Rejecting 'Greekness': Classics Athens’ Anti-Immigrant Policies and Practices

This is the second of three lectures I gave  between July 9-13, 2019 as the Onassis Lecturer at the CANE Summer Institute held at Brown University. The theme of the institute was "E Pluribus Unum".  The first lecture has been posted previously here.

NOTE: there are parts of each lecture where I either did not script the text and refer to slides or simply ad libbed. As a result, in those locations, I will either post the slides or will link to previous posts that explain the point I was making.

In my first lecture, I discussed the fact the “Greeks” were a plurality--they weren’t bothered by being both “Greeks” and Spartan, or Corinthian, or Milesian, or Ephesian, or Samian or Egyptian, Phrygian, Armenian, Thracian, even Persian! It’s just how things were. But not all Greeks thought their fellow Greek were their equals--some ‘Greeks’ were, they thought, better than others. The most well know of these ethno-exceptionalists were the Athenians.

Athens, the place where most of my research has focused in the past, had one of the largest ports--Piraeus, a hub for merchant activity, industrial weaving and pottery production, and a thriving shipping industry-- and it had, as far as we can tell, one of the most ethnically diverse populations among the Greeks of the Classical period--thousands of immigrants between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE flooded into the polis either looking for work or seeking refuge from the continual wars that plagued the Aegean. This is not to mention the tens of thousands of enslaved persons being imported at the same time--enslaved who were both fellow Greeks and non-Greeks. However, the Athenians also had, as far as we can tell, some of the most restrictive laws for foreigners. the metic system (metoikia), which I want to talk about today. It was, I would argue, one of the few only truly racist systems in Greco-Roman antiquity and seemed to depend upon a certain level of anxiety about foreigners and foreignness. It may have been instituted, after all, as Aristotle said--because of ‘too many citizens’.

Is Athens exceptional in this regard? Or is it the case that whenever a population feels they are being pushed out by ‘others’ we should expect this reaction? Does it have to be this way? It’s a question we need to consider more broadly if we want to understand the world we ourselves live in, where debates surrounding immigration, refugees, and national boundaries are ever looming. Understanding Athens is particularly important given how often Athens is used as a model for democracy, its high period of empire and anti-immigration sentiment a ‘golden age’ in our textbooks, popular journalism, and entertainment. For example:

In truth, for about four centuries, Athens rejected the plurality of Greekness and insisted not only on its own supremacy, but sought to engineer Athenian ethnic homogeneity. That thing--racial homogeneity--that I argued the other day did not apply to the Greeks generally was, in fact, an ongoing wish for the Athenians--ex uno unum.

My goal for today is to break this wish down, show its ebbs and flows, its final decline, and the contexts in which it functioned. My hope is that it will give us some food for thought as we enter the second decade of an international refugee crisis in which over 10 million people have been forced by war, violence, corporate exploitation, and interventionists policies of superpowers to leave their homes and seek safety in our own and other ‘democratic’ countries, some of whom (like Hungary, Italy, the UK, and the US) have shut their borders and enacted policies that encourage at the least negligence and at the worst human rights violations and cruelty. 


I will start with orienting us with a chronology and explanation of the policies:

Cleisthenes and the Synoecism, 508/7 BCE:
καὶ δημότας ἐποίησεν ἀλλήλων τοὺς οἰκοῦντας ἐν ἑκάστῳ τῶν δήμων, ἵνα μὴ πατρόθεν προσαγορεύοντες ἐξελέγχωσιν τοὺς νεοπολίτας, ἀλλὰ τῶν δήμων ἀναγορεύωσιν. ὅθεν καὶ καλοῦσιν Ἀθηναῖοι σφᾶς αὐτοὺς τῶν δήμων.
And he made those dwelling in each deme of the same deme as one another, in order that they not ascertain who were the new citizens (νεοπολίτας) when addressing them by patronymic, but would publicly announce them as belonging to the deme. Thus, Athenians name themselves by their demes (Aristotle Ath Pol 21.4).
Cleisthenes' reforms, if we believe Aristotle, involved making citizens out of those who would be in later times called metics. In 508/7 BCE, however, they were incorporated into the new Athens as citizens. Of course, what Aristotle means precisely by νεοπολίτας here is not certain. It could refer to indigenous inhabitants of Attica in places that had not yet been fully synoecized. Or, it could refer to any residents, whether born in Attica or not. Either way, this is a move that creates the idea of a united Attic Athens and everyone no so incorporated is 'Athenian' and will get to be part of the myths and institutions that held it together under the claims of a pure, 'Athenian' descent.

After the Persian Wars (490 BCE and 480-79 BCE) we see an uptick in anti-Persian rhetoric, but also anti-Ionian Greek rhetoric; policy of subjugating Ionians to Athenian control under the Delian League may stem from animosity over the Ionians generally fighting on the side of Persian in the war.

Institution of metoikia--laws (470-460 BCE)

Periklean Citizenship Law (451 BCE): Both parents must be citizens; law was not retroactive, though some scholars (like D. Ogden) have argued [unconvincingly] that this law reflects practice in Athens towards children of a foreign mother prior to the law's passage.

Relaxations (429 BCE, after 415 BCE): There is evidence that the law was relaxed in the face of first the plague and then the disaster in Sicily that allowed citizen men who had a child by a foreign women to request they be granted citizenship. Carawan (see biblio below) argues that the 429 BCE exception was for those whose legitimate citizen heirs had died. After the Sicilian disaster, we have evidence from the 4th c. BCE that it was--Demosthenes and many others speak in orations of their own parents being born "at the time when" it was required to only have one citizen parent. Chronologically, this falls into the period of the Peloponnesian War. There was a stigma attached to this, but it didn't prevent them from being prominent citizens.

After 403 BCE: After the reign of Thirty Tyrants and restoration of the democracy, one of the first things the restored Athenian assembly did was re-establish the restrictions on foreigners--women immigrants could no longer bear citizen children to citizens. Those children also were additionally banned from being heirs to citizens.

A ban on marriage followed a bit later and enforcement seems to have ramped up--penalties for failure to register and pay tax or for pretending to be a citizen: sale into slavery and the person who reported received a portion of the sale. A man name Aristogeiton, is one of the most well known for this. According to Demosthenes 25, he sold his own sister and attempted to have Zobia, an independent metic woman sold as well. 

Around 322 BCE, Athens attempted to put in place a new metic tax, but the city was soon to lose its independence. In 317 BCE, Cassander, an heir to Alexander, imposed Demetrius of Phalerum on the city as its governor on behalf of the Macedonians. He seems to have removed the ban on foreign ownership of property. He may have ended the taxes on metics. Regardless, even with its loss of independent status, the Ahtenians continued to maintain citizenship as the prerogative of only those with two citizens parents and the marriage ban seems to have remained in effect.

Between 200-100 BCE, outside of Athens, we see Athenians in Athenian settlements (like Delos) intermarrying with non-Athenians; Maybe a sign the chauvinism was diminishing? Regardless, after 200 BCE within Athens itself, we see evidence of the ban on intermarriage with non-citizens being lifted--over 40 tombs for Milesian women married to Athenian citizens have been noted and there are likely many more.

This is quite a trajectory and the most restricted times for immigrants in Athens were during the periods when democracy was supposedly at its height. The equality of the citizens could only be achieved, it seems, through exclusions. Otherwise, what was citizenship other than a burden or series of obligations? To make it desirable, it had to have privileges. And instead of making everyone truly equal (economic inequality was rather high), the elites pushed legislation that targeted foreigners (especially foreign women) and promoted national myths that all Athenians were equal in their purity of descent.

 What reasons? Why would they do this? What is the underlying logic?

RACISM, that weed Knox and many others have convinced themselves could never grow in Greece, especially in Athens, which recall, he calls the polis in its advanced form.

But, as discussed in the last lecture, this homogeneity was a myth as was the idea that our concept of race can be applied to antiquity--race in antiquity is different. Instead, we should consider race as a structuring mechanism. Here is Falguni Sheth:

In other words: Race is more a technology that structures human interactions and embeds prejudices against racialized peoples into systems of oppression-- there are three things: human difference, prejudice, and race: race is the institutionalization of prejudice based on moving signifiers for human difference. Sometimes this involves the biological, sometimes not. If we understand, as Sheth does, race not as a ‘descriptive modifier’, but as “a mode or vehicle of division, separation, hierarchy, exploitation’, we can see better how institutions that seem to be, as she calls it ‘race neutral’ are actually how race itself functions.

And this is how the metic system operates. We miss the implications of the system and its nature if we mistake ‘race’ for a something as banal as skin color--a difference of a few hundred alleles in our genes out of about 3 billion.

Let me explain: How was the Athenian system a race system built on racism? I am going to put up a slide at the end with a select bibliography where you can see where these issues have been discussed before. Susan Lape and I are probably closest in our understanding of race in Athens, though she argues from race as embedded within the idea of descent instead of looking at the structures that support the idea of descent based citizenship. My interest is really in understanding race as a system within institutions, even institutions that can purport to be 'race neutral', as Sheth discusses.

5th century (after 450 BCE): Autochthony and the search of purity--eugenics? Ion--lots of discussion also in Herodotus, Thucydides, the funeral orations. There is a large scholarship on this (see biblio below for a selection). Here are some samples from Athenian tragedy that reflect these ideas.

Foreign women in tragedies are points of contamination, danger (Phaedra in Euripides' Hippolytus, Medea, Andromache in the plays named after them by Euripides)--the language around Phaedra, especially, is the language of nosos, disease. The best metic is the one that sacrifices itself for the state (Euripides' Herakleidae) or can offer divine protection (Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus). I discuss this in Ch 2 of the Immigrant Women in Athens book, if anyone wants to take a look at the detailed discussion.

In the 4th century, metics appear in oratory as inherently untrustworthy--Geoff Bakewell has written on this issue in Lysias.

380s BCE: Isocrates attempts repeatedly in his speeches to recruit the Athenians to unite the Greeks in a war with Persia. The Athenians weren’t interested--maybe they didn’t see much difference between their fellow Greeks and the ‘barbarians’? He eventually decides Philip of Macedon is a better choice. At least one Athenian wasn't opposed to foreigners...

There was, then, a LOT of anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner sentiment in Athens from the 1st quarter of the 5th century to the last part of the 4th. This rhetoric was accompanied by very strict policies that were very harmful to the metics who lived in the city. But it may have also have been not just prejudice against foreigners--certain foreigners were welcome to the city and over the course of the 5th and 4th centuries, we see various periods when wealthy men are invited to Athens to set up factories (Lysias’ father Kephalos, for example) or are made citizens though having been enslaved (Pasion and Phormio the bankers; Apollodoros, the son of Pasion).

We also see evidence of proxenia for metics, a typically honorary status, that also grants them the right to own land in Athens, if not citizenship. We even see a couple of block grants of status (maybe not actual full citizenship) to refugees from Plataea (427); Samos (403/2); and Olynthus (348).

Its also wrong  o say that Athenians were all hateful to the foreign residents living in the city--#notallathenians. There is tomb evidence that some of the immigrant or slave women living within the city were loved by citizens--despite their status as foreign--nurse tombs:

So, we see evidence of acts of kindness to individuals and even certain groups who were ‘other’. But the policies can overwhelm those individual kindnesses. Those individual acts of gentleness are great, but they are only necessary because there are policies that create incentives to cruelty. And these acts of kindness can be hallmarks of systems of oppression--examples trotted out to show it 'wasn't that bad'.

What do we make of all of this? Why do I think it matters here to think about this through the idea of race?

Let’s go back to the ideas I mentioned earlier from political scientist Falguni Sheth: If we understand that race is NOT a content signifier--it isn’t skin color of hair type or any sort of physiological, visible difference (most of the resident foreigners in Athens were other Greeks, after all)--but the mechanisms used to enforce discrimination, inequality, and oppression through those or other shifting markers, then we can understand better how systems of oppression are formed and how they act. We can see what is happening in Athens as a process that isn’t built into ‘nature’ but is constructed willfully, one law, one lawsuit at a time. It gives us a much more accurate picture of what was happening in Athens and gives us the tools we need to see how their imperialism, ethno-centrism, exceptionalism, misogyny, and militarism intersected and fed each other.

It also gives of better tools with which to see beyond and through the elites of many of our literary sources like Thucydides and the orators and get a better picture of those members of Athenian society who lived at the margins. In other words, it gives us a much more accurate picture of what it was like to live in Athens in antiquity, of what it was like to be the person upon whose labor the amazing architecture was built (many (most?) of the craftsmen were foreigners or enslaved). In other words, the “Glory that was Greece” had an underbelly that we, as Americans would do well to pay heed to because our own history shows that the Glory that is America is built on equally if not worse racism and structures of oppression. By ignoring this aspect of one of the models for our democracy in our teaching and discussions of classics, we allow ourselves to ignore it in our own history and daily lives as well.


But, I don’t want to leave us on a down note--as Robin reminded us yesterday, IT’S SUMMER! AND SUNNY!. But also because there are alternatives to this exclusionary model presented by Athens in the 5th-2nd centuries. Miletos. From Miletos, we have a series of decrees that span from around 250 BCE to 100 BCE. Some of them are extremely fragmentary, but they attest to 100s of people from all over Greece, the Black Sea region, Italy and Sicily, Asia, the Levant, and North Africa being granted citizenship in the city over the period. Most of them were granted citizenship as whole families--husband (frequently the husband and wife had the same ethnic identifier, but not always), fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons. Some were individual women, some individual men.

Of particular note are the inscriptions from 228/7 BCE and 223/2 BCE which include large block grants of citizenship to Cretans. These Cretans came to Miletos as mercenaries. We would expect them to have come alone because that is how we imagine mercenaries from Xenophon’s Anabasis. But, no. These Cretans brought their families. And they settled. And then they became Milesians.

We don’t have a lot of records like this from antiquity, and we don't know everything about these decrees that we would like to know about them. And we know that something was going on that caused Miletos to relax its own citizenship restriction, but this is a significant concession.  I imagine that if we did, we would find that many Greek poleis were far more open to foreigners that we often assume because our most well attested example, Athens, twas so restrictive. This evidence suggests--as does the lack of foreign burials in Miletos--that maybe these foreigners weren’t segregated and derided when they arrived, whether as refugees, as freed slaves, or as free immigrants, but were welcomed in as part of the city.