Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

Metics in Ancient Greece

Did ancient Greece have open borders? Yes, I think, in the limited sense that there was no passport regime. But Wikipedia’s article on “Metic,” the ancient Greek word for “resident alien,” suggests that the link between democracy and immigration restrictions goes back to the very beginning. Still, Athens seems to have had a regime closer to open borders in most respects– not all: no birthright citizenship– than the contemporary United States, and it set several precedents, such as the metic poll tax, which might be useful. In view of the prestige of democratic Athens as the world’s first democracy, I would suggest that the term “metic” could be introduced for legal purposes to refer to immigrants invited by citizens and admitted on an otherwise non-discretionary basis, subject to a special poll tax.

The bulk of this article pertains to Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC during the Athenian democracy, which encouraged foreigners to settle in Athens, on account of the part which they took in trade, industry, education, and of which period we have primary sources about the specific legal status of a Metic, as reported by the Attic orators. However, the history of foreign migration to Athens begins earlier with Solon, who is said to have offered Athenian citizenship[2][3] to foreigners who would relocate to his city to practice a craft; indeed, in the period of Solon, Attic pottery flourished. In other Greek cities (poleis), foreign residents were few, with the exception of cosmopolitan Corinth, of which however we do not know their legal status. In Sparta and Crete, as a general rule with few exceptions, foreigners were not allowed to stay (Xenelasia). There are also reported immigrants to the court of tyrants and kings in Thessaly, Syracuse and Macedon, whose status is decided by the ruler. So for a number of reasons the legal term metic should be associated with Classical Athens. At Athens, the largest city in the Greek world at the time, they amounted to roughly half the free population. The status applied to two main groups of people—immigrants and former slaves. As slaves were almost always of foreign origin they can be thought of as involuntary immigrants, drawn almost exclusively from non-Greek speaking areas, while free metics were usually of Greek origin. Mostly they came from mainland Greece rather than the remote parts of the Greek world.

Note well: half the free population of Athens were metics. So in that sense 5th-century Athens was far more open than America today or at any time in its history. Of course, Athens was a city-state and the metics were mainly other Greeks, so the comparison isn’t entirely apt. On the other hand, Athens was an independent state, so in that sense it is comparable to half the free population resident in America being foreigners. Continue reading “Metics in Ancient Greece” »