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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

The Ancient Origins of Asylum: Part II

Rating: 4 votes, 5.00 average.
In the last post, I wrote about the mythical origins of asylum and about the cities of refugee of the ancient Israelites.

The Classical Greeks had a different concept of asylum than the Israelites. The Greeks recognized holy places—temples, alters, statues—as protected. To rob from a sacred place was to rob from the gods. This protection included the property of the sacred place and also people—including fugitives—who were found in that place. Runaway slaves, debtors, warriors vanquished in battle, and criminals would not be harmed in the sanctuaries and could find refuge there. The most well-known place of asylum was the Temple of Theseus in Athens (this temple is still standing; today, it is usually called the Temple of Hephaestus). Runaway slaves who fled their abusive masters could find refuge in the temple, and then compel their masters to sell them to someone else.

You do NOT want to make this guy angry.

Places of asylum were generally respected in the ancient Greek world, but sometimes the respect accorded to the sacred space was interpreted narrowly. For example, the historian Thucydides writes about the case of the Spartan general Pausanias, who had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Platea in 479 BC. In the years following the battle, Pausanias came under increasing suspicion as a traitor to the Persian side. Finally, at the moment when he was about to be arrested, Pausanias ran away to the Temple of Athena in Sparta, where he sought sanctuary. The leaders of Sparta who had sought Pausanias’s arrest barricaded him inside the temple and starved him out. Rather than violate the sanctity of the temple, they removed Pausanias from the place in the moments before his death. Thucydides writes that as soon as he was removed from the temple, Pausanias died. It’s hard to see how the temple offered him much protection, but the concept of the inviolability of the holy place was—technically—maintained.

Echoing a much more modern complaint, the concept of asylum in ancient Greece was often abused by people seeking protection. Nevertheless, throughout the Greek period, asylum was generally respected, if only because violators feared divine wrath.


The concept of asylum was also important to the Romans, albeit for a different reason. Legend has it that Rome was founded by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. After a dispute about where to establish the city, Romulus killed his brother and named the city after himself. Roman historians date the founding of their city to the seventh century BC.

Romulus wanted to increase the population of his new city, and so he designated one area as a sacred “Asylum.” This is where newcomers entered the city. According to the Roman historian Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), the Asylum was crucial to Rome’s advancement and eventual greatness because it symbolized the Empire’s ability to enfranchise people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

During the second and first centuries BC, Rome asserted control over Macedonia and eventually (in 27 BC) all of Greece. Rome was heavily influenced by Greek culture (the Roman poet Horace said, “Greece, though captive, has taken its wild conqueror captive”), including in the area of asylum. However, the idea of asylum as a “right” soon became inconvenient for the Romans. How could they allow rebels and criminals to avoid the power of the Empire by hiding in temples?


To mitigate this problem and assert their authority, the Romans severely restricted asylum in the Greek temples. Temples in the non-Greek areas of the Roman Empire fared little better. Throughout the Empire, Roman Law superseded religious sentiment. The places of asylum tended to be statues of the Caesars, not temples, and the sanctuary was only temporary. Those fleeing Roman “Justice” (such as it was) could not escape for long by claiming asylum.


As the power of Rome declined, the power of the new Christian Church began to grow. Like its predecessors, the Church had its own version of asylum, but that’s a story for another day...

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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