Metic comes from the Greek μέτοικος, metoikos, where the second element is derived from οἶκος, oikos, "house; inhabit." The preceding element meta could here either carry the notion of "change" or of "among". The two possible senses implicit in the word were one who changes their place of dwelling and one who lives among (that is, who is "among" but not "of"). There is no need to distinguish between these senses. Both reflect the reality of the immigrant—a person who has moved from somewhere else and come to live among strangers.
Metics held lower social status but not on the basis of socio-economic class. Some were poor artisans and ex-slaves, while others were some of the wealthiest inhabitants of the city. As citizenship was a matter of inheritance and not place of birth, a metic could be either an immigrant or the descendant of one. Regardless of how many generations of the family had lived in the city, metics did not become citizens unless the city chose to bestow citizenship on them as a gift. This was rarely done. From a cultural viewpoint such a resident could be completely "local" and indistinguishable from citizens. They had no role in the political community but might be completely integrated into the social and economic life of the city. In the urbane scene that opens Plato's Republic—the dialogue takes place in a metic household—the status of the speakers as citizen or metic is never mentioned.
Metics typically shared the burdens of citizenship without any of its privileges. Like citizens, they had to perform military service and, if wealthy enough, were subject to the special tax contributions (eisphora) and tax services ("liturgies", for example, paying for a warship or funding a tragic chorus) contributed by wealthy Athenians. Citizenship at Athens brought eligibility for numerous state payments such as jury and assembly pay, which could be significant to working people. During emergencies the city could distribute rations to citizens. None of these rights were available to metics. They were not permitted to own real estate in Attica, whether farm or house, unless granted a special exemption. Neither could they contract with the state to work the silver mines, since the wealth beneath the earth was felt to belong to the political community. Further, they had to pay a metic poll tax, the metoikon, of twelve drachmas a year for men and six for women, as well a special tax (xenikon telos) if they wanted to set up a stall in the market place (agora).
Although metics were barred from the assembly and from serving as jurors, they did have the same access to the courts as citizens. They could both prosecute others and be prosecuted themselves. A great many migrants came to Athens to do business and were in fact essential to the Athenian economy. It would have been a severe disincentive if they had been unable to pursue commercial disputes at law. At the same time they did not have exactly the same rights here as citizens. Unlike citizens, metics could be made to undergo judicial torture and the penalties for killing them were not as severe as for killing a citizen. Metics were also subject to enslavement for a variety of offences. These might either be failures to abide by their status obligations, such as not paying the metoikon tax or not nominating a citizen sponsor, or they might be "contaminations" of the citizen body, marrying a citizen, or claiming to be citizens themselves.
How long a foreigner could remain in Athens without counting as a metic is not known. In some other Greek cities the period was a month, and it may well have been the same at Athens. All metics there were required to register in the deme (local community) where they lived. They had to nominate a citizen as their sponsor or guardian (prostates, literally "one who stands on behalf of"). The Athenians took this last requirement very seriously. A metic without a sponsor was vulnerable to a special prosecution. If convicted, his property would be confiscated and he himself sold as a slave. For a freed slave the sponsor was automatically his former owner. This arrangement exacted some extra duties on the part of the metic, yet the child of an ex-slave metic apparently had the same status as a freeborn metic. Citizenship was very rarely granted to metics. More common was the special status of "equal rights" (isoteleia) under which they were freed from the usual liabilities. In the religious sphere all metics were able to participate in the festivals central to the life of the city, except for some roles that were limited to citizens.
The status divide between metic and citizen was not always clear. In the street no physical signs distinguished citizen from metic or slave. Sometimes the actual status a person had attained became a contested matter. Although local registers of citizens were kept, if one's claim to citizenship was challenged the testimony of neighbours and the community was decisive. (In [[Lysias] 16], a law court speech, a man presumed to be a metic claims to be a citizen, but upon investigation—not by consulting official records but by questions asked at the cheese market—it transpires that he may well be a runaway slave, so the hostile account attests.)
Metics whose family had lived in Athens for generations may have been tempted to "pass" as citizens. On a number of occasions there were purges of the citizen lists, effectively changing people who had been living as citizens into metics. In typical Athenian fashion, a person so demoted could mount a challenge in court. If however the court decided the ejected citizen was in fact a metic, he would be sent down one further rung and sold into slavery.
In studying the status of the metics it is easy to gain the impression they were an oppressed minority. But by and large those who were Greek and freeborn had at least chosen to come to Athens, attracted by the prosperity of the large, dynamic, cosmopolitan city and the opportunities not available to them in their place of origin. Metics remained citizens of their cities of birth, which, like Athens, had the exclusionary ancestral view of citizenship common to ancient Greek cities.
The large non-citizen community of Athens allowed ex-slave metics to become assimilated in a way not possible in more conservative and homogenised cities elsewhere. Their participation in military service, taxation (for the rich at Athens a matter of public display and pride) and cult must have given them a sense of involvement in the city, and of their value to it. Though notably, while Athenians tended to refer to metics by their name and deme of residence (the same democratic scheme used for citizens), on their tombstones freeborn metics who died in Athens preferred to name the cities from which they had come and of which they were citizens still.
They had clearly demarcated rights, and the Hebrews are sternly and repeatedly enjoined to treat them fairly and keep in mind that that they themselves were in the same situation when living in Egypt. Also clearly, however, they were of a socially inferior position and could never, even after generations of dwelling in a country, become fully integrated or equal to the locals.
Also etymologically they are similar to the Greek metics, "ger" being derived from the Hebrew root for "to dwell", i.e. they were "the dwellers [among us]". The term "strangers" used in the King James Bible and other English translations (for example, "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" in Deuteronomy 10, 19) does not fully convey these connotations.
In modern Hebrew, "ger" has come to mean a convert to Judaism.