Social Status and the Perils of Exchange in Vergil's Aeneid

Neil Coffee

University at Buffalo, SUNY

Recent work on the mechanisms of exchange in Latin literature by Phebe Bowditch has demonstrated the centrality of patronage and other forms of reciprocity to the social interactions of Roman elites in the early Augustan period.  In her analysis of Vergil's Eclogues, Bowditch argues that Vergil presents an idealized vision of reciprocal exchange as promoting social cohesion and community (Bowditch 2001, 123).  In choosing to compose a heroic epic, however, Vergil had to confront the fact that the Homeric epics were structured in part around major failures of reciprocity, such as Achilles' refusal of Agamemnon's gifts in the Iliad.  Vergil accepts this precedent by building similar failures into his Aeneid, including the ultimately nugatory gift exchange between Aeneas and Latinus.  But Vergil takes the opportunity to explore not only the breakdown of reciprocity on a horizontal social axis between elites, but also the effects of reciprocity along a vertical social axis, in particular the costs of elite reciprocity for those lower in the social order.

Two minor figures in the Aeneid who fight and die in succession for the Trojan cause, the Trojan Eumedes (12.346-61), and the Arcadian Menoetes (12.516-20), represent two different ways in which reciprocal practices could ruin lower-status individuals.  Vergil's Eumedes is the son of the Iliadic Dolon, whose base (εδος...κακς, Il. 10.316) avarice, emphasized by Vergil with the repeated word pretium (12.350, 352), led him to undertake a doomed mission.  Eumedes, elevated from his father's status, shows no trace of his father's vice, but Turnus nonetheless accuses him of greed for Italian land.  Eumedes thus cannot escape his heritage, and is killed by a figure who claims to represent the value of reciprocity over base commerce.

By contrast, Menoetes actively chooses a kind of commerce in an attempt to avoid the entanglements of reciprocal relations.  At his death, the narrator of the Aeneid tells us that Menoetes was a poor Arcadian and that he (or perhaps his father) did not involve himself with the gifts of the powerful but instead rented the land he worked (nec nota potentum / munera, conductaque pater tellure serebat, 12.519-20).  Menoetes hated war (exosum nequiquam bella Menoeten, 12.517), but was nevertheless drawn into a relationship with the powerful Evander to the point that he relocates to Italy and becomes involved in one.  Menoetes rightly suspected that a reciprocal dependent relationship with those in power would deliver him into the war he hated, but could not avoid this fate.

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