BMCR 2007.07.50

Almsgiving in the Later Roman Empire: Christian Promotion and Practice (313-450). Oxford Classical Monographs

, Almsgiving in the later Roman Empire : Christian promotion and practice (313-450). Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (ix, 302 pages).. ISBN 1429422165 $99.00.

Table of Contents

In his introduction to the recently published Poverty in the Roman World, Robin Osborne signals a surge of interest regarding the subject of poverty in ancient Rome. Scholars of late antiquity have been in the vanguard. Already in this decade, two important studies written by such scholars have appeared: Susan Holman’s The Hungry are Dying, which draws on the sermons of the Cappadocian fathers and contemporary scientific literature to anatomize poverty in one region of the late ancient Mediterranean, and Peter Brown’s Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, which tracks the transformation of attitudes toward the poor and almsgiving’s role in the construction of clerical authority.1 Richard Finn’s Almsgiving in the Later Roman Empire stands out among this new literature because of its holistic, integrative approach. Finn marshals a wide range of patristic sources, from both east and west. He studies the various forms of outreach through which Christians sought to succor those in need as well as the meanings attributed to those philanthropic endeavors. Theory and practice are examined side-by-side.

The book, which is based on an Oxford D.Phil. thesis supervised by Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron, opens with a lucid introduction divided into four sections (chpt. 1). In the first, Finn lays out a bundle of issues to be considered: the distinctiveness of Christian almsgiving vs. pagan poor relief; continuity and change in the Christian exhortation to almsgiving, and the efficacy of that exhortation; the connection between personal holiness and philanthropy; donors’ motives; and “the relation between the ethic professed and that practised in the case of alms” (4). As this list, which is not exhaustive, indicates, Finn seeks to unfold his subject in its manifold complexities, not to pursue a single thesis. To contextualize his analysis, Finn surveys, in section two, the ecclesiastical history of the period. One may wonder whether his audience—the Oxford Classical Monographs are not aimed at novices—requires this review, but the account is concise and engaging. In the third section, Finn introduces the poor in the later Roman world, distinguishing between the utterly destitute and those teetering on the edge of poverty, the episodic or conjunctural poor. This brief section offers a good example of Finn’s ability to assemble snippets from primary sources to create a vivid picture of daily life in antiquity—here, of the harsh conditions faced by the poor. Lastly, Finn situates his study among earlier scholarship. He draws attention to the assumptions, both historical and theological, of the nineteenth-century scholars who first addressed the subject of late ancient almsgiving. With respect to more contemporary studies, Finn distances himself from scholars who champion patronage, at least as the term is traditionally applied to the ancient world, as a fully adequate model for articulating the bishop’s relationship with the recipients of his largesse, and it is to the subject of episcopal almsgiving that Finn turns in chapter two.

Chapter two is concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of bishops’ charitable relief: the forms in which and occasions on which alms were collected and distributed and the identity of those who received alms and of the churchmen who assisted bishops in their philanthropic work. Bishops were fundraisers. Serving the poor was a sine qua non for Christian leaders, and, to fulfill this responsibility, bishops relied on their rhetorical skills to persuade people to give. The importance of oratory in the promotion of almsgiving is a leitmotif in Finn’s book. A bishop’s reputation, established in part through public speaking, might attract extraordinary gifts from the wealthy and, in a feedback cycle, the receipt of such gifts further burnished the bishop’s reputation. More modest offerings were collected on a regular basis, often weekly. Tithing and the provision of first-fruits were neither mandatory nor widespread. In agreement with most scholars, Finn claims that, in the period, tithes and first-fruits were not separate species of gifts to be differentiated from those generically described as offerings in the sources; rather, writers employed the language of tithes and first-fruits in order to couch contemporary practice in a biblical vocabulary. Other sources of episcopal wealth are adduced: imperial subsidies, revenues from leased property, the diversion of funds from the episcopal household, the alienation of goods (a potentially controversial prospect), and the outlay of the bishop’s personal wealth. In the discussion of these streams of revenue, a drawback of Finn’s study is manifest: the analysis is occasionally too brief. The complex subject of imperial subsidies,2 for example, merits less than two full pages of text.

As to the recipients of episcopal alms, Finn suggests a hierarchy in which widows, orphans, and poor consecrated virgins who were “matriculated”—many churches maintained lists or matriculae of persons who received regular support—represented the highest priority; then, aged and sick beggars who could not work; finally, a variety of persons who had “competing claims” (76). The bishop distributed alms in the form of cash, clothes, or goods in kind, directly or with the assistance of intermediaries, often his deacons and his business manager ( oikonomos). From the middle of the fourth century in the East and slightly later in the West, charitable institutions such as poorhouses and hospitals sprang up. Some were founded by bishops; others by private individuals. The management of the latter institutions was sometimes disputed, as bishops and founders jockeyed for control and the honor that attended it.

The bishop’s prominence as almsgiver has been much emphasized in recent scholarship. Chapter three, on almsgiving as practiced by monks and laypeople, offers a useful reminder that all Christians were called to charity, a mandate that distinguished Christian almsgiving from traditional euergetism. Monks acted as middlemen for the allocation of alms. Those monks who had jettisoned their own wealth attracted alms from others, who saw in the ascetics reliable agents for redistribution. This proved problematic, in that the handling of this wealth threatened monks’ isolation from worldly affairs. More theologically acceptable was the distribution by monks of goods that they themselves had produced. Monastic almsgiving both complemented and, because of the honor accorded to the donor, competed with episcopal almsgiving, and lay almsgiving could be similarly double-edged. Clerics urged laypeople to donate to the beggars whom they encountered at the church doors or elsewhere, but some were reluctant to give. In addition to their participation in the regular collections, wealthier Christians tended to offer alms on particular occasions: upon arriving at pilgrimage shrines, when hosting agapai or meals for the poor, and on their deathbeds. As noted already, they also founded charitable institutions. The emperors and their families gave, too, especially in “associat[ion] with special events in the Church’s life” (109). A more detailed exploration of the patterns of imperial almsgiving, particularly by women, would here be welcome. Finn closes this chapter by considering how pagan and Christian almsgiving differed. Individual pagans did give to the poor, many out of pity, and some philosophers practiced self-dispossession. Doles and other alimentary schemes compensated, to some extent, for the vagaries of the food supply, but they were neither universal nor directed at the poor per se. What distinguishes Christian almsgiving, for Finn, is the establishment of specialized institutions dedicated to the aid of the needy and “[e]piscopal institutional almsgiving as an expression of religious authority and of the unity of the Christian community, together with the almsgiving of the radical ascetics” (113). Were the poor, as a result, better off in late antiquity than in earlier periods? This is a thorny question that Finn is not ready to answer, at least in this study (114).

How was almsgiving promoted? This is the central question of chapter four. In a broad survey of patristic literature, Finn catalogues examples of promotion both direct and indirect (the latter referring to “unintended or incidental valorization of charitable practices” [116]) across a variety of genres: poetry; letters; scriptural commentaries; and books and treatises, including church orders. More important than such works for promotion were saints’ lives and apocryphal acta. Finn keenly observes that, in the acta, almsgiving is an outward sign of a character’s orthodoxy and, conversely, parsimony toward the poor denotes heterodoxy. This offers a literary pedigree for the accusations of mismanaging funds destined for poor relief that were flung at bishops by their theological rivals in the partisan mudslinging of late antiquity (130-32). The most important promotional medium was the homily, which reached a wide swath of the Christian community, including women and the poor themselves. To measure the frequency of calls to almsgiving in sermons, Finn meticulously combs selected homiletic corpora. In Augustine’s homilies, for example, congregations were exhorted throughout the year to give, though the pitch grew more fervent in the winter and during Lent, when food might be scarce and expensive, and on other penitential days in the church year. Twenty percent of Augustine’s circa 567 sermons include some call to give alms (147-50). Finn’s analysis suggests another line of inquiry that is not pursued. Most sermons were delivered in a liturgical context: to what extent did the structure of the liturgy itself promote almsgiving? In Rome, for example, donors’ names were recited during the mass.3 For some, this must have been an incentive to give. Although Finn demonstrates that almsgiving was widely promoted in sermons, he rejects the claim that its promotion, in comparison with that of earlier centuries, became more intense in late antiquity.

Chapter five discusses the meanings attributed to the practice of almsgiving. The motives of donors, a subject explored thoroughly in earlier scholarship, are dispensed with briefly. Finn touches on the theology of redemptive almsgiving, by which post-baptismal sins could be expunged. Almsgiving was a form of gift-exchange: donors traded material goods for the spiritual goods offered by the poor, who interceded with God on their benefactors’ behalf. Contemporary sources variously recast or, to use Finn’s verb, redescribe the participants in this exchange. Passive recipients are transmuted into “agents of redemption” (183). They are metonyms for Christ. The language of friendship, of fellow servanthood, and of family—both parent/child and brother/brother—is mapped onto the relationship between donor and recipient. (Finn mentions, but does not discuss at length, the redescription of the poor as athletes, actors, and gladiators.) Almsgiving reified the Christian virtues of philoptocheia and misericordia and even classical virtues such as philanthropia and euergesia —at least, as those classical virtues were redefined by theologians in the period. Funerary inscriptions styled the deceased as “lovers of the poor” ( amatores pauperum), indicating that the laity accepted the honorific meanings attributed to almsgiving by clerical promoters. The latter part of chapter five treats generally the effects of almsgiving on social relations. Almsgiving did not necessarily “keep down” the clergy by forcing them to associate with the lower strata. On the contrary, it was an effective tool for clerical self-promotion, especially for the bishop. But, Finn forcefully argues that the bond between bishop and the poor is not directly analogous to that between patron and client. At the end of the chapter, Finn again turns to the question of distinctiveness: did pagan almsgiving express the virtues of philanthropia and liberalitas as they were traditionally understood? Finn claims that the answer, very probably, is no.

Chapter six consists of three case studies, which, broadly speaking, examine the interrelation between older and newer models of benefaction as represented in three authors. In the first, Finn offers a new take on a well-known story: Basil’s response to famine in Cappadocia. Basil’s actions are viewed as an amalgam of classical euergetism (the interpretation favored by Gregory Nyssen) and of Christian almsgiving (the interpretation favored by Gregory Nazianzen); as both cooperative (Basil as a loyal subordinate of his bishop) and competitive (Basil establishing his credentials as a potential successor to that bishop). In the second case study, Finn segues from Basil to Ambrose’s adaptation of Basilian thought in his De Nabuthae. To illustrate the Christian recasting of classical virtues, the reader is walked through Ambrose’s reworking of the definition of liberalitas, as expressed in Cicero’s De Officiis, in the Milanese bishop’s work of the same name. Lastly, Finn, here drawing on the work of Jill Harries,4 demonstrates through Jerome’s letters how aristocratic ascetics negotiated the claims of family and piety in disposing of their wealth. Jerome demanded complete and instant dispossession from ascetic converts. Others were less stringent: Christian opinion on almsgiving was not monolithic. The last chapter recaps Finn’s arguments, and ends with a suggestion that Jewish almsgiving in late antiquity, and its relation to pagan and Christian poor relief, is a subject ripe for inquiry.

This book is a success. Although it is a monograph, it is highly readable, and can be recommended not just to classicists but to social and ecclesiastical historians of other periods. The prose is lively and the analysis careful. The text itself is virtually error-free.5 Finn reads widely in the primary sources, the bibliographical data for which span fourteen pages. Finn broadens and refines our understanding of almsgiving in late antiquity. He questions earlier models, such as that of bishop as patron. He moves the discussion forward: he spends little time, for example, on the controversial question of whether the prominence of the poor in late antique sources reflects a real growth in numbers, with poverty on the rise because of demographic and economic factors, or the desire of Christian leaders to spotlight those who benefited from the charitable work that partly justified their burgeoning power.6 Twenty-five years ago, Boniface Ramsey wrote that “there is no study that touches exclusively upon the theme of almsgiving in the Western Church in the age of its greatest Fathers.”7 Richard Finn has now filled this gap in the literature with a superb study.


1. R. Osborne, “Introduction: Roman Poverty in Context,” in Poverty in the Roman World, ed. M. Atkins and R. Osborne (Cambridge, 2006), 2. This volume, dedicated to Peter Garnsey, also contains an essay by Finn. S. R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford, 2001). P. Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Hanover, NH and London, 2002).

2. See e.g. the study of E. Wipszycka, not cited by Finn: “La sovvenzione costantiniana in favore del clero,” RAL ser. 9, 8 (1997): 483-98.

3. C. Pietri, Roma Christiana: Recherches sur l’Église de Rome … de Miltiade à Sixte III (311-440) (Rome, 1976), 1:579-81. On situating sermons in their liturgical context, see W. Mayer, “John Chrysostom: Extraordinary Preacher, Ordinary Audience,” in Preacher and Audience: Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homiletics, ed. M. B. Cunningham and P. Allen (Leiden, 1998), 115-19.

4. J. Harries, “‘Treasure in Heaven’: Property and Inheritance among Senators of Late Rome,” in Marriage and Property, ed. E. M. Craik (Aberdeen, 1984), 54-70.

5. There are occasional lapses in the formatting of the footnotes, but this is a cavil.

6. For the former view, see E. Patlagean, Pauvreté économique et pauvreté sociale à Byzance, 4e-7e siècles (Paris and The Hague, 1977); for the latter, Brown, Poverty and Leadership.

7. B. Ramsey, O.P., “Almsgiving in the Latin Church: The Late Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries,” ThS 43 (1982): 226. Finn also quotes Ramsey’s observation (29).