Skip navigation
The Australian National University

Seminar | Between Hospitality and Asylum: Stranger as victim and agent – suppliant and guest


Tuesday, 16 May 2017 - 4:30pm - 5:45pm


Seminar Room 1, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Associate Professor Elena Isayev (University of Exeter)


person icon Humanities Research Centre
phone icon +61 2 6125 4357
(L) Syrian refugee with child in Harmanli refugee camp, near Sofia 2015; (R) Caryatids, Erechtheion Porch, Athens, Greece 421-407 BC. Photo: AFP Nikolay Doychinov


Exceptional are the policies and the negotiations that accompany the political and moral dilemmas of how to address the stranger at the threshold. Some 3000 years ago the measure of society was encapsulated in what happened at the moment of reaching across that liminal space. The positioning of a society on the spectrum of just, civilised, or barbarian hung, and arguably still hangs, on the actions and decisions within host-guest encounters. Homer’s world of the Odyssey is wholly constructed through its protagonist’s experience as a guest and suppliant among the inhabitants dwelling on the real and imagined shores of the Mediterranean. Greek Tragedy exposes the tensions of morality, responsibility and obligation that lie between state and individual – between private commitments to hospitality and public ones addressing requests for asylum. Ancient Drama zeros in on the conflict between the agency and victimhood embodied in the stranger. With the advent of polis-based society and democracy, what possibilities are left for the transformation of suppliants into guests as they become distanced from domestic thresholds, awaiting decisions at public sanctuaries that require intermediaries?

Using the ancient world as its starting point, the paper challenges the perception of displaced people as impotent victims. It questions the portrayal of their state as one of exception, as presented in the writings of Arendt and Agamben, and through such movements as the City of Sanctuary. It offers ancient hospitality as a site of discourse for diagnosing modes of displaced agency.


This lecture is free and open to the public.



Elena Isayev is a historian working on research into human mobility and the constructions  of place with people from diverse disciplines and practices, in and outside nation-states. She is the author of Migration Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy (Cambridge 2017); Ancient Lucania (London 2007), and is currently co-editing Displacement and the Humanities with Evan Jewell. In support of her research into ancient mobility she has held the Davis Fellowship at Princeton University, and received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. She also works in current refugee contexts, including with Campus in Camps in Palestine; as a trustee of Refugee Support Devon; and she has created the initiative Future Memory, which works with communities where there are tensions. She currently holds the position of Associate Professor of Ancient History, teaching at the University of Exeter.

Updated: 4 May 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Head, HRC / Page Contact:  HRC administration