International Relations in the Ancient Near East, 1600-1100 B.C.

By Mario Liverani | Go to book overview
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10
Messengers and ‘Ambassadors’

The obvious medium of communication between distant kings is the letter that a messenger delivers and, if necessary, explains. In the Late Bronze period, the complementarity of the spoken and written message is much more strict than that to which we are accustomed, the letter actually keeping the form of a spoken message. 1 Moreover its delivery is a rather complicated affair, for the king cannot read and is often ignorant of Babylonian, the ‘diplomatic language’ of the period. As a result, he needs the assistance of scribes and interpreters, and the messenger himself is expected to help in ‘reading’ the message in such a way as to convey its ‘authentic’ meaning. More importantly, since a dialogue at so remote a distance would take years to complete if reliance were to be placed solely on the seasonal rhythm of written messages, the messenger has other functions. He must also answer questions, add explanations and disclose the full intentions of the sender; in short, he must elaborate on all of those matters that could not have been put into writing. This being the case, it is of course possible that a messenger might misrepresent the intentions of his king, and this is openly admitted:

In regard to a tablet which I send you, a tablet upon which words have been set down, and (= as compared to) the words of the messenger, which he speaks orally in response to you: if the words of the messenger are in agreement with the words of the tablet, trust the messenger, o Shunashura. But if the words of the messenger are not in agreement with the words of the tablet, you, Shunashura, shall not trust the messenger and shall not take to heart the evil content of his report. 2

Of course, the role and rank of the messenger vary with the message he carries, although the terms for ‘messenger’ (Babylonian mār šipri, Egyptian wpwty) are always the same. Routine messages and administrative orders

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