The idea of the Commons reflects a time before private ownership became the touchstone of all social and cultural value. In western culture you might trace its origin back to ancient Athens, where citizenship was considered both a collective right and a personal responsibility. Later, the Romans echoed this notion in The Institutes of Justinian, a grand summation of Roman Law. Here res communes, or “those common inheritances to which all citizens are entitled” included “those things common to mankind – the air, the running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.”
By 1215, in Europe, the Magna Carta had formally recognized forests and fisheries as res communes, and throughout the dark ages in Europe the idea persisted as the shared lands used for hunting and foraging by all those known collectively as “Commoners”.
The idea of the Commons, kindled by the spirit of the Enlightenment, was carried to the New World by the authors of the American Constitution. There, “Commonwealths” were established, and in towns both large and small a central area called “The Commons” was often set aside from commercial development to be used exclusively as a space for cultural celebration, public demonstration, and the arts.