What Did It Mean To Be a Roman Citizen?

Back in April of 2017 I put up a post entitled “Learning from the Gracchi,” a couple of brothers from ancient Roman history whom some have labelled “the first socialists.”  While reforms instituted by the Gracchi brothers as they each separately held the office of Tribune of the Plebes were not long lasting, they did usher in the era of rudimentary political parties and division between the Optimates (those who were conservative and relatively well off) and the Populares (those who had little or nothing).

Both Gracchi brothers were assassinated – Tiberius because he tried to run for a third term as Tribune at it time it was not permitted and Gaius for championing the idea of extending full Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of conquered Italy outside of the city.

You can read all about it here:


Within 45 years of the death of Gaius Gracchi the Social War (from Socii = “allies”) would break out on the Italian peninsula between Rome and its tribal allies over the issue of full citizenship.  It would be Julius Caesar who finally extended Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of Italy as well as Gaul and Spain.

What was the big deal about Roman citizenship?

“Citizenship is and always has been a valued possession of any individual. When one studies the majority of ancient empires one finds that the concept of citizenship, in any form, was non-existent. The people in these societies did not and could not participate in the affairs of their government. These governments were either theocratic or under the control of a non-elected sovereign, answerable to no one except himself. There was no representative body or elected officials. The Athenians were among the first societies to have anything remotely close to our present-day concept of citizenship.”

During the early days of the Republic, the Roman government was established with the primary goal of avoiding the return of a king. Its authority centered on a number of elected magistrates (consuls, praetors, quaestors and aediles), a Senate, and a number of smaller assemblies. This new concept of citizenship, however, did not mean full equality.

A male Roman citizen enjoyed a wide range of privileges and protections defined in detail by the Roman state. A citizen could, under certain exceptional criminal circumstances, be deprived of his citizenship.

Roman women had a limited form of citizenship. Though held in high regard they were not allowed to vote or stand for civil or public office. The rich might participate in public life by funding building projects or sponsoring religious ceremonies and other events. Women had the right to own property, to engage in business, and to obtain a divorce, but their legal rights varied over time. Marriages were an important form of political alliance during the Republic.

Client state citizens and allies (socii) of Rome could receive a limited form of Roman citizenship such as the Latin Right. Such citizens could not vote or be elected in Roman elections but were otherwise able to exercise all other rights of full Roman citizens including the ability to move to another town and retain one’s rights.

Slaves were considered property and lacked legal personhood. Over time, they acquired a few protections under Roman law. Some slaves were freed for services rendered, or through a provision when their master died. Once free, they faced few barriers, beyond normal social snobbery, to participating in Roman society. The principle that a person could become a citizen by law rather than birth was enshrined in Roman mythology; when Romulus defeated the Sabines in battle, he promised the war captives that were in Rome they could become citizens.

Freedmen were former slaves who had gained their freedom. They were not automatically given citizenship and lacked some privileges such as running for office. The children of freedmen and women were born as free citizens; for example, the father of the poet Horace was a freedman.

“The notion of Roman citizenship can best be represented in the logo – seen on documents, monuments and even the standards of the Roman legion – SPQR or Senatus Populus Que Romanus, the Senate and Roman People. The historian Tom Holland, in his book Rubicon, wrote that the right to vote was a sign of a person’s success. To be a Roman citizen an individual was expected to “temper” his “competitive instincts” for the good of the people. For the typical Roman, the concept of “civitas” meant that he had to not only share in the joys of self-government but also suffer along in its sorrows and fears. Even the poorest of Roman citizens, the proletarii, were still represented (albeit with little effect) in the government.”

Citizenship meant that the individual lived under the rule of law and had a vested interest in his government.

With the growth of Rome and its desire to extend its boundaries beyond the city walls, the concept of Roman citizenship changed. This growth raised the question:  how were these newly conquered people to be treated? Were they to become Roman citizens? Were they to be considered equals? Despite the fact that Rome had always been a city of immigrants, the acquisition of citizenship for a resident of Rome was quite different from that of a  person outside of Rome. There is a difference between granting citizenship to an individual vs. an entire people.

While they continued to be citizens of their own communities, these new allies wanted the same freedoms as all Romans. Although they received many benefits from their position as an ally such as protection from invasion, a share of plunder from a military engagement and the ability to make economic agreements, they were not treated as true citizens of the Republic. There were disadvantages: they had to pay tribute to Rome as well as provide soldiers, indeed,  by 100 B.C.  allies composed two-thirds of the Roman army. They existed in a vague second-class status under the Latin Right laws.  They had many of the benefits of a citizen but without representation in any of the city’s assemblies. To be a true and equal citizen, in short, to be a Roman, an individual needed to exercise his right to vote.

Marcus Livius Drusus – Tribune of the Plebes

Meanwhile, the Senate told the populace that if “these people”  became citizens they would overrun the city, creating shortages of food, housing and day labor jobs.  While his fellow Romans in the Senate were making further attempts at restricting citizenship for the allied communities, the tribune M. Livius Drusus was proposing to grant them full and equal citizenship. In 91 B.C.  his assassination initiated the Social Wars (91 – 89 BC) – one of the deadliest in all of Roman history. 

War broke out between Rome and a number of Italian cities which had been allied to Rome for centuries.  The war resulted, albeit with several crushing defeats and heavy losses in a Roman victory and genocide against the Samnites. However, Rome gave most other cities the right to citizenship to avoid another war.    The Lex Julia, sponsored by Julius Caesar gave all inhabitants of cities which had not revolted against Rome full Roman citizenship while a subsequent law allowed free males in those cities which had revolted to present themselves to Roman magistrates to apply for and obtain Roman citizenship if they desired.

In actuality, the acquisition of the right to vote by those outside the city had little meaning to all but the wealthy. Membership in the Roman assemblies was not done by election – it was a direct democracy. Voting was done by tribes, and all citizens were assigned to a particular tribe (often based on wealth) where each tribe voted as one. However, to vote a person had to appear in person which was something only the wealthy could afford to do.

Every five years a citizen had to register himself for the census, declaring the name of his wife, the number of children, and all of his property and possessions (even his wife’s clothes and jewels were declared). Every Roman citizen believed the government had a right to know this information. The “censors” would review this information and place each citizen in his proper class according to his worth, promoting and demoting each as necessary.   “Classes, centuries, and tribes, everything that enabled a citizen to be placed by his fellows, were all defined by the census.” 

Roman citizens held certain valuable rights – the right to sue in court, to appeal the decision to a higher court, if charged with a crime the right to defend oneself.  Roman citizens could not be tortured or whipped and if sentenced to death for anything other than treason, could commute the sentence by going into voluntary exile.  Even if convicted of treason, no Roman citizen could be put to death on the cross.

Until the year 212 A.D. only residents of Italy, for the most part were full Roman citizens.  In the provinces, only Romans or their descendants residing there and local Kings or rulers were fully citizens.

In 212 A,D, he Emperor Antoninus, also known as Caracalla issued the Antonine Edict declaring that all free men in the Empire were henceforth Roman citizens and that all free women would enjoy the same rights as Roman women.

Some believe that he needed more tax revenue, and since only Roman citizens paid an inheritance tax, his purpose was clear. But in practice, by the early 3rd century AD the idea of citizenship and the “right to vote” was mostly irrelevant. The duties of the emperor replaced the function of both the Senate and assemblies and voting rights were all but non-existent. The Republic had been dead for over 200 years.

Two thousand years ago conquered peoples went to war for the right to vote.  It would be another 1,200 years until Magna Carta and over 1,800 years until the American and French Republics.

Remember them in November.



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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2 Responses to What Did It Mean To Be a Roman Citizen?

  1. beetleypete says:

    A nice history lesson brought right up to date, Frank. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Most intriguing Frank, enjoyed!

    Liked by 1 person

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