Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Athenians Kicking Down: Metics

Another group Athenian participants oppressed were metics, or resident foreigners.  Athens, as a prosperous and commercial city, attracted many immigrants.  But it did not admit them to citizenship, even if they had lived there for generations.  A metic had all the disadvantages of a citizen without the advantages.  Metics paid taxes and were subject to the draft.  They were excluded, of course, from the Assembly, from jury service, and from holding office.  Nor could they receive emergency rations, which were for citizens only.  A metic could not own real estate and was required to have a citizen sponsor.  Metics, unlike citizens, were subject to judicial torture and to enslavement for some offenses.  Killing a metic was ranked with killing a slave or accidental homicide as a non-capital offense.  And a metic was required to have a citizen sponsor.  At the same time, metics could own movable property, form binding contracts, and sue or prosecute (or be sued or prosecuted) on the same basis as a citizen.  Most metics were poor laborers; some were freed slaves; but some were rich and influential.

Such was the status of a metic.  Unlike slaves or women, metics were subjects of real controversy, mostly over the question of extending citizenship.  As we have seen, Solon and Cleisthenes were generous in extending citizenship.  But over time Athenians became stingier with it, first limiting citizenship to children of an Athenian father, and, under Pericles, requiring that both parents by citizens.  Plutarch reports that some 5,000 people were enslaved for the crime of falsely passing themselves off as citizens.  And, as we shall later see, when the democracy was overthrown and then restored, the leader of the restoration would propose to extend citizenship to all metics, foreigners, and slaves who took part, only to be rejected by an offended citizenry.  So clearly there was controversy over the status of metics and kicking down at them (whether by refusing to extent citizenship, by making citizenship harder to get, or by purging the citizen body and punishing impersonators) was popular with the democratic public.

But once again, democracy's aristocratic critics did not condemn it for that; they were more likely criticize it for handing out citizenship too easily.  Aristotle's Politics, for instance, criticizes Cleisthenes for extending citizenship to people who were not properly citizens.  And his Athenian Constitution expresses approval of rejecting a proposal to extend citizenship to anyone who took part in restoring the democracy, even slaves.  In short, restricting access to citizenship appears to have been popular with democrats and aristocrats alike.

And, I should add, I have seen no evidence of other, uglier forms of kicking down against metics.  I see no evidence, for instance, of denunciations of rich metics for leaching off the city, or calls to drive them out and seize their wealth.  Nor have I seen any evidence, even under conditions of high unemployment, of any populist politician denouncing poor metics as unfair competition for citizen laborers or calling for them to be expelled.  If there were anti-metic riots, pogroms, or persecutions, I have not yet seen evidence of them.  And this is worth noting, considering the outbreaks of violence so many societies (including our own) have experienced against powerless minorities.

In short, although Athens undoubtedly oppressed its women, slaves and metics, I no signs of any concerted populist attempt to kick down against any of these groups, opposed by the more aristocratic faction.  Athens does not appear to have practiced the worst forms of kicking down as a domestic political movement.

On the international level, though, the story is quite different.  Athens did, in fact, come to dominate and exploit numerous foreign city-states that became resentful, and to behave with extreme cruelty and brutality toward anyone who rebelled.  It was this that led to the Peloponnesian War and (at least temporarily) the downfall of Athenian democracy.  And here there can be no doubt.  The popular party was the imperialist party and the war party.  The aristocratic party opposed war and expansion, to say nothing of Athens' cruel and brutal acts toward rebellious allies.  This was the consistent pattern, beginning before the war and continuing after.  This is the kicking down that did become a political movement that I intend to address shortly.

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