Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.40


Jane Gardner, Being a Roman Citizen. London: Routledge, 1993. Pp. vii + 244. $49.95. ISBN 0-415-00154-4.


Reviewed by John Bendix, Bryn Mawr College.

Jane Gardner is too modest when she claims that her book is "essentially ... about Roman law, meant for Roman historians." It is rather about the limits of citizenship during the Republic and early Imperial period, and in a sense her title is misleading. The book's focus is not so much on the disabilities of Roman citizens, the title of her first chapter, as it is about those who are not yet, or not complete, citizens.

This oblique approach can be justified for two reasons. The first is that Nicolet's (1976; engl. trans. 1980) exhaustive text already deals with those who were full citizens in Republican Rome, devoting particular attention to taxation, the army, and the census. The second inheres to the complications of defining citizenship.

Citizenship is rarely defined without prescriptive elements. The definition of reciprocal rights and duties vis-à-vis the community is not merely a formal relationship, but also contains messages about what is proper or improper behavior. The failure to disentangle these elements creates analytic problems that are usually resolved by defining citizenship in legal terms stating what the relation ought to be. Gardner instead focuses on what was the case; her fifth chapter "Behavior: Disgrace and Disrepute", illustrates the point.

The tactic of defining ideals by realities is useful particularly when it is not entirely clear, as during transitional periods when patrician power wanes and plebian power waxes, what citizenship means. Absent an ability to understand what rights and duties now exist or sufficient evidence to judge how fully rights are utilized or duties fulfilled, one can fall back upon an examination of social categories where rights are clearly special. An examination of what limits are placed on aliens, for example, permits a fuller reflection on what is assumed to exist for (and is perhaps not even perceived by) natives.

Gardner used a somewhat similar technique in her Women in Roman Law and Society (1986) where she examined different spheres (inheritance, marriage, dowry, work, etc.) in order to triangulate better on the nature of women's lives. But this enterprise is harder when applied to the more amorphous category of citizen. The second chapter of the present work, for example, deals with the problems and possibilities of freedmen to become citizens; the third with the dependent adult child, the fourth with the in dependent woman. Tutelage and ownership relations are clearly articulated, as are the legal niceties involved in emancipation, but the focus is really on the limitations of not being a full Roman citizen. The fifth and sixth chapters, which are concerned with behavior which incurred infamia and issues connected to handicapped citizens, come much closer to the sense of defining citizenship by its limits than the earlier chapters do.

Gardner closes the book by emphasizing the importance of the head of household, arguing that "reliance was placed on the pater to take care of much that in modern society is provided for, or enforced by, the state" (p. 179). Indeed, problems of freedmen, dependent adult children and women, could all be subsumed under a rubric of pater power, and a useful additional chapter would distinguish between how an individuals' relation to the state differed from what prevailed in the household. While it may seem elementary, a discussion of the differences between status libertatis, status civitatis and status familias would have helped a great deal in sorting out the issues Gardner touches upon.

Gardner's second conclusion related to literacy and the law is a good deal less clear, seeming to argue in part from evidence (e.g. that the law catered to the literate classes, and they are the ones who have left the most evidence), in part from the orality/literacy dimension (cf. Walter Ong) that the "legal distinctions between persons ... mattered" (p. 182). this seems an exceedingly uncontroversial point; I would have wished for a more interesting conclusion.

There are several issues which also could be touched upon. Modern citizenship is familiar with the change from subject to citizen after the French Revolution, but the collapse of the roman Republic, with the hierarchy increasing militarization necessitated, turned citizens into subjects, which is what they remained in the Imperial era. That transition in itself would be worthy of investigation. The complicated relations with the tribes that eventually culminated in the Edict of Caracalla in 212 AD, provide yet another background in which to view the development and contours of citizenship: those who are clearly not citizens (and what one should do about them). Internally, the differences between the jus publicum and the jus privatum are clearly of considerable relevance in understanding the status of all those who come under household jurisdiction.

Gardner has written a very readable, interesting treatise on those who are left out of full citizenship by virtue of their status, and a little about those who by their behavior ease themselves out. I wish she had done a little more on the concept of citizenship itself -- recent works by Turner, Barbalet, or Heater all raise provocative thesis about citizenship and class -- for the oblique reflection risks becoming a little too fragmented, in the end telling us more about the limits than about citizenship itself.


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