BMCR 2003.06.05

Linguaggio e terminologia diplomatica dall’antico oriente all’impero bizantino. Atti del Convegno Nazionale, Genova 19 Novembre 1998. “Serta Antiqua et Mediaevalia” IV

, , , , , , Serta antiqua et mediaevalia.. V. 8: Scienze documentaire. Roma: G. Bretschneider, 1997-2006. volumes 1-6 : illustrations ; 26 cm.. ISBN 8876891358

In the present volume are gathered ten papers presented at a colloquium in Genoa. The meeting was promoted by the late professor Piccirilli ( 2002) and active participation was restricted to a board of well-established Italian professors, with prospects ranging from ancient Egypt to Persia, from classical Greece to Byzantium, to end up with some aspects of Rome’s international law. The volume is rather lavishly produced, is in large format and printed on quality heavy paper.

The article by Patrizia Piacentini, “La nascita della diplomazia in Egitto: principi e messaggeri nelle terre straniere”, pp. 3-14, is focused on the oldest ascertained contacts between Egypt and foreign countries, not only genuine diplomatic exchanges but also commercial and military relations. A kind of evidence that she gives special consideration to are the curses inscribed on clay figures bound to be crushed in order to magically annihilate those who were mentioned on them, like people from Nubia, Asia and the Libyans. It is, however, not very clear what role “messengers from the Nubian lands” ( snw), mentioned among the cursed, have. A key figure in ancient Egyptian diplomacy is the jaaw, which has the general meaning of “interpreter” and which can refer to Egyptians as well as to Nubians trained in Egyptian culture. Another group of people playing a key role in diplomatical contacts are the wpwtyw nswt, a title that most of the time suits a pharaoh’s envoy abroad. Study of some biographical materials (Herkhuf, Pepinakht) gives support to the conclusion that the Egyptians, though disguising the historical reality beneath an ideology of perennial victory and superiority, did know and apply the rules of the diplomatic game already by the IIIrd millennium BC.

Mario Liverani, “Formule di auto-umiliazione nelle lettere di El-Amarna”, stresses the importance of customary formulas in royal correspondence, helping the reader to appreciate the importance of tones and slight variations in addresses and epithets used in epistles, where even a minor change can be of significance. Another fertile field of exploration is that of exchange of greetings: here, in the customary sequence (statement about one’s own health and asking about the correspondent’s health), meaningful variations sometimes appear. In epistles addressed to vassals, for example, the pharaoh omits every kind of greeting and farewell, as if indifferent to his servant’s health, while the vassals compete in giving him epithets of exaltation and self-humiliating epithets to themselves. The paper’s subtitle Aveva il faraone i piedi sporchi di polvere? [“Were the pharaoh’s feet dirty with dust?”] is therefore alluding to one of the most frequent self-humiliating formulas, epru sa se-pe-ka (“I am the dust of your feet”): does one have to think that the pharaoh normally had his feet dirty with dust? jokes the author, who prefers to interpret the formula as “I am earth trampled by your feet”, an explanation which does not seem entirely convincing to me, given the image found in the New Testament (e.g. Matth. 10, 14: If anyone will not receive you or listen to what you say then as you leave that house or that town shake the dust of it off your feet), showing how dust attached to feet was a common feature in biblical times.

Giuseppe Nenci ( 2000), “La formula della richiesta della terra e dell’acqua nel lessico diplomatico achemenide”, further develops a theme already treated by Amélie Kuhrt, that of the request of earth and water by the envoys of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes. This symbolic request, as far as our main source Herodotus allows us to know, was specifically addressed to people of three nations, the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Scythians, with different results: not all Greeks did in fact comply with the request; on the contrary, the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians threw the Persian envoys in a trench and in a well respectively, inviting them to take from there the water and the earth to bring back to their king (Her. VII, 133, 1), while the Macedonians, who had formerly committed a similar atrocity toward the Persian envoys, this time complied with the request. Finally the Scythians, after declaring that they hailed as their own master none other than Zeus and Hestia, in the end sent some equally symbolic gifts, a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows, whose meaning was not entirely clear. As for the request of earth and water, though it may have had a different meaning in a Sasanid (i.e. late Persian) context, as argued by Kuhrt with reference to a passage in Faustus Byzantinus, the most obvious explanation is still that by it the Persians intended to have acknowledged their superiority by both land and sea.

Domenico Musti, “La “syngheneia” e la “oikeiotes”: sinonimi o nuances?”, is a state of the question, stimulated by the rich recent bibliography, about the subject “syngheneia”, already treated by the same author in a rather earlier essay (1963). The main thesis is that, in inscriptions referring to bonds of kinship between political entities, the terms referring to kinship (syngheneia) and familiarity (oikeiotes) should not be considered as perfect synonyms, because the second is more general and comprehensive than the former and does not necessarily include kinship. This difference has been well-illustrated in a contribution by A. Erskine, “Delos, Aineias and IG XI.4.756”, in ZPE 117, 1997, 133-136, concerning an inscription from Delos (now also in my Iscrizioni Storiche Ellenistiche III, 155), where it is acutely shown how the story of the passage of Aeneas through Delos and the renewal of a relation of hospitality and friendship with Anius, priest of Apollo, is the real basis to the claim of oikeiotes uniting Delos to the Romans in historical (hellenistic) times.

Luigi Piccirilli, “L’invenzione della diplomazia: temi del linguagio e caratteristiche degli ambasciatori nella Grecia antica” is an intermediate step in the author’s continuing effort to produce a thorugh study on Greek diplomacy in the classical age. Indeed the existing treatises (even those of D.J. Mosley) are far from giving an exhaustive picture of the subject. Piccirilli deals synthetically but lucidly with some central topics related to the key figure of the ambassador (his age, bodily appearance and rhetorical gifts) and to the practice of diplomatic exchanges (the themes of justice and utiliity, the claim to former alliances or relations of kinship), and his paper will certainly be of great service to further studies on the subject. (This article has also been published in a broader version in Museum Helveticum LVIII, 2001, 1-31 and as a monograph, L’invenzione della diplomazia nella Grecia antica, L’Erma di Bretschneider, Roma 2002.)

Lia R. Cresci, “Eredità del mondo greco e innovazioni nel linguaggio diplomatico a Bisanzio”, is a very interesting look at the diplomacy of middle ages. The author stresses on one side how the envoys from Byzantium were instructed in diplomatic practice with the textbook of the excerpta de legationibus, drawn from ancient historians at the issue of king Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and on the other side their versatility in adapting their rhetorical skill to contemporary necessities and trends, like the claim of homothreskeia, that is sharing of Christian faith, that becomes a theme of appeasement in relations with newly evangelised barbaric people.

Paolo Desideri, “Varrone e il concetto di pace a Roma”, deals with a well known Roman embassy [numbered 46 in F. Canali De Rossi, Le ambascerie romane ad gentes, Roma 2000, available on request], by which Q. Fabius Maximus went to Carthage (according to other sources to Hannibal, then engaged in the siege of Saguntum) to present an ultimatum, the non-observance of which led to the outbreak of the Second Punic War. The essay is focused on the Varronian version of that story (missing in the collection of fragments of this author), which has come down to us through Gellius (X, 27) and also traceable both in the Digest (I, 2, 2, 37, from Pomponius), and in Cicero’s de officiis (I, 38): a singular feature of the Varronian version of the story (the Roman envoy, affirming he brings in his cloak’s folds either peace or war, asks his counterpart to choose what they want) is the symbolic materialization of peace and war on clay tablets, representing a caduceus and a spear respectively. The author believes that Varro is a target of Augustine (beside Vergil and Cicero) as he questions the legitimacy of Rome’s empire in the XIX book of De civitate Dei.

Giovanni Brizzi’s essay, “Fides, Mens, Nova Sapientia: radici greche nell’approccio di Roma a politica e diplomazia verso l’Oriente ellenistico” concerns the embassy of Q. Marcius Philippus to Macedonia in 172 BC [ Le ambascerie romane ad gentes, n. 102], a mission already dealt with in single articles by F.W. Walbank, JRS 31, 82-93 and J. Briscoe, JRS 54, 66-71. This embassy, deceiving king Perseus on the possibility of averting war, with the real aim of safely preparing the attack, is seen in the historical tradition as an example of calliditas, contrary to the principles of mos maiorum, and especially to the fides which used to inspire the Romans in their relation to other peoples. Brizzi, however, believes that Marcius’ attitude has its roots already in the Second Punic War, when the Romans, repeatedly outwitted by Hannibal’s sagacity, after consulting the Sybilline books dedicated a shrine to Mens, and committed the command of successive war operations to a provident general like Fabius Cunctator.

Alfredo Valvo’s essay, Formula amicorum, commercium amicitiae, φιλίας κοινωνία, is focused on the expression formula amicorum that figures in the Senatusconsultum de Asclepiade Clazomenio sociisque (Sherk, Roman Documents from the Greek East n. 22). It refers to the registration of Asclepiades and two other sea-captains who had served for Rome in the Bellum Italicum in the official role of friends of the Roman people : Valvo questions whether the formula amicorum is identical to the formula sociorum mentioned in other texts (e.g. concerning the Macedonian noble Onesimus, Liv. XLIV, 16, 7, or Olympichos, priest of Amphiaraus [Sherk, RDGE 23]). The other expression figuring in the title ( commercium amicitiae, φιλίας κοινωνία) is taken from Augustus’ Res Gestae, but here it seems that the author has omitted a part of the formula, that is legationum et amicitiae commercium ( PRESBEIW=N KAI φιλίας κοινωνία), as if there existed a ‘commerce of friendship’ as such, while the whole expression is rather to “exchange of embassies and friendly gestures”.

The contributions span a wide chronological range, but some are very limited in scope and would perhaps better figure as separate papers in a Festschrift than in what has been grandly termed a “Convegno Nazionale”, as they do not add substantially even to the limited themes they treat.1 Misprints do not occur frequently.2 Rather significant are a couple of slips, made in moving out of one’s narrow field: on p. 76 it is intentionally affirmed (by an historian of Greece) that Walbank dates the three scholarchs’ embassy to Rome to 158/7 (instead of 155 BC which is false. On p. 127 Lysander is styled (by a Roman historian) as a Spartan king. Some contributions are pleasingly readable, like that of Cresci, and some contain sketches of personal history, like that of Musti, which may be of interest to future biographers. But, as a result, the whole book is far from constituting the desired general work of reference on ancient diplomacy.


1. They miss important progress of recent scholarship in the field of Greek and Roman diplomacy, not just my Le ambascerie dal mondo greco a Roma in età repubblicana, but also, e.g., G. Ziethen’s Gesandte vor Kaiser und Senat and A. Bash’s Ambassadors for Christ at the least.

2. I was glad to pick up some just to prove careful reading of the text: almento (for almeno) on p. 7, indieme (for insieme) on p. 50, Bormilcare (for Bomilcare) on p. 72, and suggevneia not transliterated in Greek on p. 164.