‘…I grant, therefore, to all foreigners throughout the Empire the Roman citizenship…’
With these words, Emperor Caracalla extended the rights and privileges of the Roman citizen to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire in 212.
Hitherto, free inhabitants of the Roman Empire were stratified by legal status: male Roman citizens, female Roman citizens, Latin Rights citizens, slaves, freedmen and provincials. The rights and protections of each category was divided sharply between male Roman citizens and everyone-else.
On a spectrum of inequality, Male Roman citizens had many rights whilst, at the lower end, Provincials and slaves had least rights.
Each category was also subject to different forms of taxation. For example, male citizens were subject to an inheritance tax and a tax on the manumission on slaves which Provincials were not required to pay. Provincials, on the other hand, had to pay a poll tax and a land tax.
Caracalla became co-emperor with his brother Geta in 211. Shortly afterwards (in December 211), Caracalla had Geta killed leaving him as sole emperor. In the following year, Caracalla proclaimed his Edict – variously known as the ‘Constitution [or Edict] of Caracalla’, ‘Constitution [or Edict] of Antoninus’ and the ‘Antonine Constitution’.
We know about the Edict from various sources. From a surviving copy of the Edict found in 1902 and published initially in 1910, and from some references in the writings of contemporaries: Ulpian, a jurist (c.170-228) and Cassius Dio, a consul and historian (c.155-235).
The Edict survives as a fragment, offering little detail about why the Edict was necessary or what the Edict was intended to achieve. Perhaps the core of the Edict, the granting of the Roman citizenship to ‘foreigners’ within the Empire, was thought to be sufficiently explicit.
Ulpian wrote that: ‘Those who are in the Roman world, are made Roman citizens by the constitution of Emperor Antonius.’
Cassius Dio was very critical of the Edict. He felt that the edict was not motivated by any altruistic motives. Instead, Dio argued that Caracalla was motivated by a desire for more state revenue. Caracalla, Dio claimed, ‘made it his business to strip, despoil, and grind down all the rest of mankind, and the senators by no means least’ (Dio 79.9.1). The money was needed to pay his soldiers, and for waging of unnecessary wars. The Edict was simply a bid for more state revenues. By dramatically increasing the number of citizens, Dio argued, Caracalla increased the number of people subject to the taxes on manumission of slaves and on inheritance. Such citizen only taxes were raised: the tax on the manumission was increased from 5% to 10% of the value of the slave, and from 5% to 10% of the value of the inheritance. And he abolished the exemptions for inheritance from a close family member that had previously been established (Dio 79.9.5). ‘…nominally he was honouring them, but his real purpose was to increase his revenues by this means, inasmuch as aliens did not have to pay most of these taxes’ (Dio 79.9.5).
Modern historians are divided on the value of the Edict for Caracalla. The increasing of the revenues from the taxes on manumissions and inheritances would not have offset the loss of revenues from the effective end of the Poll tax, formerly only paid by provincials (Johnson 1961). Further, rather than eliminating the legal distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, the Edict brought about a new schema for the stratification of legal rights: honestiores and humiliores. Honestiores had greater legal rights and privileges, while humiliores had less legal protection and were subject to harsher punishments (Southern 2001 cited in Hurley 2011).
Edicts of Caracalla: On Citizen, On Amnesty, and Expulsion from Alexandria (AD 212-215). Published in Johnson, Coleman-Norton & Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes, Austin, 1961, pp. 225-226, n. 277.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, Epitome of Book LXXVIII. Published in Vol. IX of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1927.
Hurley, Patrick, ‘Life of Caracalla’, Ancient History Encyclopaedia, 19 June 2011.
Manning, Joseph, ‘Roman Citizenship and the Edict of Caracalla’, Ancient World Tour, 7 July, 2011.
Varga, R, ‘Constitutio Antoniniana: Law and Individual in a Time of Change’, Centre for Classical Studies.