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The classical eye

If only we could ask Euripides about refugees

In Athenian spirit. Carsten Rehder/EPA

Berlin recently agreed to curb the number of migrants it welcomed after a backlash against Angela Merkel’s suspension of EU rules limiting numbers. It followed previous scenes of crowds welcoming new arrivals, which commentators had suggested was a response to neo-Nazi violence and a move by the nation to repudiate its past.

Similarly, when David Cameron was attacked for the language he used of migrants earlier in the summer, critics contrasted it with Britain’s record for welcoming refugees in the 20th century. The Hungarian prime minister’s controversial comments on “keeping Europe Christian” looks back to a less comfortable part of European identity: the legacy of the crusades, and the idea of an alliance against “infidels”.

The debate is emotional as well as economic. And while recent horrors have led to this emergency, the broader question of how much wealthy countries owe to others in need is hardly a modern issue. In ancient Athens we see the same debate, and similarly emotive appeals in the name of national identity were used to win it.

Temporary fence at the border between Hungary and Croatia. Gyorgy Varga/EPA

Athenian welcome

Athens prided itself on welcoming the needy from other parts of the Greek world. Athenian myth dwells on how their ancestors offered sanctuary to those bullied by other cities, and these were repeated in the political arena. According to the historian Herodotus, Athenians drew on myths of how they protected vulnerable foreigners in order to win a dispute among the Greeks over who should take place of honour on the battlefield. Nearly 50 years later, according to Thucydides’s Histories, the politician Pericles praises Athens’s willingness to help others in his funeral oration, the formal speech of Athenian values given in honour of the war dead.

This belief in Athens’s duty to help others had real consequences. In Thucydides’s account of the debate over whether to go to war in Sicily (a decision which ultimately led to Athens’s downfall), the politician Alcibiades supported war, arguing that Athens’s greatness was won by coming to the help of all who needed it. His opponent Nicias on the other hand urged the Athenians to change their policy and only make alliances with people likely to provide aid in return.

But the most profound exploration of what is involved in taking in refugees is found in Greek tragedy. Nowadays we are most familiar with classical plays that deal with tensions within the family. But Greek tragedy also handles political questions, and how to deal with migrants is a recurrent theme. While Athens was proud of its mythical record of taking in refugees, in tragedy these stories are used to investigate how much our core values should mean to us.

The refugee plays

Euripides wrote the perfect play for today.

Euripides’s Children of Heracles is rarely performed today, but is the perfect play to reflect on the migrant crisis. It tells of how Athens protected the children of Heracles, who were persecuted by the Argives and driven from their homes in the Peloponnese. The Athenian king Demophon (whose name, “voice of the people”, shows that he represents the national character) gives the children asylum and protects them from the army, though he risks Athenian lives by doing so.

The play does not question that it is morally right to protect these children. But it explores the cost of doing so, and how far a country should go to do the right thing. The limits of Athenian kindness are tested when we learn of a prophecy that another child must be sacrificed to defeat the Argives. Demophon faces civil war if he puts his citizens’ families in danger to protect outsiders. Through this myth, Euripides explores the burden that refugees place on the native population, and how far people can be expected to put their own interests aside for the sake of shared humanity. Politicians in Europe are now struggling with the same dilemma of how much they can ask of their citizens in order to live up to their moral ideals.

The costs and benefits of taking in refugees feature in other plays, where fallen heroes from across Greece make their way to Athens for protection. These people are not innocent children, but have done terrible things. Taking them in is therefore risky, though may offer long term rewards. In Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, the Athenians offer sanctuary to the blind Oedipus, who has murdered his father and married his mother, despite their fear that hosting him will bring divine anger. At the end of the play we learn that his spirit will protect Athens in the future.

Medea about to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix, 1862.

On the other hand, in Euripides’s Medea, Medea persuades the Athenian king to take her in, presenting herself as a refugee persecuted by the Corinthians. It is his vow to protect her that enables her to kill her own children, confident that Athens will have to offer her refuge when she flees the scene. Medea explores how a nation’s kindness can be abused, and the difficulties of assessing which claims to asylum are genuine.

But as a whole the plays tend to celebrate Athens’s readiness to welcome those in need. While helping provokes conflict, it is the risk involved that gives Athens a claim to moral uniqueness.

British audiences are enjoying an unprecedented flush of Greek tragedy, with the Almeida theatre devoting an entire season to its “big hits”. However, plays that focus on Athenian identity are rarely performed today, and are often felt to be jingoistic or parochial, their themes of little interest in the modern world. But as real life tragedy plays out on the shores of the Mediterranean, these lesser known texts have relevance to our understanding of what we owe to our fellow citizens and to other human beings.

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