Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges
The Ancient City

The word country, among the ancients, signified the land of the fathers, terra patria—fatherland. The fatherland of every man was that part of the soil which his domestic or national religion had sanctified, the land where the remains of his ancestors were deposited, and which their souls occupied. His little fatherland was the family enclosure with its tomb and its hearth. The great fatherland was the city, with its prytaneum and its heroes, with its sacred enclosure and its territory marked out by religion. 'Sacred fatherland' the Greeks called it. Nor was it a vain word; this soil was, indeed, sacred to man, for his gods dwelt there. State, city, fatherland: these words were no abstraction, as they are among the moderns; they really represented a group of local divinities, with a daily worship and beliefs that had a powerful influence over the soul.

This explains the patriotism of the ancients—an energetic sentiment, which, for them, was the supreme virtue to which all other virtues tended. Whatever man held most dear was associated with the idea of country. In it he found his property, his security, his laws, his faith, his god. Losing it he lost everything. It was almost impossible that private and public interests could conflict. Plato says, 'Our country begets us, nourishes us, educates us;' and Sophocles says, 'It is our country that preserves us.'

Such a country is not simply a dwelling-place for man. Let him leave its sacred walls, let him pass the sacred limits of its territory, and he no longer finds for himself either a religion or a social tie of any kind. Everywhere else, except in his own country, he is outside the regular life and the law; everywhere else he is without a god, and shut out from all moral life. There alone he enjoys his dignity as a man, and his duties. Only there can he be a man.

Country holds man attached to it by a sacred tie. He must love it as he loves his religion, obey it as he obeys a god. He must give himself to it entirely. He must love his country, whether it is glorious or obscure, prosperous or unfortunate. He must love it for its favors, and love it also for its severity. Socrates, unjustly condemned by it, must not love it the less. He must love it as Abraham loved his God, even to sacrificing his son for it. Above all he must know how to die for it. The Greek or Roman rarely dies on account of his devotion to a man, or for a point of honor; but to his country he owes his life. For, if his country is attacked, his religion is attacked. He fights literally for his altars and his fires, pro aris et focis; for if the enemy takes his city, his altars are overturned, his fires are extinguished, his tombs are profaned, his gods are destroyed, his worship is effaced. The piety of the ancients was love of country.

The possession of a country was very precious, for the ancients imagined few chastisements more cruel than to be deprived of it. The ordinary punishment of great crimes was exile.

Exile was really the interdiction of worship. To exile a man was, according to the formula used both by the Greeks and the Romans, to cut him off from both fire and water. By this fire we are to understand the sacred fire of the hearth; by this water the lustral water which served for the sacrifices. Exile, therefore, placed man beyond the reach of religion. 'Let him flee,' were the words of the sentence, 'nor ever approach the temples. Let no citizen speak to or receive him; let no one admit him to the prayers or the sacrifices; let no one offer the lustral water.' Every house was defiled by his presence. The man who received him became impure by his touch. 'Any one who shall have eaten or drank with him, or who shall have touched him,' said the law, 'should purify himself.' Under the ban of this excommunication the exile could take part in no religious ceremony; he no longer had a worship, sacred repots, or prayers; he was disinherited of his portion of religion.

We can easily understand that, for the ancients, God was not everywhere. If they had some vague idea of a God of the universe, this was not the one whom they considered as their providence, and whom they invoked. Every man's gods were those who inhabited his house, his canton, his city. The exile, on leaving his country behind him, also left his gods. He no longer found a religion that could console and protect him; he no longer felt that providence was watching over him; the happiness of praying was taken away. All that could satisfy the needs of his soul was far away.

Now, religion was the source whence flowed civil and political rights. The exile, therefore, lost all this in losing his religion and country. Excluded from the city worship, he saw at the same time his domestic worship taken from him, and was forced to extinguish his hearth-fire. He could no longer hold property; his goods, as if he was dead, passed to his children, unless they were confiscated to the profit of the gods or of the state. Having no longer a worship, he had no longer a family; he ceased to be a husband and a father. His sons were no longer in his power; his wife was no longer his wife, and might immediately take another husband.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.