Latin epics such as Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Civil War, and Statius’s Thebaid addressed Roman aristocrats whose dealings in gifts, favors, and payments defined their conceptions of social order. In The Commerce of War, Neil Coffee argues that these exchanges play a central yet overlooked role in epic depictions of Roman society.
Tracing the collapse of an aristocratic worldview across all three poems, Coffee highlights the distinction they draw between reciprocal gift giving among elites and the more problematic behaviors of buying and selling. In the Aeneid, customary gift and favor exchanges are undermined by characters who view human interaction as short-term and commodity-driven. The Civil War takes the next logical step, illuminating how Romans cope once commercial greed has supplanted traditional values. Concluding with the Thebaid, which focuses on the problems of excessive consumption rather than exchange, Coffee closes his powerful case that these poems constitute far-reaching critiques of Roman society during its transition from republic to empire.