The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome
From its beginnings in a small, hilly enclave near the west coast of central Italy, Rome became, over some five centuries, the ruling power of the entire Mediterranean world. By the end of the sixth century BC, the Romans had already expelled their kings—about whom we know very little—in favor of a republic. Despite the turbulence of repeated challenges to the authority of its aristocrats, the Roman Republic proved strong and cohesive enough to defeat Hannibal, destroy Carthage, and supplant the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Greek East.
At the heart of this formidable state was a body of citizens who shared military and financial obligations, determined policy, and came ultimately to enjoy the protection of perhaps the most prestigious citizenship in the history of the Western world. Our own notions of being a citizen derive in part from Rome, and defining the Roman sense of citizenship has been a central historical issue. As the French historian Claude Nicolet points out in his recently translated study, the Latin word for citizen (civis) is an associative term, for which a more precise meaning would be “fellow citizen.” The Roman citizenry was like a huge family, in which certain members had more authority and sometimes more rights than others. By marriage and adoptions the citizen community could be enlarged indefinitely. The very origins of the Roman state included a union of the inhabitants of the city with the nearby Sabines to form “a single city” and double the population.
Already in antiquity the associative character of Roman citizenship was seen as fundamental to the growth and strength of Rome. The Greeks, by contrast, had a highly exclusive concept of citizenship, confined to the residents of a particular city—a polis, from which comes the Greek word for citizen, polîtês. It was precisely the limitation on the number of citizens that allowed the classical Greek polis to be as democratic as it was. The Roman state was never democratic. In the course of several centuries it became more so than it was at the start, although under the empire the elements of democracy eventually disappeared altogether.
Underlying the changes that took place in the Roman republic was the division of Roman society into several overlapping political groups. There were patricians, who were aristocrats with inherited influence and wealth, and plebeians, who constituted the rest (apart, of course, from slaves and resident aliens). As the principal policy-making body of the early Roman republic, the senate was the voice of the patricians. The Roman people as a whole were divided up into tribes (tribus) according to where the citizens enrolled in them lived. Meanwhile a new division of the people into centuriae, strictly based on wealth, led to the emergence of a new voting assembly, the comitia centuriata. (The term centuria was borrowed from the Roman army where it designated a unit of one hundred men, although the voting centuriae were by no means confined to one hundred each.)
The comitia centuriata points unmistakably to the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.