From what I've read about citizens of the Roman republic and early empire; the privileges they enjoyed, appear to have been somewhat similar to those of later medieval nobility (separate legal status, service in the army/legions, ...). But in the later empire all subjects were granted citizenship and from then on I don't remember reading anything about the term until the French revolution came about. My question is: when did the nobles of Europe, after the collapse of the Roman empire, start reverting to being citizens?

EDIT: For the case of Marquis de Sade, from Wikipedia:

He initially ingratiated himself with the new political situation after the revolution, supported the Republic,[11] called himself "Citizen de Sade" and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background.

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    You may find this useful. – Semaphore Nov 9 '14 at 19:11
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    Honestly this question just makes no sense to me. Become citizens of what after Rome fell? – Semaphore Nov 9 '14 at 20:15
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    @user1095108 That's how city-states usually work. For example Rome. And how does that detract from Venice's citizenship? – Semaphore Nov 10 '14 at 8:47
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    Have a look here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_citizenship – Felix Goldberg Nov 10 '14 at 13:33
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    Preliminary research would help here, especially around the question, "What evidence do you have that the nobility didn't consider themselves citizens?" How do you define the terms "noble" and "citizen"? – Mark C. Wallace Nov 10 '14 at 15:10

Citizenship Citizenship is the status of a person recognized under the custom or law of a state that bestows on that person (called a citizen) the rights and the duties of citizenship.

Nobility is a special class of citizens with extraordinary rights and privileges.

The wikipedia page clarifies the Roman concept of citizenship, the concept of citizenship in the middle ages and subsequently.

The wikipedia page omits discussion of citizenship in the French Revolution. The French Revolution abolished all special forms of privilege, including nobility, clergy, etc. The term "Citizen" became synonymous with "Not yet convicted as an enemy of the state".

The question rests on a false premise; nobles never reverted to being citizens, they were always citizens. Even when their subjects were chattel, the nobles remained citizens of the state and entitled to the privileges and prerogatives thereof.

You could make the argument that nobility "reverted" in each country when the country transitioned from Monarchy to Liberal Democracy. But you'd need to develop a fuller, more nuanced definition of the terms.


Citizenship, then as now, entailed a specific group of privileges and responsibilities. One of which was some degree of say in how Rome was governed (optimo iure). As the Roman Republic originally expanded from the city-state of Rome, full citizenship (Cives Romani) was initially limited geographically to Rome itself instead of outlying Latin holdings.

Who got what level of Roman citizenship was used as an incentive model to recruit the best and brightest from outlying provinces, especially during Rome's early growth. Holding Roman citizenship also invested a personal stake in the welfare of Rome, since either you or your ancestor may have gone to considerable lengths to acquire it in the first place.

Nobles in Rome would have always been full citizens of Rome. The status of aristocrats in the provinces would changed as Rome changed; but typically anyone you consider a "Roman noble" had, as a historical family unit, acquired full citizenship by marriage or adoption or relocation and naturalisation of the senior branch to Rome.

When the Edict of Caracalla (Constitutio Antoniniana) expanded Roman citizenship to all free males in the Empire; no one lost their existing citizenship. Technically the expansion of citizenship was primarily an expansion of responsibilities (taxes, military service) than an expansion of rather diluted privileges. It was part of the barbarization of the Roman Empire.

If feudalism marked a shift of citizens into subjects, this was due a shift in how the relationship between rulers and ruled was interpreted. Being rich and powerful was useful in and of itself, regardless of the concept of citizenship.

Modern citizenship (from a Eurocentric perspective) arose from concepts of social contracts and popular sovereignty that preceded the American and French revolutions. If you were an aristocrat that successfully integrated into the new political paradigm, you would have had the highest level of citizenship due to your level of property ownership.

In so far as citizenship was "reintroduced", French nobles quickly became full citizens once the head chopping phase had passed - that is, after the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794. The aristocracy and their descendants (private equity) have kept a lower profile ever since.

(Roman section of this answer applicable to Revision 1 of the question.)

  • What of Byzantium, was the idea of citizenship forgotten there? – user1095108 Nov 10 '14 at 7:59
  • Western Europe had a rather ambivalent attitude towards the Byzantine Empire (e.g. The Great Schism). Constantinople was divorced from the cultural and civic narrative of Western Europe which took its cues from Rome and secular turning points like the Carolingian Empire, the Black Death and the Hanseatic League. Classic Roman citizenship was essentially expansionist and cosmopolitan whilst the Byzantine Empire generally shrank, with citizenship inextricably linked to Greek identity and the Greek Orthodox religion. From a modern perspective - yes, the Eastern Empire 'forgot' Roman citizenship. – LateralFractal Nov 10 '14 at 10:41
  • Interesting, how you write "which took its cues from Rome", but Byzantium, technically, was Rome. Perhaps, as citizenship was universal, it was devalued and fell into obscurity well before the western part of the empire fell. Why did it re-obtain its value, even well before social benefits (transfers) came into existence? – user1095108 Nov 10 '14 at 11:07
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    Byzantium may have been the rump state of the Roman Empire (depending on one's interpretation of the Ostrogothic Kingdom) but like other nations of the time it was a feudal society not a civil society. I highly doubt old laws on the books in a caesaropapist Greek state qualified as classic Roman citizenship. The value of citizenship in the Western European arena was reconstructed from base principles by Enlightenment philosophers; no dormant citizenry necessarily existed - at least in common law. – LateralFractal Nov 10 '14 at 12:53

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