Ancient primary sources in support of charity

Philemon and Baucis, by Bartolomeo Suardi Bramantino, c. 1500

This page collects passages from primary source texts of ancient Pagan cultures.  These passages support or can be interpreted to support charity, humanitarian concerns, giving, and other charity-related values.

In addition to these primary sources, see also Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, by Peter Brown, a secondary source that illuminates the development of the concept of charity from the ancient Greek euergetes (civic benefactor), where the rich are expected to give to the city generally, to its later Christian forms, where the rich are expected to give to the poor specifically.

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Delphic Maxims

#15  Help your friends.
#42  Have respect for suppliants.
#55  Give back what you receive.

Hesiod, Works and Days, trans. Athanassakis

The man who gives from the heart, even if his gift is great,
takes pleasure in it and is rewarded with inner delight.  (357-358)

Neighbors should measure well, and you must give back
no less than you take, and even more if you can,
that you may find enough when you are in need again.  (349-351)

Homer, The Iliad, trans. Fagles

“I give you this prize, a gift for giving’s sake.”  (23.691)  (These words are spoken by Achilles to Nestor at the funeral games of Patroclus. Their position in the story is significant: following the protracted rancor between Achilles and Agamemnon over gifts for the sake of personal pride, a gift for the sake of giving draws a stark contrast.  After the ruin resulting from the former, the latter suggests a more prosperous way of life.)

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Fagles

“Every stranger and beggar
comes from Zeus, and whatever scrap we give him
he’ll be glad to get.  So, quick, my girls,
give our newfound friend some food and drink
and bathe the man in the river,
wherever you find some shelter from the wind.”  (6.27-232)

“And you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd,
“It’s wrong, my friend, to send any stranger packing–
even one who arrives in worse shape than you.
Every stranger and beggar comes from Zeus
and whatever scrap they get from the like of us,
they’ll find it welcome.”  (14.63-68)

Aristophanes, Plutus, trans. O’Neill

“Ask Hekate whether it is better to be rich or starving; she will tell you that the rich send her a meal every month [i.e. food placed inside her door-front shrines] and that the poor make it disappear before it is even served.”  (410ff; note that it is unclear whether Aristophanes’ tone is satirical or merely factual)


Ovid, Metamorphoses,  trans. Melville

The power of heaven is great and has no bounds; whatever the gods determine is fulfilled. I give you proof. Among the Phrygian hills [of Lydia in Asia Minor] an oak tree and a lime grow side by side, girt by a little wall … not far from these two trees there is a marsh, once habitable land, but water now, the busy home of divers, duck and coot. Here once came Juppiter [Zeus], in mortal guise, and with his father herald Atlantiades [Hermes], his wings now laid aside. A thousand homes they came to seeking rest; a thousand homes were barred against them; yet one welcomed them, tiny indeed, and thatched with reeds and straw; but in that cottage Baucis, old and good, and old Philemon (he as hold as she) had joined their lives in youth, grown old together, and eased their poverty by bearing it contentedly and thinking it no shame. It was vain to seek master and servant there; they two were all the household, to obey and to command. So when the heavenly ones reached their small home and, stooping, entered in at the low door, the old man placed a bench and bade them sit and rest their weary limbs, and Baucis spread on it a simple rug in busy haste, and from the hearth removed the ash still warm, and fanned yesterday’s embers and fed them leaves and bark, and coaxed a flame with her old breath; then from the rafters took split billets and dry twigs and broke them small, and on them placed a little copper pan; then trimmed a cabbage which her spouse had brought in from the stream-fed garden. He reached down with a forked stick from the black beam a chine of smoke-cured pork, and from the long-kept meat cut a small piece and put it in to boil. Meanwhile their talk beguiles the passing hour and time glides unperceived. A beachwood bowl hung by its curving handle from a peg; they fill it with warm water and their guests bathe in the welcome balm their weary feet. They place a mattress of soft river-sedge upon a couch (its frame and feet were willow) and spread on it their drapes, only brought out on holy days, yet old and cheap they were, fit for a willow couch. The Gods reclined. Then the old woman, aproned, shakily, arranged the table, but one leg was short; a crock adjusted it, and when the slope was levelled up she wiped it with green mint. Then olives, black and green, she brings, the fruit of true Minerva [Athena], autumn cherry plums bottled in wine lees, endive, radishes, and creamy cheese and eggs turned carefully in the cooling ash; all served in earthenware. Next a wine-bowl, from the same ‘silver’ chased, is set and beechwood cups, coated inside with yellow wax. No long delay; the hearth sends forth the steaming feast and wine again is brought of no great age, then moved aside, giving a space to bring the second course. Here are their nuts and figs, here wrinkled dates, and plums and fragrant apples in broad trugs, and sweet grapes gathered from the purple vines, and in the midst a fine pale honeycomb; and – over all – a zeal, not poor nor slow, and faces that with smiling goodness glow. Meanwhile they saw, when the wine-bowl was drained, each time it filled itself, and wine welled up all of its own accord within the bowl. In fear and wonder Baucis and Philemon, with hands upturned, joined in a timid prayer and pardon sought for the crude graceless meal. There was one goose, the trusty guardian of their minute domain and they, the hosts, would sacrifice him for the Gods, their guests. But he, swift-winged, wore out their slow old bones and long escaped them, till at last he seemed to flee for sanctuary to the Gods themselves. The deities forbade. ‘We two are gods’, they said; ‘This wicked neighbourhood shall pay just punishment; but to you there shall be given exemption from this evil. Leave your home, accompany our steps and climb with us the mountain slopes.’ The two old folk obey and slowly struggle up the long ascent, propped on their sticks. A bowshot from the top they turn their eyes and see the land below all flooded marshes now except their house; and while they wonder and in tears bewail their lost possessions, that old cottage home, small even for two owners, is transformed into a temple; columns stand beneath the rafters, and the thatch, turned yellow, gleams a roof of gold; and fine doors richly carved they see, and the bare earth with marble paved. Then Saturnius [Zeus] in gentle tones addressed them: ‘Tell us, you good old man, and you, good dame, his worthy consort, what you most desire.’ Philemon briefly spoke with Baucis, then declared their joint decision to the Gods: ‘We ask to be your priests and guard your shrine; and, since in concord we have spent our years, grant that the selfsame hour may take us both, that I my consort’s tomb may never see nor may it fall to her to bury me.’ Their prayer was granted. Guardians of the shrine they were while life was left, until one day, undone by years and age, standing before the sacred steps and talking of old times, Philemon saw old Baucis sprouting leaves and green with leaves she saw Philemon too, and as the foliage o’er their faces formed they said, while still they might, in mutual words ‘Goodbye, dear love’ together, and together the hiding bark covered their lips. Today the peasants in those parts point out with pride two trees From one twin trunk grown side by side. This tale I heard from staid old men who had no reason to deceive. I saw myself wreaths on the boughs and hung a fresh one there, and said: ‘They now are gods, who served the Gods; to them who worship gave is worship given.  (8.618)

Emperor Julian, Letter to Arsacius

The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time [i.e., the arrival of Julian himself, a reforming traditionalist, on the throne]. Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?

Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us. It is not sufficient for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia [in modern Turkey] without exception. Either make these men good by shaming them, persuade them to become so or fire them . . . Secondly, exhort the priests neither to approach a theater nor to drink in a tavern, nor to profess any base or infamous trade. Honor those who obey and expel those who disobey.

Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods. Accustom those of the Greek religion to such benevolence, teaching them that this has been our work from ancient times. Homer, at any rate, made Eumaeus say: “O Stranger, it is not lawful for me, even if one poorer than you should come, to dishonor a stranger. For all strangers and beggars are from Zeus. The gift is small, but it is precious.” [Julian is quoting from the Odyssey, 14-531.] Do not therefore let others outdo us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness; rather, let us not quite abandon our piety toward the gods . . .

While proper behavior in accordance with the laws of the city will obviously be the concern of the governors of the cities, you for your part [as a priest] must take care to encourage people not to violate the laws of the gods since they are holy . . . Above all you must exercise philanthropy. From it result many other goods, and indeed that which is the greatest blessing of all, the goodwill of the gods . . .

We ought to share our goods with all men, but most of all with the respectable, the helpless, and the poor, so that they have at least the essentials of life. I claim, even though it may seem paradoxical, that it is a holy deed to share our clothes and food with the wicked: we give, not to their moral character but to their human character. Therefore I believe that even prisoners deserve the same kind of care. This type of kindness will not interfere with the process of justice, for among the many imprisoned and awaiting trial some will be found guilty, some innocent. It would be cruel indeed if out of consideration for the innocent we should not allow some pity for the guilty, or on account of the guilty we should behave without mercy and humanity to those who have done no wrong . . . How can the man who, while worshipping Zeus the God of Companions, sees his neighbors in need and does not give them a dime–how can he think he is worshipping Zeus properly?  . . .

Priests ought to make a point of not doing impure or shameful deeds or saying words or hearing talk of this type. We must therefore get rid of all offensive jokes and licentious associations. What I mean is this: no priest is to read Archilochus or Hipponax or anyone else who writes poetry as they do. They should stay away from the same kind of stuff in Old Comedy. Philosophy alone is appropriate for us priests. Of the philosophers, however, only those who put the gods before them as guides of their intellectual life are acceptable, like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics . . . only those who make people reverent . . . not the works of Pyrrho and Epicurus . . . We ought to pray often to the gods in private and in public, about three times a day, but if not that often, at least in the morning and at night.

No priest is anywhere to attend shameful theatrical shows or to have one performed at his own house; it is in no way appropriate. Indeed, if it were possible to get rid of such shows altogether from the theater and restore the theaters, purified, to Dionysus as in the olden days, I would certainly have tried to bring this about. But since I thought that this was out of the question, and even if possible would for other reasons be inexpedient, I did not even try. But I do insist that priests stay away from the licentiousness of the theaters and leave them to the people. No priest is to enter a theater, have an actor or a chariot driver as a friend, or allow a dancer or mime into his house. I allow to attend the sacred games those who want to, that is, they may attend only those games from which women are forbidden to attend not only as participants but even as spectators.


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