Roman citizenship bestowed political and legal rights that were recognised throughout the Roman Empire, irrespective of your religious, ethnic or social background. However, before the reign of Caracalla (209-217) possession of the citizenship was heavily restricted – most citizens were citizens by birth, with a small number of people joining the citizen body annually as a reward for military or political services to the State. In contrast, wealth could be acquired by one’s own efforts: barbarians, freedmen and even slaves could be wealthy. However, even the poorest citizen was ranked higher and possessed more rights and privileges than anyone possessing mere wealth.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul was a Roman citizen by birth. During one of his missionary visits to Jerusalem (in 57 AD), he provoked a riot by the local Jewish community when he attempted to visit their Temple. According to Acts, he voluntarily entered into Roman custody to avoid being killed.
You might think voluntarily entering official custody is a bit odd. But in practice, St Paul played his trump card. With a Jewish mob screaming for blood and alleging that he had broken Jewish laws, St Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen – by demanding that the allegations be heard in a Roman court, with the Roman governor as the judge. And surrounded by the Roman garrison of Judea, St Paul was safe from the mob.
Paul remained in imperial custody for several years, being moved in secret shortly after his (technical) arrest to Caesarea (the Roman capital of Judea) to keep him safe. He remained in custody for two years until the appointment of a new governor. The new governor re-opened the case and decided that St Paul should be tried in Jerusalem. Again, St Paul asserted his rights as a citizen to ‘appeal unto Caesar’. Paul was transported subsequently to Rome to await the verdict of the emperor.
In St Paul’s life we see the rights of a Roman citizen at work – the right to be tried in a Roman court, even when the offense related to provincial rather than Roman law; and the right to appeal a magistrate’s ruling to the emperor.
If you want to read a little more about Roman citizenship and all its complexities, see my article on Roman citizenship.