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Ancient Mediterranean Examples

The peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world made enduring contributions to the definitions and practices of philanthropy. In their law codes from the third millennium B.C.E., Babylonian kings decreed special punishments for the strong who abused the weak. These provisions made justice and clemency hallmarks of nobility. Babylonian epic poetry, exemplified by the Gilgamesh cycle (c. 2000 B.C.E.), reiterated this message. Verses retold the misfortunes of misanthropic kings while celebrating generosity and self-sacrifice as vital steps toward civilization. Contemporaneous Egyptian sacred writings such as The Book of the Dead make it clear that anyone's successful passage to the afterlife depended on a lifetime record of benevolent acts toward the suffering. Egyptian deities expected postulants for immortality to swear that they had never denied food to the starving, drink to the thirsty, and clothing to the ragged. Islam's many later commandments that the faithful must be charitable derive from philanthropy's sacred character among Semitic peoples in antiquity.


Ancient Judaism went farther, postulating a single God as the epitome of generosity. All of creation belonged to Jehovah, but he gave the Israelites the promised land, sheltering them as refugees ("for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me"; Lev. 25:23). Israel itself is defined in Jewish sacred writings as a foundling nation, rescued by the Lord. Repeated Mosaic descriptions of the deity as an avenger of the orphaned, the widowed, and the homeless compel Jews, in turn, to help the bereft ("Love the stranger therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"; Deut. 10:19). Here, misanthropy equals apostasy, and pious Jews are required to be givers. Charity becomes a mode of divine worship, and rituals of giving organize all Hebrew calendars. Days of celebration and atonement marking the lunar year must be accompanied by shared meals and presents. Seasonal harvests close with free gleanings in the fields accorded to the impoverished. Tithes to benefit the poor, priests, and slaves run at three-, seven-, and fifty-year cycles, perpetuating acts of charity among the tribes of Israel. Synagogues themselves embodied Judaism's charitable imperatives with spaces designed for the kindly deposit and distribution of alms. Donors left gifts secretly in one room of the temple. Beneficiaries collected the offerings in a second room unseen by contributors and thus immune to any shame in the transaction. Such philanthropic constructs prefigure the hierarchies of giving explained by Jewish sages such as Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204 C.E.). Voluntary donors who act anonymously and who succeed in organizing others in durable networks of mutual aid get highest praise in this literature.

By the turn to the common era, gifts in Jewish communities had intensified as markers of social status and priestly privileges. More punctilious but also more debatable charitable acts invigorated Jewish sectarianism. Out of this controversy, disaffected Jews, like the Galilean, Jesus, sought for a more humble and true charity.

Greek models.

Westerners owe the word philanthropy to the Greeks, who, since the fifth century B.C.E. ceaselessly elaborated on their idea of philanthropia. This concept they first embodied in the benevolent god Prometheus, who dared to share divine fire with mortals and suffered Zeus's wrath for his generosity. Greeks also revered their gods Hermes and Eros as especially philanthropic for the gifts of wisdom and desire they imparted to men. Greek fascination with knowledge as a gift freely communicated to mortals by other wise men registers in Plato's presentation of the philosopher Socrates stating the philanthropic nature of teaching (Euthyphro, c. 400 B.C.E.). The love of learning and discriminating art patronage employed by the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great induced his Greek biographer Xenophon to praise the monarch's supremely phil-anthropic soul (Cyropaedia, c. 380 B.C.E.). Here are the origins of the honorific by which Greek subjects addressed the emperors of Byzantium for centuries: "Your Philanthropy." This title was doubly appropriate since, by the sixth century C.E., a "philanthropy" in Greek also meant the tax exemption Byzantine emperors regularly gave to their favorite charities such as hospitals, orphanages, and schools. The tax-exempt condition of many modern philanthropies is ancient, and this type of privilege has long contributed to shaping various status hierarchies within Western societies.

In Greek cities, many forms of philanthropy combined to strengthen urban culture. Most important were the civic liturgies rich men assumed either voluntarily or under heavy peer pressure. These duties obligated wealthy citizens to subsidize personally the cost of temples, city walls, armories, granaries, and other municipal amenities promoting inhabitants' common identity and welfare. Prominent citizens vied with one another in the performance of these indiscriminate gifts to show the superiority of their own civic virtue. Personal vanity was a prime motive for donors, but rich citizens risked ostracism by peers and plebs if they failed to appreciate their wealth as a trust in which the community had a share. Greek philanthropists showed a genius for converting their gifts into potent symbols of communal strength and solidarity. Groups of wealthy men regularly paid for all the equipment necessary to stage the great Greek dramatic festivals. Such gifts of theaters, scripts commissioned from leading playwrights, costumes, and actors shaped the physical and cultural environments of Greek cities, gave audiences memorable lessons in civility, and enshrined drama as one of the greatest media of collective artistic expression in the West.

Roman philanthropia.

As conquerors, heirs, and cautious emulators of the Greeks, the Romans assumed better regulation of what they called philanthropia to be among the greatest obligations of their civilization. Influential authors like Cicero and Seneca composed manuals on the arts of proper gift giving and receipt. Seneca, tutor to the emperor Nero, emphasized that elite giving must generate gratitude between the vertical ranks of Roman society and argued that philanthropy rightly done formed the "glue" that held the Roman people together (On Benefits, composed c. 60 C.E.). Thus benefactors had to select appreciative beneficiaries carefully and choose presents capable of eliciting maximum acknowledgment from recipients. Heads must rule hearts in discriminate Roman philanthropy. Roman rulers took this advice with emperors asserting exclusive right to make choice gifts of baths, gymnasia, fountains, and gladiatorial games to the Roman population. The elaboration of Roman law aided less exalted philanthropists by giving legal status to trusts, charitable endowments, and mutual-aid societies. But the propensity of many donors to use such legal instruments for self-glorification, personally advantageous politicking, and the conservation of family wealth did little to help larger numbers of the destitute in growing Roman imperial cities. To Latins, philanthropy also meant the proper conduct of diplomacy, special respect for foreign ambassadors, fidelity to sworn treaties, and generous terms of alliance offered to defeated enemies. The propagandists of empire cited these philanthropies as justifications of Roman imperialism and the superiority of Roman civilization.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPhilanthropy - Ancient Mediterranean Examples, Christian Regimes Of Philanthropy, Early Modern Refinements, Modern "scientific" Philanthropy