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Background document for the Advanced Diplomatic Webinar (5 March 2014 at 14.00 GMT)

Prepared by Dr Jovan Kurbalija

 As a follow-up to the January webinar, which dealt with the very early days of diplomacy, in February we will focus on the Ancient World. We will start with the emergence of writing, one of the most important communication technologies in the history of mankind (and diplomacy). Writing triggered a new way of communication both within and between ancient societies. During the February webinar, we will navigate through the rich diplomatic heritage of Mesopotamia (Sumeria and Babylon), the Hittite Empire, Assyria, and Persia.[1] In this journey through time covering few thousand years, we will look for insights that should help us better understand our times and the future of e-diplomacy. In an attempt to link clay and digital tablets we will focus on the following key points relating to the relevance of Ancient diplomacy for e-diplomacy:

  • Ancient diplomacy, similar to e-diplomacy, had text at the centre of diplomatic communication.
  • The first diplomatic archives (Amarna letters) were developed in order to preserve documentation and institutional memory. We face the same challenge today with limited certainty that the next generation will have a chance to learn about our time, just as we have had the opportunity to learn  about Amarna diplomacy from well-preserved diplomatic letters on clay tablets!
  • Ancient diplomacy effectively used the interplay of written and oral communication. With growing reliance on electronic communication, the preserving of direct contact and oral exchange will remain one of the key challenges of e-diplomacy.

Writing as the key diplomatic ‘technology’

The transition from pre-history to the ancient time can be traced back to the fourth millennium BC when writing was invented by Sumerians. The archaeological evidence is saved on clay tablets with the first texts written in cuneiform writing. We also know that writing was invented independently later on in China and Central America.

Writing is central to our discussion of the interplay between diplomacy and technology. Writing was, is, and will remain the key diplomatic technology. Describing writing as a technology might sound counter-institutive. Although writing is deeply integrated in the way we live and work, it is not a natural faculty like walking and speaking. Writing was invented. It requires tools and skills. These are the defining elements of technology. Like all other technologies, writing has shaped our way of life. Till this very day, one of the most powerful criticisms of an impact of technology is Plato’s Phaedrus where Socrates narrates how Theuth, the Egyptian god of inventions, tried to persuade the sceptical Egyptian king Thamus about the value of the new invention – writing.[2]

Geo-politics of the Ancient World

 Loose forms of tribal organisation of early human societies gradually developed into the first states, formed in the region of the Fertile Crescent covering Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and the East Mediterranean in the same period when writing emerged (fourth millennium BC). Interaction between states became much richer. Although this age covers a very long period of 4000 years, some general patterns of early international relations were established. The more power was concentrated in one hegemonic state, the less important diplomacy was. The most flourishing part of diplomacy was in the periods of the existence of a decentralised system run by the balance of power, as was the case during the Amarna diplomacy.

We will reflect on the early interplay between technology and diplomacy in the following diplomatic eras: Mesopotamia (Sumer and Babylon), Egyptian (Amarna diplomacy), the Hittite, Assyria, and Persia which created a bridge to Ancient Greece (this period will be covered during the March webinar).


Fourth millennium BC


Second millennium BC



Amarna (Egypt)



First millenium BC





For a detailed timeline consult.


Mesopotamian diplomacy

Sumerians, the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia, invented writing sometime in the fourth millennium BC. Archaeologists discovered the first diplomatic documents from the period 2500 BC. These documents include references to relations among city-states, peace negotiations, arbitrations, and status of envoys. These early diplomatic notes were written on clay tablets using cuneiform characters. In typical diplomatic protocol, on arrival, the messenger would read the message from a clay tablet and provide an additional oral explanation. The dispatch of single messengers, usually on foot, gradually evolved into messenger systems with relay stations situated on the main roads.

In the Babylon era, during the rule of Hammurabi (seventeenth century BC), a highly functional system of messengers was developed.[3] In the same period, according to the archives of Mari, there was a well-developed system of envoys ranging from simple messengers to ‘plenipotential ambassadors’ empowered to negotiate agreements on behalf of their masters. The archives of Mari also included the first references to diplomatic immunities, diplomatic passports, and letters of accreditation.

Amarna diplomacy

 Three centuries after Babylon, Amarna diplomacy emerged. It is usually singled out as the most developed diplomatic system in the ancient civilisations. Professor Raymond Cohen argues that Amarna diplomacy was the first fully developed diplomatic system comprising the main diplomatic techniques, including the sending of representatives, negotiating, and the handing out of immunities. He challenges the predominant view among diplomatic historians that the first diplomatic system was established in Renaissance Italy with the establishment of permanent embassies among Italian city states. [4]

Amarna diplomacy is named after the Egyptian city of Tel-el Amarna, where archaeologists discovered the first diplomatic archive (Tal-Amarna letters). According to available sources, Tel-el Amarna was the capital of the Egyptian XVIII dynasty (sixteenth–thirteenth century BC), during the reign of Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BC) and Amenhotep IV (1352–1336 BC). These dynasties oversaw a period of extensive creativity, particularly noticeable in the architectural constructions. Diplomacy was favoured over war.

The balance of power was the main method of regulating relationships between the main actors. There were six principal actors in this system, engaging in regular, mutual contacts: Egypt, Mitanni (the land of the Hittites, in the territories of modern Turkey, Iraq, and Syria), Kassite Babylonia, Assyria, and Elam (this state existed in south-western Persia before emerging from the Persian Empire). These were the ‘great powers’ of the day, controlling territories and vassals through their military might, whose rulers qualified for the crucial appellation of ‘great king’. The international environment for the development of diplomacy was further enhanced by the presence of smaller states, which played various roles among the great powers.[5]

The great powers possessed a deep sense of society, assigning high value to the maintenance of regular channels of communication. This resulted in the establishment of recognised conventions and procedures for maintaining diplomatic relations. The main information and communication aspect was the use of the first diplomatic documents. The dynamics of diplomatic exchange depended on the existing transportation channels and the time needed to reach distant capitals.  It took at least one month for a fast courier to reach another capital with diplomatic communication. In the case of a caravan, it took twice as long. Many historical studies indicate that a fully established messenger system existed during this period.[6] The Amarna letters are also a unique combination of oral and written communication. Negotiations were supported by written documentation, which was stored in well-organised archives.[7]

Hittite Diplomacy

A few centuries after Amarna diplomacy, the next well-developed diplomatic system emerged between Hittiti and Egypt. Similar to Amarna diplomacy, Hittite diplomacy was a fully developed system, encompassing the typical diplomatic instruments and tools. Hittite diplomacy is well known for the first peace treaty between Ramses II and Hattusili III, considered one of the oldest international treaties.[8]

Assyrian diplomacy[9]

 As the Egyptian and the Hittite empires weakened, the Assyrian state emerged and reached its zenith during the era of the Sargonid Dynasty (eighth–seventh century BC), and the reigns of Sargon, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal. The Assyrian state tried to extend its control over the historical Fertile Crescent. They were particularly interested in gaining control over the key trade routes. The powerful Assyrians’ neighbours were forced to form coalitions and alliances in order to counter-balance this emerging Assyrian power. Assyrian dynasties used both war and diplomacy in order to achieve their goals.

The main Assyrian archaeological source is the Sargonid Library, which was discovered during excavations of the imperial palace in Nineveh and Kuyunjik. The Sargonid Library, consisting of clay tablets, is a rich source of materials, covering all facets of both social and official Assyrian life, including diplomacy and communication. More specific details about their communication systems were also discovered, including the existence of a beacon scheme (some sort of early telegraph system).[10] It seems that the beacon system was a permanent scheme for transferring messages.

Persian diplomacy

The Persian era is the bridge between the Ancient civilisations and Ancient Greece. The Persian Empire was hegemonic, relying more on military might than on diplomatic skills. Limited forms of diplomatic interaction were developed with the Greek city states. One of the main legacies of the Persian era was a highly developed communication system – an Ancient Era Internet. Greek historian Xenophon describes the messaging system in Persia during the rule of King Cyrus the Great (599–530 BC):

We have observed still another device of Cyrus' for coping with the magnitude of his empire; by means of this institution he would speedily discover the condition of affairs, no matter how far distant they might be from him: he experimented to find out how great a distance a horse could cover in a day when ridden hard, but so as not to break down, and then he erected post-stations at just such distances and equipped them with horses, and men to take care of them; at each one of the stations he had the proper official appointed to receive the letters that were delivered and to forward them on, to take in the exhausted horses and riders and send on fresh ones. They say, moreover, that sometimes this express does not stop all night, but the night-messengers succeed the day messengers in relays, and when this is the case, this express, some say, gets over the ground faster than the cranes.[11]

Although the messenger system was developed for military purposes, it began to be used for receiving and sending envoys to the neighbouring states and tribes.

The Persian Empire discovered diplomacy in the last days of its existence when Darius III offered peace to Alexander of Macedonia based on ‘ancient friendship and alliance’. The refusal of this offer led to the conquering of the Persian Empire by Greece and the end of the period of Ancient civilisations.

In our March webinar we will cover diplomacy and technology in Ancient Greece.


[1] Ancient China, India and Central America also developed sophisticated diplomatic interactions. Some of them will be tackled during the webinar session.

[2]  Theuth, the Egyptian god of inventions: Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom.

King Thamus replied: …the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. … out of fondness for your off-spring you have attributed to this invention of writing quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

[3] Dvornik F (1974) Origins of Intelligence Services: The Ancient Near East, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab Muslim Empires, the Mongol Empire, China, Muscovy, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, p. 17.

[4] For more about Professor Cohen’s argument and general information on Amarna Diplomacy consult: Cohen R and Westbrook R (2000) Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[5] For example, the Alashiya state in Cyprus, which played a very interesting role as a bridge between the Ancient East and early Aegean World. Finally, Egypt's quarrelsome Canaanite vassals in the territories of Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon (ancient Phoenicia) corresponded extensively with the pharaonic court, but were not allowed to maintain diplomatic relations with other great powers.

[6]  Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest 3 Vol. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906–1907. London: Histories and Mysteries of Man, reprint 1988. Breasted 1906 Vol. 1, pp. 630–635; quoted in Dvornik F (1974) Origins of Intelligence Services: The Ancient Near East, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab Muslim Empires, the Mongol Empire, China, Muscovy, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. p. 7.

[7] Ibid, 21–22.

[8] The text of the treaty is available at: [accessed 18 February 2013].

[9] Map of the Asyrian Empire. Available at:  [accessed 18 February 2013].

[10] Dvornik F (1974) Origins of Intelligence Services: The Ancient Near East, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab Muslim Empires, the Mongol Empire, China, Muscovy, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. p.  19.

[11] Xenophon, Cyropaedia, Book VIII, 6.17–18; quoted in Dvornik F (1974) Origins of Intelligence Services: The Ancient Near East, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab Muslim Empires, the Mongol Empire, China, Muscovy, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, p. 28.

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