BMCR 2001.11.08

Horace and the Gift Economy of Patronage

, Horace and the gift economy of patronage. Classics and contemporary thought ; 7. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xi, 281 pages).. ISBN 9780520925892 $55.00.

This book offers an innovative analysis of Horatian poetic practice through the modern theoretical lenses of gift exchange and symbolic economy. It is Lowell Bowditch’s contention that by applying modern literary and anthropological theories to the Odes and Epistles of Horace, we can gain insight into the intricate (and intimate) negotiations through which the fraught patron-client relationship was instantiated in the Principate. In this predominately successful study, L. B. challenges traditional understandings of Latin literary patronage under Augustus and sheds new light on the delicate economic balance inherent in the ever-changing face of post-Republican literary practice. Following a brief but helpful introduction to her goals and methodologies, L. B. devotes five thematically organized chapters to a wide-ranging variety of literary ‘problems’ in the Odes and Epistles. One the whole, L. B.’s approach is a corporate one, and eschews close analysis of the minutiae of literary patronage in individual odes (though there is some of this) in favor of a world-view approach to several problems common to the whole of Horatian (and more broadly, imperial) literary patronage. In addition to a clear introduction to the issues at hand and a convincing application of theoretical tools, one of the greatest contributions of this work will be L. B.’s articulate destabilization of more traditional approaches to literary patronage, many of which have tended to view the phenomenon as variously static (in terms of time) or monolithic (in terms of the social positioning of the participants). This work should be of interest not only to scholars of Horace and the relationship between this poet and his patron, but indeed to all who would continue the debate over the complex and changing face of Latin literary patronage as a whole.

In the Introduction to the work, L. B. uses the gladiatorial imagery in Horace Ep. 1.1 as a point of departure into the fascinating—and problematic—negotiations played out between the poet, his patron, and ultimately the broader imperial audience. L. B. questions the view that Horace’s retired gladiator is little more than an ironic justification of the poet’s new literary endeavor and asks whether we might instead consider the ‘rhetoric of expenditure’ inherent in the image of performative ludus and offered munera in terms of imperial patronage and its implicit dependence upon public approval of the spectacle. Through the poet’s image of the gladiator who performs his office munera owing to the financial benefactions of the emperor, L. B. destabilizes the “closed” system of poet and patron and offers instead a triangular relationship of poet, patron, and the audience of subsequent readers through whose approval the symbolic capital of exchanged poets goods is circulated back to the sponsoring authority. Although there may be some problems with L. B.’s understanding of the term munus in this period (on which more below), she is correct in her emphasis on the importance of this word—and indeed much of the imagery it evokes—to the literary negotiations of the Principate. For while L. B. recognizes that the social relationships at the foundation of Augustan patronage provided first and foremost the necessary condition for the composition of dedicated verse, she adds the detail that these relationships also informed the rhetoric through which individual poets addressed both their own interests and the interests of their various audiences. Thus, by looking outside the text and into the social (material, discursive, and economic) context in which these texts were created, L. B. provides an approach to Horace and Horatian poetic praxis that can be sensitive to the subtle balance between the many players in this literary game. By way of “reembedding” Horatian literary production into the context in which it was created, L. B.’s focus is to be the relationship between “a discourse of sacrificial expiation” in the Odes and the “rhetorical gestures of autonomy” evident in the Epistles.

After this provocative beginning, the Introduction turns to a careful discussion of investigative focus and a compelling justification of chosen methodologies. L. B. draws upon recent (and some not-so-recent) anthropological investigations into gift exchange and symbolic economy and limits the scope of her study to (1) poems that suggest that political poetry itself constitutes a kind of munus (for which L. B. reads variously, “public service” or “gift,” citing the OLD s.v.) or sacrificial expenditure on the part of the poet, (2) poems which simultaneously reinforce and expose (or undermine) the veneer of volunteerism in Augustan patronage, and (3) poems that seek to strike a middle ground between the poet’s own desire for autonomy and his patrons’ needs for recognition and symbolic reimbursement. In these first sections, L. B. provides a helpful survey of past scholarship in the area of Horatian patronage in particular and Latin literary culture in general (citing Veyne 1990, Saller 1982, Dixon 1993, among others), and notes rightly that although the work of such scholars as Kurke (1991) has demonstrated the relevance of anthropological studies to the analysis of Greek literature, little effort has been made as yet to apply the hermeneutic lens of the gift economy to Roman literary studies. The remainder of the Introduction consists of a dense, though compelling, argument for the relevance of anthropological and literary theories (Mauss, Sahlins, Polanyi, and Bourdieu, e.g., figure large) to an investigation into Latin literary patronage of the Augustan and Imperial periods. Although L. B.’s overviews in this section will be nothing new to those already familiar with the application of such theories to other areas of classical literary scholarship, they shall prove helpful to the newcomer and persuasive to the skeptic; finally, L. B.’s astute interweaving of theoretical approach, recent scholarship on patronage, and evidence from primary sources leaves little doubt as to either the focus or value of her investigation.

The first chapter, “The Gift Economy of Patronage,” is wide-ranging and ambitious. Horace’s Epistle to Augustus ( Ep. 2.1) provides the starting point for a general discussion of the embedded economy of ancient Rome as it is embodied in the relationship between a literary client and his patron. In this chapter are found a number of good observations on, and suggestive claims for, the various ways in which the patron-client relationship was mystified by Horace and others in terms of volunteerism and spontaneity: the poet pretends that he has the capacity to refuse his patron’s request for literature and so fights to retain the impression of authorial autonomy. The chapter is divided into subcategories of patronal exchange and negotiation (“Social Cohesion,” “Disequilibrium and the Perpetuation of Debt,” etc.), and is particularly convincing in its final discussion of the role of temporal elements inherent in the construction and continuation of reciprocal gift relationships.

On the whole, the discussion here is a solid one, but it is slightly weakened by a less than satisfying use of Cicero ( de Officiis) and Seneca ( de Beneficiis) as unproblematized evidence (“a kind of handbook”) for L. B.’s discussion of Augustan gift exchange and the embedded economy of Rome. The real problem here is not so much one of anachronism, as anachronisms of this sort are inevitable in a study as wide-ranging as this one. Nor, indeed, is L. B. wrong in her identification of these two prose authors as valuable sources for a discussion of idealized aristocratic behavior. Rather, the chapter as a whole would have been greatly aided by the recognition that neither Cicero nor Seneca provides a non-distorting lens through which we might spy on the secrets of the elite. Both authors clearly brought their own social, political, and literary agendas to the table in their writing of these texts. Both de Off. and de Ben. were written toward the end of their author’s lives (44 BCE and 64 CE respectively) and at times when the authors themselves had experienced significant personal and political losses: the application of these texts to a broader analysis of literary production in the context of elite behavioral code is not misguided, then, but it would have been better served by (1) a brief analysis of the social and political contexts in which these texts themselves were produced as well as (2) a consideration of how these contexts, including the intent and purpose of production, would have varied from that of literary production in the Augustan period. The second chapter, “Tragic History, Lyric Expiation, and the Gift of Sacrifice,” promotes a provocative reading of Horatian poetry through the lens of tragic ritual expiation, in which the poet-as- sacerdos is able to offer a literary “payment” through which ritual or cyclical violence might be purified. There is a bit of initial cognitive dissonance between this chapter and the first, and readers must shift gears considerably in this move from somewhat abstract, if convincing, discussions of the overall structure of Augustan literary culture and exchange to a relatively restricted argument concerning one narrowly defined (though not unimportant) aspect of Horatian poetic praxis as a mimesis of sacerdotal expiation. The shift is, however, a rewarding one. Chapter Two devotes much of its space to careful and satisfying readings of Odes 2.1 and 2.13, as well as many of the Roman Odes (the “political poems”), arguing in each case that the poet invokes the rhetoric of tragedy (itself a mimesis of sacrifice) as a way of first reliving the initial sacrificial crisis with which it is concerned (unending or cyclical violence) and subsequently providing an antidote for this crisis by means of its poetic mimesis of such. The argument is a convoluted one, and at times hard to follow (fuller citation of the Latin text would perhaps have helped), but in the end L. B. successfully promotes the argument that not only does Horace invoke tragedy as mimesis of an originally mimetic act, but the poet does this precisely to create in his poetry a religious transaction contextualized within literary and political patronage and in which the imperium of the Principate is ultimately figured a careful return-gift of the gods.

The next three chapters form a bit of a unit, and turn from Horace’s representation of his poetry as a kind of mimetic sacrificial gift to those poems that deal with the very real “gift” of the Sabine farm in its various manifestations of the complex poetic and social negotiations between himself and his patron Maecenas. L. B. here makes the important move away from the traditional approaches to the farm which endeavor either (1) to analyze the farm as an aesthetic source of poetic creativity in absence of socio-economic context or (2) to mine the farm-poems for biographical information on the poet’s relationship with his patron and toward a reading of the “poetic farm” as indicative of a deeper ideology of aesthetic production in the context of literary and social patronage.

Chapter Three, “The Gifts of the Golden Age,” begins with a brief overview of the historical context of the land confiscations of the civil war and suggests that before we can consider the poetic nuances of the Horatian farm we must first reconsider the use of pastoral imagery in the Vergilian Eclogues. After an interesting discussion of “land, otium and art” in Eclogue I, in which L. B. argues for an “economy of otium” in which the value of any given material (here, land) is determined by the aesthetic returns it effects (here, poetry), the discussion turns to Eclogue 4, in which the rhetoric of benefaction is again absorbed into the language and imagery of the pastoral. Here, the discussion centers at first upon the first lines of the poem, in which the poet invokes the Muses, paulo maiora canamus (rendered liberally, but not incorrectly, as “let us sing in a slightly higher mode, more lofty matters!”). L. B. identifies the comparative maiora as important to a discourse on benefaction and repayment, and draws a tentative parallel between these lines and Cicero’s reference to the reciprocal returns of gratia in de Off. 1.47-48 ( quodsi ea, quae utenda acceperis, maiore mensura, si modo possis, iubet reddere Hesiodus, quidnam beneficio provocati facere debemus?). L. B. suggests that Vergil’s paulo maiora, here used in the context of golden-age fecundity, might provide an echo of Cicero’s maiore mensura, si modo possis. and the general advice that, when it comes to gratia, it is important to give back more than you receive.

The problem here is not with the suggestion that Vergil’s paulo maiora serves as a marker for the social code in which elite social interaction is marked by a kind of escalating and endless cycle of reciprocity. However, the implication that the phrase si modo possis is “Cicero’s qualification” (“his acknowledgement that repayment in “greater measure” is difficult and sometimes impossible”) of the difficulties inherent in reciprocal exchange may be a bit strong. In the first place, it can be argued that si modo possis is nothing more than a reasonable translation of the final words of the original Hesiodic line ( WD 350, strangely uncited by L. B., unless I have missed something), which reads ἀυτῶι τῶι μέτρωι, καὶ LW/I+ον, αἴ κε δύνηαι, “[and return well] by the very same measure, and even greater, if you can…” What we may have, then, in Cicero’s si modo possis is not the orator’s own “qualification” of reciprocity so much as an apt (and metrically equivalent) rendering of the uncertainty implied by the original condition, αἴ κε δύνηαι. And second, this particular “translation” of Hesiod is a favorite of Cicero’s, appearing elsewhere at Brutus 4.15-5.16 (with no qualification) and Ep. Att. 13.12.3 (where C. makes it clear that his si modo potuissem is to be read as a translation of the Greek), each time in the explicit context of literary reciprocity (which may in fact underlie the usage at de Off. and which is certainly the case for the Vergil).

Here again, the point is one of possible refinement rather than error: deeper analysis and discussion of the sources L. B. adduces in support of her argument would have served only to strengthen what is already a strong case in support of Vergil’s use of otium as an economic indicator of the “produce” of literary patronage. As it stands, there is certainly something going on with Vergil’s paulo maiora, but I am inclined to believe that it has more to do with the feigned humility or reluctance essential to the social code of literary exchange (“I can offer but a bit more…”) rather than a pointed commentary on the potential difficulties of repayment.

The second half of the chapter returns to Horace and Sat. 2.6, where L. B. develops a strong and interesting argument concerning the complex economic language with which the poet fashions and manipulates the “contractual” relationship he shares with his patron. Here, L. B. returns to a discussion of the term munus, which has figured before in her argument, and which is clearly an important term in the literary and social exchanges of the day. L. B. constructs a reading of munus which attempts to account for the various OLD definitions of “political office” and “gift,” and notes rightly that the root of the term, *mei is indicative of “exchange.” Thus we see in Sat. 2.6 that the poet simultaneously recognizes the economic character of his Sabine farm even as he suggests that the true dream would be to own the farm outright—to possess the property free of the anxieties and expectations implicit in the gifts exchanged between a patron and his client. Here again a consideration of the late Republican valences of munus (in which the term is used often in the context of literature-bound exchanges) might have added force to the argument, but L. B.’s discussion of the term as it appears in Horace will stand alone.

Chapter Four, “From Patron to Friend” presents a sharp and compelling discussion of the poetic struggle for autonomy under a system of literary patronage. Here it is argued that Horace uses his Epistles (1.1, 1.7, 1.19 receive the most attention) to fashion for himself a kind of “Epicurean” self-sufficiency as a way of mystifying the clearly hierarchical relationship between himself and Maecenas in terms of an egalitarian friendship between men of commensurate social interests. That this sort of mystification of clientela in terms of amicitia occurs has long been recognized as a poetic and political trope; the strength of L. B.’s argument here lies primarily in her acute analysis of the epistolary genre (and the triad of “participants” it evokes) as a newly powerful mechanism for this mystification. In sum, this chapter combines sharp literary analysis with well-applied anthropological theory to produce a convincing argument for Horace’s choice of epistolary form and thus sheds new light on the peculiar power of the epistle to variously circumvent or redefine relationships of literary interdependence.

In the final chapter, “The Epistolary Farm and the Status Implications of Epicurean Ataraxia“, L. B. combines, in a sense, and further develops the topics introduced in the previous two chapters in a reading of Ep. 1.14 and 1.16. In each of these poems, it is argued, Horace underlines (and so to an extent, creates) the distinctions between the economic and aesthetic value of the farm; or to put it another way, between the value of the farm in a market economy and the value of the farm in an exchange economy (L. B.’s “economy of otium“). By adducing the Epicurean rhetoric of ultimate freedom from concern over “externals” (goods or political rank), L. B. argues, Horace seeks to justify his own philosophic “right” to possess precisely these signs of economic and social privilege (inasmuch as they contribute to his own philosophic well-being). Again, this is a sharp and convincing chapter. One the one hand, its content proceeds naturally (and quite convincingly) from the groundwork laid in the Chapters Three and Four, without either repeating or contradicting any of the earlier material. On the other, it does not depend upon the earlier chapters to convince, and it will prove interesting and useful to a wide variety of literary investigations (Horatian, epistolary, philosophic, etc.).

And this, indeed, can be said for the entire work. L. B.’ s project is ambitious, but it is without a doubt a worthwhile one. The whole of the work rides the difficult line between wide-ranging literary study and close, text-bound reading, and, as I have noted, there are occasional places where a bit more background would have helped bolster the argument. But on the whole this book does what it sets out to do, and indeed has offered important new considerations to all future investigations into Latin literary patronage and social interaction. This is not to say that L. B. has “solved” the problems of Augustan patronage (nor does she claim to, nor could this be done), but she has certainly made the discussion a much more interesting one.