Fustel de Coulanges and the Ancient World

Among those of us who believe that many great goods have come from the Enlightenment, a certain understanding of history remains popular. It holds that ancient Greece and Rome present us with a world very much like our own in important respects, a largely secular world, one in which we find republics in which citizens enjoyed equal status to one another. If these republics did not give women the vote or free their slaves, still there is no reason to think that they might not have do so in time. Unfortunately, Christianity soon came on the scene, bringing with it a long night of superstition and material privation. Only after many centuries did Reason find her way back into Western Europe, beating back religious superstition and producing the Enlightenment, and it is to this recent development that we owe the ethical progress of recent centuries.

I used to subscribe to a view along these lines. In recent years, however, I have come to believe that every word of it is false. In my previous post I discussed Tom Holland’s recent book, Dominion, in which he gives an episodic history of the last 2000 years or so, and argues that Christianity is the source of our most fundamental moral conceptions. Since reading Holland I’ve come across another book, The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges, published in 1864. It focuses on the pre-Christian era, on the rise and fall of a religion that formed ancient Greece and Rome. De Coulanges provides a sort of foundation to many claims made by Holland, showing us that there is a reason why those ancient republics could never have produced those freedoms that we take for granted today. I want to try to bring out that reason in what follows.

The subject of The Ancient City is a prehistoric form of religion, the worship of the ancestors, and the profound influence that this old religion exerted on the Greek and Roman societies that grew out of it. Even today, the book can be recommended both as a source of insight and on account of the elegant and readable English of its 19th century translation. By showing how the institutions and habits of thought in antiquity were so much a product of its earliest religious practices, de Coulanges explains much that seems peculiar in the ancient world. In the process, he reveals to us how greatly certain of our own habits of thought differ from those of antiquity. Once we have an idea of these differences, it is easier to recognise the moments at which various aspects of our own moral outlook first step onto the stage of history.

Those who have spent any significant time reading the classics of ancient Greece and Rome will have come across passing references to the cult of the household gods. In Greek tragedy, for example, or in Cicero, or in Virgil’s Aeneid, whose opening pages contain Juno’s complaint that “defeated household gods” are being imported from Troy – in these and many other places, one touches on a form of religion based on worshiping gods in one’s own home.

De Coulanges’ achievement was twofold. First of all, by amassing all the references in ancient literature to these household gods, he was able to show that there had in fact been a coherent set of practices and beliefs surrounding them that held sway before the dawn of recorded history. More than this, however, he was able to show how the historical Greek and Roman civilisations that we study today grew out of this earlier religion, and were so deeply formed by it that their thinking and way of life continued to bear its imprint it long after it had begun to fade. It is this second aspect of de Coulanges’ work that really concerns us here, for it shows what an alien world confronts us in antiquity, and how unlikely it was that that world might have produced the sort of thinking necessary to the freedoms we now take for granted. (He is also consistently able to produce evidence from ancient Indian texts, showing that a very similar form of religion existed there as well, but that’s another story).

What were these beliefs? It was held that there was a sort of life after death, in which the dead could become gods. To be content in this afterlife, they required a proper burial, and then a regular supply of food and drink in the form of offerings carried out by their descendants according to specific rituals. If properly cared for, these ancestor-gods would become a source of strength and support to their living family. If not, their unhappiness would make them malignant, so that they would ravage the crops and spread disease.

It was around the worship of the ancestors that a religion developed, and with it, an initial form of human community. The first-born son was the family’s priest, the sole heir, and also the chief (or only) political authority. It was he who, at the family’s altar, near the tomb of his ancestors, would offer the ceremonial meal to the dead. It was he who was responsible for the upkeep of the family’s sacred flame, a fire thought to represent the ancestors, which could not be allowed to go out completely, even at night, and which had to be kept pure, fed only by the right kind of wood.

This was not a religion that sought converts. Each family had its own ancestor-gods, who it alone could propitiate with rites, and who were concerned only with the interests of that family. Outsiders were not wanted, to such a degree that the presence of a non-family member during the sacred rites was considered impiety. A woman marrying into the family would be required formally to renounce the gods of her own family, and formally to accept those of her new family. The same was required of an adopted son. This psychological barrier between families was also expressed in physical property, for each family’s property constituted its own sacred enclosure, formally set off as distinct from that of any other family by some form of marker. This practice continued to historical times: “at Rome the law fixed two feet and a half as the width of the free space which was always to separate two houses, and this space was consecrated to ‘the god of the enclosure.’”

In time, these religious families naturally grew. Younger sons, who did not have the right to lead the worship, had wives and children of their own who remained associated with the religion of the ancestors. Eventually, a number of these families, each with its own worship, came together into larger groupings, phratries (in Greek) or curiae (in Latin). As they did this, however, they revealed the power exerted over their thinking by their religion, for the new forms of community took on the character of the old: a common ancestor or hero was ‘discovered,’ and a common worship was instituted, with its own rites, sacred meal, and perhaps even its own sacred flame. This form of religion provided the only basis these people knew to form political communities. When a number of these larger groupings in turn merged into tribes, and several of these later merged to become cities, the same process occurred: common gods and a common worship were instituted – but the already-existing gods and forms of worship were not eliminated in the process. The city’s king was its high priest, the equivalent of the first-born son in the family.

The Olympian gods – Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and so on – seem to have arisen in one of these later phases; at any rate, they existed alongside the family gods without difficulty. Even the Olympian gods initially took on the local, exclusive character of the family gods: the ‘Zeus’ of one city was distinct from the ‘Zeus’ of another city; each was the god of a specific place, and if these two cities went to war, so two would these two gods fight one another. Thus we read in Herodotus of “the Carian Zeus at Mylasa,” and of “the Theban Zeus,” and in Thucydides of “Zeus at Ithome” or “Nemean Zeus.”

The result of this history of civic growth was that cities had built into them the structures and habits of thought of the original family-religion. Just as each family was its own distinct religion, with its own special gods, its own specific rites, its own particular holy days, so too was all this true of each city. Both government and law were religious matters: to be a citizen was to be one who had the right of worship, and it was this religious association that provided rights under the law. If you found yourself in a foreign city, you did not enjoy the protection of the law there as citizens did, for as de Coulanges says, “where there was no common religion, there was no common law.”

This, then, is a sketch of certain aspects of the ancient city as it must have existed at the dawn of recorded history. It is not a sketch of the city as it existed in the last five centuries B.C., that period from which so many of our classic Greek and Latin texts come. De Coulanges tells of a series of revolutions that took place across the cities of Greece and Italy as we enter the historical era, not all at the same time, but according to a broadly similar pattern. Political rights were gradually expanded. Kings lost their political power (though they often kept their religious position), and many who had been excluded from political power were given the franchise: younger sons, then the clients of the major families, then the plebians – these last being those who had come to live by a city, but who had no worship of their own. There came a time when the older religious organisation of the city could be said to have been broken, when people no longer explained the political order directly in religious terms, but rather in terms of the interests of particular groups.

Many elites ceased to believe in the old gods (and perhaps in any gods), although many common people retained these ancient beliefs until the rise of Christianity. This was, no doubt, a less religious era than what had preceded, but religion continued officially to permeate every aspect of life, domestic, civic and military.

Despite all these changes, the key point is this: beliefs that have long formed the foundation of a society do not lose their influence overnight. As de Coulanges puts it, the old religion “exercised empire” over the minds of the ancients. What makes his account so interesting is his ability to explain so many peculiarities of historical Greek and Roman culture by means of the original ancestor-worshiping family. Consider, for example, the particular brutality of war and inter-state relations in the ancient world. It is not an accident or anomaly, but follows naturally from the outline given above. Recall that legal rights were originally a consequence of a common worship: initially, at least, one who did not share the worship did not enjoy any legal rights. It is not at all surprising that a society that had developed on the basis of this principle would also have developed a way of war that was often, by our lights, genocidal. After all, citizens of another city were precisely those who did not take part in one’s own worship. When the Athenians killed all the men and enslaved the women and children of Melos, they were not committing an offense against international law, nor were they thought to have failed to respect their victims’ human rights. What basis was there for such law, or such rights? A brutal action like this against an entire city was very far from unique in the ancient world. Much had changed by Julius Caesar’s day, but still, when he conquered Gaul, he wiped out whole towns and villages, killing and enslaving the inhabitants. When he celebrated his triumph for this, public boasts were made about the great scale of the slaughter, which ran to seven figures. This does not suggest a society in which the notion of the universal worth of human beings exercised decisive influence.

There are many other examples of individual practices or beliefs in the ancient world that might seem to be peculiar or eccentric. Again and again, de Coulanges can show that there is a reason why these apparently bizarre things were believed or done, a reason traceable ultimately to the original family-religion; where I had already encountered some explanation, his work enriched my understanding. We saw one example above in the Roman law dealing with the ‘god of the enclosure,’ but there are a great many others. Why was it forbidden to bury the body of an exile in Attica? Why was it considered such a supreme disaster to be apolis – that is, without a city of one’s own? Why was such a high premium placed on recovering one’s dead after battle? (we read of victorious Athenian generals executed for failing to do this.) Why does Plato forbid the making of a will to dispose of one’s property in his Laws? Why did cities not merge together to form larger states, as families or tribes had done? Why were high-ranking political figures, such as the Roman consul, required to perform religious sacrifices as part of their jobs? How on earth could Romans have believed that Julius or Augustus Caesar would become gods after death?

This should suffice as a summary of certain key ideas in de Coulanges’ work. But having gone this far, three underlying ideas should be considered. First of all, there is no secular space in this ancient world, nor even any conception of it. The family is a religion, war is a religious matter, so too law and government – even the calendar and the length of months differ from city to city, for these too are derived from religion. Religion is intimately intertwined with every aspect of life. (If you want to know when the idea of the secular came into existence, might I suggest my previous post?)

Second, this was a world in which it is self-evident that people are created unequal. Within the family there was a fixed hierarchy, beginning with the eldest male, who was originally owner of both the family’s entire estate (including things his wife had acquired) as well as the exclusive right to perform the sacred rites of the familial religion. The part played by each person within the family was not a matter of choice, but was rather determined by nature, by an accident of birth. When a person looked beyond his or her family, there were further obstacles to any conception of universal equality, for we have seen how each family was a self-enclosed unit, separated by the psychological barrier created by the fact of the family’s own peculiar religion, which excluded outsiders. We have also seen that the city in its turn repeated these forms of psychological exclusion in relation to other cities. This was a world that tended of its nature to emphasise the separation and difference between various kinds of people. Has there ever been a societal arrangement that presented a greater obstacle to a universal conception of humanity?

Finally, it seems to me that the whole system tends of its nature towards a rigid conservatism. Today it seems to us self-evident that we can change our society’s customs. Imagine, however, that you are the eldest male in one of these ancient families. Not only the health of your crops, but also the felicity of your ancestors in the afterlife depends on your keeping the sacred flame alive, on your consistently performing the sacred rites precisely as you learned them from your father – and your own happiness or misery after death will one day depend on the behaviour of your son. That is, it will depend on your success in passing on the rites and customs you yourself inherited. This gives you a particularly strong incentive to oppose changes in customs: too much innovation here, and you could end up eternally unfed and miserable! (In this connection it is worth quoting de Coulanges on ancient Athens: “if a priest introduces the slightest innovation into the worship, he is punished with death”).

It should be clear by now why I do not believe that this ancient world could have produced the moral landscape of the West today. When Pericles gives his Funeral Oration in Athens, he stresses the theme of equality among the citizens, but does go any further, falling short of anything like that phrase characteristic of a later era, that ‘all men are created equal.’ And given this relative deficiency, is it any surprise that we never see in antiquity a development like that of the American republic, in which an initial slave-holding society gradually changes itself to match its rhetoric of universal equality, abolishing slavery, extending the franchise to women, and so on? The foundations of society would have to be radically altered before this was possible.

So where did the new foundations come from? I think we do find, in the final centuries before Christ, the first stirrings of thought that would help produce modern moral notions, and these are found in those two great ancient forces, Greek philosophy and the Roman empire. Even in the era of the city-state, Greek philosophy had begun to develop a new conception of the divine, one quite different from that found in the older family-religion. This new view understood the divine to be beyond any connection to a particular place or group of people – a very different state of affairs from gods who were precisely gods of particular places and people. The growth of the Roman empire, on the other hand, perhaps created the social conditions under which a broader conception of human relations became natural. If the older religion had its origin in a primitive world, in which travel was impossible or dangerous, and in which the people living in the next valley might pose a mortal threat, the arrival of a vast empire linked together by quality roads and ports provided a picture of the world that led towards a less exclusive conception of humanity.

These new ideas did not produce an immediate reordering of society. For that, a mass movement would be required, one that could replace the most fundamental conceptions of how people understood their world and how they might relate to one another. That mass movement was Christianity, a natural growth in the ashes of antiquity. Many ideas characteristic of the new religion – for example, the ground of the notion that all people are created equal – would not be absolutely new, but Christianity would be the actual means by which these ideas came to ‘exercise empire’ over whole continents, becoming self-evident to people far beyond the confines of the philosophers’ classroom. In time, as these ideas were digested and became the basis of new societies, it became possible to conceive of political life on an entirely new foundation, and that was what made modern freedom possible. But that is a story I have reviewed before.