberalis, who gives generously in order to establish long-term relationships of reciprocity; the prodigus, who also gives generously but does so recklessly, without considering his social relationships or his returns; the mercator, who looks only to his own immediate profit in each short-term exchange; and the frugi, who generally eschews exchange, and may look to profit when exchanging in order to benefit the state rather than to enrich himself. Coffee then describes the different thematics of exchange in the three epics under consideration: the Aeneid's nostalgic view of idealized aristocratic values; Lucan's demonstration of the failure of exchange as actually practiced by Roman aristocrats; and the Thebaid's thematization of waste and excessive consumption. Six chapters, two devoted to each of the three epics, then examine the particularities of exchange through close readings.

The Aeneid offers some examples of successful 'heroic reciprocity': aristocrats generously offer one another hospitality and guest-gifts, and the gods respond (albeit sometimes in a limited way) to prayers that make mention of prior service. But more often reciprocity fails, as examples such as the 'gift' of the Trojan Horse or Aeneas' fateful offering of Helen's veil to Dido would suggest. Both the Trojan war and the war in Italy result from the violation of hospitium, a central activity of the aristocrat who engages in liberal exchange. Deviating from the ideals of aristocratic liberality typically yields unfortunate results in Virgil's heroic world. Sinon's use of mercantile language and projection of mercantile thinking on to others in service of a deadly deception offer one of the more sustained examples of this most disfavored form of exchange. Euryalus' foolishness is revealed in his eagerness for material rewards and failure to sacrifice before heading out on his mission. Coffee's reading of the diplomacy between Diomedes and the Latins shows the strengths of the economic model to best advantage. Liberalis Diomedes suggests forming reciprocal ties with Aeneas; Drances accuses Turnus of acting like a mercator, holding Latin lives cheap; Turnus and the narrator in turn accuse Drances of acting like a prodigus with his money and his speech. Turnus' choice to keep the spoil stripped from Lausus rather than dedicate it or return it stands out in an epic that characteristically abjures the Homeric form of status competition pursued through the acquisition and display of prestige objects. He marks himself as unusual in his economic behavior even as he marks himself out for death.

Aristocratic reciprocity may fail in the Aeneid, but there are at least some examples of its successful practice to point to. In the Bellum Civile, reciprocal ties of hospitium fail everywhere except at the margins of the Roman world. Reciprocity with the absent gods is similarly meaningless; Erictho compels the inferi through force rather than through claims on service. Romans misuse their resources to fight one another rather than to enlarge their empire; this briefly treated example prefigures the more sustained reading of the theme of waste in the Thebaid. In the latter of the two chapters on the Bellum Civile, Coffee examines the contrasts between Caesar, Pompey, and Cato. Though the structure of such an analysis may be traditional, the results are new and valuable. As one might expect, Lucan's account of Caesar's economic behavior is far less forgiving than the Dictator's own account of his beneficia in his De Bello Civili. Caesar's putative 'gift' of clementia is only another form of domination, and he spends his men's lives in mercantile fashion, thinking only of their short-term benefit to him. By contrast, Pompey practices liberality to a fault, and his inability to cut reciprocal ties when necessary limits him in his attempt to oppose Caesar. The contrasting use of the scale image for the two opponents is revealing: Caesar controls the scales that the Homeric and Virgilian Jupiter used to determine men's fates, while Pompey employs the image in wishing for his own defeat.

Readers of the Bellum Civile have often had difficulty in accounting for Cato, who has been made to represent everything from a parody of a Stoic sage to a genuine example of a Roman Stoic attempting to make the best choice among unattractive options. Coffee cuts through what has often become an interpretive deadlock by reading Cato's behavior in terms of the principle of utilitas. He views the conflict between Cato's desire to benefit his household and to benefit the larger community as the central dynamic of his character. Cato's thrift exemplifies the 'ideal of minimal economic exchange' (p. 166) favored both by the Stoics and by his ancestor the Censor. The motive of maximizing utility helps to make sense of both Cato's exchange of his wife Marcia and his rationalization of participation in a war that he abhors. Coffee wisely avoids, however, attempting to explain Cato's fruitless sacrifice of his soldiers in the Libyan desert in terms of this motive.

Coffee develops the familiar reading of the Thebaid's 'poetics of excess'2 through focus on the epic's thematic of destructive waste. Excessive consumption is the drive that compels Tydeus, the Sphinx, and the Lemnians to murder in gruesome fashion. Jupiter employs specious pretexts to send human beings to war and calculates the enjoyment that he derives in wasting human lives. Adrastus' liberality recalls the aristocratic behavior of earlier epic but is out of place in the brutal world of the Thebaid. On a Girardian reading, there is no difference between Eteocles and Polynices: their mimetic desire makes them indistinguishable. Coffee argues that while the brothers may seem identical in the duel scene, their economic behavior in the earlier parts of the epic has indeed differentiated them. As he is not (yet) a tyrant who lacks all human connection, Polynices does not trade in lives in the same mercantile way that his brother does. Best friends are not disposable 'human resources' for him but are linked to him through strong affective ties. Thus he can lament his 'consumption' of Tydeus (Tydea consumpsi! Theb. 9.60) as a prodigal regretting his thoughtless expenditure, while his brother cannot do the same (in no small part because he has no friends). Not all readers will be persuaded, however, by the attempt to view Statius' portraits of Eteocles and Creon as criticism of the supposedly 'avaricious' Vespasian and 'rapacious' Domitian, characterizations that derive from a hostile biographical tradition (and surely better candidates could be found, if necessary, among the other leaders of the war of 69?).

An advantage of this study is that it never imposes analysis of economic behavior in Procrustean fashion. Coffee frequently reminds the reader that perceptions of an exchange will necessarily be subjective. From the standpoint of various parties in the Thebaid, for example, Harmonia's necklace is either a gift or a bribe; the narrative also offers a further perspective in which it is a curse that will eventually destroy its recipients no matter the intentions of its givers.3 Coffee's readings offer persuasive new interpretations, resolve interpretive deadlocks, and illuminate aspects of epic narrative that other analytical models have not successfully addressed. To adopt the favored terms of this profitable study, The Commerce of War is both liberal with its insights and maximizes the utility of its conclusions.


1.   Cf. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore 1977). P.R. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition (Cambridge 1993) offers the most successful application of Girardian theory to the genre of Roman epic.
2.   E.g. Debra Hershkowitz, The madness of epic: reading insanity from Homer to Statius (Oxford 1998).
3.   Consideration of reciprocity between members of the living generation and their dead ancestors might have been a welcome addition. The consequences of economic decisions taken by members of dynasties may affect the success of future generations more significantly than those taken by more independent actors. (There is a small stumble in discussing reciprocity between the generations: a sword inherited from one's father does not represent 'participat[ion] in the economy of gifts' [p. 198]).

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