On the Origins of Censorship

It may be surprising for a modern person to learn that the word “censorship” has its origin in the Roman Republic, where a Censor was a democratically elected magistrate held in very high esteem.

Although being Consul held more actual authority and power, in the mature years of the Roman Republic, being elected to a Censorship was seen as the capstone in the career of a successful politician. This is because new Consuls, who were the chief executives in the Roman system, were elected annually. Censors, on the other hand, were elected only once every half-decade. Only someone previously elected Consul was eligible to be Censor, making it the most elite office in the Roman Republic.

This office was considered the highest aspiration in the career of a politician; it was the apex of the Roman system known as the cursus honorum (”sequence of public offices”), which was a ladder of political offices that had to be held in sequence — every time you made it to a new rung, you became eligible to run for a higher office. At the top of it all was the office of the Censor, which most Roman statesmen could only attain at the very end of their career.

In light of a recent resurgence of censorship around the world — both by governments and by other groups — it is a good idea to explore the nature of the office that gave rise to the word and explain how one of the most vaunted duties in the Roman world came to be one of the most reviled and despicable aspects of life in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Original Meaning: A Magistrate In Charge of the Census

The Latin verb censere, meaning “to think or assess”, is the root word of both “census” and “censor.” In their original Roman meanings, a “census” was an assessment, and a “censor” was an assessor.

The practice of taking a census, which modern countries conduct at regular intervals today, is quite old. It was initially practiced every five years by the Romans after having been instituted by Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, in the sixth century BC — making the census an even older institution than the Republic itself.

Although other earlier civilizations like that of the Egyptians did conduct their own population surveys, the Romans were the first to regularly practice and keep records of the size and property classes of their citizen bodies. For the Romans, it was an indispensable tool in the organization of the Roman army, and therefore important to the early survival of a city surrounded on all sides by aggressors.

Later, the census formed the basis for one of the main voting assemblies, the comitia centuriata, by classifying citizens into centuria (”centuries”), which were initially groups of 100 citizens divided by class (although they later became much larger). The census was also used as a way for the Roman government to assess taxes.

Each “century” had its own property classification, and in order to categorize Roman citizens into the proper century so that they could vote, serve in the proper rank of the military, and pay the appropriate amount of taxes, the Romans created the office of Censor in the year 444 BC to administer the census, which had previously been the duty of the Consuls (and before that, the Kings).

Censors’ duties were thus initially to complete a census that accounted for each Roman paterfamilias (free citizen who was the head of a family), the size of their household, and the amount of their property. They were also empowered to sort each citizen according to the three major ranks in Roman society — the senatorial class, the equestrian class, and everyone else.

A consequence of this power is that the Censors had the right to amend the membership of the senatorial class and if they wished they could “censor” members of the Senate by putting them on a kind of probation, or even expel them altogether — usually on the basis of poor conduct, such as corruption.

This aspect of a Censor’s power, known as the regimen morum meaning the power of “steering the customs” or “controlling the traditions”, planted the seed of the current meaning of the phrase “to censor”. From assessing a citizen’s property and social standing, censorship at Rome grew to mean assessing a citizen’s morality and conformity to the sacred traditions of Rome that formed the foundations of the Republic, the mos maiorum (the Way of the Ancestors).

Catonian vs. Orwellian Censorship

Roman censorship, in its moral dimension, was thus focused on enforcing the manners and behaviors that the Romans associated with decorum and good conduct.

This is what I call “Catonian” censorship, after perhaps the most famous Censor Cato the Elder, often referred to by Roman writers also as Cato the Censor, who is now often remembered for his famous refrain that Carthage must be destroyed (“Carthago delenda est). Cato was famous for living an ascetic and highly traditionalist lifestyle, and despised the relatively more comfortable and luxurious living he saw being adopted by his Roman peers.

Following the triumph of the Romans in the wars with Carthage and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the East during the 3rd century BC, Rome’s overseas empire expanded rapidly. Before the First Punic War in 264, the Roman Republic had barely consolidated control of Italy south of the Po and had a small and tenuous foothold in Sicily which constituted its first overseas territory. A century later, at the time of the Third Punic War, Rome’s territories had ballooned to encompass North Africa, most of Spain and the Iberian peninsula, southern France, Greece, Turkey, and parts of the Levant.

All this expansion brought with it a significant quantity of war captives (i.e. slaves, many of whom were learned Greeks that eventually served as tutors for well-to-do Romans), booty from captured cities, and new land. Much of the proceeds accrued to the senatorial class of Cato’s peers, who supplied the generals and higher-up officers of Rome’s victorious legions.

As a result, the Roman noble families went from relatively unremarkable in terms of wealth and land to some of the richest families the Mediterranean world had ever seen in the space of just a few generations. At the same time, there was a flood of Greek cultural influence on Rome’s elite families following the conquest of the Greek eastern kingdoms.

While Cato had no qualms about Rome’s military success and territorial expansion, he lamented the breakdown in traditional Roman ways of life that resulted from the newfound wealth and cosmopolitan outlook of the senatorial class. He saw the influx of Greek culture — now so often confused and conflated with Roman culture — as part of a larger moral degeneracy that resulted from Rome’s newfound wealth. For him, this represented a breakaway from the stoic, down-to-earth agragrian culture of the early Romans towards greater luxury, refinement, and therefore, weakness.

Once Cato was elected to the office of Censor in the year 184 BC, he famously used his new office to impose taxes on luxury such as the Lex Orchia. Later in life, he was reported to have banned Greek philosophers like Carneades from Rome because he felt they were corrupting the young men of Rome. (Ironically, this was a prejudice he shared with the Athenians themselves, who famously put Socrates to death on a similar charge.)

Cato expels Greek philosophers from Rome. Image Source

While Censor, Cato also expelled many members of the Senate for failing to uphold the standards of conduct he felt appropriate to a Roman Senator, which was not very popular with his peers. Plutarch gives a representative example of the senators Cato expelled in the person of one Lucius Quintius, who apparently had a condemned man brought to a banquet and beheaded with an ask at the behest of a young lover who he was trying to impress (Plutarch, the Life of Cato the Elder, 17.1-3). 

Many Roman senators and magistrates, who by Cato’s time had grown unruly (to put it mildly) given the scale of Rome’s sudden success, had become corrupt or adopted similarly reprehensible behavior. Cato used his power as Censor to purge them.All this is to give you a sense of what I mean by what I call Catonian censorship — censorship that is designed to enforce codes of behavior and traditionalist culture.

Catonian censorship is alive and well today, even in our society where custom and tradition hold far less weight than it did for the Romans. For example, movie ratings effectively censor content deemed lewd or inappropriate from young audiences; daytime TV and primetime news shows censor profanities. “Graphic” content is still banned from certain parts of life in the Western world and banned outright in more traditionalist non-Western societies.

In that Catonian sense, censorship is, therefore, an old phenomenon; almost all societies adopt it in some form. While it sometimes impinges on artistic expression, it is rarely used to suppress political or religious beliefs (unless those beliefs are enacted in rituals or other behaviors), since Catonian-style censorship is mostly focused on forbidding the promotion of transgressive behaviors (however societies might define it at the time).

Orwellian censorship, on the other hand, is something quite different. It is the censorship of beliefs and ideas, as opposed to censorship of behaviors designed to promote traditional norms.

When we think about the word “censorship” today, in my experience we tend to think of Orwellian censorship more commonly than we think of Catonian censorship; I speculate that this is because the 20th century, with its proliferation of nightmarish totalitarian states, from Mao’s China to Franco’s Spain, made the negative consequences of censorship apparent like never before.

Before humanity was exposed to the experience of the Soviet Gulag or the Fascist reeducation camp, or the constant invigilation of living under the Stasi in East Germany or the North Korean “Ministry of State Security”, never before had the attempt to censor beliefs reached such a mass scale that every citizen had to fear punishment not only for what they did, but what they thought.

Although the twentieth century provides the most vivid examples, it is possible to trace Orwellian censorship to the late Roman Empire after Constantine, where the early Christians undertook the first of many campaigns to systematically destroy traditional Greco-Roman religious beliefs. 

Christians of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages censored stories about pagan gods (i.e. the Olympians of the Roman and Greek pantheons), destroyed Greek and Roman temples and the “idols” therin, and decried the writings of “pagan” philosophers, poets, and playwrights like Homer, Lucretius, and Catullus — along with the works of the many Christian “heresies” of the time, like that of the Manicheans.

The early Christian Era was therefore the first example in the Western world of a large-scale campaign of Orwellian censorship (part of a larger policy of extermination) targeted at promoting “correct” beliefs while suppressing others, a clear contrast to the earlier Roman practice enacted by the Censor, which was aimed at promoting conformity to traditional morals or behaviors. 

This is the version of censorship that the Catholic Church enacted most vigorously during its reign over Christendom — it managed to monopolize most of the written media in the middle ages by confining written knowledge within the walls of monasteries and churchs, and controlling the flow of new information with the help of its faithful army of monk-scribes. 

This era of censorship only truly ended after the near-simultaneous advent of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation which followed in its immediate wake, both of which served opened a pandora’s box of new beliefs by challenging the Catholic Church’s monopoly on belief and enabling anyone who owned a printing press to print pamphlets and books without having to rely on a monk-scribe army painstakingly creating manuscripts by hand.

Orwellian censorship, not Catonian, was also the type employed most enthusiastically, and to greatest effect, by the world’s worst totalitarian states. Totalitarian party rulers and activists understood that enforcing conformity of belief was more important to the reign of their ideology than enforcing conformity to tradition — and that meant controlling the flow of information.

Thus, media in totalitarian and theocratic states is always state-controlled and never contradicts the ruling orthodoxy. But as the extensive spying of the Stasi exemplifies, not even interpersonal conversations among friends were safe from censorship — in East Germany, every person had a file, and everything you said or did was a matter of record. Privacy was non-existent because it got in the way of efforts to censor; and in this, the social media platforms today find their eerie parallel.

The evolution and future of censorship

With the nightmares of the twentieth century fresh in our mind, and having been force-fed Orwell’s work by unenthusiastic teachers at an age where we barely had the experience or knowledge to understand their significance, Westerners today feel well-armed against the dangers and evils of censorship.

And, in a sense, we are — in that we’re unlikely to suffer significant censorship from a government any time soon because the government is such a familiar source of censorship, as was the Church before it. Government censorship is easy for us to spot and is explicitly banned by the first amendment in the case of the US, and therefore not much of a threat.

But we have a big blind spot. Evils rarely befall humanity the same exact way twice, and Orwellian censorship is now possible by means and groups that lie outside the official apparatus of the state — namely, social media platforms and the internet more generally.

How is this possible? Let’s start with the phenomenon of “deplatforming,” which has become a popular political tactic in the past decade.

Deplatforming is an ingenious new way to censor ideas without resorting to crude or obvious tactics like burning books or secret police whisking away dissidents in the night.

The public square — the space for the public expression of competing political, religious, and other ideological beliefs of most countries in the digital era — exists primarily in two places: the news media and the internet.

Of the two, the latter is by far the most important, and every year the former becomes more and more irrelevant. Because the internet gives everyone a platform, it has become the only platform that matters — nominally divided though it is amongst the fiefdoms of the tech monopolies.

The internet has had an interesting effect on the evolution of censorship; on the one hand, it has made Catonian censorship almost impossible (if the proliferation of online pornography is any indication).

On the other, it has made Orwellian censorship remarkably easy — people freely provide a public, permanent record of their unacceptable and dissident beliefs on social platforms, and whenever the political or religious ideology with the most power over the tech platforms within a given society wishes to do so — whether Twitter in the US or Weibo in China, wishes to do so, it can “deplatform” dissident intellectuals, politicians, or even private individuals who say something provocative or contrary to accepted truths.

This obviates the need for more resource-intensive tactics; an algorithm and a content moderator are much easier to pay and to train than a secret police force would be, while merely banning accounts is much easier than disappearing people. 

What’s more, grassroots censorship has become possible for the first time in history — whereas before, top-down coordination was needed to shut down unacceptable views (Orwellian censorship previously required a monopoly on violence), it is now possible for censorship to emerge organically from motivated groups of activists — the so-called “cancel culture mobs” who now diligently scour the internet looking for minute clues that someone, somewhere might have expressed a thought that  transgressed against their beliefs, reveling in their newfound power to punish such transgressions with account bans, often with a side of unemployment.

In this, we see that censorship has come far from its humble origins as a method of assessing and categorizing the citizens of a small Italian city. It likely has farther to go — the future of censorship is bright; though its victims may be less deserving of censure than Lucius Quintius of old.

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.