BMCR 2021.08.02

Roman frugality: modes of moderation from the archaic age to the early empire and beyond

, , Roman frugality: modes of moderation from the archaic age to the early empire and beyond. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 415. ISBN 9781108840163 $99.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Waiting in the wings of Rome’s long-running morality plays starring such vices as greed (avaritia) and luxuria, frugality typically comes on stage to take up brief cameos in the productions of both ancient writers and modern readers.  Even the turn to The Politics of Immorality and interrogations of the mos maiorum have not brought the same sort of sustained critical attention to frugalitas, parsimonia, and the like.[1]  But that second-billing may not be so surprising; after all, how can roasted turnips in earthenware, threadbare togas, and a couple of cloddy iugerabe expected to vie with vistas of fishponds overstocked variously for effete gourmands or the perversions of Roman enslavers?

Enter Roman Frugality: Modes of Moderation from the Archaic Age to the Early Empire and Beyond, the edited volume of Ingo Gildenhard and Cristiano Viglietti.  If we count the editors’ 126(!)-page Introduction that serves more as a “genealogy” (cf. 7) of the frugalitas-complex than any sort of prefatory statement, this collection of eight essays retrains critical attention on what might be a quintessentially Roman virtue and constitutes required reading by anyone interested in the moral tropes of Latin literature, the “satisficing” (16-17) strategies of elites and non-elites alike, and the socioeconomic contours of ancient Rome.

The editors’ choice of chronology for organization makes the volume useful for those interested in the historical development of Roman frugality in practice and concept.  At the same time, the volume may be construed as a sort of diptych, with the Introduction and Gildenhard’s nearly-as-lengthy fifth chapter (“Frugalitas, or: The Invention of a Roman Virtue”) comprising well over half the volume.  For the reader interested in pinning down what “Roman frugality” would seem to constitute, these two pieces may also be the volume’s highlights—if only because the Introduction’s rich theoretical analyses and Chapter Five’s close readings of the republican and early imperial textual evidence in its discursive complexity jointly set the terms for most any future inquiry into the topic.  Unfortunately, the intellectual heft of these two contributions also throws into relief the relatively superficial deployments of frugality in some of the other essays.  In what follows, I survey those “others” before returning to Chapter Five and the Introduction.

In Chapter One, Viglietti uses the emergence of sumptuary laws and a “census ideology” (137) in the archaic period to reconstruct a concern for frugality on the part of the wealthy elite, while a necessarily more speculative reconsideration of the Twelve Tables’ treatment of creditor-debtor relations and the caloric needs of small farmers does the same for the city’s “have-nots” (e.g., 141). The result is an intriguing argument that, contra recent emphases on the wealth accumulation of the archaic aristocracy, redeems the centrality of frugality in “constructing the ‘shared vision’ of the Roman community” (150; citing the phrase of Smith 2006: 316[2]).

John Rich, in Chapter Two, lays out the status quaestionis concerning restrictions on landholdings from the fourth to second centuries BCE before recapitulating his (now-ascendant) view that the legislation attributed to C. Licinius Stolo in 367 BCE limited both public and private landholdings, whereas Tiberius Gracchus’s intervention in 133 was restricted to holdings of public land and re-keyed to matters of manpower and security.  For as useful as this piece may be for those who have not kept up with the latest developments in ager publicus or grazing limits, its transitory attention to frugality—simply by appeals to “the ethos of frugality” (e.g. 180)—might also strike the reader as the sort of “unexamined” (e.g. 7) approach the volume decries elsewhere.

The next two chapters home in on particular individuals and moments within this period.  Chapter Four, Mattia Balbo’s, picks up where Rich’s had left off, now with sustained focus on what Tiberius Gracchus and his brother were up to.  For Balbo, land scarcity in Italy, the costs of “socially unsustainable” latifundia, and the concomitant recourse to enslaved labor (217) motivate Tiberius.  A vexed passage from Siculus Flaccus provides Balbo with evidence for a “Gracchan ideology” that “theorized an ideal model of landholding” (220), at the heart of which was a concept of frugality that amounted to an only-own-what-you-could-work model.  Was this pure ideology or did it have real effects on reform?  Arguing for the latter on decidedly more speculative grounds, Balbo constructs a vision of the Gracchi as defending tradition through innovation: reconversion of pastures into arable land and larger, colonial-style allotments sought to bolster subsistence farmers by upgrading them into (relatively more) market-based agricultural producers.

Laure Passet’s Chapter Three, on the other hand, takes on two pre-Gracchan individuals of crucial import for the political history of frugality: Cato the Elder and Scipio Aemilianus.  Drawing on many of the relevant primary sources, this chapter, the shortest in the volume, also takes a less critical approach to the textual evidence than the others.  Its overall thesis that Cato and, to a certain degree, Scipio used “frugality as a strategy of self-promotion” (210) is sound enough, though little new ground seems to be broken here and I found myself wondering how Passat’s discussion might interface with the sophisticated work of Enrica Sciarrino and Emma Dench.[3]  Fortunately, the Introduction (29-33; cf. 61-62) steps in to do some of that work.

After Ingo Gildenhard’s essay ushers in the volume’s second act, John Patterson, in Chapter Six, likewise weighs the discourse of frugalitas (and luxuria), but now in relation to social mobility and with greater attention to material culture.  In the more restricted Republic, this discourse provided weapons of political warfare between often wealthier “new men” and the old aristocracy—giving rise to, e.g., sumptuary legislation regarding the dinner table, but not houses, or, interestingly enough, the emergence of appeals to inheritance as defensive counter-maneuvers.  Greater social mobility under the Principate re-invigorated this discourse, but with new wrinkles like the emergence of freedmen as targets and, ultimately, a role reversal: the old(er) aristocracy becomes the avatar of luxury while new(er) men like Pliny, Tacitus, Vespasian, and Trajan take up the banner of frugality.  Interesting and original observations are interspersed in Patterson’s account of frugality vis-à-vis Rome’s fluctuating history of social mobility, which closes with a prudent reminder of this discourse’s intrinsic relativity—invoking Seneca’s position (Ep. 87.2-5) that “frugalitas could be displayed in making a journey accompanied by only one carriage-load” of enslaved persons (367).

Making good on the subtitle’s “and Beyond,” Chapter Seven features Christopher Berry tracing the “recalibration” of frugality in the thought of David Hume and Adam Smith.  A third Scot, George Mackenzie, exemplifies the early modern period’s classicizing antipathy towards luxury and valorization of frugality, filtered now through a (Stoicizing) Christianity.  Hume and Smith, by contrast, embrace luxury in their respective cases for commercial activity as key to securing prosperity, happiness, equality before the law, justice, and liberty.  The result, however, is not that frugality is rejected wholesale.  Rather, its conceptual ambit is both narrowed and recast: from its classical moral emphasis on “living simply, in accordance with the requirements of natural needs” (373) and concomitant valorization, as Seneca famously put it, as “voluntary poverty” (Ep. 17.5), frugality now becomes associated with the “industry” of commercial society, which simultaneously incentivizes parsimonious behavior and funds new material benefits to be enjoyed by a wider segment of that society.  For the reader interested in Roman frugality, one key take-away might be Hume’s and Smith’s sophisticated “dialogue” (396) with the classical tradition—above all, Cicero—as they make their respective cases for the superiority of commercial society.

Of the volume’s two intellectual anchors, Chapter Five finds Gildenhard painstakingly tracing the history of frugalitas and related lexemes from their earliest attestations through the variously philosophical, literary, and self-fashioning work to which Cicero, Seneca, Petronius, Pliny the Younger, and others put them.  Close, critical reading is the method here.  That Cicero stands as the key figure in “inventing” frugalitas for both his own day and ensuing generations may not surprise scholars of a New Historicist bent that much, but Gildenhard’s keen eye for the dynamic contexts and sometimes disparate ways in which Cicero deploys this idea leads to a rich engagement with Cicero’s body of work.  Of equal note is Gildenhard’s resolution of the tension between the humble connotations of frugi with its appearance as honorific for L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi (cos. 133 BCE): no longer just an exemplum of frugalitas, Piso emerges now as indispensable (proto-)auctor by way of Gildenhard’s ingenious reading of his fragmentary Annales.

Finally, the editors’ Introduction primes the reader for the sheer complexity of approaching a phenomenon like frugality—and for its potential reward.  Survey of the waning fortunes of frugality in the work of modern political and economic historians gives way to sophisticated reflections on the methodology needed for a phenomenon that “does not possess an ahistorical essence” and “needs to be studied contextually and diachronically” (10).  Nonetheless, by probing four “spheres in which frugal thought and action register particular force” (14)—namely, agriculture, the “frugal subaltern” of domestic life, political economy, and “personal style and literary theme”— the authors conclude that “the ideal of material sobriety and a concern with limits (and the attendant notion of moderation…) endow the phenomenon of frugal thought and practice at Rome with an underlying coherence and ensured its relevance throughout the city’s history” (35).  Different readers may get different mileage out of the ensuing (mostly political) history of Rome as indexed to this understanding of frugality; on a second reading for me, the narrative from Augustus onwards was of particular value for shading in the volume’s comparatively less-developed treatment of the empire and for sketching where future studies might start.

As the author of “frugality (frugalitas) and parsimony (parsimonia)” in the Oxford Classical Dictionary,[4] I read Roman Frugality with keen interest and found myself wanting to rework a number of points in the 2800 words I wrote in 2017 with awareness of the planned volume, but access to a version of only one paper associated with its workshops: Neville Morley’s now-published article, “Frugality and Roman Economic Thinking in Varro’s Rerum Rusticarum.”[5]  Insofar as this volume of 415 pages will serve as the starting point for any future forays into Roman frugality and related phenomena, it succeeds wildly.  At the same time, its lack of engagement with Greek, Carthaginian, or even ancient Near Eastern comparanda and the stingy treatment of frugality in late antique and Christian contexts (though see pp. 86-108) perhaps attest to a greater premium placed on exploring the titular “Frugality” at the expense of what work the “Roman” might be doing.  As well, surprisingly scant attention to ancient women and the gender imbalance in the case of contributors might either hearken back to an earlier era of scholarship, or attest to a present (and unfortunate) status quo, or both at once—much in the way that invoking frugality often cuts past and present by conjuring up hazy shades of maiores to stand beside those who lay claim to it in their own day.  A sound “General Index,” excellent “Index Locorum,” and near-meticulous copy-editing only enhance the indispensability of this volume.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: “Frugality in Theory and History,” Ingo Gildenhard and Cristiano Viglietti
1: “‘Frugality,’ Economy, and Society in Archaic Rome (Late Seventh to Early Fourth Century BCE),” Cristiano Viglietti
2: “From Licinius Stolo to Tiberius Gracchus: Roman Frugality and the Limitation of Landholding,” John Rich
3: “Frugality as a Political Language in the Second Century BCE: The Strategies of Cato the Elder and Scipio Aemilianus,” Laure Passet
4: “Smallholding, Frugality, and Market Economy in the Gracchan Age,” Mattia Balbo
5: “Frugalitas, or: The Invention of a Roman Virtue,” Ingo Gildenhard
6: “Frugality, Building, and Heirlooms in an Age of Social Mobility,” John R. Patterson
7: “From Poverty to Prosperity: The Recalibration of Frugality,” Christopher J. Berry


[1] Edwards, Catharine. (1993). The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge. On the mos maiorum, see e.g. Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. (2008). Rome’s Cultural Revolution. Cambridge.

[2] Smith, Christopher. (1996). The Roman Clan: The gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology. Cambridge.

[3] Sciarrino, Enrica. (2011). Cato the Censor and the Beginnings of Latin Prose: From Poetic Translation to Elite Transcription. Columbus, OH.
Dench, Emma. (1995). From Barbarian to New Men: Greek, Roman, and Modern Perceptions of Peoples from the Central Appennines. Oxford.

[4] Nelsestuen, G. (2017). s.v. “frugality (frugalitas) and parsimony (parsimonia).” Oxford Classical Dictionary.

[5] Morley, Neville. (2018). “Frugality and Roman Economic Thinking in Varro’s Rerum Rusticarum.” I Quaderni del Ramo d’Oro On-line 10: 41-54. Retrieved 8/4/21 from