BMCR 2022.02.14

Benefaction and rewards in the ancient Greek city: the origins of euergetism

, Benefaction and rewards in the ancient Greek city: the origins of euergetism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xvi, 321. ISBN 9781108940337 $32.99.


Benefaction and Rewards was first published in 2016 and a paperback version added in 2020. As the book has not received a review in BMCR, and as it generally appears to have had few reviews, it was thought useful to offer here a belated appraisal.[1] Euergetism is normally understood as the large-scale private generosity of Greek and Roman elites to their cities. Paul Veyne introduced the term to a wider scholarship in his monumental study of 1976.[2] Most of our information on euergetism derives from epigraphic sources ranging from honorific decrees and other honorary inscriptions on e.g. statue bases as well as building inscriptions and other documents connected to the objects of benefaction, including civic buildings or festivals and spectacles. Civic euergetism à la Veyne was a massive, largely unchanging historical phenomenon, characteristic of the oligarchic régimes of the Greek city in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, who used it to display their sense of superiority and to mark social distance between themselves and the rest of the population.[3] This view has attracted criticism on several accounts: firstly on account of its periodisation. Veyne’s view of the post-classical city was revealed as too static, and thereby as anachronistic. Philippe Gauthier has pointed out that in the first centuries after Alexander (the “high Hellenistic period”) structures and institutions of the classical polis endured, permitting some degree of political control over the benefactors; only with the coming of Rome do we see the rise of the benefactors in the style depicted by Veyne. Another point of criticism was Veyne’s insistence that the gifts of the elite were disinterested.[4] In his view, gift-giving was voluntary (even if there was a general expectation that benefactions would be offered) and there were no counter-gifts — euergetism was not a form of ‘depoliticisation’. Instead, he invoked the pleasure of giving as its main motivation. Modern scholarship seems to have abandoned this view, and euergetism is now considered to be transactional in nature. Gifts by the elite were made in the expectation of counter-gifts by the cities: civic honours that included honorific ceremonies, decrees, crowns, seats of honour, titles and statues.

But the history of euergetism must also be extended in the other direction. The success of later euergetism can only be explained if it was somehow anchored in the long-term political culture of the Greek city. Veyne had explicitly denied that euergetism existed in the classical polis, where private generosity to the polis was mostly harnessed via liturgies, but Domingo Gygax makes the case that euergetism was indeed a phenomenon of the ‘longue durée’. Its early history went back to the archaic polis, but euergetism found its form from the late fourth century in democratic Athens.[5]

Domingo Gygax starts the volume with a discussion of the terminology, and the structures and principles involved in this particular form of exchange, explaining euergetism as a form of gift-exchange. Benefactions were offered in the firm expectation that they would be reciprocated by the community in various ways. As each exchange confirmed a relationship with strong mutual obligations, this model also explains what he describes as ‘proleptic honours’. Once a public honour had been offered—and accepted—the benefactor supposedly had little choice but to comply. Epigraphic commemoration must have stirred hesitant benefactors into action. On the other hand, cities may not always have managed to get around the ‘free-rider problem’ of honorands who accepted the honours but did not meet the expectations of their compatriots. Such behaviour may have remained a problem to the end of antiquity.

This is followed by a diachronic survey, where the history is traced of the two core ingredients of his model: public generosity and public honour, from the archaic period to the fourth century BC. There can be no doubt that the elites of archaic poleis occasionally made major gifts to their cities, especially public construction. They also supported “humble people by providing them with food, clothes, money, or accommodation” (p. 77), and they provided for festivals (p. 80). Such voluntary gifts may have been motivated by philanthropy, but may also have resulted from peer pressure. Domingo Gygax sees here the origin of later (compulsory) liturgies. It should be stressed, however, that elite generosity was not formally reciprocated. Honorific exchanges did have a place in the archaic polis but they were reserved for relations with the outside world. Already in the sixth century Greek cities offered public honours such as dining rights or exemption from taxes to non-citizens, although the texts do not always make clear what the honorands had done to deserve this. The only citizens to receive formal honours had also earned them outside the polis: athletes who had been victorious at the panhellenic contests, thus raising the standing of their city at an inter-polis level. These exchanges undoubtedly provided the basic ingredients of the later euergetistic systems, but it is clear that they still represented separate spheres in the cities concerned.

In the following chapters the focus increasingly shifts to the city of Athens, where the evidence allows us to follow developments at very close range. The discussion is often dense and frequently moves up and down in time, which makes it at times harder to follow the argument, but the basic developments are clear enough. In the classical period, honours remained largely reserved for outsiders and victorious athletes. The occasional honours that were offered by Greek cities to foreign benefactors developed into proxenia, a formal system of exchange, itself modeled on archaic guest-friendship. Many proxenoi received the additional title euergetes—which may have been used proleptically, certainly where the title was made hereditary (p. 112). This supplied euergetism with an essential piece of honorific vocabulary. The practice of honouring successful athletes with statues offered another model for honorific exchanges. (In Athens these were not normally located on the agora but in other cities that practice seems to have been more common).

When we finally turn to Athens these threads are gradually being woven together. Like other cities, Athens had benefited from the voluntary contributions of its wealthy members, such as Cimon, whose estate “was large enough for a tyrant” (AthPol 27.2-3), but it was exactly the association with tyrannical behaviour, and with oligarchic tendencies, that prevented the early development of an honorific system for citizens. The Laurion mines and the empire provided the city with income; and liturgies were developed as an alternative mechanism to tap the financial power of the elite for the sake of the city, while leaving the political institutions in control. There was only limited honorific space for some citizens: a statue on the agora was set up in honour of the tyrannicides, and their descendants were entitled to free meals in the prytaneion, prohedria, and freedom from liturgies, which would become staple ingredients of later euergetic exchanges. Domingo Gygax carefully discusses how during the fifth and fourth centuries the number of official awards of honour gradually increased, even though the tension with a democratic or isonomic value system persisted. An important watershed in this development appears to have been the Peloponnesian war and the subsequent loss of empire. Many of the new benefactors were connected to the war effort: military men (including Cleon and Alcibiades), as well as other individuals who had made a contribution to e.g. the grain supply of the city. The range of available honours also expanded, and in 393 the general Conon was the first Athenian to receive an honorific statue in the agora during his lifetime. Although growing familiarity with such rewards may have helped to pave the way for full-blown euergetistic honors later on, it has to be noted that the nature of the benefactions was often very different from those of the hellenistic benefactors, and to my mind it is questionable whether we should describe these exchanges already as full-blown euergetism. Finally, the loss of the economic resources of the empire may also have played a decisive part in the development of the euergetic system in Athens. As the city became ever more reliant on its wealthier members, the traditional liturgical system stopped working, as its symbolic rewards were insufficient to mobilise the elite. From the 340s honorific decrees started to appear that emphasised the philotimia (love of honour) of the honorands—and explicitly invited others to follow suit. It is interesting to note that the city was not the only body to offer honours. Demes and other smaller associations did much the same. This may have been a case of imitation by the demes, but Robin Osborne proposes a different scenario.[6] Honorific decrees by demes appear to have preceded those by the polis as a whole. The demes—often small and financially weak—were fully dependent on their wealthy members, but unlike the polis they had no mean of coercing them, and could only hope to attract their support by the honours they had to offer. This was a situation that clearly foreshadowed the social relations of the later Greek city, when communities were dealing with individuals whose wealth and power clearly exceeded their own.

Elite generosity was as old as the polis, and public honours were also a long-standing feature of Greek history, but the two domains were long kept apart. Egalitarian impulses may have slowed down the development of full-blown euergetism in most poleis, certainly in democratic Athens. Yet at the end of the fourth century all the ingredients were in place, even there. Domingo Gygax competently guides us through the dense evidence to show how euergetism developed in democratic Athens, but that is not the same as saying that it was democratic Athens that ‘invented’ euergetism. Not only did the Athenians retain ambivalent feelings about their benefactors at least up to the time of Herodes Atticus, but it is not so clear how euergetism was then transferred from Athens to other cities.[7] Moreover, as Domingo Gygax himself shows, the basic ingredients of euergetistic exchange were also found early on in other cities, which may have moved at their own pace in a similar direction as had Athens. Still, no other city can offer the levels of documentation that we find for Athens, and we can be grateful to Domingo Gygax for an insightful study of this rich material, which invites further discussion.


[1] Cf. Hunt, P. (2017). “Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The Origins of Euergetism by Marc Domingo Gygax (review).” Classical World 111(1): 152-154.

[2] Veyne, P. (1976). Le pain et le cirque. Sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique. Paris. English translation: Veyne, P. (1990). Bread and circuses. Historical sociology and political pluralism. Harmondsworth.

[3] Veyne also discussed variants in Republican Italy – but these do not concern us here.

[4] Andreau, J., P. Schmitt and A. Schnapp (1978). “Paul Veyne et l évergétisme.” Annales ESC (2): 307-325; cf. Garnsey, P. (1991). “The generosity of Veyne.” JRS 81: 164-168.

[5] See also Domingo Gygax, M. and A. Zuiderhoek (eds) (2020). Benefactors and the polis : the public gift in the Greek cities from the Homeric world to late antiquity. Cambridge, CUP. Disclosure: the present author has contributed to this volume.

[6] Osborne, R. (2019). ‘Euergetism and the public economy of Classical Athens. The initiative of the deme’, in: Z. Archibald and J. Haywood, eds., The Power of Individual and Community in Ancient Athens and Beyond., Classical Press of Wales: 147-162.

[7] Cf. Canevaro, M. and B. D. Gray (2018). The Hellenistic reception of classical Athenian democracy and political thought. Oxford, United Kingdom, OUP: 12.