Libertas – The Roman Goddess of Freedom

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Libertas is one of the minor yet most popular Roman deities. This ancient “Lady Liberty” was the patron of freed slaves in Rome, her face can be seen on many Roman coins, and she was even very politicized during the Late Republic era as well as the Roman Empire.

But who exactly was Libertas and do we know the myth behind the symbol?

Libertas symbolism

Who is Libertas?

For better or for worse, the actual mythology of Libertas is all but nonexistent. Unlike other deities who have various fantastical myths and stories, Libertas is viewed more as a static symbol of liberty. Or, at the very least, if she had some wondrous myths, they don’t seem to have been preserved to this day.

However, Libertas has something arguably better than the myths of any other Roman deity – she has an actual real-world history.

Libertas and the Founding of the Roman Republic

Libertas’ history can be traced as far back as 509 BCE. Around that time, the goddess was intrinsically connected to the very establishment of the Roman Republic.

At the time, Libertas was the symbol of the Junia family in Rome. Rome was a monarchy under the rule of the tyrannical Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. As the Junia family were wealthy patricians, they were instrumental in overthrowing the monarchy and laying the groundwork for the new Republic of Rome.

Soon after, however, another conflict happened and further established Libertas as a symbol of the Republic. Several noble families had started conspiring about the emerging republic and planned to overthrow the rule of the people. That’s when the now-famous slave Vindicus discovered their plot and reported it to the Senate.

Vindicus was a slave to one of the rebellious noble families – the Vitellii – but we’re not certain if he was rewarded with his freedom for his decisive action. Regardless, just as Libertas was a symbol of freed slaves, so was Vindicus.

In that way, Libertas became closely associated with the foundation of the Republic of Rome – as a symbol of both the Junia family and of freedom from oppression. Multiple temples seem to have been erected in honor of the goddess at the time and many coins were carved with her profile. Unfortunately, none of those particular temples have survived to this day.

Libertas and the Emancipation of Slaves

Nanine Vallain
La Liberté by Nanine Vallain, 1794. PD.

As the personification of freedom, it’s hardly surprising that Libertas became the patron goddess of freed slaves. Everyone in Rome recognized and honored that patronage too, not just the slaves themselves.

According to Roman tradition, when a master was to grant a slave his or her freedom, they went to the Temple of Liberty in Rome. There, a Roman official would grant the slave their freedom by touching them with a rod called vindicta in honor of Vindicus.

After that, the freed slave would cut their hair and receive a white wool hat and a white robe from their former master. Because of that, the vindicta rod and the white cap became symbols of the goddess Libertas and she was often portrayed holding them in her hands. Two other symbols often used were a short broken scepter, representing the fall of the Roman monarchy, and a cat, representing Libertas’ watchfulness.

Libertas vs. Rome’s Emperors

Naturally, as a symbol of freedom Libertas also became the patron deity of everyone who’d oppose the Roman Empire that replaced the republic in 27 BCE.

In fact, Libertas was widely politicized even before the rise of the Empire. It was during the Late Republic period that the goddess became the symbol of not just freed slaves or the Junia family but also of the Populares faction – the political “party” in the Roman senate that tried to work in the interest of the plebeians, i.e. the common folk.

It ought to be noted that the Populares weren’t themselves plebeians – like their opposition, the Optimates faction in the senate, the Populares were aristocrats. They were a minority to the Optimates’ majority too, so their advocacy for the interests of the commoners may have well been just political games a lot of the time. Nevertheless, they did work in favor of the plebeians much more than their opposition and that placed them under the patronage of Libertas.

Of course, once the Republic of Rome was overthrown in favor of the Empire, many of those members of the Populares stood against it. They had declared themselves against the First Triumvirate – the alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus that overthrew the republic.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar – by William Holmes Sullivan, (1888). PD.

So, during the time of the Empire, Libertas became a more controversial symbol – still loved by slaves, freed slaves, and commoners but also much less favored by the Roman Emperors and the ruling elite. In fact, the famous assassination of Julius Caesar by several senators including Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius was also done in Libertas’ name.

Curiously, Brutus himself was technically a part of the Junia family – the original family favored by Libertas during the Republic’s foundation five centuries earlier. Brutus was an adopted son of Decimus Junius but was still a member of the family nonetheless.

The tyrannicide of Julius Caesar was far from the only act of followers of Libertas against Rome’s emperors. Many smaller and larger rebellions were fought with Libertas favor and the Empire’s opposition often invoked the goddess’ name.

Libertas was also featured on some coins cut by a Roman emperor – namely, emperor Galba, Rome’s ruler right after the infamous Nero who burned Rome. Galba had cut coins with Libertas image and the inscription “Freedom of the People”. Unfortunately, those coins seem to have served only a propaganda purpose as Galba wasn’t pro-plebeian emperor at all. In fact, he was widely despised for his corrupt rule.

Libertas and Eleutheria

Like many other Roman deities, Libertas was based on a Greek goddess. In this case, that was the goddess Eleutheria. Like Libertas, Eleutheria’s name literally translates as “liberty” in Greek. And, just like her, Eleutheria doesn’t seem to have any well-known myths associated with her.

In some sources, Zeus himself is called “Zeus Eleutherios” i.e. Zeus the Liberator. That seems to be in honor of the Greeks’ victory over the invading Persians. This does not seem to be connected to the actual goddess Eleutheria.

Another interesting note is that Eleutheria is sometimes viewed as an alternative name for the goddess of the hunt, Artemis. There are many myths about Artemis, however, none explicitly state that she is indeed Eleutheria. Additionally, we don’t know of any link between the Roman Libertas and Diana – the Roman goddess of the hunt.

All in all, Eleutheria’s mythology is even more nonexistent than Libertas’, with the difference being that Eleutheria doesn’t have Libertas’ historical significance.

Libertas, Columbia, and the United States

Libertas coins
The American Gold Eagle featuring Lady Liberty – obverse side. PD.

The Roman Empire and Republic may have perished many millennia ago but Libertas’ cultural significance in the Western world continued. Especially around the time of the American Revolution, Libertas had started becoming popular as a symbol again in Europe. For example, as the Dutch warred against Spain and switched to a republican form of government, they adopted Libertas as a major symbol.

After the American Revolution, due to such European influences, people in the US also began to favor Libertas as a symbol of their own. For example, after the signing of the Stamp Act in 1765, people in New York celebrated by raising a ship’s mast as a Liberty Pole  or Libertas’ vindicta.

Early depictions of “Lady Liberty” also appeared on coins like those struck by Paul Revere in Boston, she was portrayed in various engravings after the American Revolution together with other Roman deities and the Indian Princess, and more.

Just like the goddess Liberty replaced the Indian Princess as a symbol of the free New World, so the famous Lady Columbia became the next evolution of Libertas. This started happening by the end of the 18th century. Columbia was significantly more colorful than her Roman predecessor.

Over the years, various representations of Columbia, Libertas, “Lady Freedom”, and others were widely used on government buildings all across the country. Most famously, the Statue of Liberty in New York is clearly based on that image too. In fact, built in 1875, she resembles Libertas classic image much more than she does Lady Columbia.

Statue of liberty

Curiously, many Christian religious conservatives at the time were vehemently opposed to the idea of the US’s liberation being portrayed with a pagan symbol. For example, the 1880 issue of the American Catholic Quarterly Review protested that she was an “Idol of a heathen goddess… holding her torch to proclaim that mankind receives true light, not from Christ and Christianity, but from heathenism and its gods”.

Still, over time even the religious conservatives accepted the symbol. For better or for worse, many in the US today don’t even realize the pre-Christian origin of the Lady Liberty symbol.

FAQs About Libertas

What was Libertas known for?

Libertas is the personification of liberty and freedom from oppression.

What are Libertas’ symbols?

Libertas’ symbols include the vindicta rod, white cap, white robe, broken scepter, and cats.

Is the Statue of Liberty based on Libertas?

Historians say that the Statue of Liberty was based on Libertas, but the sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi has stated that the figures guardian the Nubian tombs were his inspiration.

What are Libertas’ myths?

Not much is known about Libertas as hardly any myths related to her exist.

In Conclusion

Libertas’ symbolism is clear and explicit even just from her name. For over 2,500 years, she has stood for liberty of oppression all over Europe and even in the Americas. Granted, her name and image have been politicized and used by demagogues too, but that shouldn’t take away from her original meaning.

From her very beginning, Libertas stood as a revolutionary symbol against Rome’s tyrannical monarchy, in favor of the freeing of slaves, and then once again opposed to the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Over a millennia later she helped the people of Europe overthrow their own monarchies, as well as Americans repel British rule.

Remembering and understanding the symbolism of this Roman goddess is key for resisting politicians’ attempts of co-opting her name today.

Nina