Ancient and modern

How the ancients handled refugees

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

Hardly a day goes by without headlines about immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. In the ancient world, movements of people were also very common (state boundaries did not exist), often because war, famine or exile left them with no option. So how did refugees try to win acceptance?

In Homer’s world of heroes (c. 700 bc), a man indicated he was harmless by kneeling before his (proposed) helper, perhaps touching the knee, and appealing for aid in the name of Zeus, god of suppliants. He expected a welcome into the household as a guest, and becoming part of that household, or being helped on his way.

When Athens was a democratic city state (c. 460 bc), Aeschylus wrote a tragedy in which the mythical daughters of Danaus fled Egypt for Argos in Greece in order to escape forced marriage.

Danaus went with them and advised them to supplicate the Argives from the protection of an altar, and meekly and diffidently to claim sanctuary as helpless fugitives, explaining that the Danaid family was historically Argive in origin. The Argive king heard their pleas and submitted their case to the people’s assembly, which welcomed them in.

In 373 bc a deputation from the people of Plataea came as suppliants to the Athenian assembly: their city had been destroyed (for the second time) by Thebes and they wanted Athens to restore it for them.

Their appeal emphasised their support for Athens in the battle of Marathon against the Persians (490 bc); the importance of not dishonouring the gods and heroes who gave Athens the victory there; the welcome Athens had given Plataean citizens after Thebes first destroyed Plataea; the need to uphold treaty obligations; and the reputation Athens had for protecting victims of injustice.

So in the absence of human rights, there were personal, historical, reputational and religious arguments (the threat of Zeus’s anger) that ancient refugees could make to persuade communities to take them in. In our world, it is human rights legislation which necessarily, perhaps uncomfortably, tends simply to impose the solution.

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