De beneficiis is a large work, the longest of Seneca’s essays on a single topic. It is also a difficult work, in that the overall structure is not perspicuous, and the content requires familiarity with Seneca’s style, with Stoic philosophy, and with Roman society, even with Roman law. There is also no satisfactory text, as Leighton Reynolds died before he could produce the Oxford Classical Text, while the Budé edition of 1926-7 is by François Préchac, a brilliant Latinist but a highly speculative editor.
This first volume of what is apparently to be a book by book commentary covers the first of the seven books, which is also the shortest. The editor believes that a thematic commentary will show up, better than a traditional one, the structure of the work as a literary text, letting its varied aspects – philosophical, literary, anthropological – emerge (p.10). The project involves a team of scholars at each of three universities, Palermo, Siena, and Verona: their separate contributions are not identified. We are told, however, in the very brief introduction, that the Palermo team concentrated on the language and categories used by Roman society in the exchange of gifts; the Siena one on approaches taken from anthropology, and the Verona team on thematic features of the treatise itself (pp 11-12). The edition of the text used is Préchac’s, but many of his more daring suggestions are rejected. The account of the textual transmission of the work is minimal and makes no mention of the important paper by Busonero published in 2000. The readership envisaged seems to be advanced students and scholars.
The commentary is ‘thematic’ in that it does not proceed line by line and the focus is on motifs that recur throughout the work. The passages discussed are listed in the very detailed table of contents. Literary points predominate in the comments. Though there is no systematic discussion of Seneca’s philosophy, knowledge of Stoicism surfaces at various points: the sharp differentiation of human beings and animals (57); the doctrine of indifferents (101-2), gaudium as a eupatheia (108), the incorporation by Panaetius of the Peripatetic doctrine of the mean (82). There is a reference to Seneca’s Letter 81 on gratitude, but a treatment of what he says about the basic Stoic doctrines of divine providence and the fiery logos will presumably have to wait for the commentary on Book 4. It is surprising that Seneca’s attention to time, place and persons in decision-making is traced to benefactors behaving like poets or orators (165) rather than to their making use of philosophical casuistry.
The authors recognize that Seneca’s treatise is very revealing about Roman society and how it works. An interesting discussion centres on Roman ideas of imitation and competition between generations as the background to Seneca’s emphasis on the contentio honestissima beneficiis beneficia vincendi(1.4.4). That it is shameful to be outdone in benefits, a view ascribed to the addressee at 5.2.1, is certainly a maxim of popular morality to which Seneca opposes his idea that the intentional act, not the thing given, is what determines the value of a benefit (84-90). But to explain the primacy of the donor in Seneca’s work in terms of permanent inequalities in Roman society places too much emphasis on them. The cases of benefits between persons of unequal status discussed by Seneca (slave-master, son-father) are clearly marked by him as exceptional (3.17-18; 29-38), equality of giver and receiver being the paradigm case. That, of course, does not rule out the temporary inequality that receiving a benefit of itself creates (2.23.2-3) and which Seneca’s addressee clearly fears. The reason for the primacy accorded the donor is clearly Seneca’s conviction that his readership will be largely composed of people of his own economic and social level or above.
The stress laid on Seneca’s countering of common Roman morality is justified and could in fact go further. There is, for example, no mention of Seneca’s insistence on the creative role of benefits bestowed in creating friendships (2.18.5; 2.21.2), so that giving to a stranger is better than giving to existing friends or relations (3.12.1) Then again, Roman morality includes not only Roman practice but Roman ideals, of which something might have been said: they were often quite close to what Seneca preaches. Thus a lot is made, rightly, of Seneca’s urging that the beneficiary should remember the benefit, but not the benefactor (94), yet no account is taken of the report in Cornelius Nepos’ biography of Atticus (11.5) that Cicero’s friend was more concerned to remember the beneficia he had received that those he had bestowed (cf. Terence’s Andreia 44-5).
The commentary is particularly good on Seneca’s language, e.g. his use of colloquialisms (81; 169) and his preference for deorum honor over deorum cultus (116 on 1.6.3). Great skill is also shown in analysing his freighted metaphors, such as cingo (68 on 1.31), and in explicating his exempla, such Alexander (172-5 on 1.14.1).
Relations with the imperial power are convincingly noted as a principal theme of the work (98). Seneca’s condemnation of Claudius for indiscriminate generosity, in the last chapter of Book 1, shows how members of the upper classes can defend themselves from the power of the ruler who has taken over the senators’ power of giving gifts, by regarding his favours as treasure, rather than as benefits requiring gratitude (190). This anecdote is one of the many passages that made the acute imperial historian Tacitus recognize behind the work Seneca’s own experience of being caught in a net of Neronian benefaction. He used De beneficiis, as well as several other treatises, to create the dialogue between Seneca and Nero in Annals14.52-6. There, as the commentary points out, Nero is made, with tragic irony, to use in his reply his old master’s Stoic thought, such as the distinction between true beneficia and the material objects he has bestowed (191). In fact, it can be argued that Nero is made to use Seneca’s arguments to better effect than the philosopher.