Egypt has once again proved a fertile ground for comparing the ancient and modern worlds. At the beginning of this year, the ruling military council of that country issued new rules for the upcoming presidential elections. These rules, amongst other things, require that candidates must have been born in Egypt, to parents who are both Egyptian citizens, and not married to foreign nationals, as the BBC has reported. These rules, particularly the requirement of two citizen-parents and the proscription against foreign spouses, are very similar to a few developments in Athenian democracy from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.
The first stipulation, that the candidates must have two citizen-parents, is almost an exact replica of the Periklean citizenship law of 451/0 BCE. Perikles introduced this law, which defined citizenship rather narrowly than previous to this law, such that only the children of two Athenian citizens become citizens themselves. The Egyptian election rule differs only in that it applies to presidential candidates and not to citizens as a whole. Aristotle, in his (or maybe his students’) study of the Athenian political system, writes about Perikles’ law.
ἐπὶ Ἀντιδότου διὰ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν πολιτῶν Περικλέους εἰπόντος ἔγνωσαν μὴ μετέχειν τῆς πόλεως, ὃς ἂν μὴ ἐξ ἀμφοῖν ἀστοῖν ᾖ γεγονώς.
In the year Antidotos was archon [451/0], because of the great number of citizens the Athenians passed a motion, sponsored by Perikles, that none should hold citizenship unless he is the child of citizens on both sides (Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 26.4).
In both the Athenian law and the Egyptian election rules, it is important that both parents be citizens.
Previously, citizenship was inherited from one’s father. In fact, the supposed founder of democracy, Kleisthenes, was the son of a foreign woman, a Sikyonian. The mothers of Themistokles and Kimon, two of the most prominent politicians of the 5th century, were from Thrace–a land widely thought to be the opposite of everything the civilization of Athens stood for, with its wild, red-haired inhabitants, and crude, barbaric language.
In the wake of the transition to democracy in 509, Kleisthenes had apparently enrolled foreigners, known as metics (μέτοικοι) and even slaves as citizens (Aristotle, Politics 1275b35ff.). More typically, citizenship was handed down from father to son. At age three or four, the son would be enrolled in the father’s phratry, a pre-democracy organization of real or imagined kin-groups. Then, at age 18, the son is enrolled in his father’s deme, the municipal unit which was invented by Kleisthenes during his reforms (Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 42.1).
Then came Perikles’ law in 451/0 and citizenship became harder to obtain. Various motivations for the law have been proposed. Some scholars have attempted to prove Aristotle’s thesis that this law was passed because there were too many citizens (above, διὰ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν πολιτῶν); one such scholar suggests there were 60,000 adult males in Athens in 450 (M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes p. 53). Another suggestion is that Perikles intended the law to help build a base of supporters amongst certain citizens and further his own political career (W. Will, New Pauly). A.W. Gomme and H.J. Wolff argued that this law was designed to disenfranchise bastards of Athenian males (Gomme, “The Law of Citizenship at Athens,” in Essays in Greek History and Literature p. 80; Wolff, “Marriage Law and Family Organization in Ancient Athens,” Traditio 2: 43-95). D.M. MacDowell and A.R.W. Harrison pushed back against this notion, noting that none of the texts relating to this law mention bastardy. P.J. Rhodes tried to revive Gomme and Wolff’s argument, and the argument over bastardy continues even today, as an article by E. Carawan tries to demonstrate that the law underwent an amendment ca. 430 that allowed fathers to adopt their own bastards and make them citizens if their legitimate sons died (The Classical Journal 103: 383-406).
Perikles, son of Xanthippos, often mocked as “Squill-Head” by contemporary comedians.
Citizenship and lineage continued to be a source of anxiety for Athenians. In 445, on the occasion of a gift of grain from Egypt for the citizens of Athens, an inspection of the citizenship registers was carried out and 4760 were stripped of their rights (Philochorus, fr. 119). Enforcement of the law was lax during the Peloponnesian War, and this seems to feed into Hansen’s thesis that the Periklean citizenship law was primarily motivated by demographics. Thus, in a period such as the Peloponnesian War when citizens were dying at a higher rate, the citizenship law was overlooked. Citizenship was also given as an honorary title (though recipients could claim the actual benefits of citizenship) and was part of Athenian diplomacy during the war: block grants were given to the Plataians (427) and Samians (405). When the war ended, Perikles’ law, then almost a half-century old, was reintroduced by the restored democracy in 403/2.
Around 400 BCE, the logographer Lysias, himself a metic in Athens, wrote a speech for the defense of Euphiletos. Euphiletos had killed a certain Eratosthenes when he caught Eratosthenes trying to commit adultery with his wife. Lysias’ rhetoric plays on the fear that a seducer may pollute the legitimacy of off-spring and render a child a non-citizen. In the 340s, the politician Apollodoros brought a case against his rival Stephanos, using as a pretext Stephanos’ mistress Neaira, a Corinthian hetaira, claiming that Stephanos fraudulently registered his children as citizens. Demosthenes wrote the speech and in it quotes a law that makes it illegal for a foreigner to live as a citizen’s spouse.
ὡς δ᾽ ἐστὶ ξένη Νέαιρα καὶ παρὰ τοὺς νόμους συνοικεῖ Στεφάνῳ, τοῦτο ὑμῖν βούλομαι σαφῶς ἐπιδεῖξαι. πρῶτον μὲν οὖν τὸν νόμον ὑμῖν ἀναγνώσεται, καθ᾽ ὃν τήν τε γραφὴν ταυτηνὶ Θεόμνηστος ἐγράψατο καὶ ὁ ἀγὼν οὗτος εἰσέρχεται εἰς ὑμᾶς.
“ἐὰν δὲ ξένος ἀστῇ συνοικῇ τέχνῃ ἢ μηχανῇ ᾑτινιοῦν, γραφέσθω πρὸς τοὺς θεσμοθέτας Ἀθηναίων ὁ βουλόμενος οἷς ἔξεστιν. ἐὰν δὲ ἁλῷ, πεπράσθω καὶ αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ οὐσία αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ τρίτον μέρος ἔστω τοῦ ἑλόντος. ἔστω δὲ καὶ ἐὰν ἡ ξένη τῷ ἀστῷ συνοικῇ κατὰ ταὐτά, καὶ ὁ συνοικῶν τῇ ξένῃ τῇ ἁλούσῃ ὀφειλέτω χιλίας δραχμάς.”
And that Neaera is an alien woman and is living as his wife with Stephanus contrary to the laws, I wish to make clear to you. First, the clerk shall read you the law under which Theomnestus preferred this indictment and this case comes before you.
“If an alien shall live as husband with an Athenian woman in any way or manner whatsoever, he may be indicted before the Thesmothetae by anyone who chooses to do so from among the Athenians having the right to bring charges. And if he be convicted, he shall be sold, himself and his property, and the third part shall belong to the one securing his conviction. The same principle shall hold also if an alien woman shall live as wife with an Athenian, and the Athenian who lives as husband with the alien woman so convicted shall be fined one thousand drachmae.” (Against Neaira 16; trans., N.W. DeWitt, 1949).
Proscription against a foreign spouse seems to go beyond the Periklean citizenship law, and brings us to the second point of comparison with Egypt’s election rules: candidates cannot be married to foreigners. These similarities are really quite striking, and one wonders whether there is any comparable social & political conditions between ancient Athens and 21st century Egypt that could have given rise to such similar laws. On the other hand, perhaps these two societies have similar laws but different motivations behind the laws. Or is this phenomenon simply related to a seemingly universal human impulse to exclude and to discriminate on the basis of perceived boundaries of ethnic, religious, or political groups?
Aristotle, it so happens, had an overarching theory on the behavior of democracies in regards to citizenship policies. In his Politics, he wrote that at their beginning, democracies will implement liberal citizenship policies in order to gain quickly a body of citizens. This might include letting in foreigners and slaves.
πρὸς δὲ τὸ καθιστάναι ταύτην τὴν δημοκρατίαν καὶ τὸν δῆμον ποιεῖν ἰσχυρὸν εἰώθασιν οἱ προεστῶτες προσλαμβάνειν ὡς πλείστους καὶ ποιεῖν πολίτας μὴ μόνον τοὺς γνησίους ἀλλὰ καὶ τοὺς νόθους καὶ τοὺς ἐξ ὁποτερουοῦν πολίτου, λέγω δὲ οἷον πατρὸς ἢ μητρός: ἅπαν γὰρ οἰκεῖον τοῦτο τῷ τοιούτῳ δήμῳ μᾶλλον. εἰώθασι μὲν οὖν οἱ δημαγωγοὶ κατασκευάζειν οὕτω, δεῖ μέντοι προσλαμβάνειν μέχρι ἂν ὑπερτείνῃ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν γνωρίμων καὶ τῶν μέσων, καὶ τούτου μὴ πέρα προβαίνειν: ὑπερβάλλοντες γὰρ ἀτακτοτέραν τε ποιοῦσι τὴν πολιτείαν, καὶ τοὺς γνωρίμους πρὸς τὸ χαλεπῶς ὑπομένειν τὴν δημοκρατίαν παροξύνουσι μᾶλλον, ὅπερ συνέβη τῆς στάσεως αἴτιον γενέσθαι περὶ Κυρήνην.
With a view to setting up this kind of democracy and making the people powerful their leaders usually acquire as many supporters as possible and admit to citizenship not only the legitimate children of citizens but also the base-born and those of citizen-birth on one side, I mean those whose father or mother is a citizen; for all this element is specially congenial to a to democracy of this sort. Popular leaders therefore regularly introduce such institutions; they ought however only to go on adding citizens up to the point where the multitude outnumbers the notables and the middle class and not to go beyond that point; for if they exceed it they make the government more disorderly, and also provoke the notables further in the direction of being reluctant to endure the democracy, which actually took place and caused the revolution at Cyrene (Politics 1319b6-18; trans., H. Rackham 1944).
Then, once a democracy has filled its ranks by making slaves and foreigners into citizens, the government will gradually make more restrictions until only those born of two citizen-parents may themselves become citizens.
εὐποροῦντες δὴ ὄχλου κατὰ μικρὸν παραιροῦνται τοὺς ἐκ δούλου πρῶτον ἢ δούλης, εἶτα τοὺς ἀπὸ γυναικῶν, τέλος δὲ μόνον τοὺς ἐξ ἀμφοῖν ἀστῶν πολίτας ποιοῦσιν.
When a state becomes well off for numbers it gradually divests itself first of the sons of a slave father or mother, then of those whose mothers only were citizens, and finally only allows citizenship to the children of citizens on both sides (Politics 1279a30-34).
Does this theory bear out for modern Egypt, or even for classical Athens? Obviously, I am not qualified to speak intelligently on the topic of modern Egypt. But it is interesting that theoretical political science was being conducted even in antiquity.
When talking about citizenship and democracy in ancient Athens, it is easy to get starry-eyed and idealistic about the origins of democracy, which most of us consider the best political system in the world. It should be remembered that participation in civic affairs was limited to only military-aged men, leaving behind women, children, and, for the most part, foreigners and slaves. At any given time in antiquity–and, for that matter, in modern nations such as the U.S. and U.K.–citizenship and inclusion in society has been afforded only to a select few.