Citizenship in the time of Ancient Rome was a privileged status afforded to certain individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance.
It is hard to offer meaningful generalities across the entire Roman period, as the nature and availability of citizenship was affected by legislation, for example, the Lex Iulia. In the Roman Republic and later in the Roman Empire, people resident within the Roman state could roughly be divided into several classes:
- A Roman citizen (described below) enjoyed the full range of benefits that flowed from his status. A citizen could, under certain exceptional circumstances, be deprived of his citizenship.
- The native peoples who lived in territories conquered by Rome, citizens of Roman client states and Roman allies could be given a limited form of Roman citizenship such as the Latin Right. This amounted essentially to a second-class citizenship within the Roman state. The Latin Right is the most widely known but there were many other of such rights.
- Women were a class apart whose status and rights in Roman society varied over time. They were, however, never accorded all the rights of citizens: they were not allowed to vote, or stand for civil or public office, although they did have the right to own property. They were, at least in theory, subject to the almost complete power of their paterfamilias, in many legal areas having rights barely more than those of slaves. In Republican high society, the marriages were used to cement political alliances and controlled by the paterfamilias. The paterfamilias could even force his daughter to divorce and then remarry another person.
- Slaves were considered property and had only certain very limited rights as granted by statute. They could essentially be sold, tortured, maimed, raped and killed at the whim of their owners. The killing of a slave was a matter of property rather than a crime against a human being. Despite this, a freed slave, a freedman, was granted a form of full Roman citizenship. It was the exceptional feature of ancient Rome that all slaves freed by Roman owners automatically received a limited Roman citizenship.
Methods to obtain Roman citizenship
- Roman citizenship was granted automatically to every male child born in a legal marriage of a Roman citizen.
- Freed slaves were given a limited form of Roman citizenship; they were still obliged in some aspects to their former owner who automatically became their patron.
- The sons of freed slaves became full citizens.
- Auxilia were rewarded with Roman citizenship after their term of service. Their children also became citizens.
- Only Roman citizens could enlist in the Roman Legion. However an enlisted Roman legionary was deprived of many of his rights. He could not legally marry, and therefore all his children born during his military service were denied citizenship, unless and until he married their mother after his discharge.
- Some individuals received Roman citizenship as a reward for outstanding service to Rome.
- One could also buy citizenship, but at a very high price.
- People who were from the Latin states were gradually granted citizenship.
- Rome gradually granted citizenship to whole provinces; the third-century Constitutio Antoniniana granted it to all free male inhabitants of the Empire.
The rights available to individual citizen of Rome varied over time, according to their place of origin, and their service to the state. They also varied under Roman law according to the classification of the individual within the state. Various legal classes were defined by the individual legal rights that they enjoyed. However, the possible rights available to citizens and non-citizens with whom Roman law addressed are:
- Jus Suffragiorum: The right to vote in the Comitia Tributa (Tribal assembly).
- Jus Honorum: The right to stand for civil or public office.
- Jus Commercii: The right to make legal contracts, and to hold property, as a Roman citizen. The jus gentium (see below) also granted right of contract and property to non-citizens, but these rights differed from the rights of the Roman citizen.
- Jus Gentium: The jus gentium, developed in the third century BC, was a legal recognition of the growing international scope of Roman affairs, and the need for Roman law to deal with situations between Roman citizens and foreign persons. The jus gentium was therefore a Roman legal codification of the widely accepted international law of the time, and was based on highly developed commercial law of the Greek city-states and of other maritime powers. The rights afforded by the jus gentium were considered to be held by all persons, regardless of citizenship.
- Jus Connubii: The right to have a lawful marriage with a Roman citizen, to have the legal rights of the paterfamilias over the family, and to have the children of any such marriage be counted as Roman citizens.
- Jus Migrationis: The right to preserve one's level of citizenship upon relocation to a polis of comparable status. For example, members of the cives romani (see below) maintained their full civitas when they migrated to a Roman colony with full rights under the law: a colonia civium Romanorum. Latins also had this right, and maintained their jus Latii if they relocated to a different Latin state or Latin colony (Latina colonia). This right did not preserve one's level of citizenship should one relocate to a colony of lesser legal status; full Roman citizens relocating to a Latina colonia were reduced to the level of the jus Latii, and such a migration and reduction in status had to be a voluntary act.
- The right of immunity from some taxes and other legal obligations, especially local rules and regulations.
- The right to sue in the courts and the right to be sued.
- The right to have a legal trial (to appear before a proper court and to defend oneself).
- The right to appeal from the decisions of magistrates and to appeal the lower court decisions.
- A Roman citizen could not be tortured or whipped, nor could he receive the death penalty, unless he was found guilty of treason.
- If accused of treason, a Roman citizen had the right to be tried in Rome, and even if sentenced to death, no Roman citizen could be sentenced to die at the cross. (Despite being found guilty of the same crime, Paul of Tarsus and Simon Peter faced different fates. Paul was beheaded, while Peter, not being a Roman citizen, was whipped and then crucified.)
Roman citizenship was required in order to enlist in the Roman legions, but this was sometimes ignored.
Classes of citizenship
The legal classes varied over time, however the following classes of legal status existed at various times within the Roman state:
The Cives Romani
were full Roman citizens, who enjoyed full legal protection under Roman law. Cives Romani
were sub-divided into two classes: The non optimo jure
who held the rights of jus commercii
and jus connubii
(rights of property and marriage), and the optimo jure
, who also held these rights as well as the additional rights of jus suffragiorum
and jus honorum
(the rights to vote and to hold office).
The Latini were a class of citizens who held the Latin Rights (jus Latii), or the rights of jus commercii and ius migrationis, but not the jus connubii. The term Latini originally referred to the Latins, citizens of the Latin League who came under Roman control at the close of the Latin War, but eventually became a legal description rather than a nationalistic or ethnic one. Freedmen slaves, those of the Cives Romani convicted of crimes, or citizens settling Latin colonies could be given this status under the law.
Socii or Foederati were citizens of states which had treaty obligations with Rome, typically agreements under which certain legal rights of the state's citizens under Roman law were exchanged for agreed upon levels of military service, i.e. the Roman magistrates had the right to levy soldiers for the Roman legions from those states. However, Foederati states that had at one time been conquered by Rome were exempt from payment of tribute to Rome due to their treaty status.
Growing dissatisfaction with the rights afforded to the Socii, and with the growing manpower demands of the legions (due to the protracted Jugurthine War and the Cimbrian War) led eventually to the Social War of 91–88 BC. The passing of the Lex Julia (more specifically the Lex Iulia de Civitate Latinis Danda) in 90 BC granted the rights of the cives romani to all latini and socii states that had not participated in the Social War, or who were willing to cease hostilities immediately. This was eventually extended to all of the Socii states following the conclusion of the war, effectively eliminating socii and latini as legal and citizenship definitions.
Provinciales were those persons who fell under Roman influence, or control, but who lacked even the rights of the Foederati, essentially having only the rights of the jus gentium.
A Peregrinus (plural Peregrini) was originally the term used to describe any person who was not a full Roman citizen, that is someone who was not a member of the Cives Romani. With the expansion of Roman law to include more gradations of legal status, this term became less used, but the term peregrini included the those of the latini, socii, and provinciales, as well as those subjects of foreign states.
Abrogation of citizenship rights
All these rights were (as everywhere down the ages, and even today) sometimes ignored. For example, the definition
of the crime "treason" varied largely from time to time.
The governorship of Gaius Verres is perhaps the most blatant example how all these rights could simply be ignored by the State. Apparently, Verres (then governor of Sicilia) being informed that a local Roman citizen would travel to Rome in order to complain about the various abuses (high taxes, and systematic plunder of the entire province) ordered the arrest of the citizen. As the citizen demanded a trial (which he could later appeal and transfer to Rome), Verres denied it under the accusation of treason. Verres later ordered him flogged (torture), then crucified (death). The citizen repeated constantly: "I am a Roman citizen" but no one intervened. When (much later) Verres was prosecuted by Cicero, he simply fled Italy before this incident was aired in open court, essentially pleading nolo contendere to the charge.
Citizenship as a tool of Romanization
Roman citizenship was also used as a tool of foreign policy and control. Colonies and political allies would be granted a "minor" form of Roman citizenship, there being several graduated levels of citizenship and legal rights (the Latin Right was one of them). The promise of improved standing within the Roman "sphere of influence", and the rivalry for standing with one's neighbours, kept the focus of many of Rome's neighbours and allies centered on the status quo of Roman culture, rather than trying to subvert or overthrow Rome's influence.
The granting of citizenship to allies and the conquered was a vital step in the process of Romanization. This step was one of the most effective political tools and (at that point in history) original political ideas (perhaps one of the most important reasons for the success of Rome).
As a precursor to this, Alexander the Great had tried to "mingle" his Macedonians and other Greeks with the Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, etc in order to assimilate the people of the conquered Persian Empire, but after his death this policy was largely ignored by his successors. The idea was to assimilate, to turn a defeated and potentially rebellious enemy (or his sons) into a Roman citizen. Instead of having to wait for the unavoidable revolt of a conquered people (a tribe or a city-state) like Sparta and the conquered Helots, Rome made the "known" (conquered) world Roman.
The Social War (in which the Italian allies revolted against Rome) ended gradually as Rome granted citizenship to all Italian freemen (with the exception of Gallia Cisalpina). After AD 212, all freemen in the Empire were granted citizenship by an imperial edict (the Constitutio Antoniniana) of Emperor Caracalla.