Andrew Levine writes at CounterPunch:
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In Greek and Roman antiquity, “free” denoted a legal status; the opposite of “slave.” Independent political entities were also “free.” This usage never quite dropped away. Irish republicans, seeking independence from Britain, struggled to establish an “Irish free state.” The national liberation movements of the latter half of the twentieth century shared this understanding.
In time, the underlying idea overflowed its origins. “Free” came to mean “independent” or “undominated,” irrespective of legal status. This was one of the ways it was understood when hundreds of thousands of African Americans and their allies in the Civil Rights movement marched for “freedom.”
Many of the most important political theorists in Europe in the early modern period understood freedom this way too. The strain of political theory they produced is called (small-r) “republican.”
The name is apt because, in addition to supplying its idea of freedom, the Roman republic, along with certain Greek city-states, inspired its leading thinkers’ visions of ideal political arrangements and their understandings of civic virtue.