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CJ-ONLINE  November 2007

CJ-ONLINE November 2007

Subject:

CJ-Online 2007.11.02 NAIDEN, Ancient Supplication

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Ancient Supplication. By F.S. NAIDEN. Oxford and New York: Oxford 
University Press, 2006. Pp. xiv + 426. Cloth, $74.00. ISBN 0–19–518341–X.

Order this text for $74.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

This is the first book to examine all the sources concerning supplication 
in classical antiquity, both Greek and Roman (with occasional reference to 
Hebrew and other Near Eastern traditions), from Homer down through the 
Roman empire (with a brief coda on Christian attitudes). On the basis of a 
thorough review of the evidence, informed by a mastery of the primary and 
secondary literature, Naiden (N.) proposes a four-step model of the 
supplication process, and with it a new interpretation of how supplication 
works. In brief, N. rejects the prevailing view, according to which the 
supplicandus is bound to accept a suppliant’s plea if it is made in the 
proper ritual fashion, failure to do so being a violation of customary 
norms (the position, roughly, of John Gould). On the contrary, N. argues 
that the supplicandus is always free to accept or reject the request, and 
this decision constitutes the essential fourth stage of the process. N. 
denies too that successful supplication necessarily means that the 
supplicant is accepted into the community of the supplicandus (the 
hypothesis of Walter Burkert). What is more, he argues that there is no 
necessary contradiction between supplication as a practice and its legal 
regulation: for the norms that govern a suppliant’s approach to the 
supplicandus (or to an altar or other stand-in), the gestures and verbal 
appeals the suppliant may make, and the suppliant’s petition and 
accompanying arguments—these being the first three steps of the 
supplication process—along with, finally, the supplicandus’ evaluation of 
the plea and decision whether or not to honor it, may all be subject to 
legal formalization without eo ipso compromising the nature of the 
transaction as a supplication.

N. is right, in my view, and his book, which is a major scholarly 
achievement, will now be the standard study of supplication in classical 
antiquity. Take supplicatory gestures (step 2): based on a careful 
tabulation of a huge number of examples, drawn from literary texts, 
inscriptions and images, N. reports that clasping the knees occurs in only 
a quarter of the personal supplications described by Herodotus, Thucydides 
and Diodorus Siculus (p. 45), although literary descriptions tend to dwell 
on this act (p. 46). Roman sources, in turn, rarely mention knee-clasping, 
and in supplications to Romans “only foreign suppliants kneel” (p. 50). 
Words may replace gestures, when the occasion requires: Odysseus could not 
very well clasp the knees of Nausicaa when he stood naked before her, but 
he is nevertheless supplicating. In addition, suppliants normally attempt 
to bolster their case with reasons; as N. writes: “Of all parts of an act 
of supplication, arguments best rebut the view that supplication is a 
ritual of contact” (p. 78). Just as merit is essential to the Greek emotion 
of pity, so too suppliants must show that they merit consideration; hence, 
in Greek supplications, the suppliant always protests innocence. Arguments 
may appeal to reciprocity, threats, kinship ties, fairness or pity, this 
last a recourse more common among women and children than adult males.

Once the merits of a case have been presented, whether implicitly or 
explicitly, the supplicandus must respond (step 4). If the request is 
granted, according to N., “the two of them enter into a lasting tie” (p. 
105; cf. p. 129). Here I must register a disagreement. As N. shows, the 
“tie” is simply the obligation to live up to the supplicandus’ pledge to 
the suppliant: to spare her or his life, for example. This may be done at 
once, and the suppliant sent packing (pp. 119–22); there is no 
incorporation into the group, whether as xenos or philos, and no bond 
arises. Of course, a suppliant may petition for citizenship, or for 
long-term protection; if the request is granted, a tie is established. But 
this consequence has nothing to do with the nature of supplication itself. 
I fear the notion of a bond between suppliant and consenting supplicandus 
is a holdover from Burkert’s view. But the important point is that 
rejection of a petition is perfectly ordinary, irrespective of contact 
between the parties. Acceptance or rejection, in turn, is not arbitrary, 
but involves reasons, stated or not (the most common reason for rejection 
is that the petitioner is in the wrong). Thus, rejection is virtually never 
punished (p. 146), as one might have expected if it were considered a 
violation of ritual obligation.

N. next shows how legal regulations interacted with traditional practices 
of supplication, devoting one chapter to Greece, a second to Rome. Here he 
examines, among other questions, the function of magistrates and the 
courts, and the rules for supplication at shrines (whether under the 
control of particular cities or international—again, expulsion of the 
suppliant was by no means uncommon). N. points to fundamental differences 
between Greek and Roman practices, identifying three principal Roman 
“innovations—the imperium of the magistrate, mercy, and the provision of 
rights” (p. 220). Roman magistrates, whether in a civilian or military 
capacity, had powers that enabled them to decide independently whether to 
accept a suppliant’s appeal, whereas Greek magistrates had no comparable 
authority: the Athenian strategoi, for example, had no right to punish, and 
hence to spare, a soldier, as a Roman general could (p. 225). By “mercy,” 
N. renders clementia, and he argues that “[t]he Romans differed from the 
Greeks in allowing a suppliant to admit his own guilt and ask for mercy” 
(p. 240). Clementia, according to N., was an option for the Roman 
supplicandus in addition to granting pardon (dare veniam, ignoscere) or 
sparing (parcere) a suppliant: “The difference between clementia and pity 
is ethical. Clementia is for the pardonable suppliant, pity for the 
deserving one” (p. 243). This is not entirely accurate. Clementia differs 
fundamentally from pity in that pity is an emotion (you feel it), whereas 
clementia is a character trait (you possess it). Thus, clementia came to be 
identified as one of the main virtues of the emperor, and was never seen as 
a sign of condescension (contra N., p. 247), though pity might be. In 
Greek, the analogous trait to clementia is philanthrôpia or epieikeia 
(Aristotle gives the latter a peculiar sense in the Nicomachean Ethics, 
tangential to its ordinary use). If it is true, as N. affirms, that Greek 
suppliants never admit wrongdoing or appeal to the kindness of the 
supplicandus, epieikeia is nevertheless associated by Diodorus Siculus with 
a disposition to pardon (sungnômê, 13.24). But perhaps Diodorus was 
influenced by the Roman ideal of clementia, which was much in the air at 
the time he was writing. Finally, N. shows how certain Roman legal 
institutions, such as appelatio and provocatio, were in the process of 
developing into a conception of rights “that made supplication unnecessary” 
(p. 289).

I have given only the barest outline of N.’s argument. N. writes clearly 
and has a refined feeling for genre and literary context. Occasionally I 
differ with him; for example, when Agamemnon advises Menelaus to kill the 
suppliant Adrastus (Iliad 6.55–60), Homer’s approval may be less a way “to 
endorse the climax of the plot of the Odyssey” (p. 143) and so to unify the 
two epics, than a nod to Agamemnon’s pain at the wounding of his brother by 
Pandarus. But this is to quibble. This is a first-rate book, and 
indispensable to anyone interested in ancient supplication.

DAVID KONSTAN
Brown University


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