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date: 04 February 2023

freedom in the ancient worldlocked

freedom in the ancient worldlocked

  • K. Raaflaub


On the individual and social levels, the distinction between free and unfree is as old as slavery, and individual or collective freedom from dues, taxes, and other obligations as old as communities with centralized government. These concepts are attested in Egyptian and Mesopotamian documents and the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless to these civilizations—as to ancient China—the concepts of free citizens or of political freedom were unknown. Typically, near-eastern societies were characterized by a plurality of statuses ‘between slavery and freedom’ (Pollux) and ruled by autocratic and divinely sanctioned monarchs or an absolute divine law. Obedience and integration into a given order were the prime virtues; the rise and fall of empires and cities, protection from foreign enemies, or, individually, status change or protection from domestic exploitation were seen as results of divine will. Such conditions were not conducive to recognizing freedom as a political value. Despite their charter myth of liberation from Egyptian slavery, even the Hebrews (see jews) began to use freedom politically only under Hellenistic influence.


  • Greek Law
  • Roman Law

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