Greek Women and Philanthropy

By James D. Georgiles

Philanthropy, “the affection and active concern for one’s fellow man”, has been part of the Greek way of life from classical days, through Christian antiquity and Byzantine civilization until the present day.

To the Ancient Greeks, philanthropy was individualistic, a philosophic quest rather than a virtue.

The Early Christians, however, saw philanthropy more as a selfless love, altruism and a Christian agape manifested to friend and foe alike.

In Byzantium, the spirit of love and concern for man was an esteemed virtue that was practised by group and individual alike.

Greek women, throughout the centuries have demonstrated their philanthropy, and many of their actions have been recorded in history.

One of the earliest Greek women to get recognition was Nausicaa, who, according to Homer in his Odyssey, extended hospitality to the shipwrecked Ulysses. Other Greek women noted for their philanthropic works were:

  • Helen, wife of Constantine the Great, who built the first gerocomeion (home for the aged) in Constantinople; The Empress Eudocia-Athenais had a gerocomeion built in Jerusalem in A.D. 409;
  • Pulcheria, wife of Marcianos (A.D. 450-59) took pity on those who could not afford decent burial. She established several xenotapheia which provided funerals for poor citizens and strangers;
  • Theodora, wife of Justinian 1, in A.D. 500, founded and endowed a convent, The Metanoia, for repentant prostitutes. Theodora redeemed many prostitutes from their masters by paying five nomismata for each woman under their patronage;
  • Sophia, consort of Justinian 11 (A.D. 565-78) built the Orphanage (Orphanotropheion) of St. Paul in Constantinople;
  • Agathe, a noblewoman of Constantinople, built a gerocomeion, The Geragathes, during the reign of Constantine V Copronymos (A.D. 741-75). The name of the institution was, according to Pseudo-Codinos, derived from the fact that Agathe remained a spinster although living to an advanced age;
  • The Empress Eirene (A.D. 797-802) established xenotapheia and hospices (xenones) for poor travellers and visitors;
  • Helen, wife ot Constantine Porphyrogenitos (A.D. 913-59) also founded a gerocomeion;
  • Eudocia, wife of Theodosios 11, established and endowed several gerocomeia and ptocheia
    (homes for the poor); and
  • Eirene, wife of John III Doucas Vatatzes (A.D. 1222-54) was also renowned for having founded ptocheia.

Even during Byzantium’s declining years Greek women continued their philanthropy. During the reign of Manuel 11 Palaeologos (1391-1425) Theoclosia Cantacuzena established a xenon and endowed it with all her money and estates.

Another Greek women renowned for her philanthropy was the deaconess Olympias, the faithful disciple of John Chrysostomas, who gave all her vast wealth to the poor.

In literature too, Greek women demonstrate their philanthropy. In the poem “Imberios and Margarona” Margarona, believing her husband to be dead, devotes his entire wealth to the erection of a xenon, with 100 beds, for the sick, poor and strangers.

Today, Greek women continue their philanthropic works, individually and collectively. Throughout North and South America, practically wherever a Greek community exists can be found a chapter of the Greek Ladies’ Philoptochos Society. These female friends of the poor are an integral part of their communities and perpetuate the traditional philanthropy of their ancestors.