A sourcebook for Roman civilisation?

A retrospective review of Henri Bardon, Le génie latin, Latomus Collection vol. LXV Revue d’Études latines, 1963

This erudite popularization of Roman civilization offers an interpretation of the Roman mentality and values: love of the land, patriotism, fluctuation between Reason and the irrational, humanitas, and a melancholic obsession with death. The shift of focus from political history to more serious matters was progressive, but it is not the book’s most important feature today.

The book was justly reprimanded by Bardon’s contemporaries for its faults, particularly the total absence of scholarly documentation. There are no notes, no bibliography, no references, no index, no summaries; quotations from ancient sources are always in translation—presumably the author’s own, but we are not told—without referrals to the source text. Although one reviewer (Pierre Grimal, Revue des Études Anciennes 1964, 66-1-2, pp. 247-249) could describe Bardon’s work as a summary of other scholars’ views over the preceding forty years, no credit is given for material that is not his own. The very title of the book may have been plagiarized from Anatole France’s publication in 1913. (Admittedly, it is more appropriate for Bardon’s book, since France’s discusses only French literature.) For this scholarly delict alone, it could be rejected by academic publishers today. And that would be unfortunate.

Some of Bardon’s opinions are debatable. Grimal saw Roman civilization as an urban phenomenon with only legendary love of the land. Another reviewer (Martin Van den Bruwaene, L’antiquité Classique 1964 37-1 188-9) disparaged his knowledge of Roman law. Some of his views, too, are now dated, like the assumption, common at the time, that we can psychoanalyze Lucretius’ personal neuroses from his poem.

Bardon’s own political values are apparent and disagreeable; they range from monarchist at best to nearly fascist. Livy is the best Roman historian, because, not in spite of, his disrespect for truth: “...l’essentiel était qu’au dessus... de la vérité, il y eût cette conception idéale du sacrifice à la patrie.” (p. 56) Yet Bardon faults Tacitus for his disrespect for truth (p. 205). He has some admiration for delatores (p. 155) and some sympathy for the defense of slavery, even in the mines (p. 183).

So why am I recalling this book?

Instructors may be reluctant to recommend it to students, but they will find it a veritable gold mine when preparing their lectures, even though the only way to find the gold is to read the entire book. Van den Bruwaene wrote of “des richesses que l’auteur n’a pas le temps d’étaler”. Poetry and rhetoric, art and architecture, law, religion, philosophy, social structures, are all treated in brief analyses which repeatedly offer a perspicacious understanding of whatever is under discussion. But the chapter headings give few clues to their contents, and the treatment of a given topic may be split between different chapters. The chapter on “Le plaisir de vivre” includes such surprising delights as rhetoric and numismatics, but neither wine nor sex. Bardon’s demonstration of shared, characteristically Roman values in Lucretius and Seneca concerning mortality in spite of their rival philosophies is a real gem which will seldom be found in the philosophical scholarship; but it is split between two different parts of the book.

The reader will find, among other ‘richesses’:

  • a succinct and coherent description of the different types of limes (border regions) surrounding the empire, with the reasons why they differed
  • the numerous types of vehicle which Rome learned to make from the Gauls, and their respective uses
  • a poignant appreciation of Vergil’s ambivalence between Roman destiny and pity for its victims
  • the differing characters of the elegaic poets
  • the periodic style and the kind of thinking it embodies

Bardon likes the gladiators but offers something better than modern objections to them when he enumerates the objections of Roman critics themselves. (177-8) He illustrates his short but systematic account of state and private welfare distributions with a sketch of Cicero’s simultaneous insistence on the legal rights of the privileged and their duty to voluntarily help others (p. 191)—albeit without any mention of the Hellenistic philanthropy which was their model. He provides a concrete impression of farmers’ religious life by enumerating the obscure deities invoked for sundry chores: Imporcitor, Obarator, etc. (For me, this conjured a fleeting image of Millet’s Angelus.) Among epitaphs he chooses some which are likely to intrigue modern readers, like that of Pomponius, an intellectual and a translator, on p. 234. Even for areas of scholarship which are now much more advanced, the reader may find handles on which to hang her own more recent observations. Without ever discussing ancient sexuality, for example, particularly same-sex relations, Bardon twice quotes loves poems which happen to be about boys. (One is on p. 159. See if you can find the other.)

Although Van den Bruwaene describes Bardon’s style as “lapidaire” and I am an anglophone, I found it engaging, perhaps occasionally dramatic.

Overlook, if you can, the lack of documentation, the dated and nearly fascist views, the patronising disparagement of the Greeks; read and take notes on your own interests.

And please, can somebody create a searchable pdf?

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