What does it mean to be a citizen? The answer we give will depend on the nation we live in and on the age of the world in which we find ourselves. The French used to define citizenship not, as the English and Americans do, by the accident of birthplace, but by descent. Citizens were the children of citizens, and this ius sanguinis concept has been partially restored in France, and Governor Pete Wilson thinks it may be a partial answer to the United States’ immigration crisis.

No people in the history of the world has ever wrestled so seriously with the concept of citizenship as the Romans. While most other ancient peoples (e.g., the Jews, the Athenians) were fiercely parochial in their eagerness to restrict citizenship rights, the Romans offered their allies and subject communities the possibility of incorporation into the Roman commonwealth. The process took time, usually involving the intermediate step of the Latin Right (the right to conduct commerce and intermarry with Roman citizens), and it was facilitated by the plantation of Roman colonies, but Rome’s comparative generosity enabled her to create something like a universal empire whose subjects shared in the blessings, as well as the burdens, of citizenship.

The meaning of Roman citizenship has been investigated in detail by Claude Nicolet in a work translated into English as The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome (1980). Jane Gardner has set herself the more limited task of examining groups that lay upon the fringes: freedmen, women, children, moral reprobates, and “the handicapped.” This approach has a usefulness that extends beyond these borderline groups, since what is normal can sometimes be defined most easily by establishing the limits of normality.

The most interesting (at least to me) aspect of her work is the discussion of women and children, both of whom belong fully to the commonwealth but do not share fully the privileges of citizenship. For at least a generation it has been fashionable to stigmatize Roman family relationships for their coldness and to condemn the severity of Roman fathers in the exercise of their authority (the patria potestas). The most important scholar to take this view (derived, apparently, from Philippe Aries’ entirely erroneous theory of childhood) is Paul Veyne in his brilliant, if eccentric, contribution to the History of Everyday Life.

Gardner, relying on recent work of Richard Sailer and Edward Champlin, paints a rather different portrait of the Roman family. The exercise of the power of life and death was, for example, limited first to the father’s right to repudiate a child at birth and later to carry out a sentence of death after he had convoked a family council. Fathers could and did use corporal punishment, but most of the literary sources stress paternal pietas, that is affectionate loyalty, as the hallmark of fatherhood. Since whippings were a servile punishment, Roman citizens were reluctant to apply it to their own free-born sons. Unemancipated sons did remain, in theory, under their fathers’ thumbs without even the capacity to make contracts, but well-to-do fathers granted allowances and even found ways of enabling their sons to conduct business.

The status of freedmen was akin to that of an unemancipated son, meaning a son who remained in his father’s potestas. To his patron he owed respect and even service, and he could not, in principle, sue his former master, if the suit would endanger the patron’s reputation. Although these restrictions have been analyzed as devices to reinforce class distinctions and preserve the status quo, Gardner sees them as a natural outgrowth of a political ethic rooted in the family. If freedmen labored under particular obligations (which they often attempted to shirk), their masters, too, were obliged to respect the former slave’s free condition, even when the freedman continued to live in his master’s house and discharge the same duties. “The central aim of the regulations between patrons and freedmen . . . appear to have been to maintain stability and harmony in Roman society.”

The Romans looked at everyday life and moral obligation from a perspective that seems quite foreign to our post- Enlightenment world. A woman was subject, at least in principle, to the authority of some man, her father, husband, or guardian. Yet Roman women in the upper classes were remarkably forceful characters, their independence being guaranteed by their wealth and social connections. Since they could not exercise potestas over others, they were forbidden to adopt children or even to head a household. Emancipated women could engage in litigation, dispose of property, and marry and divorce at will, and even unemancipated women, when it was necessary for them to transact business or manage families, found ways of evading or simply ignoring the legal restrictions. Gardner offers an unconvincing Marxist interpretation of women’s status, which she bases ultimately on the physical inferiority of the female sex, but since there is no society where women have a status equal (much less superior) to men’s, any attempt to explain Roman gender differences is petitio principi. Roman status differences took the form they did because of the importance attached to the authority of male household heads as the foundation of citizenship.

Much is made in current American law of a supposed right to privacy, but Greeks and Romans conceived of the public/private distinction in terms quite different from what an American judge might imagine. The line was drawn not at the person but at the threshold of the house. A Roman marriage was a more or less private arrangement between the contracting parties, typically the husband and his father-in-law, and the law was invoked only when problems arose—for example, in disputes over dowries after a divorce. Most sexual indiscretions were treated as private matters, but passive homosexuality and prostitution were seen as a defilement of the civil order and might result in loss of certain privileges. Some occupations were morally tarnished, and prostitutes, gladiators, and actors could not exercise the privileges of citizenship. However, what often seems arbitrary or capricious in Roman law turns out to result from a coherent view of human life in which the household—not the individual or the state—is at the center. Prostitutes, by their very profession, could not bear citizen children, and public performers lacked the moral seriousness to discharge the duties incumbent upon a Roman father, much less a Roman senator. It is hard to know which of Caligula’s pranks was more offensive, his facetious proposal to make his horse a senator or his own athletic demonstrations.

In her conclusion, Gardner points to the two factors that persist throughout Roman history: first, the insistence upon personal presence in any legal transactions, an attitude that led, for example, to an emphasis on witnesses over documents and to rather curious complications for the deaf and blind who were unable to make their own wills; and, second, the special position of the father as household head. “Both are aspects of the same principle, namely the autonomy of the individual familia; an autonomy breached by the state, so far as the conduct of the internal affairs of the familia is concerned, only where this may be felt to endanger the stability of other parts of society.” The Roman father’s authority, so far from endangering the safety and welfare of his dependents, served actually as a buffer against state intrusion into the household. “Reliance was placed on the pater to take care of much that in modern society is provided for, or enforced by, the state.”

For all its many and manifest defects, the Roman legal and political system was the solid foundation of the greatest and most benign empire the world has ever known. Modern Christians who rail against the inhumanity of infanticide or sexual perversity in the ancient world ought to take a good look around them before presuming to quarrel with Gibbon’s judgment that the age of the Antonines was “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” In that period the empire reached its greatest extent, but so far from being a monolithic and top-heavy state apparatus, the Roman empire was a patchwork of provinces, colonies, and alliances in which imperial power was exerted largely to defend the inhabitants from foreign invasion and to administer a fairer legal system than the conquered peoples had ever known. The basis of Roman power was the autonomous and quasi-sovereign household, and most of the everyday business of government was carried on locally by local citizens. When Trajan wished to provide for poor children, he simply instructed local communities to buy enough land that would enable them to grow the necessary food, and while the empire flourished, it stayed out of personal life and most local business. St. Paul paid a backhanded compliment to the pagans when he declared that whoever does not take care of the members of his own household is worse than an unbeliever.

Roman citizenship was defined by liberty, not by subjection. If fathers would not whip their sons for fear of making them servile, the Roman authorities could not torture a citizen or invade his household on some petty pretext. This admirable and humane system of government did not last forever. Unsettled by barbarian invasions and dynastic contests, the rulers turned increasingly to military models and command structures. The patria potestas was weakened around the edges, local governments were more and more subordinate to the imperial administration, and the concept of active citizenship was degraded in direct proportion as citizenship was extended to all parts of the Roman world. What had been, in the days of Paul of Tarsus, a cherished prize to be won was reduced to an empty name like the term “American,” which only requires a piece of paper and a pair of blue jeans. If it is too late for Americans to restore their old republican notion of American citizenship, then it may be time to examine the Roman alternative. Even under a Caligula or Nero, most Roman citizens were free to mind their own business and govern their own autonomous households, with little or no interference. The empire had slaves, yes, but it also had free men, and if we no longer have slavery in name, we have long since given up liberty in fact.


[Being a Roman Citizen, by Jane F. Gardner (London: Routledge) 244 pp., $49.95]