Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Susan Lape, Race and Citizen Identity in the Classical Athenian Democracy. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 341. ISBN 9780521191043. $90.00.

Reviewed by Bruce LaForse, Wright State University (bruce.laforse@wright.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Susan Lape's excellent book examines the nature and the development of the way Athenians defined themselves as citizens. The catalyst for Lape's study is the Periclean law of 451/0 that limited citizenship to those for whom both parents were Athenian citizens. Prior to this law free birth, and later free and legitimate birth, from an Athenian father had been enough to confer citizen status. Most scholars believe that the impetus for the new law was to justify a more limited access to the resources of the polis. It was not, Lape stresses, a desire by the Athenians to express their racial superiority. Nonetheless, the new law led the Athenians, albeit inadvertently according to Lape, to justify their special status as citizens in racial terms.

In the preface and first chapter ("Theorizing Citizen Identity"), Lape defines her terms and lays out her thesis. As she uses them the terms race and racial identity reflect not skin color or other biological markers but refer to Athenian birth, ancestry, and the shared values and abilities that the Athenians assumed went along with them. Lape traces the development of Athenian racial identity, deftly drawing on a broad range of historical comparanda as well as the work of historians, political scientists and social theorists outside the ranks of classicists and ancient historians. Lape distinguishes two strands underlying Athenian identity; one is ethnic, a sense of common descent; the other is national, the close association with a common territory. She begins with Draco's lawcode which in laying out penalties provides the earliest extant legal distinction between Athenian and non-Athenian. Some years later Solon, by outlawing the enslavement of citizens for debt, drew a sharp line between citizen and slave which meant that slaves in Athens had to be non-Athenians. Thus, "the law added implicit ethnic content to citizen identity" (pp. 12-13). Solon further defined citizenship by excluding illegitimate offspring of Athenian fathers, even if free born. The new emphasis on legitimate birth reinforced the ethnic content of citizen status. Cleisthenes helped to formalize citizen status by having the state control admission to citizenship through scrutiny at the deme level.

Lape argues that a key element of the Athenians' sense of their discrete racial identity derived from their belief that they all descended from ancestors autochthonous to Attica. As their imperial might grew through the first half of the fifth century, the Athenians played up the myth of their autochthonous origins. Autochthony allowed the Athenians to justify their imperial successes by ascribing them to the purity of their Hellenic bloodline, to their innate military prowess, and to divine favor. At the same time they could also take the moral high ground because they had not acquired their own homeland by force. Autochthony, Lape argues, also provided a crucial rationale for democratic political equality: Athenians shared an equality of birth. Lape closely connects this last point, along with the rise in general of the autochthony myth's popularity, with the Periclean law of 451/0 and its requirement for what she calls bilateral nativity to qualify for citizen status.

Whatever else the Athenians had in mind in passing the law, Lape notes that it certainly encouraged civic endogamy and reinforced the autochthony myth's emphasis on the importance of unmixed ancestry. Thus the law "encouraged the belief that both parents contributed to the Athenian-ness of their children and, conversely, that having a foreign parent made a person foreign by nature, both to the city and its democracy" (p. 24). This changed fundamentally, Lape argues, Athenian attitudes about birth and citizen identity; Athenians came to think of themselves in what Lape calls racialist terms, that is, as a group whose members all possessed unique traits obtainable only through inheritance. It is in this context that Lape uses the term race to refer to the way Athenians viewed themselves. She defines racial citizenship as "the stories the Athenians develop to describe and explain how birth and blood made them who they were, qualifying and entitling them for citizenship." Racialism refers to the content of the stories, which make up what Lape calls the myth of racial citizenship (p. 32). Such racialism corresponds to racism when the traits of one group have political or moral prominence, a situation that obtained, Lape maintains, in Classical Athens.

The Periclean law's insistence on the key role of both parents in creating what is uniquely Athenian in a citizen led the Athenians to develop what Lape calls a sense of collective eugenia, nobility, that they believed set them apart. The vital traits of citizenship are inherited, just as aristocrats believed that they inherited their nobility from a divine or heroic ancestor. The key difference is that aristocratic eugenia retained its potency no matter how tenuously it was passed on from the founder to later generations. To pass on democratic eugenia on the other hand required that both parents could trace their ancestry back to autochthonous roots.

The Athenians use their collective eugenia both as a basis for political equality among citizens and as justification for denying it to others. Athenian birth granted a racial citizenship and therefore political equality regardless of the citizen's social or economic status. Lape argues that this suppression of the political significance of wealth is the reason why Athens experienced relatively little stasis and few calls for a radical redistribution of land and wealth. The distinctions Athenians drew between themselves and various socially and politically less privileged groups, such as slaves, metics and women, helped reinforce the unity of the citizen class. Thus, Athenians defined themselves both by what they shared in common and by comparison with "Others" who differed from them. Unlike many previous approaches, which focus on how Greeks defined themselves in relation to others, Lape has investigated what she terms the "we" side of the story, how the Athenians developed a "racial narrative of citizen identity" (p. 52).

In the succeeding chapters Lape explores how the Athenians' sense of racial citizenship operated in various contexts. In chapter two ("The Rhetoric of Racial Citizenship"), she elucidates the role aspects of the myth of racial citizenship play in Old Comedy and Attic Oratory, most notably in attacks on citizens for having non-Greek, non-Attic or slave forbears. Chapter three ("Euripides' 'Ion' and the Family Romance of Athenian Racialism") is a sensitive and persuasive treatment of Euripides' Ion in which Lape not only analyzes Euripides' manipulation of the myth of autochthony to incorporate contemporary ideas of racial citizenship but also shows how the democratic conception of collective eugenia draws on as well as modifies its aristocratic model. Chapter four ("Athenian Identity in History and as History") examines how both Herodotus and Thucydides omit Athenian autochthony and racial purity from their accounts of Athenian history, and argues that both historians reject Athenian exceptionalism as a viable factor in historical causation. Chapter five ("Trials of Citizen Identity: Producing and Policing the Racial Frontier") looks at the steps Athenians took to keep unauthorized or unqualified outsiders from illicitly becoming citizens. The evidence comes from trials over citizenship, including those stemming from the fourth century laws that criminalized marriages between Athenians and non-Athenians. Lape also discusses the mass scrutinies of the entire citizen body conducted in 445/4 and 346/5 in addition to individual prosecutions. Aspects of racial citizenship play a key role, especially in justifying the unequal distribution of the city's resources in favor of citizens. In chapter six ("Myths and Realities of Racial Citizenship") Lape takes up naturalization at Athens, a process that would seem to run counter to the Athenians' concept of racial citizenship. Lape argues, however, that the way naturalization occurred actually reinforced Athenian racial ideas. It could take place only at the instigation of the Athenians, never at the request of the would-be immigrant. Moreover, the successful candidate for naturalization, by law, had to have acted courageously on behalf of the demos, that is, behaved like an Athenian. This, Lape argues, enabled the Athenians "to maintain the fiction of racial citizenship when it was technically being relaxed" (p. 59). The tightening of laws regarding citizenship and naturalization in the generation or so after the Civil War of 403 may in part, Lape suggests, represent a recommitment to the myth of racial unity as a way of coping with the trauma of civil war.

Lape's book is a meticulously developed and persuasively argued interpretation of how the Athenians constructed for themselves a civic identity based on a myth of racial purity, an identity that enabled them to justify the basis both for political equality among citizens and for excluding everyone else. Lape's theory of racial citizenship will be a powerful aid for anyone wishing to understand more clearly the nature of invective in Old Comedy, the political and legal strategies of many Attic court speeches, as well as, more generally, how the Athenians viewed themselves as a democracy and as an imperial power.

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