Guide to a foreign past | Aeon

Sheep grazing in the ruins of ancient Cyrene in modern-day Shahaat, eastern Libya, 26 March 2011. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters


Guide to a foreign past

The iconoclastic French historian Paul Veyne illuminated the past by showing how deeply alien it is to the present

by Carlos Noreña + BIO

Sheep grazing in the ruins of ancient Cyrene in modern-day Shahaat, eastern Libya, 26 March 2011. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

As far as clichés about the study of history go, ‘The past is a foreign country’ is not too bad. We tend, though, to omit the second and more interesting half of the original version. The complete first sentence of L P Harley’s novel about love, class and innocence lost in late-Victorian England, The Go-Between (1953) reads: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ But do they, really? And, if so, just how differently, in fact, did people do things in that peculiar foreign country that this adage invites us to think of as ‘the past’?

This is an elementary question. It is especially complicated for historians of antiquity, far removed as this passage of human history is from present experience, contemporary sensibilities, and the whole taken-for-granted way in which most of us live our familiar, day-to-day lives. To really go there – to take seriously the proposition that people did things differently in the past, and to pursue the implications wherever they might lead – requires a leap of historical imagination that must, in practice, go a little bit further than what can be ‘proven’ by any one piece of evidence. All historians acknowledge differences between past and present, of course, and sometimes quite significant differences, in terms of technology, economic organisation, social structure and so on, but most end up treating the people of the past more or less as versions of ourselves, caught up in different contexts, to be sure, but essentially interchangeable with us. Not many scholars, that is, are quite prepared to dive into the deep alienness of the past.

The French historian Paul Veyne, who died in September 2022, at the age of 92, was one who did. A student of the ancient Roman world, Veyne was a towering figure in ancient history and Classics, celebrated for his lively historical imagination, revisionist and often daring arguments, and breathtaking knack for defamiliarising the ancients whom we thought we knew. His lesson is important for everyone interested in the long ago.

The dangers of getting things wrong by assuming a casual familiarity with antiquity are revealed when we consider a topic of enduring fascination to ancient historians: the widespread phenomenon of public giving and civic benefaction in the Greco-Roman world. At a glance, this public giving looks a lot like the contemporary practice of high-profile charitable donations, the establishment of major foundations, the patronage of the arts, and so on. And there are indeed some similarities between ancient magnates and their modern counterparts when it comes to such public displays of generosity. Through a closer look at the expenditures of the Roman elite in particular, though, we can discern the outlines of a historically distinctive modality of public giving. It was Veyne who provided that closer look in the 800 pages of his masterwork, Le pain et le cirque: Sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique (1976), translated as Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism (1990).

The whole practice of public expenditure and civic benefaction in the ancient Mediterranean world has come to be known as ‘euergetism’, a neologism derived from ancient Greek and meaning, literally, ‘the doing of good deeds’. In the Roman Empire, what euergetism meant in practice was the transfer of wealth from the private to the public sphere. The arena in which this transfer played out was the local municipality. At the lower end of the scale of civic benefaction was the organisation and funding of public banquets and public entertainments, such as gladiatorial combats. Higher-order benefactions included the beautification of dilapidated public buildings, the restoration of infrastructural works that had fallen into disrepair, and the establishment of perpetual endowments. The truly big-ticket items were the major public buildings financed by local elites, the grand monuments that travellers to any part of the Roman Empire still encounter today: temples, theatres and amphitheatres, libraries, public baths, colonnades and basilicas. These structures could be found, in different but recognisable shapes and sizes, from Rome and the dazzling metropolises of the East to the smaller cities and towns of North Africa, Spain and Gaul.

The Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna (Libya). Photo by Giovanni Boccardi/UNESCO

All of this was expensive. Even comparatively modest outlays, like paying to heat the public baths for a year, or repaving the town square, were well out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Some of these expenses were met by the Roman emperor, and some were covered by local revenues. But the lion’s share was paid for, out of their own pockets, by the local, landowning elites of provincial cities. The crux of the interpretive problem lies in the question of motivation. Why did local elites not reserve such spending for their own private villas in the countryside, far away from the demanding and unruly masses in the centre of town?

Public giving was a natural expression of grandeur, and the expression was an end in itself

This question is complicated by the fact that elite giving was partly compulsory and partly voluntary. Those elected to local office were either required or expected (with lots of slippage between the two) to make some sort of public expenditure, from their own, private wealth, in connection with holding the public office in question. The benefactions that resulted merge almost imperceptibly into those that were given freely, at least notionally, and not directly connected with any official responsibility. Both types of generosity, the compulsory and the voluntary, also triggered a symbolic reciprocation in the form of public honours voted by fellow citizens. The fact that public office itself was called honor in Latin (and its equivalent in Greek, timē) captures some of this reciprocal dynamic.

The most typical expressions of public gratitude were official decrees and their permanent commemoration on everything from bronze plaques to the marble bases that supported statues of the benefactors’ likenesses. Such testimonials proliferated throughout the cityscapes of the Roman world and stood as so many witnesses to the wealth, virtue and superiority of local elites. And, of course, we find traces of such symbolic exchanges between wealthy donors and the public today, in named stadiums and hospitals, ceremonial ‘keys to the city’ and the like.

Statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus, Herculaneum (1st century CE). Courtesy Wikipedia

When Veyne probed euergetism in depth, however, comparing it not to modern charitable donations but rather to the ceremony of the potlatch among the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest (a typically startling interpretive move), he exploded many of our assumptions about what the practice signified. Aimed at a collectivity of citizens and not at the individual poor, civic benefactions were not like Christian charity. Local elites, towering above the masses of their communities, hardly needed to advertise their wealth as a way to reinforce their social standing. This rules out any simple equivalence between euergetism and ‘conspicuous consumption’. Veyne was particularly emphatic that the transfer of private wealth into the public sphere was neither redistribution nor a form of depoliticisation – which is what most of us today understand by the phrase ‘bread and circuses’.

Following an extended discussion of all the things that Roman euergetism was not – a tour de force of historical sociology that repays close reading – Veyne finally reveals what the practice was at its core. The key observation concerned the extent of private expenditures, which went far beyond what would have been necessary to secure public office or even to reinforce social standing. The massive and over-the-top spending was instinctual, on Veyne’s reading, seemingly unselfconscious and routinised, and often wasteful. In other words, in analysing the whole practice of euergetism, he pivoted away from practical explanations towards psychological ones. Public giving was a natural expression of grandeur, and the expression was an end in itself. This is the key to his reading. The drive to give was a deeply internalised sensibility among the Roman nobility and, as Veyne stresses, not a very complicated one. By the end of Le pain et le cirque, the reader can hardly escape the conclusion that euergetism in the Roman world was not instrumental at all. This is a disconcertingly counterintuitive conclusion that derives its force not because it is necessarily correct in all its details, but because it does something arguably more important for specialists and non-specialists alike: it invites us to imagine the classical world in a strikingly new way.

Veyne offered a different sort of non-instrumentalist argument in his analysis of Roman imperial art and monumentality. A defining feature of ancient Rome’s cityscape was its saturation with visual representations of the emperor and monumental expressions of his power, achievements and personal virtues. There is no better example of such imperial imagery than the Column of Trajan in Rome, a towering cylinder standing inside Trajan’s gargantuan forum complex and decorated, in sculptural relief, with an upwardly spiralling visual narrative of the Roman conquest of the Dacian kingdom (roughly, modern Romania). Looming above visitors to Trajan’s Forum, as it still does today, the column depicts various scenes from the military campaigns, some literal, others metaphorical, punctuated throughout with representations of Trajan himself, the conquering ruler of a far-flung, and expanding, empire.

Details on Trajan’s Column, Rome. Photographed in 1867-70 by John Henry Parker. Courtesy the V&A Museum, London

A long tradition of continental scholarship, rooted in the experience of mid-20th-century totalitarian regimes, especially in Germany, treated this sort of official art as a vehicle of ‘propaganda’, a systematic dissemination of information, often distorted, designed to mould attitudes in the interests of the ruling regime. Trajan’s Column, on this view, should be read as an instrument of publicity, communicating a set of ideals and values – about conquest and pacification, the civilising mission, the emperor’s paradigmatic leadership, and so on – to a public ready and willing to bask in the glow of Roman superiority. This whole approach presupposes that official art had a persuasive thrust, designed ultimately to reinforce the legitimacy of the reigning emperor – and, indeed, of Roman imperial rule more generally. To those of us in modern societies subjected to a constant barrage of political advertising and ‘spin’, this presupposition seems sensible and straightforward.

In a provocative series of studies on Roman imperial representation, Veyne argued that this perspective was fundamentally misguided. His case hinged in part on a simple observation: much official art was illegible – and not only because subtle and complex allusions could not be decoded by the average viewer, but also, more literally, because some of it was not visible at all. Trajan’s Column was a case in point. The uppermost sculptural reliefs could hardly be seen from the ground (or even from the second-story balconies that some scholars believe surrounded the column), and yet they were carved with the same care and detail as those nearer to eye level. A more fundamental objection concerned the very notion of ‘communication’ to a ‘public’. For Veyne, this was an anachronism. There was no ‘public sphere’ prior to modernity, indeed no ‘public’ as such. The subjects of the emperor were simply that: subjects. No more and no less. And the power of the emperor rested not on communication or persuasion, he reasoned, but rather on the ritualised performance of consensus in his rule.

Veyne’s programme was meant in part to puncture the analytical pretensions of his colleagues

Why, then, such a profusion of official art in the city of Rome? The art was public display and, on Veyne’s reading, this display was an end in itself. That it had little practical function – that it was sometimes (literally) invisible – was precisely the point. It was what Veyne called an ‘art without viewers’, an expression of a monarchic authority that was beyond comprehension and, like that of the gods, beyond question. And this monarchic representation operated among subjects who were predisposed to love their emperor not because of his achievements, much less his ‘charisma’, but because of his quasi-absolute power. Official art operated outside of this logic. Like public giving by the civic notables of the Roman Empire, that is to say, the visual representation of the Roman emperor and his exploits was not instrumentalist in function. That Veyne might have been right about this – and his writing can be very seductive indeed – is enough to force us to rethink the relationship between power and representation in a political system that we often see as foundational to what used to be called ‘Western civilisation’. In the wake of Veyne’s work, we might be more hesitant to trace such a direct line between the ancients and ourselves.

In his interpretation of both ancient euergetism and Roman official art, then, Veyne was clearly on the lookout for non-instrumentalist and broadly simplifying explanations for the phenomena in question. It is a somewhat unexpected interpretive stance from one so theoretically informed and conceptually sophisticated. It may stem in part from his own background and training, which he himself recounts in his wide-ranging memoir Et dans l’éternité je ne m’ennuierai pas (2014), or ‘And in Eternity, I Won’t Be Bored’. Born to a middle-class family in Aix-en-Provence in 1930, Veyne later moved to Lille and eventually to Paris, where he studied at the École Normale Supérieure (1951-55). Following stints at the École française de Rome (1955-57) and the University of Provence, where he became professor (1961), he ultimately penetrated the inner citadel of French academic culture, the Collège de France, taking up the Chair in Roman History in 1975, a position he held until his retirement in 1999. It is a familiar story of an outsider who made it all the way to the top.

Along the way, Veyne developed a number of subtle, complex and often elusive views on history, memory and historiography. In his Comment on écrit l’histoire: Essai d’épistémologie (1971), for example, written during the years in Provence and translated as Writing History: Essay on Epistemology (1984), he argues that history should be mainly descriptive and not analytical, and that the thrust should be idiographic rather than nomothetic – focused, that is, not on the general, as a means to underpin grand, transhistorical claims, but on the particular, with all of its individual specificity. It seems clear that this programme was meant in part to puncture the analytical pretensions of his colleagues operating under the banner of the Annales ‘school’ of French historiography, with its ambitious reconstructions of social, cultural and economic life in the medieval and early modern periods, and its penchant for sweeping assertions about the past as such. Veyne evidently preferred a more restrictive view of what it meant to write history. It is a task to be undertaken simply because ‘events have occurred’ and, as such, are ‘worth knowing’. In other words, like the Alpinist who climbs the mountain because ‘it is there’, the historian seeks to know about events for no other reason than that they are knowable.

The Collège de France years were particularly generative for Veyne’s philosophy of history. A number of lively intellectual currents were running through the Paris of the 1970s (many of which are lumped together under the rubric of ‘postmodernism’) and a number of high-powered colleagues within Veyne’s orbit were especially active in these years. In terms of his own evolution as a historian, the vital figure here was the great French historian, philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault (1926-84), about whom Veyne composed several intellectual sketches, culminating in the study Foucault, sa pensée, sa personne (2008), translated as Foucault: His Thought, His Character (2010).

The impact of Foucault’s thinking on Veyne’s historical vision is especially manifest in the latter’s remarkable study Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? (1983), translated as Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (1988). Veyne’s objective was to understand how ‘moments of truth’ were ‘constituted’ as such, and to deconstruct the ‘palaces of imagination’ in which all collectivities, ancient and modern, adjudicate between the various ‘truth claims’ that make the best sense of their subjective experience. Our own palace of imagination depends on the notional distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’, according to Veyne, but in the end this, too, is just another ‘fishbowl’, the one we happen to inhabit, and it is in no way superior, as a matter of epistemology, to the fishbowl in which ancient Greeks lived and made sense of their world, in no small part through myths and stories about the gods.

What was radically transformed during this period was the valuation of conjugal love

Among the several fruits of Veyne’s engagement with Foucault was a strikingly novel understanding of the social history of early Christianity (to return now to his interventions in the study of the Roman world). The headline studies were published by Foucault, above all his four-volume L’Histoire de la sexualité (1976-2018), and by another of Foucault’s high-flying interlocutors, Peter Brown, but the foundational work was Veyne’s articleLa famille et l’amour sous le Haut-Empire romain’ (1978), or ‘Family and Love in the Early Roman Empire’. At the heart of this study was the proposition that the 2nd century CE witnessed what Veyne called a ‘domestication of morals’. Ambitious aristocrats in the last three centuries BCE, operating under a republican system of government, competed for glory and status in a civic sphere that was still open and dynamic. Public and visible achievement in warfare, monumental building and oratory constituted the currency of this multipolar system. With the emergence of monarchy at the end of the 1st century BCE, however, the ruling house quickly monopolised this world of public honours (and much else), especially in the city of Rome. In the hunt for new forms of self-congratulation, these aristocrats, still as competitive as ever, ‘turned inward’, as Veyne recognised, increasingly celebrating their private, domestic lives. Marriage was at the centre of this new project. Demographic and legal studies have confirmed that the practice of marriage among the Roman aristocracy did not in fact change dramatically in the first two centuries CE. What was radically transformed during this period was the valuation of conjugal love. Love between husbands and wives was no longer seen simply as a means to stabilise a marriage for the production of legitimate heirs – the widely accepted purpose of marriage in the ancient world from time immemorial – but as an emotional condition that could become a goal in its own right.

This was a silent revolution, but a profound one nonetheless. Veyne illustrated his thesis mainly through the literary and philosophical texts of the age. In a sentimental letter to his wife, for example, Pliny the Younger, writing in the early 2nd century CE, declares:

It is unbelievable how much I long for you. In the first place, because of love, and also because we have not been used to being apart from one another. And so I spend much of the night awake in front of your statue…

Pliny’s near-contemporary Plutarch asserts:

Herodotus was wrong when he said that a woman simultaneously lays down her cloak and her modesty. On the contrary, a chaste woman puts modesty on in its place, and husband and wife bring to their relationship the greatest modesty as a token of the greatest love.

We are indeed far removed from the thought-world of Herodotus – the ‘father of History’, writing in the middle of the 5th century BCE – in which the question of a wife’s love for her husband would hardly register.

The new ideal of marital bliss also found visual expression, above all in the marble sarcophagi used as coffins by the Roman elite. Military themes had long predominated on senatorial sarcophagi, but from the middle of the 2nd century we can observe the increasing prominence of domestic and ‘private’ tableaux, in which representations of marriage, and the shared happiness of husband and wife, were a key motif. Reading the texts and the images together, what we discern is the blossoming of a whole new discourse about marital love in the 2nd century CE.

Marble relief of a marriage ceremony from a Roman sarcophagus (2nd century). Courtesy the British Museum, London

Part of what gave Veyne’s argument its bite was his insistence that the elevation of marital love to a core ideal of the Roman elite preceded the Mediterranean-wide triumph of Christianity. This was surprising. For Christianity, which promised the salvation of the soul, was surely the ultimate ‘turn inward’ in antiquity. And its ethos had many demonstrable effects on the social structure of the ancient world – including, on a matter of abiding interest to Veyne, the emergence of the category of ‘the poor’ as an object for religiously infused charity. Indeed, Christian charity was a far cry from the euergetism of Le pain et le cirque, which was aimed not at the destitute or otherwise needy but rather at a juridically defined citizen body that was made legible by its privileged position in an economy of benefaction and favours. But in this most intimate sphere of experience, Christian doctrine was not the engine of change, as he showed. The new importance attached to conjugal bliss was instead a collective response to a transition in the form of government at Rome and the corresponding reconstitution of a political domain. It was a consequence, in other words – in a rather unexpected place – of the advent of monarchy. In tracing that development, Veyne simultaneously brings us a little closer to a long-lost world, showing us that a powerful emotion was experienced in ways that seem familiar and intimate, while also suggesting that love is not in fact a universal or transhistorical phenomenon, but instead has its own curious history. The effect is a distancing one.

Veyne’s work – covering everything from the political economy of the Roman Empire and slavery, to monetisation, debt and Latin love elegy – disturbs our lazy familiarity with the classical world. One comes away from his many publications with a deeper appreciation for the sheer distance of Mediterranean antiquity from the present: past worlds, past lives, past experiences and past epistemologies that now, in the wake of his scholarship, look profoundly alien. What is more, it suggests that our intimacy with that world might be a false one. It forces us, as a result, to look at past and present anew. And this is true not only in specialist matters of interest to scholars, but even in the one subject in which Rome has always bulked large as an inescapable memory – that is, as an impossibly big empire with a grand strategy to match, a tradition that has haunted many subsequent imperial projects and that still hovers above ongoing debates about US foreign policy and the diminished standing of the United States around the globe. Even here, though, in this most familiar of historical arenas, Veyne’s position was revisionist, disorienting and profoundly iconoclastic. For his basic claim about Roman imperialism is that it had little to do with strategy or statecraft, nor with economic predation or the assertion of control and the demand of obedience – the standard interpretations – but rather that it was motivated by a collective wish to create a world in which Romans might be left alone, not simply secure, but undisturbed. That is all.

The Romans alone in their world: as a vision of Roman imperialism, it hardly fits our preconceived notions of what the Roman Empire was all about, nor does it lend itself to straightforward applications to current concerns. And that, in the end, is the magic of Veyne’s work, iconoclasm and all. The commitment to the particular, in all of its strangeness – the idiographic instinct – married to a willingness to reach conclusions that might seem deeply implausible, is what defined his approach to the past. For those who like their history to be neat, tidy and easily mobilised to address contemporary issues, Veyne offers little help. For those willing to plumb the depths of foreign worlds, there is no finer guide.

The ancient worldHistoryNations and empires

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