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.

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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).

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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.

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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A first-century B.C. statue of a Roman nobleman bearing the heads of his ancestors reflects the hereditary nature of citizenship.

Citizenship simplified and improved Romans’ everyday lives in different ways. It also offered protection. When Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily was on trial for extortion in 70 B.C., the orator and lawyer Cicero, acting as prosecutor, appealed to the rights inherent in citizenship to strengthen his case against the governor. Cicero described the severe punishments Verres had inflicted on a prisoner, despite the victim repeatedly insisting that he was a Roman citizen, a status that should have protected him from torture. So persuasive were Cicero’s arguments against Verres that he was exiled.

Rights and responsibilities

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The letters SPQR stand for Senatus populusque Romanus (”The Senate and the People of Rome”), the basis of the Roman Republic.

Citizenship has its roots in Rome’s deep past. In the sixth century B.C., Rome passed from a monarchy to a republic with power residing in the Senate and the People of Rome. The acronym SPQR stands for Senatus populusque Romanus and can be seen emblazoned on many Roman structures built during the Republic as a sign of pride in the duties of civic life.

Roman men had the right to vote and also bore serious responsibilities: They should be prepared to die, if necessary, in the service of Rome. This connection between rights and responsibilities created the concept of Roman citizenship, known in Latin as civitas, which would expand and change over the rise and fall of Rome.

In practice, the plebeians (the general citizenry) had fewer voting rights than the aristocratic patricians. But the principle that a man of modest means could regard himself as much a Roman citizen as an aristocratic landowner was a powerful one. It helped forge a sense of unity and Roman identity.

The privileges enjoyed by full citizens were wide-ranging: They could vote in assemblies and elections; own property; get married legally; have their children inherit property; stand for election and access public office; participate in priesthoods; and enlist in the legion. Male citizens could also engage in commercial activity in Roman territory.

In return for such rights, citizens were obliged to contribute to military expenditure in proportion to their wealth. By law they had to register in the census so that the state could calculate which social class they belonged to based on their wealth. (Money was not enough for Rome's richest man, Crassus.)

As Rome began to expand in Italy, it faced the question of whether or not to grant this coveted civitas status to the non-Roman communities it was conquering. Such a gesture might have helped consolidate loyalty in certain circumstances, but it also removed an ethnic dimension from citizenship, an idea that unsettled many Romans.

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Civic crowns such as this one were awarded to Romans who saved the life of a fellow citizen in battle. Museo Della Civilta' Romana, Rome

An early example of the expansion of civitas to non-Roman peoples took place in the fourth century B.C., when Rome had granted a diluted form of citizenship to the Etruscan city of Caere, around 35 miles from Rome. As the conquest of Italy continued, Rome gave its newly subdued peoples a similar package of diluted rights, which often excluded the right to vote.

Resentment grew among the conquered peoples. Many felt they were shouldering responsibilities, such as military service, without receiving their fair share of privileges. The situation came to a head with the Social War of the first-century B.C., a series of revolts against Roman rule in central Italy. In order to quell them, laws were passed to grant citizenship to all those who opposed the revolt, or to rebels who were willing to lay down arms. The gesture was regarded as a success: The revolt was successfully terminated soon after.

New rights, old discrimination

Citizenship, in the full sense, represented an individual’s ability to act freely in various areas of civic life. A Roman woman, however, did not have her own potestas (legal power or agency); she was subject to the authority of her father and then of her husband. If she was left without father or husband, she would come under the power of a male guardian who would take control of her property and carry out certain legal transactions for her. This male guardian had to grant formal consent for her actions.

Jurists of the time argued that this subjugation was legitimate due to the widely accepted prejudices of the time. Women were considered weaker, ignorant of legal matters, and lacking in judgment. Having no legal authority, women could not assume the role of head of the family. If they became widows they could not adopt children or exercise guardianship over any other member of the family, including their own children. (Rome's Vestal Virgins enjoyed rights and privileges unavailable to other women.)

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The Men in Their Lives A first-century A.D. fresco from Pompeii shows a young girl being presented to a magistrate by her male guardian. After women married, they would become subject to the authority of their husbands.

Although they were excluded from public office and politics, freeborn Roman women could claim some benefits of being a citizen. Female citizens could own assets, dispose of them as they wished, participate in contracts and manage their properties with complete autonomy, unless these activities required legal action, in which case the guardian had to intervene.

Some female citizens managed huge fortunes, such as those that appear in epigrams by the first century poet Martial. Taking a sardonic tone, Martial mainly depicts rich, childless widows, whom he mocks as easy prey for gold diggers. There is evidence, too, of wealthy female citizens running businesses in the provinces governed by Rome. The New Testament notes that Lydia, who welcomed Saint Paul and his companions to Phillipi (Macedonia), was involved with the lucrative purple-dying business.

Nevertheless, the inability of women to enjoy the same rights enjoyed by male citizens marked their lives from cradle to grave. These limitations are even reflected in their names. Unlike male citizens, women did not use the tria nomina, or three-part name. All the women from the same gens, or family, were called by a feminine or diminutive version of the male’s name. For example, the daughter of Claudius would be called Claudia. If Claudius had two daughters, the elder one would be Claudia Major, or Maxima, and the younger, Claudia Minor. If there were several sisters, ordinals could be used, Claudia Tertia, Claudia Quarta, etc.

From soldier to citizen

The military provided another route for non-Romans to secure citizenship. As membership of the legion itself was reserved for citizens, a peregrinus (foreigner) could only be recruited into the auxiliary units. But on completing 25 years of service, he would be granted Roman citizenship as a reward when he graduated. He could then enjoy all the advantages of his new status, including conubium, the right to contract a legal marriage with a foreign woman.

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Roman citizens register for military service in this marble relief from the second century B.C. Louvre Museum, Paris

The peregrini could also obtain the right of citizenship by individual or collective concession, sometimes as a reward for exceptional military action. In 89 B.C., the commander-in-chief of the army, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (father of Pompey the Great), granted citizenship to a squadron of 30 Hispanic horsemen known as the turma Salluitana to reward their valor in helping to capture Asculum (modern Ascoli Piceno, Italy), a stronghold of the rebels during the Social War of the first-century B.C.

By dangling the promise of obtaining citizenship, Roman generals reinforced the loyalty of auxiliary troops in the provinces. Thus, a relationship—such as that between a patron and dependent—could be created between a general and his army.

Being able to call on these loyal troops proved an invaluable resource during civil wars. When Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius and Pompey joined forces to fight the threat of Quintus Sertorius in Hispania (Spain) from 75 B.C., both generals granted citizenship to peregrini there who were loyal to their cause. On gaining citizenship, many soldiers often named themselves for the generals who had granted it. A number of inscriptions have been found in Spain bearing the names Caecilius and Pompey.

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A second-century A.D. Roman amphitheater stands in Italica (near Seville, Spain), which was the birthplace of two of Rome's "good emperors": Trajan and Hadrian.

Among those granted citizenship by Pompey was one Lucius Cornelius Balbus, member of a powerful merchant family of Punic origin who settled in Gades (modern Cadiz in southern Spain). Balbus’s enemies accused him of usurping Roman citizenship and in 55 B.C. he was put on trial. Cicero acted as his defence and Balbus was acquitted. Balbus became consul of Rome in 40 B.C. and eventually a confidante of Julius Caesar, to the point that he managed Caesar’s private fortune.

Citizens of empire

During the rule of Julius Caesar in the first century B.C., a law was passed granting Roman citizenship to colonies and municipia in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), the first time this right had been expanded beyond Roman Italy. This qualified form of citizenship was known as Jus Latii, often referred to in English as Latin rights. It gave holders the right to enter into Roman legal contracts and the right to legal intermarriage. (Rome threw big parties for Julius Caesar when as he expanded the republic.)

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Emperor Vespasian (shown in a first-century A.D. bust) extended the Latin rights, a qualified form of citizenship, to communities in modern Spain. Hippone Museum, Annaba, Algeria

In A.D. 74, Emperor Vespasian further expanded Latin rights to Hispania. Communities in modern-day Spain and Portugal were granted qualified citizenship in the form of Latin rights, the same status that had been extended to Italian settlements during the period of Julius Caesar the century before. The edict was another major step forward in the continuing Romanization of an empire about to reach its maximum bounds. (Who were Rome's 'Five Good Emperors'?)

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Second-Class Citizens Giuseppe Sciuti’s 1894 painting shows a lesser class of Roman citizen, the aerarii, paying
taxes. Consisting of residents of conquered towns, or former citizens who had been stripped of their status, the category fell into disuse in the fourth century B.C.

Subsequent emperors continued this process, little by little bestowing citizenship across the Roman world. In imperial times, any Roman citizen from any part of the Empire facing trial could express their desire to appeal directly to Caesar.

The most famous example of a citizen invoking this right is the apostle Paul. Born a Jew in 4 B.C. in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey, Paul—a Latinized form of his Hebrew name, Saul—was a Roman citizen. Following his arrest by the Romans in A.D. 59, Paul used his status to dramatically halt his trial before Porcius Festus, the governor of Judaea: “Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, ‘You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!’“ (Acts: 25:12). Paul was transferred to Rome, where he stayed for several years before his martyrdom there.

The final step toward extending Roman citizenship to nearly all the subject peoples of the empire came with the Edict of Caracalla. Promulgated in A.D. 212, it granted citizenship to all the free men of the Roman Empire.

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Swelling the Ranks

A bust depicts the third-century Emperor Caracalla. National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Historians point out that this decidedly bold move was not as enlightened as it may appear. Caracalla was a spendthrift and unstable ruler, and extending citizenship to the huge populations that inhabited his mighty realm was a quick way to increase his tax base.

Even so, the concept that people from different ethnic backgrounds can share the same rights, responsibilities, and sense of national pride under the umbrella of citizenship, is as stirring a notion now as it was for many Romans two millennia ago. The century before Caracalla’s edict, the orator Aelius Aristides made a speech in Rome sketching out this lofty vision: “And neither does the sea nor a great expanse of intervening land keep one from being a citizen; nor here are Asia and Europe distinguished. But all lies open to all men. No one is a foreigner. . . and just as the earth’s ground support all men, so Rome too receives men from every land.”

Clelia Martínez Maza is professor of ancient history at the University of Malaga, Spain.