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

Meeting Time: 
to be arranged
* *
Joint Sections: 
Alain M. Gowing

Syllabus Description:

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Freedom in Ancient Rome and the Modern World

Spring Quarter 2021 ❋ Taught asynchronously (recorded lectures, no live class meetings)





Professor Alain M. Gowing

Spring Quarter Office Hour: Tuesdays, 11-12 PM by Zoom (click HERE to join this office hour); and by appointment (email me to arrange a mutually convenient date and time). 

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.

Required texts and readings:

  • Readings drawn from various primary sources (=ancient authors), including: Plato, Cicero, Livy, Horace, Seneca the Younger, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Epictetus, Appian, Marcus Aurelius, Cassius Dio, St. Augustine, etc.. (This list is provisional and subject to change and emendation!)
  • Patterson, Orlando.   Volume 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Harper Collins 1991. PLEASE note that this book is NOT currently available in electronic form.  You WILL need a print copy of it.  If you plan to enroll in this class, you should obtain a copy BEFORE the quarter begins -- you will need it starting Day 1 of the quarter.
  • Powell, J., trans. (2009) Cicero. The Republic and the Laws. Oxford World's Classics.  Oxford University Press.  An e-version of this book is available from the publisher and through other sellers.
  • 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) 

Course requirements:

  • (40%) successful completion of any 4 of 8 short, weekly ‘response’ papers (click HERE for a general description of these papers). 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.  The quizzes will be given online via Canvas in Weeks 5 and 9 respectively and will be available over a period of several days. You will be allowed to consult your texts and notes. Click HERE for a general description of the quizzes.
  • (30%) In lieu of a standard final examination, you will write an 6-10 page paper, due by 6 PM (PT) on the date of the final exam (TUESDAY, JUNE 8, by 6 PM [PT]). Throughout the quarter I will keep and post a list of suggested topics, but you are encouraged to come up with their own ideas. Click HERE for details.

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

How this class will work:

  • Lectures: Under normal circumstances, I will post on Panopto four roughly 50-minute lectures per week that will cover the reading for that week; I'll post one every day of the week (MTWTh) except for Friday (and I will not post a lecture on the Memorial Day holiday, Monday, May 31) .  You may expect these to be available each morning, usually before 11 AM.  In my view, a 50-minute lecture is just about as long as one can handle; even though in the in-person version of this class we would meet 2 hours twice a week (and would have ample time for questions and discussions), recording a 2 hour lecture would be....mind numbing for all of us!  So I hope the 4 lecture/week format is manageable.  
  • Weekly Assignments/Readings: For each week, prior to the beginning of that week, I will post below a weekly assignment with specific readings, things for you to think about, etc.  I strongly suggest you do the reading before you listen to the relevant lectures.
  • Questions etc.: You should of course feel free to ask any questions about the lectures or readings, but please use the Discussions option here on Canvas to do so.  In most instances the questions you want to ask will be relevant to all of us.

Tentative schedule of reading and materials to be covered:

NB: This is merely a rough outline of the principal topics to be covered.  As noted above, each week I will post to this page/space on Canvas 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 probably get the most out of each lecture if you have done the assigned week’s reading prior to listening to the lecture.

You may find my 'Blackboard', PowerPoints, and other documents (other than texts) I use during lecture HERE.

 Introduction (Week 1):

Detailed assignment for Week 1 (29 March - 2 April)

Political freedom (Weeks 2-4):

Detailed assignment for Week 2 (5-9 April)

Detailed assignment for Week 3 (12-16 April)

Detailed assignment for Week 4 (19-23 April)

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

Detailed assignment for Week 5 (26-30)

Quiz #1 (available starting W 4/28 at 8 AM and due M 5/3 by 5 PM)

Detailed assignment for Week 6 (3-7 May)

Detailed assignment for Week 7 (10-14 May)

Intellectual freedom (Week 8): 

Detailed assignment for Week 8 (17-21 May)

Religious freedom (Week 9):

Detailed assignment for Week 9 (24-28 May)

Quiz #2 (available starting F 5/28 at 12:30 PM and due W 6/2 by 5 PM)

Retrospective reflection (Week 10):

Detailed assignment for Week 10 (31 May-4 June)


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 HSTAM 420; AWSpS.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Social Sciences (SSc)
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated: 
February 3, 2021 - 6:55pm