Peregrini, Barbari, and Cives Romani: Concepts of Citizenship and the Legal Identity of Barbarians in the Later Roman Empire

Peregrini, Barbari, and Cives Romani: Concepts of Citizenship and the Legal Identity of Barbarians in the Later Roman Empire

By Ralph W. Mathisen

The American Historical Review, Vol.111: 4 (2006)

In recent years, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, increasing attention has been paid to changing concepts of citizenship in the context of the globalization of the economy, politics, and society. The interrelationships among citizenship, nationality, ethnicity, and identity have evolved as a consequence of factors such as a renewed role for religious identity and mass migrations that have altered the ethnic composition and influenced the cultural norms of the society of nearly every modern nation. Traditionally, in order to become a citizen of an established nation‐state, a foreigner has been expected to profess the acceptance of certain moral, cultural, and political views. At a 2005 press conference, for example, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated, “People who want to be British citizens should share our values and our way of life.” In this model, citizens receive certain privileges and are liable to certain obligations.

A model of citizenship based on geographically delimited nation‐states now is sometimes considered to be unsuited to modern multiethnic, multiracial, and supranational societies.6 Rather than a formal juridical status based on fixed principles, citizenship also can be viewed as a process of negotiation between established values and the values of newcomers into a society. Increasing attention likewise has been given to metaphorical or philosophical forms of citizenship, and to the “relationship between … citizenship and moral and intellectual integrity.” Thus, one can be a citizen not only of a nation, but also of more diffuse and inclusive bodies, such as the European community or even the world. Cosmopolitanism, it has been suggested, now denotes a “world community … where relations between individuals transcend state boundaries” and a belief in “basic human rights that all individuals should enjoy.” As noted by April Carter, “The idea of world citizenship is fashionable again.” All of these manifestations of citizenship can supply unifying elements that are otherwise lacking in diverse societies, where citizenship “fosters social cooperation and identification that avoid the divisiveness of racial, religious, and ethnic affiliations.” Citizenship thus can provide forms of personal identity that are defined either narrowly, by how the population of a nation is defined and treated under the law, or broadly, by the acceptance of a set of philosophical and moral concepts.

Similar ideas were discussed or even implemented in antiquity in ways that have much to teach us. Although one must take care not to press apparent parallels too far, the ancient world, and in particular the later Roman Empire, can provide us with a laboratory for investigating what does and does not work in dealing with the interlocking issues of citizenship, ethnicity, and identity. It permits us to inform our understanding of emotionally charged phenomena from a more distanced and objective perspective. The concepts of cosmopolitanism and world citizenship go back at least to Hellenistic philosophies of the fourth and third centuries b.c.e. The Cynic Diogenes, for example, stated that he was “a cosmopolite”: “a citizen of the world.” The Stoics believed that the whole world constituted the only true city, whose citizens were of necessity “good” people. In the Roman Empire, in the early second century c.e., the Stoic philosopher Epictetus likewise spoke of being a “citizen of the world.”14 Even the philosopher‐emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) called himself a “citizen of the world‐city,” opining that “under its laws equal treatment is meted out to all.”

In general, however, universal citizenship that transcends traditional legal, social, or national boundaries, that presupposes that all citizens are “good people,” or that does not distinguish between citizens and noncitizens (or between “haves” and “have‐nots”) exists only in the mind and spirit, not as a formal juridical status. Not even Marcus Aurelius, fortified with the authority of a Roman emperor, manifested his concept of world citizenship in Roman legislation. And in the modern day, the recent problems with the passage of a European constitution, which states that “every citizen of a Member State is a citizen of the Union and enjoys dual citizenship, national citizenship, and European citizenship,” provide just one example of the practical difficulties inherent in creating forms of citizenship that transcend the borders of traditional nation‐states.

It may be, in fact, that the closest the world ever came to implementing a form of world citizenship was during the later Roman Empire. Beginning in the early third century, the Roman government worked to maximize the number of persons to whom Roman ius civile, the law of Roman citizens, applied. Emperors and jurists created a practical manifestation of universal citizenship that was rather different from the views of the philosophers.18 In the process, a number of problems with a curiously modern feel had to be confronted, including how to create a form of citizenship that was not predicated on an antithesis between “citizens” and “noncitizens,” how to deal with new concepts of Christian religious identity, and how to integrate multitudes of foreign immigrants (otherwise known as “barbarians”) with different cultural values who created a more ethnically diverse society.

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