Julian Law Expands Roman Citizenship Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Julian Law extended Roman citizenship to the southern two-thirds of Italy, transforming the concept of citizenship and creating the first nation in history.

Summary of Event

For centuries the Romans, as did all the peoples of ancient Italy, thought of their community in ethnic rather than geographical terms: The state was a people, the Res Publica Populi Romani. Its members (citizens, cives) possessed distinct duties, privileges, and rights. The foremost duties were the payment of various taxes and compulsory service in the military; the chief privilege was eligibility for elective public office. The rights of citizenship (civitas) were more comprehensive and ultimately, for most people, more valuable: conubium, the right to contract a valid marriage; commercium, the right to own private property and to enter into contracts that were enforceable in court; the right of appeal in the face of cruel and arbitrary punishment by a public official; and the right to vote on proposed legislation and on candidates for elective office. Livius Drusus, Marcus Silo Pompaedius Caesar, Lucius Julius Strabo, Gnaeus Pompeius Sulpicius Rufus, Publius Marius, Gaius

Two and a half centuries of constant warfare gave Rome domination of Italy by the end of the First Punic War in 241 b.c.e. In the course of the fighting, Rome devised a flexible three-tiered system to control its defeated rivals. Roman citizens were the first category. Nearly all Romans were citizens from birth. On rare occasions individuals received citizenship through government grant, and the children of freed slaves became citizens.

The Latins received preferential treatment; they were geographically and culturally close to Rome and prior to 338 b.c.e. were Rome’s full partners. These “allies of the Latin name” (socii nominis Latini), the second tier, were given commercium and conubium together with limited voting rights in Rome. For a time, Latins could migrate to Rome and obtain Roman citizenship, though this right (ius migrandi) ceased in the 170’s b.c.e. Within another fifty years, Latins who held local political office thereby won Roman citizenship. This ingenious and not altogether disinterested provision ensured each city a small ruling class, primarily loyal to Rome. All “Latins-become-Romans” had to abandon their original citizenship, for one could not be a citizen of two communities simultaneously. The Latins were numerically the smallest of the three categories. A few peoples received citizenship without the vote (civitas sine suffragio), a category that was close to Latinitas; by the end of the second century they had acquired full civitas.

The remaining communities of Italy were treated as allies, socii, bound to Rome by formal treaties that specified their obligations and rights. These peoples varied widely, from urbanized Greeks and Etruscans to the numerous tribal populi lacking central governments, notably the Samnites and Marsi. The common feature of this third tier was its members’ cultural difference from Rome. They retained their local autonomy except in matters of foreign policy, where they had to follow the will of Rome. Although they were exempt from the payment of tribute and taxes, they had to provide troops at Rome’s request even for wars that did not affect their own security directly. Furthermore, they were under the vague and general obligation to respect Rome’s dignity and to preserve its power.

This threefold alliance system with its fine gradations functioned smoothly in the beginning. The efforts of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-182 b.c.e.) at fomenting insurrection among Rome’s allies in the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.) had insignificant results. In the course of the second century, however, the situation gradually worsened. Enormous changes swept over the peninsula. Rome established control over north Italy, called Cisalpine Gaul, whose largely Celtic population joined the number of socii. By this time, Rome was acquiring lands outside Italy, called provinces, and Rome compelled the Latins and Italians to provide a disproportionate share of the incessant and heavy military demands—and discriminated against them when sharing out the spoils of war.

Further, Roman citizenship had become far more valuable than earlier, and Roman officials are known to have violated the allies’ treaty rights. By the 140’s, the allies were demanding the protection of full citizenship, but the conservative senate and jealous Roman assemblies rejected their appeals. In 125 b.c.e., Rome destroyed the Latin colony of Fregellae when it revolted in frustration, and then the voters rejected the proposals of Marcus Fulvius Flaccus (d. 121 b.c.e.) and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (153-121 b.c.e.) to extend the citizenship. The terms of the bills are uncertain (perhaps full civitas to the Latins and Latin rights to the Italians), and in any case, they failed to pass.

In 91 b.c.e., the reform program of the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus included a proposal to extend citizenship to the allies. Passions ran high on both sides. The bill failed, he was murdered, and fighting broke out. The war goes by various names: Social (from socius), Marsic (Marsi were among the leaders), or Italian (from the belligerents). Under the command of the Marsian Silo Pompaedius, the allies revolted and established their own confederation of Italia, with its seat at Corfinium. They began issuing their own coinage and put a huge army in the field. For a time Rome was close to disaster but slowly gained the upper hand. Several factors combined to bring about a Roman victory. With one exception, Venusia, the Latins remained loyal and Rome used their towns as strongholds. Few Etruscans, Gauls, other northern peoples, or Greeks defected. The Samnites and Marsi were the most resolute enemies, as they had been among Rome’s bitterest enemies in the fourth century b.c.e. The rebels had no tradition of union and failed to coordinate effectively. Most important, Rome undercut the rebellion by judicious concessions.

In 90 b.c.e., the consul Lucius Julius Caesar, second cousin once removed of the more famous Julius Caesar, carried the Lex Julia: De civitate Latinis et sociis danda (Julian Law on giving citizenship to the Latins and [Italian] allies), which granted full citizenship to all communities south of Cisalpine Gaul—and the four Latin colonies in it (Piacenza, Cremona, Bologna, and Aquileia)—which had not joined in the revolt or promptly abandoned it. This was the major act of enfranchisement and it decisively changed the nature of Italy. Urbanization proceeded rapidly, and with it relative administrative uniformity, as populi were upgraded to municipia and joined the older coloniae. Roman citizenship was now well on the way to becoming a national institution, and Italy was distinct from the provinces.


Subsequent laws supplemented the Lex Julia. In 89 b.c.e., Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo’s Lex Pompeia evidently made Cisalpine Gaul a province (its southern border set at the Arno and Rubicon Rivers), granted Latin status to the mostly Celtic peoples north of the Po River, and attached them to the former Latin colonies, which were now Roman municipia. This extension of Latinitas manifests Roman flexibility: Latinity was coming to be seen as a condition halfway to full citizenship and independent of its homeland in Latium. The Gallic Latins became citizens in 49 b.c.e., and Cisalpine Gaul was incorporated into Italy in 42 b.c.e. Rome was henceforward the common patria of all free Italians, including women. In later centuries, both Latin status and full citizenship spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Registration of the masses of new citizens was controversial. Fearing the loss of their ability to control political life, conservatives wanted to pack them in a few of the older tribes. In 88 b.c.e., the tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus proposed that they be distributed evenly through all thirty-five tribes. He turned to the military hero Gaius Marius for help. The sixty-eight-year-old Marius favored equitable treatment for the Italians and through marriage had become an in-law of the Caesars. Rufus transferred to him the eastern command, which the senate had assigned to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, one of the consuls elected in 88 b.c.e. In the ensuing civil war, Sulla marched on Rome and killed Rufus. Marius fled, returned, proscribed his enemies (including the Caesar who passed the law of 90 b.c.e.), and died in January, 86 b.c.e., two weeks into his seventh consulship. A few years later, Sulla became dictator, but accepted the distribution of the new citizens in all thirty-five tribes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brunt, P. Italian Manpower, 225 b.c.-a.d. 14. 1971. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Places the question of citizenship in the context of population trends, including emigration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyson, Stephen L. Community and Society in Roman Italy. 1992. Reprint. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Examines the relationship dynamics between rural Italian communities and Rome in the period between the end of the Second Punic War and the Middle Ages. Good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Jane F. Being a Roman Citizen. New York: Routledge, 1993. A comprehensive study of Roman citizenship, discussing the differences in rights among different categories of person, especially the handicapped, women, and children.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnston, David. Roman Law in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. This survey describes how the theoretical rights of Roman citizenship operated in practice.
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Categories: History