BMCR 2005.02.24

The Economy of Friends. Economic Aspects of Amicitia and Patronage in the Late Republic

, The economy of friends : economic aspects of amicitia and patronage in the Late Republic. Collection Latomus ; v. 269. Bruxelles: Editions Latomus, 2002. 399 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2870312105. €54.00.

Over the last few decades historians have begun to analyze ancient patronage and friendship from socioeconomic rather than political perspectives. However, the emphasis has been primarily on the social function of exchange in these relationships rather than on their actual economics. Koenraad Verboven (hereafter V.) embarks on this relatively uncharted area in a book that examines the ways that friendship and patronal networks actively contributed to the Roman economy and the financial system in general in the Late Republic. V.’s study is divided into three substantial chapters with many subsections within each division. Part I lays out the ideology of Roman patronage and friendship as a “moral matrix” of interrelated values; Part II focuses on the impact that such a matrix had on the allocation of scarce resources; and Part III explores the effects of patronage and friendship on the organization of economic activities. The book is well-researched, balanced in its argument and treatment of previous criticism, and exhaustive in its use of evidence. The necessary reliance on so much material from Cicero — since he is the richest source for the Late Republic — sometimes overwhelms with its details of socioeconomic transactions that are repeated as evidence in different contexts. Nonetheless, the book is a valuable and innovative contribution to a changing field and will appeal to scholars of patronage and the Roman economy alike.

V. implicitly argues against the strain of scholarship that issues from the tradition of economic anthropology and that tends to view the concept of a market economy as incompatible with the reciprocity relations of patronage. His analysis seeks to demonstrate that patronage networks and the market system did more than exist in tandem. Not only did patronage and amicitia provide an “alternative mechanism for the allocation of scarce resources” (16), but the web of relations between amici generated a security-system that protected those involved in economic transactions and thus contributed to the smooth functioning of the economic system (226). Moreover, a thesis central to V.’s argument is that patronage allowed for the organization of economic activities in ways that made up for the lack of a corporate model and its notion of limited liability. V.’s focus on this organizational and “managerial” capacity of patronage and amicitia involves in-depth discussion of the intricacies of Roman law concerning such concepts as procuratio, mandatum, negotiorum gestio, and the various actiones, or legal proceedings, allowed in connection with these business relationships and contracts. While the book’s title specifies the period of the Late Republic as its focus, one of its many strengths is the way the argument provides a sense of diachronic development for such legal and economic concepts and the laws that affected, or were affected by, patronal relations.

After a brief preface and an introduction that reviews the scholarship concerned with problems of scale and organization in the ancient economy and the potential of friendship and patronage networks to address such problems, the first chapter, entitled the “Nature of amicitia,” goes over familiar territory. V. lays out the “moral matrix of friendship” by discussing each of the ideological components that contributed to the relationship and the ways in which they interrelate: liberalitas and beneficia/officia; gratia; fides; benevolentia/amor; and existimatio and dignitas. Here, in addition to presenting the prescriptive literature’s view of the way that amicitia should work, V. recognizes both its capacity to be manipulated and the related questions of definition that the system poses. First, there is the familiar conundrum of distinguishing patronage from amicitia, particularly given the euphemistic use of amicitia to refer to a patron/client relationship among the elite. V. provides a detailed analysis of the scholarship on this question, from Mommsen to Saller and beyond. After distinguishing between patronage as both an “etic” and an “emic” phenomenon, that is, as a form of social exchange with objective data that can be studied from the outside and as a “mental framework” (60) in which those who experience it explain the system by which they live, V. chooses to view patronage in its “etic” guise in terms of Saller’s “lopsided” friendship of asymmetrical reciprocity (50, 62). Thus, for the purposes of V.’s inquiry, patronage operates according to the same moral matrix as friendship. Second, the long-standing view that friendships in antiquity were instrumental is considered in light of Konstan’s recent study that argues for emotion and affection as playing the primary role in amicitia. Ultimately, V. charts a middle course, viewing friendship from a “normative point of view,” where “affection and utility coincide” (44). While much of this material reads as a summary of the previous scholarship on friendship and patronage, it proves extremely useful as an overview of the system to which the next two sections repeatedly refer in their focus on the allocation of concrete resources and the organization and management of economic activities. One might say that V. here provides the breakdown of the system from an “emic” point of view (drawing heavily on the philosophical works of Cicero and Seneca) before he examines the data concerning how the system actually functioned economically, that is, as an “etic” phenomenon.

The second chapter examines the role of amicitia in distributing resources in three different forms: as gifts, as loans, and as legacies or inheritances. Here, V. reads beneath the ideology of voluntarism with which the gifts of patronage and friendships were made and focuses on how the moral values of amicitia directly affected economic transactions. Identifying the wide range and worth of typical goods exchanged, he analyzes the ways in which they both contributed to, and were determined by, the social status and economic well-being of the parties in question. V. brings fresh insight to conventional assumptions. For example, he rightly treats with skepticism the scholarly view that 100 quadrantes was the standard sportula received by clients. Not only is this amount as a form of daily assistance mentioned only in Martial and Juvenal, and thus in authors writing in specific genres for literary and aesthetic effect, but the numerical figure itself, as V. demonstrates, cannot be taken literally. All the same, V. employs this particular figure as a sum that symbolically indicates a meager amount in order to speculate about the living standard of those considered poor in the eyes of the elite (108). V.’s willingness, on the one hand, to distrust a number offered by a literary satirist and, on the other, to use it provisionally in a series of number-crunching statistical speculations about the income and status of those who received the sportula, underscores his keen interest in precisely illuminating the economic benefits of patronage. V. is particularly deft in his analysis of the numerous ways that the moral values of amicitia affected the financial system of loans and credit, thus highlighting the degree to which the “market” and the “gift” economies are in fact intertwined. Essentially, as V. demonstrates, not only did members of the elite prefer to conduct their purely financial transactions, where actual loans rather than gifts were involved, with those with whom they had an amicitia (127), but also the use of amici as third-party sureties for such loans directly involved the moral values of fides (trustworthiness/solvency), existimatio (reputation), and liberalitas (generosity) in the market system. Legacies and inheritances, in turn, served to transmit these valuable networks of amicitia from one generation to the next, even as they constituted a considerable source of income for the elite (206-209).

It is in the third chapter, on the relation of amicitia to the “Organization and Pursuit of Economic Activities”, that V. makes his most innovative scholarly contributions. The chapter consists of three sections, which address different modes of effecting and organizing economic transactions through patronage and friendship networks. The first section reviews the legal and extra-legal texts concerning procuratio, mandatum, and negotiorum gestio, three partially overlapping categories of formal and informal contractual representation by which a principal entrusted certain business dealings to another. The discussion assumes a degree of familiarity with Roman law, and the absence of translation for much of the legal terminology, although clearly a symptom of the problems of definition that V. tackles, adds to the difficulty for readers not versed in Roman juridical scholarship. Arguing against the view that the lack of direct representation in Roman agency encumbered the development of the Roman economy (260), V. opines that the principle of indirect agency persisted because it was entirely suited to the informal networks of amicitia in the context of a pre-industrial economy (263). The fides that existed between principal and agent in procuratio, mandatum, and negotiorum gestio transcended the legal contractual liability evident in the actio mandati and the actio negotiorum gestorum (the right to bring lawsuits given violation of the contracts), for it pledged the honour and social reputation of both parties, drawing in the case of mandatum, and often in procuratio, from a preexisting amicitia. The underlying social security of a relationship based on fides also affected the business dealings in the concept of societas, the subject of this chapter’s second section, even though the services in such a partnership were not beneficia and the partners shared both profit and loss. The third section of chapter three examines the degree to which recommendations, one of the main beneficia that a patron or amicus could confer on a client or friend, served to provide access to economic resources otherwise unavailable. Important to V.’s overall argument here is the high percentage (25-30%) of recommendations that seem to have gone to businessmen or to have concerned business interests (340), confirming that the personal networks of friendship and patronage indeed facilitated economic transactions in the marketplace.

The final section of the book serves to summarize the discussion of the preceding chapters and to draw general conclusions about the “economic functionality” of amicitia (341). Here, as though to underscore the impossibility of separating the entwined systems of personal networks and the impersonal market, V. takes a metaphor from the latter to describe amicitia as “a form of human capital yielding an irregular interest … in the form of gifts or inheritances or legacies” and through which gratia can “be exchanged for capital goods” (341). The crucial feature that amicitia brought to the functioning of the financial system was the fides or trust between parties that underlay so many transactions, whether those of mandatum, those involved in a societas, or those to which recommendations gave access. Overall V. has written a successful book that brings a fresh perspective and new insights to Roman patronage and friendship as relationships particularly suited to certain types of economic activity. If Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s important collection of essays, Patronage in Ancient Society, evidenced a shift of scholarly focus to the advantages of patronage and friendship as a system of social integration, V. has provided an illuminating analysis of the financial benefits of those networks. The book does suffer from a few problems of presentation that hamper its readability. The Latin terminology, particularly in sections dealing with the Roman law, is not always translated or sufficiently defined. This is no doubt indicative of the informed audience to whom the book is directed — other scholars of Roman patronage, law, and the economy — and the context often makes clear the meaning of the Latin phrase, but it can be nonetheless confusing for readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of the legal questions and texts under discussion. Second, although there are two indices, one for people and one for subjects, there are no sub-headings. Hence concepts such as fides or gratia which come up over and over again in several different contexts in the book have a huge entry in the index (96 different page numbers offered for gratia) but no further information about the context in which gratia is discussed. Some of these pages are sequential, but not presented as such, leading one to suspect that this may have been a computer-generated index. But these drawbacks do not seriously detract from Verboven’s achievement, and his book will no doubt provide a valuable resource for scholars for many years to come.