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Between Rhetoric, Social Norms, and Law: Liberty of Speech in Republican Rome

Arena, V; (2020) Between Rhetoric, Social Norms, and Law: Liberty of Speech in Republican Rome. Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought , 37 (1) pp. 72-94. 10.1163/20512996-12340258. Green open access

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Abstract

Although modern Republicanism, which highly values the right of freedom of speech, finds its inspiration in the historical reality of the Roman Republic, it seems that in the course of the Republican period citizens shared a recognised ability to speak freely in public, but did not enjoy equal status with one another in the domain of speech as protected by law. Of course, Republican Rome knew laws regulating free speech and perhaps even later provisions had been passed concerning iniuria. However, in these cases, as later on under Augustus, these measures acted as means of restraint and inhibition and did not directly address the right of the individual to speak freely. The fundamental question this paper addresses is why, in the course of the Republic, the right to speak freely was not protected by law and never came to be recognised as a formalised subjective right in Republican Rome. The answer, I argue, lies in the fact that in Rome speaking freely was conceived as the positive moral quality that characterised a natural ability of human beings, and thereby it could not have provided a field of legislation. It follows that the Roman Republic would not have passed the ‘straight talk test’ that modern Republicanism requires for the establishment of a free and just society. However, Republican Rome invites us to think about liberty of speech as belonging to the realm of ethics: as a moral quality sustained by contemporary social norms, not subject to legislation, which inevitably ends up protecting the interests of a group or groups and their specific speech regimes.

Type: Article
Title: Between Rhetoric, Social Norms, and Law: Liberty of Speech in Republican Rome
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1163/20512996-12340258
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1163/20512996-12340258
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the author accepted manuscript. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of History
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10085069
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