Private Philanthropy and the Alimenta Programs in Imperial Rome
McCann, Genevieve I.
In ancient imperial Rome, wealthy upper class citizens followed the emperor's lead of establishing philanthropic alimenta programs. The alimenta programs provided children with financial stipends for food, clothing, and general living expenses. They required a great amount of financial capital to establish, so much that it is difficult to believe the only gains philanthropists received included the gratitude of alimenta recipients and the self-satisfaction resulting from practicing philanthropy. In contrast, modern philanthropists also receive income tax benefits for their donations that in turn benefit their finances. This paper argues that ancient alimenta philanthropists also received a form of financial return on their philanthropic endeavors.The paper begins with an overview of contemporary theories of philanthropy to set up a framework for the paper. Next, it delves into the ancient world of philanthropy and familiarizes the reader with ancient opinions on the importance of philanthropy. The motives of major private philanthropists of the ancient and contemporary eras are compared through an analysis of the philanthropies practiced by Herodes Atticus of the ancient world and Bill Gates of contemporary society. Then, the alimenta system and how it functioned in the public and private philanthropic sectors is introduced and its role in the ancient philanthropic world analyzed. This information along with historical data and contemporary and ancient theories of philosophy is applied to the private citizens who funded ancient alimenta programs to assert that they were driven not only by a desire to assist others, but also for economic gains.The honor and reputation the philanthropists received from their actions allowed them to survive in a society where rich men could only honorably trade in favors, rather than in money. Therefore, their philanthropic work was vital for their personal financial survival: it was the honorable reputation obtained through philanthropy that allowed a member of the upper class to obtain an economic favor from another in exchange for the promise of the favor's future return. Without an honorable reputation, a member of the ancient wealthy upper class would need to purchase services. This action would be considered by other members of their social class as base and dishonorable, resulting in the fall from one's high social class.
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