A few months ago, I finished a chapter for an edited volume on the concept of foreignness in antiquity on the Athenian system of metoikia as an enactment of race in antiquity. I've been working on this idea now for about 4 years, trying to find ways of expressing 1. what we mean when we say 'race' in any context, 2. whether it can be seen in antiquity (contrary to the beliefs on both the majority of classicists and of scholars of modern race), and 3. how a model of race in antiquity might look. Many years ago (spring of 2019), I posted a talk I'd given at Duke-UNC Center for Late Antiquity that attempted a beginning of articulating what this might look like. The chapter on metoikia is the culmination of that work.
In this blog post, I am going to provide a shortened version of that chapter that will hopefully lay out the model in an accessible way. I also gave a talk in this shortened form at a recent Monitor Racism conference. The audio recording can be found here (I begin at around the 2hr 11min mark. Denise McCoskey precedes me with a discussion of the history of race in the discipline of Classics). The images provided here are from that talk as is much of the text. This work builds from my last book, Immigrant Women in Athens and looks forward to research in other aspects of race and ethnicity in antiquity that I am currently working on or planning.
I present this abridged version of my model and research as a proposal for what studying race in the ancient past can offer to understanding race in the modern world, but also as reflection of what deep engagement with critical race studies can help us understand about the ancient world as well. We must simultaneously dismantle the centuries of accretion of white supremacist world view from our understanding of the ancient past while also seeing where modern race systems borrowed and adapted their own ancient models. We have to be in conversation with, not borrowing from, modern critical race, if we want to change our discipline and also more accurately understand the past.
I am willing to share the full version of this chapter for classroom or research use. I am still awaiting revision suggestions from the editors, so it is not yet in its final form. Contact me, if you are interested.
Let's start with who or what was a "metic". It isn't as easy a thing as we think. The term is frequently translated as either "resident foreigner" or "immigrant", though you can see from the the slide below that "immigrant" is a metaphorical use for many people who fell into this legal category. Essentially, it was a legal category that sat in between a citizen and the enslaved in Athens (and in some other Greek poleis, but we don't have as much information about how their systems worked). It contained free people, but free people whose status as "free" was not inalienable.
When the category was first established, it was defined by a series of restrictions that set those counted as 'metics' and those who did not apart from each other. Central to the definition of metic is that it encompasses any free person in the city who has been there for about a month and intends to stay longer. They must register themselves with a local official (the polemarch) and pay a special tax. This separated them out from citizens (who did not pay a special personal tax), enslaved, and visitors from other places, including merchants just passing through. These initial restrictions will increase over time, which I will discuss below.
|Proxenia = honorary quasi-citizenship, isotelia = tax equality with citizens (don't have to pay the metoikion), enketesis = right of property ownership.|
These are the basics. Now, for the details and how this legally defined group of people from ancient Athens can help us in articulating a transhistorical concept of race.
Metoikia as Race
Scholars have used race, a concept given to a frustrating multivalence, with different meanings when discussing the ancient Greek world. I must clarify both what I do not mean by ‘race,’ as well as explain the technical meaning I use here, adapted primarily from the work of Falguni Sheth and Karen and Barbara Fields--though their own definitions are rooted in long histories of critical race. Race as I use it here is a technology or doctrine of population management that institutionalizes ethnic prejudice, oppression, and inequality based on imaginary and moving signifiers for human difference, signifiers that manifest differently in different times and places (i.e. it is transhistorical and fluid).
The imaginary and moving signifiers in the case of the Athenian and metic eventually follow what Fields and Fields define as the ‘doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from the members of other distinct groups.’ Because these groups are imaginary, they can be constituted from those who might, in a different classification system, be very diverse.
Race, then is the doctrine or technology for creating distinctions in institutions. In our Athenian case, I will focus on law thats crafts political institutions that create and then support a doctrine of inherent superiority of the citizen population while casting others as inferior. In this framework, we might define ‘racism’ as the ‘practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard.’ For the Athenians, the double standard inheres in the application of law (and particularly the right to enslave) between citizens and metics; racism is the application of law to enforce distinctions between political classes and their risk of experiencing state-moderated violence. The distinctions between Athenians and metics are then reproduced through what we call ‘racecraft, ‘the practical, day to day actions that reproduce the imaginary, pervasive belief in natural distinctions between the groups.’ Some examples of racecraft would be daily reminders of second class status like having to pay special taxes: the metoikion itself, ‘foreigners only’ taxes for using the port (pentekoste) or selling in the markets (xenika tele), in limitations on contracts and ownership, bans from civic spaces, or segregation when participating in city rituals.
Race and Violence
And so we see through any number of legal judgements, race is never merely about ‘race.’ It is in the drawing of the lines between ‘evil beings’ and ‘moral beings,’ between persons and nonpersons, human beings qua citizens and those who cannot be citizens because they are ‘not human like us,’ where we find the salience of race. Understood as a vehicle by which to draw and redraw the boundaries by which select populations are assured the protection of the law, race becomes deployed as a technology. It is when we understand it as a technology that we begin to understand how race locates and domesticates the ‘unruly,’ and in so doing, ‘reveals’ the apparatus by which the normative ground of racial classifications was once naturalized and concealed.