State and Citizenship in Classical Athens

State and Citizenship in Classical Athens
Contributing members:
  • Prof. dr. J.H. Blok
  • Dr. F. van den Eijnde
Related projects:

Citizenship is a crucial concept in the historiography of ancient Greece and of classical Athens in particular. The research project ‘Citizenship in Classical Athens’ investigates the ways in which citizenship was conceived and put into practice, In its new approach to citizenship, the research group attributes a formative role to religion within the political domain, which enables clarifying the function of constituent groups (such as local or immigrant communities) of the Athenian polis and the participation of individual citizens in these groups in the period 800-300 BC. The project aims at a new perception of the political and social structures of classical Athens and, by extension, of ancient Greece at large, from the vantage point of individual membership to one or more of the subgroups that made up the political entity of the Athenian polis, and from the polis into supra-polis networks. The research group also seeks to contribute to comparative historical and modern debates on citizenship.

Because the polis was conceived to have been founded by ancestors on an agreement (covenant with the gods), citizenship depended on descent and was activated by religious practice (rituals). Participation in such communal rites (cults) was the way par excellence to put membership of the community into practice. The Athenians created a vast number of religious activities in which its citizens participated. The cultic activation of citizenship worked on patterns of exclusion, inclusion and mixed combinations depending on criteria of access to specific groups of cults. At Athens, citizens, i.e. those born from Athenian parents, always had access to the cult of Athena on the Acropolis, which defined them as citizens of the Athenian polis, and to a host of local cults, which tied them to one of the 140 local subgroups located in townships or demes. This duality of polis and dememembership, played a key role in the establishment and effectuation of democratic rule at Athens (Blok, 2011; van den Eijnde, 2010). On this status, a citizen could lay claim to certain public roles or functions. These included religious functions, notably priesthoods (for both men and women), as well as functions in the military, political and administrative domain (reserved for men). In the classical democracy, the number and kinds of functions filled by citizens grew enormously, involving the majority of Athenians in the polis in some way. Resident immigrants participated on special conditions in some of the cults.

Key themes in the project include the formation of identities through the cults of the polis and its subgroups, the duties and obligations of individuals to groups they belonged to, distribution of social and political positions in the polis along lines of inequality (differences) or equality, and the interaction between religious and other arguments in political discourse.