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Roman diplomacy

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Coin of Emperor Constantius Gallus who was killed by Apodemius. Apodemius was a secret agent (agens in rebus) and a diplomat who was commissioned by Emperor Constantius II.
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Roman diplomacy developed gradually. It is worth noting that it has a history as long as the state itself, and even longer because some of its elements can be found in the period of the family (clan) system.
Diplomacy is also a tool of the foreign policy of the modern state. However, we will focus here on the elements of diplomacy used by the ancient Romans.

In the time of royal Rome, all diplomatic matters were delegated to a separate college of priests at the temple of the supreme god Jupiter. Thus, diplomacy was made sacred.
Priests were called fetiales and they acted according to a special law (ius fetiale). According to him, they officially expressed the will of Jupiter, and in fact the orders of the ruler. There were 20 of them; they wore special woollen robes and headbands.

Their powers included declaring wars and making peace, which was associated with special magical formulas. Their activities were closely related to religious rituals and surrounded by the highest secrecy.
Fetiales were also sent on mission missions to other countries. To this end, they chose one from among themselves, called pater patratus. He went to the border in his priestly garment, with a scepter in his hand and a flint that symbolized Jupiter as the god of oaths, and accompanied by another fetiale who carried a handful of grass uprooted from the Capitoline Hill. If the matter could be settled peacefully, that is, a given country surrendered to Rome, then on its return, appropriate prayers were said in the temple of Jupiter and peace was solemnly proclaimed. The text of the arrangement was read during a service-connected with making an offering to Jupiter.

He ended the pater patratus reading with the words:

From these terms, as they have been publicly rehearsed from beginning to end, without fraud, from these tablets, or this wax, and as they have been this day clearly understood, the Roman People will not be the first to depart. If it shall first depart from them, by general consent, with malice aforethought, then on that day do thou, great Diespiter, so smite the Roman People as I shall here to-day smite this pig: and so much the harder smite them as thy power and thy strength are greater.

Livy, Ab urbe condita, I.24

If the rulers of the other side refused to submit to Rome, they were declared war, but after the mission returned to Rome, they waited 33 days for a normal response. If it was negative or did not come, the phetics notified the king and the state of war was solemnly declared in the temple of Jupiter. Then pater patratus would go back to the border and throw a spear through it with a burned shaft and a blood-smeared blade. The Roman army entered the confrontation behind the javelin.

One very important point should be made. The Romans divided other countries into only two categories: friendly and hostile. The first included those countries that surrendered to Rome’s rule, while the second included all the others that either had to be subjugated or had to fight for domination (they were too strong). The second category was certainly: Carthage, Persia or later Parthia. Rome waged a loss/victory war with them, interrupted by a truce or temporary peace. So Rome did not recognize such a thing as neutrality.

Curia Iulia at the Forum Romanum was the seat of the Roman Senate.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

During the republic, Roman diplomacy fell under the responsibility of Senate. It was on his behalf that messages were sent or received. The college of fetiales was naturally preserved, if only for the reason that the declaration of war or the conclusion of peace had to be sacred in order to give additional meaning to the system. In addition, the officers looked after the diplomatic archives.

An important diplomatic institution, existing almost from the beginning of Rome, were recuperatores, elected judges (from 3 to 5) who dealt with material disputes between the citizens of Rome and other states or neighbouring tribes.

In contacts with other countries, the following was used: the right of hospitality (ius hospiti); the Law of Fetics (ius fetiale) which defined their powers and diplomatic duties; civil law (ius civile) and the first common law (ius gentium) for foreigners. It regulated the relations of the Romans with citizens of other countries.

For the republics, state power was exercised by the elected consuls and praetors, so they appointed the envoys. However, according to the law of senatus consultum, they had to consult the candidates with the senate. As a rule, its members were selected for more important diplomatic missions.

Roman envoys were called legates (legati), meaning “the chosen ones”. They were often the so-called oratores, or seasoned speakers, because diplomats had to argue well and neatly. Hence the first diplomatic studies. These were private schools where young patricians were taught law and rhetoric, so that when they sat in the senate they had better prospects for a diplomatic mission. Being a legate was very prestigious. In addition to being fully equipped with clothes and money necessary for the mission, the legate received a substantial diet (viaticum). Members wore special golden rings as a symbol of their mission.
Missions usually consisted of a few to ten Members. They were accompanied by special officials, translators and numerous servants. The mission was headed by princeps legationis, main legate. Roman diplomacy was primarily aimed at the benefit and good of the state. As Titus Livius emphasized in his work Ab urbem condita libri the message should proceed “with dignity and for the benefit of the Roman people.”

The subjects of the mission were very different matters: settlement of territorial, economic and other disputes, but above all peace and war.

The ruins of the Temple of Bellona are located by the Marcellus Theater. In her temple on the Field of Mars, messages from countries unfriendly to Rome and leaders seeking triumph were received. In front of the temple, next to the column known as the “war” column, a war was declared against countries that did not border with Rome. There, too, the Senate received leaders returning from war expeditions.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Countries that “voluntarily” submitted to their economic and political power were left with a great deal of autonomy. There was a special building for their envoys next to Roman Curia. They were welcomed with dignity and invited to religious and state ceremonies. Of course, these missions often competed in gifts, both for the treasury of Rome and for the consuls, praetors and senators themselves.
Hostile messages, of course, also used gifts but received them with much less pomp. The foreign envoys were kept outside the capital in the Field of Mars and were given audiences at the Temple of Bellona, the goddess of war.

All offers from foreign envoys were reported depending on the importance of the country in question, either in the Senate’s debating hall or in the vestibule, or via quaestor.
Special committees were appointed to resolve more complex issues.

During the empire, Roman diplomacy and all its spheres were in the hands of the emperor and his chancellery. Thus, the deputies came from the imperial nomination, thus becoming officials. During the reign of the emperor Claudius, many important internal reforms were carried out, allowing foreign affairs to be transferred to the ruler’s personal office. They were headed by a special secretary who could be called the first minister.

The legal foundations of diplomacy were also expanded, emphasizing the inviolability of Members.

If anyone causes harm to an envoy of a hostile country, it should be treated as a violation of the law of nations, because the envoys are considered holy [sancti hebentur legati].

Pomponius, Enchiridion of Sextus Pomponius

In fact, Rome had two separate diplomacy – external with countries that were still beyond its immediate rule, internal to countries that were already in Roman territory. The Roman Empire was a kind of a great federation of formally independent states, cities or smaller state associations that connected various systems with Rome. This also applied to the cities of Italy. Each member had a large extent of internal economic, political and religious autonomy, and had ius legationis, that is, the right to send envoys to Rome, as well as countries and cities within the empire. The envoys of the regions concerned were sent constantly to settle numerous matters, ranging from commercial to requests for funding for the construction of the temple.
How great the diplomatic movement was in Rome is evidenced by the fact that when the reign of Vespasian began to rebuild the public buildings on the Capitol building destroyed during the civil war, 3,000 bronze plates with state documents were removed from under the ruins. Most of them were concerned with diplomatic relations.

As an example of internal diplomacy, we can present the diplomatic mission of the city-state of Smire. It was received by the emperor Trajan. The emperor was to be characterized by great kindness and insight, and he provided the city with money.

The voids that began to appear in the treasury, however, forced the emperors to save money also in the field of internal diplomacy. During the reign of Vespasian, in order to increase the budget, an edict was issued ordering: the limitation of the number of deputies to 3 and the reduction of expenses for their maintenance. Successive rulers were more decisive, depriving most cities, denominational gins and other entities of the right to send envoys. Domitian came to the point that even envoys from Rome had to pay for missions out of their own pocket, which in turn contributed to an increase in the prestige of this position and its occupation by aristocrats. Former MPs, most of whom were appointed by lawyers, applied for more attractive positions in the provinces or wealthy city-states.

In Rome, as I have already mentioned, there were private schools of law and rhetoric that educated young patricians to become politicians, lawyers and diplomats. On the latter issue, special seminars were organized during which, for example, the conclusion of inter-state alliances, declaring wars, and negotiating various economic and political agreements were simulated. The diplomatic protocol was also taught, in particular, the ways of winning over the rulers. The Roman rhetoric Menandr recommended flattery and beautiful metaphors that positively influenced diplomatic missions.

  • Eilers Claude, Diplomats and Diplomacy in the Roman World, Boston 2009
  • Frelek Ryszard, Dzieje dyplomacji. Zarys historii stosunków międzynarodowych, Toruń 2006

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