Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 35.
Phebe Lowell Bowditch, Horace and the Gift Economy of Patronage. Classics and Contemporary Thought Series no. 7. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. x + 281. ISBN 0-520-22601-1. US$22.50.
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Bowditch's volume is the seventh in the series 'Classics and Contemporary Thought' edited by Thomas Habinek. In this work Bowditch examines a selection of Horace's poetry against the backdrop of its socio- economic context, with emphasis, as could be expected, on the exchange relationship of patronage (amicitia). Bowditch focuses on what she asserts is the role of Horace's poems in his relationship with his patron Maecenas.
At the start of her study Bowditch sensibly indicates (p. 2) that she will attempt to steer a middle path between the 'isolated text' approach of some persona theorists on the one hand, and the naïve readings of traditional historicists, on the other, who tended to view virtually every statement made in a poem as biographical fact. While such a balanced approach is undoubtedly welcome, at the same time, as I think aspects of Bowditch's work demonstrate, steering a middle path between these extremes is immensely difficult. As readers of ancient texts in general and of Horace in particular, we all tend to fall into one of two camps: the starry-eyed believer or the wary cynic. Either we swallow what Horace says to us through the medium of his poetry, or we laugh. In the end, as readers and interpreters, we are all human and therefore, truly, nil medium est . . . .
Bowditch's theoretical roots are New Historicist and ultimately, Marxist. The economics of the exchange relationship are what Bowditch, using anthropological studies of gift exchange, is aiming to uncover in the text of Horace's poems. Many of Bowditch's insights and revelations illuminate Horace's works in a manner that is thought-provoking, but there are also a number of assumptions underlying her interpretation as a whole. One such assumption is that the world to which we are privy in Horace's poems is neither a purely literary one nor one entirely divorced from real life, but one which, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the writer, reflects the economic and social circumstances in which the poems were manufactured. In Bowditch's view, these economic and social circumstances are discernible within the very poetic themes and rhetorical tropes used by the writer. The poets' economic relationship with his patron is, accordingly, at the heart of his persona's textual interactions with this figure. In order to accept Bowditch's approach, therefore, one has at least to believe that the text reflects aspects of the historical Horace's socio-economic reality with reasonable accuracy. If, however, one is a dissenting cynic who suspects that the poet is always having his readers (including his patron) on at any cost, as it were, then this New Historicist approach is something to which one cannot seriously subscribe - one will continuously be objecting 'yes, but . . . . '.
Nevertheless, Bowditch's is a closely woven, densely embroidered text with many viewpoints and observations that are both interesting and instructive. The fact that she approaches Horace's oeuvre from a fresh theoretical direction makes the study in itself valuable. I think that Bowditch has a point when, defending her recourse to modern theory, she observes (p. 15) that works of, for example, Cicero and Seneca which treat Roman amicitia, are not only too prescriptive but also too involved in the ideology of this exchange relationship itself to present a 'critical distance on their own historical context'. Appealing to cultural anthropological theories of gift-giving, Bowditch provides a fascinating analysis, beginning in Chapter 1, 'The Gift Economy of Patronage' (pp. 31-63, esp. pp. 39-63), of Roman amicitia as an embedded economy -- in other words, one in which gifts exchanged and services rendered between individuals have, as in many early human societies,[] a special meaning or significance attached to them far in excess of their actual monetary or practical worth. Bowditch observes (p. 39) that in ancient societies it appears to have been common for a gift economy (as in the case of Roman amicitia) to exist alongside a monetary one: ' . . . the literature of the ancient world provides abundant evidence of both premonetary gift exchange and its continued influence on social interaction even after coin was introduced'. Thus the debt or rather indebtedness that is brought about by the gifts and officia can never really be fully paid for. Bowditch looks extensively at what she argues was the 'psychology of debt in the form of gratia' (p. 21) that drove Roman amicitia as a gift economy. Also, 'in a highly stratified culture in which 'gifts' are exchanged as beneficia and officia across the invisible lines of status, the recipient of a benefaction remains, in a sense, forever indebted to a benefactor of a higher order' (p. 51). As symbolic capital (p. 40) they retain a surplus value that serves to bind people to one another by means of a sense of obligation and with feelings of gratitude -- in Latin, gratia -- so that their relationship is ultimately longer lasting and more meaningful (and thus potentially also more problematic) than one of mere economic exchange: ' . . . contrary to the exchange of commodities in a fully disembedded economy, where the precise monetary value of an object allows for the liquidation of the relationship between the contracting parties, gift exchange (ideally) serves to create social bonds' (p. 48f.).
Dedicated to Maecenas as part of the exchange relationship of patronage, Horace's poetry is itself both a gift and a commodity, bestowing on the patron and dedicatee status in his lifetime and immortality thereafter (p. 46). Who would deny that Maecenas is, at the start of the twenty-first century CE, still reaping some of the benefits of this exchange, albeit unwittingly? Bowditch's work is devoted primarily to uncovering what she identifies as the real economic interests beneath the lofty ideals of Roman amicitia, in particular the relationship between Horace and Maecenas. In spite of my misgivings about other aspects of her work, I nevertheless found it exciting that, in course of her revelations of these underlying economic interests, Bowditch chooses to shoot down a long-cherished and very holy Horatian cow -- the sacred Sabine farm. In socio-economic terms, Bowditch notes, this gift of land is Maecenas' most enduring and valuable contribution to Horace both on a practical and a symbolic level. Significantly, this grant lends the poet the status of a landowner, but, in addition, 'expenditure such as this, in turn, creates the symbolic capital that encourages Horace to celebrate his patron, creating the ultimate cultural value of Maecenas' immortality . . . ' (p. 46). While Bowditch observes that, in terms of chronology, the gift of the Sabine property may have been an expression of gratia for the dedication of Horace's first book of Satires to his patron, and for the generally positive presentation of Maecenas' circle therein,[] she also points out that the gift of land would have continued to demand Horace's gratia towards his patron(s) and would have bound him to them -- to Maecenas, first, and through him, to Octavian/Augustus. Thus Horace's Sabine estate ironically 'symbolizes that very ambiguity and disequilibrium of debt so characteristic of a gift economy...' (p. 58). Horace, it seems, had to pay off the bond on his beloved symbolic Sabine farm after all, just as most of us have to pay off our own meagre properties.
In her second chapter, entitled 'Tragic History, Lyric Expiation, and the Gift of Sacrifice' (pp. 64- 115), Bowditch shows how Horace performs a public service or munus by writing his political odes. As sacerdos Musarum (p. 4, 66f.) he is involved in an act of purification of the populace in the aftermath of the civil wars (Bowditch prefers the official term sacerdos to the traditional vates to describe the ritual role the poet plays in the imagery of religious renewal in the Augustan era). In this manner Horace's political odes are naturally part of the whole Augustan ideology and articulate the evolving Augustan vision. While this is hardly a new idea, Bowditch is far more direct than previous scholars in her deduction that it was as an advance for all his pro-Augustan 'spin- doctoring' that Horace received Maecenas' gift of the Sabine farm. The real economic aspects of the exchange, Bowditch argues, were cleverly and deliberately hidden. Just as gift-exchange 'embedded' societies have been observed to disguise the economic interests behind apparently disinterested gifts, so, Bowditch suggests (p. 40), the protagonists of Roman amicitia likewise preferred to obscure the economics of their gifts and services. The real economic exchanges between Horace and his patron, and the obligations entailed therein, are, according to Bowditch, largely disguised by an ideology of voluntarism. The true propaganda value of Horace's poetry lies in the fact that his praise of the Augustan regime and of those in support of it is presented as though it is voluntary -- Horace's poetry is merely presenting us with the illusion that the exchanges between him and his patron are voluntary expenditures. Maecenas' gift of the Sabine property is, in terms of this view, actually a loan. Likewise, some of Horace's Satires and all of his political Odes are not a spontaneous act of praise and thanksgiving, but a calculated one of commission and contract.
However, another major premise of Bowditch's work is, as suggested above, that Horace's poems speak to the circumstances in which the poet finds himself. Much like someone of servile status in the eyes of Roman law, Horace's poems are not only a donated commodity, but an articulate and opinionated commodity -- a res that also happens to talk. And the poems, Bowditch suggests, do talk back at the patron and address the dynamics of the exchange relationship. In fact, a large portion of Bowditch's thesis hinges on her claim that Horace's gift of poetry to Maecenas permits him to negotiate rhetorically with the patron and to have his audience(s) witness these negotiations. Thus the initial expenditure on the poet's part in writing the political odes on behalf of Maecenas, and ultimately, Augustus, is merely one foray in the lively exchange dynamic that Bowditch goes on to explore throughout the remainder of her book, from the perspective of Horace's other genres, most notably the Epistles. Bowditch stresses the weight carried by the wider audience to whom the poems speak, in giving Horace, she suggests, more leverage with his patron. Bowditch's views on the extent and breadth of Horace's contemporary audience are unorthodox -- she goes against the grain by suggesting that Horace 'presents his poems as aspiring to reach a wide -- that is, public -- audience' (p. 38; my emphasis; cf. e.g. Sat. 1.4.70ff, where the opposite is suggested). It is, however, clearly in Bowditch's interests to argue for a broad public audience or at least widespread circulation for Horace's poems, as she attempts to convince us that, for Horace's patrons, the poems had widespread propagandistic potential.
Apparently it is in the Epistles that Horace for the first time dares to lay bare what Bowditch claims was the real nature of his earlier relationship with Maecenas: '. . . Horace's epistles to Maecenas . . . coyly flirt with demystifying their past relationship as one of patron-client exchange rather than friendship' (p. 21). This is bound to irritate if not enrage many Horatian scholars. What of some of the outrageous posturing that many scholars have identified in the Satires? Surely many of the attitudes Horace adopts as early as Satires Book One can only suggest an atmosphere of intimate and jocular friendship between Horace and Maecenas, whatever the more formal societal structures (and strictures) that may have bound the two of them? Admittedly, as the title of her fourth chapter 'From Patron to Friend: Epistolary Refashioning and the Economics of Refusal' (pp. 161-210) would indicate, Bowditch is far from suggesting that the relationship between Horace and Maecenas was always one of thinly disguised commercial exchange: she is arguing that their relationship gradually developed from one of basically patron-client exchange to one of intimate friendship, and she is not alone in this view. Bowditch envisions the Horace of the Epistles looking back at and reflecting on the prior status of his relationship with Maecenas from his present perspective of a more idealistic type of amicitia. This latter perspective allows Horace to expose what Bowditch sees as the oppression of patronage, and to criticise its restrictions more sharply. In fact, the greater intimacy of personal friendship is essential in order for the retrospective subversiveness and resistance to patronage that Bowditch is claiming for the Epistles to be credible.
At several places in her work Bowditch indicates that she thinks that Horace's past experience of patronage, with all its constraints of debt, loyalty, and obligation, has led him to the conclusion that the system is 'exploitative' (p. 16). She often speaks of the poet's 'gestures of autonomy' and of his 'resistance' to what she terms 'patronal discourse' (p. 4). Indeed, central to Bowditch's thesis of Horace's 'resistance' to patronage is what she terms 'the aesthetic subversion of the patronal discourse' (p. 28). Bowditch argues that it is through various strategies in his poetry that Horace lays bare the underlying economic aspects of patronage. At the same time, she sees Horace as renegotiating his own relationship with his patron and (now) friend Maecenas by establishing, in his poems, an impression of himself engaging in aristocratic otium on his Sabine property, and enjoying egalitarian amicitia with its associated free and voluntary giving. In other words, Horace can be seen to pull apart, to tear down, to re-sort, and eventually to reconstruct, and finally even to elevate his relationship with Maecenas above average amicitia, all through the medium of his poetry. The way in which Horace achieves this, Bowditch suggests, is through his own aestheticism, focused on the Sabine farm as a recurring locus of his writing.
In her third chapter, 'The Gifts of the Golden Age: Land, Debt, and Aesthetic Surplus' (pp. 116-160), Bowditch observes that all of Horace's representations of the Sabine farm emphasise the poet's aesthetic construction of his estate as a locus amoenus, an idealised location having much in common with such literary themes as the Golden Age and that other image of abundance appropriated by the Augustan regime, the cornucopia (pp. 155f.). The ownership of land bequeaths to Horace the luxury of leisure (otium) that is required to compose poetry. Through the poetry thus composed, Horace can express, directly or indirectly, his gratitude towards his benefactors, and therefore by means of this 'produce' or at least, the 'aesthetic returns' of his estate, he may begin to repay his debts. But like Vergil's Eclogues, which Bowditch argues display a deliberate ''misrecognition' of the economics of literary benefaction' (p. 120), Horace's emphasis of his farm's 'pastoral aestheticism' creates the rhetorical strategies whereby the poet 'resists ideas of debt, constraint, and potential deprivation paradoxically associated with the estate as a gift' (p. 142, cf. p. 153: 'one way in which the speaker makes the farm his own -- proprius -- is to convert it into a pastoral locale that has affinities with a particular literary tradition.'). In other words, Horace's literary immortalising of his estate in the Sabine hills entirely divorces the image of the farm from the commercial issues of debt and obligation that cripple the real world of literary benefaction. Through the transfigured image of the estate as locus amoenus, therefore, Horace offers resistance to the limitations of economics. Bowditch's reading highlights the irony that it is the economic reality of Horace's debt to his patron(s) within the gift economy of Roman amicitia, that results in the fabled presentations of his Sabine farm as something beyond economics, something of strictly literary and symbolic value. The farm, 'the very gift that obliges, simultaneously allows Horace the liberty to renegotiate his debts', by providing the poet with the 'rhetorical means of resisting the demands of reciprocity and reclaiming his 'spent' self . . .' (p. 118).
In short, Bowditch's study is a new type of resistance reading, only now on an economic rather than a strictly political scale. But to what extent can we (or should we) believe that Horace seriously set out to offer resistance to the system or the person who bankrolled him and his work? The problem with all resistance readings as applied to Horace is that they start out from the wrong set of premises, premises based mostly on the world-view of the usually privileged scholars who advance them. In my view, the developing world provides a much better model for grasping some of the experiences, both economic and political, of ancient Romans such as Horace. As noted above, I am a reluctant believer in biography, but what we do know about the historical Horace is that, as a survivor of Rome's civil wars, he had suffered the vicissitudes of fortune. Having been on the wrong side at Philippi, he had been given another chance at the good life through his amicitia with Maecenas and later, Augustus. But Horace was far from a yes-man. Everything in his work suggests that he was intimate enough with his patron to joke quite outrageously with him. In the end, however, most of the evidence points to the fact that Horace was content with the status quo. At Ep. 1.7.29-33, the poet self-deprecatingly compares himself to a little fox who remains stuck in a corn-bin because he has eaten too much and grown too fat to get out the way that he came in. The only way to get out, as revealed by what is perhaps the more sinister side of this fable, is to stop eating altogether and to starve oneself out, as it were. But Horace does not do this. Instead, we have the little plump fox discoursing philosophically on the nature of its captivity, while remaining fat and happy in the corn-bin. What good would it do to bite the hand that fed him?
[] Elements of the early belief in the 'magic' of gifts can also be traced, of course, in the binding quality of the 'guest gifts' of Homeric and early Classical convention, and even today the complex and sometimes seemingly inexplicable conventions surrounding birthday presents and gifts in general in our own contemporary and very 'disembedded' capitalist societies. For example, taking the price off a gift, saying 'it's the thought that counts', and the idea that a gift taken back by the giver is somehow cursed -- these all seem to be survivals of an earlier type of economy. They may equally be attempts at negating the effects of capitalism's assigning of specific monetary values to the items employed as gifts. The idea that the emotional bonds brought about by gifts between individuals should be stronger than, or somehow go beyond the limits of, a monetary economy, is still with us and is testament, perhaps, to the cultural legacy of 'embedded' pre- capitalist economies.
[] Bowditch (p. 58) refers to the seminal chapter by I. M. Le M. DuQuesnay 'Horace and Maecenas: the propaganda value of Sermones I', 19-58, in Tony Woodman and David West (edd.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus (Cambridge 1984). Such propaganda potential of Satires Book One would of course have boosted the work's value with Maecenas and his amici even more, especially if the presentation was made to appear voluntary.