Roman Political Thought, by Jed W. Atkins

I dare to say that everyone with a degree in philosophy has studied Ancient Greek political thought. But what about the Ancient Romans? In his book Roman Political Thought, Jed W. Atkins discusses political ideas and issues that cannot be explored (to the same extent) only through a study of the Ancient Greeks.

Examples include the extension of citizenship, arguments for religious toleration, the separation of ”constitutional” powers (the Roman ”constitution” is not found in any single document or law, but in custom and political culture), and just war theory. Not all of these issues and ideas originated in Roman political thinking, but the Romans contributed to their theory and practice.

One topic that I find particularly interesting is individual rights. The language of ”rights” did not develop in modern societies, ”but in the hierarchical, slave-owning Roman republic” (p. 49). Today, many of us associate the language of rights with natural rights theories. However, to the Romans rights derive from custom, law, and political culture. I think that the Roman way of thinking about rights is the better way.

It is also interesting to study the Romans’ emphasis on civic virtue, which guided their political practices. Liberty, i.e., liber, liberalis, or liberalitas, did not only designate a state of non-domination, as in contemporary republican political theory. It was a moralized notion; Roman citizens were regulated by honor and a sense of public shame.

Roman Political Thought is enlightening yet accessible to a wide audience. It introduces the reader to the contemporary scholarly debate on numerous topics. I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in political theory, the history of ideas, and Ancient Rome.

Atkins, J. W. (2018). Roman Political Thought. Cambridge University Press.