Diplomacy among the aliens

By Razib Khan | July 6, 2010 12:53 pm

brotherhoodOne of the structural difficulties with any systematic study of civilizations is that the sample size of the category is rather small, as is clear in the few attempts to examine their progression (see Arnold Toynbee). Additionally, there’s always the problem with how one generates a typology for something as fluid as civilization. Where does antiquity end, and the medieval period begin? One can get a rough sense of the discontinuities impressionistically. Consider the appearance of the Column of Phocas, erected in 608 AD. It may be correct that chronologically the Byzantine state and society on the eve of the expansion of Islam in the early 7th century was closer to the era of Charlemagne than Constantine, but many would argue that it was basically a Late Antique society more than an Early Medieval one. Certainly the Byzantines of that age would have agreed with that assessment (though one has to be careful about taking people at their word, the last Byzantines before the Ottoman conquest in 1453 famously still referred to themselves as Romans).

But such typologies remain a matter of art, and are subject to great dispute. Any inferences one generates or generalities one perceives will be subject to the reality that the individuals engaging in the act have a strong impact on the size and distribution of the sample (this is obviously true in ecology or empirical social sciences, but the methods here are generally more explicit and easy to critique). With all that said I think at the boundary condition we can agree upon some civilizational distinctions if such typologies have any meaning or utility. The world of the ancient Near East was on a deep level culturally alien to our own, and the period between 1200 and 800 spans a extremely sharp rupture between what came before, and what came after.


448px-Mesopotamia_male_worshiper_2750-2600_B.CIts alien aspect is one reason that I am fascinated by the ancient Near East. Egypt as a civilization and society exhibited intelligible continuity within itself for nearly 2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the first centuries of the first millennium before Christ, up to the conquest by the Assyrians (I suspect intelligible continuity precedes the Old Kingdom, but written sources become rather sparse before that). Obviously aspects of ancient Egypt persisted for centuries after its operational demise, as made clear by artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone which date to the kingdom of the Ptolemies. The pagan Egyptian temple of Philae was active down to the 6th century A.D., but with its closing by Justinian the last deep cultural connection to the world of the Pharaohs was lost (the Coptic language is derived from ancient Egyptian, but the Copts were unable to tell Europeans how to read the hieroglyphs because they did not know). The world of the ancient Fertile Crescent is in many ways even more distant in memory from ours than that of Egypt. Egypt in its declining phase was a stronger active influence on the Greeks. Rather, it is through the Hebrew Bible that we can glean fragments of the shape of the ancient Bronze Age societies of Mesopotamia and Syria, in particular in Genesis. And just as a shadow of Egypt persisted down to the Roman conquest and beyond, so the civilization of Babylon and Assyria was absorbed in part by their Persian conquerors. But note that the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has within it a variant of the famous Biblical flood story, was not rediscovered until the 19th century, despite its enduring fame over the 2,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization between Sumer and the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Without the translation efforts of modern archaeologists and philologists Mesopotamian culture would be an empire of artifacts, rather one which illuminates our minds with the imaginings of the past.

Knossos_fresco_womenThe ancient Near Eastern cultural complex extended beyond Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. It encompassed Anatolia, and even the Aegean, into what we today call Greece. But I contend that despite the differences of language a modern person might have more in common with a citizen of 4th century Athens, than a citizen of 4th century Athens would have with a subject of the wanax of 12th century Athens. Some of this is a function of the reality that the modern mentality is to a large extent an outgrowth of that of the Ionian Greeks and their intellectuals heirs. Similarly, the Chinese civilization also took its present shape during this period. Hindu civilization in a non-mythic dimension goes back no further than the first millennium. In the Greek and Indian cases there is a great deal of archaeological evidence for complex literate societies during the Bronze Age. In the Aegean case the script of the last of the successive societies, the Mycenaean, has been deciphered. They spoke Greek and worshiped the same gods as the Classical Greeks. Much of the background material in the Iliad and the Odyssey clearly references the Mycenaean period (though the narrative core is perhaps reflective of the Dark Ages before the rise of Classical Greece). But Classical Greece was built anew, on a different cultural foundation from that the Mycenaeans. The kings of Bronze Age Greece were part of the “brotherhood of kings.” The city-states of Classical Greece were distinct from the despotisms of Asia. The Classical Greeks had forgotten their history aside from legends. The Bronze Age walls of cities such as Tyrins were presumed to have been constructed by giants (“cyclopean”)!

I have alluded to the fact that the enormous proportion of ancient Classical works we have today can be attributed to intense phases of translation and transcription during the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbassid House of Wisdom, and the efforts of Byzantine men of letters such as Constantine Porphyrogennetos. The reason for these efforts was that in part these ancient literary works were the products of natural predecessor civilizations, to whom the medieval West, Byzantium, and Islam, owed a great deal. The memory of Plato and Aristotle, Caesar and Darius, persisted down to their day. The classical education of early modern Europeans built upon the toil of the medieval period. The Renaissance would not have been able to revive anything if no works of the ancients were copied down and transmitted down to future generations.

In sharp contrast the details of our knowledge of the Bronze Age world are due to the work of modern archaeologists and philologists. Aside from a few references in the Bible to an offshoot kingdom, the Hittite Empire had been totally forgotten! Dead cuneiform, once deciphered, brought back a world which had lain dormant for thousands of years. There are many elements of these lost civilizations which we comprehend only in spare fragments. For example in the fourth millennium BC it seems from the archaeological record that Mesopotamian merchants had colonies which replicated their culture in toto in Anatolia, while Mesopotamian influences through diffusion are indisputable in pre-Dynastic Egypt. In the 3rd millennium this cultural hegemony waned, and Egypt seems to have sealed itself off from outside influence until the 2nd millennium, while the Mesopotamian stamp on Anatolian society diminishes. But without full-blown writing we can only conjecture as to the dynamics of this period of the expansion of Mesopotamian civilization. By the time the light of text illuminates the world Mesopotamian culture had retreated in its complete form to Sumer and Akkad.

But there is still much we know now. The robusticity of baked cuneiform means that the destruction of ancient palace complexes is a boon to modern archaeologists and historians. Though Egyptians used papyrus, they also stamped their monuments with hieroglyphs, and critically the correspondence with foreign nations was generally done in Akkadian cuneiform. This last is critical for the narrative in Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. From the introduction:

The diplomatic system developed in the ancient Near East was forgotten for millennia; there’s no collection of marble busts of ancient kings in the entrance hall to the United Nations in honor of their contribution to the history of humanking, no requirement that children study the ancient peace treaties as founding documents, the way they might study the Magna Carta or the United States Constitution. There’s a good reason for this: We can find no direct link between the ancient practice of diplomacy and that used today.

But it is edifying, even inspiring, to know that right from the earliest centuries of civilization, ancient kings and statesmen of distinct and different lands were oftne willing, even eager, to find alternatives to war and see one another as brothers rather than enemies.

Economists might term this a separate “natural experiment,” distinct from the Westphalian model. More colloquially one might consider the Near Eastern diplomatic system as a “first draft.” Because of the sharp differences between that world, and our epoch, similarities are particularly telling as to the deep cognitive biases which drive our cultural forms. In Brotherhood of Kings the author traces the evolution of the art of ancient diplomacy from the cities of third millennium Mesopotamia and Syria, down to the climax of the tradition during period of the Amarna letters, in the 14th century BC.

First, kinship matters. This is almost a trivial assertion, but the ubiquity of kin terminology in political orders despite the lack of blood ties reinforces the importance of abstracting the genealogical relationship to a grander scale. The Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and the father to his people. Similarly, the President of the United States of America was the “Great White Father” to Native tribes in the 19th century. Sometimes the kinship was not fictive, but literal. In the 19th century continental Europe was generally at peace, at least in relation to previous eras. Some attribute this to the fact that European states were generally monarchies, and the monarchs were all members of an extended family. Similarly, by the 14th century relations between Egypt, Mitanni (Syria and northern Mesopotamia) and Babylonia were generally peaceful, and cemented by exchanges of royal women as brides in the polygynous households of the monarchs. The existence of a Minoan palace in northern Egypt is evidence in the author’s eye to princesses from the island of Crete in the household of the Pharaoh. A wedding was a marker of a cultural exchange.

Sometimes the analogies to later epochs are striking. After the famous king Tutankhamen died, his young wife wrote a letter to the king of the Hittites:

“My husband has died and I have no son. They say about you that you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons to become my husband. I would not wish to take one of my subjects as a husband… I am afraid.”

The king, a powerful warlord by the name of Suppiluliuma, eventually sent his son Zannanza, who seems to have died. There is a strong suspicion by the nature of Suppiluliuma’s angry subsequent correspondence that foul play was involved, and that Zannanza was undone by a reaction in the court of Egypt to the arrival of a foreign prince. The outcome of this personal and political tragedy was war, as Suppiluliuma used this event as a casus belli for an invasion which rolled back Egypt’s dominion in the Levant and expanded the Hittite Empire. The connection between the personal and political, and the necessity for noble women to seek outside aid, reminds me greatly of the period before the Gothic Wars, with Tutankhamen’s wife being in a similar position as Amalasuntha.

But this episode was peculiar in another way: the Pharaohs of Egypt never gave their daughters out to foreign powers, rather, they received the daughters of the other kings. This is explained in Brotherhood of Kings in two ways. The more prosaic one is that while the non-Egyptian kings generally viewed the potentate receiving the daughter as inferior, because now he would be the son-in-law (extending the kinship analogy), the Pharaohs perceived that they were superior because they were receiving gifts from non-Egyptian kings. This is a classic “win-win” scenario. Even if the monarchs in question understood the cultural disjunction, these movement of women from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt was in part motivated by signalling status to their own circle of nobles, who may not have been as conscious of these cross-cultural distinctions.

More importantly I suspect, Egypt was richer and more powerful than any of the other kingdoms during this period. It is indicative to me that the instance where the Egyptian widow seeks a foreign prince it is from the Hittites, as this nation was waxing, and was arguably as resource rich as Egypt in many ways, not to mention militarily successful. The correspondence in the Egyptian archives show that the kings of Mitanni and Babylonia persistently bleat for gold, gold, gold. Egypt was rich in gold, and they were not. These kings frankly state that so long as they receive gold they will return to Egypt whatever the Pharaoh would like to maintain the balance of payments. The supply of gold was inelastic to the demand because of its scarcity. In contrast the monarchs of Mitanni or Babylonia could increase the production or procurement of textiles and other fine manufactures and imports. One of the most bizarre facts about the reign of Akhenaten is that he apparently promised the king of the Mitanni a set of gold statues, which he never delivered. Nearly every piece of correspondence from the Mitanni king during Akhenaten’s two decades of power includes a reference to the missing gold statues!

It seems clear that one of the goals of the ancient diplomatic system was to substitute gift giving for war. Plunder and piracy were a major revenue source for elites, especially in an age where commerce and trade did not exhibit the efficiencies we take for granted later (recall that there was no standard coinage). But this was risky, and entailed expending resources and time. Part of the rationale for conquest was clearly to secure resources which were scarce or nonexistent in one’s own domains. The giving of gifts between monarchs, whether equals (“Great Kings”) or between a hegemon and his vassals, was a way in which scarce goods could flow between territories. If gold and other luxury goods were to travel between states there would obviously be a necessary premium on security. Certain fixed costs would be entailed, and one would probably want a reasonable economy of scale to maximize efficiency. The despots of this ancient world were in the best position to provide these services. The luxury goods would eventually “trickle down” to the sub-elites after the initial exchange in subsequent gift giving.

But these abstractions, the aggregate flow of goods and services (in the latter case, specialists such as doctors and diviners), had to be made concrete in the concepts that these people understood. Contracts and treaties were witnessed by the gods, and the gods served as guarantors of the fidelity of the parties involved to their oaths. Oath-breaking was serious enough that Suppiluliuma’s own son attributed some of his father’s misfortunes to oath-breaking early in his tenure during his usurpation of the throne. These gods were classical polytheistic entities, but the various nations operated in the same supernatural framework, as these were henotheistic societies. Religious concepts had not become so elaborated or philosophical that the oaths would have encountered difficulty because of incommensurability of terminology. And these contracts and treaties were made between fictive, and sometimes real, kin. On occasion the blood ties mattered, as when an Assyrian monarch intervened to kill the usurper who had killed his own grandson, the king of Babylon. Just as these blood bonds could motivate violence and intervention, so no doubt they engendered more amity than would otherwise have been the case. The royal women who moved between capitals served as the critical glue, and it seems that they brought entourages on the order of hundreds. Young princes of mixed parentage would then have grown up in a relatively cosmopolitan world, and been less conditioned to view outsiders as aliens.

488px-Map_of_fertile_cresentSo there is much that is familiar in this ancient world, even down to a transnational elite which may share more in common in values and culture with each other than with the populations which they rule. But there are differences. I alluded above to an analogy with 19th century Europe. Despite the differences in national history and religion, the Christian kings of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars forged a common sense of purpose and mutual understanding. This was made concrete by an acceleration of the pattern of intermarriage, or the placement of branches of the European ruling caste as heads of state of new nations (e.g., Greece). This stability was shattered with the maturity of mass populist nationalism in the 19th century, and basically killed during World War I. But it was constrained to Europe and European descended societies. The Ottoman state and the Empire of Japan were on the fringes, in large part because of deep civilizational differences. In enlightened circles works such as Clash of Civilizations are in bad odor. Though most would balk at accepting an argument with the punch of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, a milder variant was common in the 1990s.

As we enter the teens of the 21st century I think the idea of a world civilization, with a common cultural currency which might serve as a means of exchange for deep diplomatic understandings, is fading somewhat. The world of the ancient Near East did not include Shang China, and during its more antique phase it did not include the society of the Indus Valley (which was integrated in terms of trade and commerce, but not politics, with Mesopotamia). It was a small world where ties bound through fictive kinship made sense, as kinship terms in their atoms are human universals. The rhetoric of universal brotherhood persists down to this day, glossed up with a scientific patina through reflexive references to Lewontin’s Fallacy. But the rise of China and Russia should give us pause in assuming a deep common cultural foundation which can serve as a universal glue. Russia is a petro-state in demographic decline, so it is less interesting. Rather, China is reasserting its traditional position as the preeminent civilization in the world, and it is doing so without being Westernized in a way we would recognize. The political liberalization of the world’s most dynamic capitalist Communist state is always over the horizon. Just as the roots of the modern West go back to the eastern Mediterranean in the early first millennium BC, so China’s cultural roots extend back to the same period. China is obviously a synthesis of its own indigenous traditions, and modern Western culture, in particular science & technology. But I am not convinced that there is a true “brotherhood” between the president of China, and Western powers, and that is not a cheery prospect.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    A United Nations’ monument to diplomacy would be three sets of books: the public set bound in leather, the thieves’ private set plated in gold, and the Bilderberg Group accounting set mounted between cold iron covers.

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  • Luke Lea

    It is hard to generalize about civilizations in general but it is possible, I think, to make one generalization (or, if you prefer, hypothesis) concerning the handful of “pristine” civilizations, by which I mean the ones that first arose in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Mexico, and Peru: They all began with military conquest or as a defensive response to military conquests around them (Sumer). With the possible exception of Egypt (because of its unusual geographical situation) they evolved into systems of warring states in a relentless competition for power. Before agriculture conquest — the subjugation of one group by another — was not feasible (though war and ethnic cleansing were) and it is this military/political development which is decisive in my opinion. I would even go so far as to describe it as a sociological law of historical development, maybe the only one.

  • bioIgnoramus

    “But I am not convinced that there is a true “brotherhood” between the president of China, and Western powers, and that is not a cheery prospect.”
    Ah, the inscrutability conjecture.

  • http://rfmcdpei.livejournal.com Randy McDonald

    How did Nilotic and Mesopotamian civilization end up forming their greater Near Eastern community of the elites in the first place? So far as I know, there wasn’t a single empire comprising this entire area until the Persians milennia later.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the author above argues that mitanni were the key. that empire spanned modern syria and northern iraq, as basically between the three other polities. it had relations with all three, and all three eventually had to have relations with each other because of their relations with the mitanni (initially mitanni was hostile to egypt, then it became egypt’s ally against the hittites, and eventually it was turned into a hittite vassal). more generally the basic system had its template 1,000 years earlier, as syrian and mesopotamian city-states already have diplomatic relationships. and sargon of akkad did unify those regions, from the lebanon coast to the borders of elam.

    p.s. usage of the term nilotic is going to confuse people because of contemporary valence :-)

  • http://rfmcdpei.livejournal.com Randy McDonald

    Well, “Nilotic” seemed more compact than “Ancient Egyptian.”

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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