A History of Private Life, Volume I

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2187

This is the first installment of a projected five-volume series devoted to a history of private life from ancient Rome through the late twentieth century. The series, edited by the late Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, reflects the general orientation toward social history encouraged by the French Annales school, and the particular interest in private practices evident in such monumental French studies as Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’ La Cité antique (1864; The Ancient City, 1956) and Ariès’ L’Homme devant la mort (1977; The Hour of Our Death, 1981). The focus of the series is upon private beliefs and everyday life, the backdrop to the great political and military events of which traditional history is made.

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The text, accompanied by extensive illustrations depicting various aspects of ancient private life, is at its best when visual image and written word merge into a unified picture of private life. Roman hope in eternal rest in the afterlife, for example, is aptly supported by an illustration of a sarcophagus showing the deceased reclining on her bed in a bedchamber. Such coherence of text and illustration, however, is the exception rather than the rule in a book which lacks even a catalog of illustrations and in which words and visual images tend to create parallel rather than integrated impressions of the private life of humankind.

The first three chapters of this volume are devoted to pagan Rome, the fourth to Merovingian and Carolingian Europe, and the last to the Byzantine Empire in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The book, definitely francocentric, highlights Merovingians and Carolingians at the expense of Saxons, Tuscans, Iberians, and Scandinavians. Despite the limited geographic and chronological choice of subject matter, however, this volume creates an invaluable portrait of early European private life.

While there is a wealth of fascinating material on private life in this book, the nonspecialist reader, with minimal knowledge of the events of the period, will frequently find himself or herself lost in a sea of unfamiliar names and undefined terms. Knowledge of major political events and biographical information is often assumed; for example, the Merovingian sense of the public as private is illustrated by “the celebrated episode” of the vessel of Soissons, a tale retold only in an endnote. Similarly, while knowledge of such obscure works as Plautus’ Cistellaria (third century b.c.e.; The Casket) and Procopius’ Polemon (sixth century; History of the Wars) is not required of the reader, there are nuances of argument and interpretation which will be missed by the layman. Nevertheless, no reader will finish this book without being the richer for it.

The volume begins with a broad study of Roman life in the imperial period (c. 100-400 c.e.). While evidence for private life in this period is unquestionably better than for earlier periods in Rome, many readers would probably have benefited from the historical perspective that a discussion of the evolution of Roman private life from prehistory through the Republic into the Empire would have provided.

In defense of his decision to begin the work with imperial Rome rather than with the Greeks, the Egyptians, or even Neolithic Europeans, Veyne argues in an introduction that the Greeks, at least, require no special attention because the Roman Empire was fully Hellenized. Yet there were significant differences between private life in imperial Rome and in classical Greece, specifically in fifth century Athens. The question of seclusion of women in Athens is a case in point. Since women in the Roman Empire of the first centuries c.e. were under no such restriction, the existence of this custom in the Byzantine Empire is better understood in the light of earlier Athenian practice.

In the first chapter, Veyne traces the life of a Roman in the imperial period from birth through death and considers basic features of Roman private life, such as marriage, the family, inheritance, slavery, and entertainment. Any overview of marriage in the imperial period requires some republican background, for there is solid evidence that several different forms of marriage evolved in the republican period. The oldest, and most aristocratic, was confarreatio, which had religious sanction and created a permanent conjugal bond. An early alternative to confarreatio was conventio in manum, in which the woman became the legal property of her husband. By the imperial period, a third form had become much more popular, usus, in which the woman retained more (especially financial) independence from her husband. Awareness of this conjugal evolution makes clearer Veyne’s discussion of the transformation of Roman marriage from a civic duty to produce children and to run the household into an internalized code of the harmonious couple.

For the modern reader the Roman definition of a family is particularly striking. The Roman family was not the modern nuclear family but an entire household, including slaves and more distant relatives, living under the protection of the father, or head of the household. The unique Roman relationship between clients and patrons is, in a sense, a public extension of the family. Custom required clients to bring greetings every morning to the houses of their patrons, who were expected in turn to provide civic and legal protection for their clients. Confraternities, or clubs, constituted another significant Roman extension of private life into the public, eventually evolving into the medieval guilds. The elaborate public baths systems built throughout the empire further illustrate the fact that functions considered private in the modern world (such as hygiene) were part of the public realm in Rome.

Veyne also discusses the special class of “notables,” that is, men of family, wealth, and power, whose values included both a contempt for manual labor and a parallel high regard for idleness, or otium, as a virtue. At the same time, these men were driven by a strong sense of entrepreneurism and private profit, and in their social code public office could readily be used for private financial gain. Such notables believed that they should use their time and wealth in euergetism, or public works and building projects for the benefit of the whole city. Emphasis was clearly on urban life and urban values, as well as on strong social pressure and conformity, supported by the Roman sense of tradition and by various pagan philosophies, such as Stoicism. These upper-class Roman values included a sexual puritanism which does not fit modern stereotypes of Roman orgies and sexual license. Both co-optation, the informal selection process whereby membership in the class of notables was achieved, and the elaborate system of bribery and extortion practiced by public officials demonstrate once again that an ancient Roman had a broader sense of the private domain than does a modern citizen.

The second chapter, by Peter Brown, is devoted to late antiquity, that is, to the Roman Empire in the third through sixth centuries and especially to the transformations caused by interaction between Christianity and the Roman world. In particular, Brown discusses the Judaic sense of tradition, of cultural solidarity, and of threatened community which Christianity transferred to the Roman world and which encouraged a sense of the private as negative and of the individual as dangerous to group cohesion. Christianity succeeded in popularizing moral values such as stoic virtue and fidelity advocated by the pagan philosophers and in establishing a middle-class morality in which sexual renunciation became a badge of male leadership in the Christian community.

During this period, the breakdown of the traditional Roman family was assisted by Christian praise of celibacy, and notables began to abandon their long-cherished duty to nourish the city through euergetism in favor of an almsgiving reflecting the Christian notion of the solidarity of rich and poor. Simultaneously, a reorientation away from the city toward the country was led by solitary hermits who existed in the no-man’s-land outside the boundary and protection of the ancient city. Transformation of sexual values went beyond praise of celibacy (which, after all, had always existed in the Roman world in the persons of the vestal virgins). For Christians such as Augustine of Hippo, sexuality became concupiscence of the flesh, and the old idea that upper-class decorum in bed produced better children was replaced by a view of sex as an irrational and asocial moment in the life of a person.

The third chapter, by Yvon Thébert, surveys Roman domestic architecture in North Africa, where the organization of domestic space was apparently determined not by autonomous private needs, but by social ones. In this primarily urban culture, the most important aspect of house design was the arrangement of a public reception area around a colonnaded area called the peristyle. The custom of daily client visitation and the importance of the formal meal required the homes of notables to serve both public and private purposes. The difficulty in distinguishing between the archaeological remains of private and public buildings and the similarities between private house construction and the design of the Christian basilica reinforce the perception of the general Roman tendency to blur the boundaries between public and private. Trends in the opposite direction, marking an increase in social distancing on the part of the notables, were the proliferation of baths in the private homes of North Africa and an increasing tendency toward systematic compartmentalization of rooms, especially of the peristyle.

The fourth chapter, “The Early Middle Ages in the West” by Michel Rouche, considers especially “the invasion of privacy” which took place during the Merovingian and Carolingian period, when consideration of the public weal was replaced by the private interests of barbarians for whom the Roman concept of res publica, or the public interest, was totally foreign. Civic, urban life was replaced by a private life of violence in which individual right reigned at the expense of public law. The state, now a kingdom instead of a republic, came to be viewed as personal inheritance or patrimony. Private organizations, such as mercantile guilds and Jewish communities, modeled to a certain extent on the old Roman corporations, now flourished as self-protecting rather than semipublic institutions. The need for protected spaces evolved into the practices of asylum and hospitality, customs based in the ancient Mediterranean world on a belief in the rights of suppliants and of strangers.

The contradictory status of the body, the child, and the elderly, all simultaneously honored and despised, can be noted during this period, which was also marked by a gradual increase in monogamous marriages and a stronger sense of the indissolubility of marriage. The struggle to adapt barbarian ways to Christian beliefs caused Merovingian polygamy to be gradually replaced by Carolingian divorce, that is, killing one wife to marry another, a peculiar practice vividly reflecting the violence of the age.

Christianity, now the dominant religious force, also made an impact on private life. The old pagan anxiety about death, which was essentially private and personal, yielded to the calm felt by a Christian whose death was an entrance to the real community of God. Thus the custom of private entombment in family crypts on the outskirts of town was replaced by public burial in the churchyard. At the same time, there was a heightened sense of conscience and personal responsibility based upon a new Christian awareness of human community and equality under God. Finally, the medieval rejection of the old Roman ideal of otium is illustrated by the Benedictine life-style of prayer and work (ora et labora).

The last chapter, by Evelyne Patlagean, looks at private life in the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the Byzantine period, when the public interest became less that of the city and more that of the imperial government. As in the Roman imperial period, a strong urban bias is notable in the sources. The hermitic life was discouraged in favor of the monastic community, and an important feature of Byzantine society was apparently the founding of private monasteries by individuals and family groups.

In a throwback to the society of fifth century Athens, Byzantine society was marked by the rigid seclusion of women, the importance of betrothal, marriages arranged by parents for social and financial reasons rather than affection, and extended kinship groups outside the immediate family, such as the godparent-godchild relationship, which became an impediment to marriage. Attitudes toward the body and sex were affected by apparent links between medicine and ascetism, and great emphasis was placed upon the importance of dreams and visions, which were considered normal and common experiences of a religious rather than imaginary nature. The popularity of fictional works such as the equally edifying and entertaining Alexander Romance is another evidence of the Byzantine interest in the realm of the spirit or imagination. Attempts by public officials to control the proliferation of new religious cults are contrasted with the importance of personal devotion to icons and the peculiar practices of the Bogomile religious sect, which attempted to create a private form of religious life within the generally homogenous Byzantine society.

This book leaves the reader with the obvious but reassuring notion that every society creates its own definition and structure of the private, that what is private varies from one society to another and from one period to another.

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