International Encyclopedia of Civil Society
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Helmut K. Anheier and Stefan Toepler
Philanthropy, Ancient

Martti MuukkonenContact Information

(1)  University of Eastern Finland, Niinivaarantie 84d13, FIN-80230 Joensuu, Finland

Contact Information Martti Muukkonen

Without Abstract


The modern concept of philanthropy traces its roots to ancient societies.

The term comes from the Greek word philanthropia (philia, friendship, love + anthropos, human) and means “humanity, benevolence, kind-heartedness, humane feeling, kindliness, courtesy” or gods’ love for humans (Liddell & Scott, 1940, s.w. philia; philanthropia). According to Ulrich Beck (1984: 107) the concept

is found from the 5th cent. B.C and hence does not occur in Hom. and other epic poets. Originally it has the comprehensive sense of a friendly relation. If in the first instance it is used for the approach or help of the gods to men, Aristoph. Pax, 392f., it can also be extended to the relation of kings and other outstanding persons to those beneath them, Isoc. Or., 9, 43. Finally it spans the whole field of relations between men, with a continuing sense of benevolent condescension… The meaning ranges from “hospitality” in Polyb., 33, 18, 2 (cf. Diod. S., 13, 17, 1) to “mildness” in punishment and “help” in time of need, Jul. Ep., 89b, 289a-c. Related to institutions, things and animals it means what is “useful” to man.

The concept came in wider use in Byzantium where it replaced the New Testament concept of agape (brotherly love) and its Latin equivalence, caritas (Constantelos, 1991: 31). In this, Byzantium merged two traditions together – the Oriental idea of gods as benevolent parents and the Greek idea of philia (friendship) relations.

Key Developments
Oriental Idea of Aid

In Oriental societies the basic unit of community was the household (Hebr. bet, Gr. oikos). It was the duty of the lord of the house to “clothe and feed” members of the household (spouse, children, elders, suppliants). In order to be able to do this, he had full authority over the family members.

Most of the social care was organized along this basic system of the household. The idea of philanthropy, as stated above, occurred in the very meaning of the word, gods’ benevolence to men. The family god or goddess granted the welfare of the family and the paterfamilia was basically a sort of vizier of this family-divinity, executed her/his orders and was responsible for his actions to her/him.

The root metaphor of household was extended to other institutions of the society as well. Thus, palace was the king’s household and temple was the household of the respective divinity. Schoolmaster and artisan were the “fathers” of their pupils and appreciates. Inhabitants of a city or members of a clan were “children” of the patron divinity of the city/clan/tribe.

According to Thorkild Jacobsen (1976) the frame of gods as parents of their people emerged during the second millennium BC and since then, gods were seen as benevolent caretakers of their respective people. As a repayment of this divine kindness, both individuals and communities submitted themselves under the leadership of their god. The Biblical concept of sedek, righteousness, has a strong connotation to this bond or covenant.

The Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish (“When on high”) tells how humankind was created as slaves in order to free gods from such menial tasks as digging canals. Like earthly kings, gods were not necessarily interested in the fate of every individual in their possession but required that their officials took care of the everyday business of their household. This included the support of their subjects. Like earthly kings, gods punished severely their officials if they did not fulfill their duties. Fear of this gods’ wrath was reality in every Mesopotamian city. The story of Jonah (Ch. 3) preaching condemnation over the city of Nineveh is a good example of the general pattern: the people of Nineveh – from king to slave – repented. As far as they were concerned, they had enough examples of cases where gods had punished cities and wiped them away.

This fear of gods had a significant impact on Mesopotamian social care. While the primary responsibility of care was on family, “flesh and blood,” to be more exact, the idea of subsidiarity principle can be attested already in the Code of Hammurabi (§32) in the case of ransoms of prisoners of war. If the family was unable to give support, the responsibility was on the wealthier relatives because, basically, all property of the clan belonged to the god of the forefathers. If the clan divinity had helped someone, it was his duty to deliver this support to other members of the clan. If he did not do it, there was always a possibility that the divinity would withdraw her/his support and drop the hard-hearted one into misery (Van der Toorn, 1996: 108f.)

Temple became responsible if the family or clan was unable to give aid. According to I. J. Gelb (1972: 10f.)

[t]he temple apparently served as a collecting center for all these poor, unwanted and rejected people, who could join the temple of their own free will if they were independent, or could be offered to the temple by individuals on whom they were dependent, socially or economically.

The temple aid was mostly given in the form of employment in the fields, pastures, or temple workshops but the temple could also give interest free loans to poor sick that should be paid only if the divinity was favorable to the debtor and blessed his actions (Bromberg, 1942: 81f., 84f.). Alongside this charity to the community, the temple took care of its own staff like any other household and granted pensions to those who were unable to work.

State responsibility for social care was rather limited. The main role of the state, however, seems to be in creation of such legislation that minimised the need. Almost every Mesopotamian king claims that he “brought justice to his people.” With justice kings ensured that “[t]he strong should not harm the weak” as the prologue of Code of Hammurabi states. Special emphasis was laid on the task “to protect the widows and orphans” as the Epilogue of the code states. The task of the state was to implement such rules under which people could take care of their own welfare. It was only in the extreme cases when the state was forced to intervene. This was done, first by the right to appeal to the king (Parpola, 1987: 21) and, second, through the royal edicts which, from time to time, canceled all the debts, freed the debt slaves and, thus, stabilised the over heated economy.

Private philanthropy was also known in Mesopotamia. The conclusion of the Old Babylonian poem Man and his God states:

As for you, do not tarry to anoint the parched one,

Feed the hungry one, give the thirsty one water to drink;

may he who sits down with feverish eyes

see your food, suckle, receive it and be pleased with you. (Quoted in Van der Toorn, 1994: 107)

As the humankind was made to free gods from menial tasks, taking care of one’s neighbor was one part of this service for gods. Van der Toorn (1996: 104, 106–109, 112–115) argues that this was especially the duty of the upper classes since they have benefited from the benevolence of their divine patrons. However, if the rich did not use these blessings for the benefit of others, they were not immune to divine punishment “since also the ‘small ones’ enjoy divine protection” (idem. 109). Along this, action without payment in a public office and practising philanthropy added honor to wealth.

It was a society where “noblisse oblige” was an ideal. Under the patron divinity, the king was seen as a “good shepherd” who ensured the prosperity and welfare for his people. Rich were required to use their wealth to lighten the burden of their more unlucky kin people and their neighbors. In return, they got respect and obedience. Basically, the same ideals were prevalent in Egypt and Israel as well (see Von den Driesch, 1959; Hanson, 1994; Loewenberg, 1994, 1995).

Greek Reciprocal Relations

In Greece, there existed this old Oriental idea of oikos as the basis for welfare. However, the difference to the Orient was, as Ferdinand Tönnies’ famous distinction states that a Hellene polis was (at least in classical era) a Gesellschaft (association, alliance, society based on locality) instead of Gemeinschaft (community, society based on kinship). Thus, the Greek philanthropy was based on the idea of communal union, koinonia. Those who shared this unity were philoi (sg. philos: friend, beloved; philia: friendship). The Greek city-state, polis, was basically a network of free citizens – or better – band of warriors, who have committed to share their destiny together. Koinonia politikhe (civil society) means basically “fate unity of the town.” The philoi were those who were in arms and their families. This unity between philoi was maintained with the system of reciprocity or gift-giving (Hands, 1968: 26–48).

In the absence of central authority, the gift-giving between philoi is a powerful mechanism in maintaining communal relationships. As Marcell Mauss (1967), Arthur R. Hands (1968), Marshall Sahlins (1969, 1972), Ian Morris (1986) and writers in Reciprocity in Ancient Greece (1998) have argued, gifts create bonds between givers and the receivers. Already Aristotle (Aristot.Nic.Eth. 8.1.4) noted that “friendship appears to be the bond of the state.”

Elizabeth Belfiore (1998, 143–147) lists four types of philia relations. First, there are those that are kin. According to her “the Greek concept of kinship (ankhisteia) includes relatives to the degree of children of cousins” (p. 143). Second, “[w]hile spouses are not blood relatives, they are an integral part of the household (oỉkía) (p. 144)” and “[o]f the three reciprocal relationships, marriage is closest to blood kinship” (p. 145). These two Belfiore’s types are not different to those in the Orient. It was the duty of the kyrios (master, lord) to take care of the members of his oikos.

There are two other types of philia that are interesting from the philanthropy perspective. One is xenia (guest friendship) and the other is hikete (suppliant). While all philia relationships require reciprocity there is one significant difference between the two first and the two last ones. Belfiore notes that “kin may fail to keep their obligations and still remain kin, but xenoi must engage in reciprocical benefits if they are to become and remain” xenoi (p. 145). The same is valid in the case of hiketes as well (p. 146).

The difference is that while a xenos usually has means to repay the guest friendship in kind, hiketes have only their loyalty and obedience to give in return. Thus, the first one is a special case of reciprocity between equals when the latter is a case of hierarchical relationships.

Philanthropic relationship between equals can be bilateral where one individual or household gives something and receives something else. It can be exchange of gifts, favors, or even family members (in cases when fathers arrange the marriage of their children). The mechanism was that gifts required repayment – not in the moment but in the future. When the repayment often was higher than the original gift, after a while nobody could say who was in debt to whom. The end result is a bond between families that can be inherited from father to son.

Hans van Wees (1998: 21f.) has noted that there are three other forms of this equal type of reciprocity. First, referring to Malinowski and Lévi-Strauss, he speaks of general gift giving. This occurs when a group member “in excess of what he can actually consume on the spot would be expected to give it away.” This happens, for example in the case of smoking in a group. Another form of balanced reciprocity is circular: A helps B, B helps C,… N helps A. A third form of reciprocity is a net, “which is ‘group-focused’ when members take turns to benefit the group, as in the pub-goers’ custom of buying rounds, and ‘individual-focused’ when the group benefits each of its members in turn, as in cooperative harvesting arrangements.”

In ancient Greece and Rome, city administration was one part of this mutual gift-giving system among equals. Wealthy persons donated gifts to public purposes (ranging from building town walls or ships for the navy to maintaining gymnasiums and from supporting gladiator shows to distribution of corn and oil) and took care of the administration. In turn, they received honor and respect – and sometimes even amnesty for their illegal acts (Millet, 1998).

Hands (1968: 62–65, 74) argues that there was a certain hierarchy in supportive gift giving. The basic principle required that only the “worthy” (idonei) should be supported. This thinking was evident in distinction between a poor person and a beggar. A poor person was not actually a poor person, but a person who had to work for his living. It was commonly seen as a synonym for Greek demos and Latin populus. In other words, a poor person was the one who was not a member of the elite. A beggar (Gr. aergos, Lat. iners) was someone who did not have anything. Basic meaning of both words is revealing: they suppose, “not the lack of opportunity, but the lack of will to work” (p. 65). Consequently, contrary to Jewish practice, the attitude towards beggars was pitiless and harsh. Hands also notes that Homer saw beggars as pandemios, plague.

Hiketes-relationship, in turn, is an example of hierarchical reciprocity. In the case of those who could not pay back the benevolence of a donor, there emerged a status of dependency until the gift or favor was repaid. Hands (1968: 28) notes that, for example, Latin word damnatus refers to this kind of dependent condition. Thus, the English word “to be damned” actually means “to lose one’s liberty.” Hiketes, or Latin clientus were those who were under the protection of some wealthy and/or influential citizen. Kyrios or patron gave protection and often financial help and suppliants gave their loyalty and obedience. Freed slaves were automatically in hiketes/clientus – relationship with their former kyrios/patron.

In archaic Greece and in imperial Rome kings and emperors extended this master – servant relationship to the whole population. According to Aristotle (Aristot.Nic.Eth. 8.11.1)

Under each of these forms of government we find friendship existing between ruler and ruled, to the same extent as justice. The friendship of a king for his subjects is one of superiority in beneficence; for a king does good to his subjects, inasmuch as being good he studies to promote their welfare, as a shepherd studies the welfare of his sheep; hence Homer called Agamemnon “shepherd of the people.”

Hands (1968: 35f, 54ff.) argues that the king (and later in Rome, the emperor), as the highest among equals had a task to show his friendship towards all other citizens of the town. Thus, he had to be the most generous in his gifts. This is the background of the famous panem et circences practice in Rome. The reciprocal act of his subjects was loyalty and honor. The extreme honor that was offered was the recognition of the act as divine and the philanthropist’s elevation into a god.

Thus, there were basically two frames of philia relations in Greco-Roman world. The first one was gifts and assistance given to peers. This was required to be repaid in kind. The other type was between a superior and suppliants who could not repay the gift in kind. In these cases they gave their loyalty and obedience. The legacy of these practices are submitted to later eras via Christianity and, especially, via Byzantion.

Early Christian Charity
The Christian Church adopted both Oriental and Greek traditions and combined them to systematic philanthropy. A special character in Christian philanthropy was that it was question of imitatio Christi (identification with Christ). It was the responsibility of a Christian to follow the example of his Lord who defined his mission as follows:

[T]he Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. (Luk 4: 18)

Basically, Christ’s declaration was the same that was announced in the Code of Hammurabi’s Prologue and in several enthronement declarations of Oriental kings.
Along with imitatio Christi, there was also the idea of identifying Christ to the poor as the parable of the Last Judgement states:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.  … The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25: 34ff., 40).

While these texts show that Christianity adopted much of the Oriental ethos, there is one significant difference. While Oriental texts restricted the covenant to the relation between the city/state and its respective divinity, Christianity expanded it to the whole humankind. Consequently, Christians gave aid to non-Christians as well – as the parable of the Good Samaritan taught them (Luk 10: 25–37). This aid to non-Christians was done in so large volume that emperor Julian (361–363 AD) wrote to Arsacius, a Greek High Priest of Galatia, that

[w]hy then do we … not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause? …For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. (quoted in Stark, 1996: 73–77)

Julian claimed that Christians did this for egoistic reasons. Egoistic or altruistic, charity has been one of the means of a mission strategy for the Christian Church from the beginning. Rodney Stark (1996: 73–77) has argued that especially during diseases, mortality among Christians was lower than among pagan population. This was due to the basic care that Christians directed to each other. Adequate nutrition and basic nursing reduced mortality in a degree that seemed as a miracle among other segments of population.
Emergence of Welfare Institutions in Byzantium

Demetrios Constantelos (1991: 25–32) notes that the word philanthropy – God’s love to man – suited better to the idea of imitatio Christi than the New Testament concept of agape. “The ideal Christ is the Pantocrator Philanthropos [men loving ruler of the world] or the Eleemon [reliever], depicted as the prototype whose philanthropy men are expected to imitate” (31). In Byzantine thought concepts of eros, agape, and philanthropia overlap and came to mean both God’s love and Christian charity.

Like Oriental kings, this philanthropy was expected from the emperor. Constantelos (1991: 33–42, 89–103) argues that since the emperor received his power from God, he should be “the projection of the archetype, God the Universal King” (34). Like God was the source of good, so the emperor was expected to be a source of light and blessed acts. The emperor should show philanthropy in his attitudes, in practical deeds and in legislation like the ancient Oriental kings. When the emperor was a philanthropist by duty, this led the court to practice charity as well. Along with almsgiving and supporting philanthropic institutions, “it was customary for Byzantines of all classes to designate the poor, orphans, or charitable institutions as beneficiaries in their wills (107).”

One of the first European welfare reforms occurred in Byzantium where the state canceled the panem et circences-type subsidies based on citizenship and adopted the Oriental model of giving the aid to the very poor – irrespective of citizenship.

Constantelos argues that although mysticism was the major tone in Eastern Christianity, philanthropy became a major practice along with prayer in monasteries. He (1991: 52) tells that this practical aspect led to the tradition where monasteries were not founded only in remote regions but in cities as well. Basilio’s philanthropic institutions

included a hospital, an orphanage, an old-age-home, a hospice for poor travelers and visitors, a hospital for infectious diseases, and an institution for indigents. Collectively, Basil’s institutions became known as the Basileias, which was located on the outskirts of Caesarea. The staff was composed of both laymen and clergymen.

The legacy of the Byzantion for the rest of Europe is in the ways of philanthropic thinking and in organisational models. In Basilio’s institutions, we see the basic types of philanthropic institutions that have been models for the rest of Europe during last two millennia.



Charity and religion

Charity, history of

Civil Society Theory: Aristotle

Civil Society History I: Antiquity

Clubs and Clans


Philanthropy and Religion, Christianity

Philanthropy and Religion, Judaism

Philanthropy, Definition of


Religious organizations

Social justice


Tönnies, Ferdinand

References/Further Readings

Note on primary sources: Biblical quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) and classical Greek texts from The Perseus Project URL:
Beck, U. (1984). ϕιλανρωπωα, ϕιλανρώπως. In G. Friedrich & G. W. Bromley (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. IX, Φ–Ω, pp. 107–112). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Belfiore, E. (1998). Harming friends: Problematic reciprocity in Greek tragedy. In C. Gill, N. Postlethwaite, & R. Seaford (Eds.), Reciprocity in ancient Greece (pp. 139–158). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bromberg, B. (1942). The origin of banking: Religious finance in Babylon. The Journal of Economic History, 2(1), 77–88.
Constantelos, D. J. (1991). Byzantine philantrophy & social welfare (2nd Rev. ed.). New Rochelle, NY: Aristide D. Caratzas.
Gelb, I. J. (1972). The Arua institution. Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale, 66, 1–32.
Gill, C., Postlethwaite, N., & Seaford, R. (Eds.) (1988). Reciprocity in ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hands, A. R. (1968). Charities and social aid in Greece and Rome. London: Thames and Hudson.
Hanson, P. (1994). The ancient near Eastern roots of social welfare. In E. A. Hanawalt & C. Lindberg (Eds.), Through the eye of the needle. Judeo-Christian roots of social welfare (pp. 7–28). Kirksville: The Thomas Jefferson University Press at Northeast Missouri State University.
Jacobsen, T. (1976). The treasures of darkness. A history of Mesopotamian religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Liddell, H. G., & Scott, R. (1940). A Greek-English lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Loewenberg, F. M. (1994). On the development of philanthropic institutions in ancient Judaism: Provisions for poor travellers. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 23(3), 193–207.
Loewenberg, F. M. (1995). Financing philanthropic institutions in Biblical and Talmudic times. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 24(4), 307–320.
Mauss, M. (1967). The gift. Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. New York: Norton.
Millet, P. (1998). The rhetoric of reciprocity in classical Athens. In C. Gill, N. Postlethwaite, & R. Seaford (Eds.), Reciprocity in ancient Greece (pp. 227–253). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morris, I. (1986). Gift and commodity in archaic Greece. Man, New Series, 21(1), 1–17.
Parpola, S. (1987). The correspondence of sargon II. Part I. Letters from Assyria and the West. (State Archives of Assyria. Vol. I). Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.
Sahlins, M. D. (1969). On the sociology of primitive exchange. In M. Banton (Ed.), The relevance of models for social Anthropology. London: Tavistock.
Sahlins, M. D. (1972). Stone age economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
Stark, R. (1996). Rise of christianity. A sociologist reconsiders history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
The Code of Hammurabi (s.d.) (L.W. King, Trans.). The Avalon Project of Yale Law School, from [2008-06-24]
Van der Toorn, K. (1994). From her cradle to her grave. The role of religion in the Life of the Israelite and the Babylonian woman. Scheffield: JSOT.
Van der Toorn, K. (1996). Family religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel. Continuity and change in the forms of religious life (Studies in the history and culture of the ancient Near East, Vol. 7). Leiden: Brill.
van Wees, H. (1998). The law of gratitude. Reciprocity in anthropological theory. In C. Gill, N. Postlethwaite, & R. Seaford (Eds.), Reciprocity in ancient Greece (pp. 13–49). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Von Den Driesch, J. (1959). Geschichte der woltatigkeit. Band I. Die wohltätigkeit im alten Ägypten. Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh.