chapter  26
21 Pages

The Athenian name: imaginary structures of lineage in Athens


To be born Athenian: this requirement is the only condition that defines the citizen of Athens. There is no route to becoming Athenian other than being Athenian already.2 Undoubtedly this version, the Athenian version, is one of many; it is one variant of a definition that was shared by much of ancient Greece.3 But no Greek city had formulated it to such a radical extent as did the democratic polis.4 Because of the city’s refusal of all intermediary categories and degrees of citizenship, the democracy established the same status for all its members. One point can never be too strongly emphasized: to provide democracy – a political model but also a luxury – Athens had to keep a strict watch, so that it could preserve the security of the civic body, tightly closed in on itself. Birth is a better criterion for exclusion than any other condition, and when the Athenian orators deduce “the political equality established by law” from “the equality of origin established by nature,”5 the historian can hardly resist the temptation just to reverse the order of these propositions. Reversing the order, however, would bring us only as far as the halfway mark – and would cover just the easier half. Indeed, if it matters to the historian to understand how the Athenians could think about citizenship in these terms, it is necessary to restore the Athenian method of reasoning, to allow the city to speak for itself, even if in a restricted fashion.