History of Freedom: The Ancient World

Figure 1.--This tomb stone sculpture shows a Greek woman being attended to by a slave girl. It is a fact that the idea of freedom was born in Greece, a society in which slavery was more important than in many other ancient civilizations. Slavery was an institution throughout the ancient world, but in most societies the economy was supported by large peasant populations. They were not slaves, but had limited rights and usually did not own the land they worked. The idea of a free citizenry controling a society was a Greek invenion. And the result was perhaps the most remarkable floweing of human creativity in history.

Early man of course had freedom, but because of the constraints of primative technology and the desperatte need to survive was make only slow advances. As civilization aadvanced, autoritarian political and relgious systems developed which contrained freedom. Civilization advanced over time, but freedom for the individul was very limited. Nobels controlled resources and for the most part an individul's lot in life was that of his father and his father before him. The ancient civilizations in the great river valleys were very static socities. That is not to say that there was no change, but change occurred at only a glacial pace unless outide forces intervened like invasion or natural events. The Hebrews in Canaan/Palestine were an exception, but ultimately were unable to stand militarily against the powerful empires which surrounded them. The trobelsome Greeks proved to be a very different matter when the powerful Persian Empire set its sight on its western border lands. The Greek victory heraled the birth of freedom. Helanism was the core of the claasical tradition and created the core Western value which would eventually create the modern world. Rome is not known for its contribution to freedom, but would in fact play an important role in passing on Hellanism, most importantly in the form of its legal tradition. And Rome provided the vessel in which Christianity developed and the Judeo-Christian tradition waswelded to the classical tradition. Soon after the Western Roman Empire would collapse and be overun by pagan Germanic tribes. Even so the Classical and Jrdeo-Christian trditions, the core of Western civilization, would gradually reasert themselves during the medieval era.

The River Valley Civilizations

Civilization began with the Neolithic or Agricultral Recolution (about 10,000 BC). The first important civilization were the four river valley civilaztions. Three of those (Meopotamia, Egypt, and China). The cultural achiebements of civilization essentially resulted from freedom. Rather than spending much of theday searing for food and other ned=sities as hunrt gatherers were forced to do, people in the new agricultural socities had the time to pursue other activities and theresult was the expansin of crative activitis resulting in architecture, astronomy, art, artisan production, mathematics, written language, and muh more. The modern concept of freedom, however, did not exist in these societies. We know very little about the Indus Valley civilization, but we see no evidence that it was any different. THre was no known word for freedom in ancient Greece. Ther was on which touched upon the concept in Mesopotamia. The Sumrian word ama-gi meant the freedoms or liberties granted at the pleasure of powerful the ruling monarchs to his subjects. This wa not a matter of common law, but arbitary grants which could also be cancelled at the monarch's pleasure. And the monarch coul interpret them as he saw fit as well to grant and cancel them selectively. It was, however, in Mesopotamia that the concept of a written law .. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of any length and it is sugnifucant that it dealt with law. Codification of law was important because it moved away from aribtrary decusion making.

Slavery in the Ancient World

In our modern world there are few human practices that inspire such profound outrage as the practice of one human being enslaving another. This is, however, a very modern sentiment. The institution of slavery probably predates civilization itself. Slavery was an accepted institution and central to the economies of most major world civilization. Slaves were were often war captives, both captured warriors and the women and children of conquered populations. The offspring of these enslaved people provided a vast slave work force. The victors in battle might enslave the losers rather than kill them. Slavery in many early civilizations is poorly understood. Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood topic. We have done some work on Egyptian social classes, but destinguishing slaves from other groups with limited freedom is a challenging task that scholars have found very difficult. The same is true for the many civilizations of Mesopotamia. Slavery in both Greece and Rome are much better understood and were major components of the work force. Slaves in Greece and Rome were drawn from widly differing peoples and there was no association with race. Slaves might be blond, blue eyed Anglo-Saxons from Britania or blacks from Sahara as well as evry other racial type. Slavery in Rome had no racial basis. This appears to have been the general pattern in the ancient world. Even those of Italian stock were enslaved. It was thus impossible to tell from one's features if they were a slave. This complicated control. The Senate debated establishing a destinctive dress for slaves. In the end, the Senate decided against a slave attire, partly because they decided it was dangerous because it would show the slaves just how numerous they were. As in the Americn South, slavery was justified on the basis of the natural inferiority of certain individuals.

The Jewish Convenent

A central component of freedom is law. Law does not by itself create freedom. In fact law can prevent freedom, but freedom is impossible without law. Before the concept of law, it was the ruler's decesions that constinuted law. Law not only conferred rights on people, but limited the arbitrary authority of the state. The first known law code was Hammurabi's Code (1754 BC). The Ten Comamdments expressed in the law expressed in Torah (meaning 'Law') are essentially a restatement of Hamurabi's Code. The Torah (Penetuch in Christian terminology) and Old Testament in general is, much more. It is the first known expresion of what we now call human rights and egaltarian poliical philoophy. And this is of course a key component of freedom. Democracy is more than majority rule. There has to be protections for the rights of minorities. wihout this, freedom is not only incomplete, but the abiity of society to benefit from freedom are limited. And it was not the Summerivans, Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, or Romans that conceived the idea that 'all men are created equal' and have a right to justice before the law. Here it was the Jewih Old Testmant that broke with ancient thought. Not only is this a theme that runs through the Old Testament, but establishesed the modern principle of Constitutional Law-- a nation forged by a covenant of duties, freedoms and rights. [Berman] Notice that the Hebrew Convenent was not just Yaweh and Moses and other leaders, but with every Jew--no matter how humble. This was beginning of te classical concet of citzenship adopted by the classical polis of Greece and Rome. This as a critical step in the development of the idea of freedom. The Hebrew Bible is nothing short of a revolution in social and political thought. The Torah is the earliest statement on record of an egalitarian polity based on the ingerent value of human life. It was essentiall a blueprint for a society that contrasted sharply with the cultures of the larger socoeties of the Middle East which surrounded it (Egypt, Mesopotamia (Babylonians and Asurians), Mettani, Hittites, and Persia). Compare the later Biblical presetation of David with all his all too human faults with hos other societies presentedthaei gof-like rulers. In these societies the hierarchical structure of the political polity was based on the person of the on the figure of the king or pharhoe who was often seen as a terrestrial diety. The egalitarian ideal is closely associated with freedom. This is carefully articulated in a comprehensively fashion in the Torah. Here is a very modern expression in its theology, politics, economics, as well as its narrative literature. There are strong parallels with modern politcal thought. The Jewish Convenent and legal principles in Deuteronomy are are essetially an early version of Montesquieu and contitutionalism.

Freedom's Birth: The Battle of Marathon (490 BC)

After eons of pre-history and some ten millenia of civilization, we know the precise day in our history that freedom was actually born. It was an abrupt and bloody birth. The Persian Emperor Darius was intent on adding more Greek city states to his vast empire. This was the beginning of the Persian Wars. And he was determined to punish Athens for aiding Greek city states in western Anatolia (498 BC). The resources of the Empire ws so vast that many Greek city states did not dare join Athens and Sparta to confront a large, well equipped Persian Army. Suddenly in the morning dawm, a small force of Greek citizen-soldirs formed on the plains of Marathon in Greece, bracing for battle with the much larger Persian Army (September 21, 490). The Spartans had not yet arrived, but a small fore from Plataea joined the Athenia hoplites. The ensuing battle was fiercly fought, but a resounding victory for the Greeks--seen at the time a miraculous deliverance. It was, however, not just one more ancient battle, it was nothing shot but the bloody birth of human freedom and Western Civilization. For the first time a small force of free men defeated the mighty hordes of oriental despotism. And it meant that the Greeks were left free to develop a cultural flowering without prcededence in history and nothig short of the birth of Western civilkization, incluing all the : accoutrements of freedom--political liberty and fredom of thought, speech, and action. [Fears] The important Scottish historian, economist, political theorist, James Mill, isisted that the Battle of Marathon was more importnt o English democracy than the Battle of Hastings. Marathon was not the end of the Persian Wars, Darius' son Xerxes would not just send aarge army, but a massive army and fleet (480 BC) This time even with Spatan aid, there seemed no way that the Persians could be defeted.

Greece: Athenian Democracy

Poltical democracy was born in ancient Greece. There were, however, many different and independent Greek city states. Athens in part because it was the leader in the Persian Wars emerged as the leading Greek city state. The Golden Age of Greece is in large measure the achievment of Athenian democracy, but there were important achievements in other Greek city states. Herodutus came from Halicarnassus Hippocrates was from Cos. Pythagoras was from Samos. Simonides was from Ceos. But by far it ws Athens that produced the largest numbers of men upon which Western Civilization and freedom was founded, including Aeschylus, Aristolle, Aristophanes, Euripides, Pericles, Phidias, Plato, Socretes, Sophocles, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Note the absence of Spartans. And even those Greeks not from Athens developed in societies with many of the same political and economic currents that moved in Athens. Rarely in human history has there been such a flowering of human thought and achievement. Greeks invented the liberal arts as an edcational process to prepare its citizens. And it is no accident that this cultural flowering occured in Greece amidst the freedom of democracy. Nothing like this had occured in the previous 10 millenia of human civilization. The Greek word for freedom was ελευθερία (elef̱thería). And the most Greeks had no doubts about its importance. Aeschylus fought at Marathon. One of his great plays written nearly two decades after Marathon was 'The Persians' (472 BC). He argued in the play that the Athenian victory was that of free men fughting the slaves if an oriental despy. He also insited that the Persians had committed hybris--towering arrogance. Herodotus in the first important histoicl study, Histories reached the same conclusion (445 BC). Democracy was, however, not the only current at play in ancient Greece. The Greek city states all had their differences. Athens was the nost influential, but not the only powerful city state. Sparta was very different, in many ways the athesis of Athens. It was the wotld's first totalitaruan state and gor this reason much admird iun NAZI Germany. Notably there was no cultural floweing in Sparta. But Sparta was able to generate raw military power and enslave neighboring Laconia and Messenia creating a slave poopulation of Helots. Athens and the other Greek city states were not without their faults. Democracy can be messy. And humans are falable. Athens created a navalempire and exploited the other member states. Athenians put Socrates to death. And slavery was endemic throughout Greece. Greelk democracy did not create slavery. Slavery existed in Greece before democracy, but once democracy arrivd, there was no effort to end or lmit slavery. Athenian freedom not only sparked a creative outburst of thought about the natural world that would not be rivaled until the invenbtion of science by Western thinkets (16th century). Intrestingly many of the scientific princies that were recognized in the 19th century were first theorized by the ancent Greeks. Even more startlig is how the Greeks egan to explore the consequemnces of freedom. And here even in our modern age the extet of Greek thinking has not been equaled. This was perhaps the main theme of the Greek tragedies and foremost among them was Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.


Alexander is one of the most engaging figures of history. He is undenibly one of the most brilliant military commnders of all time, if not the single most brilliant. The young Macedonian primnce, however, could not have achieved what he did by personal brilliance alone. It was Greek freedom that created military capabilitie that enabled him to contruct an army that could defeat much larger Persian forces. Alexander opened an entirely new histoical era. Alexander through his military victories spread Helandstic culture from the narrow confines of Greece throughout the Middle East to the fringe of central Asia and the borders of India. In doing so he expanded the bordrs of freedom. There are many opinions about Alexander. In the West he is seen as a brillint prodigy and conqueror. In central Asia he is seen as a brutal invader. But however one views Alexander, there is no doubt that he spread Helliism and thus the Western concept of feeedom far beyond Greece. Not all Greeks saw democracy as central to Hellenism. The Hellenist historian, Polybus, coined the term 'ochlacratia' meaning mob rule. Philip and Alexander changed the central characteristic of greek politics from democracy to monarchy. This brought can end to political freedom, but not to end of individual freedom. And Alexander transformed Hellensism in an important way. The Greeks before Alexander viewed thepeoples beyond Greece as barbarians. Alexander conceived of a very different empire. He saw the achievements and capabilities of the people of the Persian Empire and soght to bind it tigether in his new empire making everone equal and promoting a cultural and personal merger.His ealy death mean that this would not be achieved, but it was aoncept that would unfluence Imperial Rome.


It was the Roman Reublic and not the Empire that established itself as the powerhouse of the ancient world. And it was the Republic's citizen soldiers mannng the Legions that made the Roman Repubic a finely honed conquerng machine. Rome like Greece had a culturl flowering, although perhaps not as bright. Rome had, however, strengths beyond its military prowess. And chief among them was law. Under it Rome rose to world mastery. It was one of the central keys of Western Cvilization. It was Rome rather than Greece that the Ameican Founding Fathers used as a model of their new republic. It was the balances onherent in Roman Law that the Founding Fathers used as a guide for the Constitution, how to secure liberty under law. The world is a dangerous palce. A strong state is necessary to protect a population, but law is needed to protect people from the state. The Roman Reublic found this balance and the Founding Fathes sought to secure this same balance. Caesar and Augystus in creating the Empite would end political freedom, bu for countless people throughout the Empire would bring the benefits of indicidual freedom to them.

Jesus and the New Tesament

Jesus is one of seminal figures in the Western saga of freedom. Christianity developed primarily within the confines of the Roman Empire. The Empire despite its fearsome reputation, actually permitted cobsiderable local control as well as ethnic and cultural diversity. The rise of the mpire with Ceasar and augustis extingished the principles of democracy that were part of the Roman Republic. This mean that political freedom was extinguished, but within theImperial context, inner-freedom and autonmy were possible. Despite the relative tolerance of the Empire, the Roman emperors percesuted Christians which continued at various levels until the righn of Constantin. Christinity bcame the statre religion. There wa no possibility of political freedom. but the inner freedom was an important focus of Jesis and the early church. Thus increaing numbers of Romans began a search for innerr freedom. The great contribution of Jesus abd his followers was to invests individuals, men and women slave and free, and their lives and souls with a value and dignity. [Fears] This was not the case inWetern eirher classical pagan antiuity or the great anient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, or China.

Paul the Apostle: Merging the Jewish and Classical Traditions

Paul was both a Jew and Roman citizen. He actvely percecuted Jews until a miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus. He then began a ministry to the gentiles. Before Paul, Christianity was esentially the Jesus Movement with the Jewish community. Pau broadened the movement by disregarding many of the Jewish Laws such as circumscion. He essentially merged the clasical and Jewish tradition to create a Christianity that went far beyond the confines of Jewish comminities throughout the Roman Empire. There weremany differeces, but there were many string similarities--especially a commitment to freedom and the rue of law unlike any other society. The essential Jewish and resulting Christian add on to the classical traditon was human rights and the equality of mankind. This was a novel concept in a Roman Empire with an econmy dendent on slavery. This was a huge step in the developing Western concept of freedom. Paul's teaching did more, however, than to merge the Jewish and classical traditin. He vocalized important concets of freedom based upon both traditions. Many view his ;Letters to the Galtians; as the NagnaCarta of Christian theology.


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Created: 12:48 PM 5/30/2015
Last updated: 10:42 AM 6/3/2015