Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Ancient Supplication$

F. S. Naiden

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195183412

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195183412.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 30 March 2017



Ancient Supplication
Oxford University Press

Rather than approach in person, someone making a request may send a message such as a letter or petition. The distinction between a personal approach and a message informs a scene in Plutarch. As they flee from rebels, the attendants of the infant Pyrrhus, the future king of Epirus, encounter an impassable stream:

Rain had made the stream rise and become violent and the darkness of the night added to the horror. They decided not to carry over the child and the women attendants on their own and when they saw some of local people on the other side, they asked them for help in crossing. Displaying Pyrrhus, they called aloud and begged (ἱκετεύοντες).

But this attempt to make an approach fails: “The country people,” Plutarch explains, “could not hear for the noise and roaring of the water.” So the refugees hurl a missile:

Then one of the party stripped off a piece of bark from an oak and wrote on it with the tongue of a buckle. He explained what they needed and the situation of the child and then wrapped the bark around a stone and threw it over to the other side. … When the men on the other bank read the message and realized time was short, they cut down some trees, lashed them together, and crossed over. 1

Another expedient would have been to hurl the child instead of the missile. Improbable as this is, it happens in the Aeneid, in which Metabus hurls his daughter, Camilla, over an impassable stream. Since he is alone, Metabus addresses a god; rather than supplicate, he prays. Like the attendants to Pyrrhus, he obtains his request. 2

We have, then, examples of three kinds of responses: a shout that fails, a letter that succeeds, and a fulfilled prayer. The shout marks an approach, and thus is (p.386) part of an act of supplication. The letter is a substitute for an approach, and is an epistolary supplication. The prayer is neither. Having drawn this distinction, we should note the ensemble of child, escort, river, and spear, so singular that it seems to derive from a myth about the wanderings of a holy infant. This ensemble points to two features of epistolary supplication in both Plutarch and other sources beginning with Sophocles. Epistolary supplication tends to evoke actual supplication, and to archaize. 3

In other respects, epistolary supplication may differ from the case of the infant Pyrrhus. Making a written appeal may be a matter of convenience. The supplicandus may be busy or far away; often he is a monarch atop a bureaucracy. Rather than visit him, the suppliant writes him. Sometimes the suppliant may be forced to make a written appeal because he has gone into exile. Like Pyrrhus, he finds himself on the wrong side of a divide, but not by accident. The supplicandus has put the exile in this position, and so the exile makes a written appeal to him to reverse the decision.

We now turn to two examples, one of each kind. In the first example, the suppliants could have chosen to travel to Rome to see their master, the Roman emperor, but as he is busy and far away, they decided to send a letter. Although petitions to the emperor were very common, this one, coming from Thrace in the third century CE, happens to be the only one that survives in its entirety. Addressed to the Emperor Gordion III, this petition comes from the village of Skaptopara. It begins:

You have often written in your rescripts that in your very happy and everlasting reign villages should be inhabited and flourish rather than lie abandoned, for this wish tends towards the salvation of mankind and the profit of the sacred treasury. For that very reason we have sent a proper and lawful supplication to your worship, praying that you graciously nod in assent as we ask in this way. 4

The words for “proper and lawful supplication,” ἔννομον ἱκεσίαν, recollect the phrases ἔννομα and ἔννομος ἱκετεύειν, used in Attic and Samian supplications of the classical period. The emperor has replaced the assembly, and a village has replaced an individual or group, but the standard that the suppliant must meet has remained the same. The reaction expected from the supplicandus has remained the same, too, for after describing their sufferings, they ask him to take pity on them. Then they ask him to issue a ruling that will constitute the solemn pledge that concludes a supplication, and, like Attic or Samian suppliants, they ask that it be recorded on a stele. 5 The emperor's nod is one more archaism, but Homeric and not classical. 6 Since petitions were numerous, perhaps some of them were (p.387) read aloud to one of the emperor's subordinates and he and not the emperor nodded in reply. 7 This use of a substitute for the supplicandus does not affect the archaism of the appeal.

Among petitions addressed to persons besides the emperor, some describe the act as the figurative presentation of a supplicatory bough, or as a way of taking refuge. Others use the language of the Greek courtroom, δέομαι καὶ ἱκετεύω, or combine supplication with proskynêsis. 8 The language is no less archaic if the petitioner goes to Rome and presents his petition in person to the emperor's representative or even to the emperor. In this situation, the language of democratic Athens is incongruous. 9

An example of the second kind of epistolary supplication, a plea from an exile, takes the form of a verse letter. The author, Ovid, wrote this letter at Tomi by the Black Sea. Augustus had relegated him to this location, farther from Rome than even Skaptopara, as a punishment for offenses including writing love poetry. Realizing that Augustus (or his successor, Tiberius) would be hostile, Ovid addressed this letter and others to friends who might help him win clemency. He set himself no easy task. From Homer onward, exiles were among those who supplicated and met with rejection, and they were in no position to make further appeals. Those who dared to try did so through others: the son of Metellus Numidicus and the brother of Cicero supplicated on behalf of these two exiles, but the father himself said and did nothing, and neither did Cicero. Even the triumvir Lepidus, exiled by Augustus, did not presume to beg to return. 10

Undeterred, Ovid wrote four books of Epistulae Ex Ponto. The second letter in Book 2 is the one that resembles Plutarch or the Thracian petition. First Ovid uses the language of Greek temple refuge. Granted that Ovid is a wrongdoer, he is not the worst of wrongdoers, a “violator of a temple”:

From time to time a violator of a temple flees to an altar, and does not fear to ask for help from the offended god. 11

The poet acknowledges an obvious objection to his appeal: “Someone may say that this action is not safe. I admit it.” Ovid now turns to Euripides, the best‐known poet of supplication. Euripides launched the fashion of comparing suppliants to animals. The title characters in The Suppliant Women say, (p.388)

An animal finds refuge beside a rock, a slave beside the altars of the gods, and a storm‐beaten city cowers beside a city. 12

Later writers went further and compared suppliants to grasshoppers, fish, sparrows, cockerels, doves, rabbits, kids, deer, boars, elephants, and lions, many in temples. 13 But these writers were usually Greek poets. Roman writers avoided this trope, which was inappropriate for suppliants modeling themselves on Metellus Pius. Ovid had compared suppliants and animals in the Metamorphoses, but in order to observe that supplicating animals lack hands and voices. 14 In his letter, though, Ovid speaks as the suppliant women did: “Fearing a hawk, an exhausted bird with trembling wings dares to approach a human being's lap.” 15 Ovid's two comparisons are vivid and immediate. The temple violator must be forgiven or punished, and the bird must be taken in or put out. Ovid is creating a sense of urgency meant to annihilate the distance between himself and his supplicandus. Where earlier petitioners hurled spears, he hurls a missive that he hopes will fly with a bird's swiftness.

We should remember that Ovid's archaic appeals and those of the Thracians both fall short of an act of supplication. The individual or community presenting the request does not usually appear in person, so at most we might speak of an act of intercession. The supplicandus may not appear in person, either, and then the procedure becomes entirely literary. For petitioners like the Thracians, a literary procedure may be prestigious. For Ovid and his readers, it is poignant, a tour de force and yet a failure.

Most written requests no doubt lacked archaisms. Several requests in Ovid lack archaisms, and so do requests in Tacitus. 16 When comparing his own requests to those made on behalf of supplicating Dacian captives, Martial eschews archaic diction, too. 17 Archaism was perhaps more common in the late‐antique, bureaucratic documents like the petition from Thrace. Here it expresses a twofold nostalgia. First, it evokes a world small enough for a suppliant to reach and touch a supplicandus. Second, it defers to precedent. Eyes trained on the past, the writers of these documents move backward toward their goal. They anticipate suppliants in today's world of rights.


(1.) Plut. Pyrr. 2.4–6. Plut. Dio 31.2 is similar, as is the supplication accomplished by wrapping letters around stones at Hld. 9.5.2–4.

(2.) Cf. V. A. 11.544–66. Supplex: 559. The only comparable later passage: Ov. Ep. 10.145–46, where Ariadne's supplicatory hands reach across the sea to the letter's recipient, Theseus.

(3.) S. Ph. 495–96.

(4.) Hauken, Petition and Response, #5.11–21, especially … ἔννομον ἱκεσίαν.

(5.) Pity: Hauken, Petition and Response, #5.94–99. Stele: 99–107.

(6.) Homeric and other nods: 111 above.

(7.) Speculation on this point: Millar, “Empereur comme décideur,” 217.

(8.) Boughs: PStrassb. 4.285.18, PTeb. 2.326.3, POxy. 1.71.3, PSI 13.337.18, all third century CE and later. Two literary examples: Jul. Caes. 275c, Alex. Rom. 26.107–9. Refuge: PEnteux. 82.8 from 221 BCE, PLond. 7.2045.4 from the third century CE. δέομαι καὶ ἱκετεύω: PCair. Zenon 4.59421.1, 4.59520.8, PCol. 3.6.7, all Ptolemaic; PMich. 1.87.5 from the third century CE; and PSI 4.402.7, sixth century CE. Proskynêsis: P. Oxy. 14.3366.2 from 266 CE. Mere supplication: IG ii2 2.1.1094.3, 211–22 CE; OGI 519, 244–47 CE.

(9.) I follow Wilcken, “Kaiserreskripten,” 2–6, in distinguishing between epistulae, of which the letter to Gordion provides an example, and subscriptiones that were petitions presented by individuals, not communities. The latter are more likely to accompany an act of supplication by the party making the request.

(10.) Suet. Aug. 16.4 describes this exile, which was internal, like Ovid's, as “relegatio.”

(11.) Ov. Pont. 2.2.27–29.

(12.) E. Supp. 268–70.

(13.) Grasshoppers: Longus 1.26.3. Fish: Philostrat. VA 1.23. Sparrow: D.L. 4.10. Cockerels: Iamb. VP 48 [= 58 C 5 D‐K]. Kid: Longus 1.6.1. Deer: V. A. 7.500–502. Phaed. 2.8.8, Mart. Sp. 29.4. Rabbit in temple: St. Byz., s.v. ῾Εκατήσια. Boar in temple: Ps.‐Plut. Fluv. 21. Elephants: Ael. NA 4.10, Plin. NH 8.21. Lions: 8.57.

(14.) Hence Io can do nothing more than low when supplicating Argus (Met. 1.633–36). Callisto and Actaeon suffer in the same way (2.477–84, 3.237–41).

(15.) Ov. Pont. 2.35–36.

(16.) Ov. Pont. 2.8.44, 2.9.5; Tac. Ann. 2.63.1 and 15.30. So also Gran. Ann. 33.6 and Curt. 5.3.14–15, Alex. Rom. 26.107–9. A supplicatory book: Mart. Ep. pr. 8. Others' supplicatory libelli: 8.31.3.

(17.) Mart. 6.10.5–8.