A previous answer to a different question ventured into the territory of my question here, quoting from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (which in turn, cited from some commentaries) that some type of certificate was often given to newly made citizens; though the information is less clear if those born citizens, such as Paul (Act 22:28), had such a certificate.

However, I have to fall under the category of those described in that article who doubt Paul actually carried such a certificate with him (if he even had one). While I am not 100% firm on my view, for me to accept an answer of Paul having written documentation as his proof, that answer would have to do a lot of groundwork to counter the points made in the list below (using credible source material and/or logic that overcomes my own logic of why I don't see written documentation as the solution).

The context of the places where Paul asserts his Roman citizenship strongly implies that it was his verbal statement alone that he is relying upon. Note my reasoning:

  • Acts 16:37-38, Paul had already been (a) beaten and (b) cast into prison before the authorities knew of his citizenship. It is unlikely that, during any "stripdown" of items from Paul's person, which undoubtedly would have occurred prior to either the beating or the imprisonment, that any certificate of citizenship was present on his person, as then it would have been found, and neither of those events would have occurred. His later (after the beating/imprisoning) testimony of citizenship appears to be the only clear indication that the authorities had regarding it.
  • Acts 22:22-29, Paul (having wised up from Acts 16?) mentions his citizenship just as they are binding him; this citizenship is believed by the centurion, and it is believed by the commander (who, specifically in follow-up just asks Paul about it, v.27, with no indication of expecting a document to be produced). Additionally, a circumstantial proof of him not having written documentation at that time would be that Paul was finishing his vow within the Temple, which he had just been cast out of by the Jews, when he is first seized by the Romans (Act 21:26-36), and it is unlikely he would have carried any certificate of Roman citizenship into the Temple during that time.

So context in both cases appears to have authorities just taking Paul at his word that he is a Roman citizen.

My question is then related to historical and cultural context: What do historical documents reveal about how Roman authorities confirmed/believed citizenship through verbal testimony of an accused? This documentation is sought in order to shed light on why the authorities would believe Paul in these circumstances—especially since he is clearly a Jew, and in the first incident is being accused by Romans as a Jew for supposedly working against Roman laws (Act 16:20-21), and in the second incident is being accused by Jews for something, though the commander is unclear what exactly, related to Jewish customs (Acts 21:33-34, 23:28).

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    The last time I bumped into this topic while researching for a sermon my conclusion was that he might not have had any evidence in hand, but the punishment for lying and claiming citizenship when you didn't actually have it was so steep that even brazen criminals might have shrunk from the attempt, and I'm guessing in the case of recognizable personas that held some leverage: playing the citizen card on a bluff was dangerous enough it might be reasonable to assume the claim was true first and ask questions later. I never did find solid sources to back up that speculation on my part through.
    – Caleb
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 5:17
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    See if you find what you’re looking for here. I wager you will romae-vitam.com/roman-citizenship.html. Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 15:46
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    @Autodidact I think that link is helpful in a number of ways (and shows sources). I also think you should carefully craft an answer using certain pieces of information from that link regarding how Paul's verbal testimony of citizenship might have been believed/verified in relation to each of the Acts 16 and Acts 22 cases (assuming he did not have any form of the written documentation on him). That would likely be an answer I would accept.
    – ScottS
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 18:50
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    @Autodidact do you have any interest in formulating an answer from that link (per my prior comment)? If not, I may answer my own question.
    – ScottS
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 16:29
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    I think you ought to answer it. In fact I’d prefer you answer it because it’s something you seem are more passionate about. The question is an excellent one and I did give you a +1 on the question. Sorry for not responding. It fell off my radar. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


Thanks to Autodidact's comment with a link to an informative, documented web page, the following points help in understanding Paul's ability to be accepted as a Roman citizen, assuming he did not carry any written documentation, as seems reasonable to me, which I posted in my question, but also noted in the link, "Romans did not carry around ID cards or documentation proving their Roman citizenship with them all the time."

First, Paul seem's likely to fall under the category of a Provinciales citizen, who "were people from the provinces who were under Roman control or influence, but who only had basic rights under international law (ius gentium)" (unless otherwise linked, all citations are from the link given above). This is based on the fact that he does testify that his citizenship was tied to his birth place of Tarsus (Act 21:39, 22:3), which was in the Roman province of Cilicia. People born in such (along with children of people who earned their freedom) "were born free citizens," as Paul asserted in Act 22:28. Apparently those "basic rights" included not being mishandled without trial, and I would suspect included some similar at least to the non optimo iure rights of the cives romani who were "full Roman citizens. They were subdivided into two classes: the non optimo iure, who had rights of property and marriage and the optimo iure, who also had the right to vote and hold office."

Second, cultural clues were important:

Language and clothing also played a role in determining if a person was a Roman citizen or not. An individual who spoke good Latin, who behaved and dressed in certain ways, displayed his status and Roman identity. Only Romans could wear the toga and it was strictly forbidden for non-citizens, foreigners, freedmen and slaves to wear it in Roman territories

In Paul's case, he had demonstrated to the commander previously that he spoke Greek (Act 21:37), though that was not obviously enough to itself prove he was a citizen.

Third, "Roman names were ... a sign of Roman citizenship." So Paul as Paul (his Roman name), rather than as Saul (his Jewish name), was a sign of his potential citizenship. Roman names

were a way to immediately identify the status of an individual, his clan and family. Traditional Roman names for male Roman citizens consisted of three parts (and not two as it is usually the case today): the praenomen, the nomen and the cognomen. The nomen was the name of his clan. The praenomen distinguished individual members of the clan from one another while the cognomen was the first name

Scripture does not explicitly state what Paul's three part name might have been, but it can be assumed, since he was a male citizen, he had one. It may hint at it in Php 3:5 (NKJV),

circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee;

as it could be his nomen (clan) was Hebraica (Hebrew) or Yisrael (Israel), his praenomen (family within the clan) Benjamin, and then his nomen (first name) Paulus. The more Hebrew related names would have been transliterated into Latin. But it may be he had some other designation than these. In any case, his full Roman name would have been a verbal indication of his citizenship, and could have been testified to in both Acts 16 and 22, even though Scripture did not record that testimony.

Fourth, the linked article mentions the five year census of tribal lists. Now Paul was born in Tarsus, but when Paul says (NKJV, bold added), "I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel" (Act 22:3), which means for most of his life, he would have taken his census in Jerusalem, and that even was done mainly by verbal testimony.1 So in the case of Acts 22, the commander could have followed up in checking Paul's verbal declaration by consulting census records of Paul in Jerusalem. This would not have been possible for the Acts 16 scenario.

But note that being a citizen (πολίτης) of Tarsus (declared to the commander in Acts 21:39) was not enough to indicate he was of Roman citizenship of that city (since the commander was planning to treat him as a non-Roman even after that, Act 22:24; the commander refers to his citizenship as πολιτεία, but I do not believe there is a distinction in the terms, but only if one is considered not just a citizen of a city, but also of the larger empire of Rome).

Fifth, regarding proof while travelling abroad, the article mentions "Romans could produce the grant of citizenship or their birth certificate," but in absence (or doubt of) that document, "witnesses could be called." And the article gives an example and expands on that saying (bold added),

what mattered most in the Roman world was a citizen's social network rather his legal status. A citizen's social network could impose consequences and provincial governors / foreign authorities had to beware of the consequences before mistreating any Roman citizen, especially an upper class Roman citizen. More than the documentary evidence, what mattered the most was the citizen's connections.

Earlier in the article it stated:

When in doubt, anyone could just ask around about a person's social standing and reputation. This made even more sense in a society where those who could read and write were the exception rather than the norm. In a small town, word of mouth was often the only way people had to prove their Roman citizenship.

So for the Acts 22 incident, Paul was plenty well known enough in that area to have witnesses confirm his citizenship status (should there be a doubt). In Acts 16, it could be that he would have also had a reliable set of witnesses in his association to Lydia (a woman of some substance it seems, from Thyatira, v.14) and his recent association directly to the jailer (vv.29-34), though certainly obtaining such corroboration in that location would not have been as easy as in Jerusalem. It seems, however, that the officials saw no need to corroborate the claim.


So it does seem, that even for census purposes, a simple verbal declaration, specifically including one's full tripartite Roman name, was enough to satisfy most Roman authorities that one should be treated as a citizen. That, coupled with possible language, clothing, and behavior clues, would help authorities assess the truthfulness of a verbal claim.

Should doubts arise, relationships to witnesses able to testify to knowledge of the person could be consulted as follow-up, or even, depending on one's location to a previous place of lengthy residency, census records from a prior census.


1 As the Wikipedia link notes, the census itself was often merely by verbal statement:

According to these laws, each citizen had to give an account of himself, of his family, and of his property upon oath, "declared from the heart." First he had to give his full name (praenomen, nomen, and cognomen) and that of his father, or if he were a Libertus ("freedman") that of his patron, and he was likewise obliged to state his age. He was then asked, "You, declaring from your heart, do you have a wife?" and if married he had to give the name of his wife, and likewise the number, names, and ages of his children, if any.

So no written documentation was necessarily needed or expected during the census, though obviously, if one had it, it may come in useful to speed things along.

Regarding location, even though Joseph returned to his family's ancestral home with Mary during the census (Luke 2:1-5), that does not mean the practice of travelling to an ancestral home was common or expected. The registration was to occur by a person going "to his own city" (Lk 2:3), which more likely indicates the city near which one currently resided (since it does not appear that Romans had to criss-cross the known world just to "register" themselves back where they or their clan were located). But ultimately, the census occurred where the censor (the one conducting the census) was located, and Luke simply records that during this time of census, Joseph was travelling away from Galilee, with Mary, and so chose to do his census at his ancestral home of Bethlehem.

  • Glad you decided to respond. My answer would have been limited to the third and fifth point. +1. Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 19:26

Romans who punished other Roman citizens in this way (i.e. beatings with rods) themselves recieved the kind of punishment that would strike fear into anyone's heart (i.e. death or severe punishments).

Acts 16:22-38 (DRB) And the people ran together against them; and the magistrates rending off their clothes, commanded them to be beaten with rods. 23 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the gaoler to keep them diligently. ... 27 And the keeper of the prison, awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the doors of the prison open, drawing his sword, would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled. ...

Notice that another punishment is failing to contain prisoners. A punishment so severe that suicide is preferable.

Continuing on...

... 35 And when the day was come, the magistrates sent the sergeants, saying, Let those men go. 36 And the keeper of the prison told these words to Paul: The magistrates have sent to let you go; now therefore depart, and go in peace. 37 But Paul said to them: They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men that are Romans, and have cast us into prison: and now do they thrust us out privately? Not so; but let them come, 38 And let us out themselves. And the sergeants told these words to the magistrates. And they were afraid, hearing that they were Romans.

They were not afraid because they had meted out said punishment—or even that it was meted out to an innocent person so much—but because it was meted out to a Roman citizen.

Indeed, that St. Paul notes his Roman citizenship as a reason the punishment was mistreatment along with being "uncondemned" proves as much.

Note that Paul was not content to escape free and (thereafter, at least) unharmed: he wanted them to know they had mistreated a Roman citizen, and to feel the fear of punishment for death for their mistreatment of him.

The following might give us an extra detail, and corroboration.

Acts 22:23-29 (DRB) And as they cried out and threw off their garments, and cast dust into the air, 24 The tribune commanded him to be brought into the castle, and that he should be scourged and tortured: to know for what cause they did so cry out against him. 25 And when they had bound him with thongs, Paul saith to the centurion that stood by him: Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? 26 Which the centurion hearing, went to the tribune, and told him, saying: What art thou about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen. 27 And the tribune coming, said to him: Tell me, art thou a Roman? But he said: Yea. 28 And the tribune answered: I obtained the being free of this city with a great sum. And Paul said: But I was born so. 29 Immediately therefore they departed from them that were about to torture him. The tribune also was afraid after he understood that he was a Roman citizen, and because he had bound him.

It's not certain what the relationship is between punishment without trial, scourging as a punishment specifically, and Roman citizenship, but logically speaking, it's airtight that Roman citizenship meant it was unlawful to either: a) scourge them b) punish and/or to bind for such a purpose without trial, or c) both (punish a Roman in this way or not without a trial).

It is also certain from these two passages that: a) Romans gave cruel punishments for failing to do one's fundamental duties properly (e.g. allowing prisoners to escape meant a punishment so severe, suicide was preferable thereto), and b) Roman authorities with significantly high positions were "afraid" of the punishments for contravening this, shall we say, 'Roman privilege' rule, which means (probably) a punishment equivalent to that of failing to properly detain prisoners.


a) the penalty for claiming Roman citizenship [to escape a sentence or punishment] was so great that even a criminal would never think to use it


b) the authorities who were punishing Paul were too afraid to take the chance, whether or not he was telling the truth or not, and tended toward credulity in such cases—to admit they have beaten a Roman in these circumstances (or at all, depending), is damnation, and nothing is lost by letting them go (they can claim prisoners are simply lying if they claim they were detained and beaten and then let go, I suppose, since if the prisoner admits to this 'trickery' they will be killed anyway, constituting incentive not to do such). It's a win-win to simply believe people claiming to be Roman citizens.

So they didn't 'know' so much as they didn't have to know with certainty in order to make that practical 'working knowledge.'

This is my analysis based on the internal data.

  • I have no question about the consequences for mishandling a Roman citizen (I agree, those are given within the passages I referenced, which you cited). But an issue I have with this logic is found in your point (b) "to admit they have beaten a Roman in these circumstances (or at all, depending), is damnation," and yet by accepting Paul's statement of citizenship, that is exactly the type of admission that occurs in the Acts 16 passage by them accepting his verbal testimony after the fact of his punishment. I would be better for them to say "prove it," unless it was already proved somehow.
    – ScottS
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 22:09
  • Proving it was would involve the involvement of the authorities that they would want to avoid for the reasons mentioned in case b, though, would it not? Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 22:15
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    This is a Biblical hermeneutics site, about the intended meaning of the Biblical books and related writings. As such, I'm not sure doubting the reliability of the truth claims of the Bible is on topic, except where that helps you to understand the meaning (hermeneutics) of the Bible, the goal and purpose of the site. Your question might be better asked on History stack. given the nature of your question. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 15:56
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    "no proof such inferences have any factual foundation on how authorities actually operated" = doubting the text is being truthful in its reports of Roman proceedings, no? Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 19:56
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    My statement is doubting your inferences (not the Bible's claims) on why the authorities are accepting the verbal testimony. I'm seeking historical documentation that sheds light on why such testimony was accepted (and perhaps how it was vetted as true when a claim was made). That is the "proof" that is missing; you give some speculations, but no documented proof that what you are saying is actually why/how authorities decide to accept a verbal testimony of citizenship. Caleb put a similar speculation in his comment on my question, but he commented because he had no proof to offer either.
    – ScottS
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 20:07

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