Citizenship and the American Citizen, Part I: Ancient Greece

(Note: To skip the historical case studies and jump to the new American citizen in the 1960s, go to: )

As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.

This series of essays will explore the concept of “citizen” as well as the allied concept of “citizenship,” two essential concepts relating to the modern state. The basic definition of “citizen:” a person belonging to a political unit—for our purposes, a state—who has certain rights granted by that state but who also has certain obligations to the state. The second related concept is “citizenship:” the legal and administrative condition of a citizen in relation to the state, conferring both rights and obligations. Both concepts imply a certain attitudinal disposition to a state—a devotion to it, commonly called patriotism.

This is the first essay in a series examining the evolution of these concepts in the Western tradition, ultimately focusing on their meanings and implications in current day America.

Citizenship in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is one of the well-springs of Western, and hence American, civilization. Charles Freeman in his book, The Greek Achievement, illuminates the idea of the citizen and his role in public affairs in ancient Greece. The concept of citizenship was crucial to the identity and functioning of the Greek city-state. Citizens together took responsibility for the functioning of city affairs, defense, and maintaining the proper relationship with the gods. In return, they shared in its successes. As the concept evolved, it acquired the meaning of a shared ownership of the common concern, not just a legal status, but rather the sense that the citizen was actively involved in the affairs of the city and contributing to its welfare.

To the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, a human could reach his full potential only through the city-state. (Ancient Greeks were not so concerned with women.) Involvement in public affairs was part of the essence of being a human being. Our word “idiot” stems from the Greek word “idiotes,” used for someone who put private pleasures before public affairs.

The Greek concept of citizenship came to transcend one’s membership in a traditional kinship group or tribe. When this occurred, the city-state assumed authority and responsibility for its own territory and people above any rival allegiances. Freeman indicates that this is when it became a true “civic force.”

The key principle in the democracy of the largest city-state, Athens, was, according to Freeman, the “right of every citizen to participate in government and to speak his mind freely both in Assembly debates and in private.” This ideal came to be proudly valued and jealously guarded. The famous Athenian statesman and general of the Greece’s Golden Age, Pericles, emphasized the role of the individual citizen in his famous funeral oration of 430 BCE, as Athens and Sparta waged war. His speech is reconstructed by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides:

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well. Even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics. This is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.

Freeman argues that this ideal became as embedded in the Athenian consciousness as the US Constitution is in the American.

In contrast to our “representative democracy,” Athenian democracy was a “direct, partial” democracy. It was “direct” in that Athenian citizens took turns for the most part in actually administering the government. There were few elected officials. It was “partial” in that it excluded women, foreigners living in Athens, and slaves. (Women were considered citizens; however, they had no political rights.)

After two years of military service, all male citizens over 18 enjoyed full and equal participation in the business of the Assembly. Wealth or property owned did not matter. Each Assembly meeting opened with its leader asking: “Who wishes to address the Assembly?” By the end of the 5th century BCE, the Assembly met some 40 times each year and considered everything from the price of olives to questions of war and peace.

(Please see the next essay in the series: Part II: Citizenship in Ancient Rome)

(C) Frederick Zilian Jr. All rights reserved.


Amos, H.D. & A.D.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour, 1982.

Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. NY: Viking, 1999.

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. NY: Norton, 1964.

Heater, Derek. A Brief History of Citizenship. NY: New York University Press, 2004.

Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Stockton, David. The Classical Athenian Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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