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Ancient Supplication$

F. S. Naiden

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195183412

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195183412.001.0001

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Ancient Supplication
Oxford University Press

Unnoticed in scholarship on supplication, the verbs gignomai and dechomai deserve notice not only because they are commonly used but also because they draw attention to the fourth and last step in an act of supplication, and in particular to the acceptance of a suppliant. Gignomai hiketês, meaning “to become a suppliant” denotes acceptance from the suppliant's perspective. Dechomai hiketên, “to receive a suppliant,” denotes it from the perspective of the supplicandus.

The first instance of gignomai hiketês, “to become a suppliant,” is in Herodotus; the last instance in a major author is in Clement of Alexandria. 1 This phrase refers to successful supplication in all but three instances. In Josephus, the negative ou is added, so the rejected party is said not to have become a suppliant. In Isocrates, this negative word is not added, and so Eurystheus is said to have “become a suppliant” only to be rejected. The same happens in Plutarch, except that the suppliant is expelled from a hearth. 2 These two instances of “becoming” and rejection must thus be considered aberrant. In both these instances and all others, the tense of the verb is aorist or perfect and the voice is middle.

Nearly as common is the phrase dechomai hiketên and its compounds. In the first known uses, in Homer, Hesiod, and Aeschylus, this phrase refers to the action of both divine and human supplicandi; in Sophocles, to divine supplicandi; in prose authors, to human supplicandi. 3 In two inscriptions, one from Lindos and one from Cyrene, it refers to the use of supplication as a preliminary procedure. 4 All these are instances of successful supplication, but in a third inscription the same phrase refers to unsuccessful supplication. As before, ou is added. 5 It also refers to unsuccessful supplication in another passage in which apopempein (p.384) accompanies dechomai. 6 Once again the tense of the verb is always aorist or perfect, and the voice is always middle.

In two instances, a form of dechomai may refer to supplication even when hiketês or a similar word is missing. One such instance is Thucydides' statement that the Athenians “received” the Messenians who left Ithome. The Messenians may have supplicated the Athenians, as two groups of resettled exiles do in Pausanias. 7 Another is the Athenian treaty with Erythrae in 453–52 BCE. According to the provisions of this treaty, councilors at Erythrae were forbidden to “receive” Erythraeans who had Medized, left the city, and now sought to return. This prohibition appears in the italicized lines of the bouleutic oath imposed by Athens:

I shall serve in the council on behalf of the majority of Erythrae and Athens and behalf of the alliance and do so as well and as justly as I can, I shall not revolt against the Athenian majority nor against their allies, whether by own accord or when persuaded by others, nor shall I desert, whether by own accord or when persuaded by others. Without the consent of the Athenian council and people I shall not receive any of those who have fled to the Persians, whether by own accord or when persuaded by others. And without the consent of the Athenian council and people I shall not exile anyone that remains in Erythrae.” 8

Two particulars make it likely that the italicized words refer to suppliants. First is the council's role, in Athens and elsewhere, as a body that made a preliminary evaluation of suppliants. Second is the public character of the prohibition. This, too, suits supplication at the altar of a council. In adducing these particulars, we must assume that the procedure was the same at Erythrae as at Athens, but we know it was the same at Samos as Athens. 9

Besides drawing attention to the fourth step in supplication, the phrases “to become a suppliant” and “to receive a suppliant” signal awareness of a process. In this respect, these phrases differ from hiketeuô and related words, which show awareness of an act. If only because it lacks a middle voice, Latin lacks comparable phrases. Instead, a suppliant in a Latin source performs a gesture or expresses an attitude, supplico, and a supplicandus “receives” a suppliant in the active, accipio. 10 The awareness of process is Greek.


(1.) In approximate chronological order: Hdt. 1.73.6; Th. 1.136.3; E.IA 1156; Isoc. 4.59, 4.63, 12.169, 12.194; Dem. Ex. 24.3; D.S. 11.56.1, 11.92.1, 13.24.1; J. BJ 1.393–94; Plut. QG 299d; Paus. 8.23.3, 9.5.1; App. BC 5.3.19; Ach. Tat. 8.2.2; Apollod. 1.9.24; Xen. Eph. 5.4.6; Plb. 38.20.1 and Clem. Strom. 6.3.28, with paragignomai; and Suid., s.v. “῎Εφορος, and Eust. ad Il. 14.260. Two where the suppliant is dismissed: D.S. 11.56.1, 11.92.1. Successful only temporarily: D.S. 13.24.1.

(2.) J. BJ 1.393–94, Isoc. 12.169, 12.194 (both Eurystheus); Plut. QG 299d.

(3.) In approximate chronological order: Il. 9.480; 23.89, Hes. fr. 257, M‐W A. Supp. 27; S. OC 44; Isoc. 4.63; Xen. Cyr. 4.6.8; schol. ad Il. 1.23; Plut. Per. 31.3; App. BC 1.3.26, 5.3.19; J. BJ 6.356–57, Apollod. 3.5.9; D.C. 42.43.4, 42.49.2, Paus. 3.5.6; Lucianus VH 2.21, Apollon. Lex. 15.3. ὡς ἰκέτην: Hld. 2.21.7.

(4.) Lindos: SEG XXXIX 729.6. Cyrene: line 55 at Servais, “Suppliants.” 117–18.

(5.) Habicht, “Hellenistische Inschriften” #9, 1.21. Also negative: D.C. 42.43.4.

(6.) Th. 1.24.7.

(7.) Th. 1.103.3; Paus. 8.23.3, 9.5.1.

(8.) IG i3 14.21–29 = M‐L #40.21–29 and Tod #1.29.21–29, especially the italicized words; the spelling is regularized as in Tod.

  • […] τω̑ν φ [υγά] δων [κατ]αδέχσομαι οὐδ[ὲ] ἕνα οὔτ […]
  • [ἄλλω]ι πείσο [μ] α [ι τω̑ν ἐς] Μήδους φε [υ]γό[ντω]ν ἄνευ τη̑[ς] βου [λη̑ς τη̑ς]
  • [᾽Αθη] ναίων καὶ [του̑] δήμου οὐδὲ τω̑ν μενόντων ἐχσελω̑ [ἄ] ν [ευ] τη̑ς β [ου]‐
  • [λη̑ς] τη̑ς᾽ Αθηναίων καὶ [του̑] δήμου.

As explained by Highby, Erythrae Decree, 24 n. 3, the words “those who have fled” are repeated.

(9.) As shown by LSCG #123 = Michel #371, where a suppliant is deemed legitimate by the Samian Council.

(10.) Accipio vel sim. including instances in which the verb is passive and the supplicandus is the agent: B. Alex. 32.3, Caes. Gal. 1.28.2, Ov. Met. 7.300, V. Max. 4.1.7, V. A. 3.666.