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

Ancient Athens

Episode 1: Who wishes to speak?

Episode 1: 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?

 

So the following episode is an attempt to bring to life a pivotal but often forgotten period i as we embark on the first stop of what I hope will be a long journey together through the history of free speech.

507 BC: The birth of Athenian democracy

Three years after the last Athenian king is expelled, the statesman Cleisthenes imposes a series of democratic reforms in 507 BC. His reforms are commonly known as the birth of Athenian democracy.

431-404 BC: The Peloponnesian war

In 431 BC, war breaks out between the two leading Greek city states: Athens and Sparta with their respective allies. According to the contemporary historian Thucydides, the war breaks out because of Spartan fear of Athenian expansion.

 

The war ends when the Spartans destroy the Athenian navy in 404. One year later, a starving blockade forces the Athenians to capitulate.

 

The Spartan victory brings an end to the Athenian democracy and ushers in the oligarchic regime of the ’Thirty Tyrants’.

430 BC: Pericles’ Funeral Oration

After the first battles of the Peloponnesian war, the Athenian statesman gives his famous funeral speech in 430 BC. He uses the occasion to praise the value of democracy:

 

“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

 

The famous funeral oration is immortalized by the historian Thucydides (c.460-c.399 BC) in his contemporary account of the Peloponnesian War.

 

 Read the full speech here.

415 BC: The Sicilian Expedition

In 415 BC, the opportunistic Alcibiades persuades the assembly to launch the Sicilian Expedition. The goal is to capture the city of Syracuse in the hopes of dominating the island. Much of the Athenian army and navy is lost.

C. 469-399 BC: Socrates

C. 469-399 BC: Socrates

Jacques-Louis David (1787): The Death of Socrates

 

The son of a stonemason, Socrates (b. c. 469 BC) is regarded as one of the founders of Western philosophy.

 

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

The Hellenistic age

338-322 BC: The Macedonian wars

338-322 BC: The Macedonian wars

The Lion of Amphipolis marks the tomb of 250 Thebesians killed in the Battle of Chaeronea (Wikimedia Commons)

 

In 338 BC, the rising Macedonian kingdom of Philip II defeats a coalition of Greek city states led by Athens and Thebes. The king’s 18 years old son Alexander – soon to be the Great – partakes in the the Battle of Chaeronea, cementing Macedonian supremacy.

 

15 years later, in 323, Alexander dies in Babylon, and the Greek city states rebel against the Macedonian Empire. The Greeks suffer another crushing defeat in the Lamian War. The Macedonians seize Athens and bring an end to Athenian democracy. The orator Demosthenes refuses to be captured and commits suicide instead.

384-322 BC: Demosthenes

384-322 BC: Demosthenes

Demosthenes orator, Louvre Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

 

The son of a wealthy sword maker, Demosthenes (b. 384 BC) is regarded as one of the greatest orators of the ancient world and a stunt defender of free speech. In his surviving orations, Demosthenes praises the concept of parrhesia or uninhibited speech more than any other Athenian.

 

Demosthenes is also a vehement critic of Macedonian imperialism. After the Greeks suffer a crushing defeat in the Lamian War of 322 BC, he chooses to drink poison rather than live under Macedonian rule.

C. 268-232 BC: King Ashoka

C. 268-232 BC: King Ashoka

The pillar of Sarnath with its four iconic lions was raised by Ashoka around 250 BC.

 

In present day India in the 3rd century BC, King Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty is waging a brutal campaign. Suddenly he encounters the Buddhist religion that appears to have shown him another way.

 

Ashoka calls for a number of edicts to be inscribed in stone pillars. These edicts 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: Emperor Qin Shi Huang

213 BC: Emperor Qin Shi Huang

His name literally meaning ‘first emperor’, Qin Shi Huang becomes the first Chinese emperor after he conquers and unifies the Warring States in the 3rd century BC.

 

In 213 BC, he orders the burning of books on history, poetry and philosopher. It appears to be the first organised book burning in recorded history.

Ancient Rome

Episode 2: Liberty or license?

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 Romulus kills his twin brother and founds the 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.

494-287 BC: The Conflict of the Orders

In the first centuries, the Roman citizens consist of Patricians and Plebeians. Only Patricians can become consuls and senators and intermarriage between the two groups is prohibited by law.

 

From 494 BC, the Plebeians lay down their arms in a series of protests known as the Conflict of the Orders. The Plebeians eventually get to elect their own chief magistrate – the Plebeian Tribune – and Rome sees her first Plebeian consul.

 

Lex Hortensia of 287 BC making all legislation passed by the Plebeian Council binding on all Roman citizens.

C. 450 BC: The Law of the Twelve Tables

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

 

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

 

The Twelve Tables are accessible here.

The Middle Republic

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 the 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, after the Romans win a massive naval battle and seize control of the island Sicily.

 

In the second round, between 218-201 BC, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal leads his army with war elephants across the Alps. In 216 BC, the Romans suffer a crushing defeat at Hannibal’s hands 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 since. Swallowing the last rival, the Roman victory solidifies her dominance in the Mediterranean.

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.

C. 200 BC: The Bacchanalia cult

C. 200 BC: The Bacchanalia cult

Mosaics from Antioch. The Worcester Art Museum, Worcester MA

 

Around 200 BC, a cult devoted to Bacchus, the god of fertility and wine, spreads in Rome.

 

According to the Roman historian Livy, more than 7.000 Bacchanalia were engaged in nocturnal orgies and outright ritual murders, though his account should be taken with a pinch of salt.

 

The cult sparks a moral panic. Bacchic temples are destroyed and the cult is put under strict state control.

 

The Late Republic

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 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 Plutarch, Gracchus is clubbed to death with the leg of a chair.

 

10 years later, his little brother Gaius takes up the course. Only he does not mean to give the poor more resources – he wants them to have political power. He suffers more or less the same fate, when he and his loyalists are butchered.

106-43 BC: Marcus Tullius Cicero

106-43 BC: Marcus Tullius Cicero

Bust by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1799-1800). (Public domain)

 

The son of a wealthy family, Marcus Tullius Cicero is born in Arpinium in 106 BC.  In 63 BC he is elected consul – the highest office in the Roman Republic. Cicero is heralded as one of the greatest orators of European history and an articulate defender of Republican values.

 

“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

 

In December 42, Cicero is assassinated. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, his tongue is symbolically pierced with a hair pin and his dismembered body parts are displayed at the speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum.

C. 100-44 BC: Julius Caesar

C. 100-44 BC: Julius Caesar

Portrait in marble from the Augustan age. Musei Vaticani, Rome (public domain)

 

Gaius Iulius Caesar is born around 100 BC. As general and statesman he will forever change the course of the Roman Republic.

 

In the 60s BC, he joins the First Triumvirate together with two of Rome’s most powerful men: Marcus Crassus and Pompey the Great. As general, he conquers Gaul in the 50s, and in 49, he casts the proverbial die, crosses the river Rubicon and sparks the Roman Civil War against his former ally Pompey. After returning victoriously from the civil war, he becomes dictator for life.

 

In 44 BC, he is assassinated by a conspiration of senators led by Cassius and Brutus on the Ides of March.