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

64: Nero’s persecution

64: Nero’s persecution

The great fire according to Hubert Robert (1787) (Public Domain)


In 64 AD, a devastating fire breaks out in the city of Rome. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the emperor Nero (r. 54-68) is suspected of having started the fire. To shift the blame, he persecutes the Christians.


Tacitus writes:


“…neither human resources, nor imperial generosity, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated the sinister suspicion that the fire had been deliberately started. 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…”


Read Tacitus’ and other Roman historians’ accounts of the fire here.

81-96: Domitian’s persecution

During the reign of Domitian (r. 81-96), the Christians are allegedly persecuted for ‘atheism’ when they refuse to acknowledge the emperor as Dominus et Deus.

C. 112: Trajan and Pliny the Younger

Around 112, Pliny the Younger initiates a famous letter correspondence with the emperor, Trajan. Pliny is the governor of Bythinia. He’s not sure how to deal with the local Christian community.


The letter correspondence is the first surviving discussion of Christianity outside of Jewish and Christian literature.


Read an extract of the correspondence here.

177: The persecution in Lyon

In 177 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, violence breaks out against the Christians of Lugdunum or present day Lyon.


Eusebius, a 4th century Christian historian, has preserved an account from an anonymous surviver. The details should probably be taken with a grain of salt.


“Sanctus was another who with magnificent, superhuman courage nobly withstood the entire range of human cruelty. Wicked people hoped that the persistence and severity of his tortures would force him to utter something improper, but with such determination did he stand up to their onslaughts that he would not tell them his own name, race, and birthplace, or whether he was slave or free; to every question he replied in Latin, ‘I am a Christian.’ This he proclaimed over and over again, instead of name, birthplace, nationality, and everything else, and not another word did the heathen hear from him. Consequently, the governor and his torturers strained every nerve against him, so that when they could think of nothing else to do to him they ended by pressing red-hot copper plates against the most sensitive parts of his body.”
– Eusebius: Ecclesiastical History (book 5) (transl. by G.A. Williamson)


Read Eusebius’ account of the persecution here.

250: Decius’ persecution

250: Decius’ persecution

Coin portrait from A. Baumeister’s Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums from 1885 (Public Domain)


In 250, Decius (r. 249-51) initiates the first general persecution of Christians. During the Crisis of the 3rd Century, the emperor decides to ‘clean up’ the empire to win back the favour of the gods.


All subjects are ordered to sacrifice to the gods on pain of death. Persons suspected of Christianity are invited to clear their names  by sacrificing to the old gods. A sacrifice grants a certificate protecting against further allegations.


The following certificate is excavated from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt:


“To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander’s Island:

From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander’s Island, aged 72 years: —scar on his right eyebrow.

I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell.

—–Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes.

—–I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated].

Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]”

303: The Great Persecution of Diocletian

303: The Great Persecution of Diocletian

 Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Christian Matyrs’ Last Prayer (1883)


In February 303, emperor Diocletian issues a number of edicts attacking the Christians. All churches are to be destroyed. Christian meetings are prohibited. And all copies of the Bible and liturgical scriptures are burnt in public.


In 304, a fourth edict is issued, ordering all inhabitants of the empire to sacrifice on pain of death. No certificates are issued this time.


Modern historians estimate somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 victims of Diocletian’s Great Persecution alone.

311/313: The Edicts of Toleration

In 311, less than a decade after Diocletian’s Great Persecution, the Edict of Toleration is issued by Diocletian’s predecessor Galerius. Two years later, the edict is expanded by Constantin’s so-called Edict of Milan. The edict is basically an agreement not to persecute Christians but to enact universal toleration, securing:


“the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases”
– Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313)


Both edicts can be accessed here.

C. 312-337: Constantine the Great

C. 312-337: Constantine the Great

Marble statue at Museo Chiaramonti (Public Domain)


Constantine I, also known as the Great, becomes Rome’s first Christian emperor when he is baptized on his deathbed in 337.


In 306, he becomes Caesar or junior emperor in the western half of the empire. In 312, he is recognized as Augustus or senior emperor in the west, and in 324 he unites both halves under his emperorship.


In the early 330s, he moves the capital from Rome to Constantinople where it will remain for over a millenium until it is conquered by the Ottoman turks in 1453.

379-395: Theodosius I and the Christian Empire

Theodosius I (r. 379-95), also known as Great, makes Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire.

391: Attack on the Library of Alexandria

With the support of Theodosius, the bishop Theophilus and his supporters attack the Serapeum – a daughter library to the Great Library of Alexandria – in 391.  The temple is destroyed with more than 40,000 books.


415: The murder of Hypatia

415: The murder of Hypatia

Unkown actress playing Hypatia in the late 1800’s (Public Domain)


During Lent of 415, a Christian mob attacks the Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician Hypatia. The Christians drag her through the streets to a local church. According to one account, they strip her naked and use broken tiles to cut the flesh off her body. Her mutilated remains are paraded through the city.


Read contemporary accounts of the murder here.

527-565: Justitian I

527-565: Justitian I

Mosaic from Ravenna


Justinian I (r. 527-565) is probably the most famous of the Byzantine emperors. His motto “One empire, one faith, one church” is emblematic for his rule:


He symbolically closes down the Neo-platonic Academy of Athens in 529 to purge his empire from pagan philosophy. The institution can trace its roots all the way back to Plato in the 4th century BC. Some scholars choose this event to mark the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.


In 529 and 531, Justinian bans everyone affected with the “disease” of heresy – including pagans and non-orthodox Christians – from becoming teachers. In 539 he institutes the death penalty for blasphemy lest “God in his wrath may destroy the cities and their inhabitants”.

The Islamic Empire

Episode V: The Caliphate

Episode V: The Caliphate

Why did the medieval Abbasid Caliphs have almost all ancient Greek works of philosophy and science translated into Arabic? How did the long list of medieval Muslim polymaths reconcile abstract reasoning with Islamic doctrine?

Who were the radical freethinkers that rejected revealed religion in favor of reason in a society where apostasy and heresy were punishable by death?

And why are developments in the 11th century crucial to understanding modern controversies over blasphemy and apostasy, such as the Salman Rushdie affair and the attack on Charlie Hebdo? Find out in episode V of “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech”.

C. 622-632: Muhammad and the rise of Islam

C. 622-632: Muhammad and the rise of Islam

Muhammad al-Idrisi’s map of the world (1154) with the South on top (Public Domain)


Muhammad is the founder of Islam and proclaimer of the Qur’ān. In Islamic tradition he is regarded as the Prophet and Messenger of God.


Muhammad is believed to have been born in 570 in Mecca. According to Islamic tradition, he receives his first revelations at the age of 40 in the 610s. He conquers much of the Arabian Peninsula in the 620s until he dies in Medina in 632.


Shortly after Muhammad’s death, his adherers capture Palestine and the Muslim faith conquers the Middle East at break neck speed. Within a century, Islam is the state religion of the Persian Empire as well as huge parts of the former Byzantine Empire.


632-661: The First Caliphate

After Muhammad’s death in 632, his father-in-law Abū Bakr becomes the first Caliph.


In the following thirty years, The First Caliphate conquers North Africa and the Middle East from Persia to Gibraltar.

661-750: The Umayyad Caliphate

661-750: The Umayyad Caliphate

Umayyad art in Damascus, c. 730 (Public Domain)


The Umayyad dynasty is the first dynasty to rule the Caliphate. From their capital in Damascus, the Umayyads extent the borders of the empire as far as the Indus River in the east and the Iberian Peninsula in the west.


Around 684, the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik makes one of the first attempts at purging the Caliphate from heresy. The notion of free will held by certain religious scholars is undermining the idea of predestination and with that the legitimacy of the Umayyads. Around 699, a heretic is crucified. 


In 724, the Caliph’s son HishāmʿAbd al-Malik assumes the title. He executes the religious scholar Dirham as a heretic.

750-1258: The ‘Abbāsids and the Islamic Golden Age

750-1258: The ‘Abbāsids and the Islamic Golden Age

Scholars in an ‘Abbāsid library. Illustration from The Maqamat of al-Hariri by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, c. 1237 (Public Domain)


The ‘Abbāsid Dynasty is the second great dynasty to rule the Caliphate. From their capital in Baghdad, the ‘Abbāsids rule the Caliphate for five centuries until the city is captured by the Mongols in 1258.


The ‘Abbāsid Dynasty initiate what is known as The Islamic Golden Age: A time of great social, scientific and philosophical progress.

754-775: al-Mansur and the Graeco-Arabic translation movement

Al-Mansur is the second ʿAbbāsid Caliph (r. 754-775). He initiates what is known as the ‘Graeco-Arabic translation movement’.


By the end of the 10th century, thinkers from Aristotle and Plato over Ptolemy and Euclid to Galen and Hippocrates have been translated into Arabic. Their ideas of philosophy, mathematics and medicine are absorbed into the Muslim world.


In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Ancient thinkers are translated from Arabic into Latin and their ideas seep into Europe.

833: The Minha

In 833, the ʿAbbāsid Caliph Al-Mam’un institutes an inquisition known as the Minha. It revolves around the issue of the origin of the Qurʾān: Was the Muslim Holy Book created or is it the uncreated work of God? Religious scholars out of line are forced to recant or risk imprisonment, flogging and even execution.


Caliph al-Mutawakkil abolishes the Minha in 848 when he endorces a traditionalist doctrine of uncreatedness. Translators who’re seen as “too rationalistic” are imprisoned.

827-911: Ibn al-Rawandi

Ibn Al-Rawandi of Khorasan in present day Afghanistan is one of the earliest Islamic sceptics. None of his 114 books have survived, but he is often cited by his many critics in their furious refutations.


During his lifetime, Al-Rawandi jumps from Mutazilite to Shīʿite to radical scepticism bordering on atheism. Disguised in the voices of Indian Brahmins, his works reject miracles, attack the Qurʾān as an absurd book full of inconsistencies and holds that prophets are unnecessary and fraudulent. Even the prophet!