On the 21st of April 753 BC. Romulus drew with a plough the furrow that would delimit and ground the city of Rome. The walls of the town were raised along the lines of the furrow. The line demarcated an inviolable space; Remus, Romulus’ twin brother, jumped over it as a challenge and was immediately killed.
In the places where Romulus had lifted the plough -interrupting the continuity of the line- the doors of the city were set; through these openings things -both pure and impure- were allowed to pass. Once this rite was accomplished Romulus declared: “Mundus patet”: the world is open.
This happened on the Palatine hill. Under the same circumstances, an asylum was created in a holy thicket by the Capitol. Ancient historians say that this area was created in order to gather all those isolated and disbanded men who could contribute to the demographic growth of Rome.
But the presence of such a safe haven -where pursued criminals, fugitive slaves, outlaws of every kind could find shelter without being questioned about their origin or past- was a common fact in ancient times. It is documented by the Greeks, the Jews, the Germans.
The asylum was a holy place, within whose borders dogs did not hunt their prey and wolves lived in peace and good harmony with deer. At the origin of such a belief was the conviction that the sanctity of a place (or an object) would be communicated by contact.
Whoever would have put his hands on a fugitive inside such a space would have committed a sacrilegious gesture. It is told how, in 7th or 6th Century Athens, the survivors of Cylon’s conspiracy found shelter in Athena’s temple. Eventually deciding to leave the shelter they unrolled a thread that kept them in contact with the goddess’s statue; but the thread -by accident or malignity, we don’t know- broke and the conspirators were slaughtered.
The right of asylum’s main function seems to have been the mitigating of such a bloody revenge. This institution offered -to the murderer who flew from his victim’s relatives or to the slave who escaped his master’s mistreatments- a reconsideration of his case, or at least a delayed punishment.
By hospitium (for the Greeks: xenia) Latin meant the ensemble of rituals that ruled the relations between two foreigners who would make a pact. Such relations of mutual obligation and courtesy drew, before the foundation of stronger state-controlled institutions, a generalised net of alliances. Those who would participate in them were all of a similarly superior social status. The Oxford Classical Dictionary states that ”Throughout antiquity, such people lent each other powerful support, often at the expenses of their inferiors, so frequently that ritualised friendship may justly be regarded as a tool for perpetuating class distinction”.
Among the hospites, obligations were those of mutual reception and assistance, as well as of standing godfather to each other’s sons.
An object, the symbolon, indicated the effectiveness of such a friendship. Made out of bronze or clay, bearing a few words written on it, it was often a plaque broken into two correspondent parts. It functioned also as an identification that would protect the traveller in foreign territories.
There was an institution -particularly in Greece- that introduced this private pact between strangers into the public domain: proxeny.
Proxenia was a contract between a State and the citizen of a polis. The latter, chosen among the most influential and wealthy personalities of his city, was a sort of godfather of a foreign State and its citizens. He would welcome, at his own expense, the travellers or the ambassadors who would arrive from the other country; he would sponsor them and represent them in the circumstances of religious ceremonies and commercial intercourses. In exchange, he would benefit of honours and privileges, mostly symbolical, from the nation with which he would have signed the pact. Being a citizen of the State in which he served, and not of the State he represented, more than an official he was considered a benefactor.
The title of proxenos (pro-xenos: the one who receives the stranger) was lifelong and hereditary, as was the private relation between the xenoi we mentioned before.
As a “public host” -and surely because of his proved capacities of mediation- the proxenos was often called to arbitrate in conflicts between rival cities or parties.
From these brief notes, we can see how large the difference between asylum and hospitium is. If we intend to respect the meaning of these words in their use today, we should not speak indifferently of shelter and hospitality. Because, if the latter is a fact of alliances and expresses relations of power (the politics), the first is designed by forms of sovereignty which decide matters of life and death (the political).
There is a sort of asylia, though, whose borders overlap with the practice of hospitality: this is the privilege given to individuals rather than to places. The stranger who would have been declared asylos could consider himself safe from hostility or vexations, even in a state of war with the country to which he belonged. Ambassadors -for instance- were protected by the asylia, as were athletes going to Olympia and some categories of workers. We would like today’s refugees to be considered messengers -which they are- and to be sheltered because of this.
We would like, on the other end, to take a figure of hospitium and move it into the field of asylum. Why couldn’t it be a guarantor and representative of the State of the fugitives and supplicants? Why couldn’t it be somebody who -without being an official- would be implicitly recognised by both sides as a mediator?
In regard to the right of asylum the State is not an arbitrator but a party, precisely because refugees are foreigners. In some sense, it is not its task to welcome the stranger; this is the task of the citizens, either in association or as individuals. A more formal recognition of such figures of mediation and tutelage would not bring about any harm.