Roman Citizenship

Roman citizens


What did it mean to be a citizen of ancient Rome?


There were not only sharp divisions in Roman society between citizens and noncitizens, but also a distinct hierarchy of class within the citizen body. As time went on Roman society naturally evolved and became more complex, and this hierarchy evolved along with it.


Like the ancient Greeks before them the Romans considered citizenship a privileged status. Citizenship offered a number of judicial rights and privileges. In the case of adult males, it entailed both the right to vote in citizen assembles and the obligation of military service to the state.


There was a key difference, however, between Greek and Roman citizenship. The rights and privileges of Greek citizenship were granted only to those who were born citizens, but the Romans found it more beneficial to extend Roman citizenship to outsiders and allow them to share its benefits. Usually this was done in return for the loyalty and, in many cases, the military service of those outsiders.


Originally, two groups of Roman citizens had existed since the founding of Rome. The first group were the plebeians, or the plebs. This was the group that included most ordinary Roman citizens, what we would consider the lower and middle classes. Socially, it was the lower of the two orders. It was also by far the larger in size. The second group were the patricians, the leading families of Roman society. This was the Roman upper class, an order of noble families more prestigious and wealthy than the plebeians.


By about the beginning of the third century BC, the patricians had become more distinctly divided into two subgroups. The aristocrats who came to dominate membership in the Roman Senate and important offices of state during came to be known as the senatorial class. The other subgroup, the equestrians, were effectively the gentry of ancient Rome; aristocrats who largely fell into the same wealth bracket as most senators, but were considered a lower tier of Roman nobility because they had far less active participation in Roman politics than the senatorial class.


As the Roman Republic was transformed into the Roman Empire new opportunities for social mobility and advancement were made available. Augustus’ expansion of state bureaucracy offered chances for plebeians to rise to the equestrian order, and equestrians to rise to the senatorial class through imperial service. Augustus’ reform of the Roman army in particular offered noncitizens a new venue to Roman citizenship through army service.


The noncitizens (peregrini in Latin) were people who lived under Roman rule but were not Roman citizens. During the first and second centuries AD the Roman Empire’s total population included far more noncitizens than citizens. Only male citizens were allowed to join the Roman legions, but military service as Roman auxiliaries was open to noncitizen males. After enlisting and serving for 25 years these soldiers and their families would be granted full Roman citizenship with all its legal benefits and privileges. This policy continued to serve as both a road to citizenship for the peregrini and a useful source of recruits for the Roman army until 212 AD, when an imperial decree was passed granting Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire.

6 thoughts on “Roman Citizenship”

  1. Hey there!
    I am glad I found this website. Despite the fact that I am a mechanical engineer by profession, I have always been very interested in the history, Ancient Rome especially! Reading about it just makes me want to watch a documentary or a movie about it.
    So at the start there were only plebians and the patricians. One thing I find interesting is that I have never read or watched in any movie about ancient Rome the mixing of two classes. Was it possible for a patrician to merry a plebian or was that something that would never happen, like in middle age royalty ?

    1. It was possible for a patrician to marry a plebeian. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, for instance, had a patrician mother and a plebeian father. But this was the exception, not the rule. Usually, patrician families liked to marry among themselves to forge political and family ties with other patrician families. Maybe a bit like medieval royalty in a sense, yes. Generally speaking, Roman citizens were not allowed to marry noncitizens – until they earned their citizenship. I believe there were some exceptions made to this rule in special cases, but unfortunately I don’t have any particular examples on hand to cite, so don’t quote me on that.

      As for the documentaries and movies, there are plenty of those to recommend. If you’re interested check back later on, after I’ve gotten around to writing some reviews for them.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Wow. It’s clear that today’s civilizations picked up a lot of the customs and regulations from the Roman Empire.

    The division of the two subgroups? Sounds a lot like the creation of different social classes.

    But it’s interesting how they were just split into a higher class and a slightly lower higher class; it’s obvious that the Roman Empire was a successful where everyone was enjoying the rewards of a well governed empire; it’s just that some got to participate in the Senatorial.

    The Roman Empire seemed like it was governed pretty fairly… the opportunity to obtain a Roman citizenship by participating in the armed forces shows devotion to a country if you ask me. It just sucks that you had to provide 25 years of servitude to have it granted.

    Cool stuff… I wish I had a time machine to check it out.


    1. 25 years is a pretty long time, for sure. Especially in the ancient world, where people tended to live a natural lifespan of late 50s to 60s. I think that was really kind of what they were going for, though; they wanted people to understand citizenship was too valuable to earn easily, but worth it in the end.

      At least you had a pretty solid career in the meantime, though. Roman soldiers were pretty well paid; the Romans knew how important the military was. The empire wouldn’t exist without the army.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Very interesting article on Rome and Greece, I have an interest in history ever since I was a boy. This article has me interested in knowing more about the Roman’s and their cultures, are there any documentary DVD’s you could recommend or books on their culture I could look for to learn more about this?

    1. ​Wow, really thought I approved this comment a long time ago. Years later, see that wasn’t the case. My bad.

      But yes, there are plenty of great documentaries I could recommend. So many in fact that none in particular are jumping out at me right now.

      I think a good place to start would be The Great Courses. They’ve got a massive library of courses on all subjects, including many about ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve bought so far, and that’s a fair few. I wouldn’t recommend you ever buy their courses at full price (at which they’re insanely expensive) but the courses frequently go on really good sales, so you won’t have to wait long. If you’re interested, click the link to head on over there and give their selection a browse.

      Hope that helps. Sorry again for the super-late reply!

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