Origin of Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The origin of municipia represented an advance in the development of diplomatic relations between Rome and its neighbors.

Summary of Event

Vital to the expansion of Roman dominance in Italy was the discovery of a way to cement close relationships with small neighboring states. Although the bonds gradually forged with Italian towns and tribal groups since the mid-500’s b.c.e. were diverse in character, Roman diplomacy exhibited unprecedented sophistication in the terms imposed in the settlement in 338 b.c.e. Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus

Some thirty to forty smaller communities in Latium, south of Rome, had long been united for mutual defense and common religious rites before Rome itself entered into agreement with them, possibly as early as 493 b.c.e. Surviving records reflect a Roman bias, according to which Rome dominated Latin League decisions; in the 400’s, all members cooperated in rough equality against the Aequi and Volsci in the hills east of Latium. By the 300’s, the chief enemies were farther afield: Gauls in northern Italy, who had sacked Rome in 390, and Samnite tribes in the southern Apennine mountains, whom overpopulation and poor soil compelled to attack the Latins of the rich coastal plain. Latin League members exchanged some citizenship privileges such as intermarriage and recognition of commercial contracts; individuals could also abandon their homes and acquire new citizenship by establishing residence in another league town. The league occasionally founded colonies at strategic sites to serve as garrisons against its enemies; the coloniae became new members. From the 380’s, Rome achieved a supremacy that its partners resented. About 358 b.c.e., several league towns supported an attack on Rome, and in 340 b.c.e. almost the entire league and a number of places in Campania took up arms against Roman hegemony.

Led by Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus, hero of a famous duel against a giant Gaul, the Romans defeated their opponents by 338 b.c.e. The terms imposed at the restoration of peace are a milestone in Italian history, for the Roman senators established the principle of flexible treatment of beaten enemies. Rome retained and adapted the essential features of this settlement for centuries. Two points preface the ensuing discussion. First, as in civil law, Romans distinguished categories of people (free-slave, citizen-foreigner, in patria potestate-sui juris, and so forth), so in diplomacy they distinguished types of community; consequently, some technical terms are essential. Second, at the time citizenship was membership in one’s home community, not some larger unit. Two hundred fifty years later, the Romans devised a national citizenship: The Julian Law of 90 b.c.e. built on the principles formulated in 338 b.c.e. and applied over the next century, as it extended Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of Italy.

In 338 b.c.e., Rome disbanded the old Latin League and replaced it with a new system. With the addition of other peoples, it became the Roman alliance system. (This is a modern term of convenience; it was not a federation, which implies an approximate equality among members.) The victor ended the independence of five nearby towns by incorporating their inhabitants as citizens of Rome. These places, at least as old as Rome, became the first municipia (municipium in the singular) and their residents Roman municipes (municeps in the singular), so called because they undertook (ceperunt) the obligations (munera) of citizenship. Coloniae were new foundations, whether on a new site or replacing a destroyed town. Fresh treaties with the other Latin cities, chiefly league colonies, defined them as allies (socii) of Rome. These peoples retained their old rights, but henceforward only with Rome.

Farther south there were a number of populous communities that controlled the fertile lowland plain called Campania, situated between the Samnites to the east and south and the Romans to the north. Capua, the largest city in Campania, appealed in 343 b.c.e. for Roman aid against Samnite aggression and received help. During the Latin War of 340-338 b.c.e., citizens of Capua and a few other Campanian communities assisted the Latins against Rome, but the upper-class Campanian cavalry remained loyal to Rome. Rome consequently rewarded the nobles of Capua and several smaller towns in Campania with what the historian Livy calls civitas romana, that is, Roman citizenship. Also described as civitas sine suffragio, or “citizenship without suffrage,” this qualified citizenship specifically excluded the right to vote in Roman elections or to hold offices in Rome, but it did include the obligation to serve with the Roman legions when called on to do so. These towns were also designated as municipia. Cives sine suffragio were similar to Latin socii: Already citizens of Rome, they had the rights of marriage and commerce with Romans; neither group could vote or hold office at Rome. This partial Roman citizenship subordinated the municipia to the military and diplomatic dominance of Rome, but it also allowed Italian cities to retain almost complete freedom in local self-government. This autonomy was a practical necessity, as Rome lacked the machinery to govern its enlarged territory. Itinerant prefects (praefecti) sent out from Rome kept a watch on the municipia. Inscriptions reveal a considerable variety in the titles of municipal magistrates for years; for instance, Capua continued to be governed by its own traditional magistrates.


The municipium with civitas sine suffragio was one of two highly effective political weapons in Rome’s steady expansion after 338 b.c.e.: Nineteen were established in 303-270 b.c.e., the first few among the Volsci but most in central Italy outside Latium. The other was the Latin colony, of which eighteen were founded in 338-268 b.c.e. The municipia sine suffragio and coloniae Latinae showed remarkable loyalty during the Second and Third Samnite Wars between 326 and 290 b.c.e.; slowly they confined the Samnites to their mountain homelands and cut them off from potential allies such as the Etruscans. Though Rome probably intended civitas sine suffragio to be a permanent condition, it gradually elevated these municipia to full citizenship (civitas optimo iure). Some Sabine communities moved up in 268 b.c.e., the first block grant of full citizenship to non-Latin people; the rest followed in 241 b.c.e.; and the people of Arpinum (including the families of Marius and Cicero) and Formiae received civitas optimo iure in 188 b.c.e., a consequence of loyalty during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. Civitas sine suffragio disappeared over the second century. The Latins, however, did not acquire civitas Romana, though like the cives sine suffragio they shared some of the fruits of Roman military victories and preserved their own self-government. Of less importance was the Roman citizen colony: Few in number (eight by 264 b.c.e.) and small in size (three hundred families), their inhabitants remained full citizens of Rome with little autonomy. Diplomacy was as important as battlefield superiority in the spread of Roman political power. Some fifty-five communities below a line from Cosa on the west to Ariminum on the east combined with the growing mass of Roman citizens to extend Roman culture and Latin language throughout peninsular Italy.

Incorporation of the remaining people of Italy as allies (socii) completed the Roman alliance system. These groups lacked the relatively privileged status of the Latins and cives sine suffragio, for though allowed a measure of autonomy, they could not intermarry or conduct business with Romans and had no hope of full citizenship. This inferior treatment explains why the revolt of 90 b.c.e. was almost entirely confined to the Italian allies.

As Rome’s domination extended in later centuries beyond Italy, terms such as municipia changed in meaning. The Julian Law of 90 b.c.e. extended citizenship to all people south of the Po River. Existing towns easily converted into municipia, and the less urbanized people formed municipia by amalgamating their villages and hamlets (fora, conciliabula, and so forth). Over the next century, these towns gradually adopted annual quattuorviri (two duoviri iure dicundo, judicial officials modeled on Rome’s consuls, and two aediles). From then on, all Italian towns were either coloniae or municipia.

In the Roman Empire, the institution of the municipium spread widely. Grants of municipal status in the form of charters conferring increased rights to manage local affairs with Roman-style government emanated from the capital. Town elites became Roman citizens by holding local office, a practice appearing in the 120’s b.c.e., in Italy. The process is best known in Spain, where Vespasian, recognizing their Romanization, elevated all the native (noncolonial) communities to Latin municipalities in 70-79 c.e.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bruun, Christer, ed. The Roman Middle Republic: Politics, Religion, and Historiography. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2000. A collection of papers from a 1998 conference on Roman history from c. 400-133 b.c.e. that provides a background for understanding the colonies. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lintott, A. W. The Roman Republic. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. A concise history of the Roman Republic that deals with politics and government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salmon, E. T. The Making of Roman Italy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salmon, E. T. Roman Colonization Under the Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salmon, E. T. Samnium and the Samnites. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967. These three works are probably the best introduction to the role and historical context of coloniae and municipia; consequences of enfranchisement from 90 b.c.e. forward.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwin-White, A. N. The Roman Citizenship. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. An authoritative and technical source.

Categories: History