BMCR 2017.11.04

Gift and Gain: How Money Transformed Ancient Rome. Classical culture and society

, Gift and Gain: How Money Transformed Ancient Rome. Classical culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv, 296. ISBN 9780190496432. $74.00.

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Several recent studies have greatly enhanced our understanding of economic developments during the middle and late Republic, notably Philip Kay’s Rome’s Economic Revolution and James Tan’s Power and Public Finance at Rome. Neil Coffee’s Gift and Gain. How Money Transformed Ancient Rome seeks to extend this progress by examining a heretofore unstudied aspect of the Republican economy, namely gift exchange. Gift and Gain argues that alongside Rome’s commercial economy —the ordinary buying and selling aimed at profit, that is “gain”—and deeply entwined with it there existed an economy based on gift exchange. Reciprocal generosity characterized the gift economy, which sought to establish and enhance affective ties between the participants in a world where self-help and mutual aid were essential. The story Gift and Gain tells then is one in which Rome’s imperial expansion and the vast inflow of money into the pockets of the Republic’s citizens, and especially its elite, increasingly displaced this early practice of reciprocal gift exchange with the economy of “gain” as gifts came more and more to be viewed as a means to the ends of the latter. That is, no longer did affection and generosity motivate gifts but instead some profit for the giver, either material or some other advantage. Despite the efforts of the senate and its individual members to preserve the distinction between gift and gain, the economy of gift exchange waned over the Republic’s last two centuries until by the early Empire the commercial economy prevailed whether this was transacted through gifts or straightforward buying and selling.

So, after an introductory chapter (Part 1) discussing theories of gift-exchange, Gift and Gain presents the evidence for gift- exchange in the early Republic (Chapter 2). Part 2 turns to the challenges it faced in the middle Republic and the responses these provoked. Chapter 3 deals with legislative efforts by the senate to shore up the practice; Chapter 4 treats gift exchange and commerce in the works of Cato the Elder and Ennius; Chapter 5 examines manifestations of the tension between the two in the comedies of Plautus and Terrance, while Chapter 6 sees traditions of generosity as motivating the reforms of the Gracchi. Efforts to stem the tide of commercial thinking were all for naught, however, and by the late Republic (Part 3) gift giving among the Romans, and especially the elite, was purely instrumental and aimed at securing some sort of gain (Chapter 7). Cicero sought in his philosophical works to uphold the ideal of disinterested generosity as the foundation of true friendship (Chapter 8). But greed reigned supreme, ingratitude was endemic, and hypocrisy in gift-giving was everywhere, as Sallust (Chapter 9) complained at length. Caesar emerges (Chapter 10) as the poster-child for the spirit of the age, seeking to gain through his open-handed giving, while Cicero’s intimate friend Atticus represents (Chapter 11) the exception who proves the rule, standing out for his even-handed generosity towards all. Part 4 sees Augustus (Chapter 12) seeking to restore the practice of gift-giving and preserve its separation from gain, even as he foreclosed the possibility of lavish generosity by anyone but himself and his immediate circle of supporters. By the time Seneca (Chapter 13) addressed the problem, his solution was an acknowledgement of defeat: only by withdrawing from any affective engagement with the gift could one deal with the problem of ingratitude. An Epilogue (Part 5, Chapter 14) situates Rome at the midpoint of a spectrum between an economy of reciprocal gift-exchange and the commercial relations of the modern world.

Gift and Gain therefore offers a bold and provocative thesis about the trajectory of economic development over the course of the Republic’s final two centuries. At the outset however doubts supervene. The thesis depends on the existence of a robust economy of reciprocal gift exchange in early Rome in order for commercial exchange to come into tension with it and ultimate supplant it in the middle and late Republic. What evidence does Gift and Gain offer to demonstrate this fundamental point? One is disappointed to find only the rosy fantasies of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus about the affectionate and mutually beneficial nature of patron-client relations in early Rome. These tales form a very slender thread on which to hang such a critical element of the argument; no historian of early Rome would view them as anything more than an idealizing, antiquarian construct. Still, other cultures have socio-economic systems based on reciprocal gift exchange, so perhaps such was the case in early Rome. Can one find vestiges and echoes of such a system in the middle Republic that would support Gift and Gain ’s thesis? Here the argument unfortunately runs into serious trouble, for Gift and Gain takes no account of what is our best evidence for elite attitudes towards gift-giving, Polyb. 31.25.9-28.13. This passage forms part of the well-known description of the efforts of the young P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus to gain fama at Rome under the tutelage of Polybius. The historian describes four acts of conspicuous generosity that Scipio undertook and their effects on his contemporaries: his gift to his birth mother of his adoptive mother’s very valuable sacrificial implements; next his payment of the entire balance owing on his sisters’ dowries to his brothers-in-law rather than only the one-third required. Following this, he gave his share of their birth father’s estate to his brother by birth, Q. Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, and then paid half the very high cost of the gladiatorial games his brother was obliged to provide for his adoptive father. Finally, when Scipio’s mother died, he gave his adoptive mother’s sacrificial equipment to his sisters. In this way, reports Polybius, Scipio secured a reputation for nobility of character. One might see Scipio’s acts as just the sort of instrumental use of gift-giving that Gift and Gain argues was supplanting affective, reciprocal exchange at this stage, but Polybius’ report of the reactions to Scipio’s acts of generosity tell against this interpretation. “All the women who witnessed [Scipio’s gift to his birth mother] were lost in admiration of Scipio’s goodness and generosity,” Polybius writes, “…in Rome it was a marvel, for absolutely no one there ever gives away anything to anyone if he can help it” (31.26.9, Loeb translation). Similarly, Polybius notes that Scipio’s brothers in law, Ti. Gracchus and Scipio Nasica, were at first incredulous and then dumbfounded by Scipio’s payment of the whole of the sum owing because, “no one at Rome would pay a talent before the appointed day; so universal and so extreme is their exactitude about money as well as their desire to profit by every moment of time” (31.27.10-11). Scipio’s gifts to his brother and sisters excited similar admiration. Polybius knew the middle Republican elite well; he associated with them on intimate terms for many years. His testimony carries great weight therefore and hardly reflects an aristocracy characterized by traditions of open-handed generosity. Rather the reverse: Scipio could make a big splash among his contemporaries because his liberality was so strikingly novel and unexpected—even among close relatives. His behavior instead represents one more instance of the grafting of models of behavior and values from the Hellenistic world—where liberality was an important virtue among kings and other aristocrats—onto middle Republican elite culture, as Polybius’ role as Scipio’s advisor suggests.

The reaction to Scipio’s gifts coupled with the absence of any shred of credible evidence for the widespread practice of generosity and reciprocal gift exchange in the socio-economic culture of early Rome offers little reason to believe that gift exchange every formed a central element in the Republican economy much less that “gift” was gradually displaced by “gain.” What Gift and Gain offers, then, is simply a survey of greed and generosity as they appear in a variety of republican and early imperial authors. So, Sallust laments the greed and insincerity of his contemporaries; Cicero praises disinterested benefaction; Caesar’s generosity aims at securing his political advancement; Seneca promotes a detached altruism in giving. Gift and Gain does not really offer much new in retelling this story. Few doubt that the influx of the spoils of empire brought about dramatic changes to the late Republic’s economy, aristocratic culture, and political competition.

The work runs into further difficulties in its handling of historical events. The problems are evident in small but telling mistakes. So, for example, Gift and Gain introduces its discussion of the Elder Cato (p. 48) with the story of how Samnite ambassadors bearing a gift of gold found Cato sitting by his fire boiling turnips for dinner, who told them that anyone satisfied with such a dinner had no need of gold. However, the subject of this edifying tale is of course M.’ Curius Dentatus (cos. 290 etc.), not Cato, as the passage in Plutarch ( Cato Mai. 2.1-2) that Gift and Gain cites makes quite clear. Cicero does not say at De or. 2.269 that Septumuleius brought the head of Gaius Gracchus to Q. Mucius Scaevola, who was definitely not praetor in 121, nor is there any evidence that Gracchus had been Septumuleius’ patron. And Septumuleius was certainly not asking Scaevola for the “prefecture of the province of Asia” (p. 80). The Julius Caesar who taunted Sulla with buying his praetorship (p. 120) was clearly not the dictator, who was all of seven years old in 93, but C. Caesar Strabo from a different branch of the gens. And Atticus’ cantankerous old uncle did not bequeath him the derisory sum of HS 10,000 (p. 129) but HS 10,000,000!

This carelessness is a reflection of more general methodological weaknesses. Often, the judgments of late, moralizing authors like Plutarch are taken at face value in assessing the causes, motives and consequences of much earlier events and actors. So, Plutarch’s claim ( Sulla 33.2) that Sulla’s sales of confiscated estates to beautiful women, actors, freedmen and the like “excited more odium than his robberies” becomes the basis for Gift and Gain ’s startling assertion that “The importance of gift giving in Roman culture is on display once again in the remarkable fact that Sulla was less hated for his actual confiscations than for giving the proceeds to unworthy recipients” (p. 119). Hardly. On the other hand, interpretations at times seem woefully ignorant of background and context. Gift and Gain for example claims that “the plebiscitum Claudianum looks more like a muddled response by the ruling elite generally, aimed at maintaining the status quo power arrangements” because this is obviously the reason “why the senators allowed themselves to be prohibited from this lucrative form of business [i.e. overseas trade]” rather than “resisting and overturning the law” (p. 39). This far-fetched claim however ignores the long and contentious history of relations between C. Flaminius and his fellow senators, beginning with his tribunate in 232 and his legislation—strongly resisted by the senate—colonizing the ager Gallicus, then his refusal to accept the senate’s invalidation of his first consulate in 223 followed by its refusal to award him a triumph, which he celebrated by popular vote instead, and culminating in his determination not to enter his second consulship in Rome. The obvious conclusion to draw from the fact that Flaminius alone among the senators supported the lex Claudianum is that it was hardly the senate’s idea. Nor could the senators ever simply overturn popular laws they did not like.

One can certainly applaud the ambition of Gift and Gain : as a way of exerting a form of “soft power” that establishes and reinforces social hierarchies, gift exchange is an important and potentially revealing topic well worth the effort to unpack it. To be sure, the Romans gave one another gifts as people do in most cultures—even those as highly commercialized as the modern USA. And they could be generous on occasion—as many people are. However, the celebration of such behavior or laments about greed and insincerity or the fact that laws were passed to restrict gifts between spouses or to advocates do not really tell us what we need to know about gift exchange. Rather, the practice demands a well-grounded functional and structural analysis. What we get instead is a story of decline from a pristine “golden age” that Rome’s growing wealth gradually but inexorably corrupted. Thereby Gift and Gain uncritically and apparently unwittingly buys into the tired cliché of Roman decadence as the cause of the Republic’s fall, a moralizing fable retailed by our ancient sources but one that few historians take seriously any more.

[For a response to this review by Neil Coffee, please see BMCR 2018.07.13.]