Thursday, January 19, 2017


Alice Accardi, Teoria e prassi del beneficium da Cicerone a Seneca. Letteratura classica, 39. Palermo: Palumbo, 2015. Pp. 262. ISBN 9788868892272. €24.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Filippo Carlà-Uhink, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The topic of gifts and giving in the ancient world, in its economic, social and anthropological significance, as well as for the forms through which it is inserted in philosophical, political and moral discourse, has been enjoying more attention in the past few years.1 Accardi's monograph concentrates on a systematic analysis of two works, Seneca's de beneficiis and Cicero's de officiis, which are treated in two different sections of the book. The first, composed of two chapters, is dedicated to Cicero; the second, made of three chapters, to Seneca. Even if a chapter providing a systematic comparison is missing, the two works are continuously measured against each other, with a particular attention to cultural change. The author convincingly shows that the gift undergoes, with Seneca, a form of "dematerialization", as the "object gift" becomes less important in favor of a stronger focus on the "intention" of the giver. Cicero by contrast still operates (or wishes to operate) in the context of traditional Republican aristocratic competition where the main aim of the gift was bestowing glory on the giver.2 In this sense, Accardi's conclusions fit in the pattern of change from the Republic to the Principate identified for the Roman beneficia by Wolkenhauer.3

The treatment of Cicero begins with a thorough lexical analysis, centered in particular on the concepts of munus, beneficium, and gratia, which is well-constructed and shows, for example, that munus means a compulsory counter-performance for a received officium, while the latter word does not seem to mean in any way an obligatory service or action. The gratia that must be "given in exchange" appears to have in Cicero a material nature of counter-performance, while it is completely de-materialized in Seneca, for whom it only represents a feeling of gratitude (pp. 15-24). Starting from there, the author highlights the embeddedness of the beneficium in Late Republican society and its function, according to Cicero, in the creation and consolidation of social bonds. In this sense, Accardi argues, the exchange of beneficia does not automatically create hierarchical nor equal relationships; it is not a euphemistic version of clientela and patronage, but has a more generic, overarching meaning of creating, through a material exchange, of social relationships of different kinds.

Seneca's treatment comprises the largest part of the volume, almost half of the entire book (pp. 91-198). Accardi insists here too on the fact that for Seneca the beneficium is primarily constitutive of society, as it establishes and maintains social bonds. The biggest change is, according to the author, a shift from the gift to the giver and his intention, in the frame of what Accardi considers a broad proposal of ethical reform. In imperial society, the traditional form of exchange and reciprocity had become impossible, and in order to reorganize and restart this basic social mechanism, in the context of a complete social and political asymmetry between the giver and the receiver, with the emperor as "great giver" dominating the scene, Seneca proposed to focus on their voluntas, their conscience and disposition, to reestablish reciprocity.

The last and shortest section of the book, comprising only one chapter, is dedicated to theoretical models, and to a comparison between the theorization of beneficia in Cicero and Seneca and the theorization of gifts in modern literature. It is first of all surprising that this presentation of modern literature, of the dominating theoretical models (and of the ways they used ancient sources!), is placed at the end, rather than at the beginning. Even the definition of beneficium is provided only here (p. 216). This is by far the weakest part of the book. This depends not only on the fact that the author could not consult recent publications that would have contributed to a substantial rethinking of the subject but also concentrated on a very narrow selection of the "modern literature." Apart from discussing Marcel Mauss, and quickly mentioning Godelier, Weiner, and others, Accardi concentrates on the MAUSS group,4 and particularly on Godbout and Caillé. About them she raises some important criticisms, especially in connection to the rigid separation between gift and commodity implied by them, which risks hiding the deep embeddedness of the "system gift" in the broader economic, social, political, cultural context.

Accardi provides the readers with a useful reflection on the ways in which Cicero and Seneca saw the beneficium, and how they built it into their philosophical and political systems, reacting to the shifting social, political and cultural contexts of their times. The detailed work on the ancient sources is useful; most of the arguments about the change in the social dynamics of giving and receiving between Cicero and Seneca and the "dematerialization" characteristic of the Principate are convincing; and some of them will constitute useful starting points for further research.


1.   E.g. M. L. Satlow (ed.), The Gift in Antiquity, Malden, MA – Oxford 2013; F. Carlà – M. Gori (eds.), Gift Giving and the 'Embedded' Economy in the Ancient World, Heidelberg 2014.
2.   See in particular ch. 3, pp. 91-126.
3.   J. Wolkenhauer, Senecas Schrift de beneficiis und der Wandel im römischen Benefizienwesen, Göttingen 2014.
4.   See the homepage of the MAUSS journal: La Revue du M.A.U.S.S.. When considering the coexistence of gift-giving with other forms of exchange, it would have been useful to use also Alain Testart, whose absence from the bibliography is surprising: A. Testart, Critique du don. Études sur la circulation non marchande, Paris 2007.

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