The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies celebrated its 10th anniversary last week at the University of Helsinki. As a part of celebrations, fellows had five-minute ”teach-ins” – sort of trailers of their work. Mine was called ”Outsiders and Human Rights – The Heritage of Late Antiquity”. All this was set in five minutes:
”I have included the term ‘human rights’ into my title in order to keep you awake. Human rights today are usually understood in the line with Universal Declaration of Human Rights announced by the United Nations in 1948.
’Human rights’ in Greco-Roman Antiquity might sound anachronistic. Nonetheless, these issues were discussed in many different ways that are not entirely unfamiliar to us. There were many sorts of outsiders, or ‘others’, in the Roman world, for instance, ‘barbarians’, slaves, women, just to mention a few, whose rights and lack of rights were discussed. In my research project, I focus on religious outsiders, or religious dissenters, in the late Roman Empire.
Late Antiquity is the period from 300 to 600. My focus is in the Late Roman Empire from the fourth to the fifth centuries that is an important period of change, Christianization and transmigrations. Religious dissenters were those groups that fell outside the ‘mainstream’ Christianity, such as ‘pagans’, ‘heretics’ and Jews. On the one hand, I study the rhetoric of power regarding these groups, and on the other hand, I wish to grasp the changing conditions of these groups. I ask how religious outsiders were treated in the world of rhetoric and in daily life.
The most important mode of discussing human rights was defining the confines of being Roman. Being Roman – a proper Roman citizen, loyal Roman subject – for its part was connected with the correct performance of religion. Defining Romanness in religious terms became a fundamental part of political debate from the early third century onwards.
I maintain that this line of delineating a proper Roman in terms of religion continued in the course of the Christianization of the Empire. The criteria for being a good Roman were changed but the principle persisted. Now a Roman was redefined as being a Christian and, moreover, the right kind of Christian. Practising other devotions than the Christian mainstream version was argued to be one of the gravest transgressions against the state and the emperor, and in some texts even as falling outside civilized – Christian and Roman – society.
In the imperial legislation, religious dissidents were gradually deprived of their rights as Roman subjects, such as their rights to make economic transactions and serve in administrative and military offices. Just one example: an imperial decree in 391 announced that a noble person who deviated from Christianity and lapsed into ‘pagan’ sacrifices should lose his status and be eternally disgraced. Then it was declared: “For what could these have in common with humans – these who in their gruesome and beastly minds, hating the respect of the community, withdraw from the company of humans?”
Now, what all this means in practice, in the actual circumstances of daily life? This is what I wish to find out, going behind the declarations of emperors, bishops and church councils. It seems that the enforcement of harsh-sounding legislation was not always particularly efficient. Nonetheless, it is worth asking to what extent words (rhetoric of power, hate speech) influenced the human relations in every-day life.
So, what’s the use of studying all this? Who cares what happened some 1600 years ago? Studying the heritage of Late Antiquity in good and in bad, we try to understand how people in the distant past struggled with similar issues concerning human rights. It is impossible to understand modern conceptions, stereotypes, attitudes and even institutions without understanding the heritage of the past. These conceptions and institutions are historically construed, and therefore, the historical perspective is needed.”

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