To be forced to leave the city-state (the home) and be exposed without the protection of government (laws), friends and family, was seen in ancient Greece as a fate worse than death. In the following essay, Greek theatre scholar Savas Patsaladis explores the notion of enforced exile in Aeschylus’ play The Suppliants, the oldest extant text in dramatic history connecting it to American playwright Charles Mee’s 2000 take on Greek drama, Big Love.
Wikipedia gives us this definition of exile: to be away from one’s home (i.e. city, state or country), while either being explicitly refused permission to return and/or being threatened with imprisonment or death upon return. Although most commonly used to describe an individual situation, the term is also used for groups (especially ethnic or national groups), or for an entire government. Terms such as diaspora and refugee describe group exile, both voluntary and forced, and government in exile describes a government of a country that has been forced to relocate and argue its legitimacy from outside that country. Exile can also be a self-imposed departure from one’s homeland. Self-exile is often depicted as a form of protest by the person that claims it to avoid persecution or legal matters (such as tax or criminal allegations), an act of shame or repentance, or isolating oneself to be able to devote time to a particular objective.
Human history is full of exiles and so is theatre. Hamlet and Lear in Shakespeare, Karl Moor in Schiller’sRobbers, Grusha in Brecht’s the Caucasian Chalk Circle, the Armenian immigrant family in Kalinoski’sBeast on the Moon, the old lady in Durrenmatt’s Visit, not to mention the numerous examples we get from the classics (Medea, Oedipus, Iphighenia, among others). To understand the popularity of this idea in ancient Greek drama, one has to understand the importance of belonging, of having a place to call your own. As Boedeker & Raaflaub tell us, some of the mythical material used, “focusing on Athenians’ selfless dedication to helping the oppressed and saving their fellow Hellenes from barbarian onslaught or tyrannical injustice … formed an essential component of Athens; self-presentation and imperial ideology. Further, these same themes … also served as serious arguments in foreign policy debates and diplomatic exchanges” (2005: 114).
Myth was a recognizable medium that helped Athenians shape their identity and strengthen their sense of space. To be forced to leave the city-state (the home) and be exposed without the protection of government (laws), friends and family, was seen as a fate worse than death; an idea beautifully dramatized by Aeschylus in The Suppliants, the oldest extant text in drama history (possibly 463 B.C), the first part of an incomplete trilogy (the other two parts beingAegyptii and Danaides), and the first play ever written that deals with the issue of international justice, an issue inspired by the great social changes taking place in Athens, where political powers shifted from the traditional Areopagus Council to the Council of 500, the assembly and the law courts, “that is, to bodies that represented the demos as a whole. Subsequent reforms further facilitated popular participation in politics, and simultaneously made citizenship more exclusive” (Boedeker & Raaflaub 2005: 115).
The play tells us the story of the fifty virginal Danaids who, to avoid marrying against their wishes, flee Egypt and seek refuge in Argos, the homeland of their ancestress Io, where they ask for king Pelasgus’ protection. Confronted by the unexpected geographical (re)location of the daughters of Danaus ―who will later on succeed him as king of Argos― the king hesitates, for he knows that if Argos gives them sanctuary, the sons of Aegyptus and all their followers will attack the city and then his fellow citizens will tell him that he “destroyed Argos for the sake of foreigners” (l. 402). Thus, a seemingly simple refugee case, turns out to be a very complicated ethical, political and military matter. Aeschylus is obviously concerned about the exercise of power: Where does it reside? In law, in the people, in mutual accord, in sweet persuasion [petho], in domination, brutal violence, in marriage (Vernant 1981: 15)? To what extent are the people’s comments true when they tell their King (their anax) that he is “the State,” the “unquestioned ruler” that fears “no vote” (l. 72-4)? What is the role of reason in decision-taking and in ruling?
Issues of nationality, religion, body politics, love and sexuality, society and individual decision are all inextricably interwoven. For example, the women’s decision to run away may be an affair of the family, but, as it turns out, the state also becomes involved. By offering them sanctuary, Pelasgus brings them inside the polis, just as marriage brings them inside their husband’s house. As the husbands take on the role of guardians, the King and his citizens are expected to guarantee the Danaids’ protection (Zeitlin 1996: 136-42), which is more easily said than done. The Danaids, on their part, know very well their rights and the strength of their position. They claim four things to convince the king to grant them political asylum. a) The aspiring grooms are crude and voluptuous (they characterize their behavior as “hubris,” l. 30, 89, 104), b) they do not want to get married against their will (they wish to maintain their freedom, l. 227-8), c) being descendants of the Argive Io, gives them the right to ask for protection and d) being under the protection of Zeus Hikesios, they are entitled to an asylum.
The Danaids are so obsessed by their struggle that they appear to have “no clear idea of political responsibility,” as Burian soundly observes (2007: 206). What makes things more complicated is that their views about political power are radically different from those they encounter in Argos. They think that Pelasgus’ power is lacking only compared to Zeus. Line 425 makes it very clear: “O you who hold all the power in this land”. With this in mind, it is only natural that they expect him to behave autocratically, like any eastern monarch. “You are the state, you are the people” (l. 170), they tell him, also reminding him that he can rule “by the sole vote of his will” (l. 327). His hesitation is beyond their comprehension. “…I am at a loss, and fear seizes my heart” (l. 329), the King confesses, thus revealing a mentality totally different to that of the suppliants. As a statesman he has to examine all possibilities and then try and reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable claims. The first is the demand of the suppliants and the other the safety of the citizens. The wrong decision could turn people against him, accusing him of destroying the city to honor some foreigners. “What can I do?,” he wonders, “I fear either to act, or not to act” (l. 379). He understands the gravity of the situation. He does not know whether to honor the right of sanctuary even at the cost of war, or to reject his suppliants and see the altars of his gods polluted with their blood. In other words, the dramatic weight here does not fall on the achievement of protection, as Burian rightly argues, but rather on the way in which the tragic choice is made (2007: 206). To this end the King has to clarify a number of pressing political and diplomatic issues (Bakonicola 1994,2004).
- Are these women really relatives of the people of Argos? And if yes, can they prove it? For if they prove it the rejection of their plea becomes all the more difficult. The Argives wouldn’t refuse to protect their kins who are on the run. That would be twice as immoral (refusing asylum to a suppliant who also happens to be a relative).
- Is the aversion they feel for this marriage in accordance with human nature? That is, do they object to the sons of Aegyptus in particular or do they reject sexuality and marriage altogether (an unnatural objection to men and marriage)?
- Is their flight from Egypt connected to any unlawful act? Did they do something wrong from which they are running away? For if yes, granting asylum would be a wrong decision.
- According to Egyptian laws, do the Aegyptiates, as their closest kins, have these women under their legal custody? In such a case, no city can provide them shelter.
- If granting an asylum is against inter-state relations (Egypt/Greece), shouldn’t the king take into consideration the unwelcome consequences of such a decision? Who can say that the Egyptians will not take their revenge? In brief, does the protection of these women carry too much price for the Argives (war with immense casualties)?
The pressure they put on him turns an otherwise “proud autocrat to a constitutional monarch” (Burian 2007: 204). From “assertions of almost unlimited power there is a progression “to a recognition of the limitations on its exercise,” Burian states (2007: 203). As a king he may have the power, yet he is unwilling to exercise it without popular consent. It is the first time ever that there is any reference to a “popular government,” to people as the rulers of the polis. The principle behind it is that those affected by the decision should also decide on what is to be done: “If the city as a whole is defiled, let the people work out a cure together” (l. 365-66). And the community gets involved and unanimously decides in favour of the suppliants (l. 605-24). The asylum establishes holy bonds between the benefactor and the suppliant. It binds both sides for generations to come.
It is apparent that nothing in the way Aeschylus treated the myth is morally or ethically one-sided, even within the limits of a play. His concern touches upon issues of cultural, religious and ethical values, of gender roles, sexual instincts, natural laws. He talks about principles of justice, practices, rights and obligations of the suppliants, respect of human life. The issue of cultural kinship is developed in the play according to codes shared by all sides (Bakonicola 1994: 36) and not only just by those who are in power. Anyone affected by his decision has a say in the procedure (l. 336-67, 483-85).
This issue raised with such finesse by Aeschylus’ text, is one of the most serious statements about a common feeling of justice and also about humanism in the field of political ethos in ancient times. Pelasgus’ hesitation is not a sign of weakness but “rather of swift and lucid comprehension of the need to decide between dreadful evils” (Burian 2007: 205). His dilemma is the dilemma of a statesman. As Boedeker and Raaflaub observe, “in a time of rapid and fundamental social and economic change, when distinctions between citizens and non-citizens became blurred in many spheres, it seemed all the more important to emphasize the citizens’ share in political power, government, and responsibility” (2005: 116).
The poet in this way made the spectators conscious of their civic responsibility. He updated the myth in order to bring it closer to the people, to make it their own. An idea that still attracts many contemporary writers, who appropriate the myth in order to discuss one of the major issues of our times: immigration and uprootedness. Charles Mee is one of them. He wrote Big Love (2000) in order to dramatize the correlations between the Aeschylean plot and current social and poltical issues (Hopkins & Orr 2005: 16-7), that is to comment on what is happening today, 2500 years later, regarding the plight of international refugees, the problem of political asylum, the problem of violence, gender relations, selfhood and otherness and, of course, love. To do so, he explores and exploits the work’s textuality, constructedness, and arbitrariness. Mee brings to us male and female selfhoods with their cultural, ethnic and gendered characteristics that predetermine their subject positions within discourse. Culture always turns out to be much bigger than them.
Big Love is a play written by a playwright who believes that, although we are made up of heterogeneous codes, we can still strive for an autonomy of a classically liberal kind that would help downplay the seemingly irreconcilable differences of identity between individuals (and nations) and help build a sense of (universal) community without exiles and locals.
Aeschylus. The Suppliants. Trans. Philip Vellacott. London: Penguin Books,1961.
Bakonicola, Chara. Stigmes tes Ellinikis Tragodias. Vol. I. Athens: Kardamitsas, 1994.
Bakonicola, Chara. Stigmes tes Ellinikis Tragodias. Vol. II. Athens: Kardamitsas, 2004.
Boedeker, Deborah and Kurt Raaflaub. “Tragedy and the City.” A Companion to Tragedy. Eds. Rebecca Bushnell. London: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 109-127.
Burian, Peter. “Pelasgus and Politics in Aeschylus’ Danaid Trilogy.” Aeschylus. Ed. Michael Lloyd. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005: 199-210.
Hopkins, D. J. & Shelley Orr. “It’s a Nightmare Really: The Radical Appropriations of Charles L. Mee.” Theatreforum 18 (2001): 12-9.
Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy. New York: Doubleday, 1954.
Mee, Charles. Big Love. In: Humana Festival. Eds. Michael Bigelow Dixon and Amy Wagener. New Hampshire: A Smith and Kraus Book, 2000. 219-90.
Vernant, J. P. and & P. Vidal-Naquet. Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece. Trans. J. Lloyd. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. 1981.
Zeitlin, Froma. Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
 Savas Patsalidis is a Professor at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece and Editor of the journalGramma.
 Patris , patriotis , gis , gaea, polis, and asty, are just some of the words that directly or indirectly refer to the idea of home soil, homeland, motherland etc. and its importance in these classical works.
 Given the fact that local people generally hesitated to welcome foreigners, the suppliants had to follow certain steps dictated by a ritualistic typology. For example, the first place they approached when entering a foreign city-state was the altar. They would sit on it or just stand by it or they would simply enter the temple for there they felt more secure, since they were placing themselves and their plea under the protection of the god (usually Zeus: Xenios, Savior etc) (Bakonicola 2004: 96-97). They were also carrying small tree branches as well as ribbons, to decorate the altar or sometimes crown the head of the local ruler whom they approached with great respect and humility. The custom was to touch his beard or, kneeling in front of him, gently touch his right hand and knee. Further, and according to inter-state custom, they had to have the sponsorship of a protector (proxenos), that is someone coming from the same city as they did but now living in the host city. If such a person was not available they had to have a messenger whose job would be to set forth their case to the ruler.
In the world of tragedy, every human appeal accompanied by invocations to the gods was seriously examined and never rejected in advance. Yet, seeking for shelter was not only a religious matter but also a moral one. The political refugee/exile had on his side Zeus Hikesios (“Lord of Suppliants”), a god interested in the people who were exiled or on the run. He was also protected by the institution of filoxenia (hospitality), which presupposed mutual respect between the host and the visitor. It operated as a kind of moral bond. However, the whole procedure was a very serious and complicated test that frequently involved issues of public international law, individual rights etc. The dilemma rulers faced was to rightly choose between their religious duty and their duty towards the city and its citizens. That is, they protected the foreigners but at the same time they had to protect the host city, which means that providing an asylum was not an unconditional act.
 We are not to suppose, of course, Kitto argues, “that any and every decision has to be ratified by the Argive assembly [….] This decision is so serious and so unusual that the people, traditionally quick to blame (l. 485), would have every reason to disobey. Pelasgus is the Homeric King who knows how far he should go. The reference to the people is a means of emphasizing the seriousness of the dilemma” (10-1).