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Jan Wolkenhauer

Seneca’s treatise "On benefactions" in its age

Personal Information

10/1998–08/2001 and


Universität Freiburg, studies of History and Latin Philology


Università degli studi Roma tre, Erasmus program,

focus: Byzantine studies


First State Examination



Preparatory service in Villingen-Schwenningen and Rottweil,

Second State Examination

Since 08/2007

PhD candidate at the Graduiertenkolleg 1288,

PhD thesis project about Seneca’s De beneficiis



PhD thesis project

Seneca’s De beneficiis in the context of shift of functions in gift exchange under the early Principate

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Aloys Winterling (Berlin)

Tutor: Prof. Dr. Hans-Helmuth Gander

Seneca’s De beneficiis is a voluminous normative treatise on rendering, owing and returning benefactions (beneficia). Seneca suggests that these social practices were not appropiately managed by his contemporaries, and he developes, as a guide, a casuistry based on Stoic philosophy.

The background of the treatise is the frequent failure of etiquette in aristocratic friendships and patronal relationships as well as the obvious running idle of traditional practices in the realm of gift and service exchange under the early Principate. Not only Seneca, but also Tacitus and the Satirists testify this. The contemporaries explained these phenomena in moralizing categories as arrogance (superbia) and ingratitude (ingratia). From a modern point of view, they can be seen in the context of the considerable warpings in the network of friendship and patronal relationships which were caused by the transition from a republic dominated by aristocrats to monarchy. Related to this development, a functional shift in the gift and service exchange can be observed. Significant incongruities as to honour, political influence and wealth (these goods were normally at the disposal of the same group of people during the Republic) arose in the proximity to the Emperor. These warpings collided permanently with traditional values, patterns of thought and behaviour, and entailed uncertainties about the appropiate behavior in social life.

At a first glance, Seneca’s guide looks like an attempt to restore the commands and bans of the old and fragile etiquette in Stoic terms. However, the rooting of the norms in the conceptual system of Stoicism leads to statements that would not have been possible on the base of the traditional forefathers’ morality (mos maiorum)…

This PhD thesis project will raise the questions how De beneficiis reflects these mentioned warpings and functional shifts and how the moral system drafted by Seneca relates to the traditional semantics of gift and service exchange, to aristocratic mentality as well as to the new political and social order of the Principate. Finally, it is to be examined if similar approaches can be found elsewhere in early Empire literature.

  • Postadresse:

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
    DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 1288
    c/o Historisches Seminar
    Rempartstr. 15 - KG IV
    79085 Freiburg 
  • Besuchsadresse:

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
    DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 1288
    Erbprinzenstraße 13
    79098 Freiburg
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