Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.42

Demetra Kasimis, The Perpetual Immigrant and the Limits of Athenian Democracy. Classics After Antiquity.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xvii, 206.  ISBN 9781107052437.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Sara Forsdyke, University of Michigan (


This is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, book. The basic argument is that citizenship in the Athenian democracy was deeply implicated in the contrasting figure of the immigrant or metic. More specifically, Kasimis argues that Euripides’ Ion, Plato’s Republic and Demosthenes 57 Against Euboulides are concerned to show the essential instability of membership criteria in the democratic polis. In making this claim, she challenges many mainstream readings of these texts. While not all of her readings will convince, Kasimis certainly provokes serious reconsideration of some of the main tenets of modern interpretations and raises some interesting broader claims about the politics of membership in democracies across time.

The first substantive chapter (2) analyzes Euripides’ Ion. Contrary to scholars who see the tragedy as a ‘romance’ and the ending as happy (Ion is reunited with his autochthonous mother, Creusa, and reinstalled in Athens), Kasimis suggests that the play problematizes the role of autochthony in Athenian civic ideology. Kasimis suggests that most scholars are distracted by the reunion between Creusa and Ion and consequently tend to overlook the fact that Ion will live as a metic in Athens, since he is required by Apollo to conceal his relation to Creusa and pretend that her husband, the foreigner Xuthus, is his father. By ignoring or deemphasizing Ion’s status as a metic, she argues, scholars mistakenly read the ending as a homecoming that “reproduces Athens’ self-conception, an idealized vision in which the demos…is invulnerable to contamination by the metics who are otherwise everywhere” (p. 40).

Kasimis makes clear that she is not particularly interested in how the original audience understood a text, or even what its author intended. Rather, she aims to open up some interpretative possibilities and expose the critical blind spots of orthodox scholarly interpretations. Accordingly, Kasimis analyzes the play as a political theoretical text, rather than a performance (on p. 40 she refers to “readers”). We might well ask whether in a live performance, the audience would be more likely to overlook the detail of Ion’s pretended metic status, since he is in fact autochthonous and will become part of the royal family of Athens. In other words, reading the play as a performance rather than a text might better support interpretations of the ending of the play that see it as celebratory, rather than problematizing, at least for its original audience.

Chapter Three turns to Plato’s Republic and reads particular significance into the fact that the dialogue is set in the Piraeus, the port district in which many metics lived. Indeed, the dialogue takes place in the house of a metic, after the participants have watched a celebration of the Thracian goddess Bendis. She observes that this context underlines the fact that metics perform the sacred rites of city just as do citizens, since there are processions of both Thracian metics and Athenian citizens in honor of the god. For Kasimis, Socrates’ comments on the equal excellence of the two processions draws attention to the arbitrariness of the distinctions upon which citizenship in the democratic city is built. Similarly, the metic Cephalus’ exhortation to Socrates to treat him as kin draws attention to the constructedness or artificiality of kinship ties. In this chapter and the next, Kasimis is explicit about her method of reading Plato. Citing John Seery, she argues for an approach that pays attention to the “dramatic cues” that “invite us to think beyond the apparent logic of the text itself.”

A prime example of the tension between text and context is the fact that Socrates states that metics will be banned from the ideal state of Callipolis, yet he makes this statement in the home of a metic, with metics present. Similarly, in Chapter 4, Kasimis argues that the Noble Lie must be read as a critical reflection of the Athenian myth of autochthony and its role in determining membership in the polis. Whereas many scholars interpret Plato as asserting the importance of natural distinctions in contrast to the disordered flux of democracy described in Book 8, Kasimis stresses the fact that Plato himself calls attention to the deception needed to make the reality of flux and change conform to the idea of a natural order. Powerfully, Kasimis writes, “The ignorance Socrates demands of his future citizens . . . he does not ask of his listeners” (p. 97). She further observes that, as in the case of the Bendis procession, Socrates acknowledges that in Callipolis, the difference between supposedly natural categories fails to materialize in practice.

Kasimis finds other productive parallels between the content of the dialogue and its Athenian context. For example, Kasimis observes that the scrutiny of children to determine which ones will be classified as gold and hence rulers is parallel to the Athenian scrutiny of citizens to determine who is born from two Athenian citizen parents. Kasimis suggests that the Athenian examination of citizens did not simply verify a natural status but generated it, just as the testing and subsequent classification do in Plato’s Republic. She justifies this bold claim in Chapter 5 by arguing that in Book 8 Plato calls attention to boundary-crossing performances of identity that democracy enables (metics act as citizens and citizens as metics, at 562e–563b, remarkably the only explicit reference to metics in the entire Republic). In doing so, Plato provides a critical perspective on the fragility of democracy. In sum, the Republic is “challenging, not endorsing, the necessity and naturalness that democracy gives its own distinctions” (p. 107).

Kasimis puts particular emphasis on the role of performances or mimesis in Plato’s account of democracy in Book 8. Kasimis notes that the exchange of roles (citizen/metic; parent/child; husband/wife) is bidirectional and involves performances of identity. Moreover, each performance is an imperfect imitation of a model. Kasimis asserts that “therefore” even the original identities are performances (p. 130). Here the idea seems to be that because the reversal is bidirectional, there is no “original” or true status of which the other is an imitation. Contrary to scholars who read the passage as concerned with the inversion of natural categories, Kasimis suggests rather that Plato’s point is that through its myths, the polis makes status seem “original” or “true” but in reality this is a matter of imitation of behaviors. The chapter ends by drawing a comparison between the democratic citizen in Republic 8 and Thucydides’ representation of Athenian civic ideology in Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Kasimis suggests that Thucydides affirms the self-evidentness or naturalness of Athenian greatness even while oscillating between a presentation that suggests Athenian qualities are on the one hand innate and on the other hand actualized through performance. Finally, in a short appendix to the chapter, Kasimis explores the implications of Socrates’ voicing (mimesis) of a funeral oration composed by the metic woman Aspasia in Plato’s dialogue, Menexenus. She argues that this dramatic artifice exposes the dependence of the citizen on the metic in the production of the very speech by which difference is constructed. This observation “reminds us of the necessary contribution of metics and women” to the citizen ideal. Moreover, for Kasimis, the dialogue is a critical exploration of how membership works and leads us to the idea that identity is unstable and ambiguous.

Chapter 6 turns to Demosthenes 57 Against Euboulides, a defense speech in a legal trial concerning the citizenship claim of one Euxitheus. Kasimis argues that this text also reflects the performative nature of identities in historical Athens, and hence the instability of the democracy’s “natural” distinctions between citizen and metic. As Kasimis notes, the speaker Euxitheus does not rely on “natural” facts but rather performative enactments: he did things that citizens do and did not do things that metics do (e.g., pay the metic tax). More importantly, for Kasimis’s thesis, Euxitheus points out the ambiguity or polysemy of certain behaviors that are taken by his opponent as indicative of metic status: speaking with a foreign accent, selling ribbons in the agora, and working as a wet nurse. The fact that these behaviors are not decisive proof of status underscores the instability of natural distinctions that rely on such performances in practice. In sum, Kasimis reads this legal speech as a political theoretical text centering on the claim that the blood-based regime of the Athenian democracy allows for contestation of membership and a precariousness of membership since individuals can always be challenged as acting or “passing” as citizens rather than being citizens. Whether or not we agree that Demosthenes is forwarding such critical and theoretical perspectives on democracy (rather than just trying to win the case), Kasimis is concerned only with exploring the critical possibilities of the text in its Athenian context.

Despite the fact that this book appears in Cambridge’s Classics After Antiquity series (which is devoted to classical receptions), texts from the classical period form the core of the work. Nevertheless, as Kasimis suggests in the final pages, the insights she draws from ancient texts have implications for how modern democracies think about and manage the boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Readers in Classical Studies and in Political Science will find much to ponder in this stimulating book.

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