Citizenship and the Good American Citizen: Part II: Citizenship in Ancient Rome

This is the second essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious beginning in the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform.

As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.

During the Republican period of ancient Rome (509 BCE-27 BCE), the idea of shared citizenship among Rome’s citizens evolved—as in ancient Athens—into a key concept for the state. In his book, Rubicon, Tom Holland argues that to a Roman, nothing was more sacred or cherished. A good citizen was one that had the reputation for being good. The Romans used the same word, honestas, for both moral excellence and reputation. He maintains that in republican Rome “to place personal honor above the interests of the entire community was the behavior of a barbarian—or worse yet, a king.”

Roman culture socialized the citizen to place the common good before personal ambition. Indeed, historian Jackson Spielvogel maintains that the highest Roman virtue was pietas, “the dutiful execution of one’s obligations to one’s fellow citizens, to the gods, and to the state.”

During the early Republic in times of crisis, citizens were summoned from their farms in pre-arranged “centuries” of soldiers. As Rome’s population increased, selective conscription of land owners arose. The richest served in the cavalry, with the less rich serving in the legions and as auxiliary troops.

In emergencies, generally when Rome faced an external threat, the Romans would give extraordinary power to an individual citizen, appointing him dictator normally for six months. The most legendary dictator was Cincinnatus who was appointed dictator in 457 BCE to defend Rome against the invading Aequi. The Roman historian Livy tells us that Cincinnatus, leaving his three-acre farm, accepted the position, raised an army, and defeated the Aequi. Even though he was appointed for six months, he resigned his office after fifteen days, forever afterwards serving as a model of civic service, leadership, courage, and humility.

In the first two centuries of the Republic, roughly 500-300 BCE, republican institutions increased. In her book SPQR, Mary Beard states that this included the revolutionary formulation of “what it was to be Roman, which defined their ideas of citizenship for centuries,” set them apart from others, and influenced our modern views of the rights and responsibilities of citizens. “Civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen) was a statement that had gravitas. It is no surprised that it was claimed by Saint Paul, and used in speeches by Lord Palmerston of Great Britain and President John F. Kennedy.

The stakes and significance of Roman citizenship were dramatized in 390 BCE when the Gauls invaded and destroyed Rome, from which Romans drew many stories of heroism, stories which offered patriotic lessons for the Roman citizen. In times of need, service to Rome had to come before family. Courage and bravery were necessary even in the face of imminent defeat. Also, there was a very subjective element to citizenship. The idea of Rome and one’s devotion to it was not to be equated with material wealth or gold. It was more than this; its essence was intangible.

In terms of rights and privileges, Roman citizenship for the common citizen, or plebeian, meant the ability to vote and to stand for election in one of the popular assemblies. In 150 BCE, the historian Polybius wrote on other key judicial roles of the citizen. “People have the sole right to confer honors and inflict punishment. They are the only court to decide matters of life and death ….”  Through their formal assemblies they eventually had the right to accept or reject laws and also to debate questions of war and peace.

The importance of being a Roman citizen can be judged by the way the Romans, as they continued to expand their empire, conferred this status on subject peoples.  Each allied state was bound to Rome by a separate treaty. Some received full citizenship while others earned only partial. Those granted full citizenship enjoyed all the rights and protections of a citizen of Rome. In return, they had to pay taxes to Rome and perhaps provide soldiers when summoned.

By many accounts this is seen as an important factor in their imperial expansion and success. The acquisition of Roman citizenship brought such privileges as the ability to travel freely throughout the empire, entrance and promotion in the Roman civil service, increased safety for one’s individual person, and the ability to live under Rome’s uniform system of law and order, widely acknowledged as Rome’s “greatest gift” to other countries.

Also, by the first century BCE, Rome had instituted the concept of dual citizenship, unique for its time, which held that a person could be a citizen of his home city as well as Rome.

Thus, the citizen in both ancient Athens and Republican Rome was to place the city-state before self. Allegiance to the state was to come before other allegiances. When the state faced an emergency, this allegiance meant serving in the military forces in the state’s defense. In Republican Rome, the concept of citizenship expanded to included important legal rights such as deciding on matters of capital punishment. Finally, the Romans used Roman citizenship as a diplomatic tool to its advantage in its imperial expansion and conquest.

Fred Zilian is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News.

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