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Ancient and modern

Ancient and Modern

A classicist draws on ancient wisdom to illuminate contemporary follies

1 February 2003

12:00 AM

1 February 2003

12:00 AM

What is it in our interests to do about immigration? The ancient Athenians came up with an interesting answer.

The reason for Athens’ control of immigrants (metoikoi, ‘those who change their habitation’, metics) was suspicion of aliens (war being endemic in the ancient world) and paranoia about the purity of their own citizenship. Any non-Athenian who wanted to take up residence in Athens, temporary or permanent, had to fulfil certain conditions. First, they registered with the state authority; then they registered with the local authority (the ‘deme’, roughly ‘parish’) where they were living. These registers were kept for administrative purposes. They also had to pay a unique monthly tax, and were liable for military service, but they could not own land or take any political role.

But there was another requirement, too: intending metics had to find themselves a citizen sponsor (prostat


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