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Public and private in ancient Mediterranean law and religion:
  a historical and comparative conference

Max Weber Kolleg, Erfurt
3-5 July 2013

The distinction between public and private plays an essential role in modern understandings of nearly all aspects of social conduct.  Indeed, it might even be said to be foundational in modern conceptions of the individual.  The terms themselves derive from Latin roots, publicus and privatus.  As with all such faux amis, the genealogical relation between lexemes works to efface the historical specificity of the distinctions mapped by this essential polarity, as well as the very meaning of the terms themselves.  For example, whereas Anglo-American liberals and most Protestants conceive of religion as an essentially private matter–albeit for different reasons, within different frameworks–Cicero’s clauses on religion in On the Laws assign to all individuals both public and private religious lives, the one entailed by citizenship, the other normatively familial (Cicero De Legibus 2.19).

The aim of the conference is to explore the public-private distinction starting from Roman life, with a particular focus on comparative study and historical change.  When does the concept of private religion emerge, and why?  What work does the concept perform, and how does it change?  Is it related to concepts of private reflection in the philosophical tradition?  Does private reflection occur in private spaces, and how are these related to changing understandings of the domestic?  Are the distinctions drawn differently in the grand metropolitan centers, where individuals exist in more atomized relation to one another, than they are in mid-size municipalities?  Do changes occur in relation to mere population growth or are they better indexed to some increase in heterogeneity?  How does the Roman notion of the privatus stand in relation to the modern individual or the subject?

To isolate and analyze the Roman context, we will devote half the seminar to other traditions of the ancient Mediterranean, notably those of classical and Hellenistic Athens, Rabbinic Judaism and early Islam.  These present sufficient affinity in social structure and material culture, and possess appropriately robust evidentiary regimes, to permit fine-grained comparative study.  The normative distinctions drawn in ancient regulation and modern analysis in these contexts have been quite different.  It is not simply that other categories, such as household or oikos, come to the fore, but even the existence of any such analytic dyad as public/private or public/household has been questioned.

The conference is being organized by Jörg Rüpke (MWK), Clifford Ando (University of Chicago) and Chris Faraone (University of Chicago), and is co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Ancient Religions, University of Chicago.