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Brotherhood of Kings: The United Nations of the Ancient World


From our vantage point in a world with electricity, transoceanic flights, and pocket-sized, Internet-connected computers, it’s easy to imagine the ancient humans who had none of these things as dull, unremarkable–primitive. The more I study the ancient world, however, the more impressed I am by what was built so long ago, with none of the technology or knowledge we take for granted today.

_Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Near East_ is a fascinating explanation of ancient diplomacy. Spanning a period of roughly a thousand years and focused on Mesopotamia (today, mostly Syria and Iraq) and Egypt, it is a remarkably brisk read. More than that, it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s full of amusing stories, such as the time Tushratta, the king of Mittani, grew paranoid over a set of gold statues he’d not yet been sent by Pharaoh Akhenaten–part of a bride-price paid by the previous Egyptian ruler for one of Tushratta’s daughters, shortly before that Pharaoh died. Tushratta’s obsession with the statues grew, and evidently annoyed Akhenaten to the point that Tushratta was finally sent his golden statues. But instead of solid gold, they turned out to be wood merely coated with a thin layer of gold. It was a tremendous embarrassment and source of anger for Tushratta, who was nevertheless in no position to do much in retaliation, since he was in the midst of being isolated by an emerging enemy in the resurgent Hittite kingdom next door–a fact of which Akhenaten was likely aware, and which probably influenced his choice of response to Tushratta’s toothless demands.

That’s just one story, though. Throughout this book, Dr. Amanda Podany weaves an intricate historical tale of kings (and occasional queens) and their realms, and how a system of scribes, messengers, and traders built and maintained a peaceful international system that endured for centuries. It seems commonplace for historians to focus on warfare and bloodshed, as if massive outbursts of violence are the main story of humanity, but here we have a fascinating look at an era and region where organized violence was the exception, not the norm. The peoples of this time are in some ways relatable to us, and in other ways seem completely alien. For instance, instead of working for businesses, most people living in a particular kingdom instead worked for the king, producing whatever goods were needed for trade with nearby towns and kingdoms. These were not slaves, but people paid in terms of food and housing. Religious temples were particularly powerful and ran enterprises such as copper trading, and a skilled copper trader could own a nice (for the time) home and enjoy many luxuries. There’s a tale related of a rather typical man’s home that was excavated later, unremarkable except for one thing: a clove was found in one of his pots that could only have come from Indonesia–many thousands of miles away. This speaks to a remarkably well-developed trading network, for an average household to have access to such far-flung luxuries.

Perhaps less easy to relate to, however, is the central place that gods held in this ancient world. To the people of old Babylonia, for instance, gods were not only very real, they resided in ornate statues that required food and constant care. Should enemies carry off the statues, the city would fall into despair over having been abandoned by their gods. Likewise, storms, plagues, and other calamities were always seen as the result of divine action. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who saw their gods as disinterested, temperamental entities who fought among themselves with innocent humans as collateral damage, the ancient peoples of the Near East believed that disasters were direct punishments from the gods for specific misdeeds. If a kingdom suffered a famine or plague after its king made an agreement with another king, it could be assumed that the king had failed to hold up his end of the bargain, somehow, and was being penalized by the gods for his transgression. It was not unusual for kings to grovel at and plead with their gods to spare them. Although religion is still important today, most do not believe gods take such a direct role in taking out retribution on sinners in the mortal plane. (Of course, some do believe it!)

A few features of this ancient diplomatic system really struck me. One is that the language used to write the cuneiform tablets involved was not the native language of any of the peoples who used it. It was Akkadian, which seems to have become the lingua franca of the ancient scribes, perhaps only because it was the first written language to become so widespread in the area. These scribes also wielded tremendous power and influence. Since it could take months to travel from one’s own kingdom to a neighboring one to deliver a message, the scribe acting as messenger or ambassador was charged not only with reading his message aloud to the foreign king, but arguing for whatever his lord has asked. These messengers were therefore also diplomats and negotiators. It could take years–many back and forth trips–to work out a treaty between two kings, but it would be accomplished by messengers traveling between kingdoms over and over, refining the terms and language and trying to find common agreement. Sometimes these diplomats would work in teams, traveling together to obtain mutually beneficial agreements for their rulers. The Egyptian Mane and the Mittanian Keliya apparently made a formidable team, both highly respected in their mutual kingdoms and, it seems, well-versed in hashing out diplomatic arrangements between the two powers.

This job entitled one to an impressive array of compensation and benefits, too. Messengers dined with their receiving kings, as the messenger would be sure to report back to his own leader regarding his treatment, as well as the demeanor and wealth of the foreign land, and no king wanted to be embarrassed by making a poor showing. It was an ancient version of keeping up with the Joneses. Mistreating messengers was an absolute no-no, as well. To kill one was liable to start a war. At worst, one might be detained–sometimes for years–but a captive messenger would still be treated very well, and likely kept among his own people, of whom there would be many. This is because of the other major plank of this ancient international system: diplomatic marriages. Kings routinely married off their daughters to other kings. Any given king might have several wives, each the daughter of a different ally. These women did not come alone, but brought along entourages of anywhere from dozens to hundreds of handmaids, servants, and other staff. They would have their own little community in a foreign kingdom, and so a messenger could find respite, even while held against his will, by staying among his own kind.

The importance of these diplomatic marriages cannot be overstated, either. These kings regarded one another as brothers, and made the sentiment literal rather than figurative through the use of marriage–they built familial relations as a way to ensure peace and cooperation. Their wives were also integral to this system. Some helped rule their realms, to one extent or another. They also communicated, both with their fathers and with their foreign counterparts, indirectly exerting influence on other kings. While women rarely held the reins of power, this system could not succeed without princesses marrying the kings of other realms, and their mistreatment could bring dire consequences upon the offending king, should her father learn of it.

These systems of mutual understanding, while quite different from our modern conception of diplomacy, nonetheless served similar ends. They kept the peace, ensured a steady flow of trade and luxury goods between disparate kingdoms, and made it less likely that war would break out. Wars were, after all, expensive affairs. In this time and place, as well, brutality in warfare was viewed as particularly heinous: it was a sign of bold leadership to take as many enemy soldiers as possible captive and ransom them back to their king or turn them into slaves and servants, rather than kill them outright.

Dr. Podany’s treatment of the material is wonderfully accessible. There are also lengthy footnotes and other resources for those who’d like to check the primary sources for themselves. The author also comments many times on just how much we don’t know. Our view of this ancient world is incomplete and slanted by virtue of what we’ve been able to find, and what various circumstances and historical accidents have preserved for us. Most clay tablets to ever exist were reused, lost, or destroyed. Only those deliberately preserved by being kiln-fired or etched into stone or metal, and those accidentally preserved by fire, remain available to us. But given the archives found at places like Ebla and Amarna, it seems likely that most ancient cities in this part of the world kept detailed records and correspondence, and to find more of those records would shed ever more light on the early days of recorded history.

Perhaps most fascinating of all are the details that predate writing. The kings sending each other dictated letters in this ancient land did not invent the diplomatic system they used–it was a very old custom that had been in use, perhaps for millennia, perhaps even before the existence of writing. It’s possible messengers were sent with memorized letters, and once writing became available, the advantages of fixing the king’s words onto a clay tablet which could then be sun-baked and sealed in an exterior layer of clay to prevent tampering became all too obvious. The origins of this kinship-diplomacy system are likely lost to time, and yet it endured as an institution of Mesopotamia for at least a thousand years and possibly much longer.

If it’s not yet clear, I’ll be blunt: Brotherhood of Kings is an excellent volume, and one that’s easy to pick up even if you know nothing about the time, place, and peoples involved. Dr. Podany gives all the background and lays out all the players, describing their interactions the development of their relationships with a perfectly humanizing touch. These were real people, after all, men with egos, frailties, and the full spectrum of human behavior. It would be a mistake to label them primitive only because of their comparatively low technology level. These kings ruled complex, large cities, and carried on very intricate, sophisticated diplomatic negotiations with one another, via their scribes and messengers, the latter of whom also deserve much credit for acting as their rulers’ proxies in difficult situations. To hold together this loose collection of kingdoms in relative peace for so many centuries is a remarkable and, it seems to me, largely overlooked achievement. Dr. Podany brings the breath of life to this era and its people. If you have any interest in the subject at all, I give it a strong recommendation.

Photo by A.Davey