BMCR 2005.04.37

The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece. First English edition, revised and updated from the German, translation by Renate Franciscono, revised by the author

, The discovery of freedom in ancient Greece. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. xii, 420 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226701018. $55.00.

“The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece” is the English version of the author’s Habilitationsschrift, defended at Berlin’s Freie Universität in 1979 and published under the title “Die Entdeckung der Freiheit. Zur historischen Semantik und Gesellschaftsgeschichte eines politischen Grundbegriffes der Griechen” in 1985.1 The monograph was reprised in a series of articles, among which “Zum Freiheitsbegriff der Griechen: Materialien und Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungsentwicklung von eleutheros/eleutheria in der archaischen Zeit und klassischen Zeit” is the most substantial.2 From the start, scholarly esteem for the study has been outstanding, the topic and the method of the book being equally valued. Already in 1990, Walter Donlan suggested an English version be published “to make this meticulous study more accessible to a wider audience”.3 It has now appeared, though “The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece” is not a bare translation but presents a text thoroughly revised and updated by the author.

Kurt Raaflaub delivers a broad analysis of the origin and history of the Greek concept of political freedom (eleutheria), a concept which is regarded as central to the political, social, and intellectual life of the Greeks. Covering both the Archaic and Classical periods (splendidly known from literary evidence), the book centres on Athens. For the first time freedom, which scholars had previously dealt with as an abstract philosophical or theological phenomenon, is approached as a matter of Greek social history. While the topic of the book depends on earlier research by Christian Meier, Alfred Heuss, and Hans Schaefer, its particular method derives from the interdependence of conceptual and social history urged by Reinhart Koselleck and other editors of the lexicon “Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The history of sociopolitical concepts was initially developed in order to explain the dissolution of the old world and the emergence of the modern between ca. 1750 and 1850 and, according to the definition by Melvin Richter, “seeks to correlate political and social concepts with the continuity or discontinuity of political, social, and economic structures.”4 Raaflaub conducts his investigation into the semantics of freedom in constant and close connection with the social and political realities of Archaic and Classical Greece. Yet, the analysis is not confined to the concept of freedom, but includes terms “projecting into the conceptual space of eleutheria” such as soteria, isonomia, isegoria, autonomia, autarkeia or parrhesia as well as “contrasting and complimentary concepts”. Raaflaub’s horizon ultimately opens to the terminology of non-freedom and rule and to the political ideals and catchwords of the Archaic and Classical periods. After a look at the Greek Bronze Age, the narrative starts with Homer and the late ninth and the eighth centuries and closes at the end of the fifth century and the Peloponnesian War, before the concept of freedom was eventually discovered by Greek political theory in the fourth century.

Raaflaub’s book has seven chapters. The first chapter (“Introduction”, pp. 1-22) gives an overview of earlier scholarly treatments of the subject continuing after the publication of the original German version in 1985. The author justifies his approach and method, and describes the value and limitations of the ancients sources and the local, thematic and chronological limits they set to the study. The second chapter (“Awareness of Freedom in Archaic Greek Society”, pp. 23-57) is dedicated to the Archaic Period. The formation of a political concept of freedom in Athens in the time of the Persian Wars and the overthrow of tyranny together with the early reflection of this development in the cult of Zeus Eleutherios are dealt with in the third chapter (“The Emergence of the Political Concept of Freedom”, pp. 58-117). In the fourth chapter Raaflaub treats the elaboration of thought on freedom under the Athenian Empire (“The Concept of Freedom after the Persian Wars: Its Meaning and Differentiation in Interstate Relations”, pp. 118-165), and then in the fifth chapter (“‘Freedom’ in Ideology and Propaganda”, pp. 166-202) he shifts to the use made of the concept of freedom in the propaganda of Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. Dealing with the identification of democracy and freedom and the role freedom played in democracy and oligarchy, the sixth chapter (“Meaning and Function of Freedom within the Polis”, pp. 203-249) returns to matters of internal politics. The seventh chapter (“Summary and Final Considerations”, pp. 250-277) presents both a summary and an epilogue (including a comparison with Roman libertas). The book ends with a bibliography of 49 pages (pp. 357-405) and helpful indices of Greek and Roman terms (pp. 407-410), selected ancient sources (pp. 411 sq.) and a general index (pp. 413-420).

To turn to the contents of the book, the development of political freedom in Greece is seen to run the following course (accurately summarized by the author on pp. 250-265): Since in the Bronze Age (which is treated in the Introduction) the meaning of doero (= doulos) and ereutero (= eleutheros) on Linear B tablets and the value the Mycenaean Period placed on freedom in social and political life cannot be determined, Raaflaub takes the early Archaic Period as the upper terminus of his inquiry. In Homer and Hesiod the terms eleutheros and doulos occur infrequently and in the context of personal freedom and unfreedom only. From the paucity of evidence, Raaflaub gathers that between the late ninth and the early seventh centuries personal unfreedom, although known from conquest and slavery, represented an exceptional experience (only women and children were enslaved, and men were killed), and for this reason freedom could not develop into a value-concept and become the subject of reflection. The categories dominating the social life of the Greeks were the divisions between noble and non-noble and between membership and non-membership in an oikos. In a time when the object of warfare was not the subjection of one city by another but death and destruction, the central concept of political life was soteria (survival). The conditions for the development of a concept of political freedom were created in Solonian time, and the economic and social crisis of the late seventh century with the character of warfare changing, personal slavery multiplying, and the relations between free farmers and nobles and within the nobility changing. Solon’s reforms resulted in the polis rising above the oikos and freedom and equality being established as the basis of citizenship. Raaflaub concludes: “For the first time, freedom became a political issue. (…) For the first time, the significance of freedom was understood in its political implications, and awareness of its value became general” (pp. 56f.). Yet, by easing the difficulties of the small farmers, the reforms of Solon delayed the growth of the concept of political freedom. Nor was the process promoted by opposition to tyrants. Although tyranny was regarded as the doulosyne of the polis, the antithesis was still that of doulos and despotes (as known from the oikos), not of doulos and eleutheros. The Solonian poems bear testimony to a concept of political slavery, and ousting a tyrant was not connected with political freedom. Eunomia vs. dysnomia, dike vs. hybris, and isonomia would remain the categories central to political thought.

A positive idea of political freedom emerged in the Persian Wars, in a time when the city-states developed their isonomic constitutions; the origins of the concept of political freedom presumably lay in Asia Minor, where in the Ionian revolt the Greek cities fought for internal and external freedom and the liberation from Persia and tyranny. Three conditions were met: isonomic constitutions (especially after the Cleisthenic reforms) connecting the quality of a citizen with freedom and equality, the aristocrats after the Peisistratids’ expulsion renewing their claims to political dominance, and the Persian Wars threatening foreign enslavement of the Greeks. The danger which external domination by the Persian tyrant and internal tyranny presented led to subjugation under a tyrant being linked with unfreedom and the overthrow of a tyrant with freedom. The author sees his view confirmed by the establishment of the cult of Zeus Eleutherios. Raaflaub, against James H. Oliver, urges that Zeus Eleutherios was the successor of Zeus Soter and was not connected with the overthrow of the tyranny of the Peisistratids or the opposition to oligarchic rule. In the change of the name from Zeus Soter to Zeus Eleutherios Raaflaub recognizes the altered conditions of warfare, from survival to freedom. Although regarded as problematic by a number of researchers (after the publication of the German original version), Raaflaub’s interpretation seems justified. By 480, political freedom (i.e., equality and freedom) had replaced the antithesis of eleutheros and doulos as the central concept of political thought. In internal politics equality meant rights the citizens had won, and freedom resistance to their violation by tyrants; in external politics freedom manifested itself in equality in interstate relations and self-rule. In the time of Pericles and the Athenian Empire, the citizens regarded rule over other cities as the basis of their freedom, and freedom became the justification of their rule. Athens was the polis tyrannos, and the allies’ situation doulosyne, whereas the new concepts of autonomia and autarkia expressed respectively the independence in internal affairs of an allied or subject city or the self sufficiency of a free city. In the Peloponnesian War, freedom became a propaganda weapon in the contest between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians referred to the freedom they saved for the Greeks in the Persian Wars. However, the Athenians’ admission that their rule meant tyranny over enslaved allies enabled the Spartans to play the champions of freedom. In the developed democracy (after 430), political freedom and democracy were totally equated.

To sum up, Raaflaub wrote an approving history of the Athenian democracy in the Archaic and Classical periods, as it is expressed by the development of the concept of freedom and related terms. Neither the method nor the contents can hide the fact that the book was written in the 1970s. Reflecting the author’s situation in the divided city of Berlin, in his words, “a symbol of freedom enslaved world” (p. xii), it is a prime example of the dependence of historical research on present political and social conditions. 20 years after the publication of the German original version, the English translation gives today’s ancient historians reason to deal with the recent history of their discipline in a time when the history of political concepts and the ideologies standing behind them has lost, if not its fruitfulness, at least the fascination it held in the 1970s and 1980s. Raaflaub’s monograph offers proof, in a very impressive way, of the value of a thorough (philological) source-analysis based on a sophisticated methodology.


1. K. Raaflaub, Die Entdeckung der Freiheit. Zur historischen Semantik und Gesellschafts-geschichte eines politischen Grundbegriffes der Griechen. Munich 1985.

2. K. Raaflaub, “Zum Freiheitsbegriff der Griechen: Materialien und Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungsentwicklung von eleutheros/eleutheria in der archaischen Zeit und klassischen Zeit,” in E. C. Welskopf (ed.), Soziale Typenbegriffe im alten Griechenland und ihr Fortleben in den Sprachen der Welt. vol. 4. Berlin 1981: 180-405.

3. W. Donlan, CPh 85, 1990, 60.

4. M. Richter, in H. Lehmann/M. Richter, The Meaning of Historical Terms and Concepts: New Studies on Begriffsgeschichte. Washington, DC 1996: 10.