Two things are inevitable: death and taxes. But in Ancient Greece, if you were among the richest citizens, there was one more: Leiturgies.
Leiturgies (Greek “λειτουργία” from λαός [laos], “the people” and ἔργον [ergon] “work”) were an ordinance for rich citizens to contribute a part of their wealth for the good of their city. Some were regular and annual, called encyclical, and other ones were required ad-hoc. The encyclical Leiturgies were assigned in turn to the richest citizens of each tribe (having fortunes of more than 3 talents) who would represent all the members of their tribe. If they did well, all of the tribe was proud, and if not, they shared the sorrow of failure with the Leiturgos.
What were the Leiturgies?
One of the most expensive Leiturgies was the Choregeia (sponsorship). The Choregos (sponsor) had to fund tragedies and comedies competing in the religious festivals. He’d find the right people for the chorus, the right dance trainer, the musicians and the hall for the training and rehearsals. He was also responsible for the catering and he’d pay the salaries of all the staff involved. The cost of costumes, masks, and anything else the chorus needed, was on him. The amounts usually spent by the sponsors were between 2000 and 3000 drachmas, at a time when a good house would cost around 1000 drachmas and the annual salary of a hoplite was 360 drachmas. Aristophanes tells us that 180 drachmas a year were enough to cover the basic needs of a family of three.
The costs of the sponsorship were indeed high. But Greeks loved glory more than money. If their sponsored play would win in the Dionysian Festivals, a tripod carrying their name, and the name of their tribe, would be set up at a prominent place of the city (in Athens there was the “street of tripods”). This was considered a huge honor for the sponsor, no matter that the cost of the tripod was included in the sponsorship. Pericles was the Choregos for Aeschylus’ tragedy “Persians” in 472 BCE.
(The only surviving example of a display base of a tripod (choral prize). Erected near Acropolis (street of tripods street) in 334 BCE by the winner Choregus at the Great Dionysia, Lysicrates. The three scrolls based on the dome held the tripod, which is now unfortunately missing.)
Others were assigned the training of athletes who would participate in various athletic competitions. Athletic competitions were an important part of religious festivals, which were social events of high importance for the Greeks. The one entrusted with this task was called Gymnasiarch and he’d have to take charge of a Gymnasium for a whole year. He’d oversee their diet and health care and was responsible for the staff. A good Gymnasiarch would not hesitate to remove anyone from his staff if he’d be a bad influence for the athletes. The Gymnasiarch had to equip and decorate the place where the games were held and it was up to him to pick the best of the youngsters as torchbearers for the relay of the flame, which also was a Leiturgia called “Lampadephoria”.
Another very important part of every public festival was Hestiasis. The purpose of the “tribal banquests” was to keep the strong ties between the members of each tribe and the Leiturgos was called “hestiator”. In Modern Greek we use the same word for restaurateur.
Architheoria was the supervision of a delegation of ambassadors sent for religious purpose. The most common was a delegation to the Oracle of Delphi when seeking advice. Such delegations were also sent to represent their cities in great festivals and games, like the Pythian, Isthmian or Delia. The Leiturgos in charge of the delegation (Architheoros) had to cover all the expenses and ought to be well-dressed at all times, having decent carriages and promoting the prosperity of his city with their overall presence. Among the known ancient Athenians who had led such a delegation were Nikias to the Delian festivals and Alcibiades to Olympia.
Trierarchia was an ad-hoc Leiturgia required at war time. The state would build the battleship and pay the salary of the crew (1 Drachma per day) and the Trierarchos was responsible for all the rest. Any equipment and maintenance expenses, including catering, repairs and weapons required for the ship and crew, were on him. At the end of the war he’d have to return the battleship undamaged in its original condition. Often, the crew, chosen by the city, was not highly combat qualified and then the Trierarchos would find better soldiers of much higher wages, which he’d pay for himself. But there were also many unexpected incidents that would make his expenses huge, as it happened to Apollodorus, whose story was told by Demosthenes in the speech he wrote on his behalf (Against Polycles). Not only did he have to replace the whole crew, but he even had to continue with the sponsorship for five months more than originally agreed upon, because the next in turn, Polycles, was delaying.
If a sponsor didn’t want to deal with all the everyday management of the battleship, he’d hire an underbidding subcontractor. But, sometimes, this meant trouble for the State as some subcontractors would use the triremes as pirate ships and occupy enemy ships for which they then claimed compensation from the State.
The Trierarchia was, by far, the most costly Leiturgia of all. Its fixed duration was one year and the expenses were between 4.000 and 6.000 Drachmas. At times of financial crisis, when even the wealthy citizens had trouble, the sponsorship would be split in 6 months periods, thus the yearly expenses would be covered by two citizens. In any case, the sponsor had to report in detail his expenses to the State. Those who managed the ship the right way and had it battle-ready in time would receive the “Crown of the Trierarchy”. But those who did not a good job might even end up in prison.
Only a few wealthy citizens would be exempt from Leiturgies: Orphan heirs, until 2 years after coming of age, the 9 archons (rulers) and some local citizens or foreigners who had offered extraordinary services to the city.
Generally, the wealthy citizens would take up the Leiturgies without complaining. They appreciated the honors they’d receive and the social status it meant. In fact very often, they’d spend much more than they had to in order to overtake the other Leiturgoi and get first place. There even are some cases when citizens took up a Leiturgia voluntarily. On the other hand, there were of course some who tried to avoid their duty.
The law of “compulsory exchange” (antidosis)
Sometimes there were citizens who claimed that they had been assigned the sponsorship unjustly because another citizen was wealthier than them. In that case, one could be exempt. But if the other citizen didn’t accept the allegation of being wealthier, the former could request to exchange fortune with the latter. If the latter wouldn’t accept that either, they’d go to court.
Both were under oath that they wouldn’t withhold any information about their wealth status. All their assets and property had to be reported within three days, with the exception of shares in the mines of Lavrion, which were taxed already. The judges would then give their verdict on who is richer, and depending on the outcome, either they’d exchange all of their belongings, or the richest would have to become Leiturgos.
The decline of the ordinance of Leiturgies started during the Peloponnesian War. The expenses of the city had become too huge and the rich started complaining. The ones who didn’t want to pay became more and started questioning the ordinance itself. In the 4th c BCE, the strong ties between the city and its citizens started declining too and the social prestige of contributing for the good of your city became less important than keeping your wealth to yourself for your own good. “You can no longer find a wealthy citizen who wants to become Trierarchos”, Aristophanes writes in 411 BCE. Choregus and Trierarchia were abolished by Demetrius Phalereus and the word “Leiturgia” lost its original meaning in the Hellenistic era. It now meant voluntary contribution to the public expenses, not only by the rich, but by anyone who was willing. This way, step-by-step, the obligation of the rich to contribute for the good of their city transformed into what call nowadays “philanthropy”.
1. Demosthenes, Against Phaenippus (oratio 42) / Against Meidias/ Against Leptines /Against Polycles
2. Lysias, On the Refusal of a Pension
3. Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians / Politics
4. Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 20
5. Aristophanes, The Wasps / The Frogs
6. Isaeus On the Estate of Philoctemon / On the Estate of Nicostratus.
7. Aeschines, On Timarchos
8. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistaí