In modern religious worship, 'liturgy' often means a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted. It's seen as an established ceremony prescribed by a religion. The term is based upon the ancient Hellenic word 'leitourgia' (λειτουργία), which had nothing to do with established ceremony, and everything with money. It is leitourgia we will be talking bout today.

Leitourgia comes from the ancient Helenic word 'leitos' (from leos, people) meaning public, and, 'ergo', 'to do'. As such, a leitourgos was 'a man who performs a public duty'; a public servant. Leitourgia were semi-voluntary financial contributions made by the most wealthy of citizens and métoikos in order to finance the state's public expenses in areas of war, theater, and religious worship. The practice was not just prevalent in ancient Athens, it stretched all the way to Rhodos and beyond. The system dates back to the early days of Athenian democracy, but gradually fell into disuse by the end of the 4th century BC. Liturgies came in two main categories; religious and military.

Cities were capable of creating new liturgies in accordance with their immediate needs, or of suppressing them temporarily or permanently. Many of the liturgies were religious in nature, and most were recurring. Examples of the religious leitourgia include:
  • the gymnasiarchia (γυμνασιαρχία): the management and financing of the gymnasium
  • the choregia (χορηγία): the maintenance of the choir members at the theater for dramatic competitions
  • the hestiasis (ἑστίασις): funding of a public dinner for the tribe to which the liturgist belonged during the Panathenaia
  • the architheoria (ἀρχιθεωρία): to lead delegations to the four sacred Panhellenic Games
  • the arrephoria (ἀρρηφορία): to cover the cost of taking care of the arrhephoroi
By comparison, the military liturgies were used only when needed, but they covered the cost of most--if not all--war expenses. Again, some examples:
  • the trierarkhia: maintaining and captaining a war ship (trireme) and its crew for a year; a concession could be paid to make this post solely financial
  • the hippotrophia (ἱπποτροφία): maintaining the horses of the cavalry; it is unsure if this office actually existed, but it was speculated to exist after the Persian Wars.
Demosthenes, a prominent statesman and orator in ancient Hellas, estimated the number leitourgia in ancient Athens to be sixty around 355 BC, but he might have been on the low side, as we know the following numbers were most likely correct: the Dionysia required 23-32 choregoi and ten hestiatores, the Panathenaia ta mikra required at least 19 liturgists per year, and the Panathenaia ta magala around 30 - 40, the Lenaia annually had 5 choregoi, and the Thargelia 10. Some liturgists were also required for other religious holidays, which must be added to the theoroi (sacred messengers, θεωροὶ) of the Panhellenic Games and the oracle of Delphi. It is estimated therefore that and average year required at least 97 civilian leitourgia in Athens, and at least 118 in years of the Panathenaia ta magala.

Leitourgoi were selected by various governmental organs. For most, the Archōn Epōnymos was responsible, but the selection of certain others fell to the Archōn Basileus (most notably the choregoi for the comedy competitions during the Lenaia), and to the strategos (most notably the symmoiai). Hestiatores were appointed by the tribe they belonged to. Decisions on who should become leitourgos were made based on wealth of the person, their ability to lead and their willingness for the post. The financial investment required of the leitourgos varied, but was always substantial, and there were several systems in place that assured breaks between terms served by the leitourgos. Even so, many men had to borrow money in order to pay his leitourgia.

Men became leitourgoi because of the prestige it brought to them and their family. It was a matter of honor to take part in the practice. The leitourgoi to the festival or war effort were loudly declared, and often plaques with their name on it were put up to show everyone who had financed the affair. Still, many were exempt from serving, and others tried to get out of it at all cost.

Demosthenes' 'Against Leptines' gives us the mot information on the ancient leitourgia. In it, he lists some notable exemptions for the post of leitourgos: orphans, females without a legal guardian, minors, those below the age requirement, archōns in office, citizen soldiers, and invalids are amongst them. Some leeway was given to those who had rendered exceptional services to the city. One could not be forced to undertake two liturgies at once, or to take on the same civil liturgy two years in a row, but you were allowed to do so if you wished. A trierarch was entitled to a respite of two years. There were two other ways to get out of serving: either by hiding the fact that you were wealthy, or by suing someone wealthier and forcing them to take on the position. This practice was called 'antidosis' (ἁντιδοσις, 'exchange'), and happened quite often.

The system functioned very well until the Peloponnesian War, when the amount of leitourgoi (especially trierarchs) required begun to weigh down even the wealthiest of citizens. Resistance rose, and the system was abandoned for a voluntary system of gift-giving to the people, called 'euergetism'. This system preserved at least partially the honor system tied to the leitourgia, and helped cover state expenses.