Peter Jones

How ancient Athens handled immigrants

Requiring sponsors is not a new idea – it was happening in Aristotle’s time

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Among all the arguments about how many non-EU immigrants we should let in, campaigners are proposing a scheme for private sponsorship of Syrian asylum seekers. The idea of sponsorship for immigrants goes back to Athens in the 5th century bc.

Metoikos (literally ‘household-changer’), our ‘metic’, was the category into which any non-Athenian wanting residence in Athens was placed. While having no citizen rights, of which Athenians were very jealous, they did have access to the courts; but they were unable to own property, so were always lodgers, had to serve in the military, pay a metic tax and, if they became wealthy, were liable for taxes on the rich. Most came to do business, many very successfully.

Before they could register as a metic, they had to have a citizen sponsor (prostatês: ‘one who stands in front of, guardian, patron’) to support their application for metic status. Presumably the sponsor helped the metic to register with the state and his local authority, and (possibly) to continue to support them in some way or other during their stay (the sources hint at legal matters).

One of the purposes of the sponsor may have been to reassure citizens about a metic’s general character. Two of Athens’ metics mused on the question. The Sicilian speechwriter Lysias talked of a contract between city and metic, that honest, law-abiding behaviour should meet with fair treatment from citizens; ‘discretion’ and ‘orderliness’ were expected of metics. Aristotle, from Chalcidice in the north, observed that while metics played a vital role in the city, they had no share in citizens’ political rights; but then, ‘no one would consider a metic mean-spirited if he thought of himself as unfitted for office’. A good metic, like Aristotle, knew his place.

British citizens too will expect immigrants to adjust to our ways. One wonders if private sponsors might be asked to take some personal responsibility here.