Friday, October 02, 2009

The Ancient City: by Fustel de Coulanges

The Ancient City (PDF)
Today I am going to start a re-read of Fustel de Coulanges The Ancient City, a classic study of pre-classical Greece and Rome written in 1864. In examining his Wiki entry one sees the claim that "The work is now largely superceded" but does not explain in what way, perhaps commenters can fill in the gaps.

I found it a fascinating read the last time around, and will update this post as I work through it. From recollection Fustel de Coulanges sees the ancient city as a series of concentric circles each with a patriarchal head and its own god which continues down to the individual household with its Lares and Penates (of which more to come).

In doing some Googling I came across the following by M.I. Finley, himself a major historian of Ancient Greece. On my computer clicking the link triggered an immediate download and opening of the PDF. It is not a big file (708kb) but maybe not something you want to click on with a slow connection. The Ancient City: From Fustel de Coulanges to Max Weber and Beyond

From Finley we see where Fustel de Coulanges was perceived to go astray. In 20th century scholarship the city was more often seen as an economic unit and not so much as a social and familial one. Just off the bat I would say this is the product of too much abstraction, the model which explains the evolution of the medieval town to the modern city may not map well onto antiquity. So I am not ready to ditch the thesis of the Ancient City just yet.

And on finishing the Finley article I am going to give the edge to the Ancient City. The attempts by Weber and others to fit cities into an evolutionary model that culminates with capitalism is much too reductive as are attempts to draw too strict a line between urban and rural as separate economic interests. Instead we would do well to follow Fustel de Coulanges advice:
To understand the truth about the Greeks and Romans, it is wise to study them without thinking of ourselves, as if they were entirely foreign to us; with the same disinterestedness, and with the mind as free, as if we were studying ancient India or Arabia.
And here is the thesis statement:
A comparison of beliefs and laws shows that a primitive religion constituted the Greek and Roman family, established marriage and paternal authority, fixed the order of relationship, and consecrated the right of property, and the right of inheritance. This same religion, after having enlarged and extended the family, formed a still larger association, the city, and reigned in that as it had reigned in the family. From it came all the institutions, as well as all the private law, of the ancients. It was from this that the city received all its principles, its rules, its usages, and its magistracies. But, in the course of time, this ancient religion became modified or effaced, and
private law and political institutions were modified with it. Then came a series of revolutions, and social changes regularly followed the development of knowledge.
Making the city quite literally an extended family.

In Chapter 2 I find the first point of departure.
The dead were held to be sacred beings. To them the ancients
applied the most respectful epithets that could be thought of; they called them good, holy, happy. For them they had all the veneration that man can have for the divinity whom he loves or fears. In their thoughts the dead were gods.
In this chapter Fustel discusses funerary rituals that show that the ancients believed in an afterlife where soul and body lived on together, at least if the rites were strictly observed. Otherwise the soul wandered restlessly and perhaps haunting the living. But back in my days of studying Celtic Mythology it was clear that the Fairy People, those who lived in the mounds of ancient Ireland were treacherous and often malevolent. Yet in folklore these child stealers were called "The Good People". Why? Because as Professor O'Hehir explained "They might be listening". In Indo-European mythology and folklore the line between gods and devils was blurred to the point of non-existence, and the prudent approach was to adopt a posture of fear and awe. Here Fustel may have been drawn astray by the language, he might better of said "loves AND fears".


coberly said...

i was a little concerned to see no comments yet, so i thought i at least ought to record that i enjoyed the essay.

as for calling them "the good people" they also called their conquerors "gentlefolk." maybe because that's what the conquerors called themselves.

and while it is always better to rely on facts than on theories, i think that one fact of human nature is that institutions evolve, by brownian motion if nothing else. so perhaps the origin of that ancient constitution and inalienable rights can be found in "the way we used to treat each other when we were family"

Rodrik said...

At age 66, I am re-reading the Ancient City for the first time since college days. I too was baffled by the phrase "largely superseded." My guess is that "Fustel describes only part of the picture" might be better phrasing. For example, the Germanic peoples, especially Scandinavians who retained pre-Christian culture for a thousand years after Christ, were also Indo-Europeans like the Greeks, Roman, and Indians. But those northern Europeans seem to have treated women better than Greeks and Romans. And I am not aware of Scandinavians burying their dead within their homes.

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