ON THE OCCASION OF THE
THREE HIERARCHS AND GREEK LETTERS DAY
THE CLASSICAL BACKGROUND
OF CHRISTIAN PHILANTHROPY IN THE BYZANTINE ERA
(By Demetrios Constantelos of Stockton College )
There is both continuity &
discontinuity in the Greek tradition,but,despite the various changes,more
continuity,evident even in the vocabulary relating to philanthropy.The
terms used in Byzantine times are not only those in use today but many
were used by Homer & brought over into the Latin west in the 4th
" Philanthropy" comes from philein ton
anthropon-"to love the human being".Homer's term is actually
"philoxenia"-"love for strangers", shown in the
Odyssey numerous times,for example when Telemachus is received by Nestor
or Menelaus or when Telemachus himself receives the disguised Odysseus.One
of Zeus' many epithets is Xenios,"the one who watches over
strangers".Philanthropeia is more theocentric-we love because God
loves us,as seen in Aeschylus' use of the concept in Prometheus Bound,when
Prometheus asks "Why do I suffer for my great love for man?"
Plato says we must love other human beings because God loves human beings
(as later St.Paul says in his letter to Timothy).
When early Christian writers,such as Clement of Alexandria &
Origen,used these words,they weren't inventing new terms but borrowing
terms already in use & appropriating or Christianizing them.
The 3 major words for love are found already in Homer:
physical union but also a mystical dimension(the desire of men to love
God,seen in the middle ages,for example,in nuns married to God)
philia - love &
agape - less
frequently used(though cropping up in the New Testament); replaced often
by philanthropeia,a term more common in normal speech.
The notion that loving care for the
old,orphans,the poor & sick was new to Christianity is belied by
references to the same sort of thing from Homer through 7th century Sparta
If we look at the vocabulary of care
gerokomeion ( house for the elderly); nosokomeion (
house for the sick); orphanotropheion(orphanage);
xenodocheion(traveler's hostel); iatreion (healing place); ptocheion
we see that the terms,even in the Latin west,remained
Greek down to the 14th century,when they switched in the West to Latin.
We see that the ancient Greeks & the early
Christians provided for those who could not care for themselves.In
particular,orphans were looked after by the state.The iatreia were located
in early Greece next to the temples of the gods,just as later Christian
healing places were linked to churches or monasteries.
As far as care for the poor,as early as Solon's
legislation (around 570 BC ) special provisions were made.Christian care
for the poor drew on both the ancient Greek & the Hebrew traditions.
There was much poverty in the early Christian centuries
& much disparity between rich & poor.But even the opponents of
Christianity ,such as Lucian,Galen,Julian the Apostate,spoke with
admiration of the social welfare activities of the church.Justin,a 2nd
century convert to Christianity,speaks of the love Christians had for one
another & for others.
For 300 years Christianity had been illegal/persecuted,with
303-311 especially savage,but in 313 by the Edict of Milan, Constantine
made Christianity legal.He also decreed that each city should have a
hospital.In 372, the wealthy family of Basil the Great gave their fortunes
to found a hospital/leper sanatorium in Basil's honor.
By Byzantine times,there were at least 95 philanthropic
institutions in major cities identified by Constantelos. The Emperor
Julian wrote to the chief priest of Galatia,Arsacios, complaining that
"those impious Galileeans support not only their own poor but ours as
well",which he complains was part of "our own heritage".In
Jerusalem,there was a hospital which a Latin traveler,Antonius Placentinus,
claimed cared for 3000 people.He was mistaken, but archaeology shows it
cared for about 200. There were a number of hospitals which cared for
70-75 patients. In the 12th century,one complex of 6 clinics at the Church
of Christ Pantocrater included separate facilities for gynecology &
ophthalmology,35 physicians of weekly rotations,a vegetarian
diet,distribution of bars of soap,2 baths a week ,2priests & nurses.
At one hospital, the head doctor got a salary of 16 gold pieces,with the
head nurse not far behind,at 14 gold pieces.
For the ptocheia, in the 5th century,the service of
diakonia brought poor people from the ports & the poor quarters for
meals & a place to stay. Each monastery provided a place for travelers
( especially pilgrims )to stay & a ptocheion ( but with a limit of 7
days, after which the poor had to work for their keep).
Anna Comnena writes about how much her father Alexios (
became emperor 1122) had built to help the poor & orphans (of which
there were plenty because of all of the wars). As the state declined, only
the churches could still provide these services.
Gibbon speaks of Byzantine misanthropy,a basically
anticlerical stance in his Decline & Fall, but he overlooked the
numerous instances of philanthropy which the sources reveal. Our views of
the nature of Byzantine civilization, its strengths & weaknesses,have
been revised as a result of many new original studies over the last 75
For further detail on these topics, see 2 books by Constantelos:
Byzantine Philanthropy & Social Welfare(Rutgers,1968;revised
edition,1991) & Poverty,Society &
Philanthropy in the Late Medieval Greek World ( Caratzas,1992).