Homo sacer  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Homo sacer (Latin for "the sacred man" or "the accursed man") is a figure of Roman law: a person who is banned, may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in a religious ritual.

The meaning of the term sacer in Ancient Roman religion is not fully congruent with the meaning it took after Christianization, and which was adopted into English as sacred. In early Roman religion sacer, much like Hebrew קֹדֶשׁ qōdeš, means anything "set apart" from common society, which equally covers the meanings of "hallowed" and "cursed". The homo sacer was thus simply a man expunged from society and deprived of all civil rights and all functions in civil religion.

The status of homo sacer was a consequence of oath-breaking. An oath in antiquity was essentially a conditional self-cursing, i.e. invoking one or several deities and asking for their punishment in the event of breaking the oath. An oathbreaker was consequently considered the property of the gods whom he had invoked and then deceived. If the oathbreaker was killed, this was understood as the revenge of the gods in whose power he had given himself. Since the oathbreaker was already the property of the oath deity, he could no longer belong to human society, or be consecrated to another deity.

A direct reference to this status is found in the Twelve Tables (8.21), laws of the early Roman Republic written in the 5th century BC. The paragraph states that a patron who deceives his clients is to be regarded as sacer.

The idea of the status of an outlaw, a criminal who is declared as unprotected by the law and can consequently be killed by anyone with impunity, persists throughout the Middle Ages and is first revoked only by the English Habeas Corpus act of 1679 which declares that any criminal must be judged by a tribunal before being punished.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes the concept as the starting point of his main work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998).

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Homo sacer" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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