How did the Romans prove their Roman citizenship?
In Ancient Rome, passports, ID cards and other modern forms of identification did not exist. How did the Romans prove their citizenship in a world without pictures, biometrics and computers?
Proving that you were a Roman citizen was actually quite important in Ancient Rome. Whether or not you were a citizen determined your rights and this could even mean your right to be free. Slavery today is considered immoral but in the Ancient World, slavery was the norm rather than the exception. In the early 1st century AD only about five million of the over fifty million inhabitants of the Roman Empire were free and full Roman citizens 1.
Statue of a young Roman wearing toga
(20–30 AD) CC BY-SA 3.0
Roman citizens had many privileges and rights
Being a Roman citizen was like being part of a special club with many privileges and rights. A citizen had rights that a non-citizen or a slave did not have. First and foremost, he had the right to be free. He had the right to vote and the right to serve in the military. He could enjoy various forms of Roman entertainment
such as public performances in theaters. He was exempt from certain taxes such as the land tax levied in the provinces 1
. He had the full protection of Roman law when facing justice in provincial cities outside of Italy, making legal contracts, buying or inheriting property, or even getting married, noting that marriage among non-citizens was not recognized by Roman law! A Roman citizen was spared more extreme forms of punishment
including more torturous forms of execution such as crucifixion.
Various levels of Roman citizenship
Roman citizens were generally held in higher esteem than non-citizens, even if they were of slave background. However there were different levels of Roman citizenship with different rights associated to them.
Cives Romani: The cives romani were full Roman citizens. They were subdivided into two classes: the non optimo iure had rights of property and marriage while the optimo iure also had the right to vote and hold office.
Latini: The Latins came under Roman control at the close of the Latin War (340–338 BC) and the term Latini came to include people of non-Latin background. The Latini held a number of rights (the Latin Rights or ius Latii in Latin) but they did not have the right of marriage (ius connubii).
Socii : The Socii or Foederati were citizens of states which had treaty obligations with Rome and had certain rights in exchange for agreed levels of military service.
Following the Social War (91–88 BC), the Lex Julia was passed in 90 BC giving full Roman citizenship to all Latini and Italian socii states (and the socii states that had not participated in the Social War) and the Latini and socii level of citizenship disappeared.
Provinciales and freedmen: The provinciales were people from the provinces who were under Roman control or influence, but who only had basic rights under international law (ius gentium). Freedmen were former slaves who had gained their freedom and were not automatically given Roman citizenship. Their children however were born as free citizens.
Web of relationships, culture, rather than papers proved citizenship
Romans did not carry around ID cards or documentation proving their Roman citizenship with them all the time. What proved a person's citizenship was first and foremost this person's web of relationships and position in society. Every other Roman citizen was a member of a family, tribe and a gens. For example, if a person's parents were citizens then people automatically knew that the person in question was also a citizen. Except for Romans in the lower social classes, Roman citizens were required to participate in the state and many held positions in public office. Because these positions could only be held by citizens, there was no need to prove citizenship.
When in doubt anyone could just ask around about a person's social standing and reputation. This makes even more sense in a society where those who could read and write were the exception rather than the norm. In a small town, word of mouth was often the only way people had to prove their citizenship.
Language and clothing also played a role in determining if a person was a Roman citizen or not. An individual who spoke good Latin, who behaved and dressed in certain ways, displayed his status and Roman identity. Only Romans could wear the toga and it was strictly forbidden for non-citizens, foreigners, freedmen and slaves to wear it in Roman territories. Men of infamous career (e.g. actors) or shameful reputation were also forbidden to wear the toga.
Roman names were also a sign of Roman citizenship. They were a way to immediately identify the status of an individual, his clan and family. Traditional Roman names for male Roman citizens consisted of three parts (and not two as it is usually the case today): the praenomen
, the nomen
and the cognomen
. The nomen
was the name of his clan. The praenomen
distinguished individual members of the clan from one another while the cognomen
was the first name. The cognomen
was at first a nickname (e.g. Superbus
, "the proud", Maximus
, "lofty", Crassus
, "fatty"). During the Republic cognominia
were usually unflattering and it is only during the Roman Empire
that flattering cognominia
became popular. In larger clans the cognomen
helped distinguish members of the clan and was more like a family name and the agnomen
, a fourth name, was added to distinguish between persons with the same cognomen
. The cognomen
was also like a nickname related to the personality, physique or achievements of an individual.
Examples of Roman names
The name Africanus is related to Scipio's victories in northern Africa.
In 24 AD it became a criminal offense to adopt the three-part name (tria nomina) if an individual was not a citizen and using the tria nomina was considered as a type of forgery. Provincials usually used one or two names (their name and the name of their fathers) and it was very common for people in the provinces to have only one name. Slaves usually only had one name, either the name they had before enslavement or the name assigned to them by their master. Upon receiving his freedom and Roman citizenship, a male slave took the praenomen and nomen of his master and kept as cognomen the name he had been called as a slave or changed it to a Latin or more Latin sounding name1.
Tribal lists, Roman census, birth certificates, grants of citizenship
The census (from the Latin word censere
) was carried out every five years and identified Roman citizens. Its objective was to register all citizens and their property in order to levy taxes on them. The first census dates back to the 6th century BC during the Roman kingdom
and the reign of king Servius Tullius. Then the number of Roman citizens was only ca. 80,000. The Roman censor's role was to maintain the census, oversee certain aspects of the government's finances 8
and... supervise public morality (regimen morum
), hence the modern meaning of the word "censorship". The power of the censor was absolute and no other magistrate could oppose his decisions.
The tribes kept lists of all their members. The censors called each tribe separately and took the names of the members of each tribe according to these tribal lists. The paterfamilias then had to appear in person before the censors who were seated in curule chairs and had to declare under oath ("declare from the heart") the names of the members of his family and all his property (e.g. location and description of the land, number of slaves). These official lists formed the Tabulae Censoriae which were deposited in the aerarium or the temple of Saturn (in earlier times in the Atrium Libertatis and in later times in the temple of the Nymphs).
If a person's Roman citizenship was in doubt or proof of citizenship was needed for a transaction, an inquiry could easily be made to verify the name on the list from the last census. Witnesses, usually individuals from the tribe, would also have to confirm that you are the person in question, bearing always in mind that pictures were not available back then. Once in a while, a freedman (libertus) or even a foreigner posing as a togate citizen was ferreted out in the census. The punishment for falsely claiming Roman citizenship was very severe. According to Suetonius it was death by having your head removed with an axe. The Romans took citizenship very seriously!
Birth registration was introduced during the reign of Augustus (27 BC–14 AD) in 4 AD. A Roman citizen would register the birth of his child within thirty days before a Roman official. It was not mandatory like the census and someone who did not register did not automatically loose his Roman citizenship. The citizen would then receive a wooden diptych with waxed surfaces on the inside which acted both as a birth certificate and a certificate of citizenship for the child. The wooden diptych was seven inches high and six inches wide, written on the waxed surfaces were the date of birth, the name of seven witnesses and the abbreviation q. p. f. c. r. e. ad k. (the letters c.r.e meant cieum romanam/num exscripsi/t
) indicating the possession of Roman citizenship. The diptych could be used for life to prove citizenship and was written only in Latin until the time of Emperor Severus (222-235 AD)2
If a child lived in the provinces, his father or some duly appointed agent, made a declaration (professio) before the provincial governor at the public record office (tabularium publicum). In the course of his professio the father or the agent declared that the child was a Roman citizen. The professio was entered in the register of declarations (album professionum) 3. The father or the agent then received a wooden diptych which was the certified private copy of the professio and which contained the names of seven witnesses.
Military diploma (107 AD) for Mogetissa,
a Boian soldier of the Ala
CC BY-SA 3.0
Grants of citizenship for soldiers, provincials, freed slaves
Starting from 52 AD, non-citizens (peregrini
) auxiliaries in the Roman army were granted Roman citizenship after 25 years of service. They received a diploma civitatis
which consisted of two bronze plates joined together. The outer side of the first plate certified that the holder had served in the Roman military and had received the grant of Roman citizenship and the outer side of the second plate displayed the names of seven witnesses. The text engraved on the outer side of the plates was reproduced exactly on the inner sides of the plates. The plates were then shut and sealed together with the seals protected by metal strips. A veteran retiring in the provinces would present the sealed diploma
at the public record office where an official would break the seals and confirm that the internal inscriptions match the external ones. The official would then enter the name of the veteran on the register with the list of resident Roman citizens.
A freed slave would take the praenomen and nomen of his master and keep the cognomen which was the name he was called as a slave unless he decided to change it to a more Latin sounding name 1. The enfranchisement of freedmen was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis 4. Therefore freedmen also had documentary evidence of their status.
How did Romans prove their citizenship while traveling abroad?
Before addressing this question, it is worth noting that most Roman citizens did not travel much. Ancient Rome and the Ancient World were very different from our world today: nowadays, it is very common for people to travel to other cities or abroad for any number of reasons. In Ancient Rome, transiency was not common, especially for working people, and only soldiers and merchants would travel long distances. Furthermore, abroad meant the provinces ruled by Rome. You would seldom risk traveling outside of Rome's territories where you could be captured and enslaved unless you personally knew people that could protect you there.
To prove their Roman citizenship abroad, Romans could produce the grant of citizenship or their birth certificate, which both were in the form of the previously mentioned diptych which was small enough for citizens to carry when they were out of town 1. If they were doubts regarding the person claiming to be a citizen or the document itself, witnesses could be called5.
However it was not always easy to find witnesses far away in the provinces. For example, in 70 BC Verres, the corrupt governor of Sicily, questioned Gavius' citizenship claim. Gavius, a Roman citizen of Compsa, had protested about Verres' treatment of Roman citizens. According to Cicero, Gavius cried out that he was a Roman citizen and that he had served in the Roman army under the Roman knight Lucius Raecius who was in Panhormus (today's Palermo) at the time. Gavius was executed nevertheless by means of crucifixion (a type of execution forbidden for Roman citizens)6.
Verres ultimately had to face the consequences of his actions and was tried. This goes to show that what mattered most in the Roman world was a citizen's social network rather his legal status. A citizen's social network could impose consequences and provincial governors / foreign authorities had to beware of the consequences before mistreating any Roman citizen, especially an upper class Roman citizen. More than the documentary evidence, what mattered the most was the citizen's connections.
What would happen to runaway slave in Ancient Rome? A runaway slave would have to run quite far and... quite fast away from his town and his master. As soon as a slave ran away, advertisements with a precise description of him would be posted in public places and rewards offered. Professional slave-catchers would be hired to catch him. Anybody harboring a slave would be punished. If caught (and if not executed) escaped slaves would be branded on the forehead with the letters "FUG" for fugitivus. The slave would have to find food and shelter and ... a job. If he was able to reach a new town or even a city like Rome, people would at some point question his identity, at least every five years during the census. The slave would need to provide documentary evidence of his status. Most slaves could not even read and write to fake a document. Some slaves managed to escape to far away provinces but the perils along the way were great!
Passports, ID cards and other modern forms of identification did not exist in Ancient Rome. However the Romans had birth certificates, grants of citizenships, the military diplomata
, that they could carry around and that could all serve as proof of citizenship. Ultimately what mattered the most was a person's social network that could confirm a person's status and reputation and protect him or her in the provinces. Even though modern forms of identification did not exist, it was quite hard to pass for a Roman citizen in a world where people knew each other's background and where travel was the exception rather than the norm. The Romans took citizenship very seriously and the punishment for falsely claiming to be citizen was so harsh that most people did not risk it!
Incredible facts about Roman citizenship
- The Roman state would investigate the murder of a Roman citizen but not that of a non-citizen.
- A citizen could not be beaten without the benefit of a trial and he could not be tortured.
- Roman women had a limited form of Roman citizenship: they were not allowed to vote or to hold public office.
- The rights of Roman citizens when they migrated to other cities depended on the status of the city. For example if they migrated to a Latin state or colony, they lost certain of their rights (like the right of marriage).
- During the Republic, citizens could not hold any other citizenship. A provincial who became a Roman had to relinquish his city citizenship.
- A person who absented himself from the census was considered incensus and subject to the severest punishment including being sold as a slave, imprisonment, death.