Emperors and Empresses of Rome

43 Emperors Defining “Romanness”




A panel from c. 200 CE shows Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and his sons Caracalla and Geta (erased). Image from Wikimedia commons by Jbribeiro1.


The learning objectives in this section are:

  • To understand how Augustus and the emperors that followed created a standard of Romanness;
  • Identify issues around Roman citizenship and the emperor’s role in defining it;
  • To understand that many later Roman emperors came from outside Rome and Italy.

The Emperor Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, and reigned from 27 BCE until his death in 14 CE. Establishing himself as the Princeps Civitatis, the “First Citizen” — or rather, first among citizens — Augustus notably did not want it to appear as if he was bringing back the Roman monarch, but instead put effort into constructing something new. Augustus’ rule marked the begining of the Roman Empire, identified by the enthusiastic aquisition of the land that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, that lasted in the west until 476 CE and was survived by the Byzantine Empire.

Among Augustus’ efforts to create a Rome that did not repeat the mistakes that lead to the end of the Roman Republic was a ‘return’ to more strict, ‘traditional’ way of life. One way he did this was by mandating that the toga, a traditional Roman garment, be worn in the assembly.

Augustus wanted also to revive the old style of dress, and once when he saw a crowd of men in dark cloaks in assembly, he cried out indignantly, “Look at them — ‘Romans, masters of the world and the togaed race’[1], and he ordered the aediles never again to allow anyone to appear in the Forum[2] or its neighbourhood except in the toga and without a cloak.

Suetonius, Augustus 40.5


Emperors had great sway over who was concidered Roman and who was not. Expansion of Roman citizenship was always controversial; it was even more controversial when new citizens tried to integrate fully into the power structure of Rome. In 48 CE the Emperor Claudius gave the following speech to the Senate when they were trying to oppose new citizens taking places in the Senate and public offices in Rome:

In the consulship of Aulus Vitellius and Lucius Vipstanus the question of filling up the Senate was discussed, and the chief men of Gallia Comata,[3] as it was called, who had long possessed the rights of allies and of Roman citizens, sought the privilege of obtaining public offices at Rome. There was much talk of every kind on the subject, and it was argued before the emperor with vehement opposition. “Italy,” it was asserted, “is not so feeble as to be unable to supply its own capital with a senate. Once our native-born citizens were enough for peoples of our own kin, and we are by no means dissatisfied with the Rome of the past. To this day we cite examples of how under our old customs the Roman character exhibited courage and fame. Is it a small thing that Veneti and Insubres[4] have already burst into the Senate, unless a mob of foreigners, a troop of captives (so to speak) is now forced upon us? What distinctions will be left for the remnants of our noble houses, or for any impoverished senators from Latium? Every place will be crowded with these millionaires, whose ancestors of the second and third generations at the head of hostile tribes destroyed our armies with fire and sword, and actually besieged the divine Julius [Caesar] at Alesia.[5] These are recent memories. What if there those who fell in Rome’s citadel and at her altar by the hands of these same barbarians were to rise up the remembrance of this! Let them enjoy indeed the title of citizens, but let them not drag down with them the distinctions of the Senate and the honours of office.”

These and like arguments failed to impress the emperor. He at once rose himself to answer them, and thus attacked the assembled Senate. “My ancestors, the most ancient of whom was made at once a citizen and a noble of Rome, encourage me to govern by the same policy of transferring to this city all conspicuous merit, wherever found. And indeed I know, as facts, that the Julii came from Alba, the Coruncanii from Camerium, the Porcii from Tusculum, and not to inquire too minutely into the past, that new members have been brought into the Senate from Etruria and Lucania and the whole of Italy, that Italy itself was at last extended to the Alps, to the end that not only single persons but entire countries and tribes might be united under our name. We had unshaken peace at home; we prospered in all our foreign relations, in the days when Italy beyond the Po was admitted to share our citizenship, and when, enrolling in our ranks the strongest of the provincials, under colour of settling our legions throughout the world, we recruited our exhausted empire. Are we sorry that the Balbi came to us from Spain, and other men as illustrious from Narbon Gaul? Their descendants are still among us, and do not yield to us in patriotism.

What was the ruin of Sparta and Athens, but this, that mighty as they were in war, they rejected as aliens those whom they had conquered? Our founder Romulus, on the other hand, was so wise that he fought as enemies and then hailed as fellow-citizens several nations on the very same day. Strangers have reigned over us. That freedmen’s sons should be entrusted with public offices is not, as many wrongly think, a sudden innovation, but was a common practice in the old Republic. But, it will be said, we have fought with the Senones. I suppose then that the Volsci and Aequi never stood armed against us. Our city was taken by the Gauls. Well, we also gave hostages to the Etruscans, and passed under the yoke of the Samnites. On the whole, if you review all our wars, never has one been finished in a shorter time than that with the Gauls. Thenceforth they have preserved an unbroken and loyal peace. United as they now are with us by manners, education, and intermarriage, let them bring us their gold and their wealth rather than enjoy it in isolation. Everything, Senators, which we now hold to be of the highest antiquity, was once new. Plebeian magistrates came after patrician; Latin magistrates after plebeian; magistrates of other Italian peoples after Latin. This practice too will establish itself, and what we are this day justifying by precedents, will be itself a precedent.”

The emperor’s speech was followed by a decree of the Senate, and the Aedui were the first to obtain the right of becoming senators at Rome. This compliment was paid to their ancient alliance, and to the fact that they alone of the Gauls cling to the name of brothers of the Roman people.

Tacitus, Annals 11

The emperor Claudius, while being generous with citizenship in the above source, was not always as understanding. There were no language or other requirements to become a Roman citizen. However, it was expected that elite Roman citizens be able to speak Latin well, as they often held important positions and needed to be able to argue things in Latin, which was the only language of the Roman courts, army, and the Senate.[6]

When emperors encountered those who did not speak Latin they often acted by making them unRoman formally — by taking away their citizenship. When the Emperor Claudius decided to take the position of censor, he took away the citizenship of high rank he encountered who did not know Latin. This involved putting a literal mark of censure against that person’s name in the citizenship rolls, marking them as unfit for their status; presumably this was done by others and not Claudius, as it would be a monumental task. His job was to review the lists of those found to be unfit to hold their positions (you could also be moved down the ranks from senator to equestrian or below and there were higher moral standards required of the elite than regular citizens).

16 1 [Claudius] also assumed the censorship, which had long been discontinued,[7] ever since the term of Plancus and Paulus [22 BCE], but in this office too he was all over the place, and both his theory and his practice were inconsistent. In his review of the equestrians he left off a young man of evil character, whose father said that he was perfectly satisfied with him, without any public censure, saying “He has a censor of his own.” Another who was notorious for corruption and adultery he merely warned to be more restrained in his excesses, or at any rate more discrete, adding, “For why should I know what mistress you keep?” When he had removed the mark of censure affixed to one man’s name, yielding to the entreaties of the latter’s friends, he said: “But let the erasure be seen.”[8] 2 He not only struck from the list of jurors a man of high birth, a leading citizen of the province of Greece, because he did not know Latin, and even deprived him of the rights of citizenship; and he would not allow anyone to provide an account of his life except in his own words as well as he could and without the help of a lawyer.[9]

The focus on the Greeks is not accidental here; because Greek was known by the Roman elites, who also wrote sometimes in Greek themselves, many educated Greeks did not learn Latin, considering it an inferior language.

When it suited them, Romans might celebrate the many non-Romans in Rome as a mark of Rome’s power. The Roman EMpire was marked by a vast conquazition of lands, both making Rome more diverse but also, as seen in the poem below, revealing xenophobic ideas about foreigners in Rome. These fears, and subsiquent praise of the emperor for unifying such different people, is expressed by the poet Martial in this poem addressed to the Emperor Domitian:

What people is so distant from us, what people is so barbarian, O Caesar, that no spectator from it is present in your city! The cultivator of Rhodope [in Thrace] is here from Haemus, sacred to Orpheus. The Scythian who drinks the blood of his horses is here; he, too, who drinks the waters of the Nile close by their source and he also whose shore is washed by the most distant ocean. The Arabian has rushed here; the Sabaeans[10] also, and here the Cilicians have anointed themselves with their own native perfume. Here come the Sicambrians with their hair all twisted into a knot, and here the frizzled Ethiopians. Yet though their speech is all so different, they all speak together hailing you, O Emperor, as the true father of your country.

Martial, Epigrams 9.3


The first imperial dynasty at Rome was the Julio-Claudians, but this dynasty died out with the Emperor Nero, and after that Roman emperors were drawn from citizens who were born outside the city and then even outside Italy. These emperors were Roman citizens by birth, and sometimes that caused less than positive reactions from the elite or even the public in general. However, all of this is complicated by the fact that many scholars writing on the emperors tended to see some emperors, like Septimius Severus, who were not white or from ‘better’ families as inherently problematic, unRoman, and as somehow responsible for the fall of the empire.

Accusations of unRoman origins were part and parcel of attacking emperors. Here is Suetonius on what was said about the emperor Vespasian's grandfather:

I ought to add that some have bandied about the report, that Petro’s father came from the region beyond the Po and was a contractor for the day-labourers who come regularly every year from Umbria to the Sabine district, to till the fields; but that he settled in the town of Reate and there married. Personally I have found no evidence whatever of this, in spite of rather careful investigation.

Suetonius, Vespasian 1

Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 CE, came from Spain (near Seville) although, like Vespasian, his family were of Italian origin and were Roman citizens. This doesn’t stop the writer Cassius Dio from being surprised that Vespasian was selected to become emperor over other more ‘Roman’ choices.

4 And so Trajan became Caesar and later emperor, although there were relatives of [the Emperor] Nerva alive. But Nerva did not place family relationships above the safety of Rome, nor was he less inclined to adopt Trajan because Trajan was Spanish instead of Italian or one of the Italian Greeks in, although no foreigner had previously held imperial power; for he believed in looking at a man’s ability rather than at his nationality. Soon after this act Nerva passed away, having ruled one year, four months and nine days; his life prior to that time had comprised sixty-five years, ten months and ten days.

Cassius Dio 68.4.1-2

The emperor whose non Italian birth place is mentioned most often by later scholars is Septimius Severus. Pictured with his family at the begining of this chapter, Septimius Severus was a Roman citizen of Italian and North African origin who took over power in 193 CE after the assassination of Commodus. The following story (which may be entirely made up) hints at the personal consequences for having to present oneself as entirely Roman, even at this high level:

 7 Septimius’ sister from Leptis once came to see him, and, since she could barely speak Latin, she made the emperor very, very embarrassed. And so, after giving the purple stripe on the toga to her son and many presents to the woman herself, he sent her home again — as well as her son, who died a short time afterwards.

SHA, Life of Septimius Severus. 15.7

Rome had a very complex relationship with North Africa, which eventually became a hugely wealthy part of the Roman Empire. Even though it was successful and eventually produced an Emperor, this unease remained. North Africa in the early Roman period was populated by a mix of indigenous peoples and Greek and Punic settlers.

I will compare myself with Anacharsis, not in wisdom, but because we are both barbarians. He was Scythian from nomadic Scythians, and I am a Libyan from nomadic Libyans.

Fronto to Domilla Lucilla


  1. This is the quotation from the Aeneid mentioned above.
  2. The Forum was where not only government business was done, but was also a centre for banking and all sorts of shopping, which also included the purchase of slaves. As only Romans citizens could wear the toga this could represent an issue for those who were non-citizens as well as those who could not afford to buy a toga,, which was quite expensive,
  3. 'Long haired Gaul', called so because the inhabitants had traditionally long hair. This was the region of Gaul that covered modern France and Belgium.
  4. Tribes from the North of Italy
  5. Alesia was an important town for the Gauls; Julius besieged it in 52 BCE, resulting in huge deaths, including of women and children. During the conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar may have killed as many as one million Gauls.
  6. People broke this last rule all time, including Romans whose first language was Latin. However, to speak it you were supposed to get special permission; otherwise they used an interpreter, even though nearly all elite Romans were also fluent in Greek as well as Latin.
  7. The Romans had been counting people; they just hadn't been reviewing them for moral reasons and so forth.
  8. I.e. the legal record would show that the erasure had once been made, even if it had been revoked.
  9. As such cases had to be argued in Latin, this would be a good way to check to see if someone could speak Latin fluently.
  10. An Arabian people, often associated with the Biblical kingdom of Sheba.


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