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

177: Persecution in Lugdunum

In 177 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a local persecution erupts in Lugdunum or present day Lyon.

Click here to read an account of the persecution from the Christian historian Eusebius.

250: Decius’ Persecution

250: Decius’ Persecution

Byzantine fresco of St Mercurius, a victim of Decius’ persecution (1295) (Public Domain)

 

The emperor Decius initiates the first general persecution of Christians in 250, in an attempt to win back the gods and stop an Imperial crisis. All subjects are ordered to sacrifice to the old gods on pain of death, and obtain a certificate. This certificate survives from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

303: The Great Persecution

303: The Great Persecution

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

 

The emperor Diocletian launches ‘The Great Persecution’ in the winter of 303. Edicts prohibit Christians from meeting and Bibles are burnt in public. Next year, all subjects are ordered to sacrifice on pain of death. According to estimates of modern historians, between 2,500 and 3,500 are killed in the persecution.

311-337: Galerius, Constantin and the Edicts of Toleration

311-337: Galerius, Constantin and the Edicts of Toleration

Raphael (1517-24): The Baptism of Constantin (Public Domain)

 

The emperor Galerius puts a stop to the Christian persecutions when he issues the Edict of Toleration in 311. Two years later, his successor Constantin declares freedom of religion with his Edict of MilanRead both edicts here. Constantin becomes the first Christian emperor of Rome when he is baptised on his deathbed in 337.

380: Christianity becomes the state religion of Rome

The emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-95) makes Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. ‘Pagans’ and ‘heretics’ are increasingly persecuted. The same year, he issues the Theodosian Code:

 

“It is Our will that the people who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the apostle transmitted to the Romans… The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment” – Theodosian Code, 380 AD

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.

527-65: Justitian I

527-65: Justitian I

Mosaic in Ravenna (Public Domain)

 

Justinian I (r. 527-565) rules his empire according to the motto “One empire, one faith, one church”. In 529, he closes the ‘pagan’ Neoplatonic Academy in Athens. In 529 and 531, he bans all heretics – including pagans and non-orthodox Christians – from becoming teachers. In 539 he introduces 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) (Public Domain)

 

Muhammad (c. 570-632) is the founder of Islam and proclaimer of the Qur’ān. According to Islamic tradition, he receives his first revelations in the 610’s. With his followers, he conquers much of the Arabian Peninsula until he dies in Medina in 632.

 

After his death, the First Caliphate conquers the Middle East and North Africa at break neck speed. Within thirty years, the Caliphate stretches from Gibraltar to Persia.

661-750: The Umayyad Caliphate

661-750: The Umayyad Caliphate

Floor painting in Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi built by Ummayad Caliph HishāmʿAbd al-Malik (Public Domain)

 

From their capital in Damascus, the Umayyad Dynasty extents the borders of the Caliphate from the Indus River to the Iberian Peninsula.

 

Around 684, the Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik makes one of the first attempts to purge the Caliphate from heresy. The belief in free will held by religious scholars undermindes the idea of predestination and the legitimacy of the caliphs. A heretic is crucified around 699. In 724, his son HishāmʿAbd al-Malik becomes Caliph. 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 in Baghdad. Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti (c. 1237): The Maqamat of al-Hariri by (Public Domain)

 

The ‘Abbāsid Dynasty rules the Caliphate from their capital in Baghdad for five centuries. The Dynasty initiates what is known as ‘The Islamic Golden Age’: A time of great social, scientific and philosophical progress.

754: The Graeco-Arabic translation movement

The Graeco-Arabic translation movement is initiated by Al-Mansur (r. 754-775), the second Caliph of the ʿAbbāsid Dynasty. By the end of the 10th century, Greek thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Euclid, Galen and Hippocrates are translated into Arabic. 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!

854-c.925: al-Rāzī

854-c.925: al-Rāzī

al-Rāzī examining a sick boy (Color print after Hossein Behzad)

 

The nearly 200 books of Persian multi talent Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī – also known as ‘Rhazes’ – span everything from medicine and chemistry to logic and philosophy. He supposedly goes blind from all the reading and writing. His greatest achievements include the discovery of alcohol and a groundbreaking thesis on measles and smallpox.

 

As a religious freethinker, his criticism of revelation and the Qurʾān leads to multiple accusations of heresy. For al-Rāzī:

 

“Reason is the ultimate authority, which should govern and not be governed; should control and not be controlled, should lead and not be led.” – al-Rāzī

 

c.870-951: al-Farabi

c.870-951: al-Farabi

al-Farabi’s portrait on a Kazakh banknote (Public Domain)

 

Abu Nasr al-Farabi excels in two areas. As a philosopher and logician he is known as “the second master”, only surpassed by Aristotle. As a musicologist, his Kitâb al-musiqâ al-kabîr or Great Book of Music is the most influential work on music from the Islamic Middle Ages.

980-1037: Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

980-1037: Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

Miniature of unknown origin (Wiki Commons)

 

No figure from the Islamic Golden Age towers above Ibn Sina. To most Westeners he is better known as Avicenna. His achievements in philosophy and medicine not only shape Islamic but also European thinking for centuries. When works like his Canon of Medicine are translated into Latin, they become core curriculum in most European universities.

1058-1111: al-Ghazali

In The Incoherence of the Philosophers, the influential philosopher and theologian al-Ghazali launches an attack on Aristotilean thinkers like Ibn Sina and al-Farabi. Al-Ghazali is often depicted as a strict opponent to reason, but modern scholars think he has been misinterpreted.

 

Al-Ghazali identifies three propositions so problematic that advocates should be executed without chance to repent:

1) That the world was not created

2) That God is not omniscient

3) That the rewards and punishments in the next life are only spiritual in character

1258: The Siege of Baghdad

1258: The Siege of Baghdad

Illustration, c. 1430, from Bibliothèque nationale de France (Public Domain)

 

In the 13th century, the Mongols burst out of the Asian Steppe to conquer everything from China to Russia.

 

In the winter of 1258, the Mongols lay siege to the ʿAbbāsid capital of Baghdad ushering the fall of the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate and putting a stop to the Islamic Golden Age. According to survivors, the river Tigris runs black with the ink of destroyed books and red from the blood of philosophers and scientists.