BMCR 2014.06.03

Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women: The Tragedy of Immigration. Wisconsin Studies in Classics

, Aeschylus's Suppliant Women: The Tragedy of Immigration. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. x, 209. ISBN 9780299291747. $29.95 (pb).


This monograph is motivated by a single phrase that occurs near the middle of Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women. Danaus, after pleading his and his daughters’ case before the Argive assembly off-stage, returns to the Danaids and reports that Argos will welcome them “to be metics of the land” (μετοικεῖν τῆσδε γῆς, 609). Geoffrey Bakewell constructs around the specific wording of this declaration a series of studies that pair close readings of passages from the drama with overviews of historical developments in sixth- and fifth-century Attica in order to consider how Suppliant Women reflects contemporary anxieties about the presence of metics in Athens. Bakewell’s sustained focus on this one aspect of Suppliant Women makes it an important witness to the history of metoikia.

The book’s introduction, four chapters and conclusion can be divided into two major parts. The first, comprising the introduction and chapter 1, lays out the literary and historical background that supports Bakewell’s claim that Suppliant Women is fundamentally a tragedy about metic immigration. These prerequisites include a précis of immigration to Athens, especially in the period from Cleisthenes’ reforms through the few decades after the Persian Wars; the formal establishment of metoikia at Athens in the mid-fifth century as well as modern theories about its causes and effects, particularly regarding the status of metics in Attic lands; and a summary of the tragedy and its conventional dating. A major goal of chapter 1 is to establish that the Danaids are characterized in the drama as foreigners coming to Argos, which is a necessary condition for them to become metics. Here, Bakewell treats the contributions of dramaturgy to the Danaids’ characterization with illuminating sensitivity. For instance, he considers how the Danaids’ constant presence on stage anchors them in a liminal zone, which all other characters enter and depart, and he attends to the meaning embedded in the Danaids’ use of their hands.

All of this culminates, at the end of chapter 1, in Bakewell’s exposition of lines 609-14, where Danaus reveals the Argive people’s decision to accept the Danaids as metics. Relying on his preceding observations about the history of metoikia and the portrayal of the Danaids as non-Argive foreigners, Bakewell promotes a literal interpretation of this grant and endows it with a technical meaning: the Danaids will be Argive metics and experience all of the conditions of that status. At this point, he temporarily reverses the trajectory of this chapter – from history providing a backdrop to tragic interpretation to tragedy presenting evidence of history – with his claim that these lines are “the most extensive legal description of metoikia surviving from the mid-fifth century” (31). He even classifies the acceptance of the Danaids as metics as an aetiology for the historical establishment of Athenian metoikia, a provocative proposal that would benefit from more attention to this aetiology’s place among others in Attic tragedy, including Froma Zeitlin’s theory that the Danaid triology offers an aetiology for the Thesmophoria.1

The remaining three chapters take the form of individual essays that consider how Aeschylus’ choice to make the Danaids fictional metics may intersect with concerns about historical metics in Attica. Throughout these chapters, Bakewell stresses how Suppliant Women foregrounds the negative effects brought about by incorporating these newcomers. Chapter 2 delves into political concerns and argues that the tragedy, in its portrayal of Danaus, the Danaids and Pelasgus, presents models of three different varieties of political speech, one predicated on bia, another on dolos, and a third on peitho. The foreigners exhibit negative behavior, as the Danaids threaten violence and Danaus engages in deceit, possibly with the intent to secure rule of Argos. Bakewell’s close textual analysis in this chapter offers rich rewards for the critic of this tragedy. As one example, he demonstrates how the semantic range of the phrase πρύτανις ἄκριτος (371), with which the Danaids describe Pelasgus, subverts Athenian political terminology and reflects the foreigners’ “fundamental antipathy to democracy” (36-7). Pelasgus, by contrast, emerges as a paragon of democracy because he defers to the Argive assembly instead of unilaterally deciding the fate of the Danaids.

To connect all of this with metics in Athens, Bakewell considers Pericles’ citizenship law of 451/0, which, he argues, defined citizenship as participation in the courts and assemblies, where rhetoric and oratory were of utmost importance. Thus, the phrasing of the citizenship law as reported in the sources, above all at AthPol 26.4, suggests that the Athenians were interested in preventing metics from participating in arenas that were integral to the proper functioning of democracy due, at least in part, to these foreigners’ propensity to undermine Athenian ideals with their violent, deceitful and self-serving speech as demonstrated in Suppliant Women.

Chapter 3 addresses the perils posed by the Danaids to the well-being of the family unit in Argos. Bakewell argues that the Danaids threaten to undermine the proper maintenance of Argive oikoi by enticing Argive men to marry them instead of citizens. He tracks the Danaids’ attitude to marriage throughout the tragedy in order to show that they intend to act autonomously when it comes to their marriage choices, in contradiction to the norms expected of citizen women. Bakewell also considers the relationship of this tragedy to its trilogy, which likely maintained the Danaids’ marriage as a theme throughout its three parts. The almost exclusive focus on the literary dimensions of marriage in Suppliant Women and the Danaid trilogy means that this chapter is primarily a philologically-grounded, thematic exposition of play and trilogy, rather than an account that treats history and literature equally.

Bakewell’s final chapter identifies a few historical and literary parallels that seem to reveal unease about the economic status of metics. He detects in Pelasgus elements of Athenians’ preoccupation with their autochthony. First, Pelasgus is “the son of earth-born Palaichthon” (γηγενοῦς Παλαίχθονος…ἶνις, 250-1), or, as Bakewell glosses Palaichthon, “Ancient Earth itself” (90), and second, he fulfills a role similar to Apis, who rid Argos of an infestation of snakes. According to Bakewell, this typically Athenian interest in protecting Attic lands for Athens’ citizens, an attitude represented by Pelasgus in the tragedy, resulted in the historical prohibition of metics from owning property, a decision that finds a literary analogue in the detailed explanation of where the Danaids will live in Argos. As metics, they cannot own houses and Pelasgus offers them the option of either state-owned housing or lodgings on his own property. The end of this chapter draws out how the final movement of Suppliant Women, when the Danaids depart for their new dwellings in Argos while accompanied by a group of Argive men, embodies at least two of the Danaids’ threats to Argos that Bakewell has detected: their sexual allure will entice these Argive men to their new abodes. Bakewell highlights this foreboding tone at the tragedy’s conclusion before he moves to his own “Conclusion,” where he offers some reflections on the similarities between Suppliant Women and Eumenides.

Bakewell’s guidance through the interplay between Aeschylus’ tragedy and Athens’ history makes a persuasive case for using immigration, specifically metoikia, as a critical lens through which to examine this tragedy. He thus adds another perspective from which to view Suppliant Women, a play which has already generated numerous candidates for its unifying theme. At the same time, the choice to filter Suppliant Women through metoikia causes occasional problems, in two main areas. First, Bakewell’s precision in focusing on metoikia can lead to restrictions as well as benefits. For instance, in chapter 1, he tends to dampen the non-foreign, especially Argive elements in the Danaids’ characterization. The Danaids invoke Argive Io as their matriarch (15ff.) and Pelasgus refers to them as ἀστόξενοι (356), a term which Bakewell translates as “citizen-strangers” (29).2 Bakewell remarks elsewhere that metoikia was “a complex reality” (8), and perhaps Aeschylus attests to this complexity with the peculiar situation of the Danaids, whom the Argives accept technically as metics even while these women are also distant relations of Argos’ citizens. Given the book’s consistently perceptive readings of the language of metoikia in the tragedy, one imagines that an attempt to incorporate these potentially discordant details would enrich the treatment of Suppliant Women as a drama about metic immigration by, e.g., offering an opportunity to consider how it envisions the spaces where the categories of metic, foreigner and citizen meet and overlap, or meaningfully fail to do so.3

The second and more pervasive problem consists in the inevitable pitfalls that accompany the historicist interpretation of an Attic tragedy. While the establishment of metoikia in Athens and significant aspects of Suppliant Women undoubtedly come from the same cultural, social and historical currents, to borrow from Bakewell’s use of electro-magnetic imagery (“voltaic tension,” 23), more frequent reminders of the impossibility of pinning down any precise connections between the two would help clarify Bakewell’s conception of literature’s relationship to history and vice versa.4 If I criticize components of Bakewell’s interpretations or approach, it is because he has demonstrated that the questions he poses deserve our scrutiny, and he has begun the process of providing answers with his stimulating account.


1. F. Zeitlin, “The Politics of Eros in the Danaid Triology of Aeschylus,” in Innovations of Antiquity, edd. R. Hexter and D. Selden, (New York, 1992): 203-52. Bakewell addresses Zeitlin’s theory in chapter 3, but does not attempt to incorporate his proposed aetiology with hers.

2. At 618-9, Danaus reports that Pelasgus warned the Argives that, if they do not protect the Danaids, they will incur a “double pollution, both foreign and citizen” (ξενικὸν ἀστικόν θ’…διπλοῦν μίασμα), a phrase that may recall “citizen-strangers” from 356. See nn. ad loc. in H. Friis Johansen and E. Whittle, Aeschylus: the Suppliants, (Copenhagen, 1980); P. Sandin, Aeschylus’ “Supplices”: Introduction and Commentary on vv. 1-523, (Lund, 2005); and A. Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Volume I, (Cambridge, MA/London, 2008).

3. While Bakewell suggests in his preface (ix) that antiquity provides models for modern debates, it is also worthwhile to consider the reverse. As one example, influential media outlets in the United States have recently modified their policies regarding use of the term “illegal immigrant,” a change that can encourage us to look for similar contested and ambivalent terminology in antiquity. See “Times Shifts on ‘Illegal Immigrant,’ but Doesn’t Ban the Use.” New York Times, (April 24, 2013).

4. Bakewell addresses briefly this methodological difficulty in the final paragraph of his introduction. He also relies on individual contributions from C.B.R. Pelling, ed., Greek Tragedy and the Historian, (Oxford, 1997), including those of Sommerstein (which should be listed as “Sommerstein 1997,” not “1996b,” one of few errors in the book) and Vidal-Naquet, but he does not include Pelling’s methodologically important “Conclusion,” which offers pertinent observations about tragedy, history and metoikia at 215-8.