Alas Poor Boris … I Feel Your Pain (sort of)

Poor Boris Johnson … another Classicist trying to manage in an increasingly unclassical world. He uses a word which is common enough in our discipline — euergetism — and the Daily Mail feels a need to gloss the term for the teeming millions. Some excerpts:

The super-rich must pay for schools and hospitals to stop the gap between rich and poor in recession-hit Britain becoming as big as it was in Victorian days, Boris Johnson has warned.

Drawing on his background as a Classics scholar, the London Mayor called for a ‘greater sense of euergetism’ – a word derived from Classical Greek that means philanthropy.


It is not the first time that Mr Johnson, who studied Classics at Oxford University, has used his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Ancient World to illuminate his arguments.

He drew again on his classical heritage when asked his political hero and villain.

His hero was Pericles, the great Athenian democrat, orator and general.

As his villain he picked Alcibiades, a Greek statesman renowned for his treachery.

Both men lived in the 5th Century BC.

Asked if he thought he would succeed David Cameron, Mr Johnson said: ‘I haven’t got a cat’s chance in hell of becoming Prime Minister,’ before adding mischievously: ‘As I’ve said before, if I was called from my plough to serve in head office, then obviously I would do my best.’

This is yet another classical reference – in this case to Cincinnatus, a Roman aristocrat who left Rome to work on a small farm before returning triumphantly to the city to lead its defence against invasion in the 5th Century BC.


The term euergetism was coined by French historian A. Boulanger, who derived it from a Greek word meaning ‘I do good things’ and describes ‘the practice of notables to distribute a part of their wealth to hoi polloi’.

The Oxford Companion To Classical Civilisation says that euergetism is ‘a socio-political phenomenon of voluntary gift-giving to the ancient community embracing the beneficence of Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors, whose subjects saw such philanthropy as a cardinal virtue of rulers’.

Tim Cornell’s book Bread And Circuses: Euergetism And Municipal Patronage In Roman Italy explains that: ‘Cities in the ancient world relied on private generosity to provide many basic amenities, as well as expecting leading citizens to pay for “bread and circuses” – free food and public entertainment.’

The term euergetism is very close in meaning to another word with Greek origins – philanthropy, which means ‘the love of humanity’ and is used more commonly to describe charitable and other good works funded by the rich.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought ‘philanthrophy’ was a rather wishy-washy word, and more suited to donations to museums and the like. Euergetism is more directed at actually doing good things for one’s fellow human being.


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