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Environment-based Identity and Athenian Anti-Immigrant Policies in the Classical Period

Rebecca Futo Kennedy

Denison University

In classical Athens, a citizen was a man born of two Athenian parents. But he was also imagined to be autochthonous, that is, indigenous and born of the Athenian soil. Autochthony goes beyond a simple myth of origins. The physical environment was imagined to shape a person: be it climate, geography, topography, or the soil itself, the environment seemed to govern both the physical appearance and moral character of a land’s inhabitants. The land was thus fundamental in defining ethnicity. Space and place mattered to the understanding of identity--from Hesiod to Hippocrates and Aristotle, Greek writings show a clear concern with the relationship between a people and their geographic, topographic, and climatic environments. It shaped, I argue, how Athenians understood who they were, what bound them together as a people, and how they defined otherness itself. Different geographies, topographies, and climates were assumed to determine different ethnoi.

Autochthony was an integral part of this intellectual trend to define ethnicity through geographical, topographical, and climatic influences. In this paper, I examine how conceptualizations of the human bond to a specific geography and climate (represented in earth-born and indigenous genealogies and in the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places, especially) might have informed Athenian thoughts on their identity by putting the myth of autochthony into the context of other types of environmental determinism with reference to a variety of texts including tragedy and oratory. I begin by examining the types of links the Athenians were attempting to create through this shared mythology and then examine how these links were then manifested in views on ethnicity and foreignness, which, in turn, impacted how they defined citizenship and treated metics in law.

I will argue that Athenian laws regarding citizenship and immigrants were premised on a notion that immigrants were incapable of ‘adapting’ to their new climate in Athens and overcoming their ethnic origins. No immigrant to Athens, therefore, could ever truly overcome the stigma of his place of origin since it would always be tainted with the blood of foreign soil or a foreign womb. I will discuss the evolution of the citizenship laws in relation to environmental ways of thinking and use as case studies, first, the treatment of metics under the establishment of the citizenship law in 451 BCE and its various fluctuations throughout the Peloponnesian War and, second, the restoration of the democracy in the aftermath of the Thirty. The demarcation between metic and citizen became increasingly harsh after 403 BCE in part, I argue, because there was a general sense of blame for the loss of Athens in the war on the laxity of the citizenship law’s enforcement in the last decades of the Peloponnesian War and because of anxiety over inheritance and landownership in the face of high death rates from war and repeated plague. These prejudices and anxiety were rooted, I argue, in an understanding of environmentally dependent identity.

Session/Panel Title

Citizenship Migration and Identity

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