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What is a Citizen?

Tracing the idea of citizens from Ancient Greece to the modern world.

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When you are born, you become a citizen of your country. Today, this may seem natural, 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 land that needed protection. There were roaming bandits who wanted to rob them and tyrannical kings who tried to rule them. To protect themselves, the farmers joined together and formed the polis, the city-state. Polis is the Greek word that gave us English words such as “police” and “politics.”

The members, who were called citizens, had to pay taxes to fund the city’s defense, building city walls and making weapons. They also had 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 the citizens and their property.

With less worry about robbers and tyrants, people could instead focus on trading. 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 citizens with the right to vote. Women and children were excluded, and so were slaves and foreigners. Generally, only people born in their city-state could be citizens. Other groups did not have the same rights.

Over the millennia, the idea of citizenship has evolved. Today, citizenship includes women and children.

Citizenship no longer depends on where you are born. People who decide to move overseas can apply to gain citizenship in their new home. They can change their citizenship or even become a citizen of more than one country at a time.

Legal immigrants in the U.S. are allowed to own property and do business, but not to vote. They also have to pay taxes.

Have you given thought to what makes a good citizen? What rights should they be granted? How does citizenship affect the culture of a nation? If you were to create your own country, what citizenship rules would you have?

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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