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Searching for individuality in antiquity

A History of Private Life, Vol I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Paul Veyne, Editor. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 670 pp. Illustrated. $29.50. In winter we dream of a spring day, the buzz and bouquet of it. In ``A History of Private Life, Vol. I,'' five historians search for the ``essence of individuality,'' the zone of the private, in antiquity and the middle ages, before, it's said, these things were recognized as such.

Not the story of the ``progress'' of individuality, this history is a unique inquiry into the ``prehistory'' of a concept that crystallized only in the 19th century. Each historian - three men, two women (four French, one American) - finds within his or her period revelations of the struggle - or is it a dance? - between the ``self and the other,'' revelations of the tensions between public and private life.

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After short historical introductions, chapters unfold in brief sections devoted to various topics (``the lust for gold,'' ``from control to continence''), each labeled in spacious margins; almost every page is illustrated. The images create a running gloss on the compact, densely particularized text.

The first of five volumes on this theme designed to appear at yearly intervals, ``From Pagan Rome to Byzantium'' is a stimulating - indeed a provocative - and beautiful book on a difficult subject. But roses have thorns, and Paul Veyne warns in the introduction: ``History is a journey into otherness.''

``Otherness'' is everywhere in Veyne's lead-off chapter on the Roman empire. Veyne preaches and clowns, and assaults the unsuspecting reader. Discussing the role of older relatives in the education of noble children, he turns and remarks, ``The truth about education may be far from what self-satisfied educators imagine.''

It keeps one awake - and reading.

In Veyne's Roman Empire, one gathers, ``private'' meant ``deprived.'' Public men had power; private men did not. Fear of public opinion played a big part in Roman government and law.

Pleasure was public - the baths and the spectacles. Regarding sex and passion, Veyne turns the legend of Roman license on its head: ``the pagans were paralyzed by prohibitions.'' Philosophy and religion were routes to tranquillity.

And individuality? ``To talk about oneself, to throw personal testimony into the balance, to profess that personal conviction must be taken into account provided only that it is sincere is a Christian, indeed an eminently Protestant, idea that the ancients never dared to profess.''

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Veyne provides the scope, the topics, and the negative background, for what follows.

What follows directly is the section by Peter Brown - perhaps the most subtly composed of the five. Organized around the theme of ``singleness of heart,'' it pours ``the acid that is Christianity on our Roman reagent,'' says Veyne.

Brown's contribution is discreet, gentle, diplomatic, and cunning. His subject is ``late antiquity,'' and the discovery of ``inwardness.'' This famous biographer of St. Augustine writes that, for the threatened Jews and early Christians, unify the heart and all losses are restored.

And yet the ``thoughts of the heart'' were potential sources of disunity. From centuries of concern emerged ``a sharp negative sense of the private.''

The monastery stands for the close, perhaps confused, relationship between private and public in Christian antiquity. Then there's the pagan house.

In her elegantly reasoned chapter, Yvon Th'ebert shows how the elite house impinged on public space in north Africa. She emphasizes the role of the patron. For her, space is ``coded'' with meanings. Private baths - we recall Veyne's discussion of public baths as a mode of pleasure, not hygiene - allow the elite householder to maintain ``necessary social distance.''

We move north in Michel Roche's eloquent chapter on the early middle ages in the West. The place is Gaul; the people ``barbarians.'' Like the other contributors, Roche reveals what bound man and woman together in his period: difference, ``the difference between men and women - the man master of his mund (world), the woman hedged about with taboos....'' Love was always a ``sensual, unreasonable, and destructive passion,'' and indissoluble marriage was frustrated by the practice of polygamy and concubinage.

There were alternatives - monastic life, sainthood. In a section titled ``the discovery of silence,'' Rouche discusses the Carolingian scribe. ``The solitude of the scribe, and of all authors, encouraged the search for beauty of expression, and a nicely turned phrase gave almost ineffable pleasure.''

Of Byzantium, Evelyne Patlagean writes that ``the fundamental asymmetry due to the sacerdotal power of men and the segregation of women caused problems'' that nothing assuaged. The style of her sources - all from the government and social elites - make extended discussion of the private life difficult, but she does notice a liberalization in the 11th century. There, she says, ``couples, married or not, come to life....''

Patlagean brings the ``otherness'' of Byzantium itself to life, while respecting its mystery.

Difference, otherness: the major categories of this inquiry are romantic, perhaps necessarily so. Like romance, ``A History of Private Life'' is bittersweet. Still, in our own ``media age,'' we've isolated ourselves from humane traditions, and this book is a valentine to the heart of the past.

It's a treasure.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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