1st February 2003
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 (prostatês), both to support their application for metic status in the first place and (possibly) to continue to ‘sponsor’ them in some way or other when it had been granted. Indeed, a specific case could be brought against any metic thought not to have a prostatês, the penalty for which was enslavement.
The purpose of all this was to ensure that metics did not get ideas above themselves. It was a privilege for them to live in Athens, and they were welcome enough, but on strictly subordinate terms. That, however, did not prevent them from coming. Athens was a powerful, flourishing, ‘international’ city: there was money to be made from being part of it. Since metics could not own land, they started up businesses in Athens and especially its harbour area, Piraeus, a prolific trading centre. Success combined with decent, orderly, law-abiding behaviour reaped its rewards in social mobility. The renowned orator Lysias was a metic who made his money writing speeches for others; his father, Cephalus, a Syracusan by birth, made a huge fortune from arms-manufacture in Athens (Plato’s famous dialogue The Republic was set in his house); intellectuals like Protagoras flocked to Athens to make money there as teachers.
The purpose of the ancient state was to protect and advance the interests of its own citizens, not anyone else’s. It dealt with aliens purely on the basis of the advantages they could bring, which could be many. The concept of a sponsor, perhaps to go bail for good behaviour, is particularly interesting. Might the mosques oblige?
Whether war against Iraq is justified or not, hardly a day goes by without someone condemning it because (a) the enemy will be crushingly defeated and (b) the West will seize control of Iraqi oil-supplies. And these are reasons for not fighting? On the other hand, proponents of the war argue that we have a humanitarian mission to save Iraq from itself. On both counts the Romans would have thought we had lost our senses.
Though, as Cicero said, 'taxes are the sinews of the state', from 167 BC Romans paid no direct taxes, only those demanded in the course of certain sorts of activities (e.g. harbour dues). Lucrative foreign wars were the reason, increasing state revenues dramatically during this and subsequent periods. In 62 BC, for example, Pompey returned in triumph to Rome after sorting out the Eastern empire, not only depositing vast quantities of gold and silver in Rome's treasury but almost trebling Rome's annual income. Plutarch tells us that Julius Caesar captured and sold more than a million slaves during his conquest of Gaul. Octavian (Caesar's nominated heir) inherited this fortune, and when he defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, seized Egypt, a stupendously wealthy territory, before re-naming himself Augustus and becoming Rome's first official emperor.
When the Roman emperor Trajan finally ended the trouble on the borders of Romania in AD 106, he lost a lot of men but the result was that Romania became a province (Dacia) and Trajan returned to Rome with five million lbs of gold and ten million of silver - about thirty times Rome's total annual revenue. Coins were struck throughout the empire to celebrate the occasion. When Trajan returned to Rome in AD 107, foreign embassies from as far as India were waiting to greet him, keen to avoid a similar fate. Hand-outs were given to the Roman people, and an unprecedented five months of games put on.
Romans conducted foreign policy in terms purely of their own self-interest. To risk Roman lives because a foreign people could not sort out its own affairs would have struck them as little short of criminal. The interesting question, though, is why fund-raising through war of the sort conducted by Pompey, Caesar and Trajan, commonplace throughout human history till the early twentieth century, is frowned upon these days in the west. What generated the change in attitude? The disastrous economic consequences for the winners of the first and second world wars? The United Nations?