Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.16

Marta Pedrina, La supplication sur les vases grecs. Mythes et images. Biblioteca di “Eidola” 2.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2017.  Pp. 390.  ISBN 9788862271868.  €115,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mariachiara Franceschini, University of Zürich (

In this new publication, based on her PhD thesis at the University of Padova and at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales de Paris, Marta Pedrina focuses on the notion of supplication and its visual and literary representation. The author is well acquainted with the problems of analysing non-verbal communication on figured pottery. In her first book she took a structuralistic approach on gestures of grief in funerary scenes.1 That study provided her with a starting point for considering the relationship between myth, ritual and different kinds of gestures. Her research fits into a trend focusing on gestures, their iconography and interpretation, which has gained particular attention – not least in Padova – in recent years. 2

After a brief preface by F. Lissarrague contextualising the book, Pedrina introduces (pp. 17–27) some methodological problems and different interpretations connected with the hiketeia. First, she discusses former studies on the vocabulary and the iconography of supplication and uses examples from different ancient Greek sources, especially the Homeric poems and the tragedies. She concludes that both the use of different terms connected with supplication and the notion of hiketeia remain complex to define and could fall under the definition and representation of other rituals. Before analysing different cases, Pedrina points out that since supplication is not a well-defined ritual and its gestures could have ambiguous meanings if not connected to a specific situation, the corpus she has collected is not uniform; rather, it can be divided into different series, each discussed in a chapter in order to bring out the visual and verbal logic of supplication practices (p. 27).

Prior to the analysis of representations on vases, Pedrina clarifies some notions of the term for the sitting-posture of the supplicant in ancient Greek (pp. 29–49). The philological discussion of vocabulary in relation to the images is also carried out usefully throughout the book. From several examples taken mainly from epic poetry and Greek tragedy, the verb ἕζομαι and other derivative terms appear to be used to express a sense of passive immobility or the supplicant falling dead – which are intended as both a physical and a mental condition. In other cases, like that of Thetis, the author emphasizes the rapid moment, with strong persuasive impact, of the supplicant falling to the feet of the supplicated and embracing his knees. Furthermore, the poetic use of some literary constructs stresses how the supplicant places himself in the hand of the divinity, the person, or the city he is praying to; thus, by belonging to them in some sense, he stages a ritual of adoption and recognition, as in Telephus’ case.

The second chapter concentrates on the depiction of Priam being killed by Neoptolemus at the altar, which appears frequently on vases from the sixth to the end of the fifth century BC (pp. 51–88). Pedrina develops different patterns connected with the images and reflects on the use of several added characters, referring both to the myth and to the oikos. She traces the changes in the iconography and differentiates between representations of Priam sitting or lying (as if he were about to fall backwards) on the altar. Sometimes, the supplication gesture is made not by Priam but by a woman behind him. Additional figures like Polyxena or Cassandra strongly underline not only the violation of the xenia, but also the act of hybris, since killing the king on the altar of Zeus represents a serious offense to the deity. The presence of other family members thus helps to better understand the complexity of this kind of violated supplication; the interference between war and oikos emphasizes the mélange of supplication with the rituals of mourning and sacrifice, such that the supplication becomes an anticipation of death. As is well shown with the example of the Seven against Thebes, women are also in charge of protecting the altar and with it all the rituals and traditions that constitute the oikos.

The third chapter (pp. 89–131) deals with representations of women searching for protection from men at altars; they can be recognised as several tragic figures, such as Eriphyle, Creusa or Helen and are described as sacrificial victims of the hybris of a warrior. The gesture of uncovering the breasts while stretching the hands towards the aggressor refers to some characters of Euripides’ tragedy, such as Hecuba, Jocasta, Eriphyle or Clytaemnestra and stresses the role of women as masters in the art of seduction as well as supplication. Some rare images on Attic vases refer to the matricide of Eriphyle by Alcmeon or sporadically to the killing of Cassandra. Not only does the violated supplication assume the character of a sacrifice or a funeral ritual, but Pedrina also emphasizes its ambiguity and interference with images of seduction and erotic pursuit. Also relevant is the replacement of the altar with the tomb, which in the Choephoroi highlights the family line between the father and the progeny, thus ensuring the survival of the memory of the oikos. After comparing the death of Megara with the rescue of Alcmene by Zeus, Pedrina concludes the chapter with an analysis of several iconographic expedients on vases from Magna Graecia and Sicily that represent Alcmene on the pyre – no longer connoting a place of death, but a refuge – in which seductive power and the direct link with the deity are highlighted.

The following two chapters deal with two interconnected supplicants: Telephus (pp. 133–161) and Orestes (pp. 163–188). The figure of the wounded Telephus, sitting or kneeling on the altar, seems to be characterized by silence (p. 136). Similarly, his images do not depict the usual supplication gestures, which are instead often addressed by the little Orestes to his father. Consequently, in this case, the observer anticipates the peaceful outcome of the conflict. The iconographic connection of the child’s gesture with images of the young Achilles or Erichthonius, towards Peleus and Athena respectively, highlights the Athenian rebirth of both Telephus and Orestes. The chapter dedicated to Telephus closes with a review of some South Italian vases where the presence of Clytaemnestra alludes to the future conflictual story of the oikos of Agamemnon, which leads us to Orestes. His supplication after the matricide introduces new aspects of interference to the notion of hiketeia – now inextricably linked to madness and the concept of purification. Orestes – persecuted and “hunted” like prey by the Erynnis – kneels on the altar (like Telephus), brandishing his sword. The author emphasizes the frequency in iconography and vocabulary of a more active concept of supplication connected with Orestes, which focuses on the tense relationship between supplicant and supplicated. The almost aggressive condition of the prostropaios, in contrast to the passive condition of the hikétes, is more appropriate to the mania that dominates Orestes. The links among supplication, madness and purification are clearly emphasized in South Italian imagery and find a literary confirmation in the Oresteia. The interaction between supplication and recognition returns Telephus to his Greek identity, while purification gives Orestes his homeland back; this is to be reread, according to Pedrina, in light of the Periclean reforms, the political context in Athens of the middle of the fifth century and the Argive-Athenian alliance (see pp. 133–140, 185–188). 3

In the following chapter Pedrina discusses the cases in which desperate supplication has a violent outcome (pp. 189–218). In the tragedies, the vocabulary draws attention to the condition of physical fall and submission; the supplication itself borders on funeral lamentation and applies, as does the iconography, both to female figures and to defeated warriors collapsing before the enemy. The most representative image, however, remains that of Cassandra kneeling at the simulacrum of Athena. These scenes highlight the visual interactions among altar, oikos and funeral bed (thus, among supplication, sacrifice and funeral ritual). The compositions denote Cassandra not only as violated parthenos, a victim of sexual assault, but also as missed bride. The supplication, moreover, is configured as an escape from a pursuer: the woman’s posture stresses even more clearly the brutality of Ajax’s outrage. Furthermore, Cassandra’s iconography alludes to different amorous pursuits or aggressions, such as that of the Lapith women, thus placing Ajax on the level of the Centaurs.

The last chapter deals with the gesture of extended hands, which illustrates the tension between the supplicant and the supplicated (pp. 219–252). The ambiguity of this posture is first emphasized by the story of Nessus chased by Heracles. Depending on who stretches out the hands, the gesture connotes a request for salvation (by Nessus) or help (by Deianira), where, once again, some overlapping with marriage rituals is evoked through gestures of “taking possession” and of anacalypsis. Stretching out the hands also verbalizes the request of Priam addressing Achilles with his plea to redeem his son’s body. In this case, touching the chin also forces the supplicant to pay attention, responding to a precise persuasive rhetoric linked to prayer and funeral lamentation.

In the conclusion, the author highlights the main results of her work (pp. 253–261). In partial summary, supplication, precisely because the ritual is not uniform, permits free forms and arrangements and allows for further innovations; thus, the author does not speak of “supplication scenes”, but rather of “gestures of supplication” that appear to be independent from the shape and function of vases. Pedrina has clearly pointed out the complex and ambiguous character of the hiketeia, which is linked to the sphere of suffering, prayer and marriage and should also be understood as a rite of passage. The interconnection between public and private spaces, e.g., among oikos, polis and sanctuary, seems to reflect historical conditions and events. Moreover, the supplicant is always a defenceless and unprotected person, and is, therefore, usually embodied by females (or at least the elderly and children), hence the ambiguity between supplication and seduction.

The end covers the catalogue of the 115 examined vases (except for a very few, they are all depicted on the plates at the end of the book, together with other useful images for comparison, which allow the reader to follow the argumentation more easily), the bibliography and the analytical index.

The book presents an excellent selection of sources. Not only are some good examples of figured vases examined, but also a wide collection of literary sources to support topics and arguments. As a result, Pedrina manages to systematically offer a wider vision of notion, gesture and literary verbalization of the ritual of supplication. The author feels comfortable discussing iconographical issues and analysing the vocabulary of supplication, and in this dialogue between archaeological and philological sources the reader recognizes the outcome of a rooted perception of classical studies as a whole – in the sense of Altertumswissenschaft. The discussion is supported by a range of previous studies on the subject, on which the author properly draws for her argumentations. I personally approve the thematic classification Pedrina has chosen, since “la posture et les gestes des supplicants en image sont étroitement liés à l’histoire mythique qui les caractérise” (p. 25). Pedrina successfully places a strong focus on gestures – painted or described – and on the many nuances of interpretation. She cannot avoid some repetition, which, however, has the positive effect of emphasizing some concepts and ideas persisting throughout the work. Thus, they convey the impression of a strategically woven web of internal references that inextricably link not only the protagonists of the supplication, but also some recurring key notions among the different myths and rites.


1.   M. Pedrina, I gesti del dolore nella ceramica attica, VI – V secolo. Per un’analisi della conversazione non verbale nel mondo greco (Venice 2001).
2.   As examples of researches on gesture in Padova s. M. Baggio, I gesti della seduzione. Tracce di comunicazione non-verbale nella ceramica greca tra VI e IV secolo a.C. (Rome 2004); M. Salvadori – M. Baggio (ed.), Gesto-immagine: tra antico e moderno. Riflessioni sulla comunicazione non-verbale, giornata di studio, Isernia, 18 aprile 2007 (Rome 2009); F. Ghedini, ”I gesti del dolore nelle metamorfosi di Ovidio”, Eidola, 12 (2015) 97–110; M. Salvadori, ”Archeologia del gesto. Status quaestionis”, Eidola, 12 (2015) 9–17.
3.   On the relation between the Orestes-Myth and the political/historical situation, see also M. Griffith, ”Brilliant Dynasts. Power and Politics in the Oresteia”, ClAnt, 14 (1995) 62–129.

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