Public Funding and Monumental Buildings, a few thoughts

I want to make a few observations about public funding of monumental buildings in ancient Greece and modern America–not so much for conclusions as for musings. To put it bluntly, I am thinking out loud.

Before diving in, I want to acknowledge a few caveats because it is always dicey business to equate the two time periods.

  1. The state of public financing, both in terms of state income and state obligations are hardly similar between modern America and ancient Greece. For instance, the United States doesn’t employ twelve carrier-archs to underwrite the cost of the navy.
  2. Obviously, the form and function of monumental buildings are different between the ancient and modern contexts, particularly since the most common of the monumental buildings in the American context, at least among those that are publicly funded, are sports arenas rather than temples, though I would be remiss if I overlooked the 1.5 billion dollars congress offered to build the Freedom Tower in New York on the site of the World Trade Center.
  3. I do not want to go into actual values because the problems, since, to provide one example, Modern America has a monetary economy, whereas there are a number of ways in which Ancient Athens was only partially monetized.

In the Greek context, monumental buildings often demonstrated the prominence of a city and of the state or people who commissioned or funded it. For instance, the Stoa Poikile in Athens, which contained painted panels of both mythological and historical images from the Athenian past was in part commissioned by the Philaid clan (the family of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and his son Cimon), but, probably as the result of political conflicts in the mid-fifth century, their names were removed from the structure. Later that century, Pericles oversaw one of the largest Athenian building programs that included the Propylaea and the Parthenon, which were partially constructed using the tribute from the Delian League. In addition to beautifying the city, these buildings provided the backdrop for city Dionysia, Lenaia, and Panathenaic festival, which people usually point out as sources of added income to the city because it would have brought people from the countryside and from abroad for the festival where they would have done what people everywhere on trips do–spend money on food, lodging, and souvenirs, but more on this below.

Miletus in Ionia, much like Athens, had a large number of monumental sanctuaries, with the most famous being the eternally incomplete sanctuary at Didyma, which has sometimes been taken to indicate that Miletus was exceptionally wealthy. The problem I have with this observation is that it one one hand fails to account for the source of much ancient wealth and on the other where the money for the sanctuaries came from. Miletus, in particular, was poor when it came to mineral wealth, though it was rich in terms of agricultural land, marble, and clay. The marble would have been of use in constructing the temples, but there is not much in the way of fungible assets that Milesians could use. The money spent on the sanctuaries, particularly Didyma, was not local, but the donation of foreign potentates, whose names are left inscribed on the buildings. Sure, the number of sanctuaries shows a certain type of wealth for the polis, but, at least in this example, it may be better to consider the sanctuaries more as a sources of wealth than as a demonstration of it.

Now to a modern context. I am not in any way an expert on publicly financed (or privately financed, for that matter) buildings, whether in an American or foreign context, but there has recently been quite a bit of controversy over the public financing for sports complexes. Supporters of public financing argue that the stadiums will bring in business–they will provide jobs for construction and to operate them, bring in concerts, and restaurants and hotels in the immediate vicinity to service the thousands of people who come to the events. Opponents point out that most of these stadiums seem to have a shelf-life of a decade or two before the teams begin to clamor for a new one, the jobs created through stadium construction tend not to be particularly well paying and are usually seasonal, and that a single sport-stadium is generally used at most a quarter of the days in a year, while creating a bubble around the stadium where the customer traffic is tied to the stadium’s use, meaning that it is largely abandoned three quarters of the year. Further, opponents point out that the owners of the sports teams (regardless of sport) are in multi-billion dollar industries that have government sanctioned monopolies and lucrative media contracts and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars of tax dollars to fund the stadiums, often with the threat of relocation should the city refuse.

The case of the opposition becomes heightened with the other massive sporting complexes created for events such as the World Cup or the Olympics where the price-tag is higher, most of the use is concentrated in a single extended event, and the majority of the complex immediately falls into disuse.

The industrialized nation state in a monetary economy wields far more financial capacity (at least in terms of spendable money) than many ancient states could and the ancient states often compensated for this weakness by relying on wealthy individuals to pay for buildings and services on a fairly regular basis. Sanctuaries benefited from donations by states and individuals and, when they weren’t being plundered by invading armies, became quite wealthy. Beyond the contributions of the wealthy, tribute that came into imperial states, such as Athens, could be used for building projects, as well as for defense. The modern state has far more obligations and more sources of revenue than most ancient states did, but, at least at first blush, enormous amounts of tax money being given to (effectively) private entities is an inversion of the responsibilities of the wealthy in the two societies–and no, using a cigarette or other regressive tax to raise money for a stadium, as is the case in Minnesota, means there can be no claim that the wealthy pay more than their equal share into the pot of money being used for the stadiums the way that it might with an income tax.

Of course, I am grossly oversimplifying both processes for this account. A larger consideration, and one that I just want to throw out there as a conclusion, is that perhaps sanctuaries and festivals should be thought about along these lines w/r/t the economy and prosperity of a state.

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