Benefaction and Rewards in the Ancient Greek City: The Origins of Euergetism by Marc Domingo Gygax
In this volume Marc Domingo Gygax provides a clear, theoretically informed, scholarly, and meticulous treatment of the development and early history of euergetism, the system of harnessing "private liberality for public benefit," as Paul Veyne put it in his seminal Le pain et le cirque: sociologie historique d'un pluralisme politique (Paris 1976; abridged English translation [London 1990], 10). Most scholars have followed Veyne and the preponderance of our epigraphic evidence to concentrate on the Hellenistic and Roman periods as well as the transition to Christian charity. This book makes two main contributions. First, it covers the prehistory of Hellenistic euergetism, starting in the archaic period and examining in detail the growth, especially in classical Athens, of euergetism. Although historians associate euergetism with elite domination of Hellenistic and then Roman cities, it owed its origins to Athenian democracy. That individual benefactions and honors were fraught and controversial practices, in tension with the citizen egalitarianism of Athens but required by exigencies of naval power especially after the end of the Athenian Empire, does not make [End Page 152] this observation any less true. Second, Domingo Gygax views euergetism in the context of reciprocity, specifically the anthropology of gift exchange, in for example the work of Marcel Mauss and Marshall Sahlins. He argues that otherwise puzzling aspects of euergetism can be understood best according to the logic of the gift. Of course, euergetism is a special, somewhat abstract, subset of the larger category of gift exchange. Unlike the simple case, it involves on one side a whole community or state. And the types of gifts are asymmetrical as well: financial or material benefactions, often very large, are typically repaid with honors. Domingo Gygax sometimes regards the honors awarded to benefactors as counter-gifts that may clear the account (40); in other cases they may merely be a way for a community to soften the inferiority implied by receiving a gift that it cannot repay (257): "I said, 'Thank you.' "
Domingo Gygax's chronological treatment is rich and deals with more complicated material than can be summarized here. He begins in the sixth century with honors for exceptional victorious athletes, and with the scattered evidence of the rewards later associated with euergetism, including proxenia. He also treats less formal, "non-institutional" predecessors of euergetism, for the benefactions of archaic elites earned recompense in honor and subordination, if not the official rewards of later euergetism. And the liberality of tyrants may have established special bonds of reciprocity with the demos (95). In the classical period he concentrates on Athens, the source of much of our information and "the place of origin of the practice, which eventually spread throughout the Greek world, of systematically honoring members of the polis elite for their services and economic contributions" (107). In addition to proxenoi and victorious athletes, we find by the mid-fifth century references to the full spectrum of honors that later characterized euergetism, including the word itself (110). The number and scope of euergetical awards expanded from the period of the Peloponnesian War through the time of Lykourgos. Generals were early beneficiaries of sitesis (the right to dine in the prytaneion), proedria (seats of honor), and crowns, which they received by the time of the Prytaneion Decree in the third quarter of the fifth century (131–32, 181). By the end of the Peloponnesian War, numbers of prominent generals had been so honored (185), a trend that continued through the fourth century. Honors bestowed on those who made monetary or material donations to that war effort and afterwards constituted a more direct antecedent of Hellenistic euergetism (187–92). Private donations for public buildings and those connected with offices complete the spectrum of euergetism, but the classical Athenians never established an official group of euergetai (230–31): such a practice would have been contrary to democratic ideals. Still, the classical period saw the "progressive euergetization of the Athenian financial system" (204).
Whereas Veyne was a "splitter," polemical in his denial of parallels to euergetism and of general theories that might encompass it, Domingo Gygax's strength is that he is a "lumper." He "attempts to identify regularities, patterns, and principles behind the variety of human deeds" (8). He sees euergetism as based in broader Greek notions of reciprocity and coming out of the relationship, often tense in classical Athens, between elite benefactors and a community committed to an egalitarian ethos. This makes for a fascinating and convincing story.
The context of gift exchange is certainly important, but Domingo Gygax sometimes emphasizes it too much. For example, he aims to show the validity of his model with Hellenistic cases of "proleptic honors": people were sometimes honored merely for promising a benefaction, before they actually carried it out. [End Page 153] He interprets these in terms of distinctive features of gift exchange, the theory of which he presents clearly and concisely. He concludes that the Greeks did not distinguish as sharply as we do between benefactions and rewards or honor, and thus that beginning a gift relationship with a reward was not problematic to them (40, 57). Despite his counterarguments, I find more convincing the earlier and simpler view that the promise was regarded as more or less equivalent to the benefaction (20), and thus I find "proleptic honors" less of an issue than he does. Nevertheless, such minor objections should not detract from the gratitude we owe Domingo Gygax for a rich and stimulating book, important reading both for historians of the classical Greek polis and for those interested in the later, fully developed system of euergetism.