Books interview: Paulin Ismard

The professor in Greek history and author of Democracy’s Slaves discusses theatre’s power, ancient political systems and tackling Gravity’s Rainbow

February 16, 2017
Author Paulin Ismard of Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
When I was small, I mainly read comics and game books. The first novel that made a deep impression was My Sweet-Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos.

Which books spurred you to study the ancient world?
If I had to choose a single book, it would be Plato’s Phaedo. It was a present from my father – I have a clear memory of how I discovered it at the age of 17. But it was my encounter with Greek theatre that converted me to ancient history, particularly the production of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil when I was 14.

Which works on ancient history do you constantly find yourself returning to?
The complete works of Nicole Loraux, and particularly The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens and The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. I would also mention the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant and, although his influence on me is different and less direct, Moses Finley. But the recourse to antiquity by non-historians – Michel Foucault, of course, or Jacques Rancière – is just as inspiring.

Your new book, ‘Democracy’s Slaves’, explores the central role of ‘public slaves’ in ancient Athenian democracy. What is a good general account of the development of democracy?
That is difficult, because we are not really talking about a continuous history. Is democracy the same thing throughout? An Athenian observing our political system would laugh at the idea that we call it “democracy”. And few books have tried to offer a global history of democracy from antiquity up until now. There have, however, been two successful but very different recent attempts: Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life and Luciano Canfora’s Democracy in Europe.

What are the key texts about slavery in ancient Greece?
If we are talking about ancient texts, no author devoted a whole book to the subject. The slave can be found here and there in the byways of major works such as Aristotle’s Politics, obviously, and Plato’s Laws, but also Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. But for the historian, the most interesting texts are epigraphic – inscriptions. Among modern historians, there’s obviously Moses Finley (Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology), even though one might dispute many of his claims, and, paradoxically, the work of someone who isn’t a specialist in antiquity: Orlando Patterson’s Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
James Salter’s All That Is, for a friend’s 40th birthday. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read over the past few years.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
On my desk, I essentially keep books for work, with Malick Ghachem’s The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution at the top of the pile. But there’s also a book at the foot of my bed that I keep promising myself I’m going to read, though so far without success: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Paulin Ismard is associate professor in Greek history at Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1. His latest book is Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece (translated by Jane Marie Todd, Harvard University Press).

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