Latin Rights

To appreciate the secret of Rome’s success, we need to go back to the third century BC and the time of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. Now Hannibal is a problem to the modern Romanist who attributes Rome’s success to its military prowess, because whenever Rome came up against a really first class general, Rome tended to lose. When Hannibal invaded Italy, Hannibal always won, at the battle of the Trebia, at Lake Trasimene, and above all, at Canae.

Yet as the historian Polybius remarked, the big surprise was the remarkable fidelity of the allies to Rome (III, 90). Hannibal rather expected that once he began winning victories, the allies would all come to support him. Certainly this prove true to a certain extent in the south with the Greek cities, but in central Italy, around Rome, most of the allies, despite Hannibal’s victories, remained loyal to Rome. Why?

Clearly something had already happened that made laid the Roman package so attractive so that the Latin towns preferred the Roman way of life to the Carthaginian way of life. What was this package? I believe that what I like to call Roman package came about a century before, in the year 339 BC.

The preceding couple of years had been among the most traumatic for Rome. Rome at this time was still only a local power, busy trying to impose its superiority over the warlike hill tribes to the south, the Samnites in the heartlands of the Apennines. Then unexpectedly the Latins, the group of tribes immediately to their south, rebelled. There was a Latin league that bound them together, and Rome considered itself to be at the head of the league. The other cities felt otherwise, and rebelled. Roman had to make peace with the Samnites, bringing the first Samnite war to an end, and then spend two or three years dealing with the Latins. When eventually, city by city, they managed to impose their control over the Latins, they were determined that this would never happen again.

Map to show Rome's position among the Latins and the other surrounding tribes

If they were to expand in Italy, they could only do so if they could rely on their allies. How to make the Latin cities firm allies?

Livy described the scene in the Senate, when the victorious consul, Lucius Furius Camillus addressed the Senate and asked whether they wanted to create a permanent peace or live with the threat of permanent war? Did they want to exercise cruelty or forgiveness? The answer he said lay in forgiveness: they should be generous to the defeated Latins and bind them to Rome by giving them Roman citizenship.


Not everyone agreed. There was a feeling that the different towns should be treated differently, and as a result, some were offered full citizenship, but others were offered only half citizenship: they could become citizens of Rome but without the vote sine suffragio. From this a package emerged, subsequently to be known as Latin rights, which formed these secret of Rome’s success.
This must have been one of the most far sighted political decisions of all time: to make your defeated enemies, citizens of your own state. For the cities that had been conquered, and which now became Roman, conquered city, there were many benefits. There was of course the downside, in that the allies were required to provide soldiers for the Roman army. However this was not as big a disadvantage as it might appear, for in the normal course of events, small towns were often at war with their neighbours: the chieftains needed to demonstrate their prowess, and thus many of the citizens would expect to be called upon regularly to fight. The Roman demand that they should provide soldiers for the Roman army was probably no more arduous, and possibly considerably less arduous, than the demands that would have been made upon them by their own rulers had they remained independent.

The other restriction that Rome made was that they should not have their own foreign policy: Rome regulated their relations with outsiders and with their neighbours. This was a blessing in disguise, for it meant that they had the inestimable benefit of peace: once they became part of the Roman world, they would not be allowed to fight their neighbours, while Rome with any luck would keep external enemies at bay. And thus they flourished.

But the real heart of the package came in the form of three rights or ius (plural iures) that formed the backbone of Rome’s relations with her allies. These I believe formed the centrepiece of Rome’s success.

There was the Ius commercium, the commercial right, which meant that they could have free trade with the rest of the Roman world.

Second was the Ius migrationis, the Right of Migration, that if they wished to migrate to another town, they could do so and be accepted as citizens.

And finally there was the Ius connubii, the Right of Marriage, which meant that they could marry anyone within the Roman world. This is a right that is generally overlooked, but I do wonder whether it was more important and long lasting than is generally realised. And I do wonder whether it formed the origin of the new attitude to marriage, the belief that you could choose your own wife, that I have laid down as being the essence of civilisation.

These three rights form I believe the centrepiece of Rome’s success. They may seem innocuous enough to us, but in the world of kinship societies and the feudalism of gift exchange, they were revolutionary ideas. Hitherto, if you were unhappy with your lot, if you had fallen out with your family, or were displeased with your position in society, there was little that you could do about it. Now everything had changed. You could migrate to another city, even to Rome. You could take up another trade and trade with the anyone within the Roman world. There is a lot of talk today about globalisation, and the benefits of free trade, but here in 339 BC, the Romans had invented globalisation. (And incidentally, this gives a clue to why Rome is often so disliked: those who dislike globalisation, dislike the Romans. Those who believe that free trade is a good thing, will appreciate the Romans.) And above all there was the right to marry anyone it you chose within the Roman world: and it is your choice who you marry, and not your mothers and not the tribe’s.

There is a further implication that is not generally recognized. The conventional belief is that part of Rome’s success was that it made allies of the ruling classes in each city. The three Latin rights do not look like this to me. They do not appear to be benefits to the ruling class, so much as to benefit the middle classes, the tradesmen, the younger sons who would not inherit, to those who wish to seek fame and fortune outside the family and kinship embrace. In other words, I think the real secret of Rome success is that they appealed to the middle classes: there was a wide swathe in the middle of society who felt they would be better off under the Romans than they would be in the traditional state where they would be constantly squeezed out by those at the top and would not have the opportunities to expand and grow and flourish that they clearly did under Roman rule. True, the Romans took great care to appeal to the rulers and the ruling classes, but I believe that it was the middle classes who saw the benefits of the flatter sort of society produced by the market economy: it is what I call the farmer — miller – baker — hot dog seller nexus who are the people who really benefited from the Roman package.

On to: Hannibal