The Ancient City

By Fustel de Coulanges, 1864 

The Marxists believe that economics is the key to history, and, indeed, the fundamental social reality.  Religion, morals, and culture are merely rationalizations used to justify the distribution of economic power.  Fustel de Coulanges takes the opposite approach—he takes religious beliefs t o be the fundamental reality in a civilization, and then he tries to show how all the other aspects of that civilization follow from its religion.  In The Ancient City, this method is applied to the classical civilization of Greece and Rome, and it produces fascinating results.  The difficulty with the method is that the religious beliefs under which the Hellenistic civilization was constructed are not the beliefs of the educated elite of later times whose writings have come down to us.  Most of classical history available to us is the history of the dissolution of the civilization’s original structure, and even classical writers themselves in the age of, say, Cicero, often did not really understand the meaning of their ancient practices.  Therefore, Coulanges must try to infer the original belief system using those bits of ancient rituals and popular folk beliefs which happen to have been recorded, and by looking for clues in the ancient laws and languages.  His occasional recourse to the Laws of Manu, on the assumption that all Aryan peoples must have had the same original culture, seems to me to be somewhat risky, but few of his conclusions rely on this.  The final result is inevitably somewhat speculative, but I strongly suspect that Coulanges has correctly captured the essential truth about the earliest Greeks and Romans.

According to Coulanges, the belief on which Hellenistic civilization was originally built was ancestor worship.  The family’s primary duty was to provide worship and material sustenance for its divinized ancestors.  The spirits of the dead fathers are associated with their bodies (buried on the family’s property) and also with the sacred fire which must be kept burning in the household at all times.  Each family was an exclusive cult, with its own gods and rituals, and its own high priest (the paterfamilias).  To participate in the worship of an ancestor-god was a privilege allowed only to family members.  When she is married, the bride is alienated from her own ancestor-gods and initiated into the cult of those of her husband.  Coulanges’ analysis of wedding rites is most interesting.  From his description of these ceremonies, the transfer of cults is clearly what is being accomplished, although its contemporary observers might not realize this.  For example, the bride must appear to be forced by her husband into the house of his ancestors, since she does not yet have the right to enter of her own will.  Even in our own day, the groom carries the bride across the threshold, although we have forgotten the meaning of this custom.  Originally, the extended family, the gens, was quite powerful.  The city was a union of families, not of individuals.  The city itself was a religious body (for the ancients had no other form of organization), with its own gods, its own cult exclusive to citizens, and its own high priest (the king). 

The second half of the book describes the dissolution of this society.  As men’s religious ideas evolved, the ancient customs became harder to justify.  More importantly, the old organization excluded a large fraction of the populace, who therefore had an interest in its downfall.  These were the plebs, the people without recognized ancestral gods who did not belong to families participating in the civic cult.  Coulanges doesn’t really explain why it should be that some families should have their ancestors recognized as gods, and some don’t.  It would seem like anybody who knew who his father was and knew how to make a fire could participate in this religion, but apparently that wasn’t the case.  Anyway, the old order collapsed through a series of revolutions.  Monarchy was replaced by aristocracy, the gens were broken up, aristocracy was replaced by plutocracy and finally by democracy.  At this point, the old order had been completely destroyed and replaced by the secular individualist state.  Finally, the populace converted to Christianity, a religion which satisfies their desire for the sacred without making the unreasonable demands of their old faith.

Coulanges doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of the religion he describes, but it seems admirable to me in many ways.  It powerfully affirmed the dignity and independence of the family.  It promoted chastity and filial piety.  It gave each member (except maybe the clients and slaves) an honored place with his or her own rights and duties, so that the family could associate these duties with its ultimate beliefs about the nature of the cosmos.  Sure, Christianity is better, but not because it’s easier.

3 Responses

  1. […] The Ancient City by Coulanges […]

  2. […] here imposing a religious gloss over basically secular institutions; the family and the city were religious at their inception, as authorities have been in most places and at most times.  Even at Rome’s nadir of […]

  3. […] here imposing a religious gloss over basically secular institutions; the family and the city were religious at their inception, as authorities have been in most places and at most times.  Even at Rome’s nadir of impiety, […]

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