Ancient Greek and Roman societies granted their citizens rights and responsibilities that slaves, foreigners, and other people who were considered subordinate did not possess. Citizenship rights changed over time. While the Greeks tended to limit citizenship to children born to citizens, the Romans were more willing to extend citizenship to include others who had previously been excluded, such as freed slaves.

Citizenship in Ancient Greece. In Greece, citizenship meant sharing in the duties and privileges of membership in the polis, or city-state*. Citizens were required to fight in defense of the polis and expected to participate in the political life of the city by voting. In return, they were the only ones allowed to own land and to hold political office. Because citizens controlled the wealth and power of the polis, the Greeks carefully regulated who could obtain citizenship. In general, only those free residents who could trace their ancestry to a famous founder of the city were considered citizens. Only on rare occasions would a polis grant citizenship to outsiders, usually only to those who possessed great wealth or valuable skills.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory


The Athenian statesman Pericles proposed the law granting citizenship only to those whose parents were both citizens. He thought his own family was safe with regard to this law. After all, he had two sons, Xanthippus and Paralus, with his Athenian wife, and, though he and his wife divorced, both sons were considered citizens. But during the plague that devastated much of Athens in 430 B.C., both Xanthippus and Paralus died. Pericles had another son, also named Pericles, but his mother was not a citizen. Needing an heir, the elder Pericles asked the Athenian assembly to make an exception to his own law. Out of compassion for Pericles's loss of his two other sons, the Athenians awarded citizenship to his surviving son.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* oligarchy rule by a few people

Much of our knowledge of Greek citizenship comes from Athens. The statesman Cleisthenes reformed Athenian political life in the late 500s B.C. by assigning all citizens to a deme, or village. Each deme recorded and maintained a list of its citizens. As a result, the deme’s name became part of the official name of every Athenian citizen. A citizen might therefore be known as “Megacles, son of Hippocrates, of the deme of Alopeke.” Cleisthenes’ reforms allowed many more people to be counted as citizens, including, for the first time, poor Athenians.

Athenians jealously guarded their citizenship. Only after two years of military service were young men included on the citizenship lists. In 451 B.C., the Athenians passed a law limiting citizenship to those whose mother and father were both citizens. By the middle of the 300s B.C., it even became illegal for an Athenian citizen to marry a noncitizen. Only during the Hellenistic* period did Athenian citizenship become easier to obtain, and it was sometimes even purchased by wealthy people.

Most people in Athens did not have full citizenship rights. Although they might be citizens, women could not participate in most activities of the polis. While men held public positions, women were restricted to their households and their role limited to that of wife or daughter. The Greeks owned many slaves, who had no rights at all. Many resident aliens, called metics, lived in Athens, but they could not own land or vote, and they were required to pay special taxes.

Other Greek city-states limited citizenship rights even more than Athens did. In Greek oligarchies*, not all citizens were equal—only the wealthy or members of ruling families had full rights. In Sparta, citizenship was limited to members of the warrior class. An adult Spartan male had to serve in the military and keep himself trained and fit, or else lose his citizenship. Spartan citizens were freed from all work not directly related to the military. A large class of helots, conquered native people owned by the Spartan state, produced all the food the citizens required.

Citizenship in Ancient Rome. The Romans shared the Greek belief that citizenship involved certain responsibilities and privileges. Citizens in ancient Rome had the right to vote, the right to make legally binding contracts, and the right to enter into a marriage recognized as legal by the state (which established the legitimacy of children and the right to inherit). In return, Roman citizens were required to fulfill specific duties, including paying special taxes and serving in the military. Citizenship in ancient Rome was not the same for everyone. For example, certain inhabitants of Italy held partial citizenship, called sine suffragio, granting them all rights except the right to vote and hold office. Some noncitizens possessed limited rights, including the right to marry. Wealthy Romans also had more privileges by law than poorer citizens.

A person could become a Roman citizen in several ways, most commonly through a citizen father who was legally married. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were generous with the granting of citizenship to non-Romans, and this policy helped secure Rome’s empire. Certain peoples of Italy could become Roman citizens simply by moving to Rome. Slaves automatically became citizens when they were freed by their masters. Rome rewarded foreigners for their service to the state with citizenship. During the Roman Empire, citizenship was extended to favored individuals, cities, and sometimes entire provinces*. In A.D. 212, the emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. By that time, however, the right to vote had disappeared, and the most important rights of citizenship were held only by the nobility. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Democracy, Greek; Government, Greek; Government, Roman; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Oligarchy.)

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

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