Foreigners of the Antiquity




Part 1

The fact is undeniable : the earliest communities of what would later be conceived as the Western civilisation are cultures profoundly marked by the event of foreignness. From its very formation, the Jewish people is elected, implying the earliest forms of exclusive nationalism, but also, of a cultural construction stronger than mere geographical origins. The Judaic election is not just a historical destiny or an individual imposition, but the fruit of a choice : from its inception till its present form, the elected people must always reaffirm and actualise the inner quality that justifies its selection. The Jewish community evolves in a subtle dialectic of porosity:

“No bastard (mamzer) is to be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh. No Ammonite or Moabite is to be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh, not even their descendants to the tenth generation may be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh, and this is for all time ; because they did not come to meet you with bread and water when you were on your way out of Egypt…” 1

But other foreigners are invited : “You are not to regard the Edomite as detestable, for he is your brother ; nor the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. The third generation of children born to these may be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh.” 2 Going further deep, the collective memory of the Judaic community carries the sketches of foreignness. The Jews are a people of foreigners, of migrants who left Egypt during the Exile, and several episodes use this historical anchoring to support an ethics oriented towards foreigners : “You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt.” 3 In Deuteronomy 10:19, the recommended attitude is even extended to full-fledged “love” for the foreigner. Abraham himself is several times presented as the first “proselyte” or “convert,” 4 having left family and land to respond to the call of God. The role of the converts is particularly central, as the main initial condition of the Jewish people : the Talmudic treatise Pessahim 876 recounts Eleazar as saying “God, blessed by His name, has exiled Israel from among the nations solely with the aim that proselytes might join Him.” 5 The idea is kept in the very lexicon of the foreigner. In Hebrew, the stranger is known as ger, translated as either “proselyte” or “stranger.” The term is indeed carrying the dual meaning ; the composed ger-tochav refers to the resident foreigner while ger alone refers to the converted-naturalised foreigner. 6

After Abraham as the first proselyte, the figure of foreignness returns in the history of the Jewish leaders with the episode of Ruth the Moabitess. Daughter of Elimelech, who fled Judaea when his help was needed, Ruth would paradoxically become, while a stranger, wife of Boaz and matriarch of the Judaic kingdom. Most notably, she was the great grand-mother of David, King of Judah. But unlike Abraham, Ruth did not leave her land as a response to a call, but as an exercise of her free will, deciding to go against the law that forbad alliances with Moabites, to become the matriarch of the Jews. Thus, from its earliest mention in the Western civilisation, the figure of the foreigner is already connected with notions of free-will. The universalist tone of Judaism – the Torah is aimed at all humans – should also be recalled, in view of its later elaboration in the universal community of the Christians. But before this, we must move to a land westward, the early nation-states of Greece, where the cultural understanding of the foreigner would follow its own trajectory, relatively independent from the Judaic tradition, until the advent of their historical junction : Christianity.

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Ultimately, most of the Daughters do commit their final heinous crime, but two avoid it. Anymone accepts to marry Poseidon, while Hypermnestra becomes the matriarch of the dynasty from which Heracles would be issued. Ambiguity of the stranger : the incomprehensible folly of the acts, the refusal of the social contracts, but also the fusional and historical alliances.

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In the mythological imaginary of Archaic Greece (c. 800-510 bce), the figure of the stranger finds prominence first in the hieroi logoi or sacred narrative of the Daughters of Danaus. This classical narrative tells the adventures of Danaus’ fifty daughters, who were supposed to marry the fifty sons of Aegyptus, Danaus’s twin brother and the king of Egypt. All of them but one received a punishment for eternity, after killing their groom on the wedding night. In 463 bce, Aeschylus, elaborating on the cultural heritage of the Archaic age, modifies the myth and writes a trilogy, comprising The Suppliants, The Egyptians and The Danaids. Fleeing their forced marriage in Egypt, the fifty daughters turn to King Pelasgus, of the city of Argos, in the Aegean region. After receiving the democratic support of his population on the matter, Pelasgus accepts to welcome them, in spite of Egyptian protests. Ultimately, most of the Daughters do commit their final heinous crime, but two avoid it. Anymone accepts to marry Poseidon, while Hypermnestra becomes the matriarch of the dynasty from which Heracles would be issued. Ambiguity of the stranger : the incomprehensible folly of the acts, the refusal of the social contracts, but also the fusional and historical alliances. Kristeva speculates : “the Greek mind condemns foreignness only when the latter tended to defy the common mean.” 7 Alternatively, the narrative of extraction to which the stranger is subjected, as well as the highlighted violence of marital passion, may have come to reaffirm family alliance as the foundation for the social order. The Daughters exemplify the status of the “suppliants,” those strangers who would lay wreaths before the foreign sacred altar as a symbol of their land, and as a request for migration. A local patron emerges : the proxenus, who represents and defends the community of the suppliants. In the story of Aeschylus, the proxenus of the Danaïds is none but the king himself. His duty towards his guest is a very serious matter : “If I leave / This debt unpaid, you’ve warned of pollution / That shall strike unerringly; … / But yet the wrath of Zeus the Suppliant – / The height of mortal fear – must be respected.” 8 Indeed : in the Archaic period, deities look after even the outsiders : Zeus is Zeus Xenios, and Athena, Athena Xenia; they ensure that mistreating a host is a religious offence. In this period, Sparta remains fearful of the foreigners but a class of useful artisans is accepted : the metics. Taxed in Sparta, they enjoy tax exemption in Athens. Everywhere, their economic vitality cannot be neglected. In Athens, a politician is designated as their official patron, ensuring the strangers’ judiciary protection : the prostate. But the strangers cannot own property, and they are far from being citizens. Marie-Françoise Baslez comments : “It was indeed out of the question, at that time, to integrate non Greeks into the civic framework.” 9

In the Classical Age (510-323 bce), the game changes. Athens is still at the cutting edge of liberalism : the notion of koinonia or civic coherence is developed, 10 defining the citizen as the participant in the political life, and not on the basis of any racial or social criteria. But Pericles’s law of 451 still limits the process : one can be a citizen only inasmuch his two parents are themselves Athenians. The Median wars with Persia between 490 and 478 affect the views on the foreigner, who becomes the “barbarian.” Barbarophonos, a distinction applying to both Greeks and non-Greeks as long as they speak an unrefined language, appears in the plays of the three major playwrights of the time – Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. The term is particularly pejorative in the works of the latter, where the word has lost its focus on the foreign origin of the characters, to insist on their savagery. In a different interpretation, Aeschylus defends in Agamemnon (456) that it is the Persian barbarian that allows the Athenian citizen to realise the superiority of his democratic system. But the metic is still very much affecting the life of the city, becoming, in the words of Marie-Françoise Baslez, 11 a proper homo economicus. The metic is placed under the citizen, but also above the slave. Some of them manage to gather wide riches, while others shine in the intellectual circles – among them, of course, Aristotle. His teacher, Plato, had remained rigid with the strangers : if the metic’s properties come to exceed that of local farm owners, he should be expelled. 12 The foreigner should be incorporated, but only within the limits of political pragmatism. Plato classifies the foreigners in an increasing hierarchy, as summer visitors, spectators, dignitaries and finally, the foreigners “who come from another land to look at ours.” 13 Proxeny itself becomes a public office, opening nothing less than the very domain and practices of diplomacy. In Baslez’s reading, the relative integration of the metics served as a moderate policy : “it would appear as though the establishment of a metic class was conceived as a moderate political and demographic device, avoiding cosmopolitanism as well as xenophobia.” 14 This administrative take on the foreigner is contrasted with the universalist ambitions of a part of the Hellenist literature, such as with Menander and his famous saying, “I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me.” 15

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Integrated economically and somehow socially, the stranger stays, nonetheless, primarily the other of the citizen. With Christianity, the material city becomes the invisible community of the believers : gone is the polis ; opens the Ecclesia.

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This spirit of a proto-cosmopolitanism would find echoes in the Stoic tradition. Centred around the concept of oikeiosis or conciliation, the Stoic thinker attempts to remind himself of the concentric spheres that connect his inner being to his body, his relatives and finally all other human beings. But the community thus formed is not like any other : it is a community of reason. Cicero constructs the caritas generis humani, 16 a universal ethics of care towards all human beings, irrespective of their origin. Dreamers of a universal megapolis, the Stoics manage to gain some political clout, for instance as advisors to Alexander, requesting him to show equal respect to Barbarians and Greeks. But the Stoic cosmopolitanism will soon turn into two excesses. With Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, the regime becomes a gerontocracy discriminating beings on the basis of reason itself. The  actual alternative is to be found in Zeno’s cynicism, where cosmopolitanism is thought as the radical idea of an absolutely free state, rejecting religion, family and law, and accepting incest, prostitution, pederasty or cannibalism. However, the Stoic and Cynic responses to the politics of foreignness remained ideals, incapable to deeply challenge Ancient Greece and its older social organisation on the matter. Integrated economically and somehow socially, the stranger stays, nonetheless, primarily the other of the citizen. With Christianity, the material city becomes the invisible community of the believers : gone is the polis ; opens the Ecclesia.

St Paul (c. 5 – c. 62-67 ce) is perhaps the first Christian cosmopolitan : once an opponent of Jesus’s followers, Paul would use his talents at languages and adaptation to multiply his journeys across the known world : Cyprus, Pamphylia, Pisidia, Lycaonia (47-48 ce), Asia Minor, Alexandria, Macedonia, Philippi and Thessalonike, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch (49-51 ce) and finally Galatia, Phyrygia and Ephesus, till his final execution in Rome somewhere between 62 and 67 ce. His growing sense of universal cosmopolitanism comes down to the level of everyday customs, but the agenda of conversion is not absent :

“I made myself a Jew to the Jews, to win the Jews ; … To those who have no Law, I was free of the Law myself (though not free from God’s law being under the law of Christ) to win those who have no Law. … I made myself all things to all men in order to save some at any cost.” 17

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Paul marks thus one of the earliest concrete forms of the Christian Ecclesia, a community that transcends nationalities. The inspiration from the utopias of cosmopolitanism from the late Classical Greece is evident, but he also breaks away from the nationalism of the Jewish sense of universalism.

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Paul addresses his teachings to the ‘margins’ of growing sub-groups of citizens : merchants, sailors and exiles. 18 No one is a stranger in the realm of God : “So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors : you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household.” 19 He calls for the practice of hospitality, but he makes it free, seeing in the stranger the Christ himself : “to welcome him is to be welcomed in God.” 20 Paul marks thus one of the earliest concrete forms of the Christian Ecclesia, a community that transcends nationalities. The inspiration from the utopias of cosmopolitanism from the late Classical Greece is evident, but he also breaks away from the nationalism of the Jewish sense of universalism. In Paul’s text, the Hebrew ger is translated as paroikos, referring to the stranger in Israel. But, precisely, nationalities collapse for Paul : there are no longer Jews and Greeks, but “a new creation.” 21 Through the Ecclesia, a remoulding of peoples and nations is initiated. But Paul’s philosophy of cosmopolitanism is not simply the offer of a shelter, of material comfort, but rather a response to a sense of psychic distress between body and soul. Positing transubstantiation as the unity of the Christ’s body, the Church and the Eucharist, Paul extends the Biblical assertion of the human as a spirited being, “always already occupied by the Other.” 22 Much before the psychological splits studied by Freud, the Pauline doctrine already reformulates foreignness in terms of inner construction:

“Better than the legal solutions that were aimed at neurosis, or the Eastern immersion in the bosom of the mother goddess, the Pauline church assumed the foreigner’s passion-inspired division, deeming his being torn apart between two worlds to be a split less between two countries than between two psychic domains within his own impossible unity.” 23

Paul is thus a psychologist, but one that calls for one’s mental salvation in the Christ : “there is no room for distinction between Greek and Jew, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, or between barbarian and Scythian, slave and free man. There is only Christ : he is everything and he is in everything.” 24 In the same decades of early evangelism, St John describes Jesus as a stranger himself : not a part of this world, he finds glory only when returning to the Father, “at home.” 25 For John, the cosmopolitan community is in heaven.

The father of Western theology, St Augustine (354-430) marks the history of foreignness by presenting the aforementioned transubstantiation as a pilgrimage. The stranger becomes pilgrim and finds in the civitas peregrina of Christianity a community of support in his both spiritual and this-worldly quest. This spirit of serenity is also expressed through the institution of the caritas, the gift of the self to all others : “the alienation of the foreigner ceases within the universality of the love for the other.” 26 The ideal of the Christian as a pilgrim of life is to develop infinite caritas. But this only an ideal : through the Middle Ages, the foreigner will be caught in a tension between caritas and the political jurisdiction surrounding her condition. Hospitality, then, becomes an industry. The disreputable tabernae (inns) are supplemented with hospitia (hotels), and the first Nicene council, in 325, demands of each city to have a hospitia or xenodochia, place of welcome for the poor and the stranger par excellence. Even laymen enter the business, founding various institutions that find profit in hospitality. In its orthodox conception, Christian hospitality remains, nonetheless, particularly exclusive : only Christians are subject to be welcomed through hospitality. This belongingness even takes material forms, with the passports of Christanism, in the objects of the litterae communicatoriae, literae formatae and epistolae. 27 This spirit of ostracism at the very heart of the Christian doctrine of hospitality would be one of the earliest roots of the Inquisition. Entering the Middle Ages, the stranger thus finds himself caught between two dynamics. On the one hand, the limited hospitality of Christianity. On the other, a political condition within feudality, where an aubain or alien resident is one who is not born on the lord’s land – the latter maintaining a right of life and death over the stranger.

With the collapse of Rome, the Late Empire is marked by a submission of the foreigners to local rulers. The Augustine peregrine goes from a juridical meaning to a more mystical tone, 28 referring to the person originally from another city, or to the provincial in general. For the first time, the stranger is possibly understood within the borders of one territory. Through the violent encounters of the fourth and fifth centuries, the barbarians are found to be of some use in the Empire, as effective soldiers and labourers. Legally, they are either deditices, defeated persons keeping an inferior status, or feoderati, constrained only to their military service but otherwise broadly equal to the Romans. 29 Between them, the laeti were the liberated prisoners, and superior in rights to the gentes or gentiles. By allowing the barbarians to work in the military, the period breaks the age-old restriction of foreigners from public functions. Naturally, this will lead some foreign soldiers to become high-level chiefs, like Dagalaiph, and even dictators, such as Stilicho. The ban of mixed marriages in 370 does not change the dynamics : the Roman Empire turns into a multi-cultural society, such that the term Romania emerges in the fourth century, defining the Roman around the church, in opposition to the outer barbarians, but also to the inner heretics. Those heretics, in contrast, lose all of their rights at the very moment when the outsiders acquire them. 30

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the stranger thus becomes aubain, as alibi natus, that is, coming from another seigniory. 31 Lacking a centralised context, the concept remains ambiguous : the aubain cannot marry outside the seigniory and cannot pass on property, but he is also not a serf. The stranger is expected to declare an oath to a lord, or the stranger’s body and possessions are rightful possessions of the lord of the territory where the stranger resides. When he stays more than six months in one place (five more than in Greece), the visiting foreigner or peregrini becomes advenae or resident. In the 12th-13th centuries, the move towards centralised feudalism makes the oath to the king obligatory for foreigners. This also represents the historical shift towards our present understanding of foreignness: “the notion of foreigner was no longer conceived in relation to the lord and his land but in relation to the kingdom. The aubain was no longer one liable to servitude but the one whose inheritance … falls back to the king.” 32 The foreign origin of the aubain is put to the background : what distinguishes him is his inability to bequeath property. In a new terminological distinction, Queen Jeanne separates the aubains as foreigners to the seigniory, to the strays, as foreigners to the kingdom. 33 The French Revolution would abolish the legal limitation of the aubain, but this would be applied globally only later, through the international conventions of the 19th century.


Image courtesy: Kelly Rodriguez



  1. Nehemiah 10:31. All the biblical references are cited from the Jerusalem Bible.
  2. Deuteronomy 23:3-9.
  3. Exodus 22:21.
  4. Genesis 12:1.
  5. B. Rojtman, personal letter to Julia Kristeva, quoted in Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 69.
  6. Ibid., 68.
  7. Ibid., 45.
  8. Seth G. Bernadete, trans., The Complete Greek Tragedies, vol. I, Aeschylus (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1959), 471-479.
  9. Marie-Françoise Baslez, L’Etranger dans la Grèce antique (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984), 82.
  10. Carnes Lord, trans., Aristotle’s Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 1276b.
  11. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 53.
  12. Trevor J. Saunders, trans., Plato’s Laws (London: Penguin, 2004), 915b.
  13. Saunders, Plato’s Laws, XII: 950-951.
  14. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 54, with reference to Baslez, L’Etranger dans la Grèce antique, 146.
  15. Quoted in Baslez, L’Etranger dans la Grèce antique, 261.
  16. L. D. Reynolds, trans., Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5:23, 65.
  17. I Corinthians 9:20.
  18. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 78.
  19. Ephesians 2:11-13 and 2:19-20.
  20. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 79.
  21. II Corinthians 5:17.
  22. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 81.
  23. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 81-82.
  24. Colossians 3:9-11.
  25. John 17:5 (modified translation).
  26. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 84.
  27. Ibid., 87.
  28. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 88.
  29. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 89.
  30. The Roman Empire was also marked by a language. Latin is the source of some of today’s major terms around foreignness. The foreigner (foras, foris ‘outside,’ from fores ‘door’), the stranger (from extraneus, ‘external, strange’, becoming estrange in Old French), and the alien (from alienus, ‘belonging to another’) all reduce the foreigner to a logic of space distinction. We will explore these definitions later on.
  31. Jean de Ferrière, Dictionnaire de droit et de pratique (Paris: Brunet, 1740), 100.
  32. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 92-93.
  33. See Henri Regnault, La Condition juridique du bâtard au Moyen Age (Pont-Audemer, 1922), 131-134.