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, 2015 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, 2015 at 1:27
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    @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, 2015 at 3:26
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    @V.E. it's a valid question, I'm not doubting is validly, just trying to see where you are going from. Off the cuff I would point out that allowing himself to be satired without repercussion would fit into his general mindset of humility, whereas being forgiving to,or persecuting, a foreign religious minority is a different story. But I guess we should wait to hear what shows up.
    – user6591
    Mar 15, 2015 at 15:10
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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, 2015 at 19:21

2 Answers 2


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.

Edit. Interestingly, Dante places Trajan in Paradise, though the proper place for "righteous pagans" according to the official doctrine was the Purgatory. Anyway, Trajan was the only Roman emperor considered a righteous pagan, apparently they do not blame him with his moderate persecution of Christians.

  • Quite right. The Romans (virtually all pre-modern peoples, but especially the Romans) would have thought the concept of "separation of church and state" to be oxymoronic.
    – Mark Olson
    Jul 24, 2021 at 20:57

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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