On freedom in the ancient world

Nick Spencer explodes one of our myths about the past.



Nick Spencer explodes one of our myths about the past.


The idea that the ancient world was a nursery of freedom as we understand it is probably about as misguided as you can get.

Three reasons why: One, there were lots and lots of slaves. Some could be in relatively high positions of social status, but most were not and they were as profoundly unfree – even to the point of death at their master’s hands – as it’s possible to be.

Secondly, it was a very clientelistic system, so even if you weren’t a slave, even if you were a free man, you would very often owe your social status to the favours of people who were higher up the social tree, the social hierarchy, than you were. And therefore you had to pay some kind of respect and homage and honour to them, and you had to in order to maintain and improve your social status.

Thirdly, the paterfamilias, the father of the family, had supreme control over obviously the women and certainly also the younger men within his family. And therefore those women and younger men, who would have comprised 85, 90 percent of the family, were in their own particular way very unfree.

So rhetorically a lot of attention is paid to freedom, and there undoubtedly were certain, a small number, of high-caste men in the classical world who were profoundly free. But for the vast majority of people, they were pretty unfree.