Thursday, July 12, 2018


Response: Coffee on Rosenstein on Coffee, Gift and Gain: How Money Transformed Ancient Rome. Response to 2017.11.04

Response by Neil Coffee, State University of New York at Buffalo (

Version at BMCR home site

I am grateful to Professor Rosenstein for taking the time to review my book, Gift and Gain: How Money Transformed Ancient Rome and point out several errors I should have corrected. His review leaves differences in methodological perspective unexamined, however, resulting in what I believe is an inaccurate impression of the book.1

While I endeavored to address all relevant work on the Roman economy, the first word of the title already conveys the book's theoretical orientation: it proceeds from anthropologists such as Weber, Polanyi, Bourdieu, and Graber along with the tradition of anthropologically-inflected work on Roman social history. This tradition does not generally discard important sources as unreliable (e.g., Plutarch) while placing full faith in others (e.g., Polybius, actually cited at pp. 49-50). It examines each source critically (see, e.g, the qualifications regarding Dionysius, p. 27, Sallust, p. 111) to see how its claims and biases tell us something about the hard facts and cultural context that shapes them. An anthropological perspective does not understand all motives as reducible to direct power calculations. I employ Max Weber's fourfold model of social action, which includes instrumental rationality, but also value rationality, tradition, and emotion (p. 14). Weber's model allows for the exploration of complex or counter-intuitive actions and attitudes, such as Plutarch's judgment that Sulla was more hated for his gift-giving to low-lifes than for his confiscations (supported by Sallust Orat. Lep. 17, 21). Finally, an anthropological perspective brings with it terms of art. As I discuss on p. 3, "gift" denotes practices of reciprocity, which include gratuitous services like those involved in Roman patronage and depositum, for which there is evidence in early Rome (p. 27).

Although its corrections are gratefully received, Professor Rosenstein's review also burdens my book with errors and omissions it does not contain. So, for example, I do in fact mention Polyb. 31.25.9-28.13, at pp. 49-50. Cicero does say that Septumuleius requested a prefectship in Asia (ut se in Asiam praefectum duceret, De or. 2.269; cf. Broughton MRR p. 524). Valerius Maximus indicates Gracchus was Septumuleius' patron when he writes of the greed of (in his spelling) Septimuleius as the "criminal hunger of a client" (clientis . . . scelesta famis, 9.4.3). The claim that "the plebiscitum Claudianum looks more like a muddled response by the ruling elite generally, aimed at maintaining the status quo power arrangements" (Gift and Gain p. 39) is not "far-fetched" but rather belongs to the noted Roman socioeconomic historians John D'Arms and Jean-Jacques Aubert, whom I cite.2

Contrary to the impression left by Professor Rosenstein, I do read sources critically. Rather than purvey "only the rosy fantasies of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus," I write that "the early reconstruction of Dionysius [of Roman patronage] has its flaws" (p. 27), which I go on to relate. In my account of the discourse of Roman greed, I call attention to the fact that, contrary to Cato, Polybius, and Livy, Sallust aligns the onset of Roman decadence conveniently with the end of the third Punic war (p. 111). In the final chapter, I explore the counter-argument that there was no discernable change in Roman exchange norms over the centuries in question, before returning to the conclusion that from the early-middle Republic to early Empire the use of money and contract partially displaced reciprocal ties.

This conclusion rests on evidence such as the transformation of legal representation from a gratuitous service in the early Republic to a fee-based service in the early Empire and the proliferation over the centuries of gratuitous contracts allowing for lawsuits over reciprocal services. A short review cannot summarize every aspect of a 296-page book, to be sure, but Rosenstein leaves unmentioned these and other major strands of evidence, such as patterns of linguistic change. As the nature of this evidence suggests, Gift and Gain does not argue that Roman culture descended uniformly from thoroughly harmonious reciprocity to its wholesale abandonment in later eras, but rather that "Roman culture drifted unevenly away from various forms of gift exchange" (p. 16).

Professor Rosenstein is fully entitled to review the book from his own methodological perspective. It would have helped the BMCR reader, however, had he explained the book on its own terms before arguing against it on those he prefers.


1.   For other reviewers' perspectives, see D. Hollander, "Review of Coffee, Neil: Gift and Gain. How Money Transformed Ancient Rome," CJ Online 2018.06.09 (2018) and M. Tonisch, "Rezension zu: Coffee, Neil: Gift and Gain. How Money Transformed Ancient Rome," H-Soz-Kult 11.12.2017 (2017).
2.   J. H. D'Arms, Commerce and Social Standing in Ancient Rome, Cambridge, Mass. 1981, 32. J.-J Aubert, "The Republican Economy and Roman Law: Regulation, Promotion, or Reflection?", in H. Flower (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Cambridge 2007, 168.

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