Diplomacy is the basic means of communication between states or rulers for settling disputes. Unlike modern nations, ancient Greece and Rome did not have professional diplomats, nor were there permanent offices or institutions to deal with foreign powers until the later Roman Empire. Nevertheless, both the Greeks and the Romans carried out many formal diplomatic exchanges, creating almost all the elements of modern diplomacy.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* orator public speaker of great skill
Greek Diplomacy. At first, Greek diplomacy was concerned with relations among the city-states* and only later with relations between city-states and non-Greek powers such as Persia. Greek diplomacy grew out of ancient Greek customs. City-states shared a common language as well as common religious practices and beliefs, prompting them to cooperate with one another in caring for religious shrines and holding festivals or games. The Athenian orator* Isocrates related how such events forged links among city-states:
Now the founders of our great festivals are justly praised for handing down to us a custom by which, having proclaimed a truce, and resolved our pending quarrels, we come together in one place, where, as we make our prayers and sacrifices in common, we are reminded of the kinship that exists among us and are made to feel more kindly toward each other for the future, reviving our old friendships and establishing new ties.
These ties led to new agreements on such matters as humane conduct during war. The city-states made alliances with other city-states to preserve the peace or to come to one another’s aid in case of attack by outsiders. Some Greek communities entered into regional alliances called leagues that began as religious associations but later acquired political influence.
The only diplomatic term specifically coined by the Greeks was proxenoi, or “state-friends.” The word was first used in the early seventh century B.C. and probably developed from personal ties of friendship and hospitality (xenia) between members of different city-states. A proxenos was appointed by a foreign city-state to serve in his home state. For example, Callias, an Athenian citizen, was appointed by Sparta to serve as the Spartan proxenos in Athens. It was the duty of the proxenos to receive ambassadors and also to serve as an advisor in legal and economic matters for the visiting citizens of the appointing state. The title was often held by leading politicians and sometimes became hereditary*, although the assignment was not permanent and could be withdrawn.
In Greek city-states, citizen councils and assemblies made all decisions about foreign relations. Such decisions were matters of public debate. Greeks expressed suspicion of rulers who held secret negotiations with foreign powers or made secret treaties, as some Macedonian kings and Roman emperors did. Still, Greek politicians sometimes envied the ability of these rulers to make quick decisions.
Roman Diplomacy. One of Rome’s goals was expansion. Sometimes, regions were annexed* into the Roman state through conquest or negotiation. Primarily, though, Roman foreign relations focused on making nations feel they owed loyalty to Rome, without taking away their independence. Rome’s main contribution to diplomacy was the establishment of a “law of nations,” or a set of rules for international relations that covered such matters as the proper methods of declaring war and negotiating peace. Although Romans were not concerned about preserving the equality or rights of other states, they were concerned with the religious implications of starting a war. They did not want to appear to be the aggressor, so they made sure their foreign relations were executed in what they judged to be the correct, legal way.
Rome maintained 20 officials, called fetiales, who carried out the rituals and proceedings that the Romans believed made a war just and righteous. Fetiales were required to make Rome’s grievances known to the enemy. If Rome received no satisfactory response and war was declared, the fetiales recited certain phrases on the enemy’s border and threw a spear into the enemy’s territory. In the case of a distant enemy, the fetiales could hurl the spear near a special “column of war” in Rome. When Rome made peace with an enemy, the fetiales announced the terms of peace and sacrificed a pig. This ceremony meant that if Rome were the first to break the treaty, the city would be under a curse.
Roman decisions about foreign policy came from the Senate or the emperor. Only during the later years of the empire did Rome have the beginnings of a diplomatic service, in which specialists with expert knowledge of hundreds of years of treaties advised the emperors in matters of foreign relations.
Envoys and Treaties. Both the Greeks and the Romans appointed temporary officials, called envoys, to carry messages to other states and to conduct diplomatic negotiations. Even in times of war, envoys were protected and almost always given safe passage. The Greeks and Romans expected
* hereditary passed by inheritance from one generation to the next their envoys to return home with favorable treaties, alliances, or promises of friendship from foreign powers. If they failed, they might be tried and punished. Rome, in particular, took the dignity of its envoys quite seriously. If a foreign power refused to meet with a Roman envoy, Rome interpreted the refusal as a declaration of war.
* annex to add a territory to an existing state
One of the most important tasks of diplomacy was that of negotiating treaties. Some treaties were temporary truces to allow battlefield commanders to bury their dead. Others were intended to be lasting agreements. Treaties ended wars, established territorial boundaries, regulated trade and immigration, created alliances, and in other ways spelled out the relationships among states. Rome used several kinds of treaties, depending upon whether it intended to treat the other state as an equal or as a subject territory. Through such treaties, Rome came to dominate Italy and much of the rest of the Mediterranean world. (See also Wars and Warfare, Greek; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)