Status, slavery and citizenship


The function of this chapter is to provide you with an overview of the basic structures underpinning Roman family law. When revising this chapter, read it in conjunction with chapter 5 on the Roman family as the latter forms the basic legal unit upon which many of the rules of law are founded.


Three separate yet related topics are surveyed in this chapter. The main component is (legal) status. The remaining two topics, slavery and citizenship, represent the polar opposites of the spectrum of legal statutes. Those subjected to slavery were effectively removed from the realm of the law of persons and reduced to property, whereas those who had (or had acquired) Roman citizenship had all the benefits (and obligations) conferred by the Roman law of persons. Within the category of citizens, certain power structures deriving from the paternal authority of the paterfamilias determined the extent of these benefits and obligations. It is vitally important to understand that for much of the duration of Roman civilization, one could only use Roman law if one had Roman citizenship. This principle (known as the personality principle) dictated that certain rules of law are available to someone on the basis of their legitimate birth from parents who were Roman citizens. While citizenship was periodically extended, it was not until 212 AD that this principle of personality of law was replaced with one of territoriality when most of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were given citizenship through imperial decree. Whether this was effect of the Constitutio Antoniniana of 212 AD is still widely debated (since the text is very fragmentary).

Important dates:

The Monarchy [Regal Period]: c 753 – 510 BC
The Republic: 509 – 27 BC
The Empire: 27 BC – 476 AD (West), - 1453 AD (East)

Important statutes mentioned:

Law of the Twelve Tables 451 – 450 BC
Lex Minicia (late Republic)
Lex Fufia Caninia 2 BC
Lex Iunia (Norbana) 19 AD
Lex Visellia 24 AD
Lex Petronia (1st century AD)
Senatus Consultum Claudianum 52 AD
Constitutio Antoniniana 212 AD


Focus on the following key facts when revising this chapter

  • (Legal) personality is inextricably linked to (legal) status. Since Roman law denied legal status to slaves, they were classified as property rather than persons. But even where one had (legal) status and therefore could access Roman law, legal status was never fixed. It could change according to one’s circumstances (see capitis deminutio).

Legal personality

  • The complexity of the concept when applied to non-human entities.

Legal status

  • The relationship between legal personality and legal status. Take specific note of the changes in legal status and the consequences of these (especially at the more serious end).

Freedom and Slavery

  • These concepts should be seen as providing the dividing line between ‘person’ and ‘thing’ in Roman law.
  • Reflect on the loss of freedom (especially as a punishment) and the main ways in which one could become a slave.
  • Reflect on the legal measures enacted (mostly during the empire) to protect slaves against cruel treatment by their owners. What do you think the motivations for these legal rules are?
  • The forms and consequences of manumission.
    • The legal consequences of formal versus informal manumission.
    • The range of legal statuses that could be acquired by those manumitted (compare here the position of the freedman versus his patron and the obligations associated with being a freedman).
    • The manumission reforms of Augustus.


  • The relationship between Roman citizenship and legal status
  • The ways in which citizenship could be acquired and lost
  • The different classes of citizens and their ability to utilise Roman law
  • The fate of non-citizens living in the Roman empire before 212 AD
  • The legal consequences of the Constitutio Antoniniana of 212 AD
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