BMCR 2003.06.20

“Drum bietet zum Bunde die Hände”: Rechtssymbolische Akte in zwischenstaatlichen Beziehungen im orientalischen und griechisch-römischen Altertum. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 5

, "Drum bietet zum Bunde die Hände" : rechtssymbolische Akte in zwischenstaatlichen Beziehungen im orientalischen und griechisch-römischen Altertum. Potsdamer altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge ; Bd. 5. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2002. 223 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515080791. EUR 50.00.

[The Parthian king Artabanus] gave him his right hand. This is of the greatest force there with all these barbarians, and affords a firm security to those who converse with them; for none of them will deceive you when once they have given you their right hands, nor will any one doubt of their fidelity, when that is once given, even though they were before suspected of injustice.1

So Josephus describes diplomacy among the first-century CE tribes that inhabited areas to the east of Mesopotamia. Josephus’s belief in an idyllic state of social interaction inherent in the body has not completely left us—there are times when I hesitate to shake hands with someone with whom I may not find myself in complete agreement, and times that I feel I’ve somehow betrayed myself when I do. The longing for an innate system of checks and balances between mind and body—that the body should, no, must be superior to the dissimulating mind—has informed ethnographic writing since its inception, and it is still present among many scholars of antiquity searching for the significance that gesture, body language, and physical deportment must have held for the ancients. In this ambitious monograph, Silke Knippschild (henceforth K.) surveys some of humanity’s earliest textual and visual evidence for how potentially hostile societies use the body to forge alliances and seal agreements. Perhaps looking at these ur-performances can provide some glimpse into how our bodies, when not yet affected by millennia of meddlesome minds, once spoke truly.

The “rechtssymbolische Akte” of this volume’s title comprise the various forms of non-verbal communication that can be employed to provide formal validity to any agreement between states (175). The author’s treatment is straightforward and systematic. The first four chapters treat aspects of behavior that directly involve the body: the use of the right hand (especially in the handshake); the raising of the hand or hands; touching, either of one’s self, an object, or the other party in the pact; and nodding. The subsequent four chapters discuss interactions that involve the exchange or sharing of goods: gift giving, eating and/or drinking together, the exchange of tokens in guest friendship, anointing. Within each chapter the topics are treated by the geographic region in which they are practiced. For most chapters, this entails a chronological order of 1) Ancient Near East; 2) ancient Persia and environs (where the majority of examples are drawn from Greek and Roman authors writing about the region); 3) the Greek world; 4) Rome and her empire. Except for purposes of comparison, manifestations of these same gestures and acts in private contexts or beyond these designated areas receive little attention. The volume concludes with interesting speculations on the origins and development of these particular modes of inter-state communication. The author’s apparent willingness to accept at face value the assumptions underlying the Josephus passage with which I opened—and others like it—anticipates the tone of these concluding speculations.

K. maintains in the introduction (9-15) that treaties and alliances among these ancient peoples were validated through a combination of oath and other actions. While much scholarly discussion has been devoted to the oath and its accompanying rituals, there has hitherto existed no overall survey of the other acts that helped to maintain balance among different states.2 Each of the acts covered either stands in metonymy for an achieved state of union or shows sincere willingness to work toward such a union. Among cultures having high degrees of illiteracy and possessing considerable linguistic differences (especially in the Ancient Near East), the author claims that it was essential, both on public monuments and in large assemblies, that these physical actions be unambiguously understood by viewers within the community. It is this common body language that subsequent chapters examine in detail.

The first chapter, constituting nearly a quarter of the book’s argument, treats the use of the right hand, especially in the handshake (17-54). In each region surveyed, both visual depictions and textual descriptions use joined hands (throughout the chapter it is unclear whether they are in fact “shaken”) to symbolize a public alliance. In opposition, both the literal act and the figure of speech “to withdraw the hand” signals an actor’s refusal to enter into or renew an alliance. In the Greek and Roman worlds, joining of the hands is also well attested in private contexts to denote guest-friendship, and of course still performs an important function as an “access ritual” in modern times. The gesture, the author concludes, transcended linguistic and cultural barriers, acting as a ” lingua franca” of non-verbal communication (52).

Chapter 2 treats the lifting of the hand(s), either at face-level or toward the sky, and normally in the direction of the other party (55-63). The similarity to the common prayer gesture that is attested for all these regions prompts K. to hypothesize that the raising of the hands in these situations accompanies an oath in which the two parties are calling on the gods as witnesses to the proceedings. The hypothesis is well supported by an array of evidence, ranging from the Old Testament to Homeric epic to the late-Roman reliefs from the pulpitum of the theater at Sabratha.

Physical contact other than the handshake forms the subject of Chapter 3 (64-91). The topic is subdivided into three activities: touching/kissing a potential ally’s hem or body part (feet, knees, genitals, head); touching one’s own body (breast, throat, hair); touching a sacred object (ground, altar, relic). The author works through a large assortment of evidence to divide these bodily movements into two distinct sets. The first set is employed in the swearing of an oath to confirm an alliance ( Schwurgesten). Touching an object endowed with special power resembles the gestures of Chapter 2: the person vowing guarantees the oath’s sanctity by calling to witness through physical contact the earth, the god of an altar, or the person associated with a relic. Contrarily, touching one’s own body while swearing implies the offering of one’s life as a security (it is surprising here that K. does not cite as further support for this category the alleged etymology of Latin testis). The second set comprises gestures that express duty or subservience through some form of self-degradation ( Verpflichtungsgebärden). To this category belongs contact with another person’s clothing or body part (other than the hand). The only exception is the touching of a father’s genitals (or perhaps inner thigh), a form of contact that appears in the Old Testament; this gesture seems to represent the swearing of an oath with one’s father as witness. K. concludes the chapter by pointing out that, while touching objects or parts of the body seems in all the areas surveyed to be a common means of expressing some form of alliance, the manifestation of what is touched and why remains culture-specific (the Greek and Roman tradition, for example, disapproves of the “foreign custom” of touching or kissing the feet, whereas the common Graeco-Roman form of touching the knees in supplication is attested in the Ancient Near East only as a form of greeting). The author returns to this intriguing observation in her concluding chapter.

A brief but interesting fourth chapter follows on nodding (94-99). The head nod occupies a unique position in K.’s account. Like other acts, the nod appears in a ceremonial context to signify the sealing or breaking of an agreement, but its use seems restricted to Greece and Rome (and in the latter perhaps only metaphorically or in texts influenced by the Greek epic tradition). This contrasts with the use of the nod in greeting, which occurs in some form in most known cultures. The great head nod of Zeus (Hom. Il. 1.524-530) looms over this discussion and, the author suggests, perhaps explains why the practice is particularly common in the Greek world.

After a fifth chapter summarizing the use of gesture in inter-state relations (100-102), the following three chapters turn to those aspects of communication that do not entail the use of specific parts of the body.

Chapter 6 surveys the familiar territory of gift exchange (103-135). The basic claim is hardly surprising: giving and receiving gifts is common in ratifying both public and private alliances, whereas refusal of a gift indicates the opposite. The context does, however, provide perspective on some archaeological data (e.g., 116-117, on the Egyptian royal objects found at Ebla). There is also an interesting discussion of the potential of using gifts not to alleviate tensions between communities but to expose them (119). The chapter consists mostly, however, of narrating examples, some quite familiar, with little analysis, and culminates, inevitably, in a reference to potlatch.

Chapter 7 looks at ways in which shared meals and communal drinking confirm an alliance (136-150). The author makes use of all possible types of evidence—epigraphic, artistic, textual—and includes examples from outside antiquity in her attempt to demonstrate that convivial eating and drinking is a human universal. Sharing sustenance creates a common bond of humanity, regardless of what form that sustenance takes, and this type of bonding translates naturally into a way of establishing relationships between states. Despite these claims of identifying a human universal, however, the author is able to find no example of communal dining between Rome and its allies (as we learn later on 171). The silence of the Roman evidence is especially intriguing and is one for which K. can offer no explanation.

The use of tokens to mark guest-friendship is the subject of Chapter 8 (151-158). As with common meals, it would seem intuitive that this practice evolved from a means of establishing ties among individuals within a community to its wider application here, of uniting powerful individuals with states. The tokens themselves, made of strong material such as bronze and ivory, could be temporary, to provide safe passage through foreign territory, or were able to show more permanent peace between peoples. The practice originates in Greece ( symbola) and Rome ( tesserae hospitales) and from there spreads “from Spain to the Crimea,” as manifest both in textual references and material remains. The use of tokens, therefore, provides the book’s only example of influence moving from west to east. Although the author conjectures without real argument that the weaker sense of the notion of a “state” may explain the late adoption of the practice in the Near East, it strikes me as more likely that the symbols for alliance already practiced in the Ancient Near East were sufficient for the needs of those communities.

In Chapter 9 K. concludes her catalog with a practice that is peculiar to the Ancient Near East, that of anointing (159-168). Salves and oils are employed in two distinct roles in inter-state relations: first, as a gift from an established ruler for the coronation ceremony of an ally who has newly ascended to the throne; second, as part of a ritual for sealing an alliance. In this latter ritual use, the gods are called on to use oil to curse any potential breaker of an oath. By analogy with other Schwurgesten regarding oath-breaking, such as touching one’s throat or breast, the oil seems to have become part of the body of the participants in the alliance. K. conjectures that the ritual itself, for which there is no independent evidence, must have involved the participants rubbing themselves with the ointment until the oils are perceived as having become part of their flesh. By this reconstruction, both of these early uses of anointing would reflect the presence of divine will in the ointment, in the one case empowering the newly chosen regent, in the other preserving the sanctity of the oath.

The concluding Chapter 10 (169-175) provides a succinct recapitulation of the entire book and then proceeds to two particular questions: which acts represent intercultural borrowing, and what circumstances may have determined when a particular act would be used? Repeating her earlier points about the contrasting origins and diffusion of these rites (e.g., hand-shaking appears to be universally recognized in creating alliances, while anointing occurs only in the east and the use of tokens only in the west), K. is convincingly able to refute the notion sometimes held that the Ancient Near East formed a “diplomatic canon” of rites that gradually found its way to the Greek world and then to the Roman empire. Her alternative hypothesis, however, is offered in so short a compass (barely two pages) as to be hardly more persuasive. Adopting a model from ethology, especially as developed by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, K. proposes that human beings, embodying the conflicting qualities of being social but aggressive, naturally develop coping mechanisms that allow them to form working relationships with fellow members of their family, be they superiors, inferiors, or equals. The most successful mechanisms are then used at the level of the group and then, ultimately, in establishing relationships with other, non-related groups. Those acts most successful in dealing with equals are, as her earlier discussion has indicated, the joining of hands and the sharing of food or drink, while inferior members of the group (and hence inferior states) initiate acts that promote physically degrading postures, namely those of touching the lower parts of the potential ally’s body such as the knee or foot. This model certainly makes sense in the abstract, but it is offered far too suddenly and developed too quickly to be anything more than suggestive. It also allows K. to have it both ways: in order for this developmental model to work between groups, one must assume that the same processes of selection and rejection of acts take place independently and in the same ways for each separate group, despite different historical moments and different cultural circumstances. Perhaps this is true (after all, when Cain went east to the land of Nod, he succeeded in finding a mate), but it is an abrupt way to conclude an otherwise sober and careful analysis.

It is perhaps inevitable that a work dealing with such a broad range of cultures, languages, and epochs (from 2450 BCE to the fourth century CE) is going to be wanting in the close linguistic analysis that typifies other works on legal symbolism (e. g., Malul’s study of Mesopotamia, cited in note 2). It would be interesting and fruitful if specialists in each of the fields traversed by K. could bring linguistic evidence to play to test her claims for the universal symbolism of certain practices or for their diffusion. From this perspective, the absence of an index locorum is especially regrettable.

The systematic arrangement of each portion of this work makes it accessible to specialists in all the fields surveyed, and its ambitious range is sure to prompt discussion and reflection. It will be profitably consulted by all those working in any region of the ancient world on ritual action and the role of the body in communication.


1. Joseph. AJ 18.329, trans. W. Whiston.

2. The ancient use of non-verbal communication in private law has, as the author points out, received more attention. See especially M. Malul, Studies in Mesopotamian Legal Symbolism. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 221 (Darmstadt 1988) and C. Sittl, Die Gebärden der Griechen und Römer (Leipzig 1890).