In ancient Rome, citizenship was the path to power (2023)

Published November 4, 2019

20 min read

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.

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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.

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

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.

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.

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Dressing the Part

In ancient Rome, citizenship was the path to power (1)

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A third-century A.D. relief of toga-wearing citizens at a wedding ceremony was later incorporated into the tomb of a 12th-century cardinal in the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome.

Dagli Orti/AurImages

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Only citizens had the right to wear the toga, the quintessential Roman garment that was placed over the tunic and covered a man's body and shoulders. The toga was time-consuming to put on, and left one arm immobilized under its complex folds. Restrictive and impractical, it had become unpopular as everyday clothing by the late republic. As the only outward sign of Roman citizenship, it still played a powerful ceremonial and ritual role. After puberty, boys swapped the purple trimmed toga praetexta for the plain toga virilis of a man.

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.)

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.

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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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.)

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'?)

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.

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.

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What was citizenship in Ancient Rome? ›

Citizenship in ancient Rome (Latin: civitas) was a privileged political and legal status afforded to free individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance. Citizenship in Ancient Rome was complex and based upon many different laws, traditions, and cultural practices.

What was the role of a citizen in Rome? ›

Citizenship varied greatly. The full citizen could vote, marry freeborn persons, and practice commerce. Some citizens were not allowed to vote or hold public office, but maintained the other rights. A third type of citizen could vote and practive commerce, but could not hold office or marry freeborn women.

How did Ancient Rome come into power? ›

Rome became the most powerful state in the world by the first century BCE through a combination of military power, political flexibility, economic expansion, and more than a bit of good luck. This expansion changed the Mediterranean world and also changed Rome itself.

What was citizenship like in Rome? ›

There were two types of people in ancient Rome - citizens and non-citizens. Roman law changed several times over the centuries on who could be a citizen and who couldn't. For a while, plebians (common people) were not citizens. Only patricians (noble class, wealthy landowners, from old families) could be citizens.

Why was citizenship so important in Ancient Rome? ›

The reward of citizenship meant that an individual lived under the “rule of law” and had a vested interest in his government. During the early days of the Republic, the Roman government was established with the primary goal of avoiding the return of a king.

Who did Rome give citizenship to? ›

In 212 CE, the Roman Emperor Caracalla finally granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, ending the piecemeal policies that had governed the past two centuries of Roman history.

What were the two main responsibilities for citizenship in Rome? ›

In Ancient Rome, a citizens participation included attending assembly meetings and voting in elections. Ancient Roman citizens of wealth believed it was their responsibility to help the Ancient Roman Empire by holding positions in office.

What were Roman citizens called? ›

The term plebeian referred to all free Roman citizens who were not members of the patrician, senatorial or equestrian classes. Plebeians were average working citizens of Rome – farmers, bakers, builders or craftsmen – who worked hard to support their families and pay their taxes.

How did the citizens of Ancient Rome vote? ›

Prior to 139 BC and the passage of the lex Gabinia tabellaria, a voter would queue on raised gangway and then state to a clerk his ballot. After the reforms of that year, he would instead write names in his own hand. The ballots would then be collected in an urn and counted.

When did ancient Rome come to power? ›

From its founding in 625 BC to its fall in AD 476, the Roman Empire conquered and integrated dozens of cultures. The influence of these cultures can be seen in objects, such as oil lamps, made and used throughout the Empire.

When did the Roman Empire gain power? ›

The Roman Empire was founded when Augustus Caesar proclaimed himself the first emperor of Rome in 31BC and came to an end with the fall of Constantinople in 1453CE.

When did Rome become a dominant power? ›

During the 5th century BC, Rome gained regional dominance in Latium. With the Punic Wars from 264 to 146 BC, ancient Rome gained dominance over the Western Mediterranean, displacing Carthage as the dominant regional power.

What were the most important ideas in Roman citizenship? ›

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.

Why was Rome a better citizenship? ›

Rome had a better citizenship than Athens because they had less requirements, they were more organized, and they gave their citizens more fair rights. Rome had less requirements for someone to become a citizen than Athens.

What was the purpose of citizenship? ›

Becoming a U.S. citizen protects you and your children from deportation. As a lawful permanent resident, certain criminal convictions could make you deportable, and some actions put LPRs at risk for permanent consequences such as deportation.

What is the most significant importance of citizenship? ›

Being a recognised citizen of a country has many legal benefits, which may include – depending on the country – the rights to vote, to hold public office, to social security, to health services, to public education, to permanent residency, to own land, or to engage in employment, amongst others.

Why was citizenship created? ›

While there is disagreement about when the relation of citizenship began, many thinkers point to the early city-states of ancient Greece, possibly as a reaction to the fear of slavery, although others see it as primarily a modern phenomenon dating back only a few hundred years.

Who could be a citizen in ancient Rome quizlet? ›

Who were citizens of Rome? Men who are not slaves or former slaves could register for the census to become a citizen. If they were declined citizenship, they could lose their property, go into slavery, or both.

What are the two most important values for Roman citizens? ›

These are the qualities of life to which every citizen should aspire.
Personal Virtues
  • Severitas--"Sternness": Gravity, self-control.
  • Veritas--"Truthfulness": Honesty in dealing with others.

What were the three levels of Roman citizenship? ›

Thus then there were at one time in the Roman state only two classes of persons with different legal capacities — Cives and Peregrini. At another and a later time there were three classes — Cives, Latini, and Peregrini.

What are the two types of Roman citizen? ›

Roman citizens were divided up into two distinct classes: the plebeians and the patricians. The patricians were the wealthy upper class people. Everyone else was considered a plebeian. The patricians were the ruling class of the early Roman Empire.

Who were the two types of citizens of Rome? ›

Patricians and plebeians. Traditionally, patrician refers to members of the upper class, while plebeian refers to lower class. Economic differentiation saw a small number of families accumulate most of the wealth in Rome, thus giving way to the creation of the patrician and plebeian classes.

How did citizens of the Roman Republic govern themselves? ›

Leading the republic were two consuls who were elected by legislative assemblies. They served for one year, presided over the Roman Senate, and commanded the Roman military. Though their power was somewhat limited by the establishment of other magistrate positions, the consuls were effectively the heads of state.

What role do citizens play in a democracy? ›

By voting, citizens are participating in the democratic process. Citizens vote for leaders to represent them and their ideas, and the leaders support the citizens' interests. There are two special rights only for U.S. citizens: voting in federal elections and running for federal office.

How were citizens of Rome involved in the political process? ›

Roman citizens had no input on ancient Rome's political process but were involved in electing public officials. Roman citizens earned voting rights from the Senate, who decided which citizens could vote. Roman citizens could vote on the Senate's legislation, and some citizens were involved in electing public officials.

Why did ancient Rome fall from power? ›

Invasions by Barbarian tribes

The most straightforward theory for Western Rome's collapse pins the fall on a string of military losses sustained against outside forces. Rome had tangled with Germanic tribes for centuries, but by the 300s “barbarian” groups like the Goths had encroached beyond the Empire's borders.

Was Rome the first superpower? ›

Rome: The World's First Superpower - Wikipedia.

Who came to power after the Romans? ›

In 476 C.E. Romulus, the last of the Roman emperors in the west, was overthrown by the Germanic leader Odoacer, who became the first Barbarian to rule in Rome. The order that the Roman Empire had brought to western Europe for 1000 years was no more.

How long were the Romans in power? ›

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest and most influential civilisations in the world and lasted for over a 1000 years. The extent and length of their reign has made it hard to trace their rise to power and their fall.

Who was the first Roman emperor and how did he get power? ›

Augustus (also known as Octavian) was the first emperor of ancient Rome. Augustus came to power after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. In 27 BCE Augustus “restored” the republic of Rome, though he himself retained all real power as the princeps, or “first citizen,” of Rome.

What were the 3 forms of government in ancient Rome? ›

Ancient Rome had three different types of government:
  • Senate.
  • Consuls.
  • Assemblies.

Who has the most power in ancient Rome? ›

The Senate was the most powerful branch of the Roman republic, and senators held the position for life. The executive branch was made up of two consuls, elected yearly. These two consuls had almost kingly powers, and each could veto, or disapprove of the other's decision.

Did Rome offer citizenship to conquered peoples? ›

Under the “Pax Romana”, meaning “the peace of Rome”, inhabitants of conquered lands were not automatically considered Roman citizens. But they were subject to Roman laws and paid Roman taxes. Some of these paid for public utilities, like roads and waterworks – being part of the empire did have some advantages.

Was Roman citizenship equal for everyone Why or why not? ›

During the later Empire, almost all free persons were granted citizenship through a decree by Caracalla. It was common for a Roman citizen to also be a citizen of the location where he or she lived. Such dual citizenship carried a price. A person could be required to fulfill the civic duties of either or both.

What is ancient citizenship? ›

To the ancients, citizenship was a bond between a person and the city-state. Before Greek times, a person was generally connected to a tribe or kin-group such as an extended family, but citizenship added a layer to these ties—a non-kinship bond between the person and the state.

What is the definition of citizenship? ›

Definition of citizenship

A legal status and relation between an individual and a state that entails specific legal rights and duties. Citizenship is generally used as a synonym for nationality.

What is the concept of citizenship? ›

Citizenship is the expression of a public identity. It is the recognition of an official position by a government and the ability to enjoy the rights and privileges following from that position by an individual. Citizenship is also the subjective belonging to the public identity of a country.

What are the 3 paths to citizenship? ›

Most common paths to U.S. Citizenship:
  • I am the Child of a U.S. Citizen.
  • I am Married to a U.S. Citizen.
  • I am Serving in the U.S. Military.
  • I am a Lawful Permanent Resident of 5 Years.
Aug 18, 2022

What are the four paths to citizenship? ›

In all, there are four fundamental ways to become a U.S. citizen: citizenship by birth in the U.S., citizenship through derivation, citizenship through acquisition, and citizenship through naturalization. Most immigrants in the United States become citizens through the naturalization process.

What is the origin of citizenship? ›

The origin of citizenship can be traced back to Ancient Greece, when "citizens" were those who had a legal right to participate in the affairs of the state. However, by no means was everyone a citizen: slaves, peasants, women or resident foreigners were mere subjects.

What is another word for citizenship? ›

The right or status of belonging to a particular nation. nationality. residency. right of abode. citizenhood.

What is the main goal of citizenship? ›

Ten general objectives are stated: "show concern for the welfare and dignity of others"; "support rights and freedoms of all individuals"; "help maintain law and order"; "know the main structure and functions of our governments"; "seek community improvement through active, democratic participation"; "understand ...

Who first used the concept of citizenship? ›

The idea of citizenship was created by the ancient Greeks, and developed and enlarged by the Romans. The earliest organization of human beings was by blood relationship: the family, the tribe and the clan, and for much of the human race these are still the entities to which one owes one's primary allegiance.


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