Ancient City

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* Book: The Ancient City (Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges).



1. IP:

"On the face if it, Ancient City is not that revolutionary of a text. The basic thesis of it is that the shape of the classical world and its historical developments are to be explained not by material or economic or so-called “mystical” factors (we will return to this), but by religion. But this is not just any religion. It is not even the paganism you’re familiar with as the worship of Zeus and Jupiter. It’s something much older and deeper than that.

The originary Aryan social order was the family, and this family was a society unto itself. Its constitutive principle was a shared worship, and the worship was of the line of fathers reaching back to the high gods. The father of the family was the high-priest—he presided over the rites he had received from his fathers. He was the supreme magistrate—he alone judged members of the family and could even pronounce death on them. And he was the sole proprietor—no one in the family owned anything but through him. This is the ultimate patriarchy, to a degree that makes even the most hardcore dissident blush.

What’s more, the religion had very little in the way of dogma or propositional content. This is not to say “do what thou wilt”—quite the reverse. These people were concerned with ritual exactitude to a degree that we can hardly grasp. Take as an example the multi-day Roman festival that had to be repeated because someone zigged when they should have zagged. Think also of the Greeks drawing up for battle, where even with the enemy bearing down, the sign to attack would not be given until the sheep entrails had arranged themselves just so. This was exactly the opposite of antinomianism, and in fact, it was the introduction of propositionality that opened the door for lawlessness. This was a command-based religion—the spirit counted for very little, the letter for everything. The ultimate traditionalism.

Of necessity, two families could have no socio-religious relation to one another, except if in tracing the line of worshipped fathers both families met a common ancestor. This made them part of a clan, and the eldest1 father among the family heads the clan chieftain. No two clans could have relations except that they shared a yet remoter ancestor, with the eldest clan head being the tribal chieftain. At one further level of remove doing the same genealogy, we reach the “ancient city”, the city-states of antiquity. At no stage was anything like mass immigration thinkable; at even a late time it was nigh impossible to become an Athenian citizen. At every stage the boundaries between citizen and foreigner, family and enemy, one property and the next, were perfectly clear. If you should accidentally drive your ox into the boundary stone of a neighbour, the punishment was immolation2—that’s how seriously these people took keeping shit separate. We have here the ultimate nationalism."


2. Auron McIntyre:

"This was my favorite book of the past year because Coulanges does not just review the events of ancient Greek or Roman history but rather takes the reader to the beginning of those cultures and treats them as if they are entirely alien civilizations.

Coulanges focuses on religion as the core of the ancient identity, creating a way of being that is entirely foreign to modern secularized individuals. Religion was the water in which the ancients swam, the way they sought to understand every aspect of life, and the doctrine that dictated everything from laws to family formation.

When Coulanges discusses the ancient Greek or Roman religions, he is not really discussing the pantheon we think of with Zeus or Jupiter. Rather, he’s referencing the even more ancient religion of ancestor worship and the sacred hearth.

Coulanges also explores how religion and the strength of the family limited the power of the state. Each of the Genes, or patrician families, had a religion that was unique to their own domestic practice without some kind of overarching belief that tied them together. This particularity of worship gave the families an incredible degree of power over every patron, freedman, and slave that was connected to them, limiting the demands the government could make without risking pushback from one of the Genes.

The author documents the state’s need to alter the religion and create a belief system that would connect the families before they could be stripped of power. The tribes formed a city-state, and the city-state grew into an empire. But at each step, the families had to be weakened, and the religion altered. “The Ancient City” is a fascinating read back to front, and I cannot recommend it highly enough."