Arms and armor defined the man. The Greeks
had the ILIAD’S heroic images of bearing arms.
When Achilles killed Hector, he stripped him of his arms
and thus his symbolic identity. 1
For Aristotle, possessing arms was the mark of a free citizen:
[T]he defense forces are the most sovereign body under this constitution, and those who possess arms are the persons who enjoy
constitutional rights. 2
Plato, conversely, had a much more conservative—and undemocratic—view of bearing arms. He feared the power of the rabble.
For him, an armed citizenry was a threat to the oligarchic government he preferred. 3
The Greek citizen-soldier was a hoplite (from his shield, the hoplon),
meaning an armored and armed man. 4
The citizen equipped himself. By definition, a hoplite was one who
could afford the armor, accepted the duty of risking his life to
defend his state, and thus had a political voice. 5
The Greeks and Romans lacked our concepts of individualized and
inalienable rights. 6 The Greeks especially viewed their rights not as
inherent to themselves but as arising from the context of their polis
(city-state). 7 For this reason, the institution of slavery, widespread
in “democratic” Athens and “republican” Rome, was not an intel-
lectual problem. If your rights came from your status in the polis (or
later from Roman citizenship), then too bad if you happened to be
a slave. 8
Thus, our modern debate on whether we have an individual or
ARIZONA ATTORNEY FEBRUARY 2015 30 www.azbar.org/AZAttorney
1. Achilles’ triumph over Hector and display of his armor and stripped body before the walls of Troy.
Brad Pitt as Achilles in
3. WILTSHIRE at 135. The
framers of our constitution
shared Plato’s fears, which
is why we today do not
live in a direct democracy
but a republic.
Two and a half millennia after Plato,
Roscoe Pound (1870–1964), legal
scholar and Dean, Harvard Law School
(1916–36), voiced the similar concern
that “[i]n the urban industrial society of
today a general right to bear efficient
arms so as to be enabled to resist
oppression by the government would
mean that gangs could exercise an extra-legal rule which
would defeat the whole Bill of Rights.” ROSCOE POUND, THE
DEVELOPMENT OF CONSTITUTIONAL GUARANTEES OF LIBERTY 91 (1957).
4. Hoplites were primarily spear-men
fighting in a phalanx (plural phalanxes
or phalanges), a rectangular formation of
heavy infantry. “Phalanx” derives from the
Greek phalangos, meaning the finger,
which is where we get the term pha-
langes bones in the hands and feet. Each
man in a phalanx was like a finger in the hand to hit the enemy.
The Arms: The Roman Sword – Roman legions also generally fought in a phalanx
but used the sword (the Roman Gladius) as their main weapon, which came from Spain
(Gladius Hispaniensis). A “gladiator” is named for the gladius he wielded.
5. The word “politics” derives from polis, the Greek word for city, city-state, citizenship, or citizens.
Other English derivations include “policy,” “polity,” and “police.” WEBSTER’S at 1909.
This concept of accepting the duties of citizenship in return for a political voice reaches well
into our time and, for instance, is a key theme of the film GLORY (Tri-Star Pictures 1989). The film
depicts the 54th Massachusetts regiment with its commander, Robert Gould Shaw, and its assault
on Ft. Wagner, S.C., in 1863. One of the key scenes has Morgan Freeman’s character, John
Rawlins, slapping Denzel Washington’s character, Trip, and stating, “There ain’t no niggers here!”
Rather, they are men with rights and a voice earned on the battlefield. As the very racist Union
General William Tecumseh Sherman noted, “When the fight is over, the hand that drops the musket
cannot be denied the ballot.” Quoted in Pamela S. Karlan, Ballots and Bullets: The Exceptional
History of the Right to Vote, 71 U. CIN. L. REV. 1345, 1349 (2003) (citing ALEXANDER KEYSSAR,
THE RIGHT TO VO TE: THE CON TESTED HIS TORY OF DEMOCRACY IN THE UNITED STATES 88 (2000)).
Indeed, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation both proclaimed southern slaves’ freedom and
issued a call to arms. President Abraham Lincoln, The Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863),
available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/emancipa.asp.
I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves … are, and henceforward shall be free
… [a]nd I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition will be
received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and
other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
Blacks, however, fought in the Revolution in units including the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. In 1775,
Washington came north and wrote another general, “We have some Negroes, but I look upon them
in general [as] equally serviceable with other men … [M]any of them have proved themselves
brave.” Quoted in RICHARD BROOKHISER, WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS DO?: OUR QUESTIONS, THEIR
ANSWERS 171 (2006).
Plato and Aristotle from
Raphael’s The School of Athens
(Dream Works 2000).
A 1780 drawing of American soldiers from the Yorktown campaign shows (far left) a black
infantryman from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
6. See generally WILTSHIRE,
7. The Athenian practice of
ostracism exemplifies that individual rights had context for Greeks
only in the polis. Ostracism
occurred when the assembly voted
to expel a citizen from the city for
10 years. This often defused confrontations between political rivals
or expelled anyone who had the potential to
become a tyrant. Although technically not a criminal
punishment, ostracism stripped a man of his political identity. Moreover, if the person returned before
his 10 years without having been recalled, the
penalty was death. “Ostracism” comes from the
ostraka, the pieces of broken pottery used as voting
tokens. Voters would write the name of the person
on the pottery, and 6,000 pieces meant ostracism.
Paper in the form of papyrus from Egypt was far
too expensive for such a use. Of course, this practice is the basis for our modern word “to ostracize.”
8. See WILTSHIRE at 114, 122, 166, discussing slavery in both Greece and Rome. War captives became
slaves, like the mythical Andromache, Hector’s wife, after the Trojan War.
Our word “slave” comes from the Middle English sclave from the Old French esclave, from Medieval
Latin sclavus and ultimately from the Byzantine Greek sklabos (from sklabenoi) meaning “Slavic people.”
This is because the Vikings had enslaved many Slavic peoples from Eastern and Central Europe and
sold them to the Byzantine Empire. Before the 10th century other words meant slave such as the old
Latin word servus, the basis of the word “serf.”
The Shaw/54th Memorial, Boston Common
Assault on Ft. Wagner and Shaw’s death.
2. ARISTO TLE, POLI TICS,
quoted in WILTSHIRE at 136.