|The role of Citizen and Foreigner in Antiquity
from the book «The Hellenic Polis» by Gustav De Foulance
In Ancient Hellas the citizen was the one participating in the religious life of the Polis and, based on this participation, was obtaining the civic and civil rights. Whoever was denying the worship was in fact denying his/her rights. We have already mentioned the public meals that consisted the basic ritual of the local cult. In case of Sparta, when someone was abstaining from the public meals he/she was automatically loosing the citizenship, even if he/she was not responsible for the abstinence. In Athens whoever was abstaining from the celebrations to honour the Gods of the Polis was loosing the status of citizenship.
In Rome, the presence in the sacred ceremony of purification was a necessary requirement for someone to enjoy civil rights. The man who didn't take part in common prayers and sacrifices was loosing his civil rights until the next purification ceremony.
If we want to give an accurate meaning to the term citizen, we would say that it was the one who embraced the religion of the city. In contrast, a foreigner was the one who was not allowed to participate in the ceremony, was not protected by the Gods of the Polis and didn't have the right to invoke Gods' blessings. Thus, the Gods of the city sought prayers and offerings only from the citizens, didn't receive the foreigners, they were not allowed to enter the temples and their presence in the ceremony of sacrifices was considered sacrilege. The same tactic was also followed by the Romans in one of their basic ritual of their worship. When the pontiff was sacrificing out in the open he was obliged, during the sacrificial act that was dedicated to Gods of the city, to cover his face in front of the sacred fire, in order not to be seen by a stranger, because the omens would be destroyed. Romans also considered profane the sacred object that was touched by a foreigner and only with an expiatory ceremony it could regain its religiousness. And if the enemy could invade the city and citizens managed to reclaim it, the most important concern was to purify all temples and relit all extinguished fires. The presence of the foreigner, in the above case the foe, had defiled them.
Thus the religion divided determinatively and indelibly the citizen from the stranger. For as long as religion was governing the mind of people no stranger could obtain the citizenship right. In the age of Herodotus Sparta gave the right of citizen to only one soothsayer and even for this single case it was necessary to conduct the oracle and obtain the official agreement. Athens sometimes could grant citizenship to foreigners but with great caution! The demos had to agree first by balloting for or against the stranger. However this step was not determinative because nine days after the balloting a second assembly had to validate the results of the first balloting with six thousand votes for the foreigner, a number extremely high if we consider that it was rare for an Athenian assembly to gather so many citizens. In sequence the decision of both the assemblies had to be validated by the senate.
At the end, each citizen could veto the decision by claiming that the resolution broke ancient laws. Naturally no other decision of the assembly of demos could create so many difficulties and reservations for the lawmaker as the decision to grant the citizenship to a foreigner. Even the procedures for declaring war or approving a new law were not so important. But why these people imposed so many barriers on the stranger that wanted to be citizen? Certainly not because his/her vote could overrule the balance of political assemblies.
Demosthenes reveals to us the real motivations and thoughts of Athenians: "They had to preserve the purity of the sacrifices" and by excluding the foreigner "they were guarding the sacred ceremony".
The stranger who could finally become a citizen "could take part in the religion and the sacrifices". Therefore the people did not consider themselves spiritually free, like it is appropriate in such a sacred act, and religious fears could fill their souls knowing that the Gods of the city dislike strangers and that the presence of the new-comers could probably make the sacrifice useless. Granting the citizenship to a foreigner was a breach of the basic principles of the religion of the Polis and that's why only few foreigners were initially accepted as citizens. It should be mentioned that the one who was granted citizenship could not be a priest or a judge. The city was allowing the stranger to participate in the ceremony but in no way he/she could lead it.
No one could become an Athenian citizen if he/she was already a citizen of another city because it was impossible, based on religious principles, for someone to be simultaneously member of two cities, like it was impossible for someone to belong in two families at the same time. No one could adopt two religious at the same time.
As already mentioned above, when the foreigner participated in the festivals citizen rights were granted automatically. At the moment the citizen took part in the sacrifice, that was occurring before the assembly of demos, he could participate in the voting of the assembly. Since he sacrificed in the name of the city he could be promoted to archon or provost. Since he adopted the religion of the city he could use his rights and perform the sacrifices and rituals.
Reversely, the foreigner that did not participate in the spiritual life could not participate in the legislation. And if the foreigner was entering the sacred space that clergymen had decided upon, he was punished by death. The laws of the city did not apply to him. If he was committing a crime he was treated like a slave and was punished without trial since the city was not obliged to provide lawful protection. When people recognized the need for legislation for foreigners they established a special court. In Rome, the judge had to "become a foreigner" to try a stranger, - preator peregrinus. In Athens, the judge for foreigners was the "polemarchon", i.e. the judge responsible for acts dealing with war and negotiating with the foes.
Rome and Athens did not allow the foreigner to own property, he could not get married and if he did the marriage was null and void and his kids were considered illegitimate. He could not sign a contract with a citizen because the law did not recognize the validity of the contract. Initially he could not even take part in the trade. Roman law was forbidding him to inherit a citizen and was also forbidding the citizen to inherit the foreigner. The law was so strict that if a foreigner was obtaining the citizenship, his son that was born before this fact, could not get the title of citizen and he was considered a foreigner (in contrast with his father) and therefore could not inherit his father. The distinction between citizen and foreigner was stronger that the physical relationship between father and son.
At first sight it seems that the goal was the institutionalization of a system that could create problems to foreigners. However that's not true. Conversely in Athens and Rome all foreigners were welcomed with hearty receptions for commercial and political reasons. But neither their good intentions nor their interests could overrule ancient laws that had established the religion. The religion did not allow a foreigner to own land because it was not possible for him to own part of the city's sacred ground. The foreigner could not inherit neither bequeath a citizen because every transfer of fortune included the transfer of the cult and it was impossible for the citizen to perform the foreigner's cult or for the foreigner to perform the citizen's cult.
The citizens were allowed to welcome a foreigner, to offer shelter, even to appreciate him in case he was rich and honourable, but in no way he could participate in religion and legislation. Even slaves in some cases were treated better because the slave, as member of the family that was participating in the religious ceremonies, was connected with the city via his master and the Gods protected him. Roman religion tutored that the grave of the slave was sacred while the grave of the foreigner was not.
A stranger had to be under the protection of a citizen in order to be able to refer to the laws, to trade, to sign contracts, to enjoy his fortune and to have the right to be protected by the laws of the city.
In Athens and Rome it was necessary for every foreigner to have a protector. When a foreigner was accepting a citizen as his protector he could enjoy some of the advantages of the civic law that no one could deprive him of.