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?
Athens is the birth place of equal and uninhibited speech. Or Isegoria and Parrhesia in ancient Greek.
What does free speech mean for a comedian, a philosopher, an orator and an ordinary citizen of ancient Athens? How long will Demosthenes go to become one of the greatest orators in the ancient world? And is Socrates a martyr for free speech or a seditious enemy of democracy? Find out in Episode I.
c. 508 BCE: Athenian Democracy and Isegoria
The statesman Cleisthenes implements a series of democratic reforms around 508 BCE. They conventionally mark the birth of Athenian democracy.
In the 5th century, the Athenians develop the concept of isegoria or ‘equality of speech’. According to the historian Herodotus, free speech and equality is what gives the Athenians an edge over their rivals:
‘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, Historia 5.78
430 BCE: Pericles’ Funeral Oration
The Peloponnesian War breaks out between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC. According to the contemporary historian Thucydides, the statesman and general Pericles delivers a speech on Athenian democracy.
“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 … 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 …”
– Pericles, according to Thucydides 2.34-46
When Athens falls in 404, the democracy is replaced with the oligarchic regime of the ’Thirty Tyrants’.
c. 480 – c. 406 BCE: Euripides
The Athenian playwright Euripides appears to be the first to use to term parrhesia or ‘uninhibited speech’. In the Athens of Euripides’ plays, all free men have free speech when debating public issues.
‘This is slavery: not to speak one’s thought’
– Euripides, The Phoenician Women
399 BCE: The Trial of Socrates
In 399, the philosopher Socrates is found guilty of ‘introducing strange gods’ and ‘corrupting the youth’. He is sentenced to death by drinking poisonous hemlock.
Plato later reconstructs Socrates’ defence speech:
‘… 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?’
– Socrates, according to Plato’s Apologia
384-322 BCE: Demosthenes
The orator Demosthenes makes more references to parrhesia or ‘uninhibited speech’ than any other ancient Athenian. When the Macedonians crushes an Athenian uprising in 322, he commits suicide by drinking poison.
“No greater calamity could come upon the people than the privation of free speech”
– Demosthenes (384-322 BC)
C. 268-232 BC: Ashoka and the first declaration of religious tolerance
Ashoka’s iconic pillar of Sarnath, c. 250 BC (Public Domain)
In the 3rd century BC, the Mauryan king Ashoka inscribes a number of edicts in stone in present day India. The inscriptions 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.”
– The Edicts of King Ashoka
213 BC: The Qin Emperor and history’s first book burning
Unknown illustrator, c. 1850 (Public Domain)
Around 213 BC, China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang orders a great bonfire of books on history, poetry and philosophy. The book burning is the first in recorded history.
“I have collected all the writings of the Empire and burnt those which were of no use”
– Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC)
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 BCE: Birth of the Roman Republic
Romans swearing over Lucretia’s dead body. Detail from S. Botticelli’s The Story of Lucretia, c. 1500. (Public Domain)
According to Roman legends the republic is born in 509 BC, when the Romans expel their last king and swear an oath never to be governed by a king again. Liberty or libertas is born with the republic.
“It is of a Rome henceforth free that I am to write the history —her civil administration and the conduct of her wars, her annually elected magistrates, the authority of her laws supreme over all her citizens. The tyranny of the last king made this liberty all the more welcome… Brutus … was not less zealous in guarding the public liberty than he had been in achieving it. His first act was to secure the people, who were now jealous of their newly-recovered liberty, from being influenced by any entreaties or bribes from the king. He therefore made them take an oath that they would not suffer any man to reign in Rome.”
– Livy: History of Rome 1.59-60 & 2.1
C. 450 BCE: 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 BCE: 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. According to the historian Plutarch, the land-owning Senators strike back and club him to death with the leg of a bench. His followers are clubbed and stoned 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, he orders a slave to kill him. According to Plutarch, 3,000 of his followers are executed and thrown into the Tiber without a trial.
C. 100-44 BCE: Julius Caesar
The statesman and general Julius Caesar plays a key role in the fall of the Roman Republic. In 44, he appoints himself ‘dictator indefinitely’. Two months later he is assassinated by a conspiracy of republican senators.
“War has no use for free speech”
– Caesar according to Plutarch: The Life of Julius Caesar 35.7
106-43 BCE: Cicero
François Perrier, La Mort de Cicéron (1635) (Public Domain)
The orator Cicero uses his silver tongue to defend libertas and lash out at Caesar and Mark Anthony.
He is assassinated in December 43. According to the historian Cassius Dio, his tongue is symbolically pierced with a hair pin while his body parts are displayed on the speakers’ platform 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 is a tireless champion of of libertas and free speech when the republic crumbles around him. According to the historian Cassius Dio, he pulls out his own intestines when Caesar wins the Civil War.
‘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 43.10
14-37 AD: Tiberius
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (public domain)
Augustus’ successor Tiberius limits free speech by executing speech crime offenders and burning the entire works of seditious writers.
In 23 AD, the poet Aelius Saturninus is hurled to death from the Capitol Hill for “reciting improper verses about the emperor”. In 25, the historian Cremutius Cordus is convicted for declaring Caesar’s assassins “the last of the Romans”.
According to the historian Suetonius:
“Every crime was treated as capital, even the utterance of a few simple words. A poet was charged with having slandered Agamemnon in a tragedy, and a writer of history of having called Brutus and Cassius the last of the Romans. The writers were at once put to death and their works destroyed”
– Suetonius: The Life of Tiberius 61.2
25 AD: The trial of Cremutius Cordus
In 25 AD, the republican historian Cremutius Cordus is convicted of treason for calling Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the ‘last Romans’. In the face of a death sentence he starves himself to death. All his books are burned and banned.
The later historian Tacitus reconstructs his defence speech:
“Conscript Fathers, my words are brought to judgement—so guiltless am I of deeds! … 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 according to Tacitus, Annales 4.34-35
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.