Small-scale societies have ways of dealing with problems that arise within the community, but dealing with the outside world is often a more serious challenge. Small, subsistence-level communities are rarely entirely self-sufficient. Some level of contact with the outside world is useful for trade and joint self-defense, but leaving your home community is risky when you cannot be sure of being safe elsewhere. Within your own village, you may be surrounded by family, neighbors, and people bound to you by mutual bonds of obligation whom you can count on to stand up for your safety and your rights, but once you head out into the wider world, you are alone. If someone attacks you, steals from you, or tries to cheat you in a bargain, who can you look to for help? Different societies have different ways of dealing with this problem, but one useful strategy is known as guest-friendship.
Aspects of guest-friendship are documented in practice in ancient Greece, where the custom was known as xenia, based on the word xenos, which could mean foreigner, stranger, or friend. In the early archaic society described in the Homeric epics, wealthy warrior-nobles—the sort of people represented in the epics by heroes like Odysseus and Menelaus—had faithful retainers to protect them while at home, but traveling with a large retinue was difficult. Since the two major reasons for leaving home were to trade with neighboring communities or to raid them for supplies and slaves, it is understandable that travelers did not always find a warm welcome, even when they came in peace.
To keep themselves safe when away from home, aristocratic families from different communities made agreements of guest-friendship among themselves. These families would provide lodging and food to visiting guest-friends and expect the same when they went traveling themselves, but more importantly guest-friends protected one another. In essence, a guest-friendship was a promise to treat your visitors as if they were members of your own family. That could mean more than just hosting them for a few days. It could also mean standing up for them if they were mistreated or cheated while doing business in your town, even fighting in their defense if they were attacked. In a world without police, courts, or enforceable contracts, where your rights ended at the borders of your home town, these relationships were essential to keeping trade routes and lines of communication open.
In ancient Greece, as in many other places, these relationships were personal, but also hereditary. They could be passed down from generation to generation, sometimes even being revived after lying dormant for many years. Between individuals, guest-friendship could even take precedence over inter-communal hostilities. The Iliad records a battlefield encounter between two heroes, Diomedes and Glaucus, one fighting on the Greek side, the other on the Trojan side. Approaching each other on the field, they shout out challenges and boast about their ancestry and accomplishments, but in doing so, they discover that their grandfathers were guest-friends. Once they realize their connection, Diomedes and Glaucus agree that it would be wrong for them to fight one another. Instead, they exchange armor as a token of friendship and agree to go find other people to fight. (Homer, Iliad 6.119-191)
As a means of ensuring safety for travelers, guest-friendship was unreliable. It depended on mutual personal obligations which could not be enforced on the unwilling. There was no way to prevent the abuse or neglect of the relationship, other than the threat of ending it. As much as Homer’s epics celebrate the uses of guest-friendship among honorable people of good will, they also reflect how precarious such codes of behavior could be when there wasn’t force behind them. While the fairy-tale wanderings of Odysseus are a fantasy version of the dangers of traveling without the protection of familiar customs and norms, the greedy Ithacan suitors eating up Odysseus’ wealth in his absence bring the problems closer to home. Indeed, in Greek myth, the institution of guest-friendship fails at least as often as it succeeds.
Nevertheless, even in later periods of ancient Greek history when legal and diplomatic institutions were better developed, the idea of guest-friendship still had a place. Some aspects of guest-friendship, in a less personal and more formalized way, continued in the role of proxenoi (singular proxenos), who acted as representatives and advocates for outside communities. The Athenian aristocrat and politician Cimon, for example, acted as Sparta’s proxenos in Athens. He hosted Spartan emissaries when they came to Athens and used his influence in Athenian politics to try to make peace between the two cities in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Like guest-friendship, this role was also often hereditary, passed down through aristocratic family lines from father to son. Guest-friendship itself was even revived as a way of forging relationships across political lines between Greek aristocrats and representatives of the Persian Empire.
The details of ancient Greek guest-friendship are particular to one culture and one time period, but similar relationships—with all their attendant possibilities and problems—existed in many other places and times among small societies lacking strong institutions to keep order. We can find similar patterns of mutual obligation among historical peoples from places as diverse as the Scottish highlands, the Arabian peninsula, and the Pacific islands. Many customs still surviving in the modern industrialized world, such as exchanges of gifts between guests and hosts or the maintaining of multi-generational family friendships, preserve vestiges of practices that were once vital to making it safe tor travel beyond the boundaries of our own homelands.
Image: detail from “Helen Recognizing Telemachus, Son of Odysseus” via Wikimedia (Hermitage Museum; 1795; oil on panel; Jean-Jacques Largenée)
History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.