At the individual level within the Roman Empire, people were divided into male Roman citizens, female Roman citizens, Latin Rights citizens, freedman, slaves and provincials.
Each category of persons had defined rights (or lack of) and responsibilities. Typically a person was born into their social category. A small number of people were rewarded annually with a status promotion in return for military or political services. Similarly, an individual could be punished for various crimes by having their status downgraded.
Male Roman citizens
A male Roman citizen was a citizen of the city of Rome or a city endowed with the rights of full Roman citizens (such as Roman colonies founded in the provinces). His specific rights included:
- Ius suffragiorum: The right to vote in the Roman assemblies. The constitution of the city of Roman included popular assemblies that could elect magistrates, pass laws, preside over capital trials, declare war or peace, and authorise or dissolve treaties with foreign powers. Rome had three types of assemblies:
- ‘Assembly of the Centuries’, in which citizens were organised into ‘centuries’ or voting groups.
- ‘Assembly of the Tribes’, in which citizens were organised into tribes. Originally the 35 Roman tribes were geographical divisions, however, as membership was hereditary the geographical distinctions became irrelevant over time.
- ‘Plebeian Council’, in which Roman plebeians could gather in their tribes without the Roman patricians (traditionally, the Roman aristocracy).
- Ius honorum: The right to stand for civil or public office.
- Ius commercii: The right to make legal contracts and to hold property as a Roman citizen.
- Ius gentium: The natural rights of a human being.
- Ius connubii: The right to have a lawful marriage with a Roman woman, to have the legal rights of the paterfamilias over the family, and to have the children of any such marriage accorded the status of Roman citizen.
- Ius migrationis: The right to retain one’s level of citizenship if the individual relocated to another city. Otherwise, on change of domicile, the individual would take on the (lower) legal status of his new city.
- The right of immunity from various forms of direct taxes (poll tax, land tax) and other legal obligations, especially local rules and regulations.
- The right to sue in the courts and the right to be sued.
- The right to have a legal trial (i.e. to appear before a Roman magistrate and to defend oneself).
- The right to appeal from the decisions of magistrates and to appeal the lower court decisions – including the right to appeal directly to the emperor for redress.
- Freedom from torture or whipping; freedom from the death penalty unless the individual was found guilty of treason.
- If accused of treason, a Roman citizen had the right to be tried in Rome. If sentenced to death, the citizen could not sentenced to die by crucifixion.
- The right to enlist in the Roman legions (however, sometimes non-citizens could be enlisted in the legions as well).
All other inhabitants of the Roman Empire had lesser rights than a male Roman citizen.
Female Romans. A female Roman possessed limited citizenship rights. She could not vote or stand for civil or public office. However, a Roman woman could:
- Own property.
- Engage in business.
- Obtain a divorce.
Latin Rights (ius Latii). Beginning in the era of the Republic, citizens of Allied cities could be granted a limited form of Roman citizenship. Following the end of the Social War (‘War of the Socii’, 91-88 BC), Italian Cities with Latin Rights were progressively upgraded to full Roman cities. Under the Empire, Latin Rights were bestowed on individual provincial cities and even individuals. Roman citizens convicted of certain crimes could have their status downgraded to that of a Latin or even a provincial. The specific rights of a Latin Right citizen included:
- ius commercii.
- ius migrationis.
- Ius connubii with a Latin woman.
- The right to enlist in the Roman legions.
Slaves were regarded as property and lacked personal rights. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, torture, and summary execution. Slaves could acquire property and use it as if it truly was their own property, though technically their masters were the true owners of the property. They could also earn money from outside employment or by working in a trade with the permission of their owner. Over time, they acquired various legal protections including the right to seek redress for cruel treatment by their masters.
Freedmen were former slaves that had been granted their freedom. Their former masters became their patrons, a relationship of mutual obligation between patron and client. Typically a freedman or woman took the legal status of their former master – for example, a freeman of a Roman citizen would become a Roman citizen – but with some restrictions.
- Freedmen who became citizens on manumission were prohibited from holding public office or becoming a senator. Their children, on the other hand, were able to enjoy the full rights of their parents’ citizenship status without restriction.
- Freedmen who were perceived to be threats to Roman society, such as rebels and criminals, assumed the status of provincials.
Provincials (or peregrini) were any free inhabitant of the Empire who were not otherwise accorded any higher status. Originally denoting ‘one from abroad’, peregini came to mean any free person as the Empire expanded. In civil matters, a peregrinus was subject to the customary laws and customs of their district.
A perigrinus held the rights of ‘ius gentium’ but not the ‘ius civile’ (‘law of citizens’) – which meant that they lacked many rights and protections accorded to full Roman citizens. For example, a provincial:
- Could be tortured during official interrogations, and subject to summary justice (including execution) at the discretion of the provincial governor.
- Could be discriminated against in civil suits involving in a citizen. In civil cases involving a citizen and a provincial, the case would be heard within a Roman court with the Roman governor as the presiding magistrate. Further, the governor was likely to rule in favour of the citizen simply because the citizen ranked higher than the provincial.
- Could not designate a legal heir. When a provincial died, s/he died intestate – meaning that they had died without a will, and so their assets became the property of the state.
- Required to pay both a poll tax and a land tax – taxes from which a citizen was exempt.