Privileges of Citizenship
The closest modern analogy that we can draw to the privileges of Roman citizenship might be the English under the British Raj20 or Americans abroad during the ﬁrst half of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps chiefest among their rights were those in the judicial sphere, especially the right provocatio, or appeal to the emperor. About two decades before the birth of Christ, Rome passed a law, the lex de ui publica, which
forbade any magistrate to kill, scourge, chain, torture, or even sentence a Roman citizen who had announced his intention to appeal, or prevent him from going to Rome to lodge his appeal there within a ﬁxed time.21
The only known statutory exception to this rule deals with citizens who were in military service. Over such troops (as well as all others) governors and generals held the ius gladii, the power of execution; it was considered necessary for military discipline.22
The Trial Before Festus (Acts 24:27-25:12)
Paul’s trial before Festus is interesting literarily as well as legally. Up to this point we have compared Luke’s accounts against known and little-known history. Now the tables are turned and Luke becomes a legal benchmark of sorts. As legal scholar A. H. M. Jones sees it, Paul’s trial before Festus is “the only account we possess of a provocatio…” (emphasis mine).49 That is, while others write of the process generally, or mention cases wherein provocatio was employed, we have no “court transcripts” other than Luke’s to show the “nuts and bolts” of the procedure.
The three elements of the extra ordinem session are present even more clearly here, for Festus’ consilium is mentioned by name in Acts 25:12.50 The circumstance that triggers Paul’s appeal to Caesar’s tribunal lies just beneath the surface of our English text. Festus is torn between two things: on the one hand, simple justice (Luke points out that the Jews brought charges “which they could not prove,” v. 7); and on the other, political expediency — as the new governor, he “wished to do the Jews a favor” (v. 9). Bruce believes that back of this was the implication that Festus “might treat the Sanhedrin as his consilium”51 if the venue moved to Jerusalem. Thus, while perhaps winning Festus a “political honeymoon,” it would hardly have been an even-handed affair. Hence, after over two years of conﬁnement, Paul appeals to Rome.
Luke’s record of the fact that Paul chose to appeal helps to date his work and sources, for less than ﬁfty years later the process had changed. As Bruce states it:
By the beginning of the second century a.d. it evidently became the regular practice for citizens in the provinces, charged with offenses not covered by statute law, to be sent to Rome almost automatically, without having to take the initiative in appealing to Caesar.52
Once again, the record of Paul’s “judicial adventures” is on target.
2. Mark Black, “Paul and Roman Law in Acts”, Restoration Quarterly: Studies in Christian Scholarship, (1981) 209.
4. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1963) 1. I am indebted to Sherwin-White for the phrase “Judicial Adventures” which inspired this article's title.
9. Francis Lyall, “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul — Aliens and Citizens”, The Evangelical Quarterly, (48) 12.
20. Lyall, “Roman Law”, 10. This paints quite a picture for those with some familiarity with British India!
21. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, (Doubleday & Company, Inc: New York, 1969) 358
22. Black. “Paul and Roman Law in Acts”, 211. It should be noted that the point is still debated. C. E. Brand, a U.S. Army military lawyer, in his book Roman Military Law, points out that the dispute is fueled by a coin inscription and how it is interpreted. Brand does not ﬁnd the idea of a condemned soldier’s right to provocatio very logical — or appealing. See especially pp. 67-68. Still, he feels that a citizen-soldier’s rights were valid when involved in non-military judicial disputes.
49. A. H. M. Jones, The Criminal Courts of the Roman Republic and Principate, (Rowman and Littleﬁeld Publishers: Totowa, NJ, 1972) 101. Curiously, after making this statement, Jones goes on to say that it “is unfortunately very confused, and one is led to suspect that neither Paul nor his biographer understood the legal position…”! If it is our only example, as he insists, how does he know that Paul and Luke were “confused”?!
50. And knowing of the existence and necessity of the consilium, we are not likely to confuse it with the other “council” mentioned in Acts 4:15 and 24:20, when it clearly refers to the Sanhedrin's council.
51. Bruce, History, 357.
52. Bruce, History, 358.