'Ambassadors', Tracing the History of Diplomacy

Author Jonathan Wright

hide captionAuthor Jonathan Wright

Paul Kildea

Historian Jonathan Wright's new book examines diplomacy and diplomats from antiquity to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He talks about his latest work, The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe, the Men Who Introduced the World to Itself

Excerpt: The Ambassadors

Detail from cover of 'The Ambassadors'

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I swear by Zeus, Gê, Helios, Poseidon, Athena, Ares and all the gods and goddesses. I shall abide in peace and I shall not infringe the treaty with Philip of Macedon. Neither by land nor by sea shall I bear arms with injurious intent against any party which abides by the oath, and I shall refrain from the capture by any device or stratagem of any city, fortification or harbour of the parties who abide by the Peace. I shall not subvert the monarchy of Philip and his successors... If anyone perpetrates any act in contravention of the terms of the agreement I shall render assistance accordingly as the wronged party may request and I shall make war upon him who contravenes the Common Peace.... and I shall not fall ¬short.

— -The oath of the Greek city-states when joining the League of Corinth, 338 B.C.10

In the eleventh century B.C., during the reign of Ramesses XI, an Egyptian envoy named Wen Amun travelled to Lebanon to buy timber for the sacred barque of the god Amun¬re. Much like Iosip Nepea, his journey was plagued with bad fortune. At the port of Dor in the Nile delta he was robbed of all his money, although he quickly made good his loss by seizing an equivalent quantity of silver on board a ship bound for the Syrian port of Byblos.

The prince of Byblos was distinctly unimpressed by the arrival of an Egyptian envoy. He lacked written credentials, he had brought no gifts, so there was little incentive to provide him with precious timber. Wen Amun sent word to his superiors and they quickly dispatched four jars of gold, five jars of silver, five hundred ox hides, twenty sacks of lentils, and thirty baskets of fish. The gambit was successful, and Wen Amun purchased his timber from a suddenly much more amenable ruler.

Just before departing from Byblos, the men from whom Wen Amun had seized the silver arrived at court demanding justice. The prince took the night to mull over the envoy’s fate, though he was sure to treat Wen Amun courteously during his temporary captivity — providing him with wine, food, and an Egyptian singer. The next morning the prince announced that since Wen Amun was an official envoy, he was immune from arrest.

Wen Amun embarked on his homeward journey only to encounter a storm that forced him to put ashore on Cyprus. The startled local people were intent on massacring the envoy and his crew, but Wen Amun begged for the right to plead for his life with the local princess, Hatiba. Mercifully, one of the locals could speak Egyptian, and he set about translating the envoy’s threatening words. Wen Amun insisted on his ambassadorial immunity, and warned the princess that killing a Byblian crew would be a calamitous error of judgment. If she killed his crew, the ruler of Byblos would hunt down and kill ten of hers. Once again, Wen Amun skirted disaster and continued on his trek home.

His story is exceptional — a detailed ambassadorial adventure that just happened to survive on a roll of Egyptian papyrus. The sources are rarely so generous. In the centuries since the Amarna period, the work of envoys, messengers, and ambassadors continued, just as it always would. All of the civilizations of the ancient world — whether Vedic India, the Cretan Minoans and the Greek Mycenaeans of the Mediterranean, the Assyrians and Babylonians of the Near East, or the tribes of Bronze Age Europe — had need of envoys. They fostered trade, brokered alliances, carried tribute, and the rest. But almost without exception, they did so locally, with immediate or none¬too¬distant neighbors. The era of the continent¬traversing ambassador had not yet dawned.

Across much of Eurasia, however, the second half of the first millennium B.C. can be understood as an era of consolidation. The first great, stable Chinese empires were emerging, coming to dominate the politics of East Asia, and in India, by the fourth century B.C., the first empire to genuinely hold sway across much of the subcontinent had appeared. In the Near East, the bridge between the two continents, the Assyrian Empire, had fallen by the end of the seventh century B.C., replaced by a series of redoubtable Persian empires — the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and finally, in the first centuries a.d., the Sassanids. The links between these civilizations were fragile, their knowledge of one another limited — but this was soon to change. As in much else, Greece led the way.

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