Why was being a Roman citizen a big deal?



Acts 22:22 Up to this point (the Jews gathered) listened to (the apostle Paul), but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24 the tribune (a local provincial authority figure) directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25 But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” 27 The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29 Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. 

Every time I read about Paul invoking his rights as a Roman citizen I wonder what the big deal is. So, today I looked it up in some of my bible resources. Basically, Roman citizenship was a status granting special rights and privileges outside of the city of Rome but within the Roman empire. In this case Paul was in Jerusalem which was under Roman rule. The local authorities outside of Rome could not summarily judge someone to torture or death as was the case with non-citizens. The accused Roman citizen could appeal to Rome, asking for due process of an investigation and trial before a verdict was rendered. This is what Paul did.

But why was the local tribune so freaked out when Paul let it be known he was a Roman citizen? The tribune served at the pleasure of his Roman overlords, meaning that abuse of a Roman citizen could result in his being dismissed as tribune – or worse. Flogging Paul would have placed the tribune in serious jeopardy of losing his position of privilege and power.

So that’s the big deal.


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