Asylum Seekers in Ancient Greece: Requirements and Amnesty


By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The process of migration had several after-effects for the refugees, in terms of disease, unhygienic living conditions, and struggles for a safe settlement. That led to the emergence of a variety of refugees seeking refuge in other lands as asylum seekers. How easy was it to get asylum, and what were the conditions people had to fulfill to become asylum seekers?

A map showing the details of Black Sea colonies in ancient Greece.
Due to the famine and demographic growth, expeditions were sent out by Greek city-state to find new settlements throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. (Image: George Tsiagalakis/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Bubbling Problems at the Refugee Camps

With endless lines of refugees flooding into the cities, every available space was filled, and there were fights breaking out, both among the refugees for somewhere to live, and between the refugees and the permanent inhabitants of Athens. After a while, an order was established, but the refugees lacked even the most basic services. Soon there were piles of refuse everywhere, and it didn’t take long for the water supply to become polluted. During the summer of 430, just a few months after the arrival of the refugees, a deadly plague broke out, taking its toll on the evacuees, and increasing the tension between them and the permanent inhabitants of Athens.

Plague Victims

Cremation pyres burned inside the city all the time and the sound of women keening filled the air. Within a few months, one third of the entire population fell victim to the plague and most of the people died. Those who survived were disfigured for life. Historian Thucydides devoted only a brief paragraph to the evacuation and said nothing about the conditions in which the evacuees lived. What interested him the most was the plague itself, both its symptoms and effects on law and order. But the evacuation was a humanitarian catastrophe for Athens of the first order, irrespective of the plague.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Types of Asylum Seekers

People also became refugees by being forcibly ejected from their homeland and becoming asylum-seekers. The word ‘asylum’, derived from the Greek asulia, described the condition of a person who was protected by the gods. The largest percentage of asylum seekers in the Greek world were exiled as a result of civil unrest.

Many Greek cities were subject to stasis, that’s to civil upheavals, due to tension between those who favored power being in the hands of the entire citizen body and those who favored giving power to the oligarchs. Those upheavals frequently led to the expulsion of democrats by oligarchs or of oligarchs by democrats; depending on who got the upper hand. Another group of asylum seekers were those who fled from their homeland to avoid enslavement after their city was captured in the war.

Murderers as Asylum Seekers

Murderers, too, sought asylum abroad. Asylum-seekers featured prominently in several Greek tragedies and Athens prided itself on being the most receptive of all Greek states to asylum seekers. According to the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch, by the early 6th century B.C., “the city was teeming with people constantly migrating to Attica from all over the Mediterranean, seeking refuge”.

Seeking Asylum

Oil painting showing people around the markets in ancient Athens.
After reaching a settlement, asylum seekers had to follow certain procedures. (Image: Edward Dodwell/Public domain)

There was a procedure that asylum seekers had to follow. After arrival on foreign soil, they headed for the nearest sanctuary, where they formally adopted the guise of a suppliant by clutching an olive branch wound around with a white wreath in their left hand; this meant that they were now under the protection of the gods, foremost among whom was Zeus Hikêsios, the general overseer of hikêteia or asylum-seeking.

The asylum seekers attracted the attention of the local inhabitants, who reported them to the demos, the people of Athens. A contingent of soldiers arrived and ordered them to quit the sanctuary while they or their leader was escorted away to make a case before the people of Athens.

Convincing the Assembly of Citizens

Asylum seekers had to convince the Assembly of citizens that it was in their best interest to let them stay because they had something to offer to them in return. For instance, if some of them were of military age, they offered to fight on behalf of their adoptive country. The Assembly then voted and if their appeal was unsuccessful, they were expelled. If successful, the Assembly passed a decree authorizing their permanent residence inside Attica, guaranteeing their protection.

Learn more about the colonization process from the point of view of the Greek refugees.

Wording in the Asylum Decree

Aeschylus’ play, The Suppliants, preserved the words of a typical decree. The asylum seekers were not subject to arrest and were under the protection of the law. No resident or alien had the right to carry them off as slaves. If anyone used force against them or any citizen failed to render them assistance, they would be deprived of his civic status and driven into exile by public decree.

Escaping the Chaos

The condition of those whose city was sacked as a result of war escaped in confusion before the enemy took possession. Otherwise, men were slaughtered and women and children enslaved. That’s why the Trojan prince Aeneas fled from Troy when the Greeks took over his city. He became the most famous refugee in antiquity. His escape from Troy and subsequent wanderings were the subject of Virgil’s Roman epic Aeneid. The Romans, one of the proudest nations on the Earth, saw nothing dishonorable in tracing their descent from a refugee.

Alexander’s All-Greek Amnesty for Refugees

The refugee problem reached crisis proportions in the 4th century B.C. It got so bad that in 324, Alexander the Great took the revolutionary, rather a visionary step of instituting a Panhellenic, all-Greek amnesty for refugees. He permitted them to return to their native cities and repossess the property they had owned prior to their banishment. Though it would have been a bureaucratic nightmare, as some of the people who returned had been refugees for 30 years or more, but Alexander at least made an attempt to redress a serious grievance.

Learn more about the rise of Greek mercenaries, feared to be a threat to civilization.

Contents of Alexander’s Decree

Relief showing Alexander in a battle field with his troops.
In his decree for asylum seekers, Alexander had mentioned that his government would be responsible for their safe return to their homeland. (Image: Brigida Soriano/Shutterstock)

The text of Alexander’s decree was preserved by a historian called Diodorus Siculus. It read, “Alexander the king to refugees from the Greek cities. We were not responsible for your exile but we shall be responsible for your return to your own homelands, with the exception of those who are under a curse.” Those who were under a curse included both criminals and persons whom Alexander himself had driven into exile.

The largest group in the latter category were the 30,000 refugees from the city of Thebes, which Alexander had destroyed following a revolt. There is no record of what happened to those 30,000 Thebans, and Alexander did nothing to address the crisis that he himself had created.

Common Questions about Greek Refugees

Q: What was the asylum law in ancient Greece?

The asylum law in ancient Greece dealt with the refugees forcibly ejected from their homeland. It stated that they needed to be protected and given shelter in another country as asylum seekers. In ancient Greece, the word ‘asylum’, derived from the Greek asulia, described the condition of a person who was protected by the gods.

Q: What was the asylum process?

As per the asylum process in ancient Greece, asylum seekers needed to convince the Assembly of citizens that it was in their best interests to let them stay because they would have something to offer them in return. The Assembly then voted. If the appeal was unsuccessful, the asylum seekers were expelled, but if it was successful, the Assembly passed a decree authorizing their permanent residence, guaranteeing their protection.

Q: What is the purpose of an asylum?

The purpose of asylum is to protect a citizen of another country who has been forcibly ousted from his homeland. In many cases, the asylum seeker is given amnesty of various types.

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