Citizenship, Ancient and Modern (in Philippians)

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Ancient concepts and practices of citizenship (political identity) differ substantially from modern concepts and practices.

Modern Citizenship The modern notion of citizenship is understood primarily as an aspect of nationality and, more precisely, as membership (with its privileges and obligations) in a politically sovereign state, a “country.” This framework is largely a product of the Westphalian model of states and citizenship that emerged at the end of the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic and the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. According to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the ideal state was to be a nation-state, where ethnolinguistic identity (one’s “nation,” by virtue of “birth,” natio) correlated with political sovereignty and self-determination (the “state”): thus, France for the French, Germany for the Germans, Spain for the Spanish, and so forth. Many countries still recognize citizenship along genealogical lines (for instance, until recently becoming a Japanese meant joining a Japanese genealogy). Still, not all modern states are ideal nation-states (some are explicitly plurinational states [Bolivia]; some ethnolinguistic nations are split into two [Korea]; and some “nations” do not enjoy statehood [Kurdistan; Palestine]).

Ancient Citizenship Citizenship in the Greco-Roman world was very different from today, when it pertains to “nationality,” however defined.

1. Originally the formal and legal language of citizenship applied to membership in a city-based citizen community. The Roman Empire was technically the empire of a particular city. Roman citizenship, therefore, was not a matter of national identity, but of privileged membership in the city that ruled the Mediterranean region. Our English terminology of citizenship has evolved from city-based concepts, in particular from Anglo-Norman citesein (resident of a city; from the Old French cité, city), from the Latin cives (citizen) and civitas (city), and from the Greek politēs (citizen) and polis (city, citizen community).

The terminology and formal legal concepts of “citizenship” were first developed in the context of the Greek city-state system. A citizen (politēs) was a member of a city (polis, citizen community) organized around a particular constitution (politeia) and governing institutions (politeuma). It thus enjoyed and practiced a particular citizenship (politeia, manner of life). Greeks shared a broader pan-Hellenic ethnolinguistic identity as Greeks (perceived in contrast to “barbarian” nations). But more important from the archaic period (800 BCE) to the Macedonian conquest of greater Greece in 338 BCE was formal membership in a sovereign and autonomous city-state constituted as a citizen community (polis). In that context, “citizenship” was thus originally a way of defining urban privilege. In its more limited meaning, a citizen was an adult male (a) who as “free” enjoyed privileges of membership in an urban community (as opposed to slaves or dependent and taxed farmers in the surrounding region under a city’s jurisdiction), and (b) who as a member of the citizen “assembly” (ekklēsia) was eligible to participate in some manner in the governance of a city (though this varied, based on whether the city governance was autocratic, oligarchic, or democratic). More broadly, citizenship pertained to a city-based citizen community and could informally include the dependent women and children of an adult male citizen. After the conquests of the Macedonian Alexander the Great (334–323 BCE), numerous cities of the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed (from Asia Minor to Egypt and Mesopotamia) were founded according to this Greek model.

For many other peoples of the ancient world, however, political identity (with ethnic, religious, linguistic, genealogical, and geographical dimensions united into one) was primarily a function of being a member of an ethnolinguistic “nation” (Gk. genos, ethnos). This was true of the Israelite nation and many others. By the first century, city-based citizenship terminology (politeia) could thus be appropriated informally to refer to membership in or identity as an ethnic people-nation (e.g., Eph 2:12).

2. In modern liberal-democratic states, citizenship is generally held by the vast majority of those who reside in the country (usually only excluding immigrants and aliens). In contrast, citizenship in the Greco-Roman world demarcated a privilege that excluded many residents of a city or region—not only the migrants (metics), but also the poor (urban poor and peasant farmers) and slave classes, and technically women and children. Thus the population of any city and its surrounding dependent regions was comprised of citizens and noncitizens, with the relative percentage of each varying from place to place. As Athens slowly absorbed all of Attica, Athenian citizenship was enjoyed by the majority. By contrast, Sparta annexed conquered populations, retaining them as second-class state-serfs (Helots), while granting citizenship only to the privileged elite in the conquered territories.

In first century, only 10 percent of the Roman Empire’s population of around 60 million enjoyed Roman citizenship, most of those residing in Italy. Only after the special privileges pertaining to Roman citizenship were significantly reduced in value was Roman citizenship granted to almost all adult males in 212 by the emperor Caracalla. By then, other social categories had become routinely used to ensure legal, political, and economic privilege.

3. Citizenship was conceptualized genealogically (often with particular tribes or clans holding greater or lesser status). Roman citizens held the coveted three names (tria nomina), and the middle name always designated a person’s tribal name (gens). To become a Roman citizen legally, one needed to formally join a Roman tribal genealogy. Roman citizenship included the right of connubium—marriage with full-blooded Romans and citizenship for offspring. As Republican Rome slowly achieved ascendancy throughout Italy and beyond (3rd c. to 1st c. BCE), a persistent struggle was whether or not to grant its closest “allies” citizenship in Rome proper. Part of the debate was whether to absorb these new citizens into existing Roman tribes or whether to create new tribes (presumably with lesser status). In the early Principate (beginning in 27 BCE), many new citizens in the provinces were granted a Julian or Claudian tribal identity at the behest of their imperial patrons (the Julio-Claudian dynasty, 27 BCE–68 CE). Meanwhile, in the 30s CE, the city of Alexandria requested the creation of a new Roman tribe into which their worthy elite could be inducted.

4. In modern liberal-democratic states, all citizens are formally equal in status and privilege (as was the case in the ideal covenant community of Israel). This principle did not generally hold in the ancient world. Most cities required a minimum level of wealth or income for citizenship eligibility, and financial levels determined the level of office one might hold. For instance, in the city of Tarsus, the constitution was rewritten in 30 BCE after a certain Athenodorus was able to take power and set up a pro-Roman oligarchy. Those not granted citizenship were permitted to purchase citizenship for the price of 500 drachmae (around two years’ gross income for a laborer). As in other ancient cities, Roman citizens were strictly ranked according to their legal “order”: from aristocratic patricians (senators, equestrians, decurions [magistrates in the provinces]) to plebeians (commoners), with privileges and opportunities pertaining to those statuses. Requests for obtaining Roman citizenship from aliens included a census (financial) rating. Some aliens were granted partial Roman citizenship rather than full citizenship.

5. During the Roman Empire, various levels of citizenship existed (depending on the relative status, privileges, and power of the city in which one might have been a citizen). An individual could hold multiple citizenship memberships at the same time. For instance, the “free” population of the city of Alexandria was graded according to the following levels of citizenship (levels of legal status and rights), from top to bottom: Roman, Latin (an intermediate status), Alexandrian (Greek), Judean (who were allowed some level of internal governance as a “political body” [politeuma] led by a ruling “council” [boulē]), and finally native Egyptian. Paul could claim citizenship in the city of Rome (the highest citizenship available), the city of Tarsus (Acts 21:39), and in the polity of the nation Israel (Rom 9:4; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Some provincial cities (certain groups of individuals within cities) were granted Roman citizenship as municipia or colonia of Rome, while other communities (or individuals) were granted “Latin rights” (based on the earlier framework of the Rome-led Latin League).

6. For many provincials (residents of the conquered, occupied territories) who somehow gained it, Roman citizenship provided a legal framework for status and privilege and was not celebrated as a primary “national” identity. That status was often treated as a practical benefit, not as a statement of identity, allegiance, or culture. Nevertheless, Romans expected a certain loyalty of those granted citizenship. Oaths of loyalty were a key part of the citizenship ceremony. Officeholders (magistrates) in cities ranked as “Roman municipalities” were required to take oaths of citizenship, including oaths of allegiance to Roman gods and (divinized) rulers. In one surviving text from the regime of Domitian (81–96 CE), the order is that incumbent officers (duovirs, aediles, quastors)

shall in a public meeting take oath by Jupiter, by the deified Augustus, by the deified Claudius, by the deified Vespasian Augustus, by the deified Titus Augustus, by the genius [guardian spirit] of Domitian Augustus, and the [municipal] tutelary gods, that they will properly perform whatsoever they believe to be in accordance with this charter and in the public interest of the [Roman, Latin] citizens of the municipality. (Lewis and Reinhold: 322)

Privileges of Roman Citizenship The legal protections, privileges, exemptions, and social distinctions that accompanied Roman citizenship in a typical city of the empire were considerable. These included protection from the arbitrary power of ruling magistrates and governors, intermarriage with Romans, exemption from torture or corporal punishment without trial, freedom to conduct legal business in Rome, portability of the status as a migrant away from Rome or Italy, the right of appeal to Caesar in court cases, and some immunity from some of the laws (e.g., taxes and civic obligations) of individual cities in the empire.

Obtaining Roman Citizenship Roman citizenship could be obtained (1) by birth, (2) by manumission from a Roman slave owner (with some limits to this), and (3) by citizenship grants to noncitizens and aliens. Because Roman citizenship was a marker or means of social, political, or economic status and success, access to it was carefully guarded, and attempts to gain it were energetic. Serious penalties were attached to false claims of Roman citizenship or to taking fraudulent steps for procuring Roman citizenship for oneself or one’s children. Birth from a single Roman parent did not make one a Roman. Generally, the status of a child followed the legal status of the “inferior” parent. Of course, the many children sired by Roman soldiers serving away from home had no claim to Roman citizenship.

Roman citizenship was regularly and extensively granted to the political and economic urban elite in pacified regions as a way to ensure their devotion and loyalty to Rome while serving as the empire’s ruling class. Romans often judged an alien’s display of loyalty (or lack thereof) to be far more critical than the person’s legal standing as a Roman, as demonstrated by the case of Paul, who languished for years in Roman prisons, and was finally executed (according to early Christian tradition; e.g., 1 Clement 5.1–6; Ignatius, To the Ephesians 12.1–2), probably on suspicion of treason.

Grants of citizenship during the period of the Roman Empire were controlled by the emperor, to whom requests were directed (usually by a provincial governor on behalf of someone deemed worthy). Grants of citizenship to provincials were commonly granted but often restricted to urban elites (municipal officeholders) as a way to ensure their loyalty and to bring them into the empire’s ruling class. Citizenship could also be obtained as a reward for services rendered to the Roman state, for instance, in commercial undertakings to supply grain to Rome or (most commonly) through military service. The prospect of obtaining citizenship at the conclusion of loyal and able military service became a crucial recruitment mechanism to staff the empire’s legions. Successful athletes were also regularly considered for citizenship. Since requests for citizenship were usually directed to the emperor from provincial governors or the emperor’s influential friends, citizenship could also be obtained through cash donations (bribery). (For Paul’s case, see Acts 16:22–24, 35–39; 22:25–29.) Sometimes a city might appeal to the emperor for a new Roman tribe to be inaugurated as a vehicle for some of their elite citizens to obtain Roman citizenship.

Registration and Proof of Citizenship For those born Romans, citizenship records were presumably stored in city archives, and perhaps a certified copy could be kept in one’s possession when traveling. For those granted citizenship after birth, lists of inductees were sometimes listed on bronze plaques in the city where the status was formally granted. While some might have carried certified papyrus or vellum diplomas, numerous bronze or wooden plaques of Roman citizenship have also been discovered. See Bruce; Cohen: 81, 125–27; Doughty; Garnsey and Saller: 15, 35, 87–88, 111, 115–16, 124; Goodman: 51–52, 78, 165–66, 219–20; Lefkowitz and Fant: 110, 114, 119, 121; Lewis and Reinhold: 52–55, 129–35, 134–35, 233, 321–23, 521–27; Kelly: 49–50, 60, 73, 130; Schürer: 134–37; Sherwin-White 1973, 1978.

Gordon Zerbe