Mass-Immigration: The Athenian Approach

James Norwood

Mass-immigration brings two main challenges. The first is displacement of the traditional population. The second is enlarged membership of the political nation – that is, the grant of voting and other citizenship rights to the newcomers.

These tend to be seen as a single challenge. With or without citizenship rights, immigration on a large enough scale will transform a country. The grant of citizenship rights only becomes critical when the number of alien citizens passes beyond a certain level.

This being said, the two are separable. What brings many immigrants – certainly the tidal wave readying itself at the moment to overwhelm Europe – is the promise of lavish welfare. Some, no doubt, are exactly what the mainstream media tells us they are. Either they are fleeing persecution in their own countries, or they are coming in search of economic opportunities that may bring positive, if limited, benefits to the settled population. But many, it seems, are coming for the free money. Why else are they hurrying through Hungary and the Czech Republic, to claim asylum in Germany?

Moreover, once they are settled in their host countries, it is usually a matter of five or ten years before the newcomers are able to vote. They then swell the constituency of voters for all the policy and legal changes that are summarised by the words “political correctness.”

But suppose entrance to a European country brought no citizenship rights. Suppose there were no welfare, no free education, no hope of citizenship and the vote. As said, some would still come. Fear of persecution at home, or the chance to start a business here, would not be abolished. There would even be some beggars – the streets of Paris or Berlin or London would be more welcoming than the streets of Mogadishu. But the tap would be more than half shut off. The freezing of the electorate would slow the further growth of ethnic voting blocs. The immigration controls we already have might then begin to work.

I will not discuss whether the political will exists to make the necessary changes. I will instead show that the political will has existed in other times and places. Citizenship and its attendant rights have not always been a category granted by the State. Let us take the example of Classical Athens between the 6th and 4th centuries BC.

Ancient Greece was an agglomeration of mostly independent and sovereign city states. Each of these states in turn was a union of prehistoric family groupings. These groupings were united by blood and usually by participation in an associated religious community. To be a citizen of any city state was an automatic right only for full-blood members of one of the family groupings. A grant of citizenship to an outsider was not legally impossible. But the corresponding need to be affiliated with one of the family groupings made it administratively difficult. This was the case in fully sovereign city states, and in those that belonged to wider unions, and even in those that were wholly dominated by a larger city state.

Slaves were, by definition, not citizens. Freed slaves and resident aliens were also not citizens. They fell instead into a category described by the Greek word μέτοικος, or metoikos, or, in English, metic. A metic was not necessarily an immigrant. He may have been born in his city of residence. His parents may have been born there. So too his grandparents. It was not foreign birth that defined him, but his non-membership of one of the family groupings, and therefore his exclusion from citizenship rights.

Because of its cultural significance, we know more about Athens than any of the other Greek city states. Because of its size and commercial importance, it was home to a very large number of metics. What do the Athenian sources tell us about their political and legal and social status?

First, they had no right to speak and vote in the Assembly. Athens was a citizen’s democracy. All matters of foreign and domestic policy were decided by the citizen body meeting as a whole. A declaration of war or treaty of peace or friendship, changes to the civil or criminal law – these all had to be agreed by the Assembly, and this could be attended by all adult male citizens, and by no one else.

Athens did have a small executive – generals and judges and civil servants, and the like. Some of these were elected. But elections were mainly for those positions that required specific skills. Other positions were filled by lot in much the same way as juries are nowadays filled up. It goes without saying that these positions were confined to citizens. Apart from this, there was a small police force. This was closed to citizens, being recruited from foreign slaves. Again, metics were excluded.

Metics had the same obligations as citizens. They had to perform military service, and to pay the various taxes voted by the Assembly. They also had to pay a special metic tax. Because they were excluded from political life, they had no access to the often generous payments to citizens who served on juries or executive panels – payments that were effectively welfare benefits for the poor. They also had no right to the periodic distributions of food or other direct welfare benefits.

They were not allowed to own real property. They were barred from certain contracts with the State. They had to register as metics within their district of Athens. Each was required to have a citizen as his sponsor, who might be held responsible for his actions. They were not allowed to marry Athenians, this being regarded as a contamination of the citizen body.

Second, metics had access to the courts, for the enforcement of contracts and protection of their lives and personal property. At the same time, they lacked the immunity of all citizens from judicial torture, and the penalties for murdering them were lower than for murdering citizens.

Third, metics long settled in Athens were usually indistinguishable in their language and appearance and general manners from citizens. They could often be very rich. If, like Herodotus or Aristotle, they were men of outstanding ability, they might be held in high respect. Except they were not citizens, their status does not appear to have been any social impediment.

The advantage of these arrangements was that law and policy in Athens were entirely in the hands of the Athenian people. Though we have no statistics, it seems that, at times, metics made up half the population of Athens. There is no instance known to us where metic pressure had any decisive weight in the foreign or domestic policy of Athens. All through its age of greatness and wealth, Athens was open to the world. Its open door to immigrants had none of the consequences we now face.

Their disadvantage was that their exclusiveness appears absurd to us, and they probably contributed to the decline of Athens. A third generation metic whose family had come from Corinth or Lesbos, was absolutely indistinguishable from the grandchildren of someone who had fought at Marathon or Salamis. To treat him as a foreigner shocks any modern sensibility. More than that, the tendency of ancient populations was, after about the fourth century, to decline. The Spartans, who were equally exclusive, seem simply to have died out. All the Greek city states were eventually conquered by the Romans, and their citizenship policy was notably promiscuous. St Paul, for example, may have seen Rome only when he arrived there for his trial. He may also not have spoken Latin. But his family had long since had Roman citizenship. Roman power lasted for centuries, partly because those conquered or enslaved by Rome always had at least the promise of full citizenship.

What lessons has any of this for us? Some have already been implied. Athens could function so easily with a high proportion of metics because they were mostly other Greeks. Had they been Carthaginians or Celtic barbarians, the system might have broken down. Also, I have used the phrase “modern sensibility.” The traditional population of England, for example, is as much a family as the citizen body of Athens. Even so, this population has been repeatedly added to, throughout its recorded history, by waves of migration – Germanics, Normans, foreign Protestants, various kinds of East European. We are not quite a nation of immigrants, but assimilation of others is not unprecedented. Then, of course, there is the American experience.

A further point is that, while we might once have been able to draw the line at white immigrants, we are now three generations into mass-immigration. It would be difficult, to put it mildly, to tell the grandchild of a West Indian who came to England in 1948 that he was no longer a citizen, and that he now had to pay to send his children to school.

Using the Greek experience of immigration to undo what has already taken place is probably impossible. Even so, it may be worth considering as an additional measure to limit future immigration.


  1. But the idea of limited democratic rights is exactly what the political class is striving towards.

    Governments are no longer accountable to Parliaments and Parliaments no longer reflect the views of the electorate. Governments openly assign considerable importance, some may say overwhelming importance, to agreements and consent of other governments. Such is the international political class which alone seems to have full democratic rights.

    There is movement into and out of that class but once in the influence is difficult to lose. The antics of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson suggest they have greater influence over UK and other governments policies than senior members of their administrations.

    We are no longer governed by consent but ruled over by a political class which is supported by its British nomenklatura: Quango heads, Agency Chairs (sic), selected “captains of industry” and academia.

  2. Perhaps I am being a bit dense here, but on the surface of it, I feel I need to take issue with some aspects of the article. As I understand it, it was the open door and immigration which led to the downfall of that particular civilisation.

    By thinking of themselves as separate, above, more enlightened, in need of slave labour to tend to them, self assured in their greatness (and how everybody wanted to be them)….I believe that they opened the doors to their overwhelming and ultimate abolishment… just like liberal elites and wider liberals today.

    Regarding the rest of the article, is it not essentially describing an apartheid system? Apartheid never works and never can work for the long time.

    It speaks of the difficulty in denying third generation West Indians their citizenship rights, that it would be unjust to tell them that they have to pay for their children to go to school. Indeed it would, because as I see it, it would be introducing a kind of apartheid. Ie, Different populations living in the same territory being bound to different rules.

    Upon this, the idea of continuing to allow immigration (albeit less) and it being okay providing they are given less (or no) welfare, etc, is defeating the point of what the fundamental issue is, which is the ‘displacement’, marginalisation and ultimate replacement of the indigenous British people from Britain – which is alluded to at the start of the article.

    The matter of voting rights is an important one, as we are in a position of giving away our right to decide our futures by handing those decisions to others – newcomers and sections of society who can already ‘swing’ an election due to their demographic clout. That moment is already here, not just in the future.

    However, when it comes to being ‘harsh’ on third to fourth generations of immigrants that are not indistinguishable from the indigenous population, I think I would much rather solicit their removal from Britain and for them to find residence elsewhere, with generous assistance, than to erect impositions and different rules upon their daily lives and freedoms, whilst the indigenous society still continues to be eaten alive from both the inside out and the outside in.

    There can be no happy ending to this story, this situation. All immigration should be near-stopped. All those here who should not be, should be deported. I would encourage repatriation of all those whose heritage stems from arrivals after 1948.

    I would much rather these things were done, and that things were made as humane and boring as possible, albeit cruel and horrid, than for it to suffer the fate of either mass civil unrest, warfare, killings later down the line….or conversely, for the hosting society to suffer a slow and quiet slip into our great goodnight as a once live people in a once lived civilisation.

    I do kind of appreciate where the article is coming from, in an attempt to stop the pull and an attempt for the host populace to have more say in the future of this country. But I suppose it is just as fantastical to think it would be carried out, as mass deportations and repatriation would be.

    Demographics IS destiny. Those who populate an area or landmass (and hold it) claim that landmass. If others are going to make their presence here permanent, it ultimately does not matter what rules they have imposed upon them, because it can never last, like apartheid.

    Furthermore, the article seems to assume we have a functioning democracy, where the wishes of the people are upheld by their elected representatives, either as MPs or general government. I don’t think we live in one.

  3. I have a clarificatory question.

    In several places discussing citizenship at Athens, you mention the importance of membership in what you refer to as “family groupings.” (You mention that these groupings were prehistoric, that they were united by blood, that they usually were also united by participation in an associated religious community; you also say that citizenship was an automatic right only for full-blood members of one of the family groupings, and that the need for citizens to be affiliated with one of them posed an administrative problem for granting naturalized citizenship to foreigners.)

    But what, exactly, are you referring to here by the English word “family grouping”? Are you talking about the Archaic-era brotherhoods (phratriai)? Are you talking about the social-political system of what are normally called “tribes” (phylai)? If the latter, do you mean the four traditional (pre-508) phylai, or the ten classical (post-508) phylai attributed to Cleisthenes? Or do you mean something else? If so, what?

  4. When discussing ‘rights’ as they existed in the distant past (and even the near past), we must not forget the historical context within which these were formulated.

    I admit I am not particularly knowledgeable about the Classical World, so what follows is essentially guesswork, but I imagine in Ancient Greece most political rights were not considered very important by most people, and might even have been perceived as a burden. In a society of minimal formal government, why would anyone care much about voting rights or the right to attend meetings of a citizens’ assembly?

    A similar observation can be made even about property rights. Territoriality is a strong human instinct, but as the author of the piece rightly observes, during the early period of Ancient Greece, civil society was composed of inter-locking old families, and so the opportunities for significant property ownership were probably limited and it might not have been considered much of a privilege to own property.

    I suspect what changed this was the gradual commercialisation of the economy in Ancient Greece, probably under the influence of the metics, who would have formed an aggressive mercantile class and influenced society in a more liberal direction. As the archaic structure of the society began to break-apart, these privileged political rights would have started to seem redundant.

    On the other hand, there is nothing to suggest that economic rights have to work hand-in-hand with political rights. With personal liberties, yes: as a basic example, you can’t have much of a market economy without the liberty to speak and assembly freely. At the very least, such a market economy could only work in a quite limited way, as in today’s China. The two cannot be wholly separated. But political rights could be denied and still a market economy could function quite well.

  5. Germany and its eventually naturalised gastarbeiter Turks springs to mind. They eventually received the rights, but still retained the separate existence – as the recent Erdogan referendum kerfuffle ably indicated.

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