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Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher king, took steps toward free speech (wiki):

The emperors permitted free speech, evidenced by the fact that the comedy writer Marullus was able to criticize them without suffering retribution. At any other time, under any other emperor, he would have been executed.

At the same time he is considered partly responsible for an increase in the persecution of Christians, indicating that he had his reservations as to what could be said after all.

What is known about what was actually proposed or enforced as policies in regard to free speech during his reign? Note that I am not primarily interested in his own beliefs, but more interested in what the actual conditions were in Rome at that time and how they differed from the limitations on free speech by other emperors.

  • From that same wiki article. The number and severity of persecutions of Christians in various locations of the empire seemingly increased during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The extent to which Marcus Aurelius himself directed, encouraged, or was aware of these persecutions is unclear and much debated by historians.[265] Upon what are you basing your claim 'At the same time he is considered partly responsible for an increase in the persecution of Christians'? – user6591 Mar 15 '15 at 1:20
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    Does attempting to control a subversive organization equate to a general suppression of free speech? – jamesqf Mar 15 '15 at 1:27
  • @user6591 "The fact of being a Christian was now a crime and punished, unless the accused denied their religion." Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius (2004-11-01). Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. Even if he did not contribute to it, he at least did not stop it. It did exist. Forbidding people to profess to a religion is certainly a limitation to the free speech, which Aurelius to my knowledge didn't oppose. – V.E. Mar 15 '15 at 3:26
  • @jamesqf Who has said anything about a general suppression of free speech? If I believed it to be the case - why would I ask about the limitations of "free speech" under Aurelius? It was an example to show that free speech did not exist. Or are you trying to tell me that a law saying that you can't say "I'm a christian" and free speech can co-exist? – V.E. Mar 15 '15 at 3:34
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    @V.E.: Though I'm no expert on the period, what I've read suggests that the Christians of the period were doing a good bit more than just saying "I'm a Christian". As a very rough parallel - and recognizing that the Church had ~1500 years to sanitize historical records - we might compare them to various Islamic groups in the West today. – jamesqf Mar 15 '15 at 19:21
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The notion of "free speech", as we understand it today did not exist in the Roman empire.

The authors you cite probably mean " crimen laesae majestatis", which English Wikipedia translates as "lese majeste". This was a law which was probably introduced under Augustus, and then revoked and re-introduced under various princepces. The first person who revoked it was Vespasian, if I remember correctly. It was not enforced under Marcus, and probably under his predecessors (Trajan, Hadrian, Antonine ...).

So you could say anything about the princeps (or even about his family) during the rule of these liberal princepces. Even in public performances.

Persecution of Christians is a very different matter. There was an established State religion, and established rituals. Refusal to perform them or to participate in them was considered a political act, kind of rejection of the Empire itself. It is not the personal beliefs or speech which was persecuted in this case. But a kind of denial of the supreme authority of the empire. The laws against Christians were not always strictly enforced (or even enforced at all).

A very typical is the attitude of Pliny the younger, who was a governor of a province under Trajan. He did not search for Christians. But those denounced he had to interrogate. If they persisted and refused to perform certain symbolic rituals for established gods, they were executed. (After a third warning and third refusal). Pliny himself says (in a letter to Trajan) that this weird superstition is harmless by itself. But a stubborn denial of the authority and of the established rites deserves a death sentence.

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Free speech is a modern concept. There were no laws in Rome giving a right to speak without being punished. Conversely, there were not too many laws against speech either. There appear to have been some civil remedies against defamation, but the evidence for it is slight and by all appearances it was difficult to sue someone for libel or defamation (see "Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans" by Andrew M. Riggsby for more information).

We have only fragmentary remains of Roman law to go on and what can be gleaned from literature, so in many cases we don't know exactly what Roman law was or exactly how it was enforced (see Riggsby again). Other than the Augustan dicate against lese majeste, I don't know of any specific laws either allowing or outlawing speech. Even lese majeste itself, was not specifically about speech, but more about any act that would be insulting to the government.

Imperial Rome was a dictatorship and the emperor had the power to arrest or kill people without a trial, so laws were mostly meaningful only in a civil context. When it came to criminal matters, the Roman government apparatus just did whatever it wanted or what the emperor ordered, and this could change drastically from reign to reign. So, for example, Marcus Aurelius had much more moderate policies than some other emperors, but these were not laws; they were imperial policy.

The criminal authorities in Rome, called magistrates, could more or less do what they wanted. So, for example, if someone went around making speeches against the emperor, a magistrate could have him seized and beaten up or killed without any kind of trial. The magistrates sensed the will of the emperor, so when, for example, Marcus Aurelius made speeches about toleration, the magistrates would lighten up and not act against subversives as a result.

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