The Roman Dream

A brief exploration of citizenship in ancient Rome

Citizenship is the foundation of every democracy. While autocrats rely on power derived from divine proclamation or the force of arms, democracies depend on the support of people who are invested in the success of the state. In this way a state’s citizens enjoy special privileges in exchange for promoting the flourishing of the state and defending it, should the need ever arise.

This is just a vague outline of a complex political theory and the definition of citizenship has varied wildly depending on the time, place, and people involved. But the fundamental idea has largely stayed the same since ancient times and much of the core theory, that we still draw on today, was practiced first by the Romans millennia ago.

While many experiments in citizenship predate the Roman Republic few delved into the intricacies and theory as much as this nascent empire. Citizenship in ancient Rome wasn’t a singular state, but rather a catch-all term for those who enjoyed any in a buffet of privileges; from being able to marry and vote, to the right to a trial. This totem pole of rights ran from full male citizens on top through to freed slaves at the bottom.

This tiered system began in the early days of the Republic when the new ruling class sought some way to avoid a return of the Roman kings. By investing the plebeians with rights in the Law of the Twelve Tables, circa 450 BCE, the patrician class sought to, at least partly, secure the loyalty of this erstwhile defiant populous. These rules enshrined segregation between patricians and plebeians but also made both citizens of Rome and opened the door to securing future rights.

As the Republic developed and expanded so too did the litany of rights that the servants of Rome could secure. The most notable of these were the Latin Rights.

In 338 BCE Rome secured victory over the coalition of neighbouring Latin peoples. While many of the conquered lands were totally Romanized, great swathes became colonies. These lands remained largely under Latin control but received a transplanted population of Roman citizens. These citizens would act in place of a military garrison; hopefully ensuring obedience to Roman rule and curtailing any possible insurrection.

So that these colonies could function properly the free Latins therein were given the right to trade, marry, and migrate. These Latin Rights, though not on par with full Roman citizenship, encouraged assimilation and fostered trade and growth of the Republic. They also, inadvertently or not, offered those who enjoyed them the opportunity to rise within the growing Republic.

One of the effects of these staggered legal rights was to create an appetite for social progress among Rome’s citizens and subjects. Though few could ever hope to vote or hold office, the promise of being able to secure greater rights through feat of arms or service to the state encouraged active participation by Rome’s citizenship.

One of the most remarkable of these steps on Rome’s social ladder was a slave’s ability to become a freeman.

Like so many civilisations both old and new Rome relied on slaves to provide the bulk of its labour force. Considered their master’s property, slaves had no rights and lacked legal personhood. Yet the path to freedom was not widely barred and slaves were routinely freed in their master’s wills. Roman slaves were even paid wages with which they could, eventually, buy their own freedom.

Once a freedman there was little legal distinction between a man and his peers. There were, however, some rights unavailable to former slaves, such as holding public office. Importantly, these barriers weren’t in place for their children. While a slave couldn’t dream of voting himself, he could dream of his son doing the same.

As the American dream helped propel the incredible economic growth and expansion of the USA, so too did the dream of Roman citizenship help fuel the Republic’s militaristic march toward imperial glory. This became increasingly true as more and more barriers to full citizenship were done away with.

The only constant exception to this dream was Rome’s women. As with practically every other ancient civilisation, Roman women were treated as secondary to their male counterparts. So, while women could enjoy some rights and stand further down the totem-pole, even the most powerful daughters, mothers, and wives.

Toward the end of the second century BCE the right of conubium was given to those provinces of Rome who already enjoyed the Latin Rights. This granted legitimacy, and thus citizenship, to any child of a Roman father and provincial mother.

The dream of being a full citizen of Rome and wielding the vote had welded the plebeians to the budding Republic. This same dream now saw the once hostile Latins throw their support behind Roman expansion. Yet expansion and success brought with it a nativism that is all too familiar to many nations today.

Though the outward march of Rome’s frontiers had brought great economic and imperial gains, it had also seen her non-Roman population swell in numbers. While these subjects were free to trade, marry, and move unmolested throughout the Republic, they were barred from ever holding the vote themselves.

This inequality in right became a growing point of contention as non-Romans made up more and more of the population and army. By 100 BCE only a third of the Republic’s soldiers were Roman and, by extension, could ever hope to vote. Yet, fearful of any dilution of their own power, Rome’s patrician and plebeian class fought to oppose opening citizenship to the Republic’s non-Roman population.

In 91 BCE this unrest erupted into the violent and bloody Social War when many of Rome’s allies, tired of defending the frontiers with so little reward, turned against her. 

For three bloody years the war raged with Rome often on the defensive against her disparate neighbours. Yet the veteran soldiers of Rome’s legions were able to hold out and slowly whittle their enemy armies away. Though the soldiers in the field had won the battles, victory in the war was secured by granting full citizenship to the provinces who had remained loyal and to any soldier who had acquitted themselves well.

The years following the Social War brought great change to the idea of Roman citizenship. The Republic, which used its voting population to distinguish itself from the tyrants of old, had welcomed into the fold those who had loyally served Rome; citizenship had become a right that was earned, not simply inherited.

Yet within its own success lay the corruption of Roman citizenship.

Born in 100 BCE, Julius Caesar lived through the Social War and saw first hand just how destructive such civil strife could be. Caesar's own lifetime would be awash in civil strife as he climbed in prominence and power, eventually becoming "dictator in perpetuity". It was in this capacity that Julius Caesar began the process to extend full citizenship to Roman subjects in Spain and Gaul; it is unknown if the irony was lost on him or not.

Though the subsequent emperors cared little for democracy, their rule brought a stability under which the rights of citizens thrived. This apparent dichotomy is one that has raised its head many times since and the Romans were not the last civilization to happily trade their own voice and power for extended rights and privileges.