BMCR 2004.03.36

L’invenzione della diplomazia nella Grecia Antica. Rapporti interstatali nell’antichità, 1

, L'invenzione della diplomazia nella Grecia antica. Rapporti interstatali nell'antichità ; 1. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2002. 150 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 8882651975

The late Professor Piccirilli made many valuable contributions to the study of ancient interstate relations (he is best known, perhaps, for his work on interstate arbitrations), and both continued and strengthened an important Italian tradition of work in this field. This, then, is a welcome book, and a useful one — although it is also somewhat unusual in its aims and scope.

P.’s thoughts on this subject are already fairly well-known (and substantial parts of this book have in fact already appeared elsewhere).1 This book does not, therefore, offer a radically new approach to the study of ancient diplomacy — nor does it claim that this is its intention. Rather, it aims to complement existing studies of the subject by providing supplementary comments on ‘alcuni aspetti di una certa importanza e alcuni elementi utili’ overlooked in those previous works.

The book’s content and structure reflect those objectives. In spite of his title, P. is not particularly concerned with the origins of Greek diplomacy, nor does he offer any sort of sustained narrative of change, progress or decline. Instead, the book consists of a series of short observations (rarely more than two or three pages long) on a wide selection of issues. The focus of these observations is Classical Greece, but P. ranges widely outside that core area, both geographically (from the Near East to the Western Mediterranean) and chronologically (from Homer to Livy, and beyond).

The first half of the book — ‘Caratteristiche degli ambasciatori’ — concentrates on various issues related to the status, duties and management of ambassadors (especially, but not only, πρέσβεις) in the ancient world. The questions which P. addresses in this section are in some ways purely practical: what were ambassadors called; what did they wear; how old were they; how did they receive their instructions; how did they communicate with non Greek-speakers; and so on. These questions are important and interesting in their own right, but they can also have much broader implications for our understanding of the nature of diplomats and diplomacy. P’s exploration of the question of diplomatic clothing, for example, raises the possibility that there existed an ambassadorial ‘uniform’ of a red cloak, which would have not only emphasised the special status of its wearer but also served as a source of protection (P. produces a number of parallels for the use of red clothing as an apotropaic device). It must be said that the evidence for each stage of this argument is far from overwhelming, but the suggestion is intriguing nevertheless and, if it is correct, makes a valuable contribution to the continuing debate over the existence and nature of ‘diplomatic immunity’ in the Greek world.

In the second half of the book — ‘Il linguaggio degli ambasciatori’ — P. explores the types of arguments which appear in accounts of diplomatic missions. The testimony of Thucydides is central to this part of the book, and a couple of sections are devoted to exploring the methodological problems which arise from this Thucydidean focus. P. accepts that we will never have access to what was really said in these encounters, but he does think that the sources as a whole give a sense of the themes and beliefs which underpinned diplomatic debate and that Thucydides, as an active politician writing for an audience of active politicians, would not have distorted those themes too radically.

P. then goes on to offer a brief survey of those key beliefs: appeals to kinship, reciprocity, pre-existing alliances, and the maintenance of freedom and autonomy, as well as the more abstract (but arguably more fundamental) arguments of justice and self-interest, and of justice and injustice. All of these subjects have, of course, been treated elsewhere in much greater detail, but P. provides a convenient overview here, which usefully juxtaposes the more ‘moral’ types of argument with the power-political. P. suggests that arguments based on justice should be counted as attempts to disguise the ‘egoism’ of the Greek state (and he follows Thucydides’ Athenians in suggesting that the Greek states tended to define justice on the basis of their own self-interest), but he also shows how varied and widespread those moral arguments were, and concedes that simple appeals to self-interest tend to be found only when treaties, kinship or reciprocity cannot plausibly be invoked.

Towards the end of this second part the focus shifts again, back towards the more practical questions which were the subject of the first half of the book. P. provides a helpful checklist of the sorts of missions (official and covert) which might be entrusted to ambassadors. He also tackles the question of language more directly, emphasising the great range in the ‘tone’ of diplomatic language and showing how quickly diplomatic appeals can shift from flattery, via blackmail, to threats.

This is not really a book which demands (or even rewards) being read from start to finish: its sections operate as almost entirely discrete units of argument, and although P. touches on many of the major theoretical and methodological issues of this subject he does not linger on any of those issues long enough to explore them in any great depth. It is, however, a book which should act as a very useful point of reference, both for students of ancient diplomacy and for those whose primary interests lie elsewhere but are looking for lucid and reliable explanation or contextualisation of diplomatic episodes in ancient authors. (P. provides a valuable analysis of the diplomatic background to the much used, but often abused, Athenian characterisation of Greekness at Herodotus 8.144, for example). The reader who wants to use the book in this way will greatly be helped by the inclusion of a comprehensive set of indices. It is to be hoped, therefore, that this book will both facilitate and stimulate further study of this important area of ancient activity.


1. In “La diplomazia nella Grecia antica: temi del linguaggio e caratteristiche degli ambasciatori”, MH 58 (2001), pp.1-31, and (in a shorter form) in P.’s contribution to M. Gabriella Angeli Bertinelli and L. Piccirilli edd. Linguaggio e terminologia diplomatica dall’Antico Oriente all’Impero Bizantino, Rome 2001 (reviewed in BMCR 2003.06.05).