How were ancient Roman citizens identified, and how did officials make sure that their identity wasn't fake? I.e., did they maintain some kind of citizens registry, or did they have some kind of identity papers (analog of modern ID card, driver's license, passport, etc.)?

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    The first thing that came in my mind was that slaves could have been marked by hot iron (please help I don't know English name for this), but what about foreigners and slaves who were gained freedom?
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 6:53
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    @Voitcus The name for marking with hot irons in English is "branding," the noun is "a brand." A slave would be branded, and receive a brand. They could be identified by the brand on their skin. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 7:26
  • @SamuelRussell Thank you for this info, my vocabulary gives only "mark" or "stamp" for this and I was sure it is not 100% correct.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 7:31
  • Are you asking how Romans identified fellow citizens (why would they want to?) or how Rome identified its citizens (in which case @kubanczyk's answer is probably best).
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 11:33
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    @Voitcus Perhaps you meant dictionary rather than vocabulary ;) Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 20:37

5 Answers 5



Less prestigious than these two offices but still part of the ‘twenty six men,’ were the decemviri stlitibus iudicandis (‘ten men for judging lawsuits’), a board which judged minor lawsuits,including adjudicating the free or non-free status of a person when the question was in doubt. ACOUP

Obviously my answer below was ... at the very least incomplete. It is possible that ACOUP doesn't actually modify the answer, but the big missing piece is how the decemviri stlitibus iudicandis adjudicated.

I don't have a good citation for this - the Wikipedia article provided by @kubanczyk is relatively decent, and highlights the role of the censor, which is probably the state oriented solution to the question.

I think the question relies on modern assumptions. Roman citizens would never have needed to prove their identity. Set aside for the moment the urban tribes - they're really just a special case. - and let's set aside women, because that is probably a book length answer.

Every other Roman citizen is bound in a fairly strong social context; they're a member of a family, a tribe, and a gens. Furthermore most Romans were a member of some kind of a patron-client relationship.

Remember also that there are sumptuary laws and customs that determine clothing/costume. Also remember that your legal rights and obligations are based on your social class. For anything other than the lowest social ranks, you are effectively required to participate in the state, and your participation is defined by your social class/citizenship status. Anyone with any ambition is on the cursus honorum, which has the effect of creating a reputation throughout society. If the individual is not actively on the cursus honorum, then they're goign to want to ask a favor or provide a favor to someone who is on the cursus honorum.

Roman society is bound together by a web of relationships, and that web serves as such a strong evidence of citizenship that there is no need for any kind of proof. Anyone who had any doubt about an individual could easily ask someone for a report on their reputation. Anyone who didn't have a good reputation would be unable to act politically, economically, socially, etc.

Update: Mr. Goldberg raises another interesting edge case (apart from women and urban tribes). What about Romans travelling abroad? This is a slightly different set of questions. 1) How do Foreign governments determine whether someone is a Roman citizen? 2) How do Romans determine if someone is a Roman citizen.

In truth, I believe that the answer remains the same. Despite the fact that Roman society invented the rule of law, neither Roman society nor any other society of the period practiced the rule of law. The rights of an individual arise first and foremost from their social network and only secondarily from any legal status. If Egypt (or Armenia, or Persia, or whoever) takes action against an individual, that action is legal unless the individual's network imposes consequences. Mr. Goldberg poses the perfect case - Verres execution of a Roman citizen. If Verres had not pursued justice for his lictor, then nothing would have happened. If Verres had not been over the top, he wouldn't have been brought to trial.

Rome had no police force, no agency charged with enforcing the law (There were specific forced devoted to enforcement of laws against arson, and against treason, but that takes us into book length territory; I'm making a concious generalization). The responsibility for enforcing the law fell on the kin, tribe, gens and patron of the offended individual.

Update 2: Voitcus cites the example of St. Paul who asserts that as a Roman citizen he has the right to be tried in a Roman court (by the Caesar). Paul is an interesting case because he was an itenerant preacher, a member of a persecuted minority. In fact, part of the reason why Christians were persecuted is that they didn't fit neatly within the mold. Paul could be simultaneously a Christian, a Roman citizen, and a Jew. (Discussion of what it means to be simultaneously a Jew and a Christian are out of scope for this question). Based on my memory and quick research, we don't have a great deal of facts concerning Paul's alleged crimes, or his accusers. He seems to have offended the local Jewish population. His offenses against Judaism should have been tried in a court in Jerusalem. Paul asserts his right as a Roman citizen and demands a change of venue to a Roman court in Rome, which we may infer would be a less hostile court.

Unfortunately in order to discuss the issues that Voitcus raises, we'd have to know more. We don't know if Paul's claim was challenged. If it was unchallenged, then Paul never needed to prove his claim. (the local authorities may have felt that getting him out of town would resolve the local problem.) I would assume, based on my study of Roman history, that the local authorities had already consulted Paul's relationships and reputation and knew him to be a citizen.

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    Very good answer! The emphasis on mentality is important - all too often we unwittingly introduce our assumptions into ancient contexts where did not hold. However, you have not treated a tricky special case: what about Romans abroad? There was a famous case of Verres executing a man who claimed to be a citizen - I wonder what would have been the proceedings there. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 13:55
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    I'm not sure why; if you're penalizing me for an answer with lousy sources, then I plead guilty. I looked for sources, but I think I fell short of my own goal.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 16:56
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    @Anixx: Can you elaborate please? Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 19:11
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    Great answer, thanks! Web of relationships makes perfect sense - it's even almost the same in the modern world's closed communities. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 21:17
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    Too long but not really accurate. For example from Wikipedia: "Claudius punished false assumption of citizenship harshly, making it a capital offense. Similarly, any freedmen found to be laying false claim to membership of the Roman equestrian order were sold back into slavery". its source: Scramuzza (1940), Chap. 7. Based on your answer how Claudius could identify false citizenship claims and punish them harshly as it is stated in this statement? Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 23:10

The most common document identifying a person in Ancient Rome was diploma. Diploma identified the powers of magistrates and other office holders, including the consuls.

Regarding the asked question, Roman citizenship of discharged soldiers if they had no citizenship before service was identified by a so-called military diploma enter image description here

The diploma was a notarially certified copy of the emperor's decree.

An example of the text can be found here:

The emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of the deified Nerva, Germanicus, Dacicus, pontifex maximus, in the seventh year of his tribunician power, four times Imperator, father of the fatherland, five times consul,

to the horsemen serving in the four squadrons and eleven cohorts that are called:

  1. the First Thracian squadron
  2. Tampius' first Pannonian squadron
  3. Sebosius' Gallic squadron
  4. Vettonius' Spanish squadron

    1. the First Spanish cohort
    2. the First Vangionian cohort, 1000 strong
    3. the First Alpine cohort
    4. the First Morinian cohort
    5. the First Cugernian cohort
    6. the First Baetasian cohort
    7. the First Tungrian cohort
    8. the First Thracian cohort
    9. the First Bracarian cohort
    10. the Fourth Lingonian cohort
    11. the Fourth Dalmatian cohort

and are now in Britain under [governor] Lucius Neratius Marcellus, and have served no less than twenty-five years, and who are mentioned below,

has granted citizenship,

for themselves, their children, and their descendants, and has granted the right of marriage with the wives they had when the citizenship was granted to them, or, in the case of unmarried men, with those they may afterwards marry (but not more than one wife to one man).

19 January, in the year of the second consulship of Manius Laberius Maximus and the second consulship of Quintus Glitius Agricola.

[Copy] for Reburrus, son of the Spaniard Severus, decurion in Tampius' first Pannonian squadron, commanded by Gaius Valerius Celsus.

Copied and compared with the bronze tablet affixed at Rome to the wall behind the temple dedicated to Minerva by the deified emperor Augustus.

Quintus Pompeius Homerus

Gaius Papus Eusebes

Titus Flavius Secundus

Publius Caulius Vitalis

Gaius Vettienus Modestus

Publius Atinius Hedonicus

Tiberius Claudius Menander

These diplomas certifying citizenship were issued to ordinary people who earned citizenship as well, according to Suetonius:

Exhaustus igitur atque egens ad rapinas convertit animum, vario et exquisitissimo calumniarum et auctionum et vectigalium genere. Negabat iure civitatem Romanam usurpare eos, quorum maiores sibi posterisque eam impetrassent, nisi si filii essent, neque enim intellegi debere posteros ultra hune gradum; prolataque Divorum luli et Augusti diplomata ut Vetera et obsoleta deflebat.

According Suetonius, there were important requirements needed for the diploma to be valid, so to combat falsifications. They were imposed by the senatorial decree:

adversus falsarios tunc primum repertum, ne tabulae nisi pertusae ac ter lino per foramina traiecto obsignarentur cautum ut testamentis primae duae cerae, testatorum mode nomine inscripto, vacuae signaturis ostenderentiir, ac ne qui alieni testamenti scriptor legatum sibi ascriberet; item ut litigatoves pro patrociniis certam ustamquemercedem, pro subselliis nullam omnino darent, praebente aerario gratuita; utque rerum actu ab aerario causae ad forum ac reciperatores transferrentur, et ut omnes appellationes a iudicibus ad senatum fierent.

  • Very nice! But what about Republican times? Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 20:38
  • These diplomata were usually issued only to veterans of auxilia, who might find themselves needing to prove they were citizens. So Roman citizens not living in Italy would need another means to prove this. (Maybe by providing witnesses to attest to this fact? This was done in one case at Pompeii where a woman wanted to prove she was freeborn, & not a freed slave -- the tablets relating to this case have survived.)
    – llywrch
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 18:16
  • Good answer, but to only a small part of the question: How did a free-born citizen who did not serve 25 years in the legions prove their citizenship? How did a freedman do so?
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 20:10

Most probably, if an official wanted to make sure what is the man's name, they asked them. Honest man has no reason to lie in this case.

The list of citizens was maintained, mainly for tax purposes. It was updated during a census, an event when each father of family had to appear in person and provide all the details under an oath and before witnesses. Wikipedia section.

I think that the modern practice would be considered humiliating by Romans. Innocent, honest citizens of today are obliged to prove to the officials their identity, as if their words were insufficient. The burden of proof should be obviously on the officials, since most people are honest and innocent.

  • *But I think people from Italian provinces, which weren't Roman citizens at least in the Republic times, tried to gain some citizen's privileges in Rome (such as grain price dotations, etc.). And, I assume, people from Italian provinces weren't easily distinguishable from people from capital city (only by accent, perhaps?) - so it's also interesting how privileges were distributed only among citizens. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 21:05
  • I wrote this answer when the question was "How were ancient Roman citizens identified?"
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 15:20

Although all the above answers are relevant, there is one facet that has been overlooked concerning the provincial citizens. As Roman citizenship was granted to non-Romans in the provinces, the provincials had to reaffirm their citizenship every five years.This was simply a stating of their name and of the type of citizenship they had. (Rome had several levels of citizenship, with each level having different perks).

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    +1 Nice one! But can you please state sources? Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 16:05
  • I would upvote this, if you could formulate an exhaustive answer (citing references).
    – astabada
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 8:20

They actually did have an ID. It was usually a clay tile, sometimes metal, and so it was just called Tessera (tile). It was needed to get the food allowance and other perks. This was primarily important for the citizens living on the other side of river Tiber, because they were not in the usual social network. It was possible to sell or gift it to other people or lend it for a time.

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 18:00

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