Inventing the Individual

The first chapter is on the ancient family, which is almost totally based on work by Fustel de Coulanges, and, if you have no idea who he was, it’s not surprising, as he died in 1889. Immediately, I am wondering why I am bothering read a book that relies on a work more than 150 years old,(La Cite antique, 1864) no matter how seminal it may have been. It appears from the references that Siedentop is a follower of continental, predominantly French scholarship. This is not a bad thing, and could be a corrective to the predominantly anglo-american perspective, though most of the citations I see, at a cursory glance, are nineteenth century. Be that as it may, the idea that Greek and Roman societies and families were hierarchical and paternalistic is scarcely controversial, Siedentop presents the classical family as an absolute dictatorship, founded on religious beliefs concerning the family sacred hearth and their ancestors. “Nor should we suppose that the claims of family piety were much weakened in later historical times, when families were joined in larger associations.” (p 15) But that is not the whole story. The ideology transmitted to us in the texts is that of an elite, and is already idealised.  It is likely that the reality was much more complex.  Our own society stresses individuality, yet nearly all of our institutions are hierarchical to a greater or lesser degree. In Rome there were forces such as the state and the army, even in republican times, beginning to break down traditional social forms. I feel constrained to quote another old French historian, Jérôme Carcopino, from Daily Life in Ancient Rome (trans E.O.Lorimer)

“…the two essential weapons of the patria potestas were gradually blunted: the fathers absolute authority over his children, and the husband’s absolute authority over the wife placed ‘in his hand…”
p 90

” Similarly, after the end of the republic, the emancipation of a child had entirely changed in significance and effect. In ancient days it was a punishment,… Now emancipation had become a benefit.”
p 91

Siedentop’s thesis is that the decisive event, leading eventually to the concept of “the individual”, was the invention of christianity.  I say invention, advisedly, because, of course, Siedentop explicitly believes in the reality of Jesus, and all that that entails. For this reason he is at pains to exaggerate the differences and down play the continuities.


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