In ancient Rome, citizenship was the path to power

From the Republic to the Empire, civitas—full Roman citizenship—was prized by those who had it and coveted by those who did not.

A denarius from from the late second-century B.C. shows Roman citizens voting. A voter (left) receives a tablet from the rogator (center). Votes are cast by placing the tablet in a basket, known as the cista (right).
Bridgeman/ACI

Gaius Mucius Scaevola was a legendary Roman hero, who attempted to assassinate the enemy Etruscan king Lars Porsena in the sixth-century B.C. When Scaevola failed to kill the king, he was captured and brought before Lars. But instead of pleading for clemency, Scaevola declared boldly: Romanus sum—I am a Roman, before delivering a stirring speech on the bravery of his people. The king was so impressed that, the story goes, he let Scaevola go.

Later in Roman history, Romans could declare pride in their state by using a slightly different formulation: Civis Romanus Sum which means I am a Roman citizen.” This phrase was not only an expression of deeply felt national pride, but also a declaration that an individual had special status within the world and was a recipient of rights and privileges—granted in return for weighty obligations.

Roman citizenship was a complex concept that varied according to one’s gender, parentage, and social status. Full citizenship could only be claimed by males. A child born of a legitimate union between citizen father and mother would acquire citizenship at birth. In theory, freeborn Roman women were regarded as Roman citizens; in practice, however, they could not hold office or vote, activities considered key aspects of citizenship.

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