Ancient Supplication

Ancient Supplication

Ancient Supplication

Ancient Supplication


This is the first book-length treatment of supplication, an important social practice in ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Despite the importance of supplication, it has received little attention, and no previous study has explored so many aspects of the practice. Naiden investigates thevaried gestures made by the supplicants, the types of requests they make, the arguments used in defense of their requests, and the role of the supplicandus, who evaluates and decides whether to fulfill the requests. Varied and abundant sources invite comparison between the societies of Greece andRome and also among literary genres. Additionally, Naiden formulates an analysis of the ritual in its legal and political contexts. In constructing this rich and thorough study, Naiden considered over 800 acts of supplication from Greek, Hebrew, and Roman literature, art, and scientific sources. 30illustrations and a map of the relevant locations accompany the text.


In the first three steps of supplication, the suppliant takes the initiative. He, not the supplicandus, approaches, gesticulates or speaks, and presents a request and perhaps arguments. At the fourth step, initiative passes to the supplicandus, who evaluates and responds. This chapter will confine itself to the first three steps, those belonging to the suppliant. If we compare supplication to a legal procedure, this chapter will deal with the parts of a trial or hearing that precede the decision made by the jury, judge, or magistrate.

At the first step, the suppliant must often choose between approaching a person and approaching an altar. Phemius faces this choice: shall he approach Odysseus or the altar of Zeus? He does not say why he chooses Odysseus, but do other acts show why he did, or show why other suppliants choose either person or altar? Do these reasons change if the suppliant avails himself of alternatives to the person and the altar, such as approaching with a bough?

The second step serves to announce the intent to supplicate. Phemius and Leodes convey this intent in two ways, using a distinctive gesture, clasping the knee, and also uttering a word meaning "I am at your knees." This combination raises several questions: were other gestures or words suitable, too, and if so, how many? Do options differ by genre or culture? Which is more common, a gesture, like the knee clasp, or a word? Is a gesture necessary, as many scholars have thought? If not, what does it add? When do suppliants follow Phemius's example and use a combination? Do combinations correlate with genres and cultures?

The third step in supplication falls into two parts, requests and arguments. Phemius and Leodes request to be spared, and support this request with moral, legal, and other arguments. What do suppliants ask for, and how important are requests that are less pressing than the request to be spared? As regards arguments, how important are legal and moral arguments as opposed to others? Phemius, for example, says not only that he has done no voluntary wrong, but that, if spared, he will bring benefits to the house of Odysseus—an argument that he will repay a kindness. What of an argument that neither suppliant makes, but others might, which is that they are members of the household or family? Related to arguments are appeals to pity, such as Leodes and Phemius also make. How do these consort with arguments?

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