Who were the citizens in ancient Rome and what rights did they have - for Kids and Teachers Illustration

Roman Citizen

Who were the citizens in ancient Rome?  If you had lived in ancient times, you could have applied to become a Roman citizen. Would you have wanted to become a Roman citizen?

The ancient Romans were very different from the ancient Greeks. The ancient Romans were down-to-earth realists, not idealists. You can see this in their statues. The Greeks made statues of perfect people. The Romans created real life statues. A statue of one of the Roman emperors is a good example. His nose is huge! The ancient Greeks would never have done that. The ancient Greeks had roads, but they were not built nearly as well, and their roads did not connect in any particular order. Connect to what? Each Greek city-state was its own unit. In ancient Rome, Rome was the heart of the empire! Unlike the Greek city-states, Rome had a central government.

There were two types of people in ancient Rome - citizens and non-citizens. Roman law changed several times over the centuries on who could be a citizen and who couldn't. For a while, plebians (common people) were not citizens. Only patricians (noble class, wealthy landowners, from old families) could be citizens. That law changed. For a while, plebians could not marry patricians. That law changed. For a while, any children born from two parents who were not both citizens could not be citizens.  That law was adjusted so that people could apply to become a Roman citizen. Rome was after purity. But they kept adjusting the laws to suit the times.

Were women citizens? That's a really good question. There is not a very clear answer. In ancient Rome, women fell into their own category. There were three classes of women - full citizen, foreign (alien) and slave. Women, whether they were a "full citizen" or not, could not vote or hold office. For hundreds of years, women could not own property, inherit goods, sign a contract, work outside the home, or run a business. They could not defend themselves in court. They had no rights. A woman was under the full authority of her husband's head of his family (oldest male) and had no legal say in much of anything. So, although women might be given the title of full citizen, they did not have the rights of a full citizen. The title was mostly for the purpose of marriage. The purpose of marriage in ancient Rome was to produce citizens. If a Roman citizen (male) wanted his children to automatically be Roman citizens themselves, he had to marry the daughter of two Roman citizens. There were other ways for his children to become citizens, but that was the easiest.

Were slaves citizens? No.

Were children citizens? That depended upon the status of their parents. If both parents were Roman citizens, then yes. Otherwise, no. That law was relaxed as well as time went on; for example, children of freed slaves could apply to become citizens. Even if both parents were Roman citizens, children had no rights. Boys of Roman citizens went though a ceremony when they were 16 or 17, depending upon how close their birthday was to March 17th, and at that time became citizens of Rome with full benefits. Girls put away their childhood things on the eve of their wedding day, and may have been given the title of citizen, but like their mothers, did not have the rights of a citizen.

Being a citizen of Rome carried legal and social advantages. Some of those advantages included:

  • The right to vote
  • The right to hold office
  • The right to make contracts
  • The right to own property
  • The right to have a lawful marriage
  • The right to have children of any such marriage become Roman citizens automatically
  • The right to have the legal rights of the paterfamilias of the family
  • The right not to pay some taxes, especially local taxes
  • The right to sue in court and be sued
  • The right to defend oneself in court
  • The right to have a legal trial with a judge; the right to appeal a decision
  • No Roman citizen could be tortured, whipped, or receive the death penalty (unless found guilty of treason)

The question remains - would you have wanted to become a Roman citizen? You might have. The ancient Romans invented more games than any other ancient civilization! Explore Daily Life in Ancient Rome and decide for yourself.

Ancient Rome Q&A Interactive