Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.26

Maria Niku, The Official Status of the Foreign Residents in Athens, 322-120 B.C. Papers and Monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, 12.   Helsinki:  Finnish Institute at Athens, 2007.  Pp. 181.  ISBN 978-951-98806-7-9.  

Reviewed by Sara Saba, The Australian National University (
Word count: 1387 words

Maria Niku's work deals with a rather enticing topic: foreign residents in Hellenistic Athens. In all fairness, Hellenistic Athens, given the historical developments, has been overlooked until the recent past, when illustrious scholars have set the pace for new research in this direction. More work needs to be done and Niku offers her contribution to fill the gap in the bibliography.

One of the challenges for those who deal with this subject is represented by the sources, which are overwhelmingly epigraphical. Although we lack a continuous historical narrative, I refrain from phrases such as "the paucity of...," or "the lack of..." This because it must be noted that the preserved epigraphical record is extremely rich and worthy of attention. Comparison with Classical Athens would be unfair. A better evaluation of the status of the available sources emerges from looking at the most important Hellenistic centers, where scholars have to work with a similar amount and type of material. This is the nature of evidence in the Hellenistic period. Niku has accepted the task of studying the numerous available inscriptions, and, while she focuses mainly on decrees, she does not overlook the important contribution that funerary inscriptions can offer. Her work aims at providing a definition of the status of foreign residents in Athens who were in the public eye from about 322 to 120 B.C. The author chooses to start from the conventional beginning of the Hellenistic period, the year after the death of Alexander (322 B.C.). The date of 120 B.C. is chosen because there are not enough sources after this date.

The work is divided into three main parts. Niku first investigates the obligations foreigners had towards the state, then the rights they could claim in the public sphere, and finally the honors and privileges the city could award them.

The first of these three parts starts by defining the obligations of resident foreigners towards the state in simple terms: they had to pay taxes and serve in specific sections of the army. The author focuses primarily on the first duty and discusses extensively the burden of metoikion, which is the tax that each foreign resident had to pay to the state. According to Niku, its very presence determines the existence of metoikia, which is of course the legal concept that described the status of foreigners in Athens. Niku traces the chronological development of the metoikion throughout the period under study. She reaches the conclusion that by 229 B.C. the change of constitutions and the influence of foreign rulers had fatally modified the basic condition that allowed metoikia to exist, thus causing its disappearance. For example, she remarks that in the army at this time, the rules that previously defined the role of citizens versus that of foreigners could not be enforced and this was a fatal blow to the boundary between the two categories. Another point she makes forcefully and more than once concerns citizenship requirements. These were progressively lowered to the point of allowing children of mixed marriages to have full citizenship rights. This was the final result of the laxity that weakened the legal boundaries defining citizen vs. foreign status in Hellenistic Athens.

The author supports her arguments continuously and conscientiously with the analysis of numerous inscriptions, but I must stress that on one occasion her argument rest on shaky ground. Niku offers an analysis of the important grant of isoteleia, which allowed foreign grantees to pay taxes just like an Athenian citizen; in her view, however, metoikia and isoteleia are so intimately connected that the existence of one allows the assumption of the existence of the other. The problem is that she supports this claim with an argumentum ex silentio according to which, if isoteleia had still been in place after 229/8, documents from the progressively slimmer epigraphical dossier should testify to that. According to the author, however, the lack of this evidence signifies not only that isoteleia did not exist anymore, but also that the metoikion and metoikia in general had disappeared. Niku continues by saying that the granting of isoteleia would have been an empty gesture once metoikia no longer existed, because the metoikion was the most substantial tax from which isoteleia granted a welcome exemption. Although her claim has a logic behind it, it cannot be forgotten that isoteleia was not granted only to metics, but often also to proxenoi who may have had specific financial interests in town without living there. Furthermore, the author tries to validate the idea that the granting of isoteleia had become an empty gesture by comparing it with other, according to the author, empty privileges. An example of this would be the title of proxenos, in the unlikely case of a proxenia grant without other attached honors. Studies on proxeny, which the author does not quote,1 convey a different idea of the overall value of this grant. My main point is that the belief that privileges (e.g., proxeny) were reduced to empty gestures in the Hellenistic age cannot be supported. If we claim and defend the vitality of the Hellenistic poleis, but then fall back into the pattern of denying any political and diplomatic shrewdness to their governing organs, we may just as well go back to the idea of decadence.

The second part of Niku's work is dedicated to the rights of foreign residents. The author studies the surviving evidence for their legal status but she has to conclude that we do not have enough material for an analysis as detailed as one would want. In this context, she raises the idea that Athenian citizenship had lost most of its value, seeming again to reinvigorate the old notion of the decadence of the Hellenistic age. This view, however, is contradicted by the rest of the chapter. She turns her attention to the role of foreigners in public religion in an attempt to determine whether they participated in civic cults and, if so, to what degree. Her research shows that in this aspect of civic life, their options were very limited and continued to be so. Indeed, citizens almost exclusively retained the privilege of participation in this essential moment of polis life.

Another point that argues against the devaluation of citizenship is tied to property rights. It is well known that foreigners could not normally own either land or a house and the only way for them to obtain permission to do so was by a grant of enktesis. This was a very much sought-after grant and is widely attested for foreigners, for example for proxenoi, as one of the most important signs of recognition for a significant contribution to the polis. Again, ownership rights marked an important difference between citizens and non- citizens. Although Athenian citizenship certainly had a different meaning in the Hellenistic period than it had had in the Classical period, it still retained value. Its depreciation in terms of international relationships does not mean that Athenians thought that their citizenship was worthless. On the contrary, in virtue of their glorious past it may have been considered a priceless honor.

The third and final chapter is a systematic and useful review of the privileges foreigners could be given in Athens. This part scrutinizes the content and significance of many epigraphical texts. The author discusses again important privileges such as isoteleia and enktesis and contextualizes them within the rich epigraphical material.

An interesting appendix on Rhamnous and the peculiar situation of its soldiers concludes the monograph. This part certainly brings up a problem of interest. The author tackles the question posed by the still not fully explained paroikos status of these soldiers. Niku concludes with the realistic statement that there is not enough evidence to provide certain answers for the time being, but dismisses the hypothesis that this was only a new definition for a metic status.

Niku's topic is of great interest and in her conclusions she anticipates her intention to produce a future study investigating the private sphere of the lives of foreign residents. Interest in these topics is commendable and work on them is very much needed. The book under review, however, could be regarded as a good dissertation that needs more editing. Certainly, it could have been shortened by avoiding several repetitions and treatment of facts that are common knowledge for those who deal with Hellenistic history.


1.   The author seems to be familiar only with Walbank's work on proxeny, and, for example, does not even mention the recent book on 4th century proxeny by Enrica Culasso Gastaldi, Le prossenie ateniesi del 4 secolo a.C.: gli onorati asiatici, Edizioni dell'Orso, 2004. This although she mentions repeatedly inscriptions that Culasso attentively studied.

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