Ancient and modern

How ancient Athens handled immigrants

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

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.

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Show comments
  • Sam Durall

    To privately sponsor them?..I would have to be totally insane,..not in this lifetime..

  • XH558

    No doubt creating a large, expensive Government Agency to supervise the the sponsors, which would cost more than it collected, and which would never succeed in removing a single migrant who had violated the conditions of his/her presence here.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Benedict Cumberbatch + Jeremy Corbyn and all his supporters, plus a host of media luvvies, will be fighting one another for the privilege of immigrant sponsorship…

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Benedict Cumberbatch + Jeremy Corbyn and all his supporters, plus a host of media luvvies, will be fighting one another for the privilege of immigrant sponsorship…

  • Sunshine Sux

    …….and where are the great ancient Greeks today?

  • lwhite

    Why not have one government bureaucrat sponsor every citizen and every immigrant, making him/her responsible for that citizen and immigrant if any law was broken? There should be enough bureaucrats available for the job. If not, assign the duty to one of the EU commissioner’s or a United Nations bureaucrat. This way, all people would be held accountable and justice served.

  • Augustus

    This is simply fiddling while Rome burns. The whole of the post-war conventions and principles covering refugees and asylum seekers need to be revised and updated. Where, for example, in all these are the rights of the existing indigenous natives? They were not designed for situations like those of today in which millions of Asians and Africans who, having barged their way into European countries, immediately seem to expect to become entitled to all the benefits and facilities of a Western welfare state.

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