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The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights

The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights

A thought-provoking study traces the origins of human rights beyond the Enlightenment to the evolution of humane discourse and empathetic thought in Ancient Greece.

Series: Classics and the Ancient World Endowment

July 2021
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184 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 b&w illus. |

Although the era of the Enlightenment witnessed the rise of philosophical debates around benevolent social practice, the origins of European humane discourse date further back, to Classical Athens. The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights analyzes the parallel confluences of cultural factors facing ancient Greeks and eighteenth-century Europeans that facilitated the creation and transmission of humane values across history. Rachel Hall Sternberg argues that precursors to the concept of human rights exist in the ancient articulation of emotion, though the ancient Greeks, much like eighteenth-century European societies, often failed to live up to those values.

Merging the history of ideas with cultural history, Sternberg examines literary themes upholding empathy and human dignity from Thucydides’s and Xenophon’s histories to Voltaire’s Candide, and from Greek tragic drama to the eighteenth-century novel. She describes shared impacts of the trauma of war, the appeal to reason, and the public acceptance of emotion that encouraged the birth and rebirth of humane values.


2022 PROSE Award Finalist in Classics

  • Timeline for Greece
  • Key to Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Exploration A. Barthélemy’s Travels of Anacharsis the Younger
  • Part I. Two Enlightenments
    • Chapter 1. Reason
    • Chapter 2. Warfare
    • Chapter 3. Empathy and Tears
    • Chapter 4. Humane Discourse
  • Exploration B. Cyrus the Great
  • Part II. Ancient Greek Roots
    • Chapter 5. Elements
    • Chapter 6. Paths
  • Exploration C. Tensions
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Subject Index
  • Index of Ancient Passages

Rachel Hall Sternberg is an associate professor of classics and history at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of Tragedy Offstage: Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens and editor of Pity and Power in Ancient Athens.


“Ideals matter.  Ours is an imperfect world--there has never been a perfect one--but we would be much the worse if we had no sense of human worth, of the value of empathy, and of the importance of humane and rational discourse.  These ideals were articulated with particular clarity by writers in classical Greece and again in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. In The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights, Rachel Hall Sternberg illustrates, crisply and elegantly, the similarities between these two civilizing visions and why they remain crucial in our time.”
David Konstan, author of In the Orbit of Love: Affection in Ancient Greece and Rome

The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights is a great pleasure to read, offering, as it does, a novel approach to a much-understudied problem in the history of modern ideas: the relation of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to the legacy of classical antiquity. There is a refreshing boldness to the way in which Sternberg presents her provocative argument, which is sure to attract the attention of anyone interested in the history of 'human rights.'”
Johnson Kent Wright, author of A Classical Republican in Eighteenth-Century France: The Political Thought of Mably


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