Paul Veyne, the French historian, shed light on the past by demonstrating its profound difference from the present

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Paul Veyne, the French historian

The oft-repeated cliché about history is that ‘The past is a foreign country’. However, this saying only captures half the truth, as L P Harley’s novel The Go-Between reminds us: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ But how differently did people in this ‘foreign country’ live? This is a fundamental question, particularly for historians of antiquity. As we are removed from this period of history, it requires a significant leap of historical imagination to understand just how different the past was. While historians acknowledge some differences between past and present, many tend to treat people of the past as essentially like us, with some contextual differences. However, few scholars are willing to fully embrace the deep alienness of the past and truly explore the implications of this foreign country.

Paul Veyne, the French historian who passed away in September 2022 at the age of 92, was known for his willingness to explore the deep alienness of the past. As a scholar of ancient Roman history and Classics, Veyne challenged conventional assumptions and breathed life into the ancient world with his vivid imagination and revisionist arguments. His approach serves as a valuable lesson for all those interested in studying history, reminding us to embrace the profound differences that exist between past and present, rather than merely treating the people of the past as versions of ourselves caught up in different contexts.

Assuming a casual familiarity with antiquity can be dangerous, as evidenced by the phenomenon of public giving and civic benefaction in the Greco-Roman world. While it may seem similar to contemporary high-profile charitable donations and patronage of the arts, a closer look at the expenditures of the Roman elite reveals a historically distinctive modality of public giving. The late French historian Paul Veyne explored this in detail in his 800-page masterwork, Le pain et le cirque: Sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique (1976), translated as Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism (1990), and his insights serve as a warning to all who are interested in ancient history.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, public expenditure and civic benefaction were commonly referred to as ‘euergetism’, which means ‘the doing of good deeds’ in ancient Greek. Euergetism in the Roman Empire entailed the transfer of private wealth to the public sphere, which took place within the local municipality. Public banquets and entertainments such as gladiatorial combats were at the lower end of the scale of civic benefaction, while higher-order benefactions included the beautification of dilapidated public buildings, restoration of infrastructural works, and the establishment of perpetual endowments. The most significant benefactions were major public buildings funded by local elites, including temples, theatres, amphitheatres, libraries, public baths, colonnades, and basilicas. These structures could be seen in various shapes and sizes, from the dazzling metropolises of the East and Rome to the smaller cities and towns of North Africa, Spain, and Gaul.

The costs of euergetism were significant, with even minor expenses such as heating public baths or renovating town squares exceeding the means of most people. While some of these costs were covered by the Roman emperor or local revenue, the majority was financed by wealthy landowners in provincial cities. The key question in understanding this practice is why these elites chose to spend their money on public works instead of investing solely in their own private estates, far from the tumultuous urban centers.

The question is complex because elite giving in the Greco-Roman world was a mix of compulsory and voluntary contributions. Those elected to local office were either obligated or expected (with some overlap between the two) to make some form of public expenditure from their own private funds, as part of their duties. The resulting acts of benefaction were often indistinguishable from those given freely, which were not directly tied to any official responsibility. Both forms of generosity, whether compulsory or voluntary, also triggered a symbolic exchange in the form of public honors bestowed by fellow citizens. The very term for holding public office in Latin, “honor,” and its Greek equivalent, “timē,” embody this reciprocal relationship.

The common forms of public appreciation were in the form of official decrees and their lasting commemoration on various items, ranging from bronze plaques to the marble bases that held the statues of the benefactors. These acknowledgements were abundant throughout the cities of the Roman Empire and acted as evidence of the riches, character, and dominance of the local elites. Even today, we can find vestiges of these symbolic transactions between affluent contributors and the public in the form of named hospitals, stadiums, ceremonial keys to the city, and so on.

When Veyne delved into the practice of euergetism, he challenged the commonly held view that it was equivalent to modern charitable donations or conspicuous consumption. Instead, he drew parallels with the ceremony of the potlatch among Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Civic benefactions were not aimed at individual poor but were directed at the collectivity of citizens. Local elites did not need to flaunt their wealth to reinforce their social standing, and the transfer of private wealth into the public sphere was not a form of redistribution or depoliticization.

After discussing what euergetism was not, Veyne identified its core as a natural expression of grandeur, going beyond practical reasons and driven by internalized sensibility among the Roman nobility. The public giving was instinctual, unselfconscious, routinized, and often wasteful. In other words, Veyne emphasized the psychological reasons behind euergetism, pivoting away from practical explanations. While the details of his conclusion may not be entirely correct, it is still significant as it invites us to reimagine the classical world in a new light.

In his analysis of Roman imperial art and monumentality, Veyne presented a non-instrumentalist argument that differed from his approach to euergetism. The cityscape of ancient Rome was characterized by an abundance of visual representations of the emperor, showcasing his power, accomplishments, and personal virtues on a monumental scale. The Column of Trajan in Rome, for instance, is an exemplar of imperial imagery. It stands within Trajan’s colossal forum complex, and its towering cylinder is adorned with sculptural reliefs depicting the Roman conquest of the Dacian kingdom (roughly modern-day Romania), spiraling upwards in a visual narrative. As visitors approach Trajan’s Forum, they are confronted by this imposing column, which displays scenes from the military campaigns, both literal and metaphorical, interspersed with depictions of Trajan himself, the triumphant ruler of an expansive empire.

According to a long-standing tradition in continental scholarship, official art in ancient Rome was seen as a form of propaganda, designed to reinforce the legitimacy of the reigning emperor and the Roman imperial rule. However, Veyne, a scholar who studied Roman imperial representation, argued that this perspective was fundamentally misguided. He pointed out that much official art was illegible, and some of it was not even visible, raising the question of whether there was a ‘public sphere’ at all. Veyne contended that the subjects of the emperor were simply subjects, with the power of the emperor resting not on communication or persuasion, but on the ritualized performance of consensus in his rule. Thus, official art was not instrumental in function, but an end in itself, expressing monarchic authority that was beyond comprehension and beyond question, operating outside the logic of the emperor’s quasi-absolute power. Veyne’s views are significant in that they require us to rethink the relationship between power and representation in a political system that we often see as foundational to what used to be called ‘Western civilization’.

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