BMCR 2024.05.20

Citizenship in antiquity: civic communities in the ancient Mediterranean

, , , Citizenship in antiquity: civic communities in the ancient Mediterranean. Rewriting antiquity. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2023. Pp. 750. ISBN 9780367687113.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


Rewriting Antiquity is a Routledge series which intends to tackle significant themes of ancient history “in a broad, holistic and inclusive fashion.” This new volume on citizenship does an admirable job of upholding the series’ goal to “break down the boundaries habitually created by focusing on one region or time period.” Editors Jakub Filonik, Christine Plastow, and Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz outline the intended themes of the volume, which include the multifarious ways in which citizenship in antiquity cannot be bound to a strict binary, but rather includes a variety of middling positions and fluctuating definitions. The editors have complied an exciting mix of topics from authors across the academic spectrum to better elucidate the “manifold meanings, ways of defining the concept, and practice of citizenship or belonging” (10) for both a specialized and non-specialist audience.

The introductory chapter, “Citizenship in antiquity: current perspectives and challenges,” clearly outlines the difficulties facing any scholar of citizenry and the ancient world, before outlining goals for the rest of the volume. 48 chapters follow, broken into 7 parts. With over 700 well-researched and accessible pages of argumentation, it is nearly impossible to pay due attention to each entry. Therefore, with respect to brevity, I will in part focus this review on one of the prominent, and in my view critical, themes of the volume—problematizing the idea or definition of “citizenship” as a strict category. This volume pushes against the once commonly accepted (and still commonly taught) idea that citizenship in the ancient world was binary.

Part I, “Theory of Citizenship,” includes a chapter by the late P.J. Rhodes, “Greek Citizenship,” which should be required reading for anyone starting the study of the ancient Greek world, with its clear interpretation of the boundaries and conditions for citizenship, as well as forms of non-citizenry. The star of Part I, though, is Alain Duplouy, who argues that a citizen is, in practice, defined by his public performance of citizenship. Essentially, to belong, one had to act like they belonged (52-55). Duplouy continues by showing how this performative aspect actually allowed for the permeation of the citizenship boundary by outsiders who knew how to perform (53). He concludes that belonging required conformity to the behaviors deemed acceptable and appropriate by the (citizen) in-group, pushing the idea of citizenship beyond something (intangible) that one had or not.

Part II analyzes 4 periods of the Ancient Near East as comparanda to the traditional Greco- Roman origin of citizenship (3-4). In Chapter 7, “Citizenship in Hittite Anatolia,” N. İlgi Gerçek reads against the grain, or rather against the silence, of Hittite tablets to assess “the conceptualization(s) and operational reality of citizenship in Hatti” (99). While a term for citizen did not exist in Hittite (nor Sumerian and Akkadian), many of the expected practices of citizenship did exist, though quietly, in extant evidence (100). Legal applications of varied categories (i.e. ‘man of Hatti’ vs. ‘man of Luwiya’), community engagement, and governmental interactions with regional populations all provide evidence that Hittite society was organized beyond the traditional strictures of “lord” and” subject.” Mark Woolmer takes up one of his areas of specialization in his chapter “The evolution of citizen councils and assemblies in ancient Phoenicia.” While the connection between the expansion of Phoenician states and commercial enterprise has long been appreciated, Woolmer focuses on the growing power of mercantile families and a city’s council of elders to contend with royal authority. Rather than following the lead (either politically or economically) of a king, kings were expected to consult their council on matters of trade, as early as the 11th century BCE. This argument does stand somewhat at odds to arguments made about the importance of Phoenician royalty and their international reputation and influence into the 9th century BCE (cf López-Ruiz 2021: 305-6). However, his nuanced analysis of the extant evidence is persuasive in showing that by the Hellenistic period, citizen committees had effectively organized and amassed influence through their socio-economic pursuits until they were able to supplant royal leaders.

Part III, “The Greek World,” includes an impressive 284 pages and is divided into 2 sections (1 on the Greek word more widely and 1 on classical Athens). Section 1, “Archaic and Classical Greece,” covers a broad range of evidentiary types from various poleis. The focus of many essays is the space between the binary categories of citizen and non-citizen. In addition, linguistic study of the various terms for citizens and those in liminal or excluded spaces dominate the chapters in this section. Barbara Schipani and Ferdinando Ferraioli tackle the question of gender in their chapter, “Granting Citizenship to Women in Ancient Epirus.” Where more traditional understandings of Greek citizenship largely exclude women from the binary, due to the lack of association between politeia and women in the extant evidence, as noted in the chapter, Schipani and Ferraioli reinvest meaning and import into the politeia of women beyond their roles as “mothers of citizens” or religious participants, but as an integrated part of civic and communal life. Women politai held separate functions from men, but not as a “discriminatory tendency,” but rather because “political life contained in itself different functions…distributed in the polis according to different criteria, among which was probably gender” (201). The particular contribution of this chapter though, is the authors’ elaboration on the “more open societies” of Epirus and Aetolia, and their resultant relationship with female citizens. Publicly awarded honors, such as proxenia and politeia, were not given as empty gestures – and Schipani and Ferraiolo shine light on the degrees of access to rights that women could achieve beyond the strictures of Athenian society.

Jakub Filonik, in “Sharing in the Polis: Conceptualizing Classical Greek Citizenship,” concludes the section and demonstrates how etymological and close reading analysis can reveal the internal “emic” variety in “what constituted both citizenship and being fully ‘part of the polis‘ to classical Greeks” (275), especially when put into conversation with modern understandings of “citizenship.” To share in the polis was a multi-faceted and complex phenomenon beyond the practice and scholarly perception of “citizenship rights” and engagement.

Section 2 narrows its focus to Classical Athens, but still maintains the breadth of research questions which makes this collection unique. Linda Rocchi, in “Identity, Status, and ‘Dishonour’: Was Atimia Relevant Only to Citizens?,” contributes to the theme of problematizing citizenship through her analysis of legal and social (and socio-legal) uses of atimia. Moreover, she successfully demonstrates that atimia was an important aspect of the relationship between citizens and non-citizens, and thus relevant to the whole community in Athens. In particular, she addresses the old argument of differing punishments for citizens and metic soldiers accused of cowardice. Atimia, she argues, should be recognized as the common punishment, even if its practical application varied depending on the time, or access to citizenship rights, of the convicted. She concludes that atimia was “relevant to male Athenian citizens, but it was not something that pertained exclusively to them” (336).

Two additional chapters in this section call upon Attic oratory to analyze the connection between rhetoric and a historical sense of belonging. Christine Plastow engages the urban spaces of Athens in her chapter, “Places of Citizenship in Athenian Forensic Oratory.” In this chapter, Plastow connects the naming of places and spaces with “citizen behavior and spatial knowledge” to evoke ideology and history so that the audience may “live up to the name of their ancestors” (366). In a similar vein, James Kierstead and Sofia Letteri explore wider association memberships, not as parallel to political membership, but as reinforcing “a man’s bona fides” and “backing up a man’s claim to be a true part of an Athenian community” (397). In both cases, the authors have excavated a self-conscious rhetorical attempt by orators to connect political and civic status to historical genealogy and nativist understanding of the city of Athens.

As a scholar of the Hellenistic period myself, I found Part IV, “The Hellenistic World,” particularly compelling. Christian A. Thomsen’s chapter, “Citizenship, identification, and the metic experience in classical and early Hellenistic Greece,” breathes new life into well-trod evidence concerning the role and position of the metic (resident foreigner) and how poleis were able to negotiate peer-to-peer interactions in the Hellenistic period. Thomsen elucidates the blended way that state institutions and social connections worked together in order to regulate and promote the position of foreigners within the citizenscape of the ancient polis. Of particular importance is his argument that the metic would not have been at off from home state and family—rather it was likely (especially in the case of those in Rhodes) they could travel to their places of origin with little hardship and continue to “have property outside their city-state of residence” (467), pressing back on earlier prevailing notions of displaced and disconnected metics. As such, the communities should be re-conceptualized beyond any non-citizen role in a citizen versus non-citizen binary to let us recognize that “Citizenship, though not actively practiced and perhaps not practiced for generations, therefore continued to play a vital part in the social and economic outcomes of the migrant” (468).

Part V, “Between and Beyond Greece and Rome,” bridges the chronological and geographical separation of the “Greek” and “Roman” worlds. Of particular interest is Dexter Hoyos’ chapter “Citizens and Citizenship in Pre-Roman Carthage.” Too often texts on the Greco-Roman world only take interest in Carthage during and following the Punic Wars, defining its importance by its relationship to Rome. Hoyos makes much of the scant and fragmentary evidentiary record and illuminates possible internal socio-political hierarchies, as well as the lasting relationship with Tyre. Hoyos concludes that the citizenry, generally speaking, was “more ruled than ruling,” but were not “static.” Instead, he argues, they should be seen as “a growing and versatile population,” which benefitted from their association with the state and its oligarchic regime (515).

Also in Part V is Lucia Cecchet’s “Multiple Citizenship in Roman Asia Minor.” Her argument, which includes evidence from the Hellenistic period and the western Mediterranean, is that citizenship was often used as a tool to build connections between individuals and states. Importantly, these multiplicities of belonging also problematized priority in citizenships. Cecchet demonstrates that locality and regionality continued to play important roles in how individuals self-identified in a given situation. While the argument is persuasive overall, there remains room to explore grants of citizenship embedded in awards of proxenia. These Hellenistic precedents to inter-personal and inter-regional connections were alluded to, but never directly engaged (though they remain perhaps tangential to the conclusions).

Part VI brings the reader’s focus squarely to the Roman world and the grand influence of the empire around the Mediterranean. Martyna Świerk opens her chapter, “Citizenship in the Roman provinces: the example of Africa,” with an analysis of Aelius Aristides’ oration Regarding Rome, which shows the same adroit handling of evidence as her fellow co-authors—outlining the useful aspects, then critiquing and contextualizing. In Africa, as well as many non-urban regions under Rome, “political rights were mostly a facade” (628), which made the holding of citizenship much more relevant to private matters, rather than traditional associations between citizenship rights and public engagement. The problematization of citizenship in Africa again comes from the rarity of evidence, especially from any point of view outside of a “motivated local people [who wish] to join the elite ranks of Roman citizens” (636; bracket added for clarity). Individuals disconnected from the benefits of citizenship, either geographically, materially, or chronologically (after 212 CE), deprioritize such markers of identity, even when incorporated into the political status.

The final Part, Part VII, “Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” brings the volume to a close by showing how citizenship evolved in the wake of the classical world. Arnaud Besson takes up the topic of the Antonine Constitution and its impact on citizenship in the Roman world in his chapter, “Towards Universal Citizenship: the Roman Empire in 212 CE.” Besson does an impressive job in showing some of the pluralist issues surrounding this development; from changes over time to gaps in Roman law or “legal fictions,” which were able to be exploited. While imperial law did not change to include foreigners, for example, it could be adapted in application. As such, the Antonine Constitution was both “a break with previous citizenship policies” and “deeply imbued with legal and administrative continuity” (662). As with many developments in Roman history, tradition and innovation went hand in hand. Local laws and expectations were not overwritten by the new decree, nor was everything within the legal sphere the same as before. Rather, Besson concludes that the Antonine Constitution created more legal opportunity for everyone, but did not reduce traditional individual responsibilities towards local communities.

One of the volume’s stated themes of belonging comes full circle with Dion C. Smythe’s final chapter, “Citizenship and Belonging: A View from Byzantium.” In this chapter, Smythe continues to problematize the concept of citizenship as it waned in the centuries after the Antonine Constitution in 212 CE. In these later centuries, belonging, therefore—to a religious group, possibly to an ethnicity, to the right side of the frontier zone—overcame traditional outlines of citizen and non-citizen. While the multiplicities of identities under consideration in the rest of the volume are not erased in this changing time, they are subsumed in the new religious realm, in which the “most senior” identification was that of “a slave – doulos – of the basileus in Constantinople, the vice-regent of God on earth, not a citizen of the Empire” (714).

As a complete work, this volume adds a strong voice to the on-going discussions and re-analyses of civic space and the usefulness of the concept of “citizenship” in the ancient world. Addressing the problem from a variety of perspectives and using evidence from a variety of traditions, both literary and material, these contributions are often able to create a window into a complex topic. While some additions summarize accepted arguments, many chapters critique traditional views to provide a balance of old and new material. Following in the footsteps of Josine Blok (2017) and Duplouy and Brock (2018), the volume successfully critiques the Aristotelian boundaries of the citizen and shows the multi-faceted way in which civic communities found methods of defining and, oftentimes, broadening their interactions with various state and interpersonal systems.

This volume will likely become a standard reference text for those interested in multifaceted takes on important themes, including citizenship, civic belonging, and the interconnections between civic and religious practice in the ancient world. I do not recommend reading this volume from beginning to end—as its intimidating length is likely to overwhelm the importance of its contributions. However, the balanced mix of theoretical overview and practical analysis will be useful for readers of many levels of interest. Each chapter is well-researched with a relevant bibliography immediately following. In addition, difficult primary texts are introduced with enough context to aid less knowledgeable audiences without becoming pedantic for the expert scholar.



Blok, J. Citizenship in Classical Athens. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Duplouy, A. and R. Brock (eds). Defining Citizenship in Archaic Greece. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

López-Ruiz, C. Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2021.


Authors and Titles

  1. Jakub Filonik, Christine Plastow, and Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, ‘Citizenship in antiquity: current perspectives and challenges’

Part I: Theory of citizenship; 

  1. Catherine Neveu, ‘Exploring citizenship(s) in context(s): anthropological perspectives’
  2. J. Rhodes, ‘Greek citizenship’
  3. Alain Duplouy, ‘Lifestyle and behaviour in archaic and classical Greece: the other language of citizenship’
  4. Markus Sehlmeyer, ‘Models of Roman citizenship from Augustus to Boris Johnson’

Part II: The Ancient Near East

  1. Eva von Dassow, ‘Citizens and non-citizens in the age of Hammurabi’
  2. İlgi Gerçek, ‘Citizenship in Hittite Anatolia’
  3. Mark Woolmer, ‘The evolution of citizen councils and assemblies in ancient Phoenicia’
  4. Shai Gordin, ‘Neo-Babylonian citizenship practices in a comparative Mediterranean context’

Part III: The Greek world

Section 1 Archaic and classical Greece

  1. Irad Malkin, ‘The supreme arbitrator and the dēmos: city-founders and reformers’
  2. Gunnar Seelentag, ‘“Citizens” and “others” in archaic and early classical Crete’
  3. Ryszard Kulesza, ‘Spartan oliganthrōpiaand homoioi
  4. Katarzyna Kostecka, ‘Exile and conflicting identities in archaic and early classical Greece’
  5. Barbara Schipani and Ferdinando Ferraioli, ‘Granting citizenship to women in ancient Epirus’
  6. Ryszard Kulesza, ‘Citizenship and the Spartan kosmos
  7. Roger Brock, ‘Civic subdivisions and the citizen community’
  8. Stefano Frullini, ‘The language of citizenship in Herodotus and Thucydides’
  9. Bartłomiej Bednarek, ‘Performing the city: religious aspects of Greek citizenship’
  10. Jakub Filonik, ‘Sharing in the polis: conceptualizing classical Greek citizenship’

Section 2 Classical Athens

  1. Chris Carey, ‘The citizen body’
  2. Fayah Haussker, ‘Smuggling infants: citizenship fraud in classical Athens’
  3. Brenda Griffith-Williams, ‘Polisand oikos: citizenship and family membership in classical Athens’
  4. Linda Rocchi, ‘Identity, status, and “dishonour”: was atimia relevant only to citizens?’
  5. Christopher Joyce, ‘Could Athenian women be counted as citizens in democratic Athens?’
  6. Christine Plastow, ‘Places of citizenship in Athenian forensic oratory’
  7. Nick Fisher, ‘Citizenship anxieties: the Athenian diapsēphisisof 346/5 BCE’
  8. James Kierstead and Sofia Letteri, ‘Appeals to associations and claims to citizenship in Athenian oratory’
  9. Brad L. Cook, ‘“He’s a Scythian!”: the “birther” attack in classical Athens’
  10. Janek Kucharski, ‘Darkest hour: Hyperides and the emergency measures after Chaeronea’

Part IV: The Hellenistic world

  1. Susanne Carlsson, ‘Citizenship in the Hellenistic period’
  2. Randall Souza, ‘Citizenship in the classical and Hellenistic western Mediterranean’
  3. Christian A. Thomsen, ‘Citizenship, identification, and the metic experience in classical and early Hellenistic Greece’
  4. Patrick Sänger, ‘Hellenistic Egypt and the hybridization of “citizenship”’
  5. Christel Müller, ‘The making of the citizen in Hellenistic poleis

Part V: Between and beyond Greece and Rome

  1. Dexter Hoyos, ‘Citizens and citizenship in pre-Roman Carthage’
  2. Edward M. Harris and Sara Zanovello, ‘Manumission and citizenship in ancient Greece and Rome’
  3. Katell Berthelot, ‘Jewishness as “citizenship” in Jewish writings from the Hellenistic and Roman periods’
  4. Lucia Cecchet, ‘Multiple citizenship in Roman Asia Minor’
  5. Andrea Raggi, ‘The Greeks and the right of Roman citizenship in the late Republic’

Part VI: Rome and the Roman world

  1. Guy Bradley, ‘Politics and citizenship in Etruscan and Italic societies’
  2. Roman Roth, ‘Rome’s Italian expansion and the transformation of Roman citizenship (387 – 91 BCE)’
  3. Craige B. Champion, ‘Religion and citizenship in Republican Rome’
  4. Clifford Ando, ‘Census, censor, citizenship: republican subjectivity in advance of monarchy’
  5. Martyna Świerk, ‘Citizenship in the Roman provinces: the example of Africa’
  6. Maria Nowak, ‘Citizenship in Roman Egypt before 212 CE’
  7. Arnaud Besson, ‘Towards universal citizenship: the Roman Empire in 212 CE’

Part VII: Late antiquity and the Middle Ages

  1. Javier Martínez Jiménez and Robert Flierman, ‘The uses of citizenship in the post-Roman West’
  2. Els Rose, ‘Christian reconceptualizations of citizenship and freedom in the Latin West’
  3. Dion C. Smythe, ‘Citizenship and belonging: a view from Byzantium’.