February 26, 2009

Free State

The words 'Free State' have fallen out of fashion: at one point in the early modern era, the concept of a Free State was vital to understanding both the concept of freedom and the behaviour of a Republic. The concept of a Free State justified the internal behaviour of the Republican state. Livy uses the concept in this way in a speech that he allows Appius Claudius to deliver to rebuke the Tribunes at the end of Book VI of his History of Rome. At that point in Roman history, according to Livy, the tribunate were asking to be allowed to be elected to the consulate and for a series of reforms. What Claudius argued to the people and the senate were that such policies would lead to dividing the state, dividing the state into conceptual groups. The Free State was threatened with sedition from within and without.

This line of argument is interesting- because it opens up an issue upon which of course Rome based its offer of citizenship: freedom. Claudius does two things in facing the Tribunes: firstly he assures himself and his audience that he has the right to speak, such is the privilege of citizenship in a free state, 'knowing only that my parents were free born and I lived in a free state, how could I keep silent' (VI 40). Secondly Claudius argues that a free state is one in which citizens act in the interests of the state and not in the interests of another power or person- the 'Tribune Tarquins' (VI 40) that he blasts are opponents of freedom because they force the state by the power of their eloquence to support their interests and not the interests of the community as a whole. The predicate free in the hands of Claudius is something that attaches itself to states and to citizens only insofar as they are part of states. One understands this better if you can see that as Claudius says the opposite to freedom is slavery: slavery is the condition that people who are stateless have in the Roman world, people whose states have been wiped out or who are born in states that they are not citizens of. The opposite of slavery is citizenship: which is why the rights of the citizen are so important to a wealthy plebeian, but is also why the rhetorical appeal of an argument which identifies freedom with the city state is so powerful in the hands of the patrician.

Understanding what freedom meant and how its meaning underlies Claudius's speech I think is crucial not merely to understanding this aspect of Roman history, but also to understanding Roman history in the round and how distinct it is from our history. The conceptual vocabulary may sound similar- but the movement from a free state to a free citizen as the unit of liberty involves real changes in politics and ideological options.


Georg said...

Hallo Gracchi,

That is a very enlightening post.

In Germany, we have the Free State of Bavaria (Freistaat Bayern) and after unification Saxony became officially "Freistaat Sachsen".

Now at least I understand that this has a link to the Roman Empire.