Dive into a timeline covering the subjects of Clear and Present Danger. The timeline will expand as we travel through the history of free speech.

Free speech history

Ancient Athens

Episode I: Who wishes to speak?

Episode I: Who wishes to speak?

The democracy of Ancient Athens was the birth place of equal and uninhibited speech. Or Isegoria and parrhesia to the Athenians.

Jacob Mchangama guides you through how oratory was central to the idea and practice of Athenian democracy. What Athenian style free speech entailed for ordinary citizens, comedians, philosophers and orators. How oligarchic coup d’etats twice drowned Athenian free speech in blood and repression. The extreme methods used by Demosthenes to become the greatest orator of antiquity. And of course: the trial of Socrates: Was he a martyr for free speech or an impious and seditious enemy of democracy? Find out in episode I of Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.

507 BC: The birth of Athenian democracy

In 507 BC, three years after the last Athenian king is expelled, the statesman Cleisthenes imposes a series of democratic reforms. His reforms conventionally mark the birth of Athenian democracy.

430 BC: Pericles’ Funeral Oration

430 BC: Pericles’ Funeral Oration

Bust of Pericles (Roman copy in marble after Greek original) (Public Domain)


In 431 BC, the Peloponnesian War breaks out between Athens and Sparta, the two leading city states of Ancient Greece.


After the initial battles in 430, the Athenian statesman Pericles praises the Athenian democracy in his famous funeral oration:


“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law“ – Pericles

When the Spartans destroy the Athenian navy in 404 the war is brought to a conclusion. One year later, a starving blockade forces the Athenians to capitulate. The Spartan victory brings about the oligarchic regime of the ’Thirty Tyrants’ in Athens.


Read the full speech here.

C. 469-399 BC: Socrates

C. 469-399 BC: Socrates

Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) (Public Domain)


Born to a stonemason around 469 BC, Socrates is regarded as the founder of Western philosophy.


In 399 he is found guilty of ‘introducing strange gods’ and ‘corrupting the youth’. He is sentenced to death by drinking poisonous hemlock.

384-322 BC: Demosthenes

384-322 BC: Demosthenes

Demosthenes orator, Louvre Museum (Wikimedia Commons)


Demosthenes (b. 384 BC) is arguably the greatest orator of ancient Greece. He is an ardent defender of free speech, and his surviving orations include more references to parrhesia or ‘uninhibited speech’ than any other  ancient Athenian.


“Every dictator is an enemy of freedom, an opponent of law.” – Demosthenes

After the Greeks’ crushing defeat in the Lamian War, Demosthenes drinks poison. He can’t bare the thought of living under the Macedonian yolk.

C. 268-232 BC: Ashoka and the first declaration of religious tolerance

C. 268-232 BC: Ashoka and the first declaration of religious tolerance

Ashoka’s pillar of Sarnath with its four iconic lions was raised around 250 BC (Public Domain)


In the 3rd century BC in present day India, King Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty is waging a brutal campaign. When he encounters Buddhism, it shows him a different path.


Ashoka calls for a number of edicts to be inscribed in stone pillars. They include one of history’s first declarations of religious tolerance:


“Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way.”
– King Ashoka, 3rd century BC


Read Ashoka’s edicts in full here.

213 BC: Qin Shi Huang and the first book burning in history

213 BC: Qin Shi Huang and the first book burning in history

Unknown illustrator, c. 1850 (Public Domain)


In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquers the Warring States, unifies China and becomes the first Chinese emperor.


In 213 BC, the emperor orders books on history, poetry and philosophy to be burned in what appears to be the first organised book burning in recorded history.


The Qin Dynasty is remembered as a despotic tyranny. In 206 BC, after less than 20 years on the throne, the dynasty is toppled by the Han.

Ancient Rome

Episode II: Liberty or license?

Episode II: Liberty or license?

Rome was the most powerful empire in antiquity. But were the Romans free to speak truth to power? Did history’s first successful Women’s March take place in Rome? And who came out on top when the words of Cicero clashed with the ambition of Caesar and armies of Octavian? Why did historians and astrologers become endangered species when the Republic became an empire? Find out in episode II of “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech”.

509 BC: Birth of the Roman Republic

509 BC: Birth of the Roman Republic

Artemisia Gentileschi (1645-1650): Lucretia


According to Roman legends, the Roman Republic is established in 509 BC – roughly 250 years after the legendary Romulus kills his twin brother and founds the eternal city.


As the legend goes, the Romans expel their last king, Tarquin the Proud, after his son rapes the noblewoman Lucretia.


The Romans swear an oath never to be governed by a king again, and Lucretia’s husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, becomes one of Rome’s first two consuls.

C. 450 BC: The Twelve Tables

In the mid fifth century BC, the Romans write down their first legislation on twelve bronze tables. The tables include a paragraphs on the limits of free speech. According to the eighth table:


“If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death.”


The Twelve Tables are accessible here.

264-146 BC: The Punic Wars

264-146 BC: The Punic Wars

Heinrich Leutemann (1866): Die Karthager – Hannibals Übergang über die Alpen


In 264 BC, the first in a series of three ‘Punic Wars’ breaks out between Rome and her biggest rival, the Carthaginian Empire. The First Punic War marks the transition from the early to the middle Republic.


The first war is provisionally concluded in 242, when the Romans win a massive naval battle seizing control of the island Sicily.


In the second round, between 218-201 BC, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal leads his army of war elephants across the Alps. In 216 BC, the Romans suffer a crushing defeat in the battle of Cannae.


The third and final war is concluded in 147 BC, when the young Roman general Scipio Africanus the Younger captures the city of Carthage. The surviving Carthaginians are enslaved and the Romans destroy the city so thoroughly that it has never been properly localised. Swallowing her last rival, the victory solidifies Rome’s dominance in the Mediterranean world.

215 BC: The Oppian Law

Money is tight during the Second Punic War. In 215 BC, the Oppian Law is passed prohibiting Roman women from luxury items such as expensive dresses. According to the Roman historian Livy, the law sparks a regular womens’ march.

133-121 BC: The Gracchus Brothers

In 133 BC, the Roman Tribune Tiberius Gracchus (c. 169-133) launches a series of popular land reforms. They conventionally mark the transition into the Late Republic.


To no surprise, the reforms do not sit well with the wealthy landowners in the Senate. According to the biographer Plutarch, Gracchus is clubbed to death with the leg of a chair.


10 years later, his little brother Gaius takes the lead. He suffers the same fate as his brother and he and his loyalists are butchered.

106-43 BC: Cicero

106-43 BC: Cicero

Bust from 1st century AD (Public domain)


Marcus Tullius Cicero is born in 106 BC. Arguably the greatest orator in European history, he is also a powerful statesman, consul and senator. A dyed-in-the-wool republican, he takes on first Caesar, then Mark Antony:


“For I could not, on the one hand, endure to live under a monarchy or a tyranny, since under such a government I cannot live rightly as a free citizen nor speak my mind safely.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero is exectued in December 42. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Antony’s wife symbolically pierces his tongue with a hair pin. His dismembered body parts are displayed on the speaker’s platform in the Forum Romanum.

C. 100-44 BC: Julius Caesar

C. 100-44 BC: Julius Caesar

Marble bust from the early Augustan age. Musei Vaticani, Rome (public domain)


Gaius Iulius Caesar (100-44 BC) is a powerful politician and military general. He plays a critical role in the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire.


In 49, the Roman Civil War breaks out between Caesar and his former ally, Pompey the Great. After he wins the war, Caesar elevates himself to ‘dictator for life’.


On the ides of March 44 BC, he is assassinated by a conspiracy of republican senators led by Cassius and Brutus.

The Roman Empire

c. 27 BC – 14 AD: Augustus and the Roman Empire

c. 27 BC – 14 AD: Augustus and the Roman Empire

Augustus Bevilacqua. Glyptothek, Munich. (Public Domain)


Octavian (b. 63 BC) is the adopted nephew of Julius Caesar. After he defeats Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, he elevates himself to Augustus and becomes Rome’s first emperor in everything but name (r. 27 BC – 14 AD). Instead of emperor, he assumes the title of Princeps or ‘first citizen’.


During the first decades of the Roman Empire, free speech is limited one step at a time. In 6-8 AD, Augustus introduces punishments for ‘literary treason’ and orders forbidden texts to be burned.

14-37 AD: Tiberius narrows the limits of free speech

14-37 AD: Tiberius narrows the limits of free speech

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (public domain)


Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, (b. 42 BC) becomes the second emperor of Rome in 14 AD. During his reign, he narrows the limits of free speech by introducing capital punishment in cases of speech crimes and burning the complete books of scholars who are out of line.


The death-penalty is inflicted for literary treason for the first time in 21 AD. Two years later, the poet Aelius Saturninus is hurled to death from the Capitol Hill for “reciting improper verses about the emperor”.

25 BC: The case against Cremutius Cordus

One of the most infamous trials of the Ancient world unfolds in 25 AD. The republican historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus stands accused of literary treason. His crime is writing pro-republican history. His treatise refers to Caesar’s two assassins, Brutus and Cassius, as the ‘last Romans’.


Cordus is sentenced to death and his books are burned and banned. He starves himself to death and becomes one of history’s first martyrs of free speech.


“The charge, Conscript Fathers, is for my words only; so irreproachable is my conduct… You may sentence me to death, but then not only Brutus and Cassius will be remembered. I, too, shall not be forgotten.” – Aulus Cremutius Cordus

Late Antiquity

Episode III: The Age of Persecution

Episode III: The Age of Persecution

Why did the polytheist Ancient Romans persecute the followers of the new Jewish sect of “Christians” in the first three centuries AD”? How high was the price that Christians had to pay for casting away their ancient religious traditions for the belief in salvation through Jesus Christ? Did Roman Emperor Constantine end religious intolerance with the Edict of Milan? And why did the Christians persecute the pagans – and each other – once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire? Why were temples and libraries destroyed and the female mathematician Hypatia killed by violent mobs? And did Emperor Justinian really end antiquity when he closed the Academy in Athens?


Find out when we discover how religious persecution and violence impacted lives, learning, and liberty of conscience in the period from the trial of Jesus to the age of Justinian. The Age of Persecution. That’s episode III of “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech”.

c. 5 BC – 33 AD: Jesus of Nazareth

c. 5 BC – 33 AD: Jesus of Nazareth

The Deesis mosaic of Hagia Sophia in Instanbul dates from the 12th or 13th century (Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov)


Jesus of Nazareth is born around 5 BC during the reign of Augustus in the Roman province of Judea.


A Jewish preacher, he is tried and executed by crucifixion in Jerusalem in 33 AD during the reign of Tiberius. Reportedly, the orders are given by the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilatus, under pressure from the Jewish sanhedrin.


According to the Christian tradition Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah prophesied in the Jewish Bible. Within three decades of his crucifixion, Christian communities are established in most cities of the eastern Mediterranean.