When Tyrants Banned Religious Minorities

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tags: immigration, Trump



In the wake of the Trump administration’s changes to immigration regulations, many people are wondering if this is the beginning of religious censorship in the United States. Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time a government implemented a ban on members of a religious group it viewed dangerous or subversive. But religious bans never work out for anyone: either those being targeted or the governments sending others into exile. 

When we think about religion we often mean ethics and how a person choose to live his or her life. In the Greco-Roman world the task of debating what it means to live a good life fell not to priests but to philosophers. Much like today’s modern press, ancient Stoic philosophers saw themselves as responsible for exercising “bold speech,” that is, reprimanding their leaders and speaking truth to power.  This situation had the potential to make philosophers very unpopular with governmental officials. 

In the first century CE the emperor Vespasian expelled virtually all of the Stoic philosophers from Rome. According to the historian Cassius Dio, when one philosopher, Demetrius, decided to resist, Vespasian told him, “You are doing everything to force me to kill you, but I do not slay a barking dog.” Helvidius Priscus, an anti-imperial philosopher who spoke out in favor of returning Rome to a republic, was executed.  These events were just one moment in a tense relationship between Roman philosophers and Roman emperors that lasted for much of the second half of the first century. 




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