On why you help people in the ancient world

Teresa Morgan distinguishes between “euergetism” and Christian charity.



Teresa Morgan distinguishes between “euergetism” and Christian charity.


Euergetism or civic do-gooding, as it were – generosity to people less well off than yourself – is a very big part of the Greek and Roman world. And in Christianity, charity is a very large part of the religious tradition and the society in the later Roman Empire. It’s not quite the same thing, I think, and the reason is that euergetism – all things being equal, euergetism is a good thing to do. Euergetism is a good thing to the right people in the right circumstances, but you’re never expected to do it towards everybody, and you’re not expected to do it equally towards everybody. 

What is distinctive about Christian charity is that it is an absolute requirement. Christians are called always to be supportive of those in need within their community, and that’s why Christians famously supported the most marginal people in society, the widows, the orphans, the unwanted children. And those were people that wouldn’t typically get the benefit of Greek or Roman euergetism. So Greek or Roman euergetism, it’s part of what you could see as a somewhat self-interested social negotiation in some ways. You practice benefaction towards people who in some way are going to be useful to you or are a worthy part of your community, whatever you understand by worthy. But Christians have an absolute duty to help everybody within their community and that’s the big difference, I think.