How Did Romans Prove Their Citizenship & Identity? The Truth!

When it comes to the question of how Roman citizens proved their identity and their citizenship we have to differentiate between Roman citizens who had been born as Roman citizens and men who had been born as non-Romans but had received the Roman citizenship later in their lives. That was especially the case for soldiers of the auxiliary troops who received Roman citizenship as a reward after they had ended their military service.

Every Roman citizen was enrolled in tribal lists with information on his name, his father’s name, and the name of his voting tribe. The lists were updated every 5 years by the Censores. Men who became Roman citizens after fulfilling their service in the auxiliary troops received a diploma that proved their citizenship. A copy was stored in Rome so that every Roman citizen could be identified and his citizenship could be proven (although that was rarely necessary).

Let`s take a closer look!

How Did Native Romans Prove Their Citizenship?

Let`s start out by looking at the least complicated case. And that is the case that a baby was born as the child of a Roman father and a Roman mother. In that case, it was clear that the baby would also be a Roman citizen. By the way, the baby didn`t even have to be born in Rome for that. Important was only the fact that its parents were Roman citizens.

Every Roman citizen belonged to one of the 35 voting tribes (there were 25 voting tribes until 495 BC but that number reached 35 in 242 BC and stayed there).

So every Roman citizen was enrolled into the tribal lists of his voting tribe. But not only his name was written on the tribal list, but so was the name of his father and the name of his voting tribe. Every Roman citizen could be identified since he was registered in the lists of his voting tribe with his name and his father’s name. By the way. Freedmen were usually assigned to one of the 4 Urban voting tribes which had less political power than the rural tribes (to which the landowners and aristocrats usually belonged).

Do you want to find out more about how Freedmen were integrated into the society of Ancient Rome? Then I would like to recommend you my article here. There you can also find the difference between a Senator and an Eques.

Let`s take an example.

Let`s say we have a Roman with the name of Marcus Rufus Strabo. And let`s also say that he belongs to the Urban voting tribe of Suburana. Then he would be listed as Marcus Rufus Strabo, son of Sextus Strabo, from the voting tribe of Suburana. So in case a Roman citizen ever had to prove his citizenship or his identity, he could just refer to the lists of the voting tribe in which he was registered.

That allowed a clear identification of each Roman citizen even though Roman names could become pretty complicated (and long). Here you can find out more about how Roman names worked and why they got be so long.

It was one of the most important duties of the Censores, public officials who were only voted every five years, to update the lists of the voting tribes by performing a census. There, every citizen was counted and his age but also his property was registered. Additionally, the Censores also added new Roman citizens to the tribal lists and crossed out deceased citizens. The updated tribal lists were then returned to the aerarium in the Temple of Saturn on the Forum Romanum where these lists were stored.

However, while each citizen could be identified through the lists of the voting tribes that were stored in the Temple of Saturn that was almost never necessary.

One of the few occasions at which a Roman citizen had to prove that he was indeed a Roman citizen was when he wanted to join the Roman Legions. There were countless other requirements for joining the Roman Legions, but that is a story for another time. But even then the volunteer would most likely not rely on the official documents in the Temple of Saturn to prove his citizenship. Instead, he would use letters of recommendation from honorable people (ideally officers or politicians) who would vouch for the candidate.

It was extremely rare that a Roman citizen would need official proof of his citizenship, it was usually enough to name trustable witnesses. And it was generally pretty easy to identify a Roman citizen even outside of Rome by his language, his mannerism, his clothing, and his appearance. But in case the citizenship was questioned, Roman citizens would usually not need official proof like the tribal lists that were stored in the Temple of Saturn in Rome. Instead, it was usually sufficient to name reliable witnesses who could vouch for one.

Things were a little more complicated when men only received Roman citizenship during the cause of their lives.

Military Diplomas – How Retired Auxiliary Soldiers proved their Citizenship

The most common case and the case I would like to take a look at was when a soldier of the Roman auxiliary troops (these units were recruited from men who did not have Roman citizenship) had finished his full length of military service.

Then the former auxiliary men received Roman citizenship as a reward for decades of service.

It was extremely important that a former soldier of the Auxiliary troops could prove that he was now a Roman citizen. But more on why that was so important in a minute.

Let`s first look at how former soldiers of the Roman auxiliary troops proved their Roman citizenship.

Each veteran of the Roman auxiliary forces received a sealed bronze military diploma with which he could prove that he had fulfilled his military service and had received Roman citizenship as a reward. The diploma that was handed to the veteran was a copy, the original was stored in Rome. That, just like the tribal lists in the Temple of Saturn ensured that every Roman citizen could be identified and that (at least in theory) nobody could fall through the cracks.

Upon retirement, each auxiliary soldier received a military diploma that proved that the soldier had received Roman citizenship after 25 years of service. The military diplomas that proved the Roman citizenship of the retired auxiliary soldier were made from two bronze plates that were connected by a wire that was fed through holes in the fashion of a bookbinder. The two inner faces contained the text which was repeated on the front outer face. The rear outer face contained the names of the witnesses. The diploma was sealed with 7 seals to ensure its authenticity and prevent manipulations.

Once again the importance of having witnesses comes to show.

By having the text that states that the former soldier is now a Roman citizen on the front outside, and the names of the witnesses of the administrative act on the back outside, the citizenship could easily be proved without the need to break any seal.

The following shows a fracture of a military diploma that was handed out to a retiring soldier of the auxiliary troops in 203 AD.

The Military diplome of a Roman auxiliary solider from 203 AD

By the way. The texts in the military diplomas are also an important source since the name of the commander of the soldier’s last unit as well as the governor of the province in which the soldier was last stationed is listed. So the diplomas can be exactly dated to one year and that helps historians to retrace the movement of Roman auxiliary units.

Let`s say that historians find one diploma from the year 203 AD that was handed out in the province of Gaul. And then they find one diploma of the same unit that was handed out in Spain. Suddenly you can retrace the movement of the auxiliary unit through the Roman Empire throughout the years. Isn`t that fascinating how much can be read from a small piece of bronze?

But I still owe you an explanation why it was so important that a retired auxiliary soldier could prove that he was now a Roman citizen.

That had to do with his sons.

Technically the soldiers of the Roman auxiliary, just like the Roman legionaries, were legally not allowed to marry or have children. Needless to say that most men who served in the military for up to 25 years had (illegitimate) children nevertheless.

The soldiers could legitimate their families and children after they had retired! So when a retired soldier of the auxiliary troops (who was now a Roman citizen with all its privileges) had his children legitimated, then his sons were suddenly also Roman citizens. And as such they could enlist in the Roman legions (which paid double as much as enlisting in the auxiliary troops).

Here you can find out more about the pay of Roman legionaries and Roman auxiliary soldiers. And here you can find out more about the prices of daily goods in ancient Rome.

So when the former auxiliary soldiers were able to prove that they had indeed received Roman citizenship, then that opened their sons the way into the Roman legions and into a better financial future. Additionally, many veterans also started a career in the administration of the provinces for which proof of Roman citizenship was also crucial.

By the way.

Over time the sons of auxiliary men would become an important reservoir for new recruits for the legions. Since these young men had grown up around soldiers (the illegitimate families of soldiers were not allowed in the army camps but usually lived in closeby settlements) they were likely to also become soldiers. But that cycle is a story for another time.

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you want to find out more about Roman citizens (and what killed the Roman Middle class) then I would like to recommend you my article here.

And here you can find out more about how Rome governed newly conquered territories.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Lily Rose Taylor: The Voting Districts of the Roman Republic. The Thirty-Five Urban and Rural Tribes.*

Ian Haynes: Blood of the provinces. The Roman auxilia and the making of provincial society from Augustus to the Severans.*

Denis B. Saddington: The development of the Roman auxiliary forces from Caesar to Vespasian 49 BC – AD 79.

Jaakoo Suolahati: The Roman censors. A study on social structure.

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