In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Benefaction/Patronage

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Anthropological Studies
  • Overviews
  • Ancient Primary Sources
  • Patronage and Associations
  • Patronage vs. Benefaction
  • Patronage/Benefaction in Greek Society
  • Patronage/Benefaction in Roman Society
  • Patronage and Friendship
  • Patronage and Gender
  • Divine Patronage/Benefaction in Mediterranean Religion
  • Patronage/Benefaction in Ancient Judaism

Biblical Studies Benefaction/Patronage
Zeba Crook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0203


Patronage is a term with many connotations. Used in modern political settings, it is evidence of corruption, but in the arts it is evidence of generosity (although it is also advertising, since patrons are rarely anonymous). There were positive and negative associations with patronage in the ancient Mediterranean as well. On the one hand, patronage was the social safety net of the ancient world: there were social expectations that wealthy people should support the poor, since hoarding one’s wealth was looked down upon. Conversely, having a patron (i.e., being a client) was seen by many as analogous to being a slave, in that a client was never entirely free to act or speak his mind. Yet, because Antiquity was collectivistic, there is no equivalent to the modern pejorative sense sometimes contained in the term “patronage.” It was expected that patrons favor their clients; anything less would be unjust. Patronage and benefaction, though not exactly the same, are types of generalized exchange that have three features: (1) there must be reciprocity, in that something must be exchanged by both parties; (2) the value of what is exchanged must be unequal (otherwise, it is a loan that is repaid, or gifts that are exchanged); and (3) the status of the parties involved in the exchange is relatively unequal. Patrons and clients are not friends, although their rhetoric sometimes tries to hide the unsavory fact of their unequal status. The best definition of patronage is the broadest one: patronage is a form of exchange that is personal and that involves someone with superior status giving something to those with inferior status, leaving the inferior party owing honor and loyalty to the superior party. Benefaction differs only in that the relationship is not personal: so many people are the beneficiaries (e.g., a city, a whole country, a voluntary association) of what has been given that they do not as individuals owe anything to the benefactor. Nonetheless, reciprocity is still key: with benefaction, the receiving entity will make public statements of gratitude and honor to their benefactor. This entry takes the position that while it is indeed important to distinguish between patronage and benefaction at a detailed level, at a general level they are indistinguishable as examples of generalized exchange.

Foundational Anthropological Studies

Classicists have studied patronage extensively, and their contributions are seen below under several of the headings. The foundation of most of these studies, and those in biblical studies as well, is modern anthropological research into patronage as a social institution, begun by Pitt-Rivers 1971 (originally 1955). Although it is easy to assume that modern anthropological studies can be used to illuminate ancient Mediterranean culture, that assumption has been challenged by Kressel 1994. Put differently, it is widely accepted that modern Mediterranean patronage is sufficiently similar to ancient Mediterranean patronage because ancient Mediterranean culture (or pockets of it) is similar to modern Mediterranean culture. It is also widely accepted that although local differences are important to acknowledge at a level of detailed analysis, together a broad spectrum of studies shows that across the Mediterranean a common social institution prevails. Given the traditional nature of many of the locations studied here, these studies provide an entry into understanding social relationships in the ancient Mediterranean as well. Thus Campbell 1964 is a study of a Greek community, White 1980 a study of an Italian community, Romanucci-Ross 1973 a study of a Mexican community, and Osborn 1968 is a study of a Colombian community. None are identical, but all share broad features, and together (with other studies) they recommend the idea of a Mediterranean (and Mediterranean derived) culture block (broadly speaking). Wolf 1966 (cited under Patronage and Friendship) is wide ranging, adding to the sense of cross-cultural applicability, as are Gellner and Waterbury 1977 and Eisenstadt and Roniger 1984.

  • Campbell, John K. Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    An ethnographical study that shows how patronage functions in a secluded and traditional Greek village to transcend interfamilial hostility and bind together society in a constructive way.

  • Eisenstadt, S. R., and L. Roniger. Patrons, Clients and Friends: Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511557743

    One of several worthwhile works by this pair of scholars, this collaborative book established the socializing aspect that is the foundation of patronage.

  • Gellner, E., and J. Waterbury, eds. Patrons and Clients in Mediterranean Society. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1977.

    A cross-cultural collection of studies covering key topics (definition, potential of exploitation, relation to power and politics) and covering territories as diverse as Italy, Turkey, Cyprus, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and Algeria. Patronage and clientage are not always the same, but these studies show basic features common to many areas.

  • Kressel, Gideon M. “An Anthropologists Response to the Use of Social Science Models in Biblical Studies.” In Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible. By Gideon M. Kressel, 153–161. Semeia 68. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994.

    Although this work was about the risks of cross-cultural thinking about honor and shame, the comments relate to thinking about patronage cross-culturally too, since honor and shame are related to the foundation of patronage.

  • Osborn, Ann. “Compadrazgo and Patronage: A Colombian Case.” Man, new ser., 3 (1968): 593–608.

    DOI: 10.2307/2798581

    What is articulated as kinship-based, god-parentage is really nothing more than patronage: the relationships are informal, noninstitutional, and intensely reciprocal.

  • Pitt-Rivers, Julian. The People of the Sierra. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

    Originally published in 1955, this work not only marks the inauguration of Mediterranean anthropology but also provides the foundation for thinking about the social fabric of patronage.

  • Romanucci-Ross, L. Conflict, Violence, and Morality in a Mexican Village. Palo Alto, CA: National Press, 1973.

    This critically acclaimed ethnography of a modern Mexican village instructs on how to think ethnographically about society, culture, and social interaction. This study also stresses the tension that can arise from the inscription of social stratification in close societies.

  • White, Carolyn. Patrons and Partisans: A Study of Politics in Two Southern Italian Communities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    A study such as this is important because although it shows there are differences among Mediterranean iterations of patronage, it also shows there are common features: reciprocity, interpersonal relationships and bonding, and a collectivistic social structure. This is particularly applicable to the study of the ancient Mediterranean.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.