The History of Diplomacy and the Ancient Greek, Italian, Roman and French Diplomatic Traditions


The paper of dr. Tethloach Domach Ruey analyzes the history of diplomacy and the ancient Greek, Italian, Roman and French diplomatic traditions, and argues that modern diplomacy evolved out of the ancient traditions. The object of this essay is to inform practitioners and students of diplomacy about the development of diplomacy because the conduct of diplomacy is best understood when studied in the light of its historical roots.

The Genesis of Diplomacy

It is crucial to study the evolution of diplomacy because its history provides a fundamental understanding of the nature of diplomacy. The genesis of diplomacy goes back to God and his emissaries, the angels (angeloi) or messengers. This 'mytho-diplomacy' contends that the first diplomats were angels of God sent from Heaven to Earth. The argument depicts God as the Chief of State and angels as diplomats or envoys. This 'cosmological argument' implies that man is a diplomat by nature (Der Derian 2001, p. 222).

The word 'diplomacy' originated from the Greek verb ' diploun,' which means 'to fold.' ' Diploun ' evolved into ' diploma ' during the Roman Empire when 'all passports, passes along imperial roads and way-bills were stamped on double metal plates, folded and sewn together in a particular manner.' These 'metal passes' were called ' diplomas,' a name that also applied to 'less metallic official documents, especially those conferring privileges or embodying arrangements with foreign communities or tribes' (Callus & Borg 2001, p. 254).

The term ' diploma ' comprises two words: ' diplo ' means 'folded in two' and ' ma ' means 'an object.' The value of a ' diploma ' grew to such an extent that it became a travel document for royals, comparable to the modern diplomatic passport. It then became an official document signifying international agreements, and eventually evolved into the practice of international relations.

As treaty papers accumulated in archives, a need arose for a specialist organizer who could organize 'archives, especially to index, decode and preserve' these documents. From this system originated the archival profession and the science of paleography. The management of diplomas became the conduct of res diplomatica, or diplomatic affairs. In the 18th century, the French began to use the term ' diplomate ' (diplomat/diplomatist) to refer to an officially appointed state negotiator (Nicolson 1969, p. 27).

At the dawn of the Imperial and Papal Rome, the importance of diplomatic archivist- the Chancellor- have grown. The word 'chancellor' originated from the word ' cancellarius,' a doorkeeper at the law courts in Roman times. In Carolingian times, the chancellor had to countersign royal decrees for them to be legal. The Carolingian chancellery was under the control of the chancellor.

In the eighth century, as a result of the internationalization of the archives and the importance accorded them, archival management shifted from the management of documents to the management of international relations. Nevertheless, diplomacy as the management of international relations did not emerge until 1792 when Jeremy Bentham invented 'international.'

The Amarna Tablets

The Amarna tablets, which were discovered in Egypt in 1887, are the earliest known records of the ancient international system. Diplomatic letters were written on cuneiforms in Akkadian, 'the diplomatic language of the ancient Near East' (Izre'el 1998, p. 1; Von Dassow 2004, p. 641). The letters recorded diplomatic communications between the pharaohs and Kings of Syria-Palestine, Babylonia, Assyria, Canaan, Hatti and Mittanni, and other minor kingdoms in the Near East around the fourteenth century BC. The theme of the letters was friendship and trade. After the battle of Kadesh/Qadesh in 1274 BC, the pharaoh and the ruler of the Hittite Empire signed a peace treaty on a stone tablet, fragments of which are deemed to be evidence of the earliest known international peace accord (Sürenhagen 2006, pp. 61-61).

Aissaoui (2008, p. 13) argues that the letters were written between 1365 and 1335 BC. However, Sharp (2000, p. 133) disputes this, suggesting that they were written between 1390 and 1330 BC. Further inconsistency appears in relation to the number of tablets. Russell (2008, p. 88) argues that 382 tablets were discovered, and that 40 of them were communications between the pharaohs and other kingdoms (those referred to above). Conversely, Morris (2006, p. 179) argues that there were 350 tablets, of which 50 were diplomatic correspondence between the pharaohs and other kingdoms. Nevertheless, the focus of this study is on the messages on the tablets rather than the specific quantity of tablets.

Greek City-State Diplomacy

The European diplomatic tradition, which eventually became modern diplomacy, evolved out of the Greek, Roman, Italian, and French systems. Communication between kingdoms in the fourth to second centuries BC was reliant on messengers and merchant caravans. Modern European diplomacy commenced in the fifth to fourth centuries BC and was based on the Greek city-state system. In the sixth century BC, trade interdependence and political complexity among the Greek City-States increased. Such interconnectedness was diplomatically vital. Unlike modern diplomacy, the main characteristic of the ancient Greeks' diplomacy was public negotiation. They also made treaty ratifications by exchanging solemn public oaths.

The Greek City-States depended on ' proxenos ' and heralds to conduct their diplomacy. A ' proxenos ' was similar to a modern-day honorary consul, while ' heralds ' needed a good memory and a strong voice in order to relay messages from their leaders to other city-states. The finest orators were best suited to this task.

Moreover, in order to alleviate ill-treatment of heralds beyond their own borders, the City-States placed them under the guard of Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, patron of travelers and thieves, and symbol of charm, cunning, and trickery. This was the origin of the view that diplomacy is largely the art of deception.

The Roman System

The Romans adopted the Greek city-states' diplomatic tradition. Although the Romans did not regard diplomacy as essential, they introduced jus gentium and jus naturale, international laws that had implications for diplomacy. They also trained professional diplomats, which was a very different approach to the Greek practice.

Through professional diplomats, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire introduced three-step diplomacy: 'foster rivalry among the barbarians, secure the friendship of frontier tribes through flattery and bribes, and convert as many heathens as possible to Christianity' (Viotti & Kauppi 2001, p. 113). They realized that force alone could not keep the 'barbarians' at bay. Such cunning practice is still evident in modern diplomacy in the form of foreign aid, trade, and loans.

Italian Diplomacy

The Old Italian diplomacy was Venice-centered. The city-state of Venice was the hub of all trade and commerce in medieval Europe, and although Venice restricted its diplomacy to special envoys, it adopted the Byzantine diplomatic tradition. However, it also introduced new elements of honesty and technical expertise.

Furthermore, the Italian City-States of Milan, Savoy, Venice, and Florence also introduced modern diplomacy that involved resident missions headed by citizens of the sending city-state or principality. The establishment of resident missions was a significant departure from the characteristics of pre-modern diplomacy, which had no resident diplomatic missions or clear code of conduct.

The affluence of the Italian City-States led to immense political and economic rivalry among the principalities. Their economic prosperity generated not only intrastate competition, but also rivalry among the medieval Europeans. The absence of any language barriers among the Italian City-States facilitated interactions to their mutual advantage. However, other European states struggled to adapt to the Italian diplomatic culture.

In 1455, the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, founded the first known diplomatic mission in Genoa. In 1460, the Duke of Savoy sent his diplomat to the Holy See. In 1496, Venice appointed two Venetian traders as its resident ambassadors or subambasciatores in London and Paris. The dukes' appointments are the genesis of modern-day permanent resident missions.

The French system

In the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, the French adopted the Italian diplomatic tradition. Nevertheless, elaborate ceremonies, clandestine negotiations, and the gradual professionalization of diplomacy epitomized the French version of the diplomatic system. The French introduced confidentiality in relation to information gathering, restructuring of protocols, and diplomatic corps.

Despite these significant improvements, the French system also contained substantial flaws such as 'excessive secrecy in negotiations, localitis, hereditary appointments by traditional aristocrats and the inclination of diplomats to conduct business in a most leisurely pace' (Berridge 2005, p. 110).

'Localitis,' or 'going native,' is a diplomatic syndrome whereby a diplomat argues for the interests of the receiving state rather than those of the sending state. Localitis occurs when a diplomat over stays in the receiving country and absorbed into a local culture to the extent of ignoring his mission. The diplomat, in this case, acts like a native citizen. To avoid this problem, diplomats should serve terms of no more than four years in any given posting. 'Anti-localitis' is another potential problem in diplomacy. This is:

The adoption by diplomats of an attitude of undiscriminating hostility to the interests and policies of the host state, caused by unfriendly treatment or harsh or primitive conditions of life in the state concerned (Berridge & James 2003, p. 167).

Anti-localitis weakens diplomats' rapport with the host state, which ultimately causes diplomats to form a negative attitude toward the host state. A diplomat who has developed anti-localitis only relays negative information about the host state to the sending state, which contradicts the foreign policy objective of the sending state. A diplomat needs to interact positively with the host state in order to build stronger rapport for the benefit of both countries.

In summary, modern diplomacy emerged from the diplomatic traditions of the Greek city-states, the Italian city-states, the Romans, and the French. Before the emergence of the Greek system, communication between kingdoms was reliant on messengers and merchant caravans. The Italian system introduced resident missions within the Italian City-States and throughout medieval Europe. The French professionalized diplomacy, even though it suffered from excessive secrecy, hereditary appointments, and localitis.

dr. Tethloach Domach Ruey

Author & Biography

dr. Tethloach Domach Ruey was born in 1975 and completed his secondary education at Jiren Secondary School in Jimma, Ethiopia. He obtained Bachelor of Arts (International Community Development) at Victoria University in Melbourne, Graduate Certificate (Project Management) at University of South Australia, Master of Arts (International Relations) at Deakin University in Melbourne and Doctor of Science (International Relations) at Atlantic International University in Hawaii.

He served as: 

  • Member of Parliament and Member of Foreign Affairs Standing Committee in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1995-1998); 
  • Vice-President of the Ethiopian Basketball Federation Executive Committee (1997-1998); 
  • Member of the Board of Directors of the Ethiopian News Agency (1997-1998), and a Politburo Member of Gambella People's United Democratic Party in Ethiopia (1996-1998). 
  • He also served in the South Sudanese Army as a Major.

He published the following academic publications: 

  • The South Sudanese Conflict Analysis: Conflict Profile, Causes, Actors and Dynamics (Doctoral Thesis). 
  • Understanding diplomacy. Definition and differences to foreign policy and international relations.
  • Purposes and Functions of Diplomacy. 
  • The history of diplomacy and ancient Greek, Italian, Roman and French diplomatic traditions. 
  • Chinese Diplomatic Tradition. An Overview from 280 BC Until Today.