Citizenship And Identity Laws For Germanic Groups In the Roman Empire

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The concept of citizenship within the Roman Empire transforms over hundreds of years, adapting to the growth in population, as well as the further development of societal, economical, and legal constructs, and the expansion of the physical empire itself. Transformations on Roman citizenship with the means of obtaining said citizenship come about as Roman governments create treaties with Germanic groups, commonly referred to as barbarians, and they become incorporated with everyday Roman life as well as other functions within the Roman Empire such as the military, political offices—of newly annexed lands, and so forth. These Germanic groups adapt to living within the Roman Empire through living alongside the people of the Roman Empire and participating in certain elements of daily Roman life such as land ownership and paying taxes among other elements. Due to the nature of the Roman Empire and its tolerance to previously implemented laws within these annexed lands, those who live in the cities often continued to follow their local laws until they became Roman citizens or until the Antonine Constitution in 212 CE. Said local laws were tolerated by the Roman government as long as they did not conflict heavily with the laws that Roman citizens followed themselves, therefore would adapt to that circumstance by influencing laws by Roman laws. Germanic groups within the Roman Empire have a unique experience with the development of the concept of Roman citizenship as laws and constitutions change and develop through time. That is, despite the Antonine Constitution’s providing of citizenship to the people of the Roman Empire, Germanic groups were excluded from holding a formal title of a Roman citizen. Regardless of the exclusion, the time in which Germanic groups became a part of the Roman Empire’s society influenced their way of life as they adopted many practices that Roman citizenship promised.

Citizenship in the Pre-Antonine Constitution Era

Citizenship within the Roman Empire was once considered to be an ‘elite legal status’ that provided Roman citizens with certain obligations and protections to selected individuals within the Empire. The protections that came with being a Roman citizen were covered in the social sphere—being permitted to get married with some restrictions by law— as well as legal affairs in the creation of wills and upholding of wills after death, and then in terms of protection of what is considered in modern day as unlawful treatment in the judicial portion of Roman life. The closer to the passing of the Antonine Constitution, in the early third century, legal distinctions considering criminal law were becoming more based on the distinction between honestiores, translated to distinguished people, and humiliores, or more humble people. Meaning, that the differences in the two groups defined by jurists, were susceptible to different forms of treatment under criminal law - for example, humiliores could encounter flogging, execution, or torture--something that would eventually change as the century went on.

Foreigners, also known as peregrini, were individuals who did not specifically hold the title of a Roman citizen but instead held the title of provinciales while living within the Roman Empire. The distinction of the title provinciales allowed those who lived in cities or towns annexed by Roman expansion to follow the laws that were already in place locally. Though the title was given to those who lived in the annexed regions and the local laws were still in place, prior to the passing of the Antonine Constitution, there were means in which the Germanic groups could become Roman citizens.

Ways in which citizenship could be acquired were through providing service to the Empire itself — two examples being military service through the auxilia or through serving on city councils. It seems necessary to acknowledge that citizenship was capable of being required by all within the Roman Empire, foreigner or slave, with the promise of offspring continuing on the trend of having Roman citizenship. The relationship that the Empire and its governing body with that of new occupants of new territories through annexation and expansion of the Empire creates an understandable work-for-title incentive.

That being said, the notion of receiving citizenship through means of intermarriage was not a possibility and that there were requirements for Romans to marry “barbarians” and vice-versa—that is that both had to be on the same legal ground. This only further backed the ideal that to gain citizenship in the Roman Empire there is a service needed to be paid. Even then, by 212 CE, the concept of Roman citizenship had changed drastically than it had been considered in different eras—in the Roman Republic for example—it as not an uncommon or privileged status, furthering the demoting of the notion of citizenship to be an “elite legal status”, and alluded to how accessible it was to obtain citizenship within the Empire. Which leads to the next topic of the Antonine Constitution and how it impacted the importance and role of citizenship to Germanic groups and other foreigners.

Antonine Constitution and its Changes

With the passing of the Antonine Constitution in 212 CE, the concept of citizenship and the means of getting it becomes somewhat irrelevant. The constitution itself in its surviving copy is fragmented, but what was translated from Carcalla’s decree is “I grant to all those in the Roman world the citizenship of the Romans”. The Antonine Constitution changed the notion of citizenship being a social status and turned it into an indication of having legal functions that included but were not limited to lawsuits, inheritances, property transfers and contracts which were more difficult to partake in previously due to the multitude of different legal practices of local annexed cities’ laws. That being said, certain groups of individuals in the Roman Empire were excluded from the decree, for example were the dediticii whom are to be discussed at a later point, but as Garnsey points out in Roman Citizenship and Roman Law in the Late Empire, that it took time for change to occur after the edict was passed and that local laws were continued to be tolerated by Roman administrations. The point in toleration of local laws was an established practice upheld by the Roman Empire when incorporating annexed lands into the Empire and implementing Roman government foundations, officials, and citizens.

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The major change that the Antonine was capable of producing was the bringing of rights to those who did not have them before. Of course, this change was not immediate and took many years for certain groups of people to obtain certain rights. But it is with the foundations put in place that laws were capable of being passed to provide such laws, for example, a law passed was in 349 allowed for women with children be heard in court granted they were considered free, or not a slave: “Moreover, We [the court] decree that the complains of a free mother shall be accepted and heard, whether she be freeborn, a freed woman, or the daughter of a freed persons, with the same condition that they be Roman citizens”.

These types of laws continued to be created as time went on and expanded to even more groups of people as slaves began to benefit from the Antonine Constitution’s foundations with providing rights for certain circumstances. The decree that outlines a case in which rights are provided to slaves when they are accusing on individuals of citizen status whether that be their masters or not, for in which with the rights given they are protected as any other Roman citizen would be under law: “Also We [the court] grant to their accusers immunity [from taxes and other compulsory public services], the measure of which since their property rating is unequal, shall be determined by Us for each individual.To slaves who report this crime We grant Roman citizenship, with the provision that their masters shall recover their price from the fisc”.

Lawyers during this time also benefited from Roman citizenship becoming essentially universal due to the fact that civil law would be capable of being applied to all individuals within the Empire. This was also extended to slaves and even to the dediticii who were excluded from the Antonine Constitution.

As with primary sources from this time period, and as mentioned before, the Antonine Constitution’s written form is has gaps within the writing and therefore are filled in by other historians using context of how society functioned and how previous laws under Caracalla and other emperors, it is assumed that there were protections in place for city laws and rights even after the Antonine Constitution passed. It seems, therefore, that the practice of allowing local laws and customs to still be implemented within the cities with Caracalla, the emperor who passed the Antonine Constitution, did not declare that Roman Law be implemented in the entire Empire and even the emperors after him neglected to acknowledge or take action to insure that Roman Law was Empire-wide and followed by all who were within its boundaries. Garnsey continues and discusses the belief that whether or not cities’ local laws were allowed to be in place post-Antonine Constitution, there were changes that could have occurred prior that would have the cities’ laws be influenced and adapted to Roman laws and their way of functioning or eventually the cities’ laws would have been integrated into Roman law and customs. In terms of how the change or implementation of cities’ laws to align with Roman customs would affect Germanic people or those who were not granted citizenship could bring up the question about how identities within the Roman Empire were handled by the Empire’s administration or how on an individual level if that affected the prospect of getting Roman citizenship or remaining a citizen of the city in which they live.

Questions that followed after the passing and implementation of the Antonine Constitution was concerning about foreigners that entered the Roman Empire after the Constitution — as multiple sources state, there are not many primary sources that have survived to explain such a question and it is thought that they either were in a sort of legal limbo, as said by Mathisen, or they just would have followed the means of gaining citizenship as prior to the Antonine Constitution. Primary sources that had survived come in the next few centuries after the Antonine Constitution with the continuation of perceptions on ‘barbarians’ and of Roman law. Sidonius Apollinaris states in the late-fifth century: “In this state (Rome) alone of the entire world only barbarians and slaves are peregrini” which essentially means that to be a Roman citizen one had to not identify as a slave or barbarian.

Levels of Citizenship in the Post-Antonine Constitution Era

In the Post-Antonine Constitution Era, citizenship was essentially universal for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire -- certain groups excluded as discussed. However, citizenship within the Empire were divided into categories. These categories provided and forbade certain groups rights or privileges that other groups within the Roman Empire may or may not have had. Mathisen divides these groups in his piece Becoming Roman, Becoming Barbarian as identities and proposed that these identified groups had certain aspects of their obligations and rights as citizens that different due to positions in the society. For example, the provinciales, or the non-servile inhabitants of provinces, were considered to be on a different level of citizenship due to the fact that he could not be considered a citizen or a provincial to serve in any office - which is to be assumed to mean that to be in office the individual had to identify with one or the other and follow certain standards or rules that the title provided. Certain obligations that the provinciales were required to uphold were stated in the Codex Theodosianus that listed the requirements of provinciales in terms of taxes, public service, donations/gifts provided to both the government/public and the military, as well as judicial or legal circumstances such as lawsuits and general courts. Identities of the Germanic groups also caused differences of how citizenship was perceived by the government and the community - these identities would have surrounded religious belief and ethnicity.

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