Stephen Andrew Kovach
Publication year: 2004

Natural law puts forth the notion that all individuals possess the unalienable right to claim citizenship status and its associated legal, economic, and societal benefits, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.  Notwithstanding that principle, however, political rulers have historically abused their authority vis-à-vis an individuals right to claim citizenship by portraying it as a prize, one that they alone can legally bequeath unto select individuals that they deem worthy.  The philosophical differences between political and natural law, and its consequential political repercussions, such as slavery and discrimination, can be understood by evaluating the historical evolution of citizenship beginning with the Greek and Roman empires.  On the one hand, the Greeks characterized citizenship as an exclusive, or limited, activity, one that is characterized by mutual sharing and active participation by those selected for citizenship.  On the other hand, the Romans distinguished citizenship as an inclusive, or comprehensive, activity, one to be approached passively by a large, multiethnic group of individuals.  Albeit the many benefits associated with Greek and Roman citizenship, some individuals were granted citizen status, while others were enslaved or excluded, or claimed dual citizenship through Christianity, thus resulting in political repercussions for those deemed unworthy of citizen status.  This paper will summarize the historical facts contiguous to the evolution of active and passive citizenship, and through example, it will demonstrate that its consequential political repercussions resulted because Greek and Roman versions of citizenship were inconsistent with the basic concepts of natural law.

Citizenship is an international, contemporary phenomenon with historical roots dating to ancient Greek and Roman empires.  Greek and Roman leaders sought to control their societies through unification, thus providing a means by which the populous might begin to view themselves as one culture under one legal system.  The successful implementation of citizenship depended on various factors, such as the size of the polis, or level of ethnic diversity, and the notion of citizenship as an international community can be traced to fourth and fifth century Greece.[1]  For example, the Greeks developed a form of exclusive government that was based on the belief that citizenship involved rights and duties and therefore required constant attention and serious individual participation: a concept that does not work well in a large, multiethnic polis, but does work well with small groups because they can interact face-to-face.  Greek citizenship was revolutionary, however, it also created a, “distinct political bond” (Gross, 147) between elitists that bestowed their version of democratic citizenship only upon men of leisure.  Greek leaders feared that if citizen status were granted to servants it would produce a mob rule, or, “tyranny of majority” environment, thus resulting in class conflicts and a reduction of their own political power.[2]  The origins of that belief can be traced to Greek tribal life, when the tribal hierarchical law jus sanguinis, or the law of blood, was the dominant method used to determine loyalty.  Because jus sanguinis determined the identity via, “blood related kinship” (Gross, 151) of small local tribes people, Kleisthenes, (600 to 700 b.c.e.) a Greek statesman regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy, recognized the need to remove that tribal identification and replace it with civic identification.[3]  In order to accommodate that need, Kleishthene suggested that all tribal members participate in a toponymic (a name derived from a geographic region) change that corresponded to the name of a large Greek city, such as Athens, thus creating the psychological effect among the tribal members that their loyalty was bound to the government rather than to their tribe.  Notwithstanding the success of toponymic change vis-à-vis citizenship, however, the act of changing ones name left many Greeks to question who did or did not belong in their tribe.  Consequently, many Greek’s were excluded from declaring citizen status, thus resulting in a level of inequality that is inconsistent with the abovementioned concepts of natural law.  Instead, “Greek Athenian citizenship was a privilege,” (Gross, 147) one characterized by qualities of virtue and truth that were consistent with the characteristics of a soldier, therefore, individuals that were not associated with government or military duty were seen as non-citizens, including women who often questioned their citizen status, albeit natural law.  Simply put, the Greek polis was not a “city-state; it was a mode of life” (Clarke, 6) and by declaring citizenship a prize, rather than a natural right, elitists effectively controlled not only the polis, but the class levels within the polis, thus indicating that their actions were not performed, “out of kindness” (Gross, 151) but rather, to retain political power. The fact that tribal members excluded certain individuals from citizen status, combined with the knowledge that elite members of Greek society feared a mob rule from slave rebellion, along with the fact that women were prevented from declaring citizenship collectively sustains the notion that Greek versions of citizenship were inconsistent with the basic concepts of natural law.

By comparison, the Romans followed an inclusive, less-participatory form of government that was based on rights, rather than on duties, and was therefore best suited to resolve the size and diversity issues experience by the Greeks because it permitted the politicians to rule a much larger, multiethnic group and geographic area.  The privileges of Roman citizenship included the ability to claim certain societal rights and privileges, such as legal protection from the abuses and excesses of the government, and the opportunity to experience a life separate and private from the Roman Empire; without citizenship, a person was “outside the law.”  (Gross, 152)  In fact, the concept of personhood, the state or condition of being a person that has qualities that confer distinct individuality, was created during the age of the Roman Empire; when a person became a Roman citizen, they simultaneously became a private individual.  That overlap of public and private citizenship indicates that the Roman’s were tolerant of diversity.  However, the true concept of citizenship, which is found in natural law, predates the concept of personhood, and private life notwithstanding, the Romans used citizenship for the same reasons as the Greeks: to acquire political power for the elite.  In fact, the Romans cleverly disguised citizenship by making it legally and socially desirable, and similar to the Greeks, Roman leaders did not bestow citizenship onto their multiethnic and multicultural society as an act of, “generosity or humanity” (Gross, 151) but rather, as a means of expanding the Roman Empire.  As a result, citizens from many cultures, races and ethnicities, were granted citizen status with the understanding that, whether voluntarily or by force, their land would be assimilated into the Roman Empire.  Consequently, most individuals did not protest assimilation into the Roman system, which often meant including a Roman god with their gods in order to avoid problems with the Roman government.  Simply put, the Romans used citizenship as a powerful tool, one that enabled them to turn enemies into friends and fellow Romans, while simultaneously expanding the empires land and wealth, and retaining its political clout. The fact that Roman leaders bestowed economic, legal and social rights only to select individuals, combined with the fact that they forcibly took land in exchange for citizenship, together with the knowledge that they forced others to believe in a Roman god collectively sustains the notion that the Roman version of citizenship was inconsistent with the basic concepts of natural law.

Other versions of citizenship, such as those based on the development of Christianity, have left many individuals, both past and present, with the option of dual citizenship.  The poor and the disenfranchised; those individuals who felt the detachment between reward and merit, were, “sooner or later united by the shared, universal religion: Christianity.”  (Gross, 139)  Established in Rome, Christianity was more consistent with the ideals of inwardness, morality, and the notion that all individuals possess a soul, one that is worth saving regardless of mortal laws, than were the aforementioned Roman concepts of citizenship, which in their own right did display a certain level of consciousness and individuality.  The notion that all individuals possess a soul led to the development of individuality and consciousness in the West; directly challenged Caesar’s rule; and made it more difficult for the Romans to enforce their laws because Christians would not act, “contrary to Gods law.”  (Clarke, 5)  Christians believed that if a human law was consistent with the divine law, then it was binding, however, if it was a “tyrannical law” (Clarke, 5) they were required to disobey it; a concept that was as popular in ancient times as it is today.  Individuals that were denied their right to claim citizenship, as put forth by natural law, were typically unable to attain or act out their individuality on Earth under Greek and Roman law.[4]  Therefore, Christianity’s appeal led to the development of dual citizenship after Christians deemed it obligatory to disobey unjust laws, thus prompting them to receive their guidance from the church, rather than from the government.  It might be difficult to understand why dual citizenship developed without first understanding that before Christianity, a just law was whatever the ruler deemed it to be.  After Christianity, however, people began to realize that if, for example, they were imprisoned for breaking a law, they might lose their earthly citizenship, but their Christian citizenship status remain unscathed, thus it mattered little what the government imposed upon them.  It could be argued that resentment of non-citizens towards the rich and the powerful, combined with their own feelings of helplessness, made Christianity an attractive alternative form of citizenship because it instructed the poor and disenfranchised on how to respond to an unjust law.  Although that notion is accurate, it might be prudent to suggest that Christianity’s appeal is due to the fact that its concepts are more consistent with the notions put forth by natural law, than were the Greek and Roman versions.  In short, the phrase ‘Render onto Caesar that which is Caesars, and onto God, that which is Gods’ sums up the connotations of dual citizenship.  The fact that Christianity appealed to so many individuals, combined with the fact that the Roman Empire deemed Christians a threat, jointly sustain the premise that the Roman version of citizenship were inconsistent with the basic concepts of natural law.

Notwithstanding the previously mentioned differences between exclusive Greek and inclusive Roman citizenship, a common trait shared by both empires was the political repercussions individuals experienced if they were not granted full citizenship.  For example, the Romans ruthlessly conquered their enemies, and rather than treating them humanely, as natural law might insinuate, they, “sold them into slavery” (Gross, 151) without feeding or clothing them.  Those conquered by the Romans did not appreciate Rome in civitate but rather; they were, “in imperio, subjects of the Roman domination.”  (Gross, 152)  Moreover, Roman citizens possessed basic rights, such as the right to marry other Romans, the right to trade, and the right to take action in court.[5]  However, foreigners, or non-citizens, did not have the right to marry Romans, or own land, albeit natural law, which insinuates that all individuals possess those rights.[6]  Similarly, Greeks had their own version of douloi’s, or slaves, that were tortured at will, and their community might best be described as, “a democracy of the free within a slave society.”  (Gross, 148)  In fact, according to Aristotle, who believed that the polis was the highest form of existence because it is the realm where one can put aside material life, claimed that Solon, a famous Athenian law maker, gave the people only the, “minimum of power,” (Gross, 147) thus indicating the Greeks awareness of the unfairness surrounding their version of citizenship.  In addition, Aristotle found it necessary to question, “whom we ought to call citizen” (Clarke, 19) thereby suggesting that some, but not all individuals deserved the rights of citizenship as put forth by natural law.  Therefore, based on the laws instilled by men such as Aristotle and Solon, is it not difficult to understand why Greek women could not own property or decided about marriage, nor why the privilege of doing so was experienced by only a fraction of the entire population.[7]  In fact, recent data suggests that the total active number of citizens in Athens during the fourth century b.c. was approximately, “18 percent of the entire population,”(Gross, 148) thereby providing evidence that citizenship was granted to only the chosen.  The facts surrounding the above-mentioned political repercussions associated with non-citizenship status of the Roman and Greek Empires sustains the premise that Greek and Roman versions of citizenship were inconsistent with the basic concepts of natural law, because natural law suggests that all individuals are entitled to an unencumbered existence.

Contemporary citizenship evolved from the growth of rationalism, and eighteenth century Enlightenment.[8]  As it gained popularity, the philosophy of natural law affected Western political thought, and it was expressed through the concept that all men are free men.[9]  Indeed, on one hand, citizenship marks a historical revolutionary shift from the medieval system of, “corporations and estates…to the individual, to the person.”  (Gross, 143)  On the other hand, however, the theory of historicism suggests that events are determined or influenced by conditions and inherent processes beyond the control of humans, thereby indicating that humans have not controlled their own destiny, therefore they could not possibly be blamed for the numerous abovementioned political repercussions associated with non-citizen status.  Thus, historicism is inconsistent with the notion that citizenship is, “a conspiracy against outsiders,” (Lister, 330) because to believe otherwise would indicate that humans are to blame for the conspiracies that have led to the numerous violations of natural law. Although it remains uncertain which theory, historicisms or conspiracy, is correct, an evaluation of contemporary citizenship and democracy in the United States might be useful in theorizing the direction that modern, multiethnic, multicultural citizenship will likely take.  American citizenship can trace its roots to the above-mentioned development and theories of citizenship, particularly as it pertains to the Roman’s version of a republic.[10]  In fact, similarities between contemporary American and ancient Roman citizenship include a multiethnic, multicultural, and tolerant government and society, one that is committed to the development of individual rights and a separation of public and private life.[11]  Of course, the United States does not use citizenship as a tool of, “conflict resolution,” (Gross, 151) as the Romans had, but rather, America is more consistent with the concepts of natural law vis-à-vis citizenship in that the U.S. Constitution puts forth similar notions recognizing that all individuals are entitled to unalienable rights.  It might be argued that citizenship ought to be used as, “a tool for feminist use within the global frame” (Lister, 337) to correct past mistakes made by past civilizations vis-à-vis citizenship.  Certainly, there exists certain groups that have historically succumbed to racial or gender discrimination, and it is therefore understandable that they now suggest using citizenship as a tool to repair previous violations.  Nonetheless, it is inappropriate to use citizenship under any circumstances, for any reason, accept as the philosophies of natural law dictate, and the previously mentioned facts support the notion that Greek and Roman versions of citizenship were inconsistent with the basic concepts of natural law, because if they had been consistent with natural law, contemporary citizenship would be past the point of seeking equal rights for all individuals.

Natural law does not base its privileges on birthright or wealth, rather, it is for everyone, and since the ancient Greeks and Romans first discovered that fact, it has created problems for elitist’s vis-à-vis the concepts of citizenship.  However, citizenship is not something to be given by one human to another because according to natural law, citizenship is something for everyone.  Although some individuals would like to use citizenship today as a tool to resolve social, legal, and economic problems, doing so would likely lead to undesirable and unforeseen events that society simply is not ready to accept.  Instead, it is best for all individual to realize that everyone is entitled to the concepts put forth by natural law, such as the unalienable right to claim citizenship status and its associated legal, economic, and societal benefits, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.



Aleinikoff, T., & Klusmeyer, D.. Citizenship Today. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036: Brookings Institute.

Allman, D. D., & Beaty, M. D.. Cultivating Citizens. P.O. Box 317 Oxford, OX2 9RU, UK: Lexington Books.

Clarke, P.. Citizenship.

Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship.

Mill, John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 1859

Lister, R.. Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives.


[1] Lister, R.. Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives p.336

[2] John Stuart Mill,  quote from On Liberty

[3] Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship p. 148-149

[4] Clarke, P.. Citizenship. 5

[5] Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship p. 152

[6] Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship p. 151

[7] Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship p. 148

[8] Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship p. 143

[9] Gross.. Multiethnic Citizenship p. 143

[10] Allman, D. D., & Beaty, M. D.. Cultivating Citizens. P.O. Box 317 Oxford, OX2 9RU, UK: Lexington Books.

[11] Aleinikoff, T., & Klusmeyer, D.. Citizenship Today. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036: Brookings Institute.