BMCR 2022.07.07

“Libertas” and “res publica” in the Roman Republic: ideas of freedom and Roman politics

, "Libertas" and "res publica" in the Roman Republic: ideas of freedom and Roman politics. Impact of empire, 37. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xii, 269. ISBN 9789004441293. €109,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

At the beginning of the Annals, Tacitus summarises the republic in short form before describing the convulsions leading towards Augustus: Libertatem et consulatum Lucius Brutus instituit. ‘Lucius Brutus established freedom and the consulship’ (Tacitus Annals 1.1). Historicity aside, Tacitus’ predication focuses on the political organisation of the state (the consulship here) and ‘freedom’ enjoyed by citizens. It might follow, then, that libertas and the republic were in some senses coterminous, and the nature of the state was linked to the freedom of Roman citizens.[1]

Such a predication is the inspiration for this collected volume.[2] This volume derives from a conference bearing the same title held at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile in August 2018. The chapters are divided into four thematic units. The first, ‘Ideas of Libertas, focuses on definitions and meanings of libertas throughout the Republic. The second, ‘Libertas and Republican Empire,’ focuses on libertas as used to describe the ‘freedom’ enjoyed by the Roman people and its magistracies, in comparison to foreigners. The third, ‘Res Publica: continuity and change,’ explores the changing meaning of both terms through time, focusing on the tumultuous political change between Republic and Empire. The fourth, ‘Oratory, libertas, and res publica, outlines the use of these terms in public speech, and how particular definitions could be wielded for political ends. The volume works together as a unit, though focus at times lies on one term rather than both. It is worth keeping a dossier of definitions of libertas and res publica, and how they speak to each other across the chapters.

How did Romans understand freedom and their political community? Tacitus’ brisk designation presents issues, calling for careful study of the slipperiness of these terms. This question has also garnered interest for centuries, in order to compare antiquity and modernity, Republic and Empire. Such a background can obscure and illuminate, particularly when choosing the translate the relevant words as ‘Liberty’ and ‘Republic’. Accordingly, the volume embeds itself scholarship that tackles the semantic ranges of Roman political vocabulary.[3] This richness is conveyed by the multivalent meanings of libertas and res publica. Strength lies in understanding them not as static or legalistic terms that convey abstractions alone, but ideas that could be affected by political, military, and social affairs through time.

This point is clear from the outset. As stated, the interaction between two terms, libertas (liberty) and res publica (public matter/state), is the focus, that is, the transaction of freedom within the political community. Though both terms were flexible, the connection between the two that forms the basis for the volume is outlined well by Balmaceda: the existence of libertas was a pre-condition for legitimate government within the res publica, which is to say non-domination protected by law in a community (not necessarily a specific political system).

The intervention of this volume is threefold. This first has been discussed: libertas is relational, enhanced or impinged on by interactions in politics and society. Second, the semantic range of these terms is pushed in different directions by the authors. Third, the authors think holistically about the meanings of libertas and res publica with other terms and concepts in the Roman political vocabulary, such as maiestas and auctoritas. Though these interactions cannot be fully explored here, the point is that the use of these terms can be altered and changed depending on the aims of authors.

The focus in the first few chapters is to define the use of the term libertas, moving away from the standard definition of non-domination, though chapters differ in the material and timeframe. Amunátegui triangulates the meaning of the libertas in the archaic period, exploring the gradations between servitude and freedom in legal thought through the citizenship, and a definition of political liberty as a citizen’s power to live as he wishes. The author provides a compelling discussion of the paradoxes of competing ideas of libertas, particularly that which focuses on the citizen’s power to live as he wishes. Balmaceda continues in this vein with a helpful discussion of the appearance of libertas in early Latin authors. Multivalence is key throughout the article, which goes through attestations of libertas in Roman comedy and Ennius, with careful attention to context and meaning. Most fruitful throughout is the interaction between libertas and other value concepts such as virtus and pietas, which give libertas a political dimension, not only in the binary between freedom and slavery, but also in response to its use as a political buzzword. In both senses, freedom is a factor of identity is transacted within the res publica, presenting a mixed transcript.

Arena explores the connection between the god Liber and the concept of libertas; an important exercise given their seemingly obvious connection. Arena argues that it was the divine quality of a strand of liberty to do with ‘liberation’ of seed for the fertility of humans, animals and plants alike. Going through the evidence for Liber through its etymology, connected rituals and festivals, Arena effectively argues that libertas is an essential quality, rather than connected solely to political or civic rights. To be free was to realise your own essence in society and politics, connected to the rituals and practices within the res publica.

Flower discusses Cato the Elder’s speech on the freedom of the Rhodians, notably outlining the tensions between imperium and libertas as understood by Cato and as was enjoyed by Rhodes as an independent state. The negative impact of imperiumon Rome’s ability to exercise their libertas and on the libertas of others suggest a dynamic meaning of freedom. Ando continues this reflexive interaction between libertas and imperium, focusing on an aphorism of Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio ORF2 fr.32 = Isidore, Etymologiarum 2.21.4) and his last clause, ex imperio libertas, which implies that only magistrates who hold imperium could truly exercise freedom. The maiestas (greaterness) and imperium of Rome and its magistrates guaranteed the gradations of freedom enjoyed by others, which speaks to Cato’s conception (also discussed in the chapter). This experience of empire reshaped ideas of their political community.

This political community comes into more focus in the following chapters. Moatti reproduces part of her book on the res publica, and focuses on the difficulties of translating and conceptualising res publica as a notion.[4] Importantly for this volume, it outlines the res publica as a ‘living community of citizens who debate, interact, and are in conflict’ (124), which provides the perfect backdrop to the formalisation of the notion during the convulsions of the late republic that become the focus of the latter half of the book. The key point is contestation and antagonism, that she sees in contests of (de)legitimisation between citizens and institutions within the state. In other words, who could protect the res publica or maiestas populi Romani from diminution?

Such antagonisms are reflected in Pina Polo’s chapter on the consulship during the second triumvirate, which focuses on the consulship of Lucius Antonius in 41 BCE, who contested the pre-eminence of the triumvirs. With his defeat in the Perusine War, the predication of libertas on the consulship is broken by the recalibration of the hierarchies, though there is a sense of institutional normality when consules suffecti become more frequent.[5] In her chapter, Rosillo-López breaks another seal, exploring how arbitration, a private legal procedure, was used to settle public disputes, also looking at Lucius Antonius’ consulship. Again, the theme of layered meanings comes forward: the res publica becomes formalised in the sense that allowed for arbitration, and yet another definition of libertas appears: that of the soldiers exerting their freedom of speech to bring their commanders to negotiate.

Hurlet continues the discussion of the interaction of different terms, in this case the place of auctoritas and libertas, moving through the Augustan principate into the high empire. Auctoritas becomes an adaptable notion instead of the abstract basis of Augustus’ power, used in political contexts to assess relative authority. The pre-eminence of Augustus underpinned libertas and thus the res publica, fostering an imperial freedom that was ostensibly about safeguarding against tyranny. The development of these variable terms within the res publica is explored with the inevitable contradiction that both the imperial regime and a senatorial resistance shared terminology, seen at times of crisis in the early principate.

Shared political ideas are spaces for combat. Tatum shows through Cicero’s Philippics that shared terminology differently defined was used in political rhetoric to isolate and delegitimise enemies, reconstructing Mark Antony’s claim to continue Caesar’s struggle and be vindex libertatis. Libertas here is weapon that reflects an antagonistic political discourse. Van der Blom continues the battle, looking at libertas, res publica and free speech in Tacitus’ Dialogus. The antagonism is between imagined versions of both libertas and res publica in the past and the present realities of political life and speech in the empire. Anachronism is a concern, too: the libertas/licentia (outspokenness) of that imagined res publica was not preferable to the libertas of intellectual pursuits enjoyed under the principate. Thus, Tacitean interpretations of both notions obscure their usage in the republican period. In the end, who can define what these terms mean and how effectively? The dynamic approach enriches our understanding of these notions through time.

This volume succeeds in prompting a desire for further study of what the relevant terms mean politically, which must involve Roman citizens of different statuses, as well as women, foreigners and the enslaved. There could be further scope to explore aspects of unfreedom in the hierarchies between free and unfree.[6] More thinking can be done about what freedom means for the enslaved and how we might map those thought-worlds, whether or not libertas as a term was used explicitly. Examples include ludic speech and punning between lubere and libertas in Plautus’ Truculentus,[7] as well as the exuberant forms of life expressed in slave religiosity and how that might convey thoughts on freedom.[8]

For my money, the myths and, more provocatively, the lies the Romans recounted about their libertas are well worth pursuing, both within and outside the res publica. A pertinent example comes from Cicero (Phil. 6.19): aliae nationes servitutem pati possunt; populi Romani est propria libertas. ‘Other nations can suffer enslavement, but freedom is the sole preserve of the Roman people’.[9] Libertas becomes a weapon, to display and prove Rome’s ‘greaterness’ compared to the freedom of others, defined by Romans and thus obscured through their own aggrandisement. As noted by Ando in this volume, as well as Cicero earlier in the passage, it is no wonder that Romans connected their imperium to their status as being free. In such contexts, libertas could increase and diminish in political and social relationships; libertas qualifies and alters other freedoms it encounters. We find again ourselves in the world of identity that creates ambiguity. The road to work that engages in this dynamic reading of political vocabulary has been paved by this volume.

Authors and titles

Introduction / Catalina Balmaceda
Archaic Ideas on the Concept of Libertas /  Carlos Amunátegui
2. Libertas in Early Latin Authors / Catalina Balmaceda
3. The God Liber and Republican Notions of Libertas in the Late Roman Republic / Valentina Arena
4  The Freedom of the Rhodians: Cato the Elder and Demosthenes / Harriet I. Flower
5  Ex Imperio Libertas: Freedom and Republican Empire / Clifford Ando
6  The Notion of Res Publica and Its Conflicting Meanings at the End of the Roman Republic / Claudia Moatti
7  The Consulship under the Triumvirs: a Phantom Office? / Francisco Pina Polo
8  Arbitration in the Res Publica: a Novel Way of Solving Internal Political Conflicts in the 40s and 30s BC / Cristina Rosillo-López
9  The Auctoritas and Libertas of Augustus: Metamorphosis of the Roman Res Publica /
Frédéric Hurlet
10 A Great and Arduous Struggle: Marcus Antonius and the Rhetoric of Libertas in 44–43 BC / Jeff Tatum
11 Res Publica, Libertas and Free Speech in Retrospect: Republican Oratory in Tacitus’ Dialogus / Henriette van der Blom


[1] Valentina Arena, 2012. Libertas and the practice of politics in the late Roman Republic. Cambridge, 29, citing Wirszubski, C. 1950. Libertas as a political idea at Rome during the late Republic and early principate. Cambridge, 3-4.

[2] Livy, 2.1.1., used by Balmaceda in the introduction.

[3] The bibliography is immense. I provide a couple of examples here: Ando, C. 2015. Roman social imaginaries: language and thought in contexts of empire. Toronto; Hodgson, L. 2017. Res publica and the Roman republic: ‘without body or form’; Roller, M. 2001. Constructing autocracy: aristocrats and emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome. Princeton.

[4] Moatti, C. 2018. Res publica: Histoire romaine de la chose publique. Paris.

[5] Pina Polo, F. 2018 ‘Magistrates without Pedigree: The Consules Suffecti of the Triumviral Age’ JRS 108, 99-114.

[6] Cf. Roth, U. 2017 ‘Liberating the Cena’ Classical Quarterly, 66, 614-634.

[7] Richlin, A. 2017. Slave theater in the Roman republic: Plautus and popular comedy. Cambridge. 233-4; cf. Roth, U. 2017 ‘Liberating the Cena’ Classical Quarterly, 66, 614-634.

[8] Dan-el Padilla Peralta, 2017 ‘Slave Religiosity in the Roman Middle Republic’ Classical Antiquity, 36, 351-57.

[9] Many thanks to Hannah Čulík-Baird for bringing this passage to my attention.