The introduction of citizenship of the European Union in 1992 is mirrored by a famous grant of ‘universal’ citizenship by the Roman emperor Caracalla in 212 AD, the constitutio Antoniniana. The similarity even extends to the 1997 clarification that European citizenship is complementary to national citizenship, an idea that is also found in Roman documents such as the Tabula Banasitana.
Caracalla’s benefice is often held to cover (nearly) all inhabitants of the Roman world with the exception of slaves. However, there are reasons to believe it merely gave limited citizenship to a certain class of freedmen, the Junian Latins, who remained in a state of dependency.
The status group itself was not abolished until the sixth century, and then only with an express stipulation that the abolition would not work retroactively. This implies that new Junian Latins came into being after 212 AD. This notion is enforced by the amount of legislation devoted to them in late antiquity.
It is also unlikely that the grant offered much to those Junian Latins alive in 212 AD. The patron’s interest in a freedman had a monetary value (an expectation of gain from inheritance). This value would be lessened by a grant of full citizenship that gave greater autonomy to the freedman, particularly in the drafting of wills. For this reason, imperial grants of citizenship carried the danger of infringing pre-existing patronal rights. Roman emperors had traditionally been careful to safeguard such rights. Pliny, for instance, had to take great pains to assure the emperor Trajan that the patron of a freedman did not object, when petitioning for citizenship on the freedman’s behalf.
Caracalla’s grant was drafted by a chancery overflowing with some of Rome’s greatest legal minds. It is more likely that they followed precedent by granting citizenship under a clause safeguarding pre-existing rights, than that they sought to disrupt the fabric of Roman society. Not a single complaint from a patron is known following the major extension of citizenship.
In all, the desire to uphold the second-class status of Junian Latins had little to do with their status as former slaves. Slavery was universal in antiquity; but many slaves acquired their freedom during their lifetime and became slave-owners and patrons to freedmen themselves. The categories of patron and freedman were not necessarily arraigned against each other, but could easily overlap.
The invention and grant of near-universal citizenship in 212 AD was a major conceptual and legislative leap. It could only succeed as an integrative force, uniting all the peoples within the empire into a single citizen body under a single rule of law, by not disintegrating social structures. That is a lesson European lawmakers may well take to heart.
Curious to know more? A full article will appear shortly in a special issue of the Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law: 19 MJ 2 (2012) 223-239.