Better to be Rich than to be Roman

The aim of this peace is not restricted to espousing the merits of the seemingly inane statement made in the title, but will instead dedicate much of its character count to the discussion of citizenship and the rights thereof within the Roman Republic and how they changed under the Empire. The titular statement will be further explained in the conclusion. 

The Roman Citizenry

To begin there must be a discussion of the condition of citizenship itself, and who were subject to it. In the modern world, the majority of residents in a country are citizens, making the word applicable to nearly all of the domestic population. This ubiquity does not characterize citizenship in Rome until 212 CE, when the Emperor Caracalla issued the Constitutio Antoniana (pictured below), which granted citizenship to nearly all free residents of the Empire.1 For a sense of the rarity of citizenship prior to the edict, note that it is estimated that between a tenth and a fifth of the population was a Roman citizen in the census year 14 CE.2 

The “Constitutio Antoniniana” after restoration in 2009
Photo: University of Giessen Library

Birthright citizenship was granted so long as the parents were wed by a legal Roman marriage, or if the mother was an unmarried Roman citizen. The condition prerequisite for a legal marriage was that both parents must either be a Roman citizen or a foreigner granted ius conubii, the right to marry.1 

The Constitutio Antoniana followed an established history of mass citizenship grants by Rome, such as when enfranchisement of all of Italy was secured following the conclusion of the Social War in 87 BCE. In the time of the Principate, citizenship continued to offered to former enemies of Rome, sometimes in large grants to communities, but also in extensions of citizenship to individuals, often as a reward for service to the Empire.3 

Ius Civitatis

The rights of citizenship (ius civitatis) were divided in the Roman legal tradition into those pertinent to public law, and those pertinent to private law. These ideas of private and public law map loosely onto the concepts of civil and criminal law in the United States, with private law concerning itself primarily with the interactions between individuals, and public law governing the interaction between individuals and the state.1

These rights are as follows:

  • Private law:
    • ius conubii: right to contract a legal Roman marriage
    • ius commercii: right to enter into and conclude legal transactions and contracts
    • right to litigate before the Roman courts
  • Public law:
    • ius suffragii: right to vote in the popular assemblies
    • ius honorum: right to stand for public office
    • right to occupy military offices in the Roman legions

Another modern idea of citizenship – that is again not fully applicable to citizenship in Rome – is the equality of the condition. Access to the rights enumerated above were dependent on age, gender, position within a Roman family group, and mental capacity. Citizens who possessed all the rights of citizenship were referred to as cives optimo iure.1

Many people were not cives optimo iure. Women, for instance, did not have the ius honorum nor the ius suffragii. Women also lacked the ius commercii if they were under the authority (manus) of their husband. Whether or not they under the manus of their husband was dependent on the type of marriage they were wed under: cum manu or sine manu.

During the Principate, marriage sine manu became customary, eventually leading to all existing and future marriages legally declared sine manu. This change occurred as women gained increased independence and family relationships became less rigid, social progress which has been attributed to the influence of Greek individualistic ethics.1 

As noted previously, citizenship was a rare condition prior to the Constitutio Antoniana. Its inherent legal value aside, it’s rarity contributed to its value as a prerequisite for elite rank and social status. Following the Constitutio Antoniana, the value of citizenship was largely derivative of the privileges it gave with regard to criminal punishment, as other rights began to decay.4

The Degradation of the Humiolores

The terms humiolores and honestiores refer to “the lesser sort” and “the better sort,” respectively. Their use in legal texts to refer to proletarian Roman citizens prior to the Constitutio Antoniana is suspect, as these documents were edited into their present form after the edict, when there was no longer a distinction between Roman citizens and provincials.5 They were, however, codified as legal terms delineating the citizen population in constitutional law by the time of Hadrian’s reign, where they were prescribed different treatment before the law, with lighter criminal punishments for honestiores.4

The imperial constitutions lacked clear definitions for those who were humiolores and those who were honestiores, but did provide a threshold rank for honestiores: at or above the level of decurions (Roman cavalry officers) and veterans. Whether or not a citizen was of the lesser of better sort often fell to the discretion of the judge overseeing the case, who, largely by their own standards, would take measure of the person’s ordo (rank) and dignitas (social status).4 

Scholars offer differing times for when the degradation of the humiolores began (Knapp suggests the process of marginalization in the court system was “in full swing as early as the first century AD” 5), but the sources consulted generally agree it did occur and conclude that it greatly reduced the station of the citizen within Roman society. Sherwin-White is notably the voice of opposition to both these positions arguing that there is evidence that the decline did not begin until the end of the Principate, and that it did was not so severe as to reduce citizens to near legal equality with the common folk among non-citizens, as is claimed by the other authors consulted here.

Citizenship’s Value

It must at the start be noted that here marks the division between the work of accredited scholars and the opinions of the author (though those instances of citation mark facts that are of the former category). I wish to here expand upon the seemingly inane remark which has entitled this piece (it should be of no shock that those who prosper within a society are better off than those who do not) and in contextualizing it in the scholarship on Roman citizenship, perhaps make it less so. Throughout the research I have done here, among those scholars who discuss the decline in rights and status of the Roman citizen (with the noted exception of Sherwin-White), there has been in common a sense that the emergence of the honestiores as a legal class represents a dramatic shift in Roman citizenship. I do not find this position wholly satisfactory, and humbly submit that Knappe approaches my own conclusion – the source of my discontent – though does not make direct argument for the case I will here, in brief, attempt to make.

“One might imagine that the marginalisation would be ameliorated, if not prevented, by the rights and privileges common to all Romans citizens. This does not occur, however. The status of citizen does not seem to have ensured access to the legal system, or equal treatment once within it. It is the dignitas/position of the person, not the status as citizen that counts.”

Robert Knappe, “Legally Marginalized Groups”

To provide some context to this quotation, Knappe is an advocate of the position that the degradation of the humiolores was such a profound change that the condition of the average Roman citizen was reduced to near legal equivalence with the average non-citizen, and states the quotation above in reference to the condition of humiolores under the Empire. I do not take fault with the idea that the legal rights of humiolores were greatly reduced, but instead the idea that the common citizen was greatly affected by this change, an idea which necessitates the belief that they had and could exercise substantially greater legal rights during the Republic. Even prior to the Constitutio Antoniniana, prior to the loss of rarity in the condition of citizenship (of which Taylor concludes that the social status – not legal status – conferred legal advantage during the Republic), the average citizen was not enabled beyond the capacity granted to them by their wealth, and their resulting status. 

Despite the rights nominally granting citizens involvement in governance – the right to vote and the right to stand for public office – the average citizen was not a part of the ruling class (a claim most robustly defended by Nicolet). One could not pursue public office without having served ten years in the cavalry, which itself had large property requirement to join (fixed toward the mid-second century at 400,000 sesterces).2  What value citizenship did hold was, before and after the Constitutio Antoninana, of greatest worth to the propertied, as with their wealth and status, it was only a lack of citizenship which could prevent their participation in the social elite’s monopoly on the application of the law and on governance.

In this light the degradation of the humiolores and the entitlement of the honestiores isn’t seen as an enormous change to the station of the common person of Rome as much as it is a shift in the mechanism of their exclusion from political involvement. As an example specific to the interaction of a common Roman citizen and the court system, when they had the right to go to Rome for trial their economic status would prevent them from being able to afford to do so. With the reforms of the second century, the humiolores were simply denied that right, achieving the same result, and not altering the interaction between common citizen and state.This, and the property requirement mentioned previously, are demonstrative of an inability for the average Roman citizen to utilize the rights granted to them. For what, except hollow display, did the common Roman citizen enjoy these rights which seem to have never ensured their access to the political and legal systems?

In full consideration of the material I have read and compiled for consideration here, I believe that Knappe’s quote above is as applicable to Rome during the time of the Republic as it is to its intended subject: Rome during the time of the Empire.


  1. Mousourakis, George. “The Law of Persons.” In Fundamentals of Roman Private Law. Springer, 2012.
  2. Nicolet, Claude. The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome. Translated by P.S. Falla. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  3. Ando, Clifford. “Citizenship, Roman.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press,, 2010. 
  4. Taylor, Tristan S. “Social Status, Legal Status and Legal Privilege.” In The Oxford Hand book of Roman Law and Society. Oxford University Press, 2016.
  5. Sherwin-White, A.N. The Roman Citizenship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. 
  6. Knapp, Robert. “Legally Marginalised Groups—The Empire.”In The Oxford Handbook of Roman Law and Society. Oxford University Press, 2016-10-06.