Dover Book

Text Box with description of Book

    In the introduction to this book, the author makes several points to ponder.Perhaps modern life has been influenced so much by the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome that we tend to judge or compare them to ourselves, even thinking that we resemble them, or that we should use them as a model or ideal. But the author responds loud and clear that these are erroneous ideas and nothing could be further from the truth.

Thus observed, Greece and Rome appear to us in a character absolutely inimitable; nothing in modern times resembles them; nothing in the future can resemble them. We shall attempt to show by what rules these societies were regulated, and it will be freely admitted that the same rules can never govern humanity again.

    So thus in the volume, Mr. Fustel de Coulanges seeks to dispel the myths of these ancient societies and present a factual account of how people actually lived, what they believed, and what enabled their society to function as it did. It is an easy to read book, unlike some histories that are written in a complicated language that require mental analysis to understand.
    The author has divided his history into five books: Ancient Beliefs; The Family; The City; The Revolutions; and The Municipal Regime Disappears. While it may appear that he is discussing different aspects of historical significance, which he is, he is also leading us chronologically through the formation and evolution of social structure. What is discussed in one book is expanded and moved forward in the next. As I was reading, I took lots and lots and lots of notes—it was all so interesting. But obviously I cannot include it all in this review. What I will do, however, is provide an overview of important points, though not necessarily in the order they were presented.
    First of all, other than mentioning names of familiar people from ancient Greece and Rome, (and the reader can Google to find out when they lived), the author doesn't provide any dates because he really didn't have any. In fact, there is little to no written history from antiquity. He based his information on what was handed down through generations, and when one understands the mindset of these people, it is easy to see how this information would have been accurate.
    Religion was first and foremost the force that governed the lives of these ancient peoples. Fustel de Coulanges makes the point numerous times that the religious rites for Greece and Rome were much the same as in India (rather than other parts of Europe). It was believed that in death, the body and soul did not separate, but stayed together and the person who died continued to live in the tomb. It was this belief that influenced every aspect of life. The dead, irregardless of whether they were good or bad, became a god, a divinity when they died, and it was within their power to protect the family left behind, and provide it with wealth and health and favor. But the dead had to be provided for in order to do their part. Each family had a hearth fire, where dwelt the ancestors, and that fire was not under any circumstances allowed to go out. Food, milk and wine were offered to the dead in order to keep them nourished, and each family had a set of complex rites, hymns, and prayers that belonged to that family alone. No one other than the family was allowed to approach the hearth or participate in the rites. These were personal gods—they were the ancestors of the family and belonged to no one else. The father was in charge of making sure that religious order was kept in his house. He passed these secret ceremonies down to his son, who would take over when he died. Families all stayed together—they were bound by religion, because if the chain was broken, those who died would fall into neglect and wreak vengeance on the family. It was a fear-based religion and had nothing to do with love or devotion of the heart.
    But this was also a selfish religion and kept families isolated within their own little groups. When a father died, there was no need for a will because the first son would then take over for the father, and the other sons would be under his direction, as they were under the father's. A property could never be taken from the family, even to pay off debt, because the gods of the family lived there and could not be displaced. There was a place for the tombs in the field, and no person outside the family was allowed to trespass on this sacred ground. Each property had a ditch around it that partitioned it off from non-family people. If a man and ox went over the ditch onto someone's land, the punishment was death to both the man an ox as a sacrifice to appease the gods for the impiety.
    When a daughter was to be married, she had to break all ties with the family. Once she became a member of her husband's family, she had to learn their rites, prayers, and hymns. She was now under the protection of those ancestral divinities and could never return to her own.
    I found this section on marriage particularly interesting, because there are so many similarities between these ancient marriages and the present, although most people don't even know the origin of these rites. The father was required to "give the bride away," but it had a much different meaning then. Here, the father, by giving away his daughter, severed all her ties with the household gods. She, dressed in white, not for virginity, but because white was the color of religious garb, was carried through the streets to the home of her new husband. She had to feign being pulled into the home against her will, because she was not allowed in the sacred place where only the family could be present and the ancestors would be offended. So the groom carried her over the threshold, making sure her feet did not touch the sill. After the ceremony of prayers and hymns, the bride and groom ate from the same cake.
    The religious beliefs of these people and the isolation of the family permeated every aspect of life for these people, but it was inevitable that they eventually had to form larger and larger groups, all related in some way to the same ancestors. (please keep in mind that we are talking about extreme antiquity. Fustel de Coulanges does not even supply dates because he had not that information.) In any case, at some point, extended families organized into larger groups, and finally into tribes, and from there, the tribes organized into a still larger group called the city made up of a number of tribes. Each still kept their own rites, but now there were city rites and each city also had their own gods to worship.
    One thing on which I want to comment is that the traditional mythological gods of Greece and Rome that are so familiar were barely mentioned here. According to the author, each city had its own nature-based deities, for instance for the sky, clouds, earth, etc.. Many of them were based on real people who had existed, such as Hercules. Each city might have a Hercules, and there were probably as many Jupiters as there were cities, but they were not the same god, at least at first, which leaves me wondering how these classic myths have remained so well-known even in modern times. This is a question that was not answered in this particular history, but I have no doubt there are many other histories on the subject. The point here is that, while families still had their personal ancestral gods, the nature-based gods became city deities which all citizens could worship, because now, remember, the city is made up of diverse tribes which each had a different ancestry.
    And it is important to realize that "citizens" were only those men who had an ancestral religion. All the other people were nobody. They had no laws, no rights, no justice, but most importantly, at least to the "citizens" is that they had no ancestral worship, and anyone without worship was worthless in this eyes of these people. And I also want to point out that these "citizens" who adhered to this extremely superstitious and fear-based religion were not the common people. They were the aristocracy. Therefore the "city" operated only for this group because everything was based on religion, including the ridiculous laws, again based on fear and superstition. The kings were the same as priests, because they alone knew the secret religious rites and were responsible for carrying them out, and around that everything else functioned.
    Because this review is getting so lengthy, I am going to accelerate here. Eventually the plebeians, the common people who had no religion began to revolt, and at the same time the family-based religions were weakening and more and more people realized their absurdity. To understand the radical nature of this fact, one must realize that the fear-based ancestral religion had been in place for centuries and centuries. It was from about 700-500 B.C. that the plebeians finally gained some rights, but really, society was in a state of tumult as the aristocracy fought to keep their stronghold, which continued nearly to the first century A.D..

    Because I took SO many notes as I was reading (over forty pages!), I am doing something I have never done before—I am publishing them along with this review. I left them in note form—not complete sentences and with little comments I made to myself, which will be in square brackets. I spent so much time studying this book, I hated my notes to go to waste, and it is volumes more information than I included in the review, which I hope will merely whet your appetite to read more. You may click here to read these notes.
    Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges was a nineteenth century French historian. He first published this book in 1864. Willard Smal's translation was published in 1874. It is a well-written book and the translation is good, too. I remember when I was in high school I hated history. The classes and textbooks were nothing but stuffy facts and dates to memorize. None of that here. Now that I am an adult, I love history, and the history books I read are more like bringing the past to life. This is one of the best I've ever read. Each chapter is filled with fascinating information. I truly agree with the author's opinion that we have had false ideas about these ancient civilizations, and what I learned from here certainly challenged my former perceptions. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the ancient past.
    You may download this as a free eBook in English at Internet Archive. It has been digitized by Google, however, I am not sure who the translator is, but I am thinking it is not Willard Small because the publication date is different.


All material on this site copyright © 2015 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.