A History of Private Life, Volume I

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2187 words.)