Paul Veyne the historian-explorer

Although he never took himself seriously, Paul Veyne ventured into new territory: vegetarianism, sexuality, family, without forgetting the writing of history. Let's follow him on his side paths.

Could he who did not want to form disciples be able to bear having exegetics?? Paul Veyne (1930-2022) is an unclassifiable historian, whose abundant work deserves to be reread closely, even though he would probably have been embarrassed to receive so many honors. In the interview he gave in 1995 to Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, we immediately learned that he hated talking about his work, which had become simple milestones in a journey made of tireless curiosity and total freedom.

avoid the professorial tone

Let us not limit ourselves and reread it, in the company of the seven authors and authors, Hellists and Romanists, who bring together this collective work. They undertook, each according to their specialty, to re-examine Veyne's writings to put them into perspective and cast a critical eye on them.

The title of the book is intended as a tribute How we write history (1971), which borrowed its formulation from a line from the Greek orator Lucian of Samosata (IIe century AD. BC) who, as a consummate satirist, enjoyed everything. Like his old model, Veyne never took himself seriously. And her taste for Roman history encouraged her to take a thousand side roads. How, then, can we follow this elusive scientist, faster than air, without risking dizziness?? And how to avoid the professorial tone that he avoided from the academic?

The introduction (Paul Veyne or the resources of the cantilever) by Paul Cournarie and Pascal Montlahuc looks back on the trajectory of Veyne, classic in its major stages, non-conformist in its details. The tone of this opening text could seem somewhat negative, taking at face value some of the historian's confessions and neglecting his self-denigrating tendency. It is a question ofinability (of Veyne) to carry out the operations of speculation and rudiment together (p. 7). A little further on, its irony is called into question: The double play ends up putting him offside (p. 22), according to an opinion that we are not obliged to share.

From this introduction, the two directors of the work very opportunely mention extracts from the correspondence of Paul Veyne with Raymond Aron, where the first testifies to a virulence which he later reproached himself for. Thus, in a letter of June 2, 1972, he does not spare Jean-Pierre Vernant: Vernant is not a cheater. He writes clearly, does not overuse words and, behind his sentences, we feel the reality of things. He is intellectually honest and healthy (). It's 1900 ethnology in 1965 vocabulary. It remains to be seen why he, Veyne, never really resorted to ethnographic literature.

Impureness of a system

The investigation is extended by a chapter devoted to Veynian epistemology, where Paul Cournarie distinguishes two moments: before the decisive meeting with Michel Foucault and after. The context of development of How we write history is rightly restored: it is the time when Veyne, a teacher from Aix, met Gilles-Gaston Granger, for whom history was thereone of the fine arts. The author of this chapter wants to highlight the flaws in the philosophy of history that Veyne developed from the beginning of the 1970s: The tragedy of Veyne is, in short, having been too acutely aware of the successive weaknesses of his positions. (p. 41).

Should we be so strict? More philosophical than the vast majority of his historian colleagues, Veyne led a vigorous effort to criticize the historical genre, while recognizing that he remained a simple historian (he never sought to enter the field of philosophy, nor published an article in philosophers' journals).

The hybrid character of its epistemological reflection, the impurity of its philosophical system, its perpetual amendments constitute less weaknesses than proofs of intellectual honesty and above all adequacy to its object, which is a strange thing in itself: history or this time narrated, more or less skillfully, by professional men and women.

The following chapters consider in turn Paul Veyne in his activities as an archaeologist (Martin Szewczyk), then as a specialist in ancient vegetarianism, this symbolic power of benefits (Benjamin Gray), a massive social phenomenon to which Veyne devoted his doctorate, The Bread and the Circus (1976). Veyne's work on ancient images was first re-read, which he was keen to approach using the tools of the sociology of reception of Jean-Claude Passeron, his comrade from Normale.

Benjamin Gray, British teacher-researcher, then returns to the vergical questions and offers an interesting point of view: parts of the international reception of the Veynian work are clarified, in particular through the sympathetic criticism of Peter Garnsey.

Insights on sexuality and family

Subsequently, Sandra Boehringer does justice to the historian of ancient sexuality: a time when homosexuality is considered a mental illness byWHO (classification retained as such until 1990)Veyne was able to show that large societies, such as Greece and Rome, valued erotic relationships between people of the same sex (p. 160).

Citing the Roma Amor (1961) andEros Kalos (1962) by Jean Marcad, Sandra Boehringer does not think that Veyne was as alone as he claimed to be on this ground. But Marcad sought to produce essentially a catalog of images without formulating an overall reflection on the specificities of ancient sexuality, where Veyne offered very new insights into family life and relations between the sexes in ancient Rome, notably the reading of the studies of Yan Thomas, historian of Roman law.

Finally, three other centers of interest in Veyne are considered: ancient religion (Romain Loriol); Greco-Roman biculturalism (Clment Bady); the figure of the emperor (Pascal Montlahuc). Although Veyne confessed that he was not very sensitive to religious manifestations, he still spent a lot of time wondering about the ancient gods, their devotees and their gradual conversion to Christianity, through studies whose originality cannot be denied, such as his analysis of the manners which the Romans sat in their temples.

In a more conventional register, addressing the immense historical object that constitutes imperialism, Paul Veyne seemed to continue a path already traced by his predecessors. However, this would be to be mistaken about the independence of mind of the David aixois than to see him as a simple continuator. The lack of Marxist orthodoxy was inevitably addressed to him, in particular by Domenico Musti.

Finally, in his work on the Roman emperors, Veyne had the merit of never giving in to the fascination they sometimes arouse. He tried to put in series the Caesars as presidents of the IIIe Republic, without further reverence.

Find the right word

In the pilogue, Patrick Leroux (Clio at the gates of Thlme) returns to the major feature of Paul Veyne's work: his freedom from all corporatist burdens. And he identifies themes absent from the work whose conclusions he assures, notably the writing of Veyne, the very one which assured him his editorial success.

Because we may not want to subscribe to the idea that reading Paul Veyne is never relaxing or easy (p. 25). The variety of fields which interested him does not only explain his recognition among the general cultivated public.; It is also his talent to find the right word, the striking formula, the amusing and destabilizing idea. Moreover, some of the works published in his last decades of activity and which had large print runs are barely mentioned.

Between the lines emerges the profile of a very atypical Romanist within a profession that is deliberately conservative. Veyne loved grotesque figures like Trimalcion more than the emperors of Rome, Latin legiac poets more than the Roman legions, seated devotees more than the great gods. Intrepid historian and true historian.