Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 22 June 2021



  • Arjan Zuiderhoek


Euergetism is the modern scholarly term, derived from the ancient Greek euergetes (benefactor), to denote the phenomenon of elite gift-giving to cities (or to groups within them) in Greek and Roman societies. The term encompasses benefactions by Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors, but is mostly used to refer to the munificence of local civic elites. Recent scholarship stresses the transactional character of euergetism: benefactors donated or contributed to public buildings (including temples), festivals, and games, or they gave distributions of food or money or organized public banquets in exchange for publicly awarded honours: usually including an honorific inscription recording the benefaction and the accolades awarded to the donor in return, often accompanied by a statue of him or her. In Archaic and 5th-century bce Greece, cities mostly honoured foreign benefactors in this way, but from the 4th century bce onward, it became more and more normal for wealthy citizens to donate to their own city in exchange for public honours awarded by their fellow-citizens. Civic euergetism of this type became increasingly common in Greek cities during the Hellenistic period. Its greatest proliferation, however, was under Roman imperial rule during the 1st, 2nd and early 3rd centuries ce, when we have more inscriptions for benefactors in cities in both East and West than ever before. From the mid-3rd century ce onward, civic munificence starts to decline, though benefactions by the wealthy remain an aspect of late antique civic society.


  • Ancient Economy
  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Roman History and Historiography

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords, primary texts, links to digital materials, and summary added.

Definition and Original Conceptualization

Euergetism is a modern concept used in classical scholarship to denote the practice of voluntary gift-giving by wealthy individuals to civic communities or groups within them (such as associations), as recorded in thousands of honorific inscriptions for such benefactors that have survived from antiquity. As conceived by Paul Veyne, the term covers the generosity of Hellenistic kings, the liberalitas of Roman Republican magnates, and, later, of emperors, and the local munificence of the civic elites in Hellenistic and Roman-era Greek cities. Subsequent scholarship has extended it to cover the largesse of the elites in Roman cities in Italy and the western provinces.1 Most debate has focused on the post-Classical Greek cities. According to Veyne (building on the work of predecessors) and scholars following in his wake, the rise of elite benefactions (consisting inter alia of contributions toward temples, public buildings, infrastructure, festivals, games, and communal banquets, distributions of food or money, or self-financed trips to kings or emperors to secure civic privileges) should primarily be associated with the increasingly oligarchic political culture of the Hellenistic cities.2 Lacking the payment for office-holding characteristics of classical Athens and some other classical democratic poleis, Hellenistic Greek cities, despite being nominally democratic, increasingly became dependent on wealthy citizens who had both the time and resources to engage in politics and had sufficient social standing to interact with Hellenistic rulers. These notables, Veyne argues, used public benefactions to further reinforce their elevated status and to emphasize the social distance between themselves and their fellow-citizens. Unlike the wealthy citizens paying for public amenities in the classical Athenian liturgy system, which was controlled by the people, the Hellenistic benefactors were themselves in control of their generosity. They gave voluntarily—even if there existed a general expectation among the common citizens that the wealthy ought to indulge in such giving: sometimes spontaneously, sometimes as part of their duties of office (ob honorem). Their contributions to civic amenities were very welcome, since due to the tribute cities had to pay to Hellenistic and Roman rulers, public funds rarely sufficed to cover public needs. The regime of notables persisted in the Greek cities well into the Roman Empire, as did the phenomenon of civic euergetism, which flourished as never before during the first and especially the 2nd and early 3rd centuries ce .

Euergetism as Gift Exchange: Origins and Development

The Veynian narrative of the gradual development of civic euergetism from the late classical/early Hellenistic period onward, as a consequence of the oligarchisation of polis politics and the scarcity of public funds in the cities, was criticized from early on, inter alia for its chronology by Philippe Gauthier, who saw the link between euergetism and the oligarchisation of civic politics only becoming operative from c. 150 bce onward.3 More recently, a revisionist view of euergetism has begun to emerge, one that stresses its longue durée character and its societal embeddedness. Euergetism’s origins have been uncoupled from a supposed Hellenistic oligarchisation of polis politics and traced back to the archaic Greek institution of xenia, or ritualized friendship between (elite) citizens from different poleis, characterized by gift exchange. Over time, xenia partners also began to include their partner’s family, friends, and ultimately fellow citizens in the exchange, and the cities began to bestow upon their citizens’ foreign friends, who had benefitted the polis, the typical euergetic rewards of civic privileges and honorific inscriptions. Thus in the archaic period, polis benefactors who were awarded public honours were generally foreigners; the only individuals in this era who received what amounts to euergetic honours from, or approved by, (members of) their own polis communities were victorious athletes in the Panhellenic games, whose achievements were regarded as gifts to their poleis. During the classical period, however, it became more common for citizens to benefit their own polis in this way, and to be publicly honoured for it by their community. In 5th-century bce Athens, euergetism was slow to develop, since the Athenian ideology of radical political egalitarianism did not leave much scope for publicly honouring (and thus socially elevating) fellow-citizens, and also, perhaps, because the income from Athens’s empire more than sufficed for its public needs. In the 4th century bce, however, with the empire lost, euergetic gifts by Athenian citizens to their deme or polis became increasingly common (operating alongside the liturgy system), as did inscriptions commemorating such gifts.4

Revisionist analyses of the state of civic public finances (usually sufficient for public needs outside of crisis periods) and civic politics (the persistence of active assemblies and an element of people politics, despite the growing wealth and influence of civic elites) in the Hellenistic and Roman-era poleis has led to a re-evaluation of the political role of civic euergetism.5 Inspired by early criticism of Veyne’s neglect of the honours benefactors received, recent research has stressed that euergetism was a form of gift-exchange as generally defined by anthropologists (following Marcel Mauss).6 Giving always anticipated a return: it initiated an enduring social relationship between the parties concerned, and it had (potential) ramifications across many social spheres (political, social, economic, religious). Viewed from this perspective, the honours that benefactors received from their communities in return for their gifts (social and legal privileges for themselves and their families, public acclamations, titles, crowns, statues, honorific inscriptions and so on) turn out to be as important, and as socially and politically significant, as the gifts they gave. This transactional model of euergetism also implies a socially and politically active citizenry, encouraging elite benefactors and rewarding them for their generosity via the political and social institutions of the polis, rather than the passive recipient demos envisaged by Veyne.7

Thus it has been argued that the unprecedented proliferation of civic euergetism in the Hellenistic and Roman imperial East can be understood as resulting from the tension between the prominent social and political position of wealthy citizens (which was encouraged by the kings and emperors, who depended on them for local administration) and the polis’ enduring ideal of basic political equality. With their gifts, prominent citizens demonstrated their allegiance to, and the continued socio-political relevance of, the ideal of the citizen-community, while the people allocated honours among their elite benefactors, which in turn served to legitimate the elevated social and political roles of the benefactors in the community. These exchanges were the subject of continuous processes of negotiation between the elite and the people in council, assembly, and beyond, which structured the relationship between elite and non-elite citizens and afforded the demos a level of control over the munificent behaviour of the wealthy.8 Euergetism in the cities of the Roman West, particularly in Italy, North Africa, and Spain, comprised broadly the same categories of gifts as in the East (gifts bestowed on temples, public buildings, games, festivals, public banquets, and distributions) and was similarly civic-minded in its central focus on the citizen-community as the chief recipient of elite munificence.9

Royal and Imperial Benefactions

This reciprocity model sheds light too on the euergetism of Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors toward cities in their realms: kings and emperors benefitted cities with gifts (buildings, infrastructure, food, remission of taxes, etc.) and/or displayed goodwill toward them in other ways, and were honoured for this, often with cults. Thus, there are links between euergetism and ruler/imperial cult.10 In general terms, communications and interactions between rulers and civic communities were framed in euergetic discourse, whereby the behaviour of each toward the other was always deliberately conceived as a benefaction. Euergetic exchange mostly facilitated ongoing peaceful interaction between rulers and cities; it thus helped to veil potentially more coercive or exploitative aspects of the relationship.11 Illustrative of the transactional character of euergetism, both at the civic level, between the urban elites and the people, and at the level of imperial rulers and cities, are the presentation of honours as (counter-) gifts and the fact that both sides could initiate the exchange. Thus a city could start off honouring a rich and prominent citizen, who then felt compelled to react with a benefaction by way of a counter-gift.12

Marginal Groups

During the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods, euergetism also became a mechanism affording recognition in the public sphere to groups within the civic community that were normally denied this. For instance, donors might single out citizen-women as a specific group of recipients in euergetic distributions. From the Hellenistic period onward, moreover, we find elite women active as civic benefactors too, contributing to public buildings, festivals, games, feasts, and distributions just like their male counterparts, and being publicly honoured by their cities with inscriptions and statues for doing so. Even if they always remained a (significant) minority among euergetic donors, female benefactors can be found in the epigraphic material from cities in the Hellenistic and Roman east, Italy, and the western provinces until well into the later empire. Their appearance, first in the later Hellenistic poleis, has been linked to the increasing societal and political prominence of wealthy citizen families in the post-Classical Greek cities, whose male members came to dominate the city councils and civic magistracies. For such families, euergetic display was crucial to upholding their status in their communities; from this perspective, mobilizing female family members as benefactors too made perfect reputational sense, especially when, due to the vagaries of mortality, there were insufficient adult males available to represent the family.13 Non-citizen groups such as resident-aliens, freedmen, slaves, and even visiting strangers are other marginal categories that start to figure more often among the recipients of elite generosity from the Hellenistic period onward. While euergetism remained overwhelmingly focused on the benefactor’s fellow citizens or subgroups thereof, in public distributions of money, food, or oil or at public banquets, non-citizen groups were included with some frequency alongside the citizenry, though they often received smaller handouts or portions than ordinary citizens, who in turn often received less than high-status citizens such as council members.14 This simultaneous stress on both inclusivity and social hierarchy is entirely typical of later Hellenistic and Roman-era civic euergetism.

Modes of Giving

Public benefactions could take a variety of institutional forms. Public officeholders and priests were often expected to provide part of the expense attached to their office out of their own pockets (such contributions were called liturgies [leitourgiai]), and/or they might be required to make donations (summae honorariae/summae legitimae) to the city when taking up their posts as magistrates, priests, or council members. This is what Veyne, adapting ancient terminology, called “évergétisme ob honorem.”15 Benefactors could of course reinforce the euergetic nature of such contributions and maximize the honours they received for them, by contributing (far) more than was legally required. More common were the spontaneous gifts scholars usually have in mind when they employ the term euergetism, which were, of course, only spontaneous up to a point, since such munificent behaviour was expected from wealthy citizens. Such gifts could take various formats. Many would be one-off donations, but benefactions might also assume the form of a foundation. In the latter case, the benefactor would donate a capital fund, either a sum of money or a piece of land or real estate (houses, workshops), to the city or to some other body within it (an association, for instance), with the stipulation that the money was to be put out on loan or the real estate rented out. The proceeds (interests, rents) were then to be used for a public benefaction, often a recurring festival in the benefactor’s name. Such foundations, if managed properly, might outlast the benefactor’s lifetime (indeed, some were donated by testament), and provide a source of eternal glory, in addition to the honorific monument the donor received in return for his/her gift.16 Another form of public giving that can be associated with euergetism is the public subscription, which flourished primarily in Hellenistic poleis. In this case, many citizens would contribute a small sum to finance some public good, with wealthier citizens often contributing more. An inscription was usually set up containing a list of all contributors’ names and the sums they gave.17

Late Antique Developments

Civic euergetism flourished as never before under the Roman Empire, in cities both east and west, during the 1st, but especially the 2nd centuries ce, and into the first few decades of the 3rd. From roughly the mid-3rd century onward, however, along with other facets of civic life, euergetism seems to have declined in many regions of the empire (North Africa is an important exception). Honorific inscriptions recording gifts by local elite benefactors become increasingly scarce.18 It is difficult not to relate this apparent decline to the series of crises that seem to have afflicted many parts of the empire during the 3rd century, though the precise causal relationships remain somewhat opaque. During the 4th and 5th centuries ce, at least in the east, civic euergetism seemed to recover, and it remained a factor of significance in the life of many cities. In several important ways, however, much of late antique munificence became inflected by Christianity, which gave rise to the notion that the wealthy should target their gifts not so much to their civic community, as pagan benefactors did, but specifically to the (Christian) poor. Also, whereas Christian civic notables, when they contributed to, say, the building of a church, still found public recognition, it was now increasingly clear that they sought rewards for such gifts not so much in this life but in the next. Nonetheless, what we might call pagan or secular gifts also continued, often toward games, shows, and races. The debate on late antique munificence is at present unresolved. Where some scholars see a decisive shift in social imagination, from the pagan, citizen-focused model of euergetism, to a Christian notion of charity for the poor, others see the rise of a specifically Christian form of euergetism, which only ended in the east when the municipal framework finally fell away in the 6th and 7th centuries.19 Public gifts by rich people probably continued, but the specific exchange of gifts for honours between elite and people that had characterized euergetism in ancient cities had disappeared by then.

Primary Texts

Original texts, translations, and extensive analysis. Three extraordinarily large and informative epigraphic dossiers concerning civic euergetism are discussed in:

  • Kokkinia, Christina. Die Opramoas-Inschrift von Rhodiapolis: Euergetismus und soziale Elite in Lykien. Bonn: Habelt, 2000. On the benefactions of Opramoas of Rhodiapolis.
  • Rogers, Guy M. The Sacred Identity of Ephesos: Foundation Myths of a Roman City. London: Routledge, 1991. On the foundation of C. Vibius Salutaris at Ephesos.
  • Wörrle, Michael. Stadt und Fest im kaiserzeitlichen Kleinasien: Studien zu einer agonistischen Stiftung aus Oenoanda. Munich: Beck, 1988. On the foundation of C. Iulius Demosthenes at Oenoanda in Roman Lycia. For an English translation of this inscription see Stephen Mitchell, “Festivals, Games, and Civic Life in Roman Asia Minor,” Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990): 183–193.

Series. Consult almost any volume in this series:

  • Engelmann, Helmut et al. Inschriften griechischer Städte aus Kleinasien. Bonn: Habelt Verlag, 1972–2014. For a flavour of the general character of honorific epigraphy in the post-classical Greek city, consult almost any volume in the series.

Sourcebooks. These contain texts and/or translations of many of the more important honorific inscriptions from the various periods:

  • Austin, Michel M. The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Hands, Arthur Robinson. Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968. see pp. 175–209 for an extensive collection of translated documents.
  • Lewis, Napthali, and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization. Selected Readings. Vol. 2, The Empire. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
  • Rhodes, Peter John, and Robin Osborne, eds. Greek Historical Inscriptions, 404–323 BC. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Links to Digital Materials


  • Domingo Gygax, Marc. Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The Origins of Euergetism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Gauthier, Philippe. Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs. Athens, Greece: École française d'Athènes, 1985.
  • Hands, Arthur Robinson. Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968.
  • Lomas, Kathryn, and Tim Cornell, eds., “Bread and Circuses”: Euergetism and Municipal Patronage in Roman Italy. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Rogers, Guy M. The Sacred Identity of Ephesos: Foundation Myths of a Roman City. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • van Nijf, Onno M., and Anna Heller, eds., The Politics of Honour in the Greek Cities of the Roman Empire. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017.
  • Veyne, Paul. Le Pain et le Cirque. Sociologie Historique d'un Pluralisme Politique. Paris: Seuil, 1976.
  • Veyne, Paul. Bread and Circuses. Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism. Trans. Brian Pearce. London: Penguin Press, 1990 (abridged translation of the French original).
  • Wörrle, Michael. Stadt und Fest im kaiserzeitlichen Kleinasien: Studien zu einer agonistischen Stiftung aus Oenoanda. Munich: Beck, 1988.
  • Zuiderhoek, Arjan. The Politics of Munificence in the Roman Empire: Citizens, Elites and Benefactors in Asia Minor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.