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Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women

The Tragedy of Immigration

Geoffrey W. Bakewell

Publication Year: 2013

This book offers a provocative interpretation of a relatively neglected tragedy, Aeschylus's Suppliant Women. Although the play's subject is a venerable myth, it frames the flight of the daughters of Danaus from Egypt to Greece in starkly contemporary terms, emphasizing the encounter between newcomers and natives. Some scholars read Suppliant Women as modeling successful social integration, but Geoffrey W. Bakewell argues that the play demonstrates, above all, the difficulties and dangers noncitizens brought to the polis.
            Bakewell's approach is rigorously historical, situating Suppliant Women in the context of the unprecedented immigration that Athens experienced in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The flow of foreigners to Attika increased under the Pisistratids but became a flood following liberation, Cleisthenes, and the Persian Wars. As Athenians of the classical era became increasingly aware of their own collective identity, they sought to define themselves and exclude others. They created a formal legal status to designate the free noncitizens living among them, calling them metics and calling their status metoikia. When Aeschylus dramatized the mythical flight of the Danaids from Egypt in his play Suppliant Women, he did so in light of his own time and place. Throughout the play, directly and indirectly, he casts the newcomers as metics and their stay in Greece as metoikia.
            Bakewell maps the manifold anxieties that metics created in classical Athens, showing that although citizens benefited from the many immigrants in their midst, they also feared the effects of immigration in political, sexual, and economic realms. Bakewell finds metoikia was a deeply flawed solution to the problem of large-scale immigration. Aeschylus's Argives accepted the Danaids as metics only under duress and as a temporary response to a crisis. Like the historical Athenians, they opted for metoikia because they lacked better alternatives.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-2

Questions of where, to what, and to whom we belong are central to our lives. Yet they are not new. The inhabitants of classical Athens found them equally compelling, and explored them in numerous ways. Two of their most important vehicles for such reflection were the tragic stage and the democratic assembly. This book works the seam between these...

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pp. 3-16

Aeschylus’s tragedy Suppliant Women is above all a drama about the limits to and perils of civic incorporation. It must be understood in light of an important phenomenon in the years surrounding its production: large- scale immigration to Athens in the fifth century BCE. Under the Peisistratids in the sixth century, the city experienced...

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1. Charter Myth for Metoikia

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pp. 17-33

Suppliant Women depicts the arrival of barbarian newcomers in Greece. Although the play is set in Argos, critics have long noted that its themes, characters, and language point toward democratic Athens.1 In the aftermath of the Persian Wars, this city struggled to cope with an influx of thousands of new residents hailing from elsewhere in...

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2. Spoken Like a Metic

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pp. 34-58

The Argive decision to accept the Danaids is one of the focal points of Suppliant Women. The welcome the newcomers receive is only partial, however: they are offered metoikia rather than citizenship. The play gives no explicit rationale for the motion adopted by the Argive assemblymen. Their meeting occurs off- stage, and the audience...

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3. The Cypriote Stamp

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pp. 59-86

The preceding chapter addressed the political difficulties involved in the incorporation of metics. But as Grethlein notes, in Suppliant Women “the problem of the integration of strangers is made yet more difficult by the position of women whose place in the polis is not fixed by marriage.”1 The Danaids’ rootlessness is not an incidental matter...

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4. Sons of Earth

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pp. 87-121

Suppliant Women appropriates the complex web of relationships obtaining among natives, newcomers, and the land in historical Athens. Pelasgus’s claim to be sprung from Palaichthon (“Ancient Earth”) should be read in light of a fifth- century ideological staple, the notion of citizen autochthony.1 For Athenians, Attica was more than...

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pp. 122-126

Suppliant Women offers a poetic portrait of a specific time and place. But its treatment of the Danaids’ flight from Egypt and the sanctuary they find in Greece is noteworthy not for what it reveals about Bronze Age Argos, but for the light it shines on classical Athens. In staging the myth, Aeschylus drew upon his own community’s experiences with immigration. The play’s stagecraft emphasizes the newcomers’...


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pp. 127-178


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pp. 179-192


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pp. 193-209

Further Reading

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pp. 222-227

E-ISBN-13: 9780299291730
E-ISBN-10: 0299291731
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299291747
Print-ISBN-10: 029929174X

Page Count: 226
Illustrations: 226
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 867740384
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Metics.
  • Athens (Greece) -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Aeschylus. Suppliants -- Criticism and interpretation.
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