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HSTAM 420 A: Freedom in Ancient Rome and the Modern World

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
CDH 115
Joint Sections: 
CLAS 420 A
Alain M. Gowing

Syllabus Description:

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Freedom in Ancient Rome and the Modern World

Spring Quarter 2019 ❋ TTh 10:30-12:20 ❋ 5 Credits  ❋ 115 Condon Hall





Professor Alain M. Gowing
Office: M262C Denny Hall (north mezzanine)
Office Hours: TBD

Course on Canvas ( Posted here (as of the start of and updated throughout the quarter) you will find: the course syllabus, the weekly assignments along with either pdf’s of or links to various readings, instructions on the ‘response’ papers and longer paper (see below under ‘requirements), a running bibliography, and other things.

Required texts:

  • Readings drawn from various primary sources (=ancient authors), including: Plato, Cicero, Livy, Horace, Seneca the Younger, Tacitus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Cassius Dio, St. Augustine. (This list is provisional and subject to change and emendation!)
  • Patterson, Orlando.   Volume 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Harper Collins 1991.
  • Powell, J., trans. (2009) The Republic and the Laws. Oxford World's Classics.  Oxford University Press. 
  • Additional readings in various secondary sources will be supplied or are readily available online through the UW Libraries (links will be provided on Canvas as needed) 

Here's a SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY that includes both some of the secondary texts from which we will read selections as well as other studies you might want to be aware of.

Course description:  Freedom – libertas, in Latin – was a fundamental concept in ancient Rome, central throughout its history to, and in all aspects of, its political and social life.  Indeed, the word libertas became literally synonymous with (that is, a name for) the ‘Roman Republic’.  This course examines 'freedom' in ancient Rome, from its founding in the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, when Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.  Through selected readings in both primary and secondary sources, we will examine the various forms of freedom important to Romans and how their views evolved (or remained the same) over time, specifically: personal freedom (including slavery), political freedom, religious freedom, and intellectual freedom (i.e., the freedom to write or say what one wants).  In addition, however, we will also examine various perspectives on ‘freedom’ expressed in the modern world, including (but not limited to) the United States, and what they owe or do not owe to Roman concepts.  Readings in Orlando Patterson’s landmark book Freedom, an historical overview of the concept, will provide a benchmark for this, but will be supplemented by other readings as well.


Course requirements:

  • (40%) successful completion of any 4 of 8 short, weekly ‘response’ papers (click HERE for Instructions). For 8 of the 10 weeks, you will be asked to write a 'response' to the week's readings; the requirement for each of your four papers is '2 pages or 1 hour, whichever comes first'.  For each week I will post a guide to the week's readings, specifying various issues and questions to which I want you to give your attention and which may help you think in a directed way about the readings; I will also post the specific writing assignments under 'Papers' in the Assignments section.
  • (30%) 2 quizzes, each 15%. These will essentially serve to evaluate how well you are processing and retaining the information provided in the reading, and to some extent how effectively you are learning to think and write critically about the material.
  • (30%) In lieu of a standard final examination, you will write an 8-10 page paper, due on the date of the final exam (Monday, June 10). Throughout the quarter I will keep and post a list of suggested topics, but you are encouraged to come up with their own ideas. SEE INSTRUCTIONS AND SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR THIS UNDER 'THE LONG PAPER' UNDER ASSIGNMENTS TO THE LEFT.


Learning Objectives.  At the conclusion of this class, you will be able to:

  • Think and write critically about fundamental perspectives on and ideas about ‘freedom’ in ancient Rome as expressed by a broad range of Greek and Roman writers and examined in variety of scholarly studies.
  • Relate the Roman material to a broad selection of ideas and perspectives on ‘freedom’ in the modern world, including (but not limited to) the United States from its founding to the present day.
  • Think and write critically about the role of ‘freedom’ in four essential areas: personal freedom (including slavery); political freedom; religious freedom; and intellectual freedom.
  • Acquire the foundations for a historically and culturally informed appreciation of and sensitivity to a seminal concept in the development of Western and non-Western societies

Some important guidelines:

  • In order for this class to be successful and meaningful for you, please a) make a concerted effort to keep up with and understand the readings, and b) come to class prepared to ask questions and contribute to discussions
  • Cell phones: please don’t use them during class – at all. I say this not only to discourage you from texting during class, but (more importantly) to discourage you from using a phone to do the class readings.  That’s just a bad idea.
  • Laptops or pads: It’s OK to use laptops or pads to take notes or consult texts, but please don’t use them for anything else.
  • Online texts and the library. Some (if not many) of the texts we will read are only (or most conveniently) available online through the UW Libraries.  For that reason you should quickly become familiar, if you are not already, with how to check out, download, and read an electronic text from the library.
  • Coming late: I understand that it can sometimes be a challenge to get to class on time, but on those occasions when you have to enter the room late, please do so as unobtrusively as possible.
  • Missing classes: I also understand that from time to time you may have to miss a class, but please don’t ask me to recap a lecture or provide you with lecture notes. Ask someone in the class if you miss anything. 

Tentative schedule of reading and materials to be covered:

NB: This is merely a rough outline of the principal primary and secondary readings we will cover and when. Each week I will post to the website a weekly assignment (I will post this well in advance) that will include the primary and secondary readings to be covered as well as identify a few specific issues to think about in connection with that reading. You will get the most out of each class meeting if you have done the assigned week’s reading prior to the class meetings in which we cover it.

Introduction (Week 1):

Week 1, 1-5 April: Prolegomenon: The nature of freedom in ancient Greece. Primary source readings: Selections from Plato (to be provided); Secondary source readings: selections from Raaflaub; Patterson, Chap. 3.

Political freedom (Weeks 2-4):

Week 2, 6-12 April: Political freedom under the Roman Monarchy and the beginnings of the Roman Republic. Primary source readings: Cicero (esp. Laws and The Republic). Secondary source readings: Arena Chaps. 1-3; Wirszubski Chap. 1.

Week 3, 13-19 April: Political freedom in the Roman Republic, with special attention to the ‘class struggle’ of Republican Rome. Primary source readings: Cicero (cont.’d) Secondary source readings: Arena, Chaps. 4-5; Patterson Chap. 12; Wirszubski Chaps. 2-4; Nicolet Chap. 8

Week 4, 20-26 April: Political freedom under the Principate (Empire). Primary source readings: Seneca (selections from the Letters); Tacitus (selections from Annals 1-6 and his coverage of ‘treason’ trials, and speech of Cerialis in the Histories on the nature of freedom). Secondary source readings: Wirszubski Chap. 5.

Personal freedom (including slavery) (Weeks 5-7):

Week 5, 27 April-3 May: Personal freedom and slavery under the Roman Republic. Primary source readings: Epictetus (Discourses 4.1, on freedom); various sources for the revolt of Spartacus (early 1st cent. BC). Secondary source readings: Shumka in Gibbs, Nikolic, and Ripat; Connolly 2007, Chap.4.

Week 6, 4-10 May Quiz #1: Personal freedom and slavery under the Principate. Primary source readings: Horace (selections from his Satires); Seneca (selections from the Letters); Pliny the Younger on the treatment of slaves; a selection of ‘slave’ inscriptions and epitaphs. Secondary source readings: Connolly 2017, Chap. 3; Joshel Chap. 2.

Week 7, 11-17 May: Seneca (selections from the Letters); Pliny the Younger on the treatment of slaves; a selection of ‘slave’ inscriptions and epitaphs.  Secondary source readings: Patterson Chaps. 13-15.

Religious freedom (Week 8): 

Week 8, 18-24 May: Primary source readings: the ‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’ of 186 BC; Cicero (selections from On the nature of the gods); Marcus Aurelius (selections from the Meditations); Augustine (selections from the Confessions); Tacitus (selections from the Annals on Nero’s persecution of the Christians). Secondary source readings: selections from Clark; Patterson Chaps. 16-19. Relevance of the ‘Religious Freedom Research Project’ (housed at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center).

Intellectual freedom (Week 9):

Week 9, 25-31 May: Quiz #2. Primary source readings: Tacitus (the trial of Cremutius Cordus in Annals 4); Seneca the Younger (selections to illustrate Roman Stoicism); Secondary source readings: Patterson Chap. 11; selections from Rudich 1992; Cramer.

Retrospective reflection (Week 10):

Week 10, 1-7 June: a selection (TBD) of readings about ‘freedom’ in the modern world, combined with a reflection on how Roman perspectives and experience inform or differ from more recent ideas.


Catalog Description: 
Examination of the concept of 'freedom' in Ancient Rome, from its founding in the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD. Special attention to comparing the Roman perspective with some modern views of 'freedom', including (but not limited to) the United States from its founding to the present day. Recommended: HSTAM 111, 302, 312, or 313; CLAS 122, 320, or 329 Offered: jointly with CLAS 420; AWSpS.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
February 7, 2019 - 2:00am