The deep roots of the word “patriot” lie in Roman antiquity.
A distinction is often drawn between the terms patriot and patriotism. The former is seen as an older usage, traceable back to the ancient Roman republic, while the latter is viewed as an eighteenth-century neologism. Patriotism, as in most ideological “isms,” is therefore often considered a more recent word. However, the older term patriot still covers many of the conceptual aspects of patriotism. The term patriotism figured in European and North American political discussion (and poetry) over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, during the larger bulk of the twentieth century its academic usage diminished. Certainly up to the 1990s it was considered, in academic debate, to be an antiquated term—particularly in liberal and Marxist political theory. However, there has been, over the last decade, a rediscovery of patriotism (among other membership-related concepts) within political theory and related disciplines. This rediscovery began in the 1980s with communitarianism and then developed into a renewed academic interest in nationalism, multiculturalism, citizenship, and the like. Patriotism is one of the latecomers to this process. It should be stressed, though, that this academic interest, or lack of interest, has little bearing on the ordinary political usage of these terms. Patriotism, regardless of academic concerns, persisted in lay political vocabularies throughout the twentieth century.
The deep roots of the word patriot lie in Roman antiquity, particularly in terms such as patria and patrius, which indicate fatherland, city, native, or familiar place. Familiar has links with the word family (familia). This also has ties with the term father or paternal (pater, père, Vater, padre), or what is implied by the “role of the father” within a family. In terms of the “role of father,” patria and patrius have subtle connections with property, authority, and status. The word patriarch evolves from this dimension. The links between father, authority, family, property, and politics can be observed, for example, in the Roman patrician class, who possessed considerable wealth in land and were dominant in the older Roman political structure. Their property enabled wide-ranging political influence. This was also connected to the original use of the cognate terms patron and patronage. Early Roman political factions, as in later European monarchies, worked through powerful wealthy families. Loyalty to kin in politics was supremely important for survival and political success. Early Roman pietas was, therefore, originally loyalty to the family hearth. However, Roman republican writers, such as Cicero, also saw a wider patria in the res publica (the public thing). The later Roman legal Digesta and Institutiones referred to two patrias affecting citizens: the more local (patria sua) and the more abstract public Rome (communis patria). Under the later Roman Empire (and again under later European absolute monarchies), this second patria became increasingly more abstract and legalistic.
In effect, the highest patria (status and estate) became synonymous with the state. The state was, in a sense, paternal authority “writ large.” This idea can still be seen in seventeenth-century doctrines of political rule, such as patriarchalism, where all authority is traced to the paternal role. The prince thus embodied the essence of the state. Traces of this can still be seen in eighteenth-century writings, such as Henry St. John, first viscount Bolingbroke’s (1678–1751) Idea of a Patriot King (1749). The opposition to this reading of the state also employed the language of patriotism. Yet it wanted to colonize the state with a different set of values. Thus, liberty under the law became a motif for a divergent set of arguments. Consequently, if republicans, dissenters, and revolutionaries absorbed the language of patriotism, they could claim to be struggling for the “real” rights and freedoms of the people, and consequently for the soul of the state. At this point in the argument, in the early nineteenth century, the language of patriotism began slowly to mutate into nationalist language.
In summary, the qualities of “local familial or community loyalty” and an “impersonal abstract legal loyalty” have remained part of the vocabulary of patriotism to the present day. Local communal identification implies a more visceral loyalty, an attachment and love for the “familiar.” This is why some contemporary commentators can still insist that patriotism is more of an emotion than an intelligible political idea. Yet at the same time, the loyalty to the remote authoritative legal abstraction of the state or city-state embodies another important formal aspect of the legacy of patriotism.