The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Liberty in the Ancient World

Posterity’s debt to the great civilizations of antiquity is enormous, but this legacy can hardly be regarded as consistently libertarian. Students of the centralized managerial autocracies of Egypt and Persia, for example, or of the rigid caste system of India will examine the records of these societies in vain for ideas and institutions specifically favorable to liberty. In the case of India, Buddhist criticism of violence and of caste distinctions never developed into a full-fledged critique of political power, perhaps because Buddhist teachings emphasized renouncing the world, rather than reforming it. Several ancient civilizations, however, did make substantial contributions to the libertarian tradition.

The first known use of a word meaning “liberty” (amagi) occurs on a 24th-century B.C. clay tablet from the Sumerian city-state of Lagash. According to the cuneiform document, the people of Lagash had long been languishing under oppressive bureaucrats and rapacious tax collectors when a reformer named Urukagina became king, apparently by coup, and “established liberty.” Urukagina’s regime was short-lived, however, because Lagash was conquered by a neighboring state less than a decade later. The amagi symbol enjoys some popularity among libertarians today.

In the 11th century B.C., the political organization of Hebrew Palestine was transformed from a loose confederation under charismatic nonhereditary leaders called judges into a much more centralized and powerful hereditary monarchy. Although in institutional terms this change was a loss for liberty, by provoking critical reflection on political power it may have helped to advance liberty as an idea. By contrast with the adulatory literature of other NearEastern monarchies, Hebrew scriptures are a sustained critical commentary on their kings. The inception of kingship is described as a rejection of God, and the prophet Samuel is portrayed as warning the Hebrews against the taxation and conscription that monarchy will inevitably bring. Over the succeeding centuries, the Hebrew prophets continued to denounce the errors of their rulers; more than the specific content of their criticisms, the prophets’ chief libertarian legacy was the idea of a transcendent standard of conduct to which political rulers are answerable and to which their subjects can appeal.

In China, the effective collapse of the Chou dynasty in the 8th century B.C. fragmented the region into many smaller independent states, inaugurating five centuries of decentralization. Scholars, deprived of their former positions in the administrative hierarchy, competed vigorously for posts as political advisors to these states’ parvenu rulers. This intellectual competition stimulated a flourishing and diverse culture of political thought, much of it favorable to liberty. One thinker, Mo-tzu (c. 5th B.C.), condemned military conquest as equivalent to murder on the grounds that rulers should be held to the same moral standards as private individuals. The followers of Lao-tzu (c. 3rd B.C.) emphasized the advantages of spontaneous order over forcibly imposed order. Most influential of all, the Confucians (e.g., Mencius, Hsün-tzu, and Ssu-ma Ch’ien) developed an ethics of reciprocity; they praised entrepreneurship, the reciprocal gains from trade, and the self-regulating character of the price system and denounced harsh punishments and heavy taxation. Equally significant, they maintained that when the king’s rule is unjust he loses the “mandate of Heaven.” At that point, the ruler becomes a king in name only and so may be legitimately overthrown.

Decentralization ended in 221 B.C. when the Ch’in dynasty gained supremacy over China. This brutal and totalitarian regime was quickly overthrown, however, giving way to the milder Han dynasty in 206 B.C. Revulsion against Ch’in excesses created a favorable political climate for limitations on the state. Although the new dynasty’s initial promise to eliminate all laws except those against murder, theft, and personal injury was not kept, the early Han emperors, relying heavily on Confucian and Taoist advisors, implemented many libertarian reforms—lowering taxes, moderating punishments, and repealing censorship laws (this last step on the ground that, without free discussion, the emperor “has no way to learn of his errors”). The reforms were short-lived, however; by 81 B.C., Confucians were complaining that laws had once again grown “profuse as autumn tendrils” and “thick as congealed tallow.” Confucian scholars were soon co-opted into the privileged imperial bureaucracy, whereupon Confucianism began to lose much of its antistatist radicalism.

The Greek and Roman contribution to the libertarian tradition has been much debated. In his 1816 essay “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” the French libertarian Benjamin Constant famously argued that the meaning of liberty in classical antiquity did not refer to a guaranteed private sphere of personal discretion, but rather to the freedom to participate in the direct and collective exercise of sovereignty—a form of liberty compatible with severe constraints on individual choice. For Constant, ancient liberty was suitable to warlike societies with small populations, but not to an advanced commercial civilization, and he looked with alarm at the willingness of contemporary collectivist thinkers to sacrifice the modern variety of liberty to recover the ancient. In fact, one can find aspects of both kinds of liberty in Greco–Roman civilization.

The Greek world, including the Greek colonies in Italy and Asia Minor, benefited from political decentralization and a geographical situation favorable to trade. During the 10th through 6th centuries B.C., trade brought new wealth and new ideas—both destabilizing forces—into the Greek city-states, undermining the traditional warrior nobility and bolstering the power of an artisan class. The ensuing class warfare gradually transformed most Greek city-states from aristocracies into mixtures of oligarchy and democracy, with the proportions of each varying from state to state.

This partial shift from a military to a commercial mode of social organization was celebrated by Hesiod, whose poem Works and Days praised productive effort, condemned the predatory behavior of “bribe-eating kings,” and contrasted the hateful effects of military competition with the beneficent effects of economic competition. Later Greek writers were consciously proud of their distinctive institutions; in his history of the Greco–Persian Wars, Herodotus emphasized the contrast between Persian autocracy and Greek liberty.

The Greek city-state about which we know the most, Athens, also is the one Constant acknowledges as in part an exception to his thesis. During its democratic period, from about 508 to 338 B.C., adult male citizens exercised collective sovereignty in the manner of his description of ancient liberty, but Athenians also enjoyed substantial personal and economic freedom in the private sphere—what we in the modern world understand as liberty. Democratic ideology defined liberty as, in private matters, “living as one pleases,” and, in public matters, “ruling and being ruled in turn.”

Athenian society had many libertarian aspects. Its economic and intellectual freedom attracted merchants and philosophers from all over the Greek world. Although the execution of Socrates reminds us of the limits to Athenian free speech, Demosthenes’ remark that one could freely praise the Spartan constitution in Athens, but not vice versa, also was true. Dispute resolution was a competitive field, with disputants having a choice among private arbitrators, public arbitrators, and public courts. Unlike many Greek city-states, the Athenian state exercised no control over education. The Athenian banking system, likewise unregulated, was quite sophisticated, and women exercised considerable de facto authority in commerce and trade. The Athenian system was never purely majoritarian; magistrates were selected by sortition (thus ensuring proportional representation), while decisions of the democratic assembly could, in some instances, be overturned by judicial review. Literary works (e.g., Sophocles’ Antigone) and political speeches (e.g., Pericles’ Funeral Oration) alike acknowledged the authority of unwritten laws to which human edicts were answerable. Critics of Athenian democracy point to its tendency to break down in civil strife, but nearly all this civil strife was confined to a single decade (413–403) in the aftermath of the disastrous and demoralizing Peloponnesian War.

The two chief Athenian philosophical movements that were to emerge were the Socratics (e.g., Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle) and the Sophists; each embraced libertarian conclusions, although seldom with regard to the same issue. The Socratics saw human interests as naturally harmonious, inferred that social cooperation under law was the natural human condition, and concluded that the state should take an active role in shaping the moral character of its citizens. The Sophists, by contrast, saw society as an artificial construct, a mutual nonaggression pact among potentially hostile egoists, and concluded that states should confine themselves to minimal defensive functions. (Arguably both groups failed to grasp the distinction between society and state, despite living in a community that largely exemplified that distinction.) The Socratics tended to favor a mixture of democracy and aristocracy to prevent the minority from tyrannizing over the majority and vice versa. Although the Socratics were sometimes suspicious of commerce as an ignoble pursuit, Aristotle did defend private property both on economic grounds—public ownership creates incentives for mismanagement—and moral ones—the virtues of generosity presuppose private property. Some Socratics questioned the legitimacy of sexual inequality; some Sophists questioned the legitimacy of slavery.

As the age of the independent city-states gave way to the age of empires—first the Macedonian, later the Roman—the Stoic and Epicurean schools came to predominate. The Stoics, adapting the Socratic tradition to new political circumstances, stressed the individual’s self-command and superiority to circumstances and proclaimed a universal Natural Law to which all human laws were answerable. The Epicureans described the spontaneous, unplanned evolution of human institutions, developed a social contract theory fusing Socratic and Sophistic elements, and advocated the pursuit of individual happiness outside of politics.

The Roman Republic, which gave way to the Empire in 31 B.C., combined a bicameral popular assembly, an elective dual executive, and a partly hereditary and partly elective Senate. The historian Polybius, who wrote during the 2nd century B.C., attributed Rome’s success to this constitutional form, arguing that the balance of powers served to check abuses. Cicero added that the Roman system benefited from having evolved gradually over time, drawing on collective human experience, rather than having been designed by a single mind. Rome’s greatest libertarian legacy is Roman law, a decentralized precedent-based system emphasizing private property and contract. Cicero saw Roman law as an embodiment of the universal Natural Law of the Stoics and described the state’s proper function as defense of property. Despite these philosophical conclusions, personal freedom in republican Rome was arguably subject to heavier—but also more predictable—constraints than in Athens. Territorial expansion led to an inability to maintain civilian control of the military, while a series of ambitious generals advanced themselves by exploiting class conflict. This loss of civilian control led to a century of civil war culminating in the establishment of the Empire and the continuing erosion of personal and economic liberty.

The imperial period witnessed the rising influence of Christianity, on the one hand, and the increasing success of the Germanic tribes on Rome’s borders, on the other hand. If Christianity represented a synthesis of Hebrew and Greco–Roman values, the Germanic ethos has been credited (e.g., by Constant’s contemporary François Guizot) with infusing an ideal of personal independence. The early Christians generally counseled submission to existing political authority, except on religious matters, thus laying the philosophical foundations for the notion that church and state should be separated. Many Christians preached religious tolerance during the period when Christians were out of power and persecuted by pagans. Once imperial power passed from pagans to Christians, however, the Church’s enthusiasm for religious tolerance quickly waned. The otherworldly aspect of Christian teaching fostered a suspicion of commerce, but St. Augustine defended commerce as a legitimate human activity. Echoing both Stoic and Hebrew ideas, Augustine also denied that unjust laws had the authority of law and compared governments to robber bands, but he regarded submission to government as a necessity in light of humanity’s fallen nature. Also, it can be argued that the Christian emphasis on the sacred value of the individual soul laid the foundation for the development of theories of individual rights.


Further Readings

Cohen, Edward E. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Constant, Benjamin. “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns.” Benjamin Constant: Political Writings. Biancamaria Fontana, ed. and trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Finley, M. I. Politics in the Ancient World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Forrest, W. G. The Emergence of Greek Democracy: 800–400 BC. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.

Hansen, Mogens H. Polis and City-State: An Ancient Concept and Its Modern Equivalent. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre. Vol. 5. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 1998.

Hunter, Virginia J. Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420–320 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Leoni, Bruno. Freedom and the Law. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991.

Long, Roderick T. “Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 17 no. 3 (Summer 2003): 35–62.

Miller, Fred D., Jr., ed. A History of Philosophy of Law from the Ancient Greeks to the Scholastics. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, forthcoming.

Muller, Herbert J. Freedom in the Ancient World. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.

Originally published .