Seneca on Benefits

2 September, 2013

Some weeks ago I read a review by Peter Thonemann of some books on Roman economy. In a good-humoured way it was witty and ironic – and critical. Thonemann pointed out that so called formalist views on past economies are back in business. Large ancient market spheres and exchange are once again popular, driven by the – overruling, ever-present, always-rational – laws of economic behavior.

The return of the Roman market economy is a typical, if slightly belated, backlash triggered by a critique starting in the 1990s. This was a critique of the deconstruction once launched by the ‘post’-methodologies. These deconstructions targeted structuralism and modernism and indeed naïve dichotomies or binary oppositions such as the one between formalist and substantivist views on past or for that matter modern economies.

Wikipedia will explain the almost outdated terms formalist and substantivist.

The reviewer says that this divide and the study of past economies is no longer a hot topic. And he is right. In fact the main reason for the paired labels and the field to be outdated was the criticism developed in the 1980 when past and present economies became many and varied as well as more or less popular, dominant and long-lived, rather than an ordered series from the past to the present, emblematic of civilization, rational economic choice and progress. Economies became difficult and simple strategies and analyses dangerous.

Economies as it happens are contextual, they may be technically difficult to grasp, e.g. when they are encapsulated in systems deliberately playing with variables such as real value vs. nominal value, as well as parameters such as trust, transaction time, obligation and speed, to name but a few. As intellectual constructions, nevertheless, forms of economic behaviour are simple enough – especially the popular ones such as gift giving, market exchange, monopoly, redistribution, cooperation or acquisition, which are easily combined to bring out unexpected results.

One of the books reviewed, The Roman Market Economy, pleaded so fervently for a formalist position that it convinced the reviewer of the significant shortcomings of this perspective on past economies. Most researchers during the last decades have experienced that any proof or indication of ancient market-based economies comes with severe restrictions to the idea the free market. In fact, if we want to argue for something market-like we must start by restricting the context in which such a market works, i.e. start by contradicting the very idea. Ancient markets do not combine large demographic and geographic entities, they don’t striving to be free, they aren’t expanding and not models of rational behavior. Moreover, a very large number of sources, which ought to have helped us elucidating the market concept, are few and far apart and they become spurious during the critical process when we try to judge their representativity.

The reviewer points to the fact that Seneca’s essay On Benefits, which might very well have discussed economic matters in terms of market exchange, doesn’t do so. This is true also of Petronius’ Satyricon although the freedman Trimalchio is very much connected to the way Romans as merchants became rich. This ridiculed protagonist, as well as the whole story about him, conjures up the antithesis of Seneca and the way he argues in On Benefits. It has since long been observed that part of the irony in the chapter Trimalchio’s Dinner becomes funnier if we imagine the surreal but historically speaking possible conversation between a Trimalchio and a Seneca on the value of profit and benefit.

Spain and sailing routes

Turning to archaeology rather than satire or philosophy, there are examples that indicate irrational market situations in the 1st c. CE, even in connection with a popular commodity such as lead in the form of so called lead pigs. In a number of shipwrecks from the glorious 1st c. CE when the exploding imperial commerce tought merchants’ ships to sail the Mediterranean the hard way, the cargo consisted among other goods of lead pigs on their way from Spain to Rome. There are two very different kinds (1).

Lavezzi 2

First there is the unusual wreck Lavezzi 2. It consisted of 95 ingots weighing c. 144 mina each (all in all c. 5 ton lead). These ingots were all produced by the lead founder Minuciorus, who sold them to the merchant Iunius Appius Zethus, i.e. a freedman, the former slave of Caius Appius Iunius Silanus, who was married to the Emperor Claudius’ mother-in-law and killed by Messalina 42 CE. The investment, ship and cargo, suggests close ties between the aristocrat and his former slave. The aristocrat may well have financed Zethus’ operations. Be this as it may, the example demonstrates a simple economic context – one producer, one merchant, a large cargo on its way to Ostia and Rome where lead was needed e.g. for water pipes – i.e. in profitable public and semi-public construction work sponsored by the aristocracy.

Cabrera 5

But most examples are far from this paragon. A cargo half the size, c. 40 ingots, may typically involve five named merchants and perhaps some anonymous dealers. As it happens some ingots have been stamped by three different merchants and since there are also some blanks with no merchant’s stamp at all, we may expect that a fourth and perhaps a fifth anonymous merchant was involved such as the captain or the owner of the ship. We don’t know how many owners were involved in a cargo such as the one from the wreck Cabrera 5, but its composition is so complex that we must conclude that the lead market in Baetica (Southern Spain) was in a very bad state despite the enormous demand for lead in Rome. Needless to say, the weight of the individual lead pig in the small cargoes is light and varied compared to the more uniform ones in Lavezzi 2.

These two cases suffice to demonstrate that there was a market, several in fact, and that some worked badly, which in formalist theory they ought not to have done in a period when the century old demand for lead rocketed. If the market had worked well, i.e. as it is supposed to work after a couple of centuries, then the wrecks would have contained Lavezzi 2 cargos, preferably with only one stamp. Since this is not the case, we must conclude that even though the aristocrats who sponsored their freedmen, understood the point in bypassing the Spanish market, they didn’t invest in lead mines and foundries in Spain in order to export directly to Rome. There was no lack of slaves to run the business, so why not use forced labour to create one large and fair lead market? The answer is probably that they had read Petronius or Seneca or both.

Seneca who writes about benefits has nothing to say about The Lead Market or indeed any market other than the local market place, which he mentions twice. But he writes a lot that can explain why the immensely rich upper classes, to which he himself belonged, looked upon the difference between profit and benefit in such a way that it kept them back.

As pointed out by Griffin and Inwood in the introduction to their translation of On Benefits (2011:loc283 on a Kindle), Seneca makes a clear distinction between profit and benefit. When profit is involved, as in the agreed exchange at the market Place, no bonds or obligations are necessarily involved. But in very many situations, which also concern money, benefit and obligation are integral. And this, Seneca argues, is normal because we are humans. Not surprisingly, On Benefits is not referred to in The Roman Market Economy (TRoMEc) of which there is an easily checked Kindle edition.

Seneca mentions market only a two times, but On Benefits is full of references to economic concepts such as ‘cost’, ‘price’, ‘money’ or ‘profit’ not to speak of ‘benefit’, i.e. concepts frequently figuring also in TRoMEc.

In Griffin and Inwood’s translation the first ‘market’ quotation runs: One man paid out a sum of money on behalf of a convicted debtor, but to do so he drew on private resources; someone else made the same payment, but took out a loan to do so or pled to get the money and submitted to being under a major obligation for the favor. Do you think the fellow who had to borrow in order to give is in the same position as the man who effortless provided the financial benefit (8.3) Sometimes it is the circumstances that make the benefit large rather than the money. The gift of an estate so productive that it could depress the price of grain at market – that is a benefit.

Seneca’s point is ‘circumstance’ – important in his treatise, unimportant in TRoMEc – and the way it links-in with financing and benefit and obligation. Financing creates split, complex and stressed situations, while a productive estate is a benefit to the local market and to its owner and to his donor and to society because it secures and supports regular subsistence. Locally, the estate makes the extended household economy rather than market economy beneficial.

In Griffin and Inwood’s translation the second ‘market’ quotation runs: And indeed the price of a thing varies after all with circumstances; though you have touted your wares well, they are worth only the highest price for which they can be sold. A person who buys them at a good price owes nothing extra to the seller. (15.5) Then again, even if they are worth more, no generosity on your part involved, since the price is determined not by their usefulness and efficacy but by the customary market price.

Again circumstance is the point and the market and its money problematic because it makes the price decisive although price cannot determine the usefulness and efficacy of the commodity, i.e. its value. Moreover, the market situation takes away the bonds and obligations between seller and buyer. Seneca understands how markets work, but he is not impressed.

The two quotations fit the lead pig examples. Zethus, ultimately financed by an aristocrat, bypassed the Spanish market and saved time and money. Consequently he made good quality lead cheaper in Rome for the common good. Five ton high quality lead equals 353 m 10-digit water pipe. Zethus’ bonds and obligations to his former master or the lead founder as well as his benefits and profits are easy to imagine and so are the risks he took, although similarly to Trimalchio he may have taken them with his master’s money. The owners of the small cargoes on the other hand were trapped by the inefficient and time-consuming Spanish market trying to put together a cargo from lead pigs circulating in Baetica.

When the rich think about benefits the way Seneca does, benefit linked to benevolence and obligation will invade their minds and ruin their formalist economic senses. It may well be that the rich in Rome were quite pleased with making money bypassing the market feeling the obligation to develop their society, but it didn’t set the market free. There is no point in trying to describe Roman economy as generally speaking a market economy. One must, however, not forget that if humanities had been better financed scholars would have would have continued to write about the problems of simplified economic analyses all the way into the present financial crisis pointing out that the benefits of financing is a matter of circumstances – as Seneca use to say.


(1) Since past economies are difficult but not impossible to study, the article on these cargoes is a somewhat technical and indeed quite old. Herschend, Frands 1995. Friends of Trimalchio’s. A study of Spanish lead ingots from three Roman wrecks. Tor 27:269-310. 1995. (ISSN 0495-8772).


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