Liberty, the Roman System of Acquired Privilege
English is unique among the languages of the world. It is Germanic in origin, leaving Northern Germany with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to settle a little island off the coast of France (Aengla Land, later England). Early in its history, it suffered conquest from both Latin and French. So persecuted was it at times that it lost all ability to form its own words by using its own roots, suffixes and prefixes. Instead, it adopted Latin terms and became remarkably adept at borrowing words and word parts from other languages. Hence, it has become a language rich in vocabulary and incredibly vibrant and creative.

English is also unique in that it possesses words for both freedom (Germanic) and liberty (Latin). Most languages of the world possessed words for neither idea until they had contact with the West. Ironically, it was Roman conquest that brought notions of liberty to much of the ancient world. Early in the history of the United States, the terms liberty and freedom were used together and became a common phrase. Their historic meanings are not synonomous, however.

If the Germanic conception of freedom has its roots in a system based on rights and responsibilities, the Roman conception of liberty could best be described as a system of privileges and immunities. There was no notion of rights as integral to belonging, and inequality was inherent in the term. In his book, Liberty and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer records of the Roman idea:
...Most people were born in a condition of prior restraint, to which liberty came as a specific exemption or release. The most common symbol of libertas in the ancient world was the Roman goddess of liberty, holding a wand called a vindicta in one hand and offering a cap called the pileus libertatis with the other, a ritual by which slaves were released from bondage. A leading scholar concludes that "the Romans conceived of libertas as an acquired civil right, not as an innate right of man."
Liberty was a gift for man bestowed by man. Most common was the liberating of a slave by his master, an informal ceremony in which the slave was liberated by the word of his master. Even for those born "free" their liberty was not conceived as an inherent birth right, but as a privilege of their birth. The closest Latin concept to the rights of the Germanic peoples was in the word ius, which was something permitted by law or fas which was something permitted by divine command. Liberty was a privilege granted by the laws of Rome. Responsibility was also implied in the notion. One achieved liberty upon certain conditions. Often, the slave was required to return to his former master's service a specified number of days per year. He also had the responsibility to uphold the laws and customs of Rome. Any person who do not hold up these responsibilities was at risk of being enslaved, even if freeborn.

The very concept of libertas was central to the social stratification of Rome. It survives somewhat even in modern uses of its cognates. A libertinus was an emancipated slave who was not prepared to use his granted liberties wisely and survives in modern ideas of the libertine. The Liberal Arts were those studies not needed by the "common man." Skills such as the sciences, higher math and foreign languages were needed only by the liberated elite.

This concept was developed to a philosophical ideal. The Stoics were the most notable, writing at great length about liberty. Ironically the two men who wrote most on the subject were the slave Epictetus (AD 55-135) and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). Both argued that to be truly free is to cultivate a spirit of independence from things that are not in one's control: bondage, tyranny, illness, pain, and death (Fisher, p. 7). Christian liberty, while frequently drawing on Stoicism, is yet something different. Our liberty, while not an inherent right of our birth, is something that was bestowed upon us by God. Exactly what may be entailed in that liberty, I will discuss later.

Previous posts in this series:
Freedom: An Ancient Custom of Rights and Responsibilities

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