Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part III: Protection of Suppliants

Previously, we discussed how Athenian wisdom coincides with Athens’ harmonious connection with divine forces. This time, we’re going to examine Athens’ positive reputation for respectful treatment of suppliants, which is seen most clearly in Euripides’ Medea when when Medea supplicates the honorable king of Athens, Aegeus, who then vows through a sacred oath to grant her refuge in his city (709-758).

The Aegeus scene seems to reflect the traditional conception of Athens as a just, compassionate protector of the weak and helpless against the unjust outrages of powerful enemies, which has been detected in Athenian tragedies and funeral orations, as argued by Loraux (especially pages 67-9) and Tzanetou. The Athenians are thought to be defenders of sacred nomoi (laws or customs), such as the right of supplication (see Konstan).

This idea is an aspect of Athenian political ideology: it advances Athens’ moral superiority over other city-states and may have been used during the height of Athenian imperialism to justify a policy of military intervention. Tragedies seemingly fall into the pattern of praising Athens for its compassionate moral stance in protecting suppliants.

We can see this idea in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, in which Orestes flees the vengeful wrath of the Furies, underworld gods determined to destroy him for killing his mother, but it is only in Athens that the Orestes can find refuge, receive a fair democratic trial, and have the cycle of revenge put to an end.

Theseus, who happens to be King Aegeus’ son, is more famously known for slaying the Minotaur, an event depicted on this 6th century (BC) Greek vase.

Meanwhile, in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Theseus, the king of Athens, accepts and protects Oedipus as a suppliant, even though he is covered with divine pollution and is being chased down by enemies. In Euripides’ Suppliants, Theseus is again willing to go to battle to defend the rights of suppliants.

Surely it seems reasonable to include the Medea within this list of plays, for Aegeus appears to epitomize Athenian respect for suppliants. If we were to take this with the image of Athens that we examined earlier, as a place where a virtues come together in divine harmony, we would reach a conclusion similar to Zeitlin’s (see especially pages 144-5), who suggests that Athens in tragedy acts as a refuge against destructive forces. While the mythological settings of tragedy, such as Thebes, act as “other” spaces, where such destruction is commonplace as a consequence of transgressing boundaries, Athens is a sanctuary where reconciliation and progress are possible.

Euripides’ Medea appears to fall into such a paradigm, with Corinth—where the violent, tragic action occurs—as a tragic “other” and Athens as a sanctuary. However, this view—as well as the related idea that tragedy as a whole tends to praise Athenian granting of refuge to suppliants—cannot apply to the Medea, once the specifics of the play, such as what sort of (violent, child-killing) suppliant Athens is going to accept, are considered.

Medea does attain refuge in Athens, but, rather than escaping from destructive forces, she herself is responsible for them and catastrophically brings them into collision with Athens. She is incompatible with what Athens is said to represent, for she systematically counteracts each of the positive elements described earlier, as will be seen in the following blog post of this series.

Konstan, D. 2005. “Pity and Politics” in Pity and Power in Ancient Athens, ed. Sternberg, R., 48-66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loraux, N. 1986. The invention of Athens: the funeral oration in the classical city, translated by A. Sheridan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press.

McDermott, E. 1989. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Tzanetou, A. 2005. “A Generous City: Pity in Athenian Oratory and Tragedy” in Pity and Power in Ancient Athens, ed. Sternberg, R., 98-122. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Zeitlin, F. 1990. “Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama” in Nothing to do with Dionysos?: Athenian drama in its social context, eds. Winkler, J., and Zeitlin, F., 130-167. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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