Ancient Roman Munificence: The Development of the Practice and Law of Charity
69 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2013 Last revised: 26 Jun 2014
This article traces Roman charity from its incipient meager beginnings during Rome’s infancy to the mature legal formula it assumed after intersecting with the Roman emperors and Christianity. During this evolution, charity went from being a haphazard and often accidental private event, to a broad undertaking of public, religious, and legal commitment. Charitable giving within ancient Rome was quite extensive and longstanding, with some obvious differences from the modern definition and practice of the activity.
The main differences can be broken into four key aspects. First, as regards the republican period, Roman charity was invariably given with either political or ego-driven motives, connected to ambitions for friendship, political power or lasting reputation. Second, charity was almost never earmarked for the most needy. Third, Roman largesse was not religiously derived, but rather drawn from personal, or civic impetus. Last, Roman charity tended to avoid any set doctrine, but was hit and miss in application. It was not till the imperium’s grain dole, or cura annonae, and the support of select Italian children, or alimenta were established in the later Empire that the approach became more or less fixed in some basic areas. It was also in the later Empire that Christianity made an enormous impact, helping motivate Constantine – who made Christianity the state religion – and Justinian to develop legal doctrines of charity.
This study of Roman charitable activities will concern itself with several streams of enquiry, one side being the historical, societal, and religious, versus the legal. From another angle, it will follow the pagan versus Christian developments. The first part is a reckoning of Roman largesse in its many expressions, with explanations of what appeared to motivate Roman benefactors. This will be buttressed by a description of the Roman view of society and how charity fit within it. The second part will deal with the specific legal expressions of euegertism (or ‘private munificence for public benefit’ ) that typify and reveal the particular genius that Romans had for casting their activities in a legal framework. This is important because Rome is the starting point of much of charity as we understand the term, both legally and institutionally in the modern world. So studying Roman giving brings into highlight and contrast the beginnings of Charity itself – arguably one of the most important developments of the civilized world, and the linchpin of the Liberal ethos.
Keywords: legal history, Roman law, charity, charitable giving, Judeo-Christian, Catholic, tax, jurisprudence
JEL Classification: K19, K23
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation