Fragile Foreigners

Bust of the Stoic philosopher Chrysippos of Soli who lived most of his life
as a foreigner among the Athenians, c. 279 – 206 BCE. National Museum of Denmark (CC-BY-SA).

The democratic polis prided itself with the stalwart equality of its citizen members, codified in the laws of the city to guarantee the integrity and dignity of the political bodies of its members. But the inviolability of the citizen body was conceptualized through a hierarchy of status that necessarily viewed foreign residents and travelers as more vulnerable. Literary and epigraphic evidence testify to various forms of abuse and violence that foreigners, despite the promise of formal legal protections, could be subjected to as guests in the ancient polis, ranging from practices of socio-political exclusion, suspicion, economic exploitation, and unchecked physical violence. The image of the Hellenistic polis is indeed one of dynamism and agency in part because of its social institutions and practices that consistently rendered the body of the foreigner as more fragile and less valuable than that of the citizen.

The project will thus challenge the seemingly incorporative character of membership regimes in the Hellenistic polis; rather, it will argue that their aim will have more often been the strengthening of a restricted citizen community, who continually asserted its robust citizen status to resist sharing and, by extension, the loss of social privileges. The foreign body also needed to be rendered fragile in part to conceal the uncomfortable reality that the citizen body, like its status, was itself frail and susceptible to the violent forces of history. I will analyze this phenomenon from three points of engagement:

(1) The Political Biology of the Foreign Body. Membership regimes generally highlight the legal protections that foreigners enjoy as guests in a different community. Yet those same protections could render foreigners vulnerable to physical abuse by tolerating them being physically isolated, attacked, and even expelled or abandoned when the hosts faced tense circumstances. The body of the foreigner, then, is found at the intersection of politics with gender, myth, and social engineering, a potentially suspicious, and expendable being, susceptible to the hybris of the citizen. 

(2) Vulnerable Economies. The fundamentally fragile status of metics was consistently reasserted by the reality that while they might be allowed to economically prosper in the host city, their property could be confiscated at a moment’s notice in a crisis. The disenfranchisement of metics by the citizen-body was presented either as a matter of collective security (with or without evidence) or economic expediency and was always unilateral. On the other side of the coin, the economic expediency of attracting and supporting wealthy foreign business and trade were meant to reduce the body of the foreigner to a mere object of labor. 

(3) Alien Patriotism. The foreigner represented a dilemma for the polis, as both a potentially dangerous outsider and a useful ally. As such, Greek communities were consistently involved in various efforts to attract the presence of foreigners while also keeping them politically excluded and socially vulnerable. To circumvent the inescapable problem of the hierarchy of status, some Greek communities engaged in efforts to encourage foreign residents to identify with, and express patriotic fervor towards their host community.

Paul Vadan