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The The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome Ancient City

The The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome Ancient City

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by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges

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With this influential study, French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges initiated a new approach to Greek and Roman city organization. Fustel de Coulanges' 1864 masterpiece, La Cité antique, drew upon physical evidence as well as ancient documents rather than the usual post-Classical histories. The result is a fresh, accurate, and detailed portrait of


With this influential study, French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges initiated a new approach to Greek and Roman city organization. Fustel de Coulanges' 1864 masterpiece, La Cité antique, drew upon physical evidence as well as ancient documents rather than the usual post-Classical histories. The result is a fresh, accurate, and detailed portrait of the religious, family, and civic life of Periclean Athens and Rome during the time of Cicero.
This fascinating sociological account reveals the significance of kinship and the cult of the family hearth and ancestors to ancient Hellenic and Latin urban culture. It chronicles the rise of family-centered pagan belief systems, tracing their gradual decline to the spread of Christianity. Fustel cites ancient Indian and Hebrew texts as well as Greek and Roman sources. The ingenuity of his interpretations, along with his striking prose style, offer readers a vital and enduring historic survey.

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A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome

By Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14235-7



DOWN to the latest times in the history of Greece and Rome we find the common people clinging to thoughts and usages which certainly dated from a very distant past, and which enable us to discover what notions man entertained at first regarding his own nature, his soul, and the mystery of death.

Go back far as we may in the history of the Indo-European race, of which the Greeks and Italians are branches, and we do not find that this race has ever thought that after this short life all was finished for man. The most ancient generations, long before there were philosophers, believed in a second existence after the present. They looked upon death not as a dissolution of our being, but simply as a change of life.

But in what place, and in what manner, was this second existence passed? Did they believe that the immortal spirit, once escaped from a body, went to animate another? No; the doctrine of metempsychosis was never able to take root in the minds of the Greco-Italians; nor was it the most ancient belief of the Aryas of the East; since the hymns of the Vedas teach another doctrine. Did they believe that the spirit ascended towards the sky, towards the region of light? Not at all; the thought that departed souls entered a celestial home is relatively recent in the West; we find it expressed for the first time by the poet Phocylides. The celestial abode was never regarded as anything more than the recompense of a few great men, and of the benefactors of mankind. According to the oldest belief of the Italians and Greeks, the soul did not go into a foreign world to pass its second existence; it remained near men, and continued to live under ground.

They even believed for a very long time that, in this second existence, the soul remained associated with the body; born together, they were not separated by death, and were buried together in the grave.

Old as this belief is, authentic evidences of it still remain to us. These evidences are the rites of sepulture, which have long survived this primitive belief, but which certainly began with it, and which enable us to understand it.

The rites of sepulture show clearly that when a body was buried, those ancient peoples believed that they buried something that was living. Virgil, who always describes religious ceremonies with so much care and precision, concludes the account of the funeral of Polydorus in these words: "We enclose the soul in the grave." The same expression is found in Ovid, and in Pliny the Younger; this did not correspond to the ideas which these writers had of the soul, but from time immemorial it had been perpetuated in the language, attesting an ancient and common belief.

It was a custom, at the close of a funeral ceremony, to call the soul of the deceased three times by the name he had borne. They wished that he might live happy under ground. Three times they said to him, Fare thee well. They added, May the earth rest lightly upon thee. Thus firmly did they believe that the person would continue to live under ground, and that he would still preserve a sense of enjoyment and suffering. They wrote upon the tomb that the man rested there — an expression which survived this belief, and which has come down through so many centuries to our time. We still employ it, though surely no one to-day thinks that an immortal being rests in a tomb. But in those ancient days they believed so firmly that a man lived there that they never failed to bury with him the objects of which they supposed he had need — clothing, utensils, and arms. They poured wine upon his tomb to quench his thirst, and placed food there to satisfy his hunger. They slaughtered horses and slaves with the idea that these beings, buried with the dead, would serve him in the tomb, as they had done during his life. After the taking of Troy, the Greeks are about to return to their country; each takes with him his beautiful captive; but Achilles, who is under the earth, claims his captive also, and they give him Polyxena.

A verse of Pindar has preserved to us a curious vestige of the thoughts of those ancient generations. Phrixus had been compelled to quit Greece, and had fled as far as Colchis. He had died in that country; but, dead though he was, he wished to return to Greece. He appeared, therefore, to Pelias, and directed him to go to Colchis and bring away his soul. Doubtless this soul regretted the soil of its native country, and the tomb of its family; but being attached to its corporeal remains, it could not quit Colchis without them.

From this primitive belief came the necessity of burial. In order that the soul might be confined to this subterranean abode, which was suited to its second life, it was necessary that the body to which it remained attached should be covered with earth. The soul that had no tomb had no dwelling-place. It was a wandering spirit. In vain it sought the repose which it would naturally desire after the agitations and labor of this life; it must wander forever under the form of a larva, or phantom, without ever stopping, without ever receiving the offerings and the food which it had need of. Unfortunately, it soon became a malevolent spirit; it tormented the living; it brought diseases upon them, ravaged their harvests, and frightened them by gloomy apparitions, to warn them to give sepulture to its body and to itself. From this came the belief in ghosts. All antiquity was persuaded that without burial the soul was miserable, and that by burial it became forever happy. It was not to display their grief that they performed the funeral ceremony, it was for the rest and happiness of the dead.

We must remark, however, that to place the body in the ground was not enough. Certain traditional rites had also to be observed, and certain established formulas to be pronounced. We find in Plautus an account of a ghost; it was a soul that was compelled to wander because its body had been placed in the ground without due attention to the rites. Suetonius relates that when the body of Caligula was placed in the earth without a due observation of the funeral ceremonies, his soul was not at rest, and continued to appear to the living until it was determined to disinter the body and give it a burial according to the rules. These two examples show clearly what effects were attributed to the rites and formulas of the funeral ceremony. Since without them souls continued to wander and appear to the living, it must have been by them that souls became fixed and enclosed in their tombs; and just as there were formulas which had this virtue, there were others which had a contrary virtue — that of evoking souls, and making them come out for a time from the sepulchre.

We can see in ancient writers how man was tormented by the fear that after his death the rites would not be observed for him. It was a source of constant inquietude. Men feared death less than the privation of burial; for rest and eternal happiness were at stake. We ought not to be too much surprised at seeing the Athenians put generals to death, who, after a naval victory, had neglected to bury the dead. These generals, disciples of philosophers, distinguished clearly between the soul and the body, and as they did not believe that the fate of the one was connected with the fate of the other, it appeared to them of very little consequence whether a body was decomposed in the earth or in the water. Therefore they did not brave the tempest for the vain formality of collecting and burying their dead. But the multitude, who, even at Athens, still clung to the ancient doctrines, accused these generals of impiety, and had them put to death. By their victory they had saved Athens; but by their impiety they had lost thousands of souls. The relatives of the dead, thinking of the longsuffering which these souls must bear, came to the tribunal clothed in mourning, and asked for vengeance. In the ancient cities the law condemned those guilty of great crimes to a terrible punishment — the privation of burial. In this manner they punished the soul itself, and inflicted upon it a punishment almost eternal.

We must observe that there was among the ancients another opinion concerning the abode of the dead. They pictured to themselves a region, also subterranean, but infinitely more vast than the tomb, where all souls, far from their bodies, lived together, and where rewards and punishments were distributed according to the lives men had led in this world. But the rites of burial, such as we have described them, manifestly disagree with this belief — a certain proof that, at the epoch when these rites were established, men did not yet believe in Tartarus and the Elysian Fields. The earliest opinion of these ancient generations was, that man lived in the tomb, that the soul did not leave the body, and that it remained fixed to that portion of ground where the bones lay buried. Besides, man had no account to render of his past life. Once placed in the tomb, he had neither rewards nor punishments to expect. This is a very crude opinion surely, but it is the beginning of the notion of a future life.

The being who lived under ground was not sufficiently free from human frailties to have no need of food; and, therefore, on certain days of the year, a meal was carried to every tomb. Ovid and Virgil have given us a description of this ceremony. The observance continued unchanged even to their time, although religious beliefs had already undergone great changes. According to these writers, the tomb was surrounded with large wreaths of grasses and flowers, and cakes, fruits, and flowers were placed upon it; milk, wine, and sometimes even the blood of a victim were added.

We should greatly deceive ourselves if we thought that these funeral repasts were nothing more than a sort of commemoration. The food that the family brought was really for the dead — exclusively for him. What proves this is, that the milk and wine were poured out upon the earth of the tomb; that the earth was hollowed out so that the solid food might reach the dead; that if they sacrificed a victim, all its flesh was burnt, so that none of the living could have any part of it; that they pronounced certain consecrated formulas to invite the dead to eat and drink; that if the entire family were present at the meal, no one touched the food; that, in fine, when they went away, they took great care to leave a little milk and a few cakes in vases; and that it was considered gross impiety for any living person to touch this scant provision destined for the needs of the dead.

These usages are attested in the most formal manner. "I pour upon the earth of the tomb," says Iphigenia in Euripides, "milk, honey, and wine; for it is with these that we rejoice the dead." Among the Greeks there was in front of every tomb a place destined for the immolation of the victim and the cooking of its flesh. The Roman tomb also had its culina, a species of kitchen, of a particular kind, and entirely for the use of the dead. Plutarch relates that after the battle of Platæa, the slain having been buried upon the field of battle, the Platæans engaged to offer them the funeral repast every year. Consequently, on each anniversary, they went in grand procession, conducted by their first magistrates to the mound under which the dead lay. They offered the departed milk, wine, oil, and perfumes, and sacrificed a victim. When the provisions had been placed upon the tomb, the Platæans pronounced a formula by which they called the dead to come and partake of this repast. This ceremony was still performed in the time of Plutarch, who was enabled to witness the six hundredth anniversary of it. A little later, Lucian, ridiculing these opinions and usages, shows how deeply rooted they were in the common mind. "The dead," says he, "are nourished by the provisions which we place upon their tomb, and drink the wine which we pour out there; so that one of the dead to whom nothing is offered is condemned to perpetual hunger.

These are very old forms of belief, and are quite groundless and ridiculous; and yet they exercised empire over man during a great number of generations. They governed men's minds; we shall soon see that they governed societies even, and that the greater part of the domestic and social institutions of the ancients was derived from this source.



THIS belief very soon gave rise to certain rules of conduct. Since the dead had need of food and drink, it appeared to be a duty of the living to satisfy this need. The care of supplying the dead with sustenance was not left to the caprice or to the variable sentiments of men; it was obligatory. Thus a complete religion of the dead was established, whose dogmas might soon be effaced, but whose rites endured until the triumph of Christianity. The dead were held to be sacred beings. To them the ancients applied the most respectful epithets that could be thought of; they called them good, holy, happy. For them they had all the veneration that man can have for the divinity whom he loves or fears. In their thoughts the dead were gods.

This sort of apotheosis was not the privilege of great men; no distinction was made among the dead. Cicero says, "Our ancestors desired that the men who had quitted this life should be counted in the number of the gods." It was not necessary to have been even a virtuous man: the wicked man, as well as the good man, became a god; but he retained in the second life all the bad inclinations which had tormented him in the first.

The Greeks gave to the dead the name of subterranean gods. In Æschylus, a son thus invokes his deceased father: "O thou who art a god beneath the earth." Euripides says, speaking of Alcestis, "Near her tomb the passer by will stop and say, 'This is now a thrice happy divinity.' "

The Romans gave to the dead the name of Manes. "Render to the manes what is due them," says Cicero; "they are men who have quitted this life; consider them as divine beings."

The tombs were the temples of these divinities, and they bore the sacramental inscription, Dis Manibus, and in Greek, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. There the god lived beneath the soil, manesque sepulti, says Virgil. Before the tomb there was an altar for the sacrifices, as before the temples of the gods.


Excerpted from THE ANCIENT CITY by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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