Freedom in the humanities - Property, slavery and freedom in the history of law

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York. November 1949. Foto from Wikimedia Commons
Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York. November 1949. Foto from Wikimedia Commons

Institutional Communication Service

30 May 2022

The interview series Freedom and the Humanities continues in collaboration with USI Institute of Italian Studies. In this round, Dario Mantovani, professor of History of Late Ancient Institutions and holder of the Droit, culture et société de la Rome antique chair at the Collège de France in Paris, will talk to us about Property, Slavery and Freedom in the History of Law.


When we talk about freedom, we use a word that comes from Latin. So what does its history tell us?

It has an even more ancient origin. Its root is found in various Indo-European languages, including Greek-all societies that evidently knew the division between free and unfree. Probably, the common root means "to grow." At first glance, it is a far cry from our idea of "freedom," but the interest of history is to make us think, to find unexpected connections. The word liber - precisely because it is related to "grow up" - designated belonging to a group (to a people or a family: free was also used to refer to "children"). Belonging is expressed through the metaphor of growth, of vegetation. It is the same idea, after all, as the genealogical "tree." In opposition, the slave is the one who does not belong to the group. In short, "freedom" already arises with the opposite term implied. The English word freedom has different roots but encapsulates a similar idea: it comes from a root meaning "to love," "to hold dear," probably applied to members of one's group or family.  


Almost a binary friend/enemy logic.

Yes. After all, the leading cause of enslavement was precisely war captivity, the capture of the enemy. This also explains why there was no link between slavery and ethnicity in Rome. In other words, there was no racial connotation to the practice of enslavement. Whatever the "nationality," it was being captured in a war that determined the loss of freedom. This does not detract from the fact that the Romans felt that slaves from specific populations were closer to them in customs and mentality than others. But, precisely, slavery is prescinded from ethnicity. It differs considerably from slavery, which has developed since the 16th century. Moreover, the Romans widely practised the manumission of slaves, who thus became free citizens, giving Rome a multi-ethnic connotation.


It is said that it is difficult to define what freedom is. Can the Romans help us?

Fiorentino, a jurist who lived around 200 A.D., left this definition: "Freedom is the natural ability to do what each person likes to do unless he is prevented from doing it by force of law." It is a very clear definition and a beautiful one because it can be applied to so many fields: to do what one wants, that is, freedom. But, of course, because we live in societies, there are limits, summarised by two aspects, force and law. Force is the obstacle that others impose on us abusively. Laws are the limits designed for us to interact harmoniously in a group. Interestingly, in turn, the law also serves to remove the obstacles that others impose on us by force. In short, freedom, as a space for action and fulfilment, has much to do with its adequate protection by law.


In the definition, I was struck by the adjective "natural." It reminds me of Article 1 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

Indeed, this article is directly influenced by this text and similar ones in Justinian's Digest, the volume that collects the principles of Roman law and has profoundly marked modern Western legal culture. But the paradox lies in the fact that this declaration of "the natural liberty of all men" comes from a society that practised slavery. The truth is that the ancients distinguished this natural state from what could then happen if one was captured or born to a mother who was herself enslaved. The significant breakthrough of modernity was to make the natural state of freedom coincide with the legal form of freedom. Slavery was abolished, and today effectively, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  


Today, however, there are dramatic situations of enslavement: migrant trafficking, child labour, and sexual exploitation. 

It is a plague which seems to stem from an instinct of overpowering that is not only from ancient times. The Geneva Convention of 1926 defines slavery as "the state or condition of an individual over whom the attributes of the right of ownership or some of them are exercised." Reflecting on ancient slavery-which was precisely the legal condition of being wholly subject to the power of a dominus-can help to better focus on these situations of subjugation. By reflecting on the legal requirement of the ancient slave, one can easily recognize all cases today that, under another name, unacceptably impair personal freedom.


Indeed, freedom and its opposite seem closely related.

Yes, and so are individual freedom and collective freedom. The Romans distinguished free people from others, saying that "free" are the people who are not subject to the power of any other people (in short, just as free is a person who has no master). This is a definition that can help guide us in the international political dimension. But, precisely because the shadow of its opposite always accompanies freedom, we must be ever vigilant to defend it.