Death of the historian Paul Veyne: Antiquity shared

Those who had the chance to hear Paul Veyne remember an eminently erudite and brilliant historian, but just as much an outstanding speaker, lively, original, sparkling, empathetic and attentive to his audience. A true storyteller, capable of breaking the timeline to bring out images and sensations from the past, whose life has just ended at the age of 92.

“Paul Veyne was an immense brewer of worlds, that of Rome like that of the Greeks, he dared everything, attentive both to the great historical movements and to the details, both to the texts, in particular to poetry, to the great currents, to the institutions… He was quick and mischievous, humorous, quicksilver, elusive and gripping”pays homage to him the Hellenist Pierre Judet de La Combe.

“I especially remember from him his taste for paradox and provocation, he was an agitator of ideas, extremely brilliant and having read a lot”shares his side the historian François Hartog.

emancipation through history

This powerful and sunny existence began in the southern sun, in Aix-en-Provence, where Paul Veyne was born in 1930. His father was a wine merchant, but Paul Veyne invented another future for himself. It will be history, a vocation of which he has almost made a myth, recounting that it had arisen at the age of 8 or 9 when, walking on a hill overlooking Cavaillon, he had stumbled on the tip of a Roman amphora. that popped up there…

His childhood was also that of occupied Provence, in a Petainist family, whose pro-German point of view he then shared. These eyes only opened in 1945, by reading The Great Test of Democraciesby Julien Benda. “I realized how wrong I washe confided to The cross, in 2008. What would I have become, what would my values ​​have been if the Nazis had won the war? It’s a question that keeps haunting me. »

The years of youth are those of emancipation. A brilliant student, Paul Veyne was received in 1951 at the École Normale Supérieure, where he met several great intellectual figures: the historian Jacques Le Goff and especially Michel Foucault, with whom he became close friends. “Paul Veyne is one of those, quite rare today, who agree to face the danger that brings with it, for all thought, the question of the history of truth”will say the philosopher about it.

Untangling “complicated plots”

Free-spirited and curious, Paul Veyne proposes the re-readings that seem necessary to him, refuses an overhanging historical point of view, dwells on the details, watches for the sinuosities of meaning… In 1970, the historian shakes the Marxist and structuralist pillars of historical science with his book How we write history. Of this essay, he will say a posteriori: ” There (a) no laws of history, whatever the misleading words of human “sciences” suggest: on the earth of men there is no (a) only complicated “plots”. »

Ces “complicated plots”Paul Veyne is the investigator as much as the transmitter, from the Sorbonne to the Collège de France, where he entered in 1975. His books fascinate specialists, but also seduce the general public, such as Did the Greeks believe their myths?

In When our world became Christian, in 2007, the historian reverses common opinions on the passage of the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity. Returning to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, he shows that he made Christianity his personal religion, privately, out of conviction and not out of political interest, but that the Christian faith thus received the impetus that was lacking in its growth.

Immersed in Antiquity, Paul Veyne did not forget to be of his time. He was briefly enlisted in the Communist Party – which he left after the Budapest uprising in 1956. Militant on the left, he fought the use of torture in the colonial wars and committed himself against Holocaust denial and the return of the far right.

A humble unbeliever

Passionate about religions, the man was a humble unbeliever. “I do not affirm the non-existence of God. But I don’t believe it, I’m totally devoid of this faculty. I experienced this as an infirmity,” he still confided to The cross. “Paul Veyne was allergic to any clerical idea, but the question of faith and belief was at the center of his concerns”, confirms her friend and publisher, the Hellenist Hélène Monsacré.

In 2014, the historian gave his autobiography an evocative nameAnd in eternity I will not be bored. A mischievous title that opened the future and resonates today as a final wink.

Among his major works

1971. How we write history. Essay in epistemology.

1976. Bread and the circus. Historical sociology of political pluralism,

1983. The Roman Erotic Elegy. Love, Poetry and the West; Did the Greeks believe their myths? Essay on the Constituent Imagination.

1991.The Roman Society.

2007.When Our World Became Christian (312-394), 2007; Seneca. An Introduction, 2007

2008. Michel Foucault. His thought, his person.

2010. My imaginary museum, or the masterpieces of Italian painting.

2014. And in eternity I will not be bored.

2015. Palmyra. The irreplaceable treasure.

2020. An unusual curiosity.

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