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The First Citizens: From Ancient Greece to Modern Nations

Citizenship was the beginning of Western civilization.

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When you are born, you become a citizen of your country. Today, this may seem like the most natural thing, but it hasn’t always been this way. The idea of citizenship has been traced back to Ancient Greece. Around 2,800 years ago, Greek farmers banded together and created the first city-states. Members of these cities were the world’s first citizens. Their invention made the modern world possible.

Property Rights

Farmers in ancient Greece owned a lot of land that needed protection. There were plenty of roaming bandits who wanted to rob them and tyrannical kings who tried to rule them. To protect themselves from this constant threat, the farmers joined together and formed the polis, the city-state. Polis is the Greek word from which we get English words such as “police” and “politics.”

The members, who were called citizens, were expected to pay taxes to fund the city’s defense, building city walls and making weapons. They were also expected to participate in the army to protect against invaders and marauders. In return, the citizens were granted certain rights, such as the right to vote for leaders and the right to own property. The state had a duty to protect their properties and certain freedoms.

With less worry about robbers and tyrants, people could instead focus on producing and trading. Therefore, the Greek city-states became rich.

Changes in Citizenship

What did citizenship mean in ancient Athens? It was not the same as the modern version.

Most people living in the Greek city-states were not citizens. Only adult men were considered citizens, with the right to vote. Women and children were excluded. Other people refused citizenship status were slaves, as well as visitors or foreign residents. Generally, only people born in their city-state could be considered citizens – or those who had been born elsewhere could become citizens if they had a free Athenian father.

These other groups did not have the same rights and were not allowed to participate in politics.

Over the millennia, the idea of citizenship has evolved. For a start, citizenship today is usually applied to countries – although a few city-states exist (e.g., Singapore), it is rare in the 21st century. Some countries, including Finland, offer a provincial citizenship.

Nations across the world have tried various citizenship rules and requirements. Today, citizenship has generally expanded to include women and children. In the past, some countries, including the U.S., have also limited citizenship to certain races, but that is no longer the case in the West.

Additionally, citizenship is no longer limited by birth. People who decide to move overseas for work, marriage, or another reason can apply to gain citizenship in their new home – usually they must live in the new country for several years on a visa and do a lot of paperwork, but it is possible to change their citizenship, or even to become a citizen of more than one country at a time.

Unlike ancient Greece, America has extended citizenship to women and to people who are not born in the country, thereby attracting talents from all over the world. Legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens are also allowed to own property and do business, but not to vote. They also have to pay taxes.

A Recipe for Success?

Citizenship is a money-making machine. As in ancient Greece, societies that have strong citizenship rules with property rights and freedoms have become extraordinarily successful. It has been documented by, for instance, the Heritage Foundation’s World Index of Economic Freedom that countries with strong property rights and citizenship requirements are prosperous, secure, and popular.

Despite its successes, in recent years, the concept of citizenship has become controversial.

Advocates of open borders have suggested there should be no citizenship at all, since a person’s citizenship and rights are, at least initially, dependent on where they happen to be born. They say this is unfair. The state of California, for example, has granted more rights to illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, other countries are doing the opposite. Nations like Singapore, Taiwan, and United Arab Emirates are strengthening their citizenship rules to reap the benefits Western nations have enjoyed for so long.

Have you given thought to what makes a good citizen? What rights should they be granted? How does citizenship affect the culture and economics of a nation? If you were to create your own country, how would you go about determining citizenship for it?

International Correspondent at and Onar is a Norwegian author who has written extensively on politics, technology, and science. He has a mathematics and physics background and has been a technological entrepreneur for twenty years, working in areas ranging from biomass gasification and AI to 3D cameras and 3D TV. He is currently also the Editor of the alternative news site Ekte Nyheter (Authentic News) in Norway. Onar is the author of The Climate Bubble (2007) and The Art of War (2008).

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