Sozialgeschichte and histoire culturelle – towards a new Roman social history (2009-2012)

In France “histoire sociale” refers to the history of the social classes based on Marxist precepts and closely related to economic history and its serial and quantitative methods. Whereas the concept of “Sozialgeschichte” leads German Ancient historians to think of the debate has taken place between Friederich Wittinghoff and his “school” on the one hand, and Géza Alföldy on the other. The debate’s subject was whether or not one could define the structure of the ancient Roman society by using modern concepts like “social classes”, “social stratum”, etc…

The German scientists still associate the notion “Kulturgeschichte” with Jacob Burckhardt, but “Kulturgeschichte” has nothing to do with the French notion of “histoire culturelle” and those two notions, the German and the French one, have little to do with the English concept of “cultural studies”. The French “histoire culturelle” is related to the “histoires des mentalités” which is according to Pascal Ory a “histoire sociale des representations”, dealing with political institutions, models of reflexion, circumstances of foundation as well as social influence of literature, rhetoric, philosophy and art.

A lot of new procedures and methods have been developed over the last three decades either within Ancient History or in the adjacent disciplines. Since the 1980s a lot of studies have been made based on Historical Anthropology and Gender History. The present project aimed at integrating these new procedures and methods in a Social History of the Roman culture, bridging the divide that still exists between the French histoire culturelle and the German Sozialgeschichte.

Methodological and theoretical aspects played a central role in this research project. While other recent works use one or the other research approach in an isolated way, the CBR project was examining how the combination of the different domains (sociology, history, anthropology, micro-history, everyday-life-history, gender history and discourse research) could produce fruitful results. To enable an all-embracing analysis, this project took as a foundation for its research a place and time which provide enough documentation and several different sources. The execution of this enterprise demanded a trans-disciplinary approach. It was a cooperation research programme which included historians, archaeologists and ancient philologists. All the colleagues of the Classical & Ancient Studies Institutes of the different universities within the CBR were welcome to join the project.

The framework of the CBR is particularly suited to bringing together two Classical & Ancient Studies traditions, but also the scientists that belong to those traditions within a work group. Consequently, a wide range of perspectives could be guaranteed, that would not have been possible within an individual project. The CBR project was led by Thomas Späth and Eckhard Wirbelauer and has been published in 2021 as volume 9 of the CBR Collection.