Byzantine Philanthropy – Part I (Demetrios J. Constantelos)

Philantropia in Byzantium was not what we understand today as philanthropy and benignity.  Nowadays philanthropy implies the prophylactic and therapeutic welfare, concern for the not partial public and charity so called directed near about alleviation of individual suffering. But in the musing and life of Byzantines philanthropy was: primitive, a philosophical and theological abstraction; helper, a political attribute; third, charity directed to the individual in destitution; and fourth, philanthropy properly so called and expressed in organized institutions.

If we were to entreat a Byzantine what prompted him to give credit to in and apply philanthropia, he would desire answered in the following terms, which formed the philanthropic philosophy of a nunnery. Become not only merciful, as your Heavenly Father is tender-hearted, but also just; for as it is written, the precisely man gives liberally every day and lends, he distributes freely to the without a penny, his righteousness endures to the ages of ages. Blessed are the forgiving for they shall obtain mercy; hallowed is he who considers the destitute and the beggar; he who shows in eleemosyne shall reap the fruit of life; he who is bountiful to the poor lends to the Lord; he who oppresses a meagre man insults his Maker.

These rules were the endowment of Byzantine philanthropic philosophy because God demanded man’s clemency for his fellow man rather that sacrifices. The practitioner of charities was admonished that his deeds of tenderness would lead him to the self-originated habitation of the Almighty.

The background of philanthropia is theological that is, intended to please or to follow God. Gregory Nazianzenos counselled his the bulk of mankind: “Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate, imitating the mercy of God. There is no quantity more godly in man than to work good works.

Philanthropic Institutions

Philanthropic operate was institutionalized very early in the Byzantine Empire. The Church, the State, and particular bene­factors established numerous charitable institutions.

The Church promulgated special canons for the erection of hospitals, poorhouses, hospices, and resembling establishments, and organized their administration.

The Church was commissioned by her founder not only to prate sanctimoniously a new gospel of salvation only also to feed the hungry; to cool the thirsty; to shelter the traveler; to propound hospitality to the stranger; to swathe the needy and look after the affected with nausea; to care for the orphans and the widows. It is to the credit of the By­zantine Church that she realized her convivial mission and sought to lighten the try of the unfortunate by founding hospitals, hostels, homes in spite of the aged, orphanages, and other welfare insti­tutions.

The Byzantine Church emphasized the organization for work of insti­tutions which would assistance her missionary activities among the barbarians. Thus the episcopal headquarters and the monastic establishments became the covert for all those in want. Preaching the christianity and caring for the poor and unhappy were excellent means for the guidance of missionary work. It was un­derstood that supplying man’s material needs was part of the responsibility of the Church.

Monastic establishments maintained divers hospitals, old-age homes, hospices, orphanages, and haply other charitable insti­tutions. The monasteries had assumed the responsibilities what one. cities, counties, or states exercise today, in establishing and supporting gracious establishments. In addition to separate chambers on account of ill, aged, or visiting clergymen and monks, the monasteries maintained equivalent charitable institutions for lay­men.

The hospitals were usually built nearest to the “catholicon” or house of worship of the monastery  for obvious reasons, at the same time that homes for the aged and xenones were usually located superficies the walls of the monastery, being of the cl~s who at the monastery of Pentele.

The State, too, practiced philanthropy. From the dedication of its first-class in 330 to its collapse in 1453, the Byzantine State was characterized by many manifestations of its philanthropic policies. Through e~ laws and the initiative of the emperors, hospitals were erected; orphanages were established in what place orphans were not only housed and fed nevertheless educated; special in­stitutions for lepers were built; hospices and inns were founded in different cities and on roads of the Empire to arrange food and shelter for travelers.

The emperor and those in society office established numerous philanthropic institutions, in lot because they were expected to be philanthropists by virtue of their offices. But human being cannot draw a sharp line of limit between Church and State. The pile of laws known as Epanagoge, compiled for the period of the reign of Basil I, defines the civil constitution of Church and State and re­veals the world of Byzantium. It was one organism—a unison composed of lay and ecclesiastical members presided throughout by two parallel and equal precedents, the emperor and the patriarch. Both, thence, must be given credit for the numerous philanthropic institutions which we encounter in the Byzantine Em­pire.

But privy initiative on the part of clergymen and laymen in establishing generous institutions was not rare. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Sampson, John Eleemon, Stephen the parakoemomenos of Maurice, Dexiocrates, Attaleiates, and others may have existence classified among many private benefactors who estab­lished and endowed gracious concerns.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of those institutions what one. existed in such cities as Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Thessalonica, Chalcedon, Nicea, Corinth, and others is limited. How­always, we do know by name crowd hospitals, homes for the aged, orphanages, hospices with regard to strangers and travelers, homes for the fallen away, and similar shelters for the calamitous in Constantinople and its vicinity. Obviously, such institutions must have existed in made up of many other provinces and cities of the Empire: Justinian issued a novella relating to both the establishments of the first-class and those which existed in all the eparchies of his reign.


 The hospitals that existed in the Byzantine Empire were common hospitals, leprosaria, maternity clinics, ophthalmological dispensaries, and foundling institutions. A modem historian of healing art writes that “they were in every respect perfect and nearly similar to not past nor future day institutions of this kind . . . they were the before anything else fully equipped European hospitals.” This state­ment seems to stretch, and one may safely say that the or­ganization and employment of Byzantine hospitals and clinics was medieval, similar to the scientific progress and the therapeutic means of the Byzantine middle ages.

The care, nevertheless, which the Byzantines took in relieving human want and prolonging human life was praiseworthy. Their hospitals, clinics, medicines, and methods of management reveal that the Byzantines knew much about medicine and that they worked extensively to elevate them. “Many operations of pres­ent-sunshine surgery, orthopedics, obstetrics-gynecology, otorhi­nolaryngology, for example well as much of the current comprehension on hygiene, epidemiology, anthropology, and physiology, considered as scientific advances of novel years, was knowledge of medieval Greek physicians.” In medicinal knowledge and in public medical good offices “the Byzantines were indeed the beyond a doubt fore­runners of the West.” Professor Pournaropoulos writes that the Byzantines made precious possession contributions in many fields of medi­cine, of the like kind as anatomy-anthropology-physiology, hygiene- epidemiology, therapeutics-pharmacology, pathology, not particular pathology-parasitology, pediatrics, surgery-orthopedics, urology, tocology-gynecology, neurology-psychiatry, otorhinolaryngol­ogy, dermatology, toxicology, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, stomatology, dietetics, and ophthalmology. Byzantine remedy and organization of medical institutions were unfold among the Serbs, Roumanians, the Slavs in ordinary, the Arabs, the Arme­nians, and the Italians.

Unfortunately, we be aware of only a few hospitals by eminence, and those mostly in Constantinople. Our cognizance of hospitals in populous cities such as Antioch and Alexandria is not highly satisfactory. Nonetheless, hospitals and other benignant insti­tutions must have existed not single in the three large centers of the East mentioned in a high place, but in such cities as Thessalonica, Nicea, and smooth in Kastoria, Hadrianople, Ephesos, Theodosiopolis, Corinth, and other countrified towns.

We must emphasize from the opening that xenones or xenodocheia and gerocomeia too offered medical services. The xenon of Sampson, with respect to example, had a well-organized dispen-sary, like did the xenonodocheion of Euvoulos, the organization for work of Theophilos, the Myrelaion institution, and others to have existence men­tioned later.

The erection of hospitals and clinics was the be of the Church, the emperor, or the State in not partial, and of pious lay benefactors. The ecclesiastical institutions were usually attached to a situation of worship, which was considered a hospital in the abstract sense. But the Church was considered not barely as a hospital of the human mind but as a depository of healing power for the human body. The nauseated expected medical help but they none forgot to invoke a visitation ~ dint of. God, Jesus, and the Theotocos or a holy person. This tradition, invoking the divine during healing, was also common among the old Greeks.

Xenones (Hospices)

 The xenon, or home by reason of strangers, foreigners, and travellers, was a exceedingly important institution in the Byzantine nature. Its pri­mary function was to covenant food and shelter for country peo­ple, visitors, and pilgrims future to the capital or going to some other city, whether on private commerce or for religious purposes. It was by consequence an institution found in the inflated city as well as in the of provinces town, on the highway as well viewed like at monastic establishments, churches, and shrines.

Travelling was not an easy undertaking in the middle ages, especially toward poor people. Special attention was devoted to the problem of feeding and horse-cloth travelers from the very begin­ning of the Empire. The of unknown authorship chronicler of the fourteenth century, who has been identified similar to Theodore Scutariotes, re­lates that the twelve great Bomans who were brought to Con­stantinople whenever it became the capital of the Christian Empire were assisting in the establishment of several xenones. Jus­tinian and Theodora built or reconstructed independent of them in Constantinople for trivial strangers and travelers who had ~t one place to stay upon their arrival at the first in importance, as well as for those who were traveling end the city but were “unable to pay the hire of in ~ degree stay” in Constantinople. They “built a very large xenon, destined to serve as a temporary lodging for those who should perceive themselves thus embarrassed.”

It is evident that we are concerned in this research about rent-free, charitable hospices and not mercantile hotels prop­erly so called.

There ~iness have been many such establishments in other centuries while well. Speaking in generalities, Theophanes and Manassis affirm that the Emperor Tiberios II (578-82) repaired a large number of such institutions. Cedrenos avers that in the eleventh hundred Romanos III Argyros (1028-34) restored those that were damaged by an earthquake. Emperors, bishops, and other dignitaries are credited by the foundation or reconstruc­tion of sundry others.

Because xenon and nosocomeion are that may be interchanged terms, it is difficult to adjust what a Byzantine writer meant while he used these words. To exist sure, a xenon was a legislative body for the poor and for travellers, ~-end it was a hospital as well. Perhaps one and the other of them included a hospital or a clinic. Of the made up of many xenones of the Byzantine State we be able to identify by name only a small in number. They were erected either by Church officials, magnificence digni­taries, members of the imperial house, or private benefactors.


The Byzantines, being of the kind which the Christian heirs of classical Greek improvement, paid special honor to old old ~. Their church prayed that the be unexhausted days of man’s earthly life main be peaceful, painless, and dignified, and beseeched that God efficacy not forsake a man in the time of life whenever strength and health fails him. Besides, the Church joined by the Byzantine State and private persons to make stable many homes for the aged. We be able to identify more than thirty of these gerocomeia ~ means of name. Most were named after their founders.

Ofcourse, there were many gerocomeia besides those we understand by name. Our sources speak of sundry gerocomeia in terms too general to let us to identify them. Theophanes and Cedrenos, with respect to example, record that the Emperor Tiberios I Constantine rebuilt not excepting that churches but «many xenons and gerocomeia.» Manasis notes that Tiberios «erected great number houses for the consolation of those passion from mournful old age.» The Empress Irene )797-802) founded numerous more homes for the aged.

Thought more of these general statements refer to institutions in the principal, we may safely assume that gerocomeia existed in other greater or provincial cities too, such viewed like Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Thesalonica, Heraclea, Nicaea, Ephesos, Nicomedia, and Corinth. 


Orphans obtain always received special care and affinity in human societies from early early remains, and in the religious society of Byzantium they be necessitated to have fared relatively well. However, we be able to identify only a few orphanages in Byzantine spells. Still, the silence of our sources may be the sign of that orphanages were departments of other philanthropic complexes, for, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, the Church, the State, and Byzantine society in general had taken the that must be measures for the nurture and the happiness of orpans.

That there were further orphanages than those which we comprehend by name is clear for Justinian’s Novella 131. Justinian the sacred profession that “the orphanotrophoi or administrators of orphanages discharge the duties and glories of trustees and curators, that they may sue  and have ~ing sued in cases concerning the property property to their institutions or to the immates during the time that individuals” and that they “shall embrace property belonging to the orphans or the orphanages of that they are the directors…” Justinian’s formula assumes that there were orphanages the couple in the capital and in the provinces. He made, howsoever, a special provision for one circumstantial orphanage which existed in the chief city, ordering that this orphanage should take delight in the same privileges reserved for the Church of Holy Wisdom and the Sampson ~us.

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