Citizenship in pre-modern city states


Forum Staff
Apr 2010
T'Republic of Yorkshire
I said "city states" in the title, but I suppose I really mean cities.

How was citizenship determined? Who was considered to be, for example, an Athenian, a Roman or a citizen of Luoyang - and therefore subject to taxation, and military service?

I seem to recall in the Code of Hammurabi, citizenship being mentioned as ownership of land, but I could be mistaken.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
In Medieval German lands if as a serf you managed to run away to a town or city, and keep away for a year and a day, then legally your position as a serf had been suspended. Led to the saying "Stadluft mach frei", city air makes you free.
Likes: macon


Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
For Roman citizenship as a result of being in the military, in the first century anyway, proof was in the form of a metal ID showing citizenship.
Likes: Futurist


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
Either being a citizen was highly desirable, so that non-citizens were tempted to lie, or being a citizen was something to be avoided so that citizens were tempted to lie and say that they were not.

If a non-citizen was to lie and attempt to gain citizenship by fraud, the censor could ask him basic questions about Rome, how the government and laws worked, or any other questions that non-citizens were likely to get wrong.

If a citizen tried to avoid his tax obligations by denying his citizenship, the censor could assume all residents were citizens unless proven otherwise. The burden of proof was on the non-citizen.

The sources generally suggest that citizenship was highly desired.

In the Republican era taxes seem to have been fairly low. I'm unaware of mass movements to avoid paying taxes (not that people ever loved paying taxes, but many taxes were to pay for wars so that not paying taxes was unpatriotic). Most taxes were paid by the Patricians who were a small group and generally well-known so that it would have been impossible for them to deny their citizenship.

Citizens were entitled to the protection of Roman laws. In a matter before the court, the other litigant could offer proof that the defendant was not a citizen and therefore not entitled to Roman law. I assume that was one of the first questions a judge would have to settle - Which laws governed the defendant's conduct and rights?


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Cicero used to say ...

"Civis Romanus sum"
["I am Roman Citizen"]

And what did it mean?

That Cicero was a citizen of the city of Rome. That was the original sense of the "civiltas" [citizenship]. To be a citizen of Rome, so a Roman, you had to be born from Roman parents, or from a Roman mother in case of not "right marriage". So there was no "ius soli" [you weren't Roman if you were born in Rome, you had to be born from Roman parents].

The status of Roman citizen had also conceded because of political reasons or military merits. Also slaves, if set free, became Roman citizens.

This was the beginning, then, on a political base, the citizenship had enlarged, in a progressive way up to [in imperial age] be conceded to the free inhabitants of the Empire.


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Then, if we wonder who was a citizen in Rome ... a citizen was a free inhabitant who took part to the political and military life of the city. It wasn't so different from what happened in Greece, at the end.

I would imagine that if you had enough money, you could also become a citizen, much like many countries today.
We could say that to give money to the right authorities made you gain some political merit ...


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
Republika Srpska
Right, but how did they determine who was a Roman? Presumably, not everyone living within the city walls would have been one.
Every Roman citizen had to register the birth of his child within 30 days after birth. The child would receive a wooden diptych which served as proof of citizenship for that child for the rest of his or her life. If you were not born as a citizen but instead received the citizenship through other means, you would obtain something that you could prove your citizenship with. For example, people given citizenship by Augustus received a copy of a decree that explained their new status. Starting from the time of Claudius, soldiers that were given citizenship would receive a military diploma called diploma civitatis that would prove their citizenship. Civilians would receive a copy of a warrant authorizing their registration as citizens in the archives at Rome. This copy was then used as proof of citizenship.

Source: A. N. Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship, 2nd edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, pg. 315-16.

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