Speech and silence
: freedom of speech and processes of censorship in early imperial Rome

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis is concerned with freedom of speech in early imperial Rome. The creation of the principate meant that the emperor held absolute power based on military force, but there is no comprehensive survey of how this affected freedom of speech. This study therefore examines relevant primary sources, approaching the question through three areas - controls imposed by the emperor through law and force mqjeure, self-censorship and peer pressure among the elite, and popular political protest. Most of the evidence presented is literary, reflecting the interests and concerns of the elite authors and their intended audience, though where relevant reference is made to inscriptions, graffiti and dipinti. The thesis considers the hierarchical, status-conscious nature of Roman society, arguing that concern for social standing affects all communication. Although there are incidents of control imposed by the emperor or his representatives, peer-to-peer pressure has a greater impact upon freedom of speech. Communication is affected by the status of the speaker, the audience and the occasion. The distinctions between "public" and "private" speech differed significantly from modern conceptions. This means that protocols arose for dealing with potentially offensive subjects - insult, criticism and obscenity - so that offence was minimised and social relations could continue harmoniously. This argument is developed by an exploration of political communication between senate and emperor, especially the importance of the differing relationships between the emperor and individual senators. The study concludes by exploring informal and popular protest at Rome, through gossip, demonstrations at ludi and munera, and through graffiti and pamphleteering. Even here, concerns for status and personal relationships with the emperor explain the forms protests take.
This study aims to extend existing work and re-examine assumptions commonly made about freedom of speech, or its lack, in early imperial Rome.
Date of AwardMay 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDominic Rathbone (Supervisor) & William Fitzgerald (Supervisor)

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