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The Hearth as a Place of Refuge in Ancient Greece

Le foyer comme lieu de refuge dans la Grèce antique
Nicholas Cross
p. 107-123

Résumés

Cet article examine le contexte de la situation du foyer en tant que lieu de refuge dans la Grèce antique. La première partie retrace l’évolution du foyer d’un site pratique pour la chaleur et la cuisine à un lieu propice à la socialisation, aux rites cérémoniels et enfin au refuge. La deuxième section, qui propose une enquête analytique des suppliants légendaires et historiques aux foyers, propose que le foyer devient un lieu de refuge en raison de sa nature multivocale en tant qu’environnement dans lequel les suppliants pourraient trouver des avantages pratiques, sociaux, religieux et politiques.

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Texte intégral

1. Introduction

1Today, a foreign applicant for asylum or refugee status in a new country must go to a designated site such as the country’s point of entry or a refugee camp. The authorities at these locations must determine whether the individual qualifies for asylum or refugee status under that country’s laws or under international law. If the applicant meets the necessary conditions, he or she then undergoes a series of examinations which include a background check, security clearance, medical screening, and other tests designed to eventually lead to the successful candidate’s resettlement. Depending on the case and on the host country, this can be a lengthy ordeal that all begins at an appropriate receiving center. But there are no inherent qualities that make these locations especially suited to the reception of foreigners; the authorities identify them to be such by fiat, and all others accept that designation. Ancient Greece, too, had distinctive sites of refuge – temples, shrines, altars, statues – but they were known as such because of what they represented. That is, they were filled with symbolic signification that closely identified them with the tradition of receiving outsiders. This is particularly evident in yet another site of refuge in ancient Greece: the hearth.

  • 1 On focus, the Latin word for hearth, see Kirksey, 1980, p. 108-112.
  • 2 Henceforth, for convenience’s sake, “suppliants” will be used for refugees, exiles, fugitives, asyl (...)
  • 3 Burkert, 1996, p. 85-90; Chaniotis, 1996; Gould, 2003, p. 22-27; Naiden, 2006; Garland, 2014, p. 11 (...)
  • 4 Gernet, 1996, p. 247-265; Detienne, 2003, p. 59-69; Vernant, 2006, p. 157-196.
  • 5 A comparable approach is in Sinn, 1993, p. 88-109 which examines Greek sanctuaries as locations of (...)

2This essay focuses (to use the Latin word for hearth, focus) on the situational context of the hearth as a venue for refuge.1 Of all the various locations available for refuge, why would some seek out a place of fire? What was its significance? What did suppliants anticipate would happen there?2 This essay poses answers to such questions by examining the traditions surrounding supplication at hearths. Previous scholars, such as Walter Burkert, Angelos Chaniotis, John Gould, Fred Naiden, and Robert Garland, have addressed the significance of supplication (ἱκεσία) in general.3 Others, especially those of the so-called “Paris School,” such as Jean-Pierre Vernant, Louis Gernet, and Marcel Detienne, have examined the functions and symbolism of the hearth but without full discussion of the acts of supplication at that site.4 This essay, however, combines the studies of the space (the hearth) with the act (supplication).5

3To fully appreciate why the hearth attracted vulnerable suppliants, one must recognize the versatility of this site. Before the hearth’s association with refuge, the symbolism of this place addressed a range of needs. This essay, therefore, first surveys the historical evolution of the hearth and its role in the development of human civilization. From its earliest function as a practical site for warmth and cooking to its later additional functions as a place for socialization and for ceremonial rites, the hearth, as cultural anthropologist Victor Turner would say, came to possess multivocal symbolism and to provide the context for social drama:

  • 6 Turner, 1967, p. 50.

“By these terms [polysemy or multivocality] I mean that a single symbol may stand for many things. This property of individual symbols is true of ritual as a whole. For a few symbols have to represent a whole culture and its material environment. Ritual may be described, in one aspect, as quintessential custom in that it represents a distillate or condensation of many secular customs and natural regularities... Each dominant symbol has a ‘fan’ or ‘spectrum’ of referents, which are interlinked by what is usually a simple mode of association, its very simplicity enabling it to interconnect a wide variety of significate [emphasis in original].”6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 52.

4Turner continues to explain that any symbol has an exegetical meaning (what one might call an emic interpretation), an operational meaning (an etic interpretation), and a positional meaning (the relationship of a symbol to all others in a system). Accordingly, one symbol possesses multiple functions and may be interpreted variously depending on the experiences of the participants or the audience. “The same symbol may be reckoned to have different senses at different phases in a ritual performance, or rather, different senses become paramount at different times. Which senses shall become paramount is determined by the ostensible purpose of the phase of the ritual in which it appears.”7 This interpretive lens of multivocality – which Turner used in his study of the symbolic rituals of the Ndembu people of central Africa and which came to have an influence on later semiotic analyses of ritual dynamics – directs and illuminates the present study of the hearth as a place of refuge in ancient Greece.

5After tracing the historical evolution of the hearth’s multivocal features, this essay provides an analytical survey of legendary and historical suppliants at hearths, whether they be in an individual’s home, in a Mycenaean palace, or in a civic building of a polis. This latter section proposes why the hearth acquired the added function of welcoming suppliants. This evidence suggests that the hearth, already identified by its practical, social, religious, and political connotations, became identified as a place of refuge because of its diversified symbolism. As the central point of communal activity – organizing space vertically (as an access point to the divine through rituals) and horizontally (as the heart of the family or community) – the hearth was well situated to receive outsiders. Acting much as a beacon does, the fire of the hearth signaled visitors to a place of safety and to the community. By employing the lens of multivocality, this essay enlightens the topic of supplication at hearths. Although the subject of this essay is restricted to the place of fire, the points discussed here may apply to other traditional sites of refuge, and therefore can generate ideas for further research in ancient refugee studies.

2. The Evolution of the Hearth’s Multivocality

2.1. Practical Functions

  • 8 Monnier et al., 1996; Gaillard, Ravon, 2014, p. 45-51.
  • 9 Gowlett et al., 2005, p. 3-40; Pyne, 2012, p. 27-41; Lumley et al., 2015.
  • 10 Valladas et al., 2007, p. 303-308; Tsartsidou et al., 2015, p. 169-185.

6Fire has been an essential feature of the human experience for millennia, long before it ever became associated with refuge. Although its origins go back 1.6 million years, evidence for controlled fire, in a structured fire pit, goes back 465,000 years to the flat stones arranged in a circle, containing charcoal and burned rhinoceros bones, in a marine cave at the site of Menez-Dregan, Brittany.8 This primitive hearth technology spread throughout the continent of Europe, to sites at Beeches Pit (England), Terra Amata (Nice), Bilzingsleben (Germany), Verteszöllös (Hungary), and elsewhere.9 In Greece, the oldest preserved hearths, those at Theopetra, date to just 60,000 years ago.10 The finds at these Paleolithic campfire sites – burnt stones, charcoal, animal bones, inter alia – suggest that these spaces were distinguished from other areas of activity. Their remains are associated with heat, lighting, cooking, and protection, indicating that their function at this early period was altogether practical. Hominins invented and developed the hearth structure to contain fire so that they might eat when hungry, warm themselves when cold, and have a place to congregate when dark.

2.2. Socio-communal Functions

  • 11 Chourmouziades, 1977, p. 207-211; Karkanas et al., 2004, p. 513-525.

7Accordingly, over a long period of time the hearth contributed to human socialization. The location provided a hub for social activity, and the fire became a symbol of nascent communities. In Greece, from as early as 30,000 years ago, as can be seen in the excavations at Klisoura cave in the Argolid and at Dimini in Thessaly, hearths were built in new materials, arranged in different and increasing dimensions, and decorated in new styles and designs.11 During the Neolithic Revolution, when humans began to settle permanently in small communities, residents gathered around the fire to eat together, rehearse stories, and cultivate relationships. The communal aspect of Neolithic hearths is reflected in their remains, which, although resembling those in earlier hearths, began to include storage vessels, spindles, bracelets and other artifacts related to social life. Serving a functional as well as a socio-communal purpose, the hearth now played a principal role in human domestication and the growth of civilization.

  • 12 Peperaki, 2010, p. 252-253.

8Eventually, as these new communities grew larger, the hearths – the private fires of individual families or the public ones serving the collective group – represented the distinct character of each social unit. Each hearth might differ in its dimensions and decoration but, whatever its appearance, it reflected the social identity of the group. Beyond just providing a place for warmth, protection, and cooking, the hearth organized the early Greek communities according to what Olympia Peperaki calls “a model of relatedness.” The spatial arrangement of the new hearth rooms, centrally located within the home and in the early Greek palatial context, emphasizes the fire as the focal point for social interactions of those within the community, as well as its role in the reception of outsiders. It provides, in Peperaki’s words, “a common point of reference and a necessary single focus for all movement and all activity.”12 For early Greek communities, therefore, before its association with refuge, the hearth was the nucleus of practical and socio-communal activities.

2.3. Religious Functions

  • 13 Caskey, 1990, p. 13-21; Whittaker, 2014.
  • 14 Lerna: Wiencke, 2000, p. 213-243; Banks, 2013, p. 57-60. Eutresis: Goldman, 1931, p. 18. Lithares: (...)
  • 15 Aesch. Supp. 189, for example, connects the extra-urban Argive hearth, at which the suppliant women (...)

9The hearth provided the space around which collective gatherings, feasts, and festivals brought the members of the community together in solidarity. Moreover, the hearth tied the community as a collective unit to the divine through the rituals performed there. With its adaptability to serve various purposes and to embed various aspects of communal life into the activities that took place around it, the hearth soon assumed a religious character as well, as Miriam Caskey and Helène Whittaker have shown in their respective works on Early Bronze Age hearths.13 New and innovative styles of ornamentation of the hearth accentuated the ritual activities that were performed there. Enlarged to monumental proportions, hearths might be decorated with kerbschnitt (chip-carved) seals and prominent flame patterns on the sides, such as on the one in the center of the House of Tiles at Lerna. As a place of fire, hearths were naturally places connected to religious ceremonies. The hearths at Eutresis and at Lithares, for example, contained bull figurines or pottery associated with libations. The hearth in the so-called Ceremonial Room at Malthi was situated near large stone slabs for slaughtering sacrificial animals, which would then be roasted over the fire of the hearth.14 Indeed, eventually many hearths were identified by their contiguous altars.15

  • 16 On the sacral vocabulary related to the hearth in Indo-European languages, see Dumézil, 1954, p. 34 (...)
  • 17 Parvulescu, 2009, p. 132-136.
  • 18 Heraclitus DK830: πῦρ ἀείζωον, ἁπτόμενον μέτρα καὶ ἀποσβεννύμενον μέτρα (“an everlasting fire, kind (...)

10Even the vocabulary for hearth enunciated its religious aspects. The Mycenaean word for hearth was e-ka-ra, which later became ἐσχάρα in early Greek literature.16 Adrian Parvulescu has suggested that this is a combination of es and charan (in gratitude [to a divinity]), a reading that follows naturally with the religious interpretation of the hearth, though that etymology is not reliable.17 Nevertheless, fire is a natural element that evokes religious signification: it has power both to destroy and to regenerate. It is an agent of change, as Heraclitus, philosopher and fire enthusiast, later emphasized. It both consumes noxious elements, as in cooking or disinfecting, and facilitates transformation, as in metallurgy or pottery craft.18 The protean form of fire and the metamorphic work that it performs naturally led its beneficiaries to identify it as a religious force. Early Greek hearths, therefore, in addition to providing a setting for practical and social activities, functioned in a ritual context.

2.4. Political Functions

  • 19 Wright, 1994, p. 56-60; 1995, p. 341-348. Rethemiotakis, 1999, p. 721-727 points out the practical, (...)

11All of these features – practical, social, and religious – became intertwined with politics in the context of the Mycenaean palatial hearths. In the center of the main room of the Mycenaean megaron (great hall) stood the monumental circular hearth, above which was an open space to connect the fire with the heavens and nearby which was a throne that connected the king (wanax) to the fire. As a consequence of these spatial arrangements, the political authority was linked to all aspects of communal life. In two important essays, James Wright demonstrates how closely involved the Mycenaean kings, as political heads and as the guardians of the hearth as a cultic institution, were in all of the activities of the community. Indeed, arguing against a view that divorces the political from the religious aspects of the hearth, Wright characterizes Mycenaean religion as a “hearth-wanax ideology.”19

  • 20 Harrell and Fox, 2008, p. 35.

12Katherine Harrell and Rachel Fox go further by showing how the politics of the hearth had consequences beyond domestic affairs. Shared meals around the fire were instrumental in cultivating political and military alliances between the king and his guests, whether they be subordinates within his realm or foreign entities. Pointing to the power dynamics inherent in entertaining a guest with a meal – “the palace explicitly made use of the unequal nature of large-scale feasting to exact specific remuneration from their guests in the form of service” – Harrell and Fox emphasize that the hearth allowed Mycenaean rulers to create ties of dependency.20 This is a situation that mirrors the asymmetrical encounter between a host and a suppliant, the subject of the rest of this essay. Having surveyed the historical evolution of the hearth’s multivocality until it became a place that served practical, socio-communal, religious, and political purposes, one can better appreciate its role as a place of refuge. How was it, therefore, that the Greeks came to see the hearth functioning in this latter mode?

3. The Hearth as a Place of Refuge

  • 21 Hom. Il. 10.418; Od. 5.59, 6.52, 305, 14.420, 19.389, 20.123, 23.71.
  • 22 Ibid., 7.142-232.

13In Greek literature, the first mention of a hearth (ἐσχάρα) comes in Homer. The word appears eleven times in the two Homeric epics, usually as the setting for practical and socio-communal activities: in the Iliad it refers to a watch-fire, and in the Odyssey to a place where people gather for warmth and women spin clothing and cook food. Homer also uses it for sacrificial hearths, such as the one upon which the swineherd Eumaeus roasts his finest pig as an offering to the gods and as a meal for his guest, Odysseus in disguise.21 But the poet attests to yet another function for an ἐσχάρα: a place of supplication. In the Odyssey, Odysseus, having shipwrecked onto the island of Scheria and in need of assistance for his return home to Ithaca, made his way, with the help of the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa and the goddess Athena, to the ἐσχάρα in the middle of the Phaeacian palace. There, he found Queen Arete performing her domestic duties, reminding the reader that the hearth was usually a place for ordinary, everyday activities. Odysseus clasped her knees, a traditional gesture of supplication, announced his predicament, sat down in the ashes near the fire of the hearth, and awaited a response from his hosts.22

  • 23 Thuc 1.136.2-137.1; Plut. Them. 24.2-3; cf. Diod. Sic. 11.56.1-4; Nep. Them. 8.4.

14Homer’s description of Odysseus’s gestures and acts at the Phaeacian hearth became a model for later writers describing similar encounters of suppliants at hearths. The following anecdotes in this essay come from both mythology and history, the former mirroring the traditions of the latter. Indeed, instances from both genres share details in structure and detail. Thucydides, for example, follows Homer in his description of the supplication of the Athenian Themistocles at the hearth (ἑστία) of the Molossians. Exiled from Athens after the Persian Wars, Themistocles begged King Admetus and Queen Phthia for mercy for his past transgressions against them and asked for refuge from his current enemies. In response, the queen instructed him to sit by the hearth, which, according to the historian, was “the greatest kind of supplication” (μέγιστον ἦν ἱκέτευμα). Plutarch, in his later account of the same episode, adds that Themistocles’s position at the hearth was, in the eyes of the Molossians, “the greatest and nearly the only one not to be refused” (μεγίστην καὶ μόνην σχεδὸν ἀναντίρρητον ἡγουμένων ἱκεσίαν).23

  • 24 Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.693-703.
  • 25 Aesch. Supp. passim; Ag. 1583-1595; Soph. OC 631-637; Parth. Amat. narr. 18.

15Apollonius of Rhodes portrays the supplication of Jason and Medea at Circe’s hearth (ἑστία). Having murdered Medea’s brother, the two arrived at Circe’s island and “without saying anything, they sped to the hearth and sat there” (τὼ δἄνεῳ καὶ ἄναυδοι ἐφἑστίῃ ἀίξαντε ἵζανον), just as Odysseus and Themistocles did in their respective narratives. Although narrating a mythical account of supplication at a hearth, Apollonius adds that this was done according to “the established custom of wretched suppliants” ( τε δίκη λυγροῖς ἱκέτῃσι τέτυκται), suggesting that this reflected historical practice.24 The setting for Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women was the common hearth (ἑστία) of Argos, to where the Danaids sailed, seeking protection from their unwanted suitors. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon relates that when Thyestes returned home to Argos, sometime after his brother Atreus had driven him out, he sat at the hearth as a suppliant (προστρόπαιος ἑστίας). Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus takes place at a stone hearth (ἑστία) in the sacred grove of the Furies, where Oedipus the exile found his final place of refuge. Likewise, the Hellenistic philosopher Theophrastus records an example of an adulteress, Neaera of Miletus, who sought refuge at a hearth (ἑστία) in the Prytaneion of Naxos. Even though she had conducted herself improperly, when her husband came to reclaim her, the Naxians refused to hand her over because of the sacred location at which she sat.25 Both mythological and historical anecdotes record the tradition of supplication at a hearth. Why did this become an established custom (δίκη) in the historical Greek period? What did the suppliants expect to happen there?

  • 26 For example, Burkert, 1996, p. 85-90; Gould, 2003.
  • 27 Naiden, 2006, p. 163-165 lists instances of rejected suppliants in ancient Greek sources. Chaniotis (...)

16Until recently, scholars assumed that any suppliant who performed the correct gestures and made the proper appeal could expect, invariably, a reception from the host.26 In Ancient Supplication, Fred Naiden challenges this notion with his four-step model for the operative elements of supplication in antiquity. The first three steps involve the suppliant – the approach, the performance of a distinctive gesture of supplication, and the request for aid – but it is his fourth step – the response of the host (supplicandus) – that diverges from traditional interpretations. Naiden shows that a host, rather than being compelled to accept any and all who performed the “rules of the game,” retained the option to receive or reject suppliants.27 Whereas Naiden’s model is a helpful corrective to previous inferential readings, it fails to take into account the subjective expectations, the mentalités, of the suppliants. Despite examples of rejected petitioners, which Naiden discusses at great length, the repeated instances, over the course of centuries of Greek history, of suppliants continuing to approach hearths lead to the conclusion that they believed something positive might happen there.

3.1. Practical Benefits

  • 28 Hom. Od. 7.167-183, 340-347.

17The hearth’s multivocality – its practical, socio-communal, religious, and political features – explains why it was a δίκη for suppliants to seek it out. Having travelled some distance, one who approached a hearth would naturally be hungry, thirsty, dirty, and in need of rest. A hearth, being in its most basic capacity a practical site, was an obvious place for such a weary one to meet his or her physical needs. The Phaeacian king, acting according to the normative obligations of ritualized hospitality, provided the suppliant Odysseus food and drink, water for washing, and a bed.28 These courtesies were offered not only to suppliants but also to all sorts of guests in ancient Greece. But the hearth was much more than a functional site for meeting the practical needs of those who gathered there; it held deep and variegated symbolic signification.

3.2. Socio-communal Benefits

  • 29 Ibid. 7.167-177; Naiden, 2006, p. 38-39, 98-99.
  • 30 Hdt. 1.35-43.
  • 31 Thuc. 1.136.3, 137.1; Plut. Them. 24.3. Nep. Them. 8.4 says that “with the greater guarantee of rel (...)

18A suppliant at a hearth was usually one without a home, without a sense of belonging. What attracted the outsider to the place of fire (whether it was a palatial hearth located in the center of a Mycenaean megaron or a common hearth in the heart of the civic center of the polis) was its symbolic association with the community. The suppliant at a hearth saw the place of fire as a portal, as it were, to the inner circle of the community. When Odysseus sat at the Phaeacian hearth, for example, King Alcinous eventually responded by raising up the suppliant and setting him in a bright chair, thus moving him from a state of humiliation to one of equality. Then the king went even further by seating his guest next to his favorite son (μάλιστα δέ μιν φιλέεσκεν), a most intimate gesture that signaled, in the words of Fred Naiden, “access to the royal family.”29 Herodotus tells of a similar experience for a certain Adrastus, exiled from his home because of accidental fratricide, who came to the hearth (ἐφέστιος) of Croesus, a family friend. The Lydian king promised to meet the exile’s physical needs, and received him into his home not just as a guest but also as a trusted guardian of the young prince.30 The Molossian queen Phthia entrusted Themistocles with her infant son, thus associating the exile with the most innocent member of the community.31

  • 32 Garland, 2014, p. 129: “Xenia is a species of asylum that may well have developed out of the same i (...)
  • 33 Cinalli, 2015, p. 35-40; Cross, 2017, p. 102-117.
  • 34 Furley, 1981, p. 65-70; Vernant, 2006, p. 186-190.

19These gestures correspond to the initiatory rituals that the Greeks performed around the hearth at various life stages. Brides and slaves – envisaged in much the same way as suppliants in that they were entirely dependent upon their husbands and masters – were introduced to their new homes at the hearth. Guests were entertained there, according to the norms of xenia.32 In Athens, at the common hearth in the Prytaneion, foreign ambassadors were entertained with a meal of hospitality (xenia) as a way of sealing a new interstate alliance.33 (Foreign ambassadors of a city-state petitioning for an alliance were, in effect, in the same vulnerable condition of a refugee.) More closely, these gestures bear resemblance to the amphidromia ritual, in which fathers carried newborns around the hearth, in order to initiate them into the family.34 Initiatory and celebratory rituals such as these were so prevalent that it is likely the host and the suppliant in the above examples – as well as those who read and heard these anecdotes in antiquity – reflected upon them in their encounters at the hearth. These receptions afforded to the suppliants, therefore, were of a socio-communal nature; they represented the virtual transition for the suppliant from the status of an outsider to an insider.

20In some instances, the community at large played a greater role than the monarch. Although it was King Alcinous who eventually received Odysseus, it was only because of the intervention of the elder Echeneus who insisted, before all who had assembled in the courtyard, on welcoming the suppliant. Once Odysseus was acknowledged, it was the whole Phaeacian community – from the king’s family to handmaids – who tended to his physical needs. The community was also involved in the decision to aid Odysseus’s return home, even at their own peril, as it turned out. In the case of the matricide Orestes, his full redemption came about because of the involvement of not only Athena but also the Athenian citizenry, at least a majority of the citizenry, who cast their votes for his innocence.

  • 35 On the historical context of the play, see Bakewell, 2013, p. 17-33. Seaford, 2012, p. 137-144 offe (...)
  • 36 Aesch. Supp. 365-367.
  • 37 Ibid. 605-624, 954-965, 1009-1011. On the Danaids as immigrants, see Bakewell, 2013, p. 30-32; Garl (...)

21But there is no better example of the role of the community in welcoming strangers than Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, a play that may dramatize the historical complications arising from the influx of foreigners into contemporary Athens.35 The Danaids fled to the extra-urban common hearth, connected to an altar-mound of the assembled gods (πάγος ἀγωνίων θεῶν), for protection from their unwanted suitors. The Argive king Pelasgus, initially concerned that the presence of the suppliant women would bring trouble to his city but at the same time recognizing the seriousness in which Zeus Hikesios oversees supplication, assigned the judgment on their fate to the Argive people (δῆμος). He excused himself by claiming, “it is not my own house at whose hearth you sit. If the state is stained by pollution in its commonality, in common let the people strive to work out the cure” (οὔτοι κάθησθε δωμάτων ἐφέστιοι ἐμῶν. τὸ κοινὸν δ᾽ εἰ μιαίνεται πόλις, ξυνῇ μελέσθω λαὸς ἐκπονεῖν ἄκη).36 While the women remained at the common hearth, the king called an extraordinary session of the Argive assembly, and Danaus, the father of the suppliants, awaited its answer at another hearth (ἐφέστιος) within the city. The assembly voted unanimously to give the women resident-alien status (μετοικία) in Argos, protection of the community from their enemies, and new homes, free from payment (λάτρων ἄτερθεν).37

  • 38 Gould, 2003, p. 63.

22The act of receiving a suppliant into the virtual family of the community was one with highly charged social connotations and goes far in explaining why the hearth was a common site for refuge. The positive experience of the Danaids, however, should be seen as an aspirational ideal and not a commonplace occurrence, as some modern readings suggest. John Gould describes the common hearth as “an emblem of the solidarity of the group with other forms of ritual to incorporate outsiders into the οἶκος.”38 In his famous article comparing Hestia and Hermes in terms of the spaces over which they govern, Jean-Pierre Vernant highlighted the symbolic importance of the hearth in terms of integrating strangers into the community :

  • 39 Vernant, 2006, p. 146-147.

“The hearth, the meal, the food also have the property of opening the domestic circle to those who are not members of the family, of enrolling them in the family community. The suppliant, hunted from his home and wandering abroad crouches at the hearth when he seeks to enter a new group in order to recover the social and religious roots he has lost.”39

  • 40 Hdt. 1.45 (Adrastus); Xen. Hell. 2.3.52-55 (Theramenes); Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.688-752 (Jason and Mede (...)

23Although the hearth was indeed a symbol of group solidarity, Gould’s and Vernant’s reflections should not be taken to mean that outsiders were routinely incorporated into the host community after supplicating at a hearth. As Naiden emphasizes, many suppliants in antiquity were rejected, and even those who found an initial welcome at a hearth eventually left the community. Again, a variety of examples – from mythology and history, in the Greek world and without – show this. After performing rituals on behalf of Jason and Medea, Circe, clearly uncomfortable with their presence at her hearth, sent the two on their way. Adrastus, Croesus’s guest, killed himself after he turned out to be the agent of the killing of Croesus’s son. In 403, during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, Theramenes sought refuge at the hearth in the Bouleuterion, though he admitted that he would find no help there because the Thirty were “unjust towards humans and impious towards the gods” (περὶ ἀνθρώπους ἀδικώτατοι, ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ θεοὺς ἀσεβέστατοι). In fact, he was subsequently dragged away and murdered.40 Negative results such as these, however, should not obscure the fact that the hearth was the place to which many suppliants fled in the expectation of safety. The Thirty’s lack of respect toward the suppliant is explicitly censured, by Theramenes, as unjust and profane. Although it might not be a fait accompli, as presented in Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, the complete integration of a suppliant into the new community was a potentiality, something that was believed to be possible. The symbolism of the hearth and the potential outcomes of supplicating there explains the site’s distinctive association with refuge.

3.3. Religious Benefits

24The hearth was also a religious place, imbued with sanctity, an attractive place for wrongdoers in need of purification. Many types of guilty ones – fratricides (Medea and Jason, Adrastus), matricides (Orestes), patricides (Oedipus), erstwhile enemies (Themistocles), adulteresses (Naera), and others – sat at hearths, believing that their hosts disregarded their supplication at their own peril. Those sitting at a hearth expected to have their practical needs satisfied, find a powerful patron or a welcoming community, and, if necessary, receive ritual purification. The hearth, the setting for sacrifices and burnt offerings, was, therefore, an obvious place for one to find religious absolution.

  • 41 Hdt. 1.35.
  • 42 Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.700-717.
  • 43 Aesch. Eum. 282-284, 440; Parker, 1996, p. 386-388; Tzanetou, 2012, p. 31-66. Pedrina, 2017, p. 163 (...)

25For example, the Lydian king Croesus performed a purificatory ceremony on behalf of his guest Adrastus, who had unclean hands (οὐ καθαρὸς χεῖρας) on account of his fratricide. Without specifying precisely what the ceremony entailed, Herodotus adds that it was according to Lydian custom (νόμος), which was the same custom among the Greeks.41 Apollonius of Rhodes, who asserts that supplication at a hearth was an “established custom” (δίκη), details the rituals that Circe performed on behalf of Jason and Medea, another fratricide. At first, Circe, having supernatural powers of discernment, hesitated to help the malefactors, but when she saw that they sat at her hearth, the goddess was reminded to “respect the law of Zeus, the god of suppliants” (ὀπιζομένη Ζηνὸς θέμιν Ἱκεσίοιο) and accepted her guests. Circe proceeded to offer to Zeus Hikesios “the sacrifice with which ruthless suppliants are cleansed from guilt when they approach the hearth [ἐφέστιος].” She ceremoniously killed a piglet and sprinkled its blood on the unclean hands, offered libations, and cooked cakes in order to ward off the Furies.42 Then there is the problematic case of Orestes who fled to Apollo’s hearth (ἑστία) at Delphi – the common hearth of all Greece – where, Aeschylus relates, the matricide sacrificed a pig. This should have absolved him – indeed, both Athena and Apollo later acknowledged that Orestes was clean by virtue of his supplication and sacrifice. The Furies, however, remained unappeased, so Apollo directed him to supplicate further at the hearth (ἑστία) in Athens. It took a trial to finally avert the Furies’ wrathful vengeance, but in the eyes of Apollo and Athena, at least, Orestes had received purification at their hearths.43 These are various cases – from history and myth, from Greece and from without – but they all illustrate how those seeking refuge at a hearth were also seeking for a religious remedy.

  • 44 Hes. Op. 734; Pind. passim; Aesch. Supp. 372. Classical writers use ἐσχάρα for portable braziers (A (...)
  • 45 Eur. Alc. 162-168. On the political importance of Hestia in ancient Thessaly, see Mili, 2015, p. 13 (...)

26The religious aspects were accentuated in the historical Greek period with a significant lexical shift in the writing about hearths. As mentioned earlier, Homer uses ἐσχάρα for different types of hearths, from those in a Mycenaean megaron to those in private homes. Starting with Hesiod and Pindar, however, writers used ἑστία to describe private and common hearths. Aeschylus first associates ἑστία with refuge in Suppliant Women.44 This change in vocabulary reflects the diminished importance of one individual, such as the obsolete Mycenaean wanax who oversaw ceremonies at the e-ka-ra/ἐσχάρα, in the cultic institution of the hearth and the increasing association of the fire with its personified goddess Hestia. By the mid-fifth century, she, too, would become associated with supplication around the fire. In Euripides’ Alcestis, for example, the Iolcan princess, intending to sacrifice herself for her husband Admetus, spends her dying moments at the hearth of Pherae, supplicating the goddess for the welfare of her surviving children.45

  • 46 There has, however, been much recent work done on the public aspects of Hestia, influenced by femin (...)
  • 47 Hes. Theog. 453; Hom. Hymn Aph. 5.22-32; Hom. Hymn Hest. 29.1-6 (cf. Hom. Hymn Hest. 24; Diod. Sic. (...)
  • 48 Paus. 1.18.3; Miller 1978, p. 15.

27Traditionally viewed as little more than a domestic figure restricted to the area of fire, Hestia is not often associated with matters related to refuge.46 Besides the linguistic association of her name with the place of fire and the reference to a suppliant’s prayers to her, the goddess was also regularly described as one of the most prominent divinities in the Greek pantheon. Hesiod relates her mythological origins as the first born child of Cronos and Rhea. After narrating how she rejected the marriage proposals from both Poseidon and Apollo, thus becoming the virgin goddess of the hearth, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite states that “in all the temples of the gods she receives honor, and among all mortals she is chief of the gods” (πᾶσιν δ᾽ ἐν νηοῖσι θεῶν τιμάοχός ἐστι καὶ παρὰ πᾶσι βροτοῖσι θεῶν πρέσβειρα τέτυκται). The Homeric Hymn to Hestia praises her as the one with “the highest honor” (πρεσβηίδα τιμήν) and proclaims that “without you [Hestia] mortals hold no feasts” (οὐ γὰρ ἄτερ σοῦ εἰλαπίναι θνητοῖσιν). Pindar hails her as the “first of the gods” (πρώταν θεῶν). In a discussion of the etymology of the goddess’s name, Socrates affirms her prominence by mistakenly associating ἑστἰα with οὐσἰα (being, existence).47 Although Pausanias claims her image stood next to the fire in the Athenian Prytaneion, no cult images of her have been found in Athens from before the Hellenistic period. This might be, as Stephen Miller suggests, because “the hearth alone may have provided an adequate symbol of Hestia’s presence.”48 Although rarely represented visually and lacking sensational mythological anecdotes like the other divinities, literary sources still emphasize that she was eminent and ubiquitous, inconspicuous yet present in the fires at individual homes and in civic centers. Being a divinity related to matters of the home as well as civic affairs, Hestia the goddess, just like the fire she personified, represented the practical, socio-communal, and religious features of this site.

3.4. Political Benefits

  • 49 Hom. Od. 6.303-309.
  • 50 On exile and ostracism as political tools in democratic Athens, see Forsdyke, 2005; Gartland, 2014, (...)

28The presence of Hestia and the increasing prominence of common hearths, in a Prytaneion, in the historical Greek period raises the final reason for the hearth’s association with refuge. Since it was a location where those with influence congregated, the hearth radiated with political signification. Positioned in the center of the home, the palace, or at the center of the community, the hearth was the likeliest spot for one to be noticed and to find powerful patrons. In the case of Odysseus, the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa directed and Athena guided the castaway to seek out the palatial hearth because that was where he would find the royal family and the elders of the community, the power brokers on the island.49 The exile Themistocles, too, made his way to the Molossian hearth for he knew that there he would find those with power to protect him from his pursuers. Beyond the practical, socio-communal, and religious considerations, the hearth was a power center where political decisions were made, such as, in many recorded cases of supplication, whether to welcome and to help a foreigner. Just as the use of exile and ostracism, in which an insider was made into an outsider, were political tools in ancient Greece, so was the reception of a foreigner into the community.50

  • 51 McDonald, Coulson, Rosser, 1978, p. 19-30, 33-37; Mazarakis-Ainian, 1997, p. 290-292, 378.
  • 52 Arist. [Ath. Pol.] 3.5; Pol. 6.5.11-12. On the hearth in the Bouleuterion, see Rhodes, 1972, p. 33- (...)

29The political aspects of the hearth, already existing in the Bronze Age, expanded after the rise of the polis (city-state) in the eighth century BCE. The social structure of most of the renascent communities was organized around the institutions of the demos, replacing the bygone monarchical organization of the Mycenaean period and accentuating the agency of the community. Although the great palatial halls disappeared with the Mycenaean collapse, and the hearth-wanax ideology along with them, domestic hearths, being necessary for practical life activities at least, naturally persisted throughout the Dark Age.51 But once polis communities began to emerge, individual hearths (increasingly taking the form of portable braziers rather than stationary stone structures) were restricted to the home environment, while κοινή ἑστία (the common hearth) took pride of place in the civic center. Aristotle reports that when the Mycenaean institutions were reallocated into those of the polis, the royal hearth, now restyled the κοινή ἑστία, was relocated to the Prytaneion (the city hall of the polis) or the Bouleuterion (council house).52

  • 53 Schol. Thuc. 2.15.2. On the Prytaneion and the common hearth, see Miller, 1978; Gernet, 1996, p. 24 (...)
  • 54 Gernet, 1996, p. 263.
  • 55 Aesch. Supp. 963-965.
  • 56 Isayev, 2017, p. 83.

30A scholiast to Thucydides calls the Prytaneion οἶκος μέγας, the great house of the polis.53 It connected each individual household to the political center. The common hearth animated and illuminated the building, and served the needs of the polis, the collective demos. Indeed, as Louis Gernet said of the common hearth: “c’est de la création de la cité que cette foundation aura d’abord été le symbole.”54After repelling the Danaids’ suitors, King Pelasgus announced to the women as they continued to sit at the common hearth of Argos, “I am your guardian [προστάτης], as are all the citizens whose vote here is enacted.”55 This sharing of ultimate responsibility from an individual king to the people mirrors the historical emergence of the polis and the common hearth. “With this change,” writes Elana Isayev on the Suppliant Women as an illustration of asylum in ancient Greece, “one can witness a shift from the private ties of hospitality to the more public ones of asylum, which now required a proxenos – a sponsor or intermediary.”56 Indeed, the assembly’s grant of μετοικία and free housing to the suppliant women was a dramatic political act. In the Archaic and Classical periods – the time when most of the examples discussed in this essay were written down – supplication at a hearth had taken on a very political dimension.

  • 57 Arist. Pol. 1253a2-7; cf. Hom. Od. 9.112.
  • 58 Philolaos DK 44 B 7; cf. Arist. Cael. 2.13; Maniatis, 2009, p. 402-410.

31In his famous passage stating that the polis is natural (φύσει) and that humans are by nature political animals (φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον), Aristotle borrows a Homeric phrase to describe one without a polis (ἄπολις) as one without a clan, law, and a hearth (ἀφρήτωρ, ἀθέμιστος, ἀνέστιος).57 That is to say, the communal hearth, the center of the polis, was equal in importance with the normative and legal foundations of ancient Greek society. Just as much as the family and law, the hearth was fundamental in structuring the polis. The new political communities were spatially arranged around its civic hub and focused on the symbolic center of the common hearth, an arrangement which impressed the Pythagorean Philolaos, who taught that there was a hearth (ἑστία) in the center of the earth which maintains cosmic order.58 In the same way, the hearth was the nerve center for the political life of the community and therefore was an attractive location for suppliants.

4. Conclusion

  • 59 On extra-urban sanctuaries, see de Polignac 1984; Sinn 1993.
  • 60 Hom. Od. 13.1-125; Aesch. Eum. 762-777; Thuc. 1.137.1.
  • 61 Hdt. 1.35; Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4. 693-694.

32Ideally, therefore, supplication at a hearth produced positive results. The suppliant might receive practical benefits, an invitation into the community, purification from miasma, as well as political favors. It is noteworthy that many of the suppliants noted in this essay did not seek refuge in sanctuaries located outside of a city.59 Instead, they fled to the very heart of the community, to a site with practical, socio-communal, religious, and political signification. The reception and the rituals at the hearth operated on each of these levels simultaneously, creating a complex unity representing the number of possibilities available to a suppliant. After a number of feasts in which Odysseus participated as a member of the Phaeacian community – in fact, King Alcinous even invited him to become his son-in-law – his hosts offered the erstwhile suppliant a ship to continue his return home. Themistocles’s Molossian host, too, provided the exiled suppliant with a ship that took him to Persia. Orestes, liberated, returned home and took up his place as ruler of his father’s kingdom.60 Of course, not every suppliant at a hearth had the same experience, and some – suppliants as well as hosts – had rather negative outcomes. Nevertheless, many refugees and exiles sought out this place in particular because its multivocal associations led them to believe that this was a location that held out favorable and promising outcomes to them. It is no surprise, therefore, that ancient writers claim that it was a νόμος and a δίκη for suppliants to seek refuge at a hearth.61 And the many legendary and historical examples presented in this paper confirm that this was indeed the case.

33But no longer do refugees and asylum seekers sit at hearths. Rather than penetrate into the very heart of the community, today’s refugees supplicate at centers in peripheral areas. Gone is the normative obligation to receive the vulnerable alien. Instead, foreigners are often suspect, guilty until proven innocent. Fire, too, is no longer related to supplication. Modern pyrotechnology has reversed the symbolism of fire from hospitality to hostility. Today, it is a threat, something to be avoided. Once burning in the center of the home, fire is now compartmentalized in stoves and furnaces, out of plain sight, replaced by electricity, which serves as the source of our heat and light, and by electronic devices, which serve as the “focus” of our social lives. In ancient Greece, however, the hearth was a prominent symbolic feature of society. Originally fulfilling practical and socio-communal needs, the hearth became a religious and political center by at least the Bronze Age. It also became a place of refuge and reception for outsiders, but during the period when the most distinctive form of Greek political organization, the polis, was emerging, and when the fire became associated, linguistically and figuratively, with the goddess Hestia, the whole experience took on a much deeper significance. Many suppliants sought out this particular place because it was a reflective environment in which they could find refuge within the practical, socio-communal, religious, and political contexts of the community.

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Notes

1 On focus, the Latin word for hearth, see Kirksey, 1980, p. 108-112.

2 Henceforth, for convenience’s sake, “suppliants” will be used for refugees, exiles, fugitives, asylum-seekers, migrants, and other foreigner visitors at a hearth.

3 Burkert, 1996, p. 85-90; Chaniotis, 1996; Gould, 2003, p. 22-27; Naiden, 2006; Garland, 2014, p. 114-130; cf. the collected essays in Dreher, 2003.

4 Gernet, 1996, p. 247-265; Detienne, 2003, p. 59-69; Vernant, 2006, p. 157-196.

5 A comparable approach is in Sinn, 1993, p. 88-109 which examines Greek sanctuaries as locations of refuge.

6 Turner, 1967, p. 50.

7 Ibid., p. 52.

8 Monnier et al., 1996; Gaillard, Ravon, 2014, p. 45-51.

9 Gowlett et al., 2005, p. 3-40; Pyne, 2012, p. 27-41; Lumley et al., 2015.

10 Valladas et al., 2007, p. 303-308; Tsartsidou et al., 2015, p. 169-185.

11 Chourmouziades, 1977, p. 207-211; Karkanas et al., 2004, p. 513-525.

12 Peperaki, 2010, p. 252-253.

13 Caskey, 1990, p. 13-21; Whittaker, 2014.

14 Lerna: Wiencke, 2000, p. 213-243; Banks, 2013, p. 57-60. Eutresis: Goldman, 1931, p. 18. Lithares: Tzavella-Evjen, 1984, p. 21-22. Malthi: Valmin, 1938, p. 78-83; Hägg, 1968, p. 46.

15 Aesch. Supp. 189, for example, connects the extra-urban Argive hearth, at which the suppliant women in his play of the same name supplicated, with an altar-mound of the assembled gods (πάγος ἀγωνίων θεῶν). In 404 BCE, Theramenes leapt upon the hearth (ἀνεπήδησεν ἐπὶ τὴν ἑστίαν) in the Athenian Bouleuterion, suggesting that there was furniture associated with that hearth.

16 On the sacral vocabulary related to the hearth in Indo-European languages, see Dumézil, 1954, p. 34-35; Householder and Nagy, 1972, p. 784-785; Nagy, 1990, p. 143-180; West, 2007, p. 265-270. On e-ka-ra in Linear B tablets, see Chadwick, 1986, p. 515-523; 1996, p. 111-115; Melena, 2000-2001, p. 357-360; Weilhartner, 2004, p. 25-31.

17 Parvulescu, 2009, p. 132-136.

18 Heraclitus DK830: πῦρ ἀείζωον, ἁπτόμενον μέτρα καὶ ἀποσβεννύμενον μέτρα (“an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and extinguishing in measures”). On fire as an agent of religious transformation, see Frazer, 1951, p. 328-346; Della Volpe, 1990, p. 157-184. Hes. Op. 733-734 records a prohibition against exposing one’s genitals near the hearth indicating that the fire must remain free from sexual impurities.

19 Wright, 1994, p. 56-60; 1995, p. 341-348. Rethemiotakis, 1999, p. 721-727 points out the practical, socio-communal, and religious functions of hearths at Galatas (Crete) in the Middle Minoan period.

20 Harrell and Fox, 2008, p. 35.

21 Hom. Il. 10.418; Od. 5.59, 6.52, 305, 14.420, 19.389, 20.123, 23.71.

22 Ibid., 7.142-232.

23 Thuc 1.136.2-137.1; Plut. Them. 24.2-3; cf. Diod. Sic. 11.56.1-4; Nep. Them. 8.4.

24 Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.693-703.

25 Aesch. Supp. passim; Ag. 1583-1595; Soph. OC 631-637; Parth. Amat. narr. 18.

26 For example, Burkert, 1996, p. 85-90; Gould, 2003.

27 Naiden, 2006, p. 163-165 lists instances of rejected suppliants in ancient Greek sources. Chaniotis, 1996 examines cases from the fifth century BCE onwards in which asylia claims were evaded or rejected outright.

28 Hom. Od. 7.167-183, 340-347.

29 Ibid. 7.167-177; Naiden, 2006, p. 38-39, 98-99.

30 Hdt. 1.35-43.

31 Thuc. 1.136.3, 137.1; Plut. Them. 24.3. Nep. Them. 8.4 says that “with the greater guarantee of religion,” Themistocles took the king’s daughter (quo maiore religione se receptum tueretur, filium eius parvulum arripuit).

32 Garland, 2014, p. 129: “Xenia is a species of asylum that may well have developed out of the same impulse to provide protection for those who were unprotected.” On the role of supplication in the formation of ties of xenia, see Herman, 1987, p. 54-58.

33 Cinalli, 2015, p. 35-40; Cross, 2017, p. 102-117.

34 Furley, 1981, p. 65-70; Vernant, 2006, p. 186-190.

35 On the historical context of the play, see Bakewell, 2013, p. 17-33. Seaford, 2012, p. 137-144 offers a spatial analysis of the play’s setting.

36 Aesch. Supp. 365-367.

37 Ibid. 605-624, 954-965, 1009-1011. On the Danaids as immigrants, see Bakewell, 2013, p. 30-32; Garland, 2014, p. 122-123; Isayev, 2017, p. 82-84.

38 Gould, 2003, p. 63.

39 Vernant, 2006, p. 146-147.

40 Hdt. 1.45 (Adrastus); Xen. Hell. 2.3.52-55 (Theramenes); Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.688-752 (Jason and Medea).

41 Hdt. 1.35.

42 Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.700-717.

43 Aesch. Eum. 282-284, 440; Parker, 1996, p. 386-388; Tzanetou, 2012, p. 31-66. Pedrina, 2017, p. 163-188 surveys the visual representations of Orestes’s supplication on ancient Greek vases.

44 Hes. Op. 734; Pind. passim; Aesch. Supp. 372. Classical writers use ἐσχάρα for portable braziers (Ar. Ach. 887-888; Xen. Cyr. 8.3.12), altars or temples (Aesch. Pers. 205-206; Eur. Andr. 1240; [Dem.] 59.116). Chadwick, 1996, p. 111-115 discusses the different types of ἐσχάρα. Homer uses ἑστία, once, for Eumaeus’s hearth (Od. 14.159).

45 Eur. Alc. 162-168. On the political importance of Hestia in ancient Thessaly, see Mili, 2015, p. 131-135.

46 There has, however, been much recent work done on the public aspects of Hestia, influenced by feminist theory and in response to the patriarchal interpretations of Hestia (Thompson, 1996, p. 20-28; Detienne, 2003, p. 59-69; Jennings, 2008, p. 208-222; González García, 2014, p. 27-34; Konstantinou, 2018, p. 28-34).

47 Hes. Theog. 453; Hom. Hymn Aph. 5.22-32; Hom. Hymn Hest. 29.1-6 (cf. Hom. Hymn Hest. 24; Diod. Sic. 5.68); Pind. Nem. 11.1-8; Pl. Cra. 401c-d; cf. Kajava, 2004, p. 1-2.

48 Paus. 1.18.3; Miller 1978, p. 15.

49 Hom. Od. 6.303-309.

50 On exile and ostracism as political tools in democratic Athens, see Forsdyke, 2005; Gartland, 2014, p. 131-149.

51 McDonald, Coulson, Rosser, 1978, p. 19-30, 33-37; Mazarakis-Ainian, 1997, p. 290-292, 378.

52 Arist. [Ath. Pol.] 3.5; Pol. 6.5.11-12. On the hearth in the Bouleuterion, see Rhodes, 1972, p. 33-34. On portable braziers and the absence of permanent hearths in Classical houses, see Tsakirgis, 2007, p. 225-231.

53 Schol. Thuc. 2.15.2. On the Prytaneion and the common hearth, see Miller, 1978; Gernet, 1996, p. 247-265; Schmalz, 2006, p. 33-81; Vernant, 2006, p. 157-196; Seaford, 2012, p. 79-84; Cinalli, 2015, p. 13-24.

54 Gernet, 1996, p. 263.

55 Aesch. Supp. 963-965.

56 Isayev, 2017, p. 83.

57 Arist. Pol. 1253a2-7; cf. Hom. Od. 9.112.

58 Philolaos DK 44 B 7; cf. Arist. Cael. 2.13; Maniatis, 2009, p. 402-410.

59 On extra-urban sanctuaries, see de Polignac 1984; Sinn 1993.

60 Hom. Od. 13.1-125; Aesch. Eum. 762-777; Thuc. 1.137.1.

61 Hdt. 1.35; Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4. 693-694.

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Nicholas Cross, « The Hearth as a Place of Refuge in Ancient Greece »Pallas, 112 | 2020, 107-123.

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Nicholas Cross, « The Hearth as a Place of Refuge in Ancient Greece »Pallas [En ligne], 112 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/pallas/21157 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/pallas.21157

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Nicholas Cross

Queens College, CUNY

Substitute Lecturer and Coordinator of Classics, Greek, and Latin
Queens College, CUNY- USA
Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures
ncross[at]qc.cuny.edu

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