Citizenship in Ancient Rome

The inscription from the Triumphal Arch of Titus, erected in the Roman Forum in c. 81 CE by Domitian to commemorate his brother Titus’ campaigns in the Jewish War (70-71 CE). It reads: The Senate and People of Rome, to Divus Titus, son of Divus Vespasian, Vespasian Augustus. / AHE, Creative Commons

At the heart of Roman conceptions of citizenship was a covenant between the individual citizen and the res publica or Roman state.

By Dr. Thomas Sizgorich
Late Professor of History
University of California

One of the most important tools at the ancient Roman state’s disposal was that of naturalized citizenship, an institution over time that helped to harness the talents and energies of the most gifted individuals and communities of the Mediterranean world, putting them to work on behalf of Rome. As the institution developed, it came to include people of diverse regions and cultural traditions in an ever-expanding Roman cosmopolis. By the time of the high Principate, Rome routinely either extended rights and privileges of Roman citizenship to individuals and whole cities at a time, thereby giving them a stake in the Rome’s fortunes, or held out the promise of those rights and privileges as an incentive for cooperation.

At the heart of idealized Roman conceptions of citizenship was a covenant between the individual Roman citizen and the res publica or Roman state. Bonds of sacred obligation united one to the other and demanded unflinching loyalty and selfless devotion of an individual citizen while promising freedom from abuse by powerful individuals and access to reasoned, regulated laws in which one’s life, property, and liberties would be protected. It was that compact between the individual and the state—the faith of the individual Roman in the laws of the state and in the sacred destiny of Rome—not the place of birth, language, or cultural background that made one Roman.

Although the early development of Roman citizenship is obscure, with the advent of Rome’s conquest of the Italian Peninsula, the effects of Rome’s policies concerning citizenship become visible as one factor in Rome’s ongoing success. By the time of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy in 218 BCE, Rome had adopted the practice of granting citizenship to the residents of other Italian cities. Usually, citizenship was conferred on members of the ruling classes. In any case, Rome’s increasing power on the peninsula made Roman citizenship greatly desired among many of Italy’s non-Roman inhabitants, particularly among Rome’s Italian allies.

Extending Roman citizenship wholesale to those who resided beyond Rome’s boundaries was not a popular notion among either the Roman upper or lower classes, despite impassioned pleas from such prominent Romans as Scipio Africanus the Younger, who was Rome’s great champion against Carthage in the Punic Wars. During Rome’s period of imperialist expansion that continued long after Scipio’s death, Rome’s Italian allies supplied more than half the soldiers filling Roman ranks. However, those soldiers were denied a role in policy making at Rome, benefits enjoyed by Roman citizens in the distribution of public lands, and protection against the rapacious greed of Rome’s governing classes. When a Roman lawmaker named Marcus Livius Drusus tried to pass a law granting citizenship to the Italian allies, he was murdered by his opponents.

The failed attempt by Drusus to extend citizenship rights to Rome’s allies in Italy sparked the Social War of 90-88 BCE. As a result, Rome was forced to finally accept most of those residing in the Italian communities south of the Po River and some Latin colonies north of the river as citizens. The last days of the Roman Republic saw the rest of the cities of Italy receive citizenship through the machinations of such political players as Julius Caesar. Now, Roman citizenship was less a matter of origin or residence in the city of Rome than the adoption of Roman political, legal, and cultural institutions. Meanwhile, the practice of granting citizenship to whole communities outside of Italy advanced as Rome added conquered territories to her imperium.

Throughout that process, the inclusion of new peoples into the community of Roman citizens consistently was met with resistance from older, more entrenched groups of Romans. By the decades of the late Roman Republic and early Principate, the descendants of those Italians who had won their citizenship rights only through war waged against “native Romans” now thought of themselves as “native Romans” and were scandalized by the inclusion of Gauls, Greeks, and Syrians in Rome’s ever-expanding polity. The irony of that fact did not escape the Romans as the emperor Claudius pointed out to his own contemporaries in the first century CE. Snobbery and prejudice against the latest batch of newcomer Romans persisted throughout Rome’s long history.

Extent of Etruscan civilisation and the twelve Etruscan League cities / Wikimedia Commons

The capacity of Rome to absorb new groups of people and to incorporate them into the greater community is celebrated in many of Rome’s foundational myths. While some Greek cities imagined that their communal ancestors leaped out of the ground where their home cities were founded, Romans imagined that their ancestors came from many places and from among many different peoples. In Roman mythology, Trojans, Etruscans, Sabines, and others come together and unite around the idea of Rome to found an eternal city.

The desirability of Roman citizenship is illustrated especially well in one oration by the Roman statesman Cicero. Prosecuting a corrupt provincial governor named Gaius Verres, Cicero argued that, above and beyond the various abuses of power and acts of graft and extortion committed by Verres, his most egregious crime was the crucifixion of a naturalized Roman citizen of Greek origin in Sicily. Roman citizens were entitled to have the decisions of provincial governors reviewed in Rome if they so desired and were afforded every protection of Roman law. In no case were Roman citizens to be tortured or put to death by crucifixion, a means of execution that was not only agonizing and quite slow but also considered degrading and humiliating.

In pressing his case against Verres, Cicero reminded the jury of what Roman citizenship was supposed to bestow upon its recipient. A Roman citizen should be able to travel anywhere in the wide Roman world under the protection of Roman law. He should be protected from abuse by those in positions of official power and also protected from criminal activity. That citizenship right opened up a much wider world to people throughout the Mediterranean who had before only known security within the walls of their home community. Now, Roman citizens could travel the length and breadth of the known world to pursue trade, study, or simply explore—secure in the knowledge that their status as Roman citizens would protect them wherever the went.

Roman citizenship also bestowed such mundane advantages as lighter tax obligations and access to public grains and other dietary staples. Citizenship entitled Romans to have their disputes settled in accordance with Roman law in Roman courts. The rule of law was highly attractive throughout the Roman world to citizens and noncitizens alike, and access to Roman courts was regularly touted as one of the more desirable advantages of Roman citizenship. Moreover, for individuals educated in such Hellenistic intellectual centers as Antioch or Alexandria, Roman citizenship offered the opportunity to amass material wealth and personal power to better serve the Roman state.

The oration “To Rome,” written by Publius Aelius Aristides, an ethnic Greek born in the Roman provincial city of Hadrianotherae in 117 CE, gives one a sense of what Roman citizenship looked like to an educated provincial Roman. In that work, Aristides compares Rome with such previous empires as those administered by the Persian kings or Athenian democrats and declares Rome greater than all of those because of its unique traditions of naturalized citizenship. Aristides suggested that, while previous empires squandered their resources by oppressing subject peoples and failing to take advantage of the talents and energies of those peoples, Rome took the most energetic and capable of its subjects, granted them citizenship, and incorporated their abilities and ambitions into the administration of the vast Roman Empire. Rome became more powerful while providing opportunities for its subjects, thus linking personal fortunes to national successes.

Throughout Rome’s history, there were a variety of ways in which such individuals could gain Roman citizenship. During the late Roman Republic and early Principate, individuals or whole communities could be granted full or partial Roman citizenship as a reward for particularly meritorious service. Soldiers who served in Rome’s auxiliary forces received Roman citizenship for themselves and their families on completing their term of enlistment. Noncitizens who were recruited into Rome’s own legions likewise received citizenship, although strictly speaking, it was illegal. Later, in 212 CE, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship status to all free people living within Rome’s borders. Some have speculated that his action was an attempt to increase the number of tax-paying Roman subjects. Whatever its motivation, the act was in many ways hollow. Many of the advantages of Roman citizenship had faded over time; voting rights no longer mattered, and the tax advantages of provincial Roman citizens had also dissolved. Perhaps more importantly, the protections under the law—freedom from examination under torture, for example—that had formerly been enjoyed by all Roman citizens was now restricted to a comparatively narrow elite called the honestiores.

Whatever the actual benefits of citizenship in the later centuries of the Roman Empire, the idea of citizenship remained a potent one among Romans for centuries to come. It is no accident, for example, that as the North African bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo reformulated the relationship between individual Christians and the world in the fifth century, he drew upon the Roman polity and its traditions of citizenship as a metaphor to describe the individual Christian as a citizen either in the City of God or in the City of Man, depending on his or her spiritual values. Those models were instinctively comprehensible to all who lived within Rome’s cultural and political sphere. Long after the once-rich content of Roman citizenship had faded, the concept of a people diverse and varied yet united around an organizing set of principles and ideals remained powerful and undiminished. Moreover, the concept of citizenship survived in the writings of Romans authors to be revived and reinstituted in new lands and new polities undreamed of by Cicero, Caracalla, or Augustine.

Originally published by ABC-CLIO, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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