Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 132-136
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The Ties of Our Common Kindred
Everyone knows the aphorism that truth is the first casualty of war. But in all relations between states (and war is, in one sense, only a phase of such relations), truth usually takes second place to belief. To put it another way, what two states believe about each other (the other side's intentions, military preparedness, resources, and so on) can matter more than what the truth is, since it is on its beliefs that each side will base its course of action. Truth is the business of espionage, whereas the business of diplomacy is belief. Diplomacy is concerned with creating beliefs for the other party to hold, while espionage is concerned with ascertaining facts about the other side.
Diplomacy as it was practiced in ancient Greece and Rome differs from its modern counterpart in many ways, but no aspect of it appears so strange as its use of arguments that we think of as "mythical." A well-known book by Paul Veyne questions whether the Greeks really believed in their myths at all. 1 How then, it might be asked, could ancient ambassadors (to use a term less anachronistic than diplomats) have hoped to find allies in war, or save themselves from destruction by superior powers, by referring in negotiations to the children of Heracles or the wanderings of Aeneas? Yet there are many examples to show that ancient envoys appealed to states, or sometimes to individuals, on the basis of [End Page 132] arguments drawn, not merely from the remote past, but from a time when gods and heroes had walked the earth. Such envoys argued that the two parties, the one that they were representing and the one that they were addressing, were united by descent from the same god or hero. Thus, the interlocutors were kin and had an obligation to help each other, whether with money, military aid, or diplomatic support in dealing with a third party. This kind of argument can be termed "kinship diplomacy." 2
Such arguments and the terms in which they deal (brothers, ancestors, kinship) derive ultimately from the language of the household rather than from that of the public sphere. Personal appeals of this kind appear in the Homeric poems, but the first extant Greek historical text, that of Herodotus, shows that such appeals had been transferred to the diplomatic realm at least as early as the sixth century B.C.E. Thereafter, this kind of diplomacy can be traced without break to about the sixth century of the Christian era. To understand how arguments of this type could be successful, we need, first, to remember that the actual mechanisms of ancient diplomacy were very different from anything we would recognize today. There were no schools of diplomacy, no professional diplomats, and no set protocol. There were certainly always ambassadors (presbeutai, from a Greek word meaning "precedence") or deputies (legati, from a Latin word implying delegation of authority). But these had no special training and were usually just senior or especially eloquent male citizens—though surviving diplomatic documents, carved on stone, do employ stereotyped phrases whose use, we may conclude, an ambassador was expected to understand. The reason for the reliance on eloquence, and on the ability to convey truths about the past, is connected with the public nature of ancient diplomacy. Ambassadors usually presented their cases before multiple hearers, sometimes before large audiences. In Greek cities, they usually spoke before the assembly of the people, which had to be persuaded by their arguments if the city was to commit itself to give financial or military aid. At Rome in its earlier centuries, foreign ambassadors addressed the senate, which was several hundred strong. In treating with monarchs such as Roman emperors or the kings who ruled the "Successor Kingdoms" after the breakup of Alexander's empire, the ambassador's audience was more restricted; but ancient monarchs always had a group of advisers, often called "friends"; and rulers often judged it expedient as well to consult larger...