Editorial: Belknap Press.
This compact book – which appeared earlier in the multivolume series A History of Private Life – is a history of the Roman Empire in pagan times. It is an interpretation setting forth in detail the universal civilization of the Romans – so much of it Hellenic – that later gave way to Christianity. The civilization, culture, literature, art, and even religion of Rome are discussed in this masterly work by a leading scholar.
Paul Veyne (French: [vɛn]; born 13 June 1930 in Aix-en-Provence) is a French archaeologist and historian, and a specialist on Ancient Rome. A former student of the École normale supérieure and member of the École française de Rome, he is now honorary professor at the Collège de France.
From an ordinary background, which he described as “uncultured”, Veyne took up archaeology and history by chance, at the age of eight, when he discovered a piece of anamphora on a Celtic site close to the village of Cavaillon. He developed a particular interest in Roman civilization since it was the best-known in the environment in which he grew up.
The family having moved to Lille, he assiduously studied the Roman collections of the archaeological museum there, where he received guidance from the curator. He maintains that his interest in the Greeks and Romans stems not from any humanist impulse or any specific admiration, but just from his chance discovery as a child.
Having come to Paris for his khâgne, he had a sudden moment of political awakening in front of the bas-relief that celebrates the liberation of the city at the bottom of theBoulevard St. Michel and joined the Communist Party of France. He left the party four years later, without ever having had a true political conviction.
On the other hand, the bad treatment of the Algerians at the hands of the colonials revolted him in equal measure to the atrocities of the Nazis. Once again, however, his shock was neither social nor political, but moral.
Paul Veyne studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris 1951-55. He was a member of the École française de Rome 1955-1957, whereupon he settled in Aix-en-Provenceas a professor at the University of Provence. It was in his years in Aix that he published his provocative Comment on écrit l’histoire, an essay on the epistemology of history. At a time when the dominant trend in French historiography favored quantitative methods, Veyne’s essay unabashedly declared history to be a “true tale”. Through his essay he became an early representative for the interest in the narrative aspects of scientific history.
His monograph on Evergetism from 1975 (Le pain et le cirque), however, demonstrated that Veyne’s concept of narrative somewhat differed from its common use, and that his differences with the hegemonic Annales school was smaller than what had seemed to be the case in 1970. The book is a comprehensive study of the practice of gift-giving, in the tradition of Marcel Mauss, more in line with the anthropologically influenced histoire des mentalités of the third Annalistes generation than with “old-fashioned” narrative history.
In 1975 Veyne entered the Collège de France thanks to the support of Raymond Aron, who had been abandoned by his former heir apparent Pierre Bourdieu.However, Veyne, by failing to cite the name of Aron in his inaugural lecture, aroused his displeasure, and according to Veyne he was persecuted by Aron ever since this perceived sign of his ingratitude. Veyne remained there from 1975 to 1999 as holder of the chair of Roman history.
In 1978 Veyne’s epistemological essay was reissued in tandem with a new essay on Michel Foucault as a historian: “Foucault révolutionne l’histoire.” In this essay Veyne moved away from the insistence on history as narrative, and focused instead on how the work of Foucault constituted a major shift in historical thinking. The essence of the Foucauldian ‘revolution’ was, according to Veyne, a shift of attention from ‘objects’ to ‘practices’, to highlight the way the epistemological objects were brought into being, rather than the objects themselves. With this essay Veyne established himself as an idiosyncratic and important interpreter of his colleague. The relationship between the historian of antiquities and the philosopher also influenced Foucault’s turn towards antiquity in the second volume of the History of Sexuality, as well as his reading of liberalism in his public lectures (1978-9). In 2008 Veyne published a full length book on Foucault, reworking some of the themes from his 1978 essay, expanding it to an intellectual portrait.
Paul Veyne now lives in Bédoin, in the Vaucluse.
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