The Ancient City

The Ancient City: A Study Of The Religion, Laws, And Institutions Of Greece And Rome, by Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges

There are several essential problems that make this book a less successful study of ancient Greek and Roman culture than the author thinks it is. Individually, these problems would make it difficult to appreciate the book to a high level, and together they point out some real problems with history as it is often written. First, the author writes with a distinct lack of self-awareness about the relationship between the present and the past. The author writes as if modern and contemporary cities have overcome the ties between civic religion and politics (they have not) and as if humankind has decisively moved beyond issues of kinship and relating to fellow citizens (it has not), which makes modern cities less of a break from ancient cities than the author supposes. Secondly, and related to the first problem, the author views history from an evolutionary perspective that presupposes certain ancestral religious beliefs moving from a more selfish and primitive level and then moves higher, and not looking at the original monotheism of mankind that came from (rejected) divine instruction. This evolutionary view encourages the author to think of our own contemporary city as progress from the civic culture of the ancients. And related to these problems, the author drastically overestimates the love of freedom in contemporary urban culture in comparison to the freedom understood by the ancients.

This book is about 400 pages in length and is divided into five smaller “books” with numerous chapters and sections within chapters. The introduction seeks to place the book with a perspective of talking about ancient cities in the context of ancient religion as the writer understands it. After that, the first part of the book contains four chapters that discuss the author’s view of ancient religious beliefs (I) in such aspects as the soul and death (1), the worship of the dead (2), the sacred fire (3), and domestic religion (4). This is followed by a lengthy discussion of the author’s thoughts about ancient families (II), including the importance of family religion (1), marriage among the Greeks and Romans (2), continuity of the family (3), adoption and emancipation (4), kinship (5), the right of property (6) and succession (7), authority in the family (8), morals (9), and the gens in Rome and Greece (10). This is followed by the author’s thoughts about the ancient city itself (III), with chapters on the tribe (1), supposedly new religious beliefs (2), the formation of the city (3), the city as urbs (4), the worship of city founders (5), the gods (6) and religion of the city (7), rituals and annals (8), the king of the city (9), the magistracy (10), the law of the city (11), the citizen and the stranger (12), patriotism and exile (13), the municipal spirit (14), relations between the cities and their gods (15), the Roman and the Athenian (16), and the omnipotence of the state (17), something the author views as being foreign to the present view of government. After that the author discusses revolutions (IV), including the relationships between patricians and clients (1), the plebeians (2), the seizure of power from city-kings (3), the rule of the aristocracy over the cities (4), the loss of primogeniture (5), the freedom of clients (6), the citizenship of the plebs (7), changes in private law (8), public interest and the suffrage (9), the aristocracy of wealth (10), democratic government (11) and its failure in Marxist class struggle (12) in the eyes of the author, as well as the Spartan revolutions (13). Finally, the book begins wit ha discussion of the disappearance of the municipal regime in the wake of the Roman conquest and the spread of Christianity.

When we look to the ancient city, it is a lot more alien to us than we might be first led to think. But the past is not so alien to us as the author would like to make us believe. This book is drastically full of the ideas of the author, and in this book’s ample pages we get a lot of categorical statements about the life of people in ancient cities–many of them relating to matters of religion, about which the author has much to say but little to cite. Indeed, one of the most fundamentally problematic aspects of this book, and one which reduces the faith that the reader should have in this book’s contents, is that the author has so much to say of such a dogmatic nature about issues of religion, most of which appear to come from the author’s ideas about ancient Indo-European religious beliefs in the preliterate period, for which the author has the suppositions of himself and other historians and very little in the way of actual textual evidence. This book is more useful as a reminder of what a particular strain of historical thinking says about the past rather than an actual record of the past. Quite against the author’s own hopes and expectations, his own ahistorical view of the past makes him as guilty as those contemporary writers he criticizes for seeing the past as a reflection of his own ideas rather than seeking to understand the past as it may be understood on its own terms.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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