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C h a p t e r 2 Polis and Republic The Price of Misunderstanding One precondition for the study of a problem like the nature of religion in the Greco-­Roman world is to know well the historical context of the object of study. This is not a matter solely of contextualizing one’s analysis by situating it within some field of academic debate, but also, with equal rigor, of contextualizing the ancient sources that one cites. No one would be so ridiculous as to explain the findings of archaeologists in their samplings by reference to contemporary material culture, but this is what happens in certain studies of ancient religion. The resulting misinterpretations are numerous, and I will consider some examples of this kind. They concern not only matters of detail, of the kind about which this or that specialist or group of specialists might disagree, or disagreements about method. They concern, rather, fundamental and general disagreements. These errors are frequently attributable to the separation between different fields of scholarship. The Greeks of the philosophers are not those of the historians; the Romans read by patristic scholars and theologians generally have little to do with those of the historians and archaeologists. During the 1960s, Jean-­Pierre Vernant had such an impact because, in order to treat a question, he drew upon the different sciences of the study of antiquity: philosophy , history, philology, the history of art, economics, social history, and anthropology. Nor was his research on religion detached from more recent scientific developments. He encouraged comparative study, by inviting all scholars who worked on antiquity to participate in a given research project. Polis and Republic 23 This methodological advance has not found an opening in certain areas of study: in philosophy, literature, or theology, and in the German university system, for example, it is largely unknown and always provokes surprise and perhaps even suspicion. The results of Vernant’s research of this kind are today judged by one or another discipline, such as philology or epigraphy or theology , and often the specialists do not find anything to interest them, quietly regarding the social conduct of the Greeks as brought to light by Vernant and his collaborators as of little interest to their own projects or little relevance to the history of Greece in general. This is because they do not understand what Vernant was talking about. What Is a Roman City? It is the same with the problems that I am seeking to explore. The main contributors to the debate have only a very vague idea of what an ancient city-­ state was and, hence, of the way in which individuals integrated themselves in society. It is not a particularly innovative methodological move to suppose at the outset that this is not a historical problem, or to say that this question is not one that needs to be posed, because the form of the civic community has no particular relationship to actual society. If we deconstruct the arguments used to defend this position, we find once again the old theory of the decadence of the ancient city after Chaeronea, after the fall of Athens under the blows of Macedon and the advent of the Hellenistic age. Thereafter, the city as civic community would have dissolved into larger structures. It is significant that all authors admit that the system of polis-­ religion was in fact able to function in the framework of the archaic Greek city-­ states and in Rome of earliest times. Later, in each case, the world and society would have changed to such an extent that city and citizen would no longer have been the principal units of social interaction, but the individual confronted with a distant power. Often, historians establish a direct link between the Hellenistic and Roman empires and the form of religious practice.1 And always, polis-­religion is relegated to the archaic period. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, by contrast, polis-­ religion would have been weakened and defeated at the same as the traditional city-­ states were, and the lonely individual would have henceforth made his or her own religious choices from among the totality of cults 24 Chapter 2 and gods offered thanks to the opening of the Mediterranean. More precisely, it would have been from the fourth century bce that the evolution and differentiation of religious choices in the Mediterranean world would have led to the collapse of civic religion, which would have been unable to integrate the new options...


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