The earliest known depiction of democracy appears in an ancient Greek play that I can’t stop thinking about, called The Suppliant Maidens, by Aeschylus. It’s about the 50 daughters of a man named Danaus, who flee their home to escape forced marriage to their cousins. The refugee women arrive in Argos and ask for protection and permission to settle there, and the rest of the play is about whether or not they should be allowed to stay. Pelasgus, the King of the Argives, is in a bind — which is how voting comes into it. If he helps these foreigners, there will be a war and Argive men may die — and for mere women! On the other hand if Pelasgus turns the Danaids away, he will incur the wrath of Zeus, who loves and protects refugees. Rather than make the call himself, Pelasgus turns the matter over to the people, the demos. They vote to let the women stay.
The Suppliant Maidens is one of two Greek tragedies I’ve had on my mind fairly consistently for over a year now . The form is full of wanderers and refugees, people buffeted by fortune and reduced to the most abject circumstances. Aeschylus’s Suppliant Maidens is neither the last word on humanitarian relief nor the only tragedy we have that explores its duties and costs. But in a pared-down way, it offers a blueprint for the process by which a nation decides whether or not to grant someone asylum. So all year long, whenever the Trump administration has tried to circumvent the laws that govern asylum seekers — altering rules, redefining terms, issuing executive orders — in an effort to make things legal that are at present illegal and to make unlawful things that are currently lawful — I’ve thought about the meaning of the word “asylum.”
It derives from an adjective (asulon) that means “untouchable,” “unassailable,” “not allowed to be seized.” In ancient Greek culture, a place of asylum was a special area — a temple or altar or sacred grove — that had been set up and dedicated to a particular god or goddess. Whoever stood in that space or touched that altar was thought to be protected by that god or goddess and deemed inviolable — no matter who they were or where they were from, no matter what they were supposed to have done. The law of asylum superseded other laws, ideally. To violate it was sacrilege, an act of aggression not just against the person who was owed protection but against the divinity.
This point is illustrated nicely in The Suppliant Maidens about halfway through the play. Pelasgus is about to go offstage and tells the women to head over to a pleasant grove and take a breather. But the women know better. They ask, “Why in the world would we blunder into an area where anyone could walk!” In other words, it isn’t a sanctuary, it’s just a grove with no protection. The way asylum works in modern terms is that you have to cross the border to formally request it. You have to be on American soil. You cross the border and turn yourself in, identifying yourself as someone seeking asylum. The border is what’s supposed to make you safe. The symbolism is important. Very few physical acts in modern life retain that sort of ancient mystery, but asylum does.
Just over a year ago, Rachel Maddow ended one of her nightly broadcasts more abruptly than she’d intended because she couldn’t read aloud from a news item that had been handed to her. It was a story from the AP wire about the existence of something called “tender-age” shelters. That wasn’t the first we knew of families being broken up. (An hour or so before, then-secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen had been driven from an expensive Mexican restaurant by a small group of protesters calling out “Abolish ICE!” and “End family separation!” among other things.) But that was first we’d heard of babies and preverbal children being taken away from their parents, and we learned about it simultaneously with Maddow.
It’s rare for a broadcast journalist to experience the news as news — simultaneously with viewers. Newscasters are a little like the messengers in old plays in that regard: their job is usually to deliver information that they already know themselves. The messenger in Greek tragedy brings onstage word of something that’s happened a long way away. He’s had time to frame the news. Maddow, that night, was finding out about the extent of what the U.S. was doing, what Americans had become, at the same time that we were.
It reminded me of the scene in another Greek play, The Trojan Women, where the herald Talthybius has to come in and tell Hecuba and Andromache that Hector’s son, the child Astyanax, is to be thrown from the walls of Troy. It was the same dynamic. Also the same maneuver. In the play, the Greeks put the child to death to make a political point: to show that they can. It’s a wholly unnecessary gesture. Just as Trump has been doing for over a year now, using children as pawns — to show that he can. Of course, a wall figures prominently in our story too.
I thought of The Trojan Women again, recently, when Mark Morgan, the new head of ICE, was quoted as having said that he could tell by looking into the eyes of an immigrant child if he is “a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member.” That’s the excuse the Greeks give for throwing Hector’s son from the walls of Troy: they fear what he will grow up to be.
In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about these plays more and more frequently, but for different reasons. The Suppliant Maidens and The Trojan Women date, respectively, from the dawn and the twilight of the period that we associate with Athenian exceptionalism. When The Suppliant Maidens was first performed, in 470 BC, the form of tragedy and democracy were both comparatively young. By 415 BC, when The Trojan Women was performed, Athens was losing a war with Sparta that had been going on for as long as anyone could remember, and democracy was on its last legs. Earlier that year, the Athenians had slaughtered and enslaved the surviving population of the tiny island of Melos, one of a number of occasions during the Peloponnesian War when they comported themselves in a manner that was less than exceptional — just as we are doing at the southern border now. (The subjugation of Melos is thought to have been one of the incidents that inspired Euripides’s play.) In a little over a decade, Athens’ defeat would lead to a succession of tyrannies and oligarchies.
Earlier this month, with the publication of E. Jean Carroll’s account of being sexually assaulted by the president of the United States in a department store fitting room many years ago, I started thinking of Greek tragedy again, this time in connection with the word “hubris.” That’s the concept that most people remember from Greek tragedy, the quality defined by Aristotle in his Poetics that denotes a kind of cosmic arrogance, that distorts people’s view of reality — and of themselves — and leads to outsized transgressive actions.
But hubris had another meaning: violence; literally assault. In legal terms, hubris was a very specific kind of assault: one whose motive was the gratification that can be derived from demeaning someone else. Aristotle defines this kind of hubris in his Rhetorica, where he notes that the young and the rich typically commit this kind of assault because it makes them feel superior. The crime of rape was an example of this sort of hubris.
Donald Trump has been committing the same assault on America and on American culture and society — on our values and customs and laws and our sense of ourself — that E. Jean Carroll has credibly described him committing and that almost 20 other women have also described. Every single thing he does or says, every threat, every puerile insult lobbed at a perceived rival or opponent, is a function of the same thing. He doesn’t like the idea of anything he can’t do, of any line he cannot cross or abstract value that takes precedence over his immediate needs and desires. He doesn’t like to be told “no.”
I understand all that. I understand how it’s all of a piece and part of the same metaphor that, day by day, hour by hour, seems less and less metaphorical and more and more concrete and real. What I don’t understand is why, of all the people who have something at stake in this tragic scenario, this man — who has committed outrage after outrage and quite literally used the office of the presidency as a sort of sanctuary within which to commit barbarities — should be deemed untouchable and unassailable. Why should he alone be granted asylum?