Concepts of Dignity in Ancient Greek and Latin Languages: Birth of the Category in Two Ancient European Civilizations

Concept of dignity first appeared in Europe, in the age of antiquity. Looking for corresponding lexemes in ancient Eastern languages would be futile (though corresponding fundamentals, not yet terminologically represented, already existed at the ancient Near East: for instance, the image of Gilgamesh in the Sumerian and Akkadian epics or, in a more sophisticated manner, the image of David in the Old Testament.

This paper dwells upon ancient civilizations as it was them who defined the Western mentality. The category of dignity among ancient Greek occurred only in the process of formation, so the definition wasn't set yet. “Axioma” lexeme was preferred, but it meant “authority” rather than “dignity” in the proper meaning of the word (“axioma” correlates more with the Latin “auctoritas” than with “dignitas”).

With the development of Roman civilization, oligarchical in its main intentions (deep observations of R. Seim to be quoted in this relation), concept of “dignitas” comes into its full power. Its development chronologically and stadially corresponds to the evolution of the unique phenomenon of the Roman republic: polis that conquered all of the Mediterranean. Rome (in sharp contrast with the poleis of the Greek world) being hierarchical and inclusive at the same time and having created a phenomenon of magisterial career (pursuing it, a citizen could gradually increase his dignity, his “dignitas”), had worked out some fundamental concepts that remain very relevant until today.

For ancient Greek poleis, especially for democratic ones, recognizing some specific “dignity” of some citizens compared to others was absolutely unacceptable. Everyone was equal! And those considering themselves unequal, higher than the others, were subjected to ostracism. “Greeks invented ostracism, and Romans — created triumph,” as it was cleverly remarked by a modern researcher (W. Runcimen). And this says a lot. The triumph, a festive entrance of a victorious commander into Rome, is the highest manifestation of his “dignitas.”

The paper will also dwell upon the specifics of legal proceedings involving aristocrats in ancient Athens and ancient Rome that compare in some very interesting manners. As a result, we shall draw a surprising general conclusion: democracy and dignity are incompatible (no wonder that ancient thinkers pointed out the inequality of arithmetic and geometric means).