The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe, the Men Who Introduced the World to Itself

The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe, the Men Who Introduced the World to Itself

by Jonathan Wright

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We think of ambassadors as simply diplomats-but once they were adventurers who dared an uncertain fate in unknown lands, bringing gifts of greyhounds and elephants to powerful and unpredictable leaders. In vivid detail, The Ambassadors traces the remarkable journeys of these emissaries, taking us from the linguistically challenged Greek Megasthenes to the first


We think of ambassadors as simply diplomats-but once they were adventurers who dared an uncertain fate in unknown lands, bringing gifts of greyhounds and elephants to powerful and unpredictable leaders. In vivid detail, The Ambassadors traces the remarkable journeys of these emissaries, taking us from the linguistically challenged Greek Megasthenes to the first Japanese embassies to China and Korea; from Mohammed's ambassadors to Egypt to the envoys of Byzantium, who had the unenviable task of convincing Attila the Hun to stop attacking them. We also witness the dialogue between Europe and Moorish Spain, and meet the ill-fated envoys sent in search of the mythical king Prester John.

What Europe still thinks of Asia and what Asia still thinks of Africa were in no small part kindled in these long-ago first encounters. From the cuneiform civilizations of the ancient Near East to the clashing empires of the early modern age, Wright brings alive the men who introduced the great cultures of the world to each other.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Wright . . . brings a lightness of touch and a full-blooded humanity to the task of understanding the Jesuit mystique." -THE SUNDAY TIMES (London)

"God's Soldiers goes for the broad picture but doesn't lose the human element, and Wright's dry wit keeps things lively." -FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

Publishers Weekly
At the outset of this "book of journeys," Wright (God's Soldiers) declares, "Throughout history, ambassadors would be in the vanguard of cultural discovery." Presenting intricate ambassadorial narratives in the context of their age's geopolitical tensions, Wright shows how intrepid ambassadors in the ancient world traveled epic distances to foster trade, seek out alliances or discipline rivals. Wright's sources are historical-a survey of 302 B.C Indian life by Macedonian ambassador Megathenes and the chronicles of Han dynasty ambassador Chang Ch'ien, who traveled as far as Kazakhstan-and literary: he explores theories of diplomacy through the so-called "Sanskrit Machiavelli" Kautilya's treatise Arthasastra and the medieval Song of Roland, celebrating the diplomatic acumen of Charlemagne. Complex accounts of Crusade-era political maneuvers and growing rifts in the Christian commonwealth segue into discussion of the 15th-century rise of statecraft and of 16th-century Protestant-Catholic tensions. He also describes diplomatic faux pas such as the British envoy Sir Henry Wooten's flounderings in the 17th-century Catholic bastion of Venice. Illuminating the practice of diplomatic immunity, the gradual formalization of the institution of global diplomacy and the role of maverick diplomats, Wright carefully balances general developments in the scope of ambassadorial duties with colorful and exemplary tales of particular instances. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Wright (God's Soldiers) takes a chronological approach in examining ambassadorial history, covering missions by emissaries to Greece, India, China, and other areas of the world. Interesting vignettes from diplomatic delegations make up the majority of the book, one example of which tells of the envoys of Byzantium unlucky enough to have been sent to convince Attila the Hun to stop attacking their lands. Wright fleshes out how the treatment of ambassadors has varied from outright violence to impressive displays of generosity. He also describes how ambassadors through the lens of their own cultural background have typically analyzed the actions of the rulers with whom they have consulted. Ultimately, his book fulfills its aim of serving as a good primer on ambassadorial pursuits. But more than that, it is the most comprehensive effort to examine the subject in recent years, as most diplomatic histories deal with particular conflicts. A select bibliography, endnotes, and an eight-page black-and-white photo insert are included. Recommended for academic libraries.-Sean Fleming, Lebanon P.L., NH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

“Glorious Hermes,
Herald of the Deathless ­Gods”

The World of Greek ­Diplomacy

I swear by Zeus, Gê, Helios, Poseidon, Athena, Ares and all the gods and goddesses. I shall abide in peace and I shall not infringe the treaty with Philip of Macedon. Neither by land nor by sea shall I bear arms with injurious intent against any party which abides by the oath, and I shall refrain from the capture by any device or stratagem of any city, fortification or harbour of the parties who abide by the Peace. I shall not subvert the monarchy of Philip and his successors . . . If anyone perpetrates any act in contravention of the terms of the agreement I shall render assistance accordingly as the wronged party may request and I shall make war upon him who contravenes the Common Peace . . . and I shall not fall ­short.

—-The oath of the Greek city­-­states when joining the League of Corinth, 338 b.c.10

In the eleventh century b.c., during the reign of Ramesses XI, an Egyptian envoy named Wen Amun travelled to Lebanon to buy timber for the sacred barque of the god Amun­re. Much like Iosip Nepea, his journey was plagued with bad fortune. At the port of Dor in the Nile delta he was robbed of all his money, although he quickly made good his loss by seizing an equivalent quantity of silver on board a ship bound for the Syrian port of Byblos.

The prince of Byblos was distinctly unimpressed by the arrival of an Egyptian envoy. He lacked written credentials, he had brought no gifts, so there was little incentive to provide him with precious timber. Wen Amun sent word to his superiors and they quickly dispatched four jars of gold, five jars of silver, five hundred ox hides, twenty sacks of lentils, and thirty baskets of fish. The gambit was successful, and Wen Amun purchased his timber from a suddenly much more amenable ruler.

Just before departing from Byblos, the men from whom Wen Amun had seized the silver arrived at court demanding justice. The prince took the night to mull over the envoy’s fate, though he was sure to treat Wen Amun courteously during his temporary captivity—providing him with wine, food, and an Egyptian singer. The next morning the prince announced that since Wen Amun was an official envoy, he was immune from arrest.

Wen Amun embarked on his homeward journey only to encounter a storm that forced him to put ashore on Cyprus. The startled local people were intent on massacring the envoy and his crew, but Wen Amun begged for the right to plead for his life with the local princess, Hatiba. Mercifully, one of the locals could speak Egyptian, and he set about translating the envoy’s threatening words. Wen Amun insisted on his ambassadorial immunity, and warned the princess that killing a Byblian crew would be a calamitous error of judgement. If she killed his crew, the ruler of Byblos would hunt down and kill ten of hers. Once again, Wen Amun skirted disaster and continued on his trek home.

His story is exceptional—a detailed ambassadorial adventure that just happened to survive on a roll of Egyptian papyrus. The sources are rarely so generous. In the centuries since the Amarna period, the work of envoys, messengers, and ambassadors continued, just as it always would. All of the civilizations of the ancient world—whether Vedic India, the Cretan Minoans and the Greek Mycenaeans of the Mediterranean, the Assyrians and Babylonians of the Near East, or the tribes of Bronze Age Europe—had need of envoys. They fostered trade, brokered alliances, carried tribute, and the rest. But almost without exception, they did so locally, with immediate or none­too­distant neighbors. The era of the continent­traversing ambassador had not yet dawned.

Across much of Eurasia, however, the second half of the first millennium b.c. can be understood as an era of consolidation. The first great, stable Chinese empires were emerging, coming to dominate the politics of East Asia, and in India, by the fourth century b.c., the first empire to genuinely hold sway across much of the subcontinent had appeared. In the Near East, the bridge between the two continents, the Assyrian Empire, had fallen by the end of the seventh century b.c., replaced by a series of redoubtable Persian empires—the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and finally, in the first centuries a.d., the Sassanids. The links between these civilizations were fragile, their knowledge of one another limited—but this was soon to change. As in much else, Greece led the way.


Hermes, lover of Persephone and Aphrodite, protector of Perseus and Hercules, was the father of all ambassadors. God of gambling, trade, and profit, he traversed the earth like a breath of wind, carrying Zeus’s messages, shepherding all travellers, escorting souls to the underworld. He would announce the weddings of the gods and execute their punishments, binding fire-thieving Prometheus to Mount Caucasus with iron spikes. He would visit all the communities of man to offer rewards for the return of Psyche, Aphrodite’s errant handmaiden: “seven sweet kisses” from the goddess herself “and a particularly honeyed one imparted with the thrust of her caressing tongue.” Ancient heralds, aspiring to his eloquence and cunning, would claim to be his offspring. They would carry his caduceus, his serpent­entwined staff, and it would grant them safe passage. Earnest and yet mischievous—stealing Apollo’s cattle on the very day he was born—Hermes was to be the ambassadors’ archetype and paragon.11

Copyright © Jonathan Wright 2006

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Meet the Author

JONATHAN WRIGHT received his doctorate in history from Oxford University. He has been a Thouron fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the Institute for European History in Mainz, Germany. He is also the author of God's Soldiers, a history of the Jesuits that has been translated into nine languages, and The Ambassadors

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