He had made the Greco-Roman world his playground and exploration, taking pleasure in making intelligible aspects of ancient societies hitherto unknown. Historian and honorary professor at the Collège de France, Paul Veyne died yesterday at the age of 92.
Born in Aix-en-Provence, the young Paul was less fascinated by the treasures of light from the sky of Provence, dear to his namesake and compatriot Paul Cézanne, than by the thousand-year-old riches of his lands: a shard of Roman amphora discovered in the age of eight on the hill of Cavaillon and the Gallo-Roman epitaphs admired in the windows of the archaeological museum of Nîmes were the emerging points of a submerged ancient past that the adolescent wanted to probe very early on. He was passionate about the Odyssey and bent over the enigmas of Greek characters; he was thrilled by reading L’Histoire de Rome by André Piganiol and learned the secrets of Latin epigraphy.
Coming from a modest background, he was a brilliant student of the Republican school: after the baccalaureate, which he was the first in his family to obtain, he continued his studies and joined the École Normale Supérieure in 1951. grammar, he left the walls of what he had baptized the “secular monastery of the rue d’Ulm” to join those of the Palazzo Farnese, which housed the French School of Rome.
From then on, he was able to devote himself fully to his passion, the history of Antiquity. At a time when the school of the Annales was recasting historical science, Paul Veyne enriched it in 1971 with the publication of How one writes history, a landmark work: for the “laws” of history, he replaced the “intrigues”, what was a “science” became under his pen a “true novel”.
From this novel, he wrote several essential chapters, devoted to ancient Rome, which fascinated him by its artistic vitality and by the absence of “identity susceptibility” which it showed. In The Bread and the Circus, Sex and Power in Rome, or When our world became Christian, he combined erudition and freedom of tone, seizing Roman history from its reverse side, not by an excursion into its military adventures but by an immersion in its most intimate aspects, including its relationship to the flesh, authority, religion. Broadening his reflection to the entire ancient basin, his essay Did the Greeks believe in their myths? revolutionized the approach to mythology.
After having taught for nearly fifteen years at the University of Aix-en-Provence, he was noticed by Raymond Aron, elected in 1975 at the College de France, and became the holder of the chair of history in Rome. Then began a period of decisive intellectual and friendly encounters, in particular with Michel Foucault, to whom he devoted an essay, and René Char, whose poetry he loved unconditionally.
And in eternity I will not be bored: the title of his memoirs reflects the universal curiosity of this personality full of dash, fantasy and passion, capable of all summits, including the most perilous near Chamonix, and who was still writing at the age of 85 to express his indignation at the destruction of Palmyra by Daesh.
The President of the Republic salutes the life and work of a man for whom research was a playful vocation, history a matter of reflection, transmission a passion. He sends his condolences to his family, loved ones, pupils and disciples, as well as to all the readers of this ancient nocher who took them back in time, and who today crosses his Acheron.