An interview with Marc Domingo Gygax, author of Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The Origins of Euergetism

Today we are delighted to bring you the first in a series of interviews with this year’s shortlisted authors.

Marc Domingo Gygax, author of Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The Origins of Euergetism, took the time to answer our long list of questions. Thank you, Marc!

Your book is entitled Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The origins of Euergetism. Euergetism is a term that not everyone will be familiar with. We are more familiar with terms like philanthropy and charity. How does “euergetism” differ from those? Does your definition rest on work done by previous scholars, or do you use a clearly distinct definition, and if so, why?

“Euergetism” is a neologism coined in 1923 on the basis of the Greek word euergetes, which is a rough equivalent of the Latinate “benefactor” in English. Although use of “euergetism” is common among ancient historians, thanks to a book published by Paul Veyne in 1976, it is certainly a term for specialists. This is why I decided to relegate it to the subtitle of my book, with a main title that is essentially my definition of euergetism: “Benefaction and Rewards”. The primary difference between “euergetism” and terms such as “philanthropy” or “charity” is that the latter refer to only one aspect of euergetism—the actions of the benefactor—while “euergetism” also includes the public recognition of these actions as benefactions through grants of honors by the community. In other words, euergetism is not a unilateral action but a reciprocal relationship between giver and receiver. It is thus not a phenomenon but an institution, and one closely related to gift-exchange. Although many historians use “euergetism” as a synonym of “munificence”, they do so in reference to historical contexts in which munificence is rewarded with honors. Consciously or unconsciously, they have the actual or potential public recognition in mind, and for this reason the term “euergetism” is not normally applied to donations and services rendered by members of archaic elites to their communities. To my way of thinking, it does not make much sense to use “euergetism” when more common terms—“philanthropy” or “charity”—are available. But the word is extremely helpful to describe a characteristically Greek institution: the exchange of benefactions for honors.

Your book covers 500 years or so of history, in an attempt to look at the longue durée of euergetism, and is peppered with footnotes and references. How long did it take you to research the material? What were your main sources? Were they easy to access?

The origins of my book go back to earlier work on a monograph on the development and evolution of the polis in classical and Hellenistic Lycia published in 2001. Although the two projects may seem to have little in common, my research on Lycia relied in the first instance on inscribed honorific decrees for benefactors, and I quickly became interested in these decrees not only as sources of local history but as manifestations of a universal Greek institution. Not until I published an article on “euergetism and gift-exchange” in 2003, however, did I really discover what sort of book I wanted to write, allowing me to begin to work systematically on it. My sources are inscriptions, legal texts, historical writing, lyric and elegiac poetry, plays and philosophic texts. Access to these sources was not particularly difficult, since I work only with published material. The main challenge was instead dealing with very different types of documents and literary genres and analyzing the ‘longue durée’ of a particular aspect of half a millennium of often very complicated history.

Previous writers have explored euergetism in relation to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. You have taken the subject back to the archaic period. What have you found to be different or interesting in that earlier period? Why was euergetism so important?

The primary difference between the archaic period and the Hellenistic and Roman periods (besides the fact that the foreigners who act as benefactors in the archaic period do not include kings and emperors) is that civic euergetism—the type characterized by benefactions performed by fellow citizens—is underdeveloped. What I found interesting in my work on the topic is that in the archaic period civic euergetism nonetheless exists. Victorious athletes in panhellenic games are treated by their communities as benefactors who have brought glory to the polis, and are honored accordingly. We do not need to wait until later times to see civic benefactors. But the classical period of Athens is key. Special circumstances absent in other cities led to an enormous development of civic euergetism in fourth-century Athens; in a way, classical Athens “invented” civic euergetism.

You argue that in the archaic period the first step towards the development of this institution consisted in rewards for foreigners, and built on the existing notion of proxenia: how did this work?

Euergetism began as a way of organizing the exchange of services and rewards between the polis and foreigners, and was modeled on the institution of xenia (“ritualized friendship”). When the newly constituted poleis of the archaic period began to interact with influential individuals in other communities, it must have seemed natural to model that relationship on xenia. Beyond the fact that in both cases the relationship was with individuals from “outside”, benefactors of the polis were often associated with one of its citizens via a pre-existing xenia-relationship, and in such relationships, one man was supposed to care not only for his partner but also for his partner’s relatives, friends and fellow citizens. The essential characteristic of xenia was the exchange of gifts, and the relationship between xenia and the establishment of euergetism is confirmed by the fact that the title proxenos was one of the first honors introduced to reward foreigners. A polis interested in obtaining continued favors from a foreigner chose as a gift or counter-gift an honorific title that provided its recipient with privileges, but that also evoked xenia and predisposed the foreigner to do favors in this context.

Foreigners and athletes seem to play a key part in the story. Can you explain why?

It is precisely the study of the benefactions and rewards offered to foreigners and athletes that reveals how old the institution of euergetism is, and that allows it to be traced back to the archaic period. Consideration of foreigners is also key to understanding the rise of the practice, whose origins are linked to xenia, or ritualized friendship between members of different communities. Finally, studying the euergetism of athletes and foreigners helps make sense of the long process of incorporation of civic benefactors other than athletes into the institution, allowing us to recognize aspects of it that facilitated this incorporation as well as those that slowed it down.

You talk about the blurring of roles of giver/gift and recipient/compensation. Can you say more about that? Was this blurring of roles something particular to the Greeks, and their system of rewards and benefactions?

This blurring happens in many ways. Let me offer three examples. The first is when honors are granted to a benefactor “in advance”, for instance, when a city honors a king with the excuse that he has shown goodwill, but with the actual intention of prompting a response by the king in the form of a benefaction. In this case, the honors are officially a counter-gift but de facto a gift, and if they manage to trigger a royal benefaction, that benefaction is presented as a gift, although in fact it functions as a counter-gift. A second example: benefactions by individuals or cities, as well as honors in advance, can lead to long chains of gifts and counter-gifts in which the actors lose track of the initial gift and can scarcely distinguish what is a gift and what is a counter-gift. Third: the beneficiary of a gift can reciprocate with compensation so excessive that it has the character more of a gift than of a counter-gift. This blurring of the roles of gifts and counter-gifts is not unique to the Greeks, but it can be more easily identified in Greek culture than in many other societies. This is an example of the contribution the study of the ancient Greek world can make to our understanding of other places and times, including our own.

Fifth century Athens seems to have had problems with the system as operated by other cities. Was that system too redolent of aristocrats and elites for the democrats of Athens? How did their practices differ?

Fifth-century Athens had no problem honoring foreign benefactors, but it definitely felt uncomfortable honoring citizens. To begin with, such honors implied the establishment of a special class of citizens—euergetai or benefactors—that challenged the egalitarian ethos of the democratic city. In addition, honors for donations by elite members of the citizen body were reminiscent of archaic relationships of “clientage” and of a time when Athens’ elite used gifts and services to the community to gain acceptance of their own privileges. Furthermore, the more citizens honored in this way, the less extraordinary appeared the position of the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogiton, two icons of the democracy who had been distinguished with great honors and who needed to be kept on the highest possible pedestal. We know relatively little about other cities in this regard, but there is evidence that many were much less reluctant to erect statues in honor of athletes and generals than the Athenians were.

It seems that the Athenians were more reluctant than most to reward public benefactions in the Classical period: what were the main factors that later brought about a change in attitude?

Factors leading to the change included the need to reward generals during the Peloponnesian War, as a way of promoting patriotic role models, but also of satisfying the demands of a group that in wartime enjoyed a powerful social and political position; offering recompense for benefactions with an economic dimension, such as supplying grain when the city had limited access to it otherwise; the proliferation of crowns, which led to a sort of honorific arms-race in connection with benefactions for which a simple crown no longer seemed adequate recompense; the need to democratize euergetism and make it accessible to non-elite citizens; financial difficulties after military crises that forced the state to rely increasingly on the wealthy and required new ways of gaining access to their money; a debate about the contributions made by the wealthy in the form of obligatory services (“liturgies”) and war taxes, a controversy that ended up depicting many such contributions as benefactions; and the discovery that euergetism could be used to improve the government and administration of the state.

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, euergetism was a recognised institution involving rewards for various public benefactions: what sort of rewards were these? Were they simply honours?

Apart from the titles proxenos and euergetes (which, incidentally, were normally not mere titles, but brought with them privileges of various sorts), there were many other recompenses. Some had a predominantly honorific character: preferential seating at public spectacles, invitations to dinner in the town hall, statues, olive-leaf garlands, public praise in the Assembly, or inscription of the honorific decree on a stele erected in a prominent place in the city. But other rewards consisted of rights and privileges of various sorts: citizenship, exemption from certain taxes, or the right to own land or a house in a city that was not one’s own. There was also the gold crown, which had both honorific and straightforward economic dimensions. We ought not in any case to underestimate the value of purely honorific rewards; these amounted to symbolic capital that could eventually be transformed into political power or wealth. But above all else, titles brought honor, and for the Greeks honor was important enough all by itself.

If we turn to modern times, do you have any thoughts on the systems that you describe, compared with contemporary society? In the US for example, philanthropy is much more extensive, and generous, than in the UK. Does that tell us anything about the political philosophy in these countries? Could it be said that the US is more like the ancient Greek polis in this regard?

Honors were granted to re-establish the balance between society as a whole and the benefactor, and in principle such honors were considered equal to the benefactions. In this sense, euergetic honors should be distinguished from the medals, titles and other honors that modern states award to citizens or foreigners for having served the country, which can be read as in the first instance simple manifestations of gratitude aimed at symbolizing the state’s debt to the benefactor. We ought nonetheless to acknowledge some fundamental similarities in the practice of what my book implicitly argues is a universal social phenomenon. In the modern American university, for example, private donors often offer money to erect buildings, and the university routinely names the building for the donor and places a plaque with the donor’s name on the wall. The plaque and the naming-right are officially an equivalent counter-gift, and part of what they are intended to assert is that the donor has now been fully compensated for his or her generosity and has not purchased any inappropriate access or sway over the institution’s functioning—although he or she is welcome to make another gift, which can lead to further honors as counter-gifts, and so on. As for the importance of benefactions in modern states, the US is certainly in some ways more like the ancient Greek polis than the UK is. This is due in part to a less developed American public sector, which occasionally leads private individuals to attempt to satisfy public needs that in European countries are handled by the state, as well as to a stronger agonistic mentality that promotes competition in the display of private wealth. One can argue about which model is preferable. But the Greeks clearly stumbled on a means of tapping private wealth for the public good that continues to play an important role in various social and political contexts today.

You mention endowments to educational institutions, which are a notable form of benefaction in the UK and US today. Did the ancients focus on education to the same extent? A lot of their money seems to have gone on statues!

To be clear: the statues were counter-gifts, not gifts, and were a way of rewarding benefactors for erecting buildings, for example, or importing grain into the city in times of famine, or winning a major athletic or military victory. Education was occasionally a field for benefactions in the ancient Greek world. For example, we have a long and detailed Hellenistic inscription that records the foundation of a school in Miletus endowed by a wealthy benefactor. Numerous Hellenistic and Roman inscriptions also document donations to gymnasia, which had both athletic and educational functions. But education was not widely recognized as a public good in the ancient world, as it generally is today, and institutions such as universities simply did not exist—although libraries did and were occasionally the objects of major gifts.

Are there societies in which the system of gift-exchange resembles Greek euergetism, or do modern-day benefactors seek very different rewards?

I know of no modern society with a system of gift-exchange precisely comparable to Greek euergetism, in which the state itself made it a policy to offer public honors intended as equivalent counter-gifts with the capacity actually to indebt benefactors. But modern-day benefactors certainly have in common with ancient Greek ones that their gifts represent a means of obtaining symbolic social capital (honor, respect, influence, “clout”), and we should probably admit that this is often an important motivation for such benefactions—which is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the situation is managed appropriately for the common good, as the Athenians at least tried to do.

The system of public honours that we operate in the UK is frequently criticised. Perhaps we have lessons to learn from what the Greeks did? More ‘crowns’ and inscriptions, fewer archaic titles?

The recompenses for benefactors included titles as well: proxenos (“public guest or friend”) and euergetes. Unlike the UK, however, the Greek cities reserved such titles almost exclusively for foreigners. In principle, there is no obvious reason why a fellow citizen could not have been called an euergetes, and we know of a few cities in which this actually happened. But it did not in Athens, and most likely we are once again dealing here with the effort to avoid institutionalizing a class of benefactors I noted earlier. Beyond this, I suspect that the ancient Athenians would have regarded this as a largely practical matter: if statues work to generate gifts, then statues it will be.

And finally, what was the most satisfying aspect of writing your book? Do you have another project in the pipeline?

The most satisfying aspect of writing this book was dealing with a very long period of time, which allowed me to trace both changes and continuities. Although I love examining specific problems in fragmentary inscriptions and literary passages, I am even more interested in the analysis of social processes. My next project is a book-length study, tentatively entitled Giving and Taking in Ancient Greece, which analyses the basic principles of gift-giving in the Greek world from a synchronic point of view. Just as my interest in the topic of Benefaction and Rewards derives from my work on Lycia, my interest in gift-giving generally stems from my work on euergetism. Early on in my research on the current book, I realized that a comprehensive, systematic study of Greek gift-giving was needed. As many scholars insist, gift-giving is “the cement of society” in both the pre-modern and the modern worlds. But the significance of the practice is more easily observed in archaic communities, where the lack of a developed monetary economy and the weakness of state institutions led individuals to rely more on gifts to achieve their ends. In this sense, Greek society—ignored by Marcel Mauss in his famous essay on the topic—represents a particularly interesting case. In Giving and Taking, I will use the work of anthropologists and sociologists to make better sense of ancient gift-giving over all. But I will try to turn the situation around, by demonstrating that close study of ancient Greek gift-giving can make a major contribution to the modern understanding of related practices in all times and places.

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