Public Munificence for Private Benefit: Liturgies in Classical Athens

By Carmichael, Calum M. | Economic Inquiry, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Public Munificence for Private Benefit: Liturgies in Classical Athens


Carmichael, Calum M., Economic Inquiry


I. INTRODUCTION

Throughout the democratic period in Athens from the first quarter of the fifth century to the last quarter of the fourth, the numerous liturgies or public services performed by the wealthiest citizens represented an important source of state revenue.(1,2) This paper argues that the efficiency of liturgies as a revenue source declined over the period, paralleling a decline in the private benefits citizens could acquire through public munificence.

The liturgies themselves were of several types. Those tied to the festivals required their performers to finance and organize theatrical productions (the choregia), or to support and supervise the training of athletes for competition (the gymnasiarchy).(3) The naval liturgy required its performers to command and maintain a warship or trireme (the trierarchy).(4) The personal outlay could range from 1,200 to 3,000 drachmai (one-fifth to one-half a talent) for a theatrical production or athletic competition; 4,000 to 6,000 drachmai (two-thirds to one talent) for a naval command.(5) In the fourth century, citizens performing liturgies had wealth of three to four talents, or more.(6)

The liturgies were allocated on an annual basis. The appropriate magistrates announced the number and type to be performed, and called for volunteers. The magistrates then assigned the liturgies for which there were no volunteers to wealthy citizens who did not volunteer. A citizen could attempt to avoid performing a liturgy assigned to him by invoking two legal procedures. First, he could claim exemption through the procedure known as skepsis: no one was obliged to perform more than one liturgy in the same year or in consecutive years; colonists and the physically disabled were exempt from performing the naval liturgy. Second, he could attempt, through the procedure known as antidosis, to shift an assigned liturgy to another man whom he alleged to be wealthier.(7) If the other man refused to accept the liturgy, then the original man could offer to exchange properties with him, and thereby offer to keep the liturgy but perform it out of the other man's wealth. If the other man refused this exchange, then the matter would come before a court which would assign the liturgy to the man it deemed wealthier. Of course, the refusal of the other man to exchange properties could be used as evidence against him. The antidosis procedure was intended to bring private interest, initiative and information into the process of reallocating the liturgies, in such a way that the liturgies not performed voluntarily would ultimately be performed by the citizens who had the highest visible wealth.

Historians differ in their evaluation of the antidosis procedure: Andreades [1933, 294] considers it "a clever and unique institution"; Michell [1940, 381] describes it as "bungling, amateurish and bad." To date, economists have largely overlooked the procedure, in spite of it having a bearing on subjects that have received considerable attention: truth-revealing mechanisms, charitable donations, the self-assessment of property values, and the provision of public goods. This paper considers the efficiency of liturgies, reallocated in accordance with antidosis, as a source of state revenue. It does so with reference to simulations of a simple model in which each citizen, knowing his own wealth and the probability distribution of the visible wealth of others, can engage in costly wealth concealment in order to improve his chances of avoiding a liturgy, either by shifting it to a visibly wealthier citizen under antidosis, or by averting or winning a similar challenge from another. The simulation results indicate that the efficiency of liturgies, relative to that of a wealth tax, depends on the private benefits that citizens could acquire through munificent public expenditure. Recent scholarship observes a decline in such benefits during the fifth century and into the fourth. Given this observation, one can argue that the relative efficiency of liturgies also declined over the period. …

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