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Junius Q. Publicus

The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome

by Claude Nicolet, translated by P.S. Falla
University of California Press, 435 pp., $50.00

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 interrelationship of army and aristocracy in the Roman republic. It had broad powers, including the power to pass laws, appoint magistrates, and declare war. Discussion of important matters of state, in anticipation of a vote but also at any other time, could take place before the assembled citizens in a special assembly (contio) convoked by a magistrate for the purpose. But a superior magistrate could cancel a session called by an inferior, and the right to speak depended entirely upon the presiding officer. The beginnings of rights to public speech can be seen in these special assemblies, but these were very limited rights.

After a long struggle in which the plebs, working through the tribal organization, attempted to win parity with the patricians, a momentous settlement in 287 BC provided that decisions of the tribal assembly, the comitia tributa, which had become the voice of the plebeians, would have equal validity with the laws of the senate and centuriata.

Thus, by the third century BC all Roman citizens could claim to have a share in formulating government policy. But by this time citizenship included another privilege. No later than 300 BC citizens were guaranteed a right of appeal (provocatio) against a capital sentence imposed by a Roman magistrate. The details of the emergence of the provocatio procedure are much debated, but it is clear that this privilege proved to be a major attraction for people in the increasingly remote territories that were rapidly falling under Roman jurisdiction. A prominent local figure in Athens or Pergamum would have had good reason to value Roman citizenship, quite apart from the recognition it indicated, once he found himself living in a Roman province. Of course any appeal required a trip to Rome, but the sort of provincial aristocrat who would have had citizenship in the republic could probably have afforded it.

Under the autocratic rule of the emperors the citizen’s right of appeal, now called appellatio, was directly to the emperor himself. Paul of Tarsus had acquired Roman citizenship at birth. He knew very well that, in addition to the support of the Almighty, this was perhaps the most important weapon he had against his enemies. At Philippi he made a scene after submitting to indignities that were illegal for a Roman citizen, and at Jerusalem he managed to confound a tribune by asking coyly, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” Taken before the procurator of Judaea in Caesarea Paul made his most stunning announcement: “If there is nothing in the charges [of the Jews] against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

For a provincial in the Roman empire of Paul’s time, citizenship conferred not only prestige but real protection against the magistrates of Rome. In the middle of the second century AD Aelius Aristides, an orator from Asia Minor, gave eloquent expression to Rome’s glory:

Neither sea nor intervening continent is a bar to citizenship…. No one worthy of rule or trust remains an alien, but a civil community of the world has been established as a free republic under one.

This is, to be sure, an exaggeration, but it reflects the widening dispersion of citizenship to the point that Roman lawyers began to create new categories of legal protection with which to favor Rome’s special friends. By this time the citizenship was growing too commonplace, and, besides, the autocracy of the emperors had stripped it of the important political function it had had in the republic. A distinction between honestiores (respectable people) and humiliores (lowly people) came to replace the old one between citizens and noncitizens.1 By the early third century the Emperor Caracalla issued a formal edict recognizing virtually all residents in the Roman empire as citizens. He did so not to honor them but to enlarge the empire’s tax base.

From the expulsion of kings at the end of the sixth century BC to universal citizenship in the third century AD, Roman citizenship was thus a shifting institution. Nicolet, writing about the world of the citizen in republican Rome, is naturally concerned more with what happened in Rome itself than with the later development abroad. But he starts with the story of Paul to show the culmination of a long history of citizenship. The Romans, who cherished their right of provocatio, could scarcely have foreseen what this was going to mean for binding together the inhabitants of far-flung provinces in an imperial community of citizens from the Atlantic to the Euphrates.

In trying to explain what it meant to be a Roman citizen throughout the whole period of the republic, Nicolet is well aware of the changes that took place in the nature of the citizenship over nearly five centuries; but he prefers to write as if there were some kind of irreducible minimum which can be ferreted out from the evidence of antiquity. The French title of his book, Le métier de citoyen dans la Rome républicaine, reveals his purpose rather better than the somewhat colorless title in English (The World of the Citizen). Nicolet seems to think that being a Roman citizen was something like having a job with a nexus of basic rights and obligations which remained more or less constant throughout the Roman republic. By exposing this nexus he hopes to describe the civic life of the mass of citizens, whom he wants to consider as distinct from the politically active members of the upper class. But the distinction which Nicolet makes between “political class” and “civic mass” is by no means a clear one. As he himself admits, “At first sight both these categories may seem arbitrary.” They do indeed, since one can only observe the citizenship in action among politically active citizens.

Nicolet rightly stresses the importance of wealth—both agrarian and monetary—in determining initially which citizens should have which rights and duties. The greater the wealth, the greater the rights and duties. Nicolet cites in full Livy’s account of the original constitutional arrangements ascribed to Servius Tullius in the sixth century BC, as well as a comparable account in the Roman history written in Greek by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Of the 193 centuriae, all persons with less than 11,000 asses of wealth were lumped together in a single centuria and were exempt from military service. By contrast, persons with over 100,000 asses filled up eighty centuriae, and all but the members of the one with less than 11,000 asses were required to serve in the army.

In the electoral system of Rome, the centuriae were called upon to vote sequentially, not all at once. Those representing the most affluent citizens were called upon first, so that the votes of the first centuria would influence those of the centuriae to follow. The less affluent, who filled only a minority of the centuriae anyway—not to mention those without any substantial wealth in a single centuria—had no political influence whatever. It becomes, therefore, very difficult, if not impossible, to write about the “civic mass” when most civic obligations and privileges were constitutionally reserved for what was, in Nicolet’s terms, the political class.

Of course, the system described by Livy and Dionysius may not have been at work throughout the Roman republic. There is no doubt that it broke down during the last century when aristocratic politicians found they could exploit the underprivileged citizens of Rome for their own purposes. Relatively new social measures such as the dole and the increasingly turbulent activity of the populace in the streets put an end to the political impotence of the impoverished. But it is by no means clear that Livy gives an accurate account of the citizenship even for the early days of the republic. Most scholars have found anachronisms in Livy’s version, and Nicolet is perhaps a little too ready to credit what he finds there. Livy’s purpose, after all, was to give substance to the Augustan myth of a restored republic.

Many of Nicolet’s difficulties arise from his attempts to force the various rights and obligations of a Roman citizen into distinct categories. He has not only made an arbitrary separation of the political class from the civic mass, but divides his book so that the citizen is seen first as a name on a census list, second as a soldier, and third as a voter. Even with all the problems in the account of the constitution of Servius Tullius, there can be no doubt that these functions were intermingled to such an extent that treating them separately distorts more than it helps.

Clearly there was a close connection between enrollment in the centuriae and military service. According to Livy, the first eighty centuriae—the richest—were obliged to provide for themselves a helmet, shield, greaves, breastplate, spear, and sword. The next twenty, with wealth between 75,000 and 100,000 asses, were asked to furnish an oblong shield instead of a round one. So it seems unrealistic for Nicolet to argue that the citizens were organized into centuriae purely for the fiscal purposes of establishing a tax base. Obviously the organization of the centuriae provided records that were indispensable for the collection of taxes, but it also set up the machinery for the republican army down to the end of the second century BC. Later, when discussing the role of the citizen as a soldier, Nicolet himself shows the correlation of tax base and military service.

Finally, as we have already seen, the organization by centuriae was used for the voting procedure in the assembly, known as the comitia centuriata. The system—whether for the army, finance, or voting—was essentially a unified one. Pulling out the strands of the different functions tends to destroy the reality of what it meant to be a citizen. By the last century of the Roman republic, the Romans were busy destroying this reality. They did so not only by cultivating the poor citizens of Rome with the dole and by organizing political street gangs, but also by eliminating the old military system based upon wealth. Marius, Rome’s leading general at the end of the second century BC, was the first to enroll a volunteer army from the capite censi—the citizens registered in the census solely by virtue of their existence rather than according to their wealth. This led directly to the pernicious formation of personal armies attached by ties of clientship to great generals. It was from such forces that Marius himself, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, and ultimately the future Augustus drew their strength.

Nicolet’s story of the reduction of the centuriate assembly to an essentially ceremonial organization by the time of the empire, and the rise of the political influence of the plebs, is obscured by his organization. The métier of a citizen in the fourth century BC bore very little resemblance to the métier of a citizen in the first. In many ways the most original part of Nicolet’s study is his chapter called “Popularitas,” evoking the dramatic transformations in civic life in the first century BC. It is concerned particularly with public occasions at which ceremonial or festival provided some opportunity for citizens to demonstrate their political force and their cohesiveness. The claims of the aristocracy were frequently symbolized by funeral ceremonies at which life-size masks of ancestors were displayed in a public parade. This practice continued to have political potency, even in the days of the empire, when the resurrection, as it were, of great figures from the republic could produce considerable emotion.

Nicolet rightly stresses the importance of games, festivals, and theaters for the Roman plebs and calls attention to the potential political impact of separating out the senators and eventually the knights (originally the elite cavalry of Rome) from the rest of the Roman populace by means of reserved seats at public events. At these events dramatic poetry could be highly important. Julius Caesar once compelled the sharptongued poet Laberius to give a command performance in public: since Laberius was a knight (eques) and knights were not allowed to appear on the stage, Caesar effectively stripped him of his equestrian status. In July of 44 BC, not long after the murder of Caesar in March, one of the assassins, Brutus, had intended to present magnificent entertainments to court the Roman people. He was planning to sponsor a production of an ancient play entitled Brutus, about the founder of the Roman republic, whom he claimed as an ancestor.

As far as Brutus the tyrannicide is concerned, M.L. Clarke’s short book underscores the ambivalent reputation of one of Rome’s most famous citizens. Brutus’ participation in the plot to remove Julius Caesar is a classic case of an extraconstitutional act to save the constitution. Brutus had no intention of presenting himself as an enemy of the Roman order, but what he did contributed to overturning it.2 Exploiting his ancestry and his contacts with the most powerful people in Rome, he had a brilliant career. As a money-lender he became notorious for putting out loans on Cyprus at 48 percent interest, and as a politician he cannot have been hurt by the rumor that he was Caesar’s son. Perhaps even Caesar thought he was: “You too, my child” (kai su, teknon), said the dictator, according to Plutarch, as the daggers were driven home. A conspicuous member of Nicolet’s “political class,” Brutus did something which altered the life of the “civic mass.” As Clarke observes in his interesting survey of Brutus’ postclassical reputation, Michelangelo’s bust catches marvelously the blend of idealism and aggression that characterized “the noblest Roman of them all.”

Despite the difficulties that Brutus or Caesar illustrate for the apparently arbitrary categories which Nicolet sees as constant within a constantly changing world, his book can be welcomed as the most stimulating and throughgoing account of Roman citizenship now available. Nicolet writes with an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of political life. He was himself once active in French political affairs: as idea man for Pierre Mendès-France in the 1950s, he wrote two major books on radicalism. Ideologists are perhaps too much inclined to ignore the chaos and pragmatism inherent in political careers, in favor of abstract principles and the comforting notion that politics is really a profession like any other.

The obsession with métier in Nicolet’s thinking can be neatly illustrated by a simple comparison of his book, published in 1959, Pierre Mendès-France ou le métier de Cassandre, with his book on the Roman citizen—Le métier de citoyen. The only Cassandre to have a métier is the current French columnist who is so widely read that some Frenchmen have supposed that the original Cassandra was a man. Agamemnon’s Cassandra uttered her ecstatic prophecies while possessed by a god, without volition or control. It is doubtful that métier is much more applicable to a Roman citizen than to Cassandra.

Nicolet’s book is the most wide-ranging treatment of the subject since Mommsen’s magisterial and still indispensable Staatsrecht; it is less reliable than Mommsen’s work as a handbook, but it is certainly more enjoyable. Nicolet’s is rich in quotations drawn widely from Roman literature; for example, Cicero’s explicit justification of the traditional system: “Equality itself is inequitable.”3

By comparison with A.N. Sherwin-White’s The Roman Citizenship,4 which has been the standard work on the subject hitherto, Nicolet’s book has the merit of approaching its theme through live historical problems instead of the riddles of moribund constitutionalism. It is now the fundamental modern treatment. One can only regret that Nicolet has not managed to shake off the old romantic view of the Roman citizenship as a stable, rather than a constantly evolving, institution. When citizenship was really worth something, in the later republic and early empire, it provided a valuable check on aristocratic domination, a procedure for redress against abuses committed by Roman magistrates, and a certain personal importance for Rome’s friends abroad. But the citizenship was not like that either in the early republic or by the time of Caracalla.

  1. 1

    A good treatment of this once neglected development may be found in Peter Garnsey, Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 1970).

  2. 2

    In Ramsey MacMullen’s Enemies of the Roman Order (Harvard University Press, 1966), Brutus is treated in the same volume with magicians, astrologers, and brigands.

  3. 3

    Nicolet is reasonably well served by his translator; but there are occasional slips, of which the most remarkable may be found in footnote 17 to the introduction. There it appears that prosopographical research in Roman history has “reached its highest point in E.S. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic.” Gruen’s work was undoubtedly important, but when one reflects on the achievements of his predecessors in this form of historiography—Friedrich Münzer or Ronald Syme—such an opinion seems surprising. What Nicolet wrote was “semble avoir atteint ses limites.”

  4. 4

    Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1980.

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