BMCR 2022.10.36

Benefactors and the polis

, , Benefactors and the polis: the public gift in the Greek cities from the Homeric world to late antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xvii, 359. ISBN 9781108842051. $99.99.


[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Everyone knows about “euergetism” — the practice of public giving by rich individuals to the polis, which responded with forms of reciprocity. That, at least, is the model undergirding the volume under review. The 12 papers (grouped chronologically in sections devoted to the archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman imperial, and late antique periods) originated in a 2015 conference convened by Marc Domingo Gygax and Arjan Zuiderhoek, themselves authors of important articles and monographs on euergetism.[1] The editors also contribute the introduction and, especially, the final essay which ranges thematically over all the papers, to offer analytical vistas across periods but also to look for contextual specificities. The final result is a useful and thoughtful survey of the state of the question, which also aims at pushing enquiry in new directions. But is the model the right one?

Everyone who knows about euergetism knows about Paul Veyne’s big, difficult book on Le Pain et le cirque:[2] euergetism is a post-classical phenomenon, resting on the structural dominance of notables and taking the form of munificence offered to communities in return for honours. The volume under review engages with this elitist model, notably by challenging the connection between benefaction and supposed post-classical decline (the “end of democracy”). This move allows two developments: first, the extension of benefaction, as a historical phenomenon, back in time; second, the exploration of negotiation between elite and community, and democratic agency on the part of the latter in controlling benefactors and channeling the political implications of benefaction. Euergetism was thus a dynamic process, fraught with contradictions.

In the volume under review, the new model is explored in different periods and contexts. In democratic Athens, gift-giving with its aristocratic baggage caused tensions which had to be negotiated institutionally and ideologically (as argued for by Gygax). A crucial role was played, on a small scale, by the demes, which needed gifts or “gifts (of services)” to operate (so Robin Osborne). The polis developed strong mechanisms by which to control the political implications of gift-giving, for instance by embedding private gifts of capital to endow foundations within public institutions (as Sitta von Reden argues). Even royal benefactors, in spite of the asymmetry between king and city, had to find accommodations with the ideology and agency of the articulate, confident local communities (as portrayed by Rolf Strootman; John Tully examines the particular case of royal benefactions in the context of the festivals of Delos). The phenomenon of public gift-giving changed under the Roman empire, reflecting social and political changes in the Roman polis (in an oligarchizing direction). Specifically, the Roman emperor offered a model of benefaction (generous, civic-minded) within a hierarchical social order, which local elites, sustained by the Roman empire, imitated within their communities (Carlos Noreña here extends to the Roman East analyses he developed for the Western provinces).[3] The proliferation of public gift-giving can be explained within a political model of legimitizing, compensatory gestures by the elite, now politically dominant but still embedded within a civic institutional context. But euergetism also played an innovative constitutive role below and beyond the level of polis institutions, in creating new social ties and regional networks in “a large imperial tapestry.” Here Zuiderhoek summarizes but also extends his previous findings, while Onno van Nijf examines the dynamic, occasionally conflictual interaction of civic institutions, democratic leverage and elite claims in the specific case of local festivals, themides, endowed by donors, a new phenomenon in the Roman-imperial poleis, especially in Asia Minor. What happened to euergetism in late antiquity? In one way, it died with the polis; but it also survived in church benefactions (albeit dependent on church funds or dues rather than public fortunes, directed at the poor, and problematized within Christian ideology, as shown by Daniel Caner’s brilliant study of the nexus of issues surrounding early Byzantine “lithomania,” to use the new term satirizing old-style edilitary and architectural benefactions). All the same, civic elites still found ways to offer public gifts to their communities, but in new contexts, shaped notably by the fiscal policy of the late Roman state (as shown by Christophe Goddard in a study which spans both the western and eastern halves of the late Roman world, from Aquileia to Gerasa).

As this summary shows, the new model allows for synthetic treatments (as proposed by Gygax and Zuiderhoek), test-cases, and probing think-pieces. The conversation between the different approaches is an attractive feature of the volume. Yet the theoretical bases of the new model are problematic. A central role is played by Marcel Mauss’ theory of gift-giving and reciprocity, to the point that Zuiderhoek is willing to consider the polis as a stateless society, the better to achieve fit with Mauss’ anthropology of gift-giving (226-7). But Vincent Azoulay recently pointed out how Mauss’ famous essai sur le don (heavily based on classical sources) is considered obsolete in modern anthropology, as an essentializing and orientalizing fiction endowed with low analytical power.[4] In other words, as a shorthand to explain the culture of civic honours, it probably is unhelpful. One problem is that it has exclusively focussed the debate on gift-giving, as shown passim in the volume. Osborne’s awkward expression “gifts (of services)” highlights the problem: a benefactor of the Athenian tribe Erechtheis, Antisthenes of Lamptrai, “is praised for his arete and dikaiosyne for taking measures that increasing tribal revenues by 3,000 dr(achmas)”, and for instituting good administrative practice concerning the tribe’s real estate (110; 105). In what way are these “gifts”? In contrast, the two essays in the volume concerning archaic matters firmly place the spotlight on obligations and services performed by the individual for the community (a characteristically biting piece by Hans van Wees), and on duties and dues (which Beate Wagner-Hasel relates to the provision of public goods by the Peisistratids). Euergetism, benefactions, are about deeds, not gifts, as shown by the construction of the word: giving good advice to the community, serving bravely in office, leading an army to victory, are all euergesiai. This was of course pointed out by Philippe Gauthier in his reply to Veyne.[5]

Euergetism must be discussed within the context of the provision of services by the elite — of leitourgia, as already established by Zuiderhoek (2009). Public goods in the polis were not provided by the private munificence of notables, but by semi-compulsory contributions, especially once democratic regimes became the norm. The Roman state understood this in formalizing and enforcing these contributions as obligations. It is worth emphasizing that the three pillars of Veyne’s model have been swept away in recent decades. Instead of the natural oligarchy of notables due to the “iron law of oligarchy” (Robert Michels), the possibility of real, persistent democracy in the polis; instead of stateless communities with rudimentary finances, the operation of poleis as states; instead of vertical, primitive economies dominated by landowners, a developed market economy with a high level of prosperity and equality.[6] We might view leitourgia and euergetism as a bargain between various actors. Leitourgia resulted from democratic institutions and their own logic. Euergetism (the cadeau supplémentaire of Veyne 1976, 79) allowed extra distinction among competitive elites: it drew on old traditions of gift giving, as pointed out by Gygax, but was always framed as leitourgia plus something else.[7] The system of honours reflected the balance of forces. It combined elitist tendencies (celebration of ancestors and individual traits) and communitarian norms (stylized language, exemplarity rather than individuality). However, the latter also recognized the social superiority of a class and legitimized their position — perhaps not so much their political power, as Zuiderhoek writes (while recognizing the difficulty in directly translating distinction into institutional power) as their economic position, especially their wealth, which had to be created through acquisitive mechanisms. The city of Tlos acclaimed as “mother of the polis” a lady who gave funds but also administered them on the city’s behalf — for, as the decree tell us, Lalla was an experienced money-lender and wished to spare the city the trouble of lending at interest and chasing returns (SEG 27.938).[8]

This model avoids the functionalism in Zuiderhoek’s explanation (elites dominate the polis but offer gifts to legitimize their power). It also avoids the anti-functionalism in Veyne’s paradoxical model (elites dominate the polis but offer gifts for no reason, simply out of arbitrary choice, a historical “rarity” which should not be explained). This is developed in Le pain et le cirque and also in the second edition of Veyne’s methodological essay, Comment on écrit l’histoire (1979), in a postface on how Michel Foucault “revolutionizes history.” In fact, the model sketched out above is basically that offered by Veyne in the first edition of Comment on écrit l’histoire (1971, 242-50): euergetism as the outcome of the pursuit of interests by individuals but also corporate groups (the rich, the demos) operating within an institutionalized and path-dependent set-up (the tradition of giving, the sense of entitlement of the community, the elite’s sense of duty); it also makes sense within the ideals and values that characterize institutions, since, in Veyne’s striking formulation, institutions are disinterested and idealistic, and hence have their own agency. Wealthy citizens in the post-classical cities accepted and rationalized their economic obligations, the non-elite citizens accepted the eminence and power of the wealthy — because this was, in the current set-up, the path of least resistance for everyone. This remarkable page of proto-neo-institutionalist analysis was omitted by Veyne in the second, abridged edition of Comment on écrit l’histoire, to serve his Foucauldian vision, but its sober explanatory power is worth reviving, as a corrective to the baroque paradoxes of Le pain et le cirque.

Larger historical questions remain about the specificity or relevance of euergetism: how are public goods to be supplied? The presence of leitourgia and quasi-euergetical practices in the eighteenth-century town of Lourmarin such as cash-advances to cover supra-local taxation or voluntary sacrifice of profits by grain-selling notables (what Greek honorific decrees call paraprasis) raises the possibility that these are structural constraints within municipal contexts.[9] Of even broader import is the question-begging issue of what public goods are, or whether to provide them at all — an issue raised by the end of euergetism in the Christian world of the late Roman empire, and indeed by the current political situation and reactionary currents in the United States.[10]


Authors and titles

Introduction: Benefactors and the polis, a long-term perspective / Marc Domingo Gygax, Arjan Zuiderhoek
Heroic benefactors? The limits of generosity in Homer / Hans van Wees
The garden of Pisistratus: benefits and dues in archaic Athens / Beate Wagner-Hasel
Classical Athens and the invention of civic euergetism / Marc Domingo Gygax
The scale of benefaction / Robin Osborne
The politics of endowments / Sitta von Reden
‘To be magnanimous and grateful’: the entanglement of cities and empires in the Hellenistic Aegean / Rolf Strootman
Socially embedded benefaction on Delos / John Tully
Emperors, benefaction and honorific practice in the Roman imperial Greek polis / Carlos Noreña
Benefactors and the poleis in the Roman Empire: civic munificence in the Roman East in the context of the longue durée / Arjan Zuiderhoek
Festivals and benefactors / Onno van Nijf
Bishops and the politics of lithomania in early Byzantium / Daniel Caner
Euergetism, Christianity and municipal culture in late antiquity, from Aquileia to Gerasa (fourth-sixth centuries CE) / Christophe Goddard
Conclusion / Marc Domingo Gygax, Arjan Zuiderhoek



[1] Marc Domingo Gygax, Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The Origins of Euergetism (2016); A. Zuiderhoek, The Politics of Munificence in the Roman Empire: Citizens, Elites and Benefactors in Asia Minor (2009).

[2] Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque: sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique (1976); also Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism (1990), abr. O. Murray, tr. B. Pearce.

[3] Carlos Noreña, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power (2011).

[4] “Du paradigme du don à une anthropologie pragmatique de la valeur” in Pascal Payen, Évelyne Scheid-Tissinier (eds), Anthropologie de l’Antiquité. Anciens objets, nouvelles approches (2013), 17-42.

[5] Philippe Gauthier, Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs (1985).

[6] Patrice Hamon, “Démocraties grecques après Alexandre : à propos de trois ouvrages récents,” Topoi 16 (2009), 347-82; Cédric Brélaz, “La vie démocratique dans les cités grecques à l’époque impériale,” Topoi 18 (2013), 367-399; Alain Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy (2016).

[7] This is illustrated by the extraordinary new material from Roman-era Patara: compare the emphasis on service in SEG 63.1346 with the insistence on gifts in SEG 65.1486.

[8] See also Christel Müller, “Évergétisme et pratiques financières dans les cités de la Grèce hellénistique,” REA 113 (2011), 345-63.

[9] Thomas Sheppard, Lourmarin in the Eighteenth Century: A Study of a French Village [sic] (1971). Paraprasis: Arjan Zuiderhoek “No free lunches: paraprasis in the Greek cities of the Roman East,” HSCP (107) 2013, 297-321.

[10] Osborne misspells bienfaiteurs with a superfetatory circumflex (96); von Reden misplaces the superscript “2” in I. Priene2.