Farewell Jean-Pierre Vernant

Jean-Pierre Vernant, one of the most renowned scholars of the ancient world has left us last Wednesday in Sèvres, he was ninety three and yet I feel he still had more to give us. He leaves a sense of emptiness within the community of Ancient Greece lovers, both academics and non academics, which we all will try to fill in by re-reading and re-studying all his writings.


Vernant was born in Provins in 1914, and soon became an orphan, as his father died during the Great War. After attending secondary school and gymnasium at Carnot and Louis-le-Grand in Paris he went to University at Sorbonne, where he and his brother brilliantly completed their classical studies in 1937. During these years at Sorbonne he met Prof. Ignace Meyerson (1888-1983) a Polish refugee who would have soon joined the French resistance against the Nazis and become a close friend of his. After the University, Jean-Pierre and his brother were in the army in Narbonne until 1940, when he left the army and was appointed as teacher of philosophy in a school in Touluse. Meanwhile he founded the Armée Secrète (1942), and assuming the identity of Colonel Berthier, he organised the resistance movement for the entire Haute-Garonne carrying out the liberation of Toulouse (1944).

By the end of the War Vernant would have gone back to teach if Prof. Meyerson and Louis Gernet (1882-1962), famous historian, philologist and sociologist would have not succeeded to convince him to join the National Centre of Scientific Research which he did in 1948. He began to work to a dissertation about the notion of work in Plato, and carried out researches into Greek civilisation from a social and psychological perspective as suggested by Prof. Ignace Meyerson. He was trying to seek a general vision – from the ancient Greek man perspective – of all the typical and common expressions of human nature like time, space, memory, power of will, fantasy and sacrifice. He also tried to figure diversities in these concepts between the Greeks and the other ancient societies, as well as between ancient Greeks and the modern Western world.

He was admitted (1958) to École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he joined Fernand Braudel. He was in those years an eclectic scholar studying on a comparative basis ancient anthropology and philology.

His first masterpiece, Les origines de la pensée grecque, was issued in 1962 and obtainied an extraordinary success. However he had already written extensively before and his past essays and articles were then harvested in Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (1965). Since then all his writings were wonderful examples of deep research and passion for the ancient Greek world. His last book, Entre mythe et politique, was published in 2004.

In 1964 he founded his own research centre on comparative research on ancient societies. His group included expert historians and anthropologists on ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Africa and gave to religion a pivotal role in studying the various aspect of all societies. His centre was considered a real school of thought in comparative ancient anthropology and sociology. Nonetheless with time the researches became more focused on the classical world and in 1969 he handed over its direction to his friend and collaborator Pierre Vidal-Naquet (who died 29th July last year). His centre has become one of the most eminent schools of Greek and Roman history.

From 1975 he was Professor of comparative history of ancient religions at the Collège de France, where he was able to continue demonstrating the validity of his comparative approach. He used to say that focusing only on one culture makes you tend to forget the rest, and so you start and keep studying like there is no other possible culture. Nevertheless as soon as you widen your vision and compare the culture you are studying with others like Indian or Assyrian or Babylon’s, the whole perspective changes. The comparative method does not mean just compare diverse cultures, but mainly to change completely the way you approach the culture you are studying.

Vernant did not take for granted any classical Greek assumption. He was not simply one of the many praising ancient Greek culture, he wanted to understand the conscience and the feelings of the human beings immersed in that time and space, over two thousands years ago. His aim was to revitalise for research purposes, somehow, the social context of that golden Age by measuring the uniqueness, capabilities as well the gaps between the Greek man and us – who he considered his heirs… He was convinced that when comparing, differences should push the researcher to understand, to deepen and to comprehend the very reasons of diversity. Following his credo Vernant devoted all his life to study the Greek man, in any and all his expressions: religion, philosophy, conflict, literature, poetry, art, architecture, urbanistic, politics, science, exploration and technique, as he was positive that the Greek man cannot be considered separated by the social and urban structure he had lived in.

He said that man as we find as protagonist of the Greek tragedy is still particularly modern and present; meaning the enigmatic man, the man who has no choice but to follow the stream of the events; the man that contemplates, ponders and decides between two or more courses of action and yet afterwards recognises that the choice he made, and thought was the best one, is the worst. Often modern man – just like the heroes of ancient tragedy – when planning his life and goals tries to build up an ideal world, and yet probably reaches involuntarily the very opposite aim. This tragic feeling is stronger in our days since many things we gave for granted in the past now are not as certain as we supposed.

People should have come by now to realise that the efforts in programming their future, as history shows, may be vain and even, sometimes, disappointing.

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Modernity of Theocritus poetry

The centuries of transition from the Greek classic period to the Roman Empire are characterised by a remarkable individual quest for spiritual peace. Several philosophical schools, religious sects and esoteric cults flourished and prospered in order to satisfy this widely diffused thirst for new values and aspirations. Nonetheless a very original approach was instead proposed by a poet: Theocritus. His suggested solution was the repudiation of the stressful and extravagant city life and the refuge to the quiet countryside lifestyle, thus creating what is still presently renowned as bucolic poetry.


Naturally this genre was nothing particularly new (just think to a certain extent Hesiod, but most certainly Epicharmus of Megara Hyblaea [circa 540 b.C.?] and Sophron of Syracuse [circa 430 b.C.]), but Theocritus succeeded to deepen the idea and convey on it a far larger attention and audience; besides his original touch resisted for quite a long time after his death culminating with Publius Vergilius Maro’s Eclogues, before ending up into mannerist and ridicule pastoral sketches. Later on, with due adaptations, this genre regained its high aesthetic sense inspiring John Milton’s Lycidas (1637) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs (1821)

Theocritus, born in Syracuse, left (or probably fled) for Kos where he lived until he settled in Alexandria, Egypt. Philologists are almost positive to ascribe him at least 31 poems (mimes, bucolic compositions, lyrics and hymns) and some brief epigrams. Later on his poems were renamed ειδυλλια (Idylls)diminutive of ειδος (larger composition), since his masterworks were tiny, neat, erudite and at the same time complete.

Regardless the poet’s refusal for long epic works and heroic and/or Gods protagonists, Theocritus poetry has numerous allusions to Homer’s masterpieces, but completely revisited. His protagonists, shepherds and farmers clumsily quote Homer’s hexameters, or ironically revive some epical scenes, with a mixture of embarrassment, softness and sometimes hilarity.

Some of Theocritus poems have defined the bucolic genre – from βουκολος (herdsman); these delicate, light and deep works consciously cast away from reality contributed to show a new path for individual spirituality. It appears that their scenario and topic are often trivial; nonetheless they have been conceived and written for an urban audience in order to induce the readers to compare two different lifestyles and find refuge in the country life from the dangers, stress and anguishes of the city. Life in metropolis like Alexandria, Syracuse in those days (250 b.C.) was considered quite difficult, dangerous and alienating and Theocritus gathers for the first time this growing feeling. In his poems he mixes sometimes hilariously sometimes sadly the two worlds, so that the countryside is set apart, like a limbo where you can find refuge, but at the same time – and more important – is also a view point on how city life can be hard to live and sometimes just a useless rush. Theocritus instead aims at a simpler life, a small trustful community based on transparent and concordant relationships among people and in perfect harmony with the environment, thus the quest for ηδυς (sweet serenity), takes the place of the actual flee from the urban reality.

Despite to other schools of thought, implying sacrifices, studies and often religious repudiations, Theocritus solution to a deeper spiritual life appears ready to be followed and almost effortless – it takes only the courage to leave city life behind and start a new and more genuine life in the countryside. The location of these idylls was or could have been either Sicily, Magna Graecia or more likely Kos – but this is unimportant, since clearly the environment, hills and kettle, is only a scenario, the choice that his poems demand to the readers is more profound, is spiritual and ethical. Therefore Theocritus tries to show a way to his readers to regain the true significance of their lives, now that the city and the Gods have no more an omni comprehensive impact on men’s life. The reward strictly connected to what Theocritus is offering is the ησυχια (tranquillity and silence) of soul, which is something that is so spiritual and at the same time so affordable.

It is surprising how the aims, the analysis and the impact of Theocritus poetry are so modern: under a light veil of apparently petty descriptions of country life, episodes and dialogues, it lurks a deeper invite to meditation and re-appropriation of our own lives:

Why such haste, you are not catching fire.

You will sing better if you rest here by the trees,

under this olive.

(Theocritus – Idylls V-31)

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