The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens

The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens

by Philip Brook Manville


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ISBN-13: 9780691600925
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1058
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens

By Philip Brook Manville


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09442-7



For the Athenian people, although they hold ultimate authority over all things in the state and have the power to act however they see fit, nonetheless regarded their citizenship to be something so worthy and august that they passed laws strictly prescribing its bestowal — laws which now [the defendant and her consort] are dragging through the mud. (Dem. 59.88)

The scene is an Athenian court, about 345 B.C. The speaker is expressing his outrage that a foreign prostitute and her Athenian "husband," through their wanton behavior and illegal registration of children, have disgraced the laws of Athenian citizenship, something "worthy and sacred" (kalon kai semnon). A rhetorical exaggeration? Not really. A good deal of evidence from the classical age suggests that Athenians did consider their citizenship something very valuable. It was, for example, only sparingly granted to foreigners, particularly in the fifth century. And as this speaker from the Athenian court notes, the people passed laws regulating it — not only for the enfranchisement of deserving aliens but also for the proper enrollment of Athenians themselves. The penalties for breaking such laws involved large fines and enslavement. One further indication that citizenship was indeed serious business: the Athenians periodically revised their civic registers with an eye toward limiting the number of "true" or "legal" or "full" citizens. Who was and who was not a citizen frequently stood at the center of political debate.

Why was citizenship considered "worthy and sacred," argued about, jealously guarded, and carefully maintained by Athenians in the classical period? What in fact was Athenian citizenship, and how did it come to be? The pages that follow represent an attempt to answer these questions of origin and development and to understand something that was simultaneously an institution, a concept, an ethic.

The primary (and difficult) task is one of terminology and definition. Let me first be clear about the meaning of "citizenship" in English, a word that can be glossed over too casually. According to Webster, citizenship is "the status of being a citizen." A more expansive definition is offered by Marshall in a well-known essay on the subject. Citizenship, he says, is "a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed." Now if citizenship can be described as a status of membership, with specific rights and duties, the term in English also carries another connotation. Again to quote Webster, it can alternatively mean "membership in a community; the quality of an individual's adjustment, responsibility, or contribution to his community." Thus, for example, an individual is sometimes rewarded for his "citizenship," his (good) service to the community, that is, a positive response to the society to which he belongs. By and large the two cited definitions in English are not commonly confused, nor do the meanings really overlap in the minds of most people today. The first has a juridical sense of status and is potentially passive (one may have the status of citizenship and do nothing with it, beyond fulfilling certain minimum legal requirements); the second must be active, for it depends on action within, and with regard to, the community to which one belongs.

The analogous term for citizenship in Greek (politeia) can have similar legal (passive) and social (active) meanings, but it is much less easy to draw a distinction between them. That is because the status of membership in the Athenian community could not really be separated from the role the citizen played in it; politeia appears in texts as "the condition and rights of a citizen" but also as "the daily life of the citizen," with both senses often implied at the same time. For the classical period, it is difficult to talk about a purely "passive" meaning of politeia, that is, as an abstract legal status, because Greek citizenship was defined by the active participation of the citizen in public life. An illustration of this often-stated point is provided by the procedures outlined in Athenian decrees granting citizenship to foreigners. In the fifth and fourth centuries, all such decrees, even those only "honorary," always included the proviso that the recipient be enrolled in a tribe and a deme, the membership corporations that (after the Kleisthenic reforms of 508/7) comprised the bodies of actual and practical involvement in the state.

"State" itself is a word also often used casually, so some understanding of what it really implies must be established in the context of ancient Greece. "State" is another possible translation of politeia (as are "commonwealth," "republic," "constitution," etc.), and at first that concept may seem very different from the legal status and daily life of a citizen. If so, modern perceptions are again getting in the way. Today, the state is often considered a formal, independent entity, in conflict with the individual and ultimately aloof from the citizens (and non-citizens) in its domain. For the Greeks, membership in the state and the state itself were closely related. In fact, the state — the polis — was its citizens, as, for example, the Athenian general Nikias reminded his troops in Thucydides' account of the Sicilian campaign in the year 413: "andres gar polis, kai ou teiche oude nees andron kenai" ("Men make the polis, not walls or a fleet of crewless ships": Thuc. 7.77.7). For the same reason, literary and epigraphic sources never refer to the Athenian polis as "Athens"; Athens was only the name of a place. What we would call the state was always represented as hoi Athenaioi ("the Athenians") meaning the political community of citizens. Thus, together with "state," "citizen body" is yet another of the many possible nuances of politeia; citizenship and the polis were interdependent.

This background allows a more precise definition of Athenian citizenship, the necessary beginning of this investigation. In short, citizenship was membership in the Athenian polis, with all that this implied — a legal status, but also the more intangible aspects of the life of the citizen that related to his status. It was simultaneously a complement of formal obligations and privileges, and the behavior, feelings, and communal attitudes attendant upon them. To be an Athenian citizen, as an Athenian himself might say, was to be someone who metechei tes poleos: someone who "shares in the polis." What did this really mean in the classical age?

During much of the fifth and fourth centuries, Athenian citizenship was membership in a polis defined by a democratic constitution. To sketch a general picture, we might start with the imprecise but workable assumption of a basically stable and continuous set of democratic laws and institutions in Athens between about 450 and 322. Against this background, the scattered evidence relating to citizenship per se can be drawn together to present a coherent outline of its legal characteristics in this period.

Except for the small percentage of foreigners granted Athenian citizenship by decree (which entailed its own criteria and formal procedures), the citizens of the polis were native Athenian males who had reached the age of eighteen, and who had been duly registered in the same local Attic village unit, or deme, to which their fathers belonged. That registration embodied a formal and multistepped process. Candidates were scrutinized by fellow demesmen to ensure that they were eighteen, freeborn, and legitimate with regard to the lawful marriage of two Athenian parents. If the candidate was challenged, appeal to a jury court (dikasterion) was possible, and in all questionable cases a further scrutiny (dokimasia) by the democratic council (boule) was required.

Successful candidates' names were inscribed in a list kept by the deme, the lexiarchikon grammateion. Once entered into legal adulthood, citizens could expect to (and might be expected to) exercise a variety of specific prerogatives: to participate in Athenian cults, festivals, and worship; to attend, speak, and vote in the popular assembly (ekklesia); to serve (after the age of thirty) as a juror in the law courts (dikasteria); to vote and (depending on age and eligibility) stand for elected and allotted offices (archai); to seek redress and receive protection under the laws; to have the capacity to own land in Attika; to receive public disbursements, whether for services provided, as special distributions, or as maintenance for hardships. The loyal Athenian might also be rewarded with public burial at state expense if he sacrificed his life on behalf of the polis.

The chief obligation of citizens was to obey the laws of the polis. Indeed, appropriately the penalty for not doing so was often the loss of one's civic rights and privileges within the law (atimia). Military service and taxation were other obvious obligations, though these, just as certain privileges, fell to varying degrees upon citizens, in accordance with an individual's census rank. All citizens except those of the lowest order (thetes) were liable for service in the hoplite army or cavalry. By the latter part of the fourth century, Athenian males between eighteen and twenty years of age were also obliged to undergo two years of preparatory military training (ephebeia). Upon completion, they were required to supply the necessary (and costly) equipment demanded by their regular military duty. Thetes served in the Athenian navy, typically on a voluntary but occasionally mandatory basis. Taxes in the Athenian polis were mostly indirect, and those such as harbor dues and import duties affected all citizens. Direct taxes (eisphorai) were levied from time to time, but were restricted to citizens of a certain minimum wealth (probably a net worth of 2,500 drachmas). The wealthiest men were also responsible for various liturgies (literally, "work on behalf of the community"), such as the command and maintenance of warships or the financing of festivals for the polis. Finally, any man who served in public office was required, at the end of his duties, to have his performance scrutinized and his financial dealings audited. Thus, all those who exercised any civic authority were hypeuthynoi, that is, subject to the legal examinations called euthynai, and fully accountable for the course of their public service.

Despite some differential privileges and obligations based on rank, Athenian citizenship embodied an overall legal status, defined by identifiable boundaries. The boundaries become most clear when we compare citizenship to the status of various groups of non-Athenians in Attic society. Classical law distinguished Athenians from foreigners (xenoi), resident aliens (metoikoi), and slaves (douloi). Unlike the citizen, the xenos could not hold public office, own Attic land, or marry an Athenian woman; if he wished to trade in the public marketplace, he had to pay a special tax (xenika). His rights and access to justice in the Athenian courts were severely limited.

The foreigner who wished to settle permanently in Attika as a metoikos had to be sponsored by an Athenian citizen (prostates) and be willing to pay a yearly tax on his inferior status, the metoikion. Once registered, the metoikos gained a certain legal advantage over other foreigners, though he still shared many of their disabilities, such as a prohibition against marriage with an Athenian woman. Moreover, metoikoi were also liable for two serious responsibilities of citizens, military service and (if wealthy enough) the obligations of liturgies and taxes such as eispborai. In the courts, the metoikos stood at marked disadvantage to the Athenian. In addition to certain procedural disadvantages (e.g., inability to act as a prosecutor in public indictments or graphai), metoikoi might suffer what no citizen feared: torture to extract judicial testimony.

Slaves also could be tortured for testimony, which is not surprising given their even more lowly status under Athenian law. Like other items of property, and unlike all free men and women in society (citizens or others), douloi could be bought, sold, hired out, bequeathed, or given away by their owners. With few exceptions, slaves were the responsibility of their masters in any legal action and had no official identity of their own.

The superior status of the full citizen of the polis is manifest in homicide law. The known procedures and penalties indicate that the murder of any non-Athenian counted for less than the murder of an Athenian. The man who slew a citizen (or his Athenian daughter or wife) was tried before the court of the Areopagos, and could receive the death sentence; the man who slew a metoikos, xenos, or doulos went before a lesser court, the Palladion, and was liable only to exile. Athenian law held Athenian life dearer and maintained a firm separation between members and nonmembers of the polis. The kinds of sentiments behind this boundary are obvious in the comments of the Athenian Euxitheos, on trial to defend his own civic status in the year 345:

In my opinion, gentlemen of the jury, you ought to treat severely those who are proved to be xenoi, who, without either asking or having been granted the right, now share in Athenian sacred rites and public privileges by dint of trickery and violence. And in the same way, you ought to render aid and salvation to those men who have suffered misfortunes but can show themselves to be citizens. (Dem. 57.3)

Two other Athenian groups, women and children, deserve brief mention because of their ambiguous position in the society. Athenian women were members of the Athenian community, but belonged to the polis in a legal sense only indirectly — through their relationship with a father, husband, or other male relative who acted as their master and guardian (kyrios) in all important affairs. Athenian women, and a fortiori Athenian girls, could not own or inherit property, enter into contracts, or take independent action to marry or divorce; through their kyrios, however, they enjoyed the full protection of any citizen under the law. Male children held a status similar to that of Athenian women. Until they came of age and entered adulthood, Athenian boys were wholly dependent on a kyrios (normally the father) for their legal identity in the polis.

If Athenian citizenship in its various legal aspects can be described as a formally instituted status group, what can be said of its more intangible qualities in the classical age? Attempting to describe the values, behavior, and communal attitudes of the citizens themselves is tricky, given the paucity and nature of the evidence and the problem of trying to generalize from it. Still, an analysis that fails to take account of some of the supralegal qualities of politeia risks both undervaluing and misunderstanding it.

An obvious starting point, and indeed the veritable locus classicus of Athenian citizenship, is the funeral oration delivered by the statesman Perikles in 431/30 (Thuc. 2.34ff.). The speech, with its interrelated themes of Athenian customs, political institutions, and manner of living reflects the richness and complexity of citizenship in the democratic polis. As Perikles first tells his audience, he intends to discuss the greatness of Athens, and the political organization and way of life from whence the greatness came (meth' hoias politeias kai tropon ex hoion: 2.36.4).

The speech, as passed on by Thucydides, is an elegant blend of tradition, contemporary commentary, and moral principles. Perikles reminds the audience of its ancient ancestry ("the same people have always lived in our land, from generation to generation": 2.36.1), their past military exploits (36.2–4), and their special form of politeia, unique in the Greek world:

Our government is called a democracy, because its conduct is in the hands of the many, and not just a few. There is equality for all under the laws with regard to the settlement of private disputes; as for the value placed on men, when someone is put forward for public responsibilities, preference depends on personal merit rather than social class; nor because of poverty is any man held back in obscurity, as long as he has some benefit to contribute to the polis. (37.1)


Excerpted from The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens by Philip Brook Manville. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Preface to the Paperback Edition, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • A Note on References and Abbreviations, pg. xiii
  • Chapter One. Introduction: What was Athenian Citizenship?, pg. 1
  • Chapter Two. In Search of the Polis, pg. 35
  • Chapter Three. Early Society, pg. 55
  • Chapter Four. Laws, Boundaries, and Centralization, pg. 70
  • Chapter Five. Land, Society, and Population at the Beginning of the Sixth Century, pg. 93
  • Chapter Six. Solon and the "Invention" of the Athenian Polis, pg. 124
  • Chapter Seven. Tyranny, Trials, and the Triumph of Kleisthenes, pg. 157
  • Chapter Eight. Conclusion, pg. 210
  • References, pg. 221
  • Index, pg. 259

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