Liberty, bondage and liberation in the Late Bronze Age*

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Abstract

Free versus unfree was a fundamental axis of differentiation in ancient Near Eastern societies. Liberty was conceptualized as the power to govern oneself, free from another's domination, thus free to participate in constituting political authority. More concretely, the subject of the state was by definition free, this being the condition of obliging him for duty. Thus the relation between people and polity was predicated on liberty, not servitude as commonly supposed of an area still shackled to the Western ideology of Oriental despotism. I argue that liberty was an operative principle in the organization of ancient Near Eastern polities, basing the case on sources from the Late Bronze Age. The first section sets forth general propositions, and the second puts them in ancient Near Eastern terms. The third and fourth sections examine documents from Ugarit and Emar, two polities under Hittite suzerainty, that illustrate how these principles operated in the lives of individuals. The fifth section examines how they were articulated at the scale of communities, through the lens of the poet(s) who composed the Hurro-Hittite ‘Song of Liberation'. The conclusion draws together the ideas of liberty, bondage and liberation these sources disclose, ideas that remained productive in later ages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)658-684
Number of pages27
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Volume44
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 18 2018

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Keywords

  • Citizenship
  • duty
  • liberty
  • redemption
  • servitude
  • state

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