Classics Amicitia
Christian Rollinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0353


The question of what constitutes friendship—a true friend—is one that has been asked in many societies and historically contingent periods, and from a number of different vantage points. Just as the Romans interrogated themselves as to the precise nature of their amicitiae, so, too, have ancient historians and classicists investigated the vast field of that relationship. They have asked widely divergent questions: What was the philosophical or emotional basis of Roman friendship? How did Roman authors, from the comedies of the middle republic to later imperial works, discuss friendship? What role did it play in society, in economic or political contexts? How was the traditional notion of amicitia changed by the changing circumstances first of the imperial period and, more profoundly, by the advent of Christendom? Ancient historians and classicists have been attempting to answer these questions for a long time. Scholarly discourse can be broadly divided into two large fields, the first of which was (and is) concerned with the development of Roman philosophical thought on amicitia and, particularly, with Cicero’s famous treatise Laelius de amicitia. As the study of Roman amicitiae is rendered exceedingly complicated by the intentionally vague semantics of Roman terminology, which employs amicitia for a variety of social relationships, not all of which a majority of people would now term “friendships,” little consensus has been reached beyond strictly philological questions. In addition to these philological and philosophical enquiries, however, a second field emerged in the early 1980s, which emphasized the importance of Roman institutions of personal relationships for the study of Roman history, particularly in the field of politics. This perspective has been enlarged in recent years by a renewed interest in the role of amicitia in, e.g., the Roman economy and in the communicative and affiliative strategies that were essential in creating and maintaining amicitiae. Additionally, there appeared what might be called a “democratization” of friendship studies, with amicitia no longer seen as an exclusive phenomenon between elite Roman males. The advent of Christianity (but also of new philosophical schools) in Late Antiquity was accompanied by a distinct rethinking of amicitia from a Neoplatonic and Christian perspective. Schramm 2013 and White 1992 (both cited under General Overviews) offer exemplary approaches and further references, but the changing interpretations of amicitia in the later Roman world make this a distinctly different subject and consequently this period is excluded from this bibliography.

General Overviews

There are few monographic treatises about Roman amicitia as such. Short introductory papers and chapters by Konstan 2005, Powell 1995, and Verboven 2011 provide valuable overviews and curated lists for further reading. Otherwise, Konstan 1997 and Williams 2012 are closest, though for different reasons. While Williams 2012 focuses on the specifically Roman context and adopts new perspectives (e.g., amicitia in the epigraphic record) from which to approach a subject that was usually restricted to studies of the Roman elite, Konstan 1997 is a general overview of friendship from ancient Greece to late antiquity. Though he devotes only a single chapter to “classic” amicitia, the book is nevertheless an important synthesis of ancient thought on the matter of friendship. Brunt 1988 is still a classic treatise of amicitia and its political relevance in the last century of the Roman republic. Brunt explicitly distances himself from the older view that amicitiae were strictly political relationships, emphasizing instead its relevance for other areas of Roman society. This is also the subject of Rollinger 2014, which shows how amicitiae provided coherence to an elite society of wildly disparate wealth and status, and Rollinger 2017 (cited under Between Theory and Practice: Amicitia and Daily Life), emphasizing the pervasiveness of expectations and moral values associated with amicitia in all areas of Roman life, “a crucial cog in the machine of aristocratic society” (p. 361). The papers gathered in two noteworthy edited collections, Peachin 2001 and Biffino, et al. 2017 respectively, take up a number of similar strands and constitute an important resource for engaging with the subject. Any such engagement must take into account the specific Roman use of terminology associated with amicitia; for this, despite its relative age, Hellegouarc’h 1963 remains indispensable. An important caveat for any research on amicitia is the language used, as the semantic ranges of Roman conceptions of amicitia and clientela were vast; but attempts to precisely differentiate between the two have often proven unconvincing.

  • Biffino, Giovanna Galimberti, Malaspina, Ermano, Vogt-Spira, Gregor, eds. 2017. Was ist ein amicus? Überlegungen zu Konzept und Praxis der amicitia bei Cicero/Che cosa è un amico? Riflessioni sugli aspetti teoretici e pratici dell’amicitia in Cicerone; Marburg, 18.-19. Mai 2017 = Ciceroniana On Line 1. 2.

    Collection of essays centered on the question of Cicero’s conceptions of friendship and it’s place in Late Republican society.

  • Brunt, Peter. 1988. Amicitia in the late Roman Republic. In The fall of the Roman Republic and related essays. Edited by Peter Brunt, 351–381. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Excellent and iconoclastic introduction to role of amicitia in Republican politics, arguing against long-held ideas and notions that have since been revised (but also had, partly, already been in 1988 by some of the scholars that Brunt refers to).

  • Hellegouarc’h, Jean. 1963. Le vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la république. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    Essential work attempting to identify and differentiate concepts of personal relationships and political allegiances in the terminology of late Republican language.

  • Konstan, David. 1997. Friendship in the classical world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Short but influential discussion; heavily weighted toward the Greek world, with a single, rather short chapter on amicitia (pp. 122–148) and one on Christian notions of friendship (pp. 149–173). Argues generally in favor of amicitia being a bond of affection rather than obligation, despite significant differences when compared to modern notions of friendship.

  • Konstan, David. 1998. Reciprocity and friendship. In Reciprocity in ancient Greece. Edited by Christopher Gill, Norman Postlewaithe, and Richard Seaford, 279–302. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Very useful discussion of the essential role that reciprocity played in both theory and practice of friendship; focused mostly on classical Greek friendship and the relevant writings of Aristotle, arguing that egalitarian notions of friendships are connected with a radical democratic ideology and that ancient friendship places higher emphasis on mutual utility than modern concepts. Essential points are relevant also for amicitia.

  • Konstan, David. 2005. Friendship and patronage. In A companion to Latin literature. Edited by Stephen Harrison, 345–360. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley.

    Useful overview attempting to differentiate clearly between two foundational concepts of Roman society, which are interconnected but distinct.

  • Peachin, Michael, ed. 2001. Aspects of friendship in the Graeco-Roman world. Proceedings of a Conference held at the Seminar für Alte Geschichte, Heidelberg on 10–11 June 2000. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology.

    Valuable collection of essays on friendship in antiquity, including papers on amicitia in Latin (chaps. 1–4) and of philia/philoi in Greek inscriptions (chaps. 5–6), but also on amicitia/hospitium as element of relationships between Romans and provincials (chaps. 10–11), and as topic in Pliny’s writing (chaps. 12–13).

  • Powell, Jonathan. 1995. Friendship and its problems in Greek and Latin thought. In Ethics and rhetorics. Edited by Doreen Innes, Harry Hine, and Christopher Pelling, 31–45. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Gives a brief but useful overview of different conceptions of friendship from classical philosophy to Cicero and argues for an anthropological constant of friendship as personal relationships based on affection.

  • Rollinger, Christian. 2014. Amicitia sanctissime colenda. Freundschaft und soziale Netzwerke in der Späten Republik. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Antike.

    Shows that amicitia was neither a purely philosophical concept, nor was it exclusively a political term, as previous scholarship had held. Argues that amicitia was important in Republican society because it governed the largest part of day-to-day interactions within the elite, from the symbolic level (salutations, dinner parties), to the political (alliances, career opportunities) and financial implications of amicitia, and shows that the language of amicitia was instrumental in providing cohesion to an aristocracy in (political) crisis.

  • Schramm, Michael. 2013. Freundschaft im Neuplatonismus. Politisches Denken und Sozialphilosophie von Plotin bis Kaiser Julian. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

    Comprehensive analysis of Neoplatonic thinking on friendship that firmly situates the latter in the social and political world of the 3rd and 4th centuries, instead of restricting its focus to the purely “professional” philosophers. Focused mainly on four authors, i.e., Plotinus, Iamblichus, Themistius, and the emperor Julian.

  • Verboven, Koenraad. 2011. Friendship among the Romans. In The Oxford handbook of social relations in the Roman world. Edited by Michael Peachin, 404–421. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Short but very useful overview.

  • White, Caroline. 1992. Christian friendship in the fourth century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Discusses theories and conceptions of friendship among the notable church figures of the 4th and early 5th centuries, such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Paulinus of Nola, and Augustine of Hippo, as found in their theological writing and, more importantly, their surviving letters. Includes chapters on female friendships and “abstract” (i.e., imaginary) friendships between non-contemporaries.

  • Williams, Craig. 2012. Reading Roman friendship, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Very useful book, analyzing Roman conceptions of friendship beyond either the philosophically inspired “perfect” amicitiae or more overtly “political” friendships of the elite. Includes a chapter on friendship between different genders. Relies on a variety of evidence hitherto under-studied, including epigraphic sources.

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