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freedom in the ancient world

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The distinction free–unfree is attested in the earliest Greek and Roman texts (Linear B, Homer, Twelve Tables). As ‘chattel slavery’ became predominant, earlier status plurality was often replaced by a sharp contrast: slave–free. Freedmen were enfranchised in Rome but not in Greece (See citizenship, greek and roman).

Freedom was first given political value by the Greeks, in a world of small poleis (see polis) which were not subject to imperial control, where power was not centralized, autocratic, or divinely sanctioned but broadly distributed, and communal well‐being depended on many citizens, so that early forms of equality survived and gained importance over time. Loss of freedom was frequent, both for individuals (war, piracy, debt bondage), and communities (tyranny). Nevertheless, freedom was articulated politically only when Lydian and esp. Persian expansion to the Aegean for the first time subjected Greek poleis to foreign rule, often supporting local tyrants (see tyranny). This danger of double ‘enslavement’ and the confrontation with the autocratic Persian state made the Greeks aware of the free character of their societies. Earliest allusions to political freedom and the emergence of an abstract noun (eleutheria; from adj. eleutheros) date to the Persian Wars of 480/79 and their aftermath.

Vowing the continued defence of Greek liberty against Persia. Athens assumed leadership in the Delian League (478), which was soon converted into a naval empire; allies became subjects who could hope only to preserve self‐administration (autonomy). Freedom quickly deteriorated into a political slogan. In the Peloponnesian War, Sparta proclaimed the liberation of Hellas from Athens as tyrant city, though primarily protecting its own interests and soon turning oppressor itself.

Domestically, freedom initially meant ‘absence of tyranny’. Constitutional development was dominated first by ‘good order’ (the eunomia of Sparta's traditional founder, Lycurgus), then by political equality (isonomia), which, in democracy, eventually included all citizens, thus approximating isonomia to dēmokratia. Eleutheria was claimed by democracy when democracy and oligarchy were perceived as mutually exclusive, partisan forms of rule, so that the demos could be free only by controlling power itself. Similarly, a new term for ‘freedom of speech’, i.e. ‘frankness’ (parrhēsia) supplemented ‘equality of speech’ (isēgoria). Rejecting the extension of full rights to all citizens, oligarchs accepted as ‘free citizens’ only those rich enough to engage in ‘liberal’ (eleutherios) arts and occupations, and public service. When eleutherios was set against eleutheros, the concept of the ‘free citizen’ was divided ideologically.

In the 4th cent. Sparta, Athens, and Thebes claimed to promote the liberty of those subjected by others. The liberty of the Greeks in Asia, sacrificed by Sparta in 412, was definitively yielded in the King's Peace (386). The charter of the Second Athenian Confederacy guaranteed the members' eleutheria and autonomia. The Messenian helots were freed by Thebes after Leuctra (371). To end continuous internecine warfare, Isocrates called for a panhellenic crusade against Persia to liberate the Hellenes—a programme realized by Alexander (2) the Great only after Greek liberty was crushed at Chaeronea (338).

In the Hellenistic period, the kings, competing for political and material support, presented themselves as protectors of Hellenic civilization and liberty. Declarations of freedom for the Hellenes were thus an old tradition when Quinctius Flamininus pronounced that European Greeks ‘shall be free, exempt from tribute, and subject to their own laws’.


Subjects: Classical studies

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