FREE SPEECH HISTORY TIMELINE
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
Episode I: Who wishes to speak?
Ancient Athens was the birth place of equal and uninhibited speech – Isegoria and Parrhesia in ancient Greek.
What did free speech entail for comedians, philosophers, orators and ordinary citizens in ancient Athens? How was free speech threatened by oligarchic coup d’etats? How long was Demosthenes willing to go to become one of the greatest orators in ancient history? And was Socrates a martyr for free speech or a seditious enemy of democracy? Find out in Episode I.
508 BC: Birth of Athenian Demokratia and Isegoria
The goddess of democracy crowning Demos, the people of Athens, ca. 337 BC (Photo: Craig Mauzy)
In 508, the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes implements a series of democratic reforms. They conventionally mark the birth of Athenian demokratia.
The Athenians soon develop a parallel concept of isegoria or ‘equality of speech’. According to 5th century historian Herodotus, isegoria is what gives the Athenians a head start over their neighbours:
“Thus grew the power of Athens; and it is proved not by one but by many instances that isegoria is a good thing; seeing that while they were under despotic rulers the Athenians were no better in war than any of their neighbours, yet once they got quit of despots they were far and away the first of all.” – Herodotus (5.78)
430 BC: Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Philipp Foltz: Perikles hält die Leichenrede (1877) (Public Domain)
The Peloponnesian War breaks out between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies in 431 BC. According to the contemporary historian Thucydides, the Athenian statesman and general Pericles delivers a speech on the value of democracy after the first battles:
“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences … The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.” Thucydides 2.34-46
Athen’s defeat in 404 brings about the oligarchic regime of the ’Thirty Tyrants’.
399 BC: The Trial of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) (Public Domain)
In 399, the philosopher Socrates (c. 469-399) is found guilty of ‘introducing strange gods’ and ‘corrupting the youth’. He is sentenced to death by drinking poisonous hemlock.
Plato later accounts the trial and Socrates’ defence in his Apologia:
“… I know that my plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth?”
– Plato, Apologia
384-322 BC: Demosthenes
The orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC) makes more references to parrhesia or ‘uninhibited speech’ than any other ancient Athenian. When Athens is defeated by the Macedonians in 322, he commits suicide by drinking poison.
“No greater calamity could come upon the people than the privation of free speech”
C. 268-232 BC: Ashoka and the first declaration of religious tolerance
The iconic pillar of Sarnath is raised around 250 BC (Public Domain)
In the 3rd century, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka inscribes a number of edicts. 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
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”.
C. 450 BC: The Twelve Tables
The Romans write down their first legislation on twelve bronze tables around 450 BC. Table 8 1A limits free speech by punishing slanderous and libellous words with death by clubbing.
The Twelve Tables have not survived but can be reconstructed from later authors:
“It was laid down that, if anyone was found to be uttering in public a slander, he should be clubbed to death.”
– Cornutus (ad Pers., S., I, 137)
“Our Twelve Tables, though they ordained a capital penalty for very few wrongs, among these capital crimes did see fit to include the following offence: If any person had sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult to another . . .”
– Cicero (de Rep., IV, 12)
133-121 BC: The Gracchi Brothers
Gaius addressing the Roman plebs, Silvestre David Mirys (b. 1742) (Public Domain)
The Gracchi Brothers wreak havoc in the Republic in the late 2nd century. In 133, Tiberius uses his powers as tribune of the plebs to launch a popular land reform. The land-owning Senators strike back and clubs Tiberius and his followers to death.
A decade later, his little brother Gaius takes up the popular cause and launches a new land reform. With a bounty on his head, according to the historian Plutarch, Gaius orders a slave to kill him. 3,000 of his followers are executed and thrown into the Tiber without a trial.
“He barely succeeded in escaping into a sacred grove of the Furies, and there fell by the hand of Philocrates, who then slew himself upon his master... The bodies of Caius and Fulvius and of the other slain were thrown into the Tiber, and they numbered three thousand.” – Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus 17
C. 100-44 BC: Julius Caesar
The statesman and general Gaius Iulius Caesar (c. 100-44 BC) plays a critical role in the fall of the Roman Republic. In 44, he elevates himself to ‘dictator for life’. A few months later he is assassinated by a conspiracy of Republican senators.
“War has no use for free speech”
– Caesar to Metellus, according to Plutarch (The Life of Julius Caesar 35)
106-43 BC: Cicero
François Perrier, La Mort de Cicéron (1635) (Public Domain)
In the 40s BC, the orator and statesman Marcus Cicero uses his silver tongue to attack Caesar and Mark Antony, and defend free speech from monarchy and tyranny.
Cicero is assassinated in December 43. According to the historian Cassius Dio (155-235 AD), his tongue is pierced with a hair pin and his body parts are displayed on the speakers’ rostra in the Forum Romanum.
“… 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.”
– Cicero according to Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 45.18
95-46 BC: Cato the Younger
Cato the Younger is an indomitable defender of free speech during the civil unrest of the 40s BC. According to the historian Cassius Dio (155-235 BC), he pulls out his own intestines when Caesar wins the Civil War and becomes dictator for life.
“I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead.”
– Cato the Younger according to Cassius Dio (Roman History, book 43.10)
14-37 AD: Tiberius
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (public domain)
Augustus’ successor Tiberius limits free speech by punishing speech crimes with death penalties and burning the entire works of writers and historians.
Capital punishment for ‘literary treason’ is introduced 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 AD: The case of Cremutius Cordus
In 25 AD, the historian Cremutius Cordus stands accused of literary treason for celebrating Cicero, Brutus and Cassius as the ‘last Romans’.
“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
Facing a death sentence, he chooses to starve himself to death. His books are burned and banned.
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. 30 AD: The trial of Jesus
The Deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia dates from the 12th to 13th centuries (Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov)
In the early 30s AD, Jesus of Nazareth is arrested, tried and executed in Jerusalem. Within three decades, Christian communities have sprouted up in most cities of the Eastern Mediterranean.
64: The first persecution of Christians
A devastating fire breaks out in Rome in 64. People suspect Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) of being the arsonist. To shift the blame, he makes the Christians scapegoats and instigates the first persecution, interrogating, crucifying, burning and feeding the Christians to the dogs.
The historian Tacitus writes:
“To stop the rumor, Nero made scapegoats–and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called)… First, Nero had the self-admitted Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned–not so much for starting fires as because of their hatred for the human race. Their deaths were made amusing. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be seton fire after dark as illumination…” – Tacitus