BMCR 2023.01.15

Roman and local citizenship in the long second century CE

, , Roman and local citizenship in the long second century CE. Oxford studies in early empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 392. ISBN 9780197573884


[Authors and titles are listed below.]


Roman and Local Citizenship is an edited volume drawn from a pair of workshops in 2017 and 2018. The goal of the book is to provide an updated and much-belated response to Sherwin-White’s The Roman Citizenship, which, having originally been published in 1939 (with a substantially revised edition in 1973), is decidedly overdue for reassessment.[1] The central thesis of this volume is that Sherwin-White was wrong to see Roman citizenship growing increasingly irrelevant over the course of the long second century CE. Instead, the book argues, Roman citizenship was still of major (although not always prime) importance in determining social standing and still regarded as a privileged and restrictive status by the state.

The book is divided into four sections in addition to a broad introduction and conclusion. This division is somewhat unwieldy as the nature of the topic is not one that can easily be split between the different foci. For that reason, the introduction (written by the editors) plays an unusually central role in justifying and tying the volume together. Rather than a brief background and establishment of the main topics to be discussed, there are 38 pages of detailed discussion about the realities of Roman citizenship and what it meant to those who acquired it. Some of the topics raised are ones that will be discussed in individual chapters later, but others simply provide a succinct summary of modern research on citizenship. If any one chapter makes for essential reading it is this one.

Part I (New Perspectives on Citizen Privilege) consists of two chapters: “Citizenship and Its Alternatives” by Ari Z. Bryen and “Fiscal Semantics in the Long Second Century” by Lisa Pilar Eberle. These chapters contain the main argument for rejecting what Bryen calls Sherwin-White’s “flood tide” narrative: that Roman citizenship had spread so widely during the second century that the grant of universal citizenship in 212 was essentially legal recognition of a fait accompli. Both take different paths to this conclusion. Bryen focuses on citizenship as a mark of status. In the Greek East, he argues, citizenship served as just one way of determining elite standing and an increasingly secondary one as citizenship gradually shifted from conferring a right to social and political dominance to a more bureaucratic and legalistic set of privileges. One of the most interesting arguments is that much of the impetus for changes in the relationship between noncitizens and the empire came from the local status groups themselves during a constant process of negotiation with the imperial authorities. The only evidence he can provide for this is linguistic, but the theory is plausible.

Eberle’s chapter is more concerned with the financial aspects of citizenship. She rejects the arguments for many of the tax immunities that citizens supposedly received and focuses on the taxes that Romans still had to pay. There were several taxes that only Romans were liable to, including ones on inheritance and manumission, which would have made immunity to the poll tax (which by the late second century was no longer a universal component of Roman citizenship) less of an advantage than is often suggested. That tax immunity was not a major reason for gaining citizenship seems a fair conclusion. It does seem strange, given the chapter’s focus, that the ius Italicum receives such little attention. The ius Italicum conferred essentially the tax immunities that she (rightly) argues were not a standard part of Roman citizenship, so it would have been useful to get a sense of how widespread it was.[2] Outside of Italy, whose immunity from taxation gets a very deep look, the only communities whose tax immunity gets mentioned are Barcelona, Beirut, and Nero’s brief grant to Greece.

Part II (Roman Citizenship and Family Strategies) looks at the restrictions placed on the spread of citizenship both in marriage restrictions (“Roman Citizenship, Marriage, and Family Networks” by Myles Lavan) and manumission of slaves (“Manumission, Citizenship, and Inheritance” by Rose MacLean). In both cases it is clear that the empire felt it important to restrict grants of citizenship even when it inconvenienced existing citizens. The examination of marriage patterns among Roman citizens in majority non-Roman provinces provides a good example. In order to pass their citizenship onto their children, Romans needed to marry within their fellow citizen community. The fairly obvious consequence of this is that endogamous marriage was common and Roman citizens were kept somewhat isolated from their local communities. This chapter puts a further nail in the coffin of the second century’s supposedly relaxed attitudes towards citizenship by observing that Hadrian and the jurists did not treat mixed unions any more favorably than previous emperors, denying children of such unions Roman citizenship.

Part III (Practices of Citizenship) is focused on specific aspects of how citizenship was determined. Aitor Blanco-Pérez’s “The Onomastics of Roman Citizenship in the Greek East” considers this from the perspective of local elites. Why do some Roman citizens in the Greek East use only one name (i.e. not the tria nomina common to Roman citizens) and under what circumstances? Anna Dolganov’s “Documenting Roman Citizenship” on the other hand considers the question from the perspective of the Roman bureaucracy: how did Roman officials document and check claims of citizenship? Dolganov’s conclusion is that the Romans had a very sophisticated bureaucracy that kept birth records (locally for local citizens, in the provincial capitals for Roman ones) and other documents for the purpose of proving status. In this short chapter she is able to provide a basic reconstruction of how the system was organized and some of the different stages and occasions where status was verified.

Dolganov’s chapter is one of the most interesting in the book as it challenges a longstanding tendency to underestimate Roman administrative capacity. Her reconstruction is mainly based on evidence from Egyptian papyri, which remain criminally underused in interpretations of the early empire. Specialists in Roman Egypt have long been emphasizing that the province was not as atypical as once thought and went through major changes after the conquest that can only be described as the Romans imposing a new model of rule.[3] While this bureaucratic structure will not appear too alien to historians of late antiquity it may be new to many scholars of the early empire and serves as yet another example of continuity between eras where scholarship often sees a radical break. This chapter has broad implications beyond considerations of citizenship status and deserves to reach a wider audience.

Part IV (Local Contexts) mainly concerns practical matters of how Roman citizenship impacted local society. “Citizenships and Jurisdictions” by Georgy Kantor is concerned with the legal privileges and statuses of various forms of citizenship. The final chapter (“Experiencing Roman Citizenship in the Greek East during the Second Century CE” by Cédric Brélaz) is broader and focuses on the role of Roman citizenship in local communities. His argument is that Roman citizenship was common but not universal in the highest ranks of provincial society. Roman citizenship could convey social distinction but was never a formal prerequisite for high office and its value varied depending on the region and how many citizens it contained.

One surprising aspect of this work as a whole is how little focus is given to the Constitutio Antoniniana (212), which granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire and thus serves as the decisive endpoint of this volume. Efforts to tie patterns of citizenship to what followed are sidelined generally, with focus being given to continuity with what came before. The volume’s contributors would undoubtedly hold that this was the point: to understand the second century we need to look to contemporary sources rather than ones that look backwards through the different filters of the late Roman world. For some (perhaps most) of the topics covered here this is certainly true: third century data is of little use for determining how grants of citizenship applied to veteran families for example. However, as far as the overall volume is concerned it is more difficult to ignore the question: if citizenship still mattered in the long second century then why was the distinction erased so soon into the third? This would seem to merit, at the least, a chapter dedicated to the question, but while chapter two does provide some good discussion on how universal citizenship affected taxation this is just barely scraping the surface of the much larger question. The various chapters have shown decisively that Sherwin-White’s model will not hold, but it is unfortunate that no new model is proposed in its place.

This book will not serve as a replacement for Sherwin-White’s work, but it does not claim to. That book offers a detailed breakdown of the shifting nature of Roman citizenship from the earliest days until the early fourth century CE and provides a grand interpretive framework lacking here. While this book challenges some of the idealized conclusions of Sherwin-White, it is still best read in conjunction with his work. One point that did become clear while reading the book is that we are very much in need of an updated monograph on Roman citizenship as there are many areas in which subsequent research has shown Sherwin-White’s conclusions to be insupportable or in need of modification.


Authors and Titles

Introduction, by Clifford Ando and Myles Lavan

Part I. New Perspectives on Citizen Privilege

  1. Citizenship and Its Alternatives: A view from the East, by Ari Z. Bryen
  2. Fiscal Semantics in the Long Second Century: Citizenship, Taxation, and the Constitutio Antoniniana, by Lisa Pilar Eberle

Part II. Roman Citizenship and Family Strategies

  1. Roman Citizenship, Marriage, and Family Networks, by Myles Lavan
  2. Manumission, Citizenship, and Inheritance: Epigraphic Evidence from the Danube, by Rose MacLean

Part III. Practices of Citizenship

  1. The Onomastics of Roman Citizenship in the Greek East: From Second Sophistic to Local Epigraphic Loyalty, by Aitor Blanco-Pérez
  2. Documenting Roman Citizenship, by Anna Dolganov

Part IV. Local Contexts

  1. Citizenships and Jurisdictions: The Greek City Perspective, by Georgy Kantor
  2. Experiencing Roman Citizenship in the Greek East during the Second Century CE: Local Contexts for a Global Phenomenon, by Cédric Brélaz

Part V. Epilogue

  1. Romans, Aliens, and Others in Dynamic Interaction, by Clifford Ando



[1] Sherwin-White, A.N., 1939 (2nd Ed. 1973). The Roman Citizenship. Oxford. The most obvious sign of an outdated approach comes early on page 4 with his defense of a reliance on Roman folk memory as being due to “the necessary distinction between a primitive but civilized people and barbarous savages.”

[2] Watkins, Thomas H., 1983. “Coloniae and Ius Italicum in the Early Empire”. The Classical Journal 78, No. 4: 319-336, offers a good overview of the known and probable colonies holding ius Italicum.

[3] Lewis, Naphtali, 1970. “Greco-Roman Egypt: Fact or Fiction?”. Proceedings of the 12th International Congress of Papyrology. Toronto: 3-14. For a more detailed look at this question see Capponi, Livia, 2005. Augustan Egypt. New York.