In ancient Greece, the term metic (Greek métoikos: from metá, indicating change, and oîkos "dwelling") referred to a resident alien, one who did not have citizen rights in his or her Greek city-state (polis) of residence.
If it had been borrowed early, Greek métoikos would become Latin metoecus and English metecous or the like. But because it was borrowed when Greek oi was pronounced as y (see Koine Greek phonology), it was transliterated into Latin as metycus. English metic replaces y with i, perhaps by analogy with the -ic suffix.
Metics in Classical Athens
The bulk of this article pertains to Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC during the Athenian democracy, which encouraged foreigners to settle in Athens, on account of the part which they took in trade, industry, education, art and of which period we have primary sources about the specific legal status of a Metic, as reported by the Attic orators. However, the history of foreign migration to Athens begins earlier with Solon, who is said to have offered Athenian citizenship to foreigners who would relocate to his city to practice a craft; indeed, in the period of Solon, Attic pottery flourished. In other Greek cities (poleis), foreign residents were few, with the exception of cosmopolitan Corinth, of which however we do not know their legal status. In Sparta and Crete, as a general rule with few exceptions, foreigners were not allowed to stay (Xenelasia). There are also reported immigrants to the court of tyrants and kings in Thessaly, Syracuse and Macedon, whose status is decided by the ruler. Due to these complications, the legal term metic is most closely associated with Classical Athens. At Athens, the largest city in the Greek world at the time, they amounted to roughly half the free population. The status applied to two main groups of people—immigrants and former slaves. As slaves were almost always of foreign origin they can be thought of as involuntary immigrants, drawn almost exclusively from non-Greek speaking areas, while free metics were usually of Greek origin. Mostly they came from mainland Greece rather than the remote parts of the Greek world.
Metics held lower social status primarily due to cultural rather than economic restraints. Some were poor artisans and ex-slaves, while others were some of the wealthiest inhabitants of the city. As citizenship was a matter of inheritance and not place of birth, a metic could be either an immigrant or the descendant of one. Regardless of how many generations of the family had lived in the city, metics did not become citizens unless the city chose to bestow citizenship on them as a gift. This was rarely done. From a cultural viewpoint such a resident could be completely "local" and indistinguishable from citizens. They had no role in the political community but might be completely integrated into the social and economic life of the city. In the urbane scene that opens Plato's Republic—the dialogue takes place in a metic household—the status of the speakers as citizen or metic is never mentioned.
Metics typically shared the burdens of citizenship without any of its privileges. Like citizens, they had to perform military service and, if wealthy enough, were subject to the special tax contributions (eisphora) and tax services ("liturgies", for example, paying for a warship or funding a tragic chorus) contributed by wealthy Athenians. Citizenship at Athens brought eligibility for numerous state payments such as jury and assembly pay, which could be significant to working people. During emergencies the city could distribute rations to citizens. None of these rights were available to metics. They were not permitted to own real estate in Attica, whether farm or house, unless granted a special exemption. Neither could they contract with the state to work the silver mines, since the wealth beneath the earth was felt to belong to the political community. Further, they had to pay a metic poll tax, the metoikon, of twelve drachmas a year for men and six for women, as well a special tax (xenikon telos) if they wanted to set up a stall in the market place (agora).
Although metics were barred from the assembly and from serving as jurors, they did have the same access to the courts as citizens. They could both prosecute others and be prosecuted themselves. A great many migrants came to Athens to do business and were in fact essential to the Athenian economy. It would have been a severe disincentive if they had been unable to pursue commercial disputes at law. At the same time they did not have exactly the same rights here as citizens. Unlike citizens, metics could be made to undergo judicial torture and the penalties for killing them were not as severe as for killing a citizen. Metics were also subject to enslavement for a variety of offences. These might either be failures to abide by their status obligations, such as not paying the metoikon tax or not nominating a citizen sponsor, or they might be "contaminations" of the citizen body, marrying a citizen, or claiming to be citizens themselves.
How long a foreigner could remain in Athens without counting as a metic is not known. In some other Greek cities the period was a month, and it may well have been the same at Athens. All metics there were required to register in the deme (local community) where they lived. They had to nominate a citizen as their sponsor or guardian (prostates, literally "one who stands on behalf of"). The Athenians took this last requirement very seriously. A metic without a sponsor was vulnerable to a special prosecution. If convicted, his property would be confiscated and he himself sold as a slave. For a freed slave the sponsor was automatically his former owner. This arrangement exacted some extra duties on the part of the metic, yet the child of an ex-slave metic apparently had the same status as a freeborn metic. Citizenship was very rarely granted to metics. More common was the special status of "equal rights" (isoteleia) under which they were freed from the usual liabilities. In the religious sphere all metics were able to participate in the festivals central to the life of the city, except for some roles that were limited to citizens.
The status divide between metic and citizen was not always clear. In the street no physical signs distinguished citizen from metic or slave. Sometimes the actual status a person had attained became a contested matter. Although local registers of citizens were kept, if one's claim to citizenship was challenged the testimony of neighbours and the community was decisive. (In Lysias 16, a law court speech, a man presumed to be a metic claims to be a citizen, but upon investigation—not by consulting official records but by questions asked at the cheese market—it transpires that he may well be a runaway slave, so the hostile account attests.)
Metics whose family had lived in Athens for generations may have been tempted to "pass" as citizens. On a number of occasions there were purges of the citizen lists, effectively changing people who had been living as citizens into metics. In typical Athenian fashion, a person so demoted could mount a challenge in court. If however the court decided the ejected citizen was in fact a metic, he would be sent down one further rung and sold into slavery.
In studying the status of the metics it is easy to gain the impression they were an oppressed minority. But by and large those who were Greek and freeborn had at least chosen to come to Athens, attracted by the prosperity of the large, dynamic, cosmopolitan city and the opportunities not available to them in their place of origin. Metics remained citizens of their cities of birth, which, like Athens, had the exclusionary ancestral view of citizenship common to ancient Greek cities.
The large non-citizen community of Athens allowed ex-slave metics to become assimilated in a way not possible in more conservative and homogenised cities elsewhere. Their participation in military service, taxation (for the rich at Athens a matter of public display and pride) and cult must have given them a sense of involvement in the city, and of their value to it. Though notably, while Athenians tended to refer to metics by their name and deme of residence (the same democratic scheme used for citizens), on their tombstones freeborn metics who died in Athens preferred to name the cities from which they had come and of which they were citizens still.
The term Metic began to lose its distinctive legal status in 4th century BC, when metics were allowed to act in the court without a Prostates (patron) and came to an end in Hellenistic Athens, when the purchase of citizenship became very frequent. The census of Demetrius Phalereus in ca. 317 BC gave 21,000 citizens, 10,000 metics and 400,000 slaves (Athenaeus, vi. p. 272 B). In the Greco-Roman world, free people (non-citizens) living on the territory of a polis were called "paroikoi" (see etymology of parish), in Asia Minor "katoikoi".
The French translation métèque has modernly acquired a pejorative meaning, being applied against Mediterranean immigrants, as in the works of Charles Maurras. According to Nicole Loraux, who compares Athens and Paris, it was probably better to be an Athenian Metic, than an immigrant in 1990s France.
The Bible makes numerous references to a class of people known as "gerim" (גרים) ("ger" גר in singular), a class of people of different origin living permanently in the country of others.
They had clearly demarcated rights, and the Hebrews are sternly and repeatedly enjoined to treat them fairly and keep in mind that that they themselves were in the same situation when living in Egypt. ("וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם." Book of Exodus 22, 20)
Also etymologically they are similar to the Greek metics, "ger" being derived from the Hebrew root for "to dwell", i.e. they were "the dwellers [among us]". The term "strangers" used in the King James Bible and other English translations (for example, "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" in Deuteronomy 10, 19) does not fully convey these connotations.
In modern Hebrew, "ger" has come to mean a convert to Judaism.
- μέτοικος: μετά, οἶκος. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
- The poetics of appearance in the Attic korai By Mary Clorinda Stieber Page 134 ISBN 0-292-70180-2
- Athenian democracy By Peter John Rhodes Page 31 ISBN 0-7156-3220-5 (2004)
- Encyclopedia of ancient Greece By Nigel Guy Wilson Page 470 ISBN 978-0-415-97334-2 (2006)
- Born of the earth: myth and politics in Athens By Nicole Loraux, Selina Stewart Page 125 (2000)ISBN 080143419X -Chapter II, Democracy put to the test of a stranger (Athens,Paris) -
- Hansen M.H. 1987, The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes. Oxford.
- Whitehead D. 1977, The ideology of the Athenian metic. Cambridge.
- Garlan, Y 1988, Slavery in Ancient Greek. Ithaca. (trans. Janet Lloyd)