Beneficium, iustitia e imperium tra passato, presente e futuro

Alice Accardi


The section of Cicero’s De Officiis on the circulation of benefits according to justice implies a redefinition of traditional customs (mores) through the identification of an unbridgeable distance between past and present. Indeed, in the second book of the treatise (2.26-30), the author seems to outline a "history of Roman power" sub specie beneficii, a history in which the relinquishment of the practice of benefiting allies (beneficium in socios) is connected with the rise of a cruelty towards citizens (crudelitas in cives) embodied by Sulla. In Cicero's view, this is the crucial historical moment in which iniuriae replaced beneficia. The contrast between beneficium and iniuria reflects the opposition between bellum iustum and bellum iniustum, and these two antithetical conceptual poles correspond to a temporal dialectic between distant past and recent past/present.

As concerns Cicero's connection between the preservation of Roman power and the practice of beneficentia, a major point of comparison is offered by Sallust's overview of the history of Roman customs and institutions in Cat. 6-13. In fact, beneficium, iustitia and imperium are three pivotal elements which lay the foundations of Cicero's and Sallust's reflection on cultural history. In spite of their different intellectual perspectives and goals, both authors connect beneficence and offence, beneficium and iniuria, with two opposite temporal dimensions – past and present, respectively – and point out the relationship of these two notions to iustitia and imperium.

Interesting evidence about the roots of the practice of beneficium and its application to conquered peoples is also provided by Virgil's Aeneid. In his epic poem dealing with the very origins of Rome, just a few moments before the final duel between Aeneas and Turnus, Virgil offers a typical example of leniency towards the defeated enemies (beneficium in victos). In Book 12 (175-194), Aeneas proposes to Latinus a pact which presents Rome as a paradigmatically merciful power. Further conspicuous evidence on the concession of political benefits to foreign peoples comes from Caesar's Commentaries, which show the fundamental importance of beneficentia to Rome's domestic and foreign policy. Under the dictatorship of Caesar, however, such a traditional practice was significantly undermined. After his victory in the Civil War, in fact, the dictator put special emphasis on his concession of the benefit of life as a gift for the vanquished, thus intentionally assimilating beneficium in cives and beneificium in victos. A similar anomaly was fully perceived by Cicero, who alludes to the dangers of Caesar's leniency in several letters written to Atticus in 49. In light of such long-term developments, the prescriptive section on beneficentia in Cicero's De Officiis seems to play a truly critical role, for, on the one hand, this section recalls the paradigmatic value of the past as an ideal age of benefit-exchanges, and, on the other hand, it puts forth a new model of beneficium for the sake of future generations.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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