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Asylum and Deportation in Ancient Greek Drama: Aeschylus' Suppliants and Euripides' Medea. A Message for Today? Roger Algase

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In the midst of the contentious battle which is now taking place over immigration and immigrant rights in the "New Era" of Donald Trump (to quote a recent remark by A.G. Jeff Sessions - not to be confused with the "New Order" in a certain central European country beginning eight decades ago), it is instructive to reflect that divisions and struggles over the status of foreigners and the degree to which they should be accepted into a given country's society are not new.

In the West, these issues go back at least as far as ancient Greece in the Fifth Century B.C. In ancient Athens in particular, there was a large class of people known as "Metics", consisting both of people from other parts of Greece (Aristotle himself being a famous example), and people from non-Greek ("Barbarian") countries. Metics did not have the full rights of Athenian citizens, but were allowed to live legally in Athens, with at least some of the same rights and obligations as citizens.

(The word "Metic" is Metoikos in ancient Greek, consisting of the words meta - change, and oikos - dwelling.)

In many ways, Metics in ancient Athens were analogous to Lawful Permanent Residents of the United States today. The rights of foreigners in ancient Athens are a vast subject, far too complex to cover in detail in the following brief comment, but there are many excellent modern studies of this subject. See, for just one example, one available through an online publication, Sunoikisis Undergraduate Research Journal authored by Victoria Roeck called:

Societal Attitudes toward Metics in Fifth-Century Athens through the Lens of Aeschylus's Suppliants and Euripides' Children of Hercules (2014)

http://wp.chs.harvard.edu/surs/2014/...toward-metics/

Ancient Athenian citizenship law is also a very broad subject as shown, to give only one example, in the law of the famous Athenian ruler Perlikles (Pericles) in 450 B.C. requiring that to be an Athenian citizen at birth, both of the child's parents must have been citizens, not only one, as previously required (there obviously being no 14th Amendment in effect at that time)!

This law would, no doubt, have delighted Donald Trump and other present day supporters of changing the U.S. Constitution to eliminate universal birthright citizenship if they at been living in Athens at the time.

But it is not my intention to discuss these issues further here. Instead, i will focus on two incidents from the works of two of the greatest dramatists of all time, Aeschylus and Euripides, to see how they dealt with two hotly contented and sensitive issues of their time and ours, namely asylum and deportation.

In Suppliants (Iketides), by Aeschylus (ca. 525-456 B.C.) a group of women, all of whom are daughters of Danaos, the fugitive ex-king of Egypt, arrive in Greece (near the city of Argos), in order to seek asylum from the threat of forced marriage if they remain in Egypt (which, as the chorus of women in the play also makes clear, borders on Syria - another reminder of today's events ).

Their father counsels them about the attitude and tone they need to adopt for their asylum application to the ruler of that city, Pelasgos (whose attitude toward refugees turns out to be more open-minded than that of another chief executive in a different, modern, country referred to below).

In the words of Danaos, they must:

"...answer the natives [citizens of Argos] in words that display respect, sorrow and need, as it is proper for aliens to do, explaining clearly this flight of yours which is not due to bloodshed. Let your speech, in the first place, not be accompanied by arrogance, and let it emerge from your disciplined faces and calm eyes that you are free of wantonness."

Danaos continues, perhaps anticipating the influence of anti-immigrant attitudes among the leadership of a certain much larger and more powerful nation than the small polites of ancient Greece, more than 2,500 years later:

"And be neither forward nor sluggish in speech: the people here are very ready to take offense."

Most important of all, he concludes his advice as follows:

"Remember to be yielding - you are a needy foreign refugee: bold speech does not suit those in a weak position."

(memneso d'ekein. chreisos ei, xeini, fugas. thrasistomein gar ou prepei tous essonas.)

Is this the same advice that lawyers are giving their clients in order to prepare for prepare for asylum hearings in the United States of America, ca. 2017 A.D.?

Ultimately, Danaos' daughters' asylum petition is successful, leading to a series of dramatic events which I will discuss in the next part of this two-part series.

In that forthcoming comment, I will also discuss a somewhat less successful (for the immigrant) "deportation hearing" in Euripides' Medea, one of the most famous plays in all of classical Greek drama, and one which in many ways anticipates the struggles of immigrants, and especially immigrant women, in America today.

This is despite that fact that, fortunately, almost no immigrants, or women in general, ever respond today to the stress that Medea was under in the extreme way that she does in Euripides' play, as will also be shown further in my forthcoming comment on this drama.
__________________________________
Roger Algase is a New York immigration lawyer and a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. For more than 35 years, Roger has been helping mainly skilled and professional immigrants from diverse parts of the world receive work visas and green cards.

Roger also studied beginning ancient Greek at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. His email address is algaselex@gmail.com

Note: The translations from Suppliants quoted above are by Alan H. Sommerstein, in Aeschylus: Persians Seven Against Thebes Suppliants Prometheus Bound

Loeb Classical Library Copyright (C) 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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Updated 05-05-2017 at 11:56 AM by ImmigrationLawBlogs

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