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Greek citizenship


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Greek citizenship stemmed from the fusion of two elements, (a) the notion of the individual state as a ‘thing’ with boundaries, a history, and a power of decision, and (b) the notion of its inhabitants participating in its life as joint proprietors. The first element was a product of the various processes of state formation which eroded personal chieftainship by centralizing power and exercising it through a growing number of offices or magistracies with limited length of tenure: at first denoted by an extended use of the word polis, it later engendered the more abstract term polīteia, ‘polity’, ‘constitution’, or ‘commonwealth’. The second element developed from the informal but ineradicable roles which epic already portrays as being played in communal life by the demos (the territory or settlement and its inhabitants) and the lāos (the people in roles—esp. military—and relationships): reflected in various ways in early texts, it was formalized in the word polītēs (citizen) and in the assembly (ekklesia) as an institution. The fusion of the two elements was expressed in the fundamental phrase ‘to have a share in the polity’. It implied that all citizens shared in public responsibilities (deciding, fighting, judging, administering, etc.) and in public privileges (access to land, distributions, or power) as if they were shareholders in a company.

(a) the notion of the individual state as a ‘thing’ with boundaries, a history, and a power of decision, and (b) the notion of its inhabitants participating in its life as joint proprietors.

Political pressures and political theory crystallized round the questions ‘Should shares be equal?’ and ‘Who should be a citizen?’. Aspirations towards equality, opposed by oligarchs, were expressed by terms such as homoioi (‘peers’, full Spartiates), isēgoria (‘freedom to speak in assembly’), and isonomia (‘equality of political rights’), by the diffusion of power among the citizenry, and by the notion of ‘ruling and being ruled by turns’ which shaped Aristotle's functional definition of citizenship. So, the boundary between citizen and non‐citizen needed explicit definition. Some formulations admitted all free residents, as Cleisthenes' (2) reform in Athens probably did. Others required descent from a real or imagined founder or group, and therefore emphasized legitimacy of birth. Others envisaged ‘those best able to serve (the city) financially and physically’, or (as in Sparta) disfranchised those unable to contribute fully to the common table. Such formulations tended to equate citizenship with four abilities—to fight, to vote (in assembly and lawcourt), to hold office, to own land—and thereby to make citizen bodies into closed, privileged, all‐male corporations, outside which lay various inferior or adjunct statuses such as perioikoi (‘dwellers‐round’), metoikoi (metics), and apeleutheroi (freedmen). For female citizenship in Athens, see status, legal and social, Greek.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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