BMCR 1991.01.12

The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens

, The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. xiv, 265 pages. ISBN 0691015937.

This study takes up the issue of how and when the concept of citizenship emerged at Athens, but in so doing it examines such topics as land tenure, the self-definition of the individual within society, and the concept of the polis itself. Indeed, the ideas of polis and polites are closely related, and reinforce each other: the analytical category of “polites” is logically dependent upon the polis, but the growing clarification of the rights and privileges of the polites (as well as the disabilities of the xenos or metoikos) in turn helped define the classical polis. Manville bravely approaches the earliest phases of this process, wrestling with our incomplete, (relatively) late and often contradictory sources. He disagrees with those who see polis and polites as ancient institutions, and argues forcefully that the concept of polites did not achieve a truly recognizable form until Solon, and that Kleisthenes played a key role in institutionalizing what Solon had begun.

M. judiciously uses ethnographic reports from various parts of the world to substantiate his claims as to the way in which preindustrial and agrarian societies actually work. He employs these empirical arguments not so much to prove his point as to establish that the interpretations which he puts forward have parallels and should not be dismissed in favor of neat, academic formulas. In this he participates in a wider tendency among scholars in the past decade to locate discussions of hallowed Greek institutions in a wider context. Some anthropologically oriented readers may find his avowedly functionalist outlook (e.g. 32) a bit mechanistic and old-fashioned, but M. uses his theoretical point of view to good effect.

Many of the arguments advanced are controversial and readers will find plenty of points with which they take issue. Nevertheless, the basic argument is well presented and plausible, and this book contains many individual discussions of particular problems, both new and old. This book well repays the attention of anyone, whether historian, literary critic or archaeologist, who is interested in the wider context of preclassical Athenian society.

M. devotes his first chapter after the introduction (“In Search of the Polis”) to a discussion of the classical concept of the polis. Some readers may find this section odd, since M. later takes care to avoid over-formulaic descriptions and to emphasize how the complex realities of pre-classical Attika surely resist simple definitions.

With chapter 3 (“Early Society”), M.’s greatest strengths come to the surface, for he begins to explore the fragmentary and elusive bits of information that we have about early Attika. “Early Society” begins with the tenth century, when Attika begins to recover from the collapse of Mycenean civilization (57). Although he emphasizes that the oikos is the basic unit of society, he points out that other social units (such as phylai, phratriai and gene) existed in pre-classical times. He attacks the “myth of order” (64) popularized by Aristotle that these social units were neatly defined with regard to each other and to society as a whole. In the inconsistent and variable social landscape of Attika, as it developed from about the tenth century, individuals defined themselves by connections to a range of groups (66) “broadly to a phyle, locally to a phratria, perhaps to a genos, perhaps also to the orgeones of his valley or other cult group located a few miles from his village or farm…” No one necessarily belonged to the same groups, and different members of a group might exercise different privileges. Diversity and complexity doubtless characterized the ways in which the inhabitants of Attika viewed their numerous roles. The petty communities of Attika had far greater significance to individuals than any notion of Attika as a whole. No central authority or shared vision (67-8) unified the inhabitants of the geographical space of Attika. No meaningful, consistent concept of Athenian “citizenship” existed before the time of Solon.

In chapter 4 (“Laws, Boundaries and Centralization”), M. sees substantial change taking place in the seventh century and attributes the preconditions for Solon’s work to this period. He discusses the role of the aristocracy, warning against expecting too rigid or clear-cut a system (72) but pointing out that inhabitants of Attika at the time clearly knew about various hereditary privileges (such as the archonship and the subsequent membership of the Areopagus).

He then goes on, however, to argue that there was no seventh century Athenian “state” because there was not yet any firm definition of who was and was not a citizen, nor had it yet firmly delimited its territorial boundaries (76f.). (Once again, he may seem to some readers to be splitting hairs and to falling victim to the same overly precise formalism that he criticizes elsewhere.) The Kylonian conspiracy is portrayed as both evidence and catalyst for change, indicating that the inhabitants of Attika could take joint action and stimulating the need for written laws subsequently filled by Drakon.

In chapter 5 (“Land, Society and Population at the Beginning of the Sixth Century”), M. takes up the increased pressure on land as a key phenomenon shaping the Athenian state at the time of Solon’s reforms. While we have no good way to measure the absolute population of Attika, the population was placing an increased strain on available land. This strain changed patterns of land tenure and ultimately drove the inhabitants of Attika to define more closely who was and was not a “citizen,” and thus had potential access to the state’s limited resources. By the time of Solon, private ownership had greatly increased, and this increase laid the foundation for Solon’s reforms of 594/3. Kinship and regional associations, dominated by a few powerful individuals, controlled a disproportionate amount of land, and effectively strangled the small farmer (112).

M. accepts a very early date for money in Attic society (118) and sees various commercial reasons for the increased need for private land ownership. Attika had begun to import food to feed its population, and cash crops were primarily wines and oil. Olives and vines must develop over a long period of time and require a fair amount of investment. Entrepreneurs needed clear title to land if large numbers of them were to tie up their resources in such risky ventures (119). He goes on to cite, in addition to the reforms of Solon, various other indirect signs of population growth in the sixth century such as colonization (120), territorial conflict with Megara (121), and an increased interest in overseas trade. The decentralized and regional patterns of tradition could not cope with the conditions that obtained at the start of the sixth century.

In chapter 6 (“Solon and the Invention of the Athenian Polis”), M. turns to Solon. “A general theme in all of Solon’s reforms was the creation of boundaries—spatial, legal and even psychological (126).” Solon established individual rights of property (126) and, in allowing individuals to choose their own heirs, had, so Plutarch tells us ( Sol. 21) raised “philia” over “suggeneia.” Since “creditors could not take any kinds of loans on the security of the person,” Solon created “a legal boundary between slave and free which carried immediate implications for citizenship (132).” Local privileges widened the gap between insiders and those, like immigrants, on the outside of Athenian society. Immigration laws discouraged transient inhabitants (134), and laid the seeds which would grow into the classical myth of a “pure Athenian” citizenry. The categories of xenos and metoikos did not legally exist until the sixth century, and the distinctions between outsiders and “real Athenians” had previously been much fuzzier (136).

M. turns again to the ethnographic record to show that in some societies, people from a different village of the same tribal group can be just as foreign as those from a completely different group (139). Diversity of burial customs (140) in the geometric period might suggest an influx of immigrants after the collapse of Mycenean civilization. Likewise there is evidence of foreigners participating in trades a generation before Solon (141). A few generations would have allowed such immigrants to blend in to the existing population. Solon more sharply distinguished the privileges of the insider and the disabilities of the outsider, thus enhanced the growing “Athenian consciousness” (144).

Within the state, the Solonic property orders established boundaries between different groups based on categories of productive worth. These orders gave to even the thetes at the bottom of the scheme formal status as Athenians that they had never had before, for the thetes, though beneath others in the state, exercised privileges denied the wealthiest outsider (146).

Solon’s changes were not just formal, but led to “a new civic mentality” which “pervaded the entire Solonian order (148).” Laws and the application of justice became a matter of public concern and control, and all Athenians could expect the same justice (150). Any member of the community could now bring charges that previously had been limited to an injured party or his family (151-2). No one could hide in their private homes, argued Solon, from a demosion kakon, and all citizens needed to recognize that they shared a common fate (153-4).

Chapter 7 (“Tyranny, Trials, and the Triumph of Kleisthenes”) looks beyond Solon to the end of the sixth century and the completion of the work which Solon had begun. Peisistratos and his sons “once and for all put an end to the regional struggles that had threatened to undermine the newly formed polis and politeia (162).” This low-profile tyranny allowed the Solonic order to take root and the citizens of Attika grew more accustomed to their varied privileges.

The aristocrats who seized power after the departure of Hippias attacked the demos, and in particularly instituted a damaging review of who was and was not a citizen. Those who had come to Athens and helped build the city under the tyrants found their positions seriously threatened (180), and the old regional organizations (tribes, phratries and gene) reasserted themselves as the guarantors of who was and was not Athenian (182). M. concludes (184) that the investigation into citizenship “was not an orderly or parliamentary review of citizen lists … It was a reign of terror, caught up in the bitter civil war among aristocrats, ruthless leaders striving for political power now that Hippias was gone.” This is the background against which Kleisthenes’ reforms are to be viewed.

Kleisthenes exploited this fear of the demos, instituting a new, consistent criterion for citizenship which was less prone to abuse and shielded the citizenry from bureaucratic terrorism (188). The reforms (191) “embraced all Athenians of any defensible status” and “made them all part of the polis.” The system of demes finally unified town and country (192), and advanced the progress of centralizing and defining the state. The demes were, however, administered from within, and became active bodies which determined their own membership (193). At the same time, Kleisthenes further strengthened the civic center, developing further the Agora, and created the boule and ekklesia which would emerge as the primary instruments of democratic power (194-7). The demos was responsible and consequently accountable for the decisions that it took.

External pressures accounted for the success of Kleisthenes’ reforms as much as internal concerns. Athens was challenged by Thebes and Chalkis, but especially by Sparta, which had, in fact, driven out Hippias. “Civic pride” and “fear of failure” alike motivated the Athenians to defeat all external threats (204), and this success reinforced Kleisthenes’ reforms.

At this point, we begin to find formal categories, such as metoikia and proxenia, which define different non-citizen groups (and implicitly the rights of citizens as well), while emigrants could move to klerouchies, in which they preserved their citizen status, as opposed to apoikiai, in which they became member of a new polis subordinate to its “mother-city” (206-8). Citizenship could be awarded by a grant or, conversely, taken away. It became a privilege that stood at the center of Athenian culture (209).