Greek Embassies and the City of Rome

Andrew Erskine

University College

Prominently displayed in the agora of Abdera in Thrace there was an inscribed stone stele.[1] Like many inscriptions that would have been put up in public in Abdera and other Greek cities its purpose was honorific. It honoured Amymon and Megathymos, two citizens of Teos, the mother city of Abdera, for taking part in an embassy to Rome probably in the 160s B.C. They had gone to plead Abdera's case in a territorial dispute which they were having with the Thracian king Cotys. Amid the usual information on how the stele should be erected, what honours are to be awarded to the ambassadors and a certain vagueness over the success or otherwise of the embassy, there are some particularly interesting details about the visit to Rome:
'As ambassadors on behalf of the demos they (i.e. Amymon and Megathymos) endured both mental and [physical] suffering. They met the [leaders] of the Romans and won them over by daily [perseverance]. They also persuaded the patrons of the [city] to come to the assistance of our demos. By explaining the state of affairs and by means of the daily round of calls at the atria they made friends of [some of] those who looked after and championed our opponent.' When this passage is compared to the often formulaic nature of many decrees, it is striking, even in its present fragmented state. It gives a vivid impression of the difficulties the embassy encountered in Rome. They had to understand the Roman system of patronage and master it if they were to achieve success in their mission. Some Romans already had connections with Teos, but even so they needed persuading. Then the embassy still had to find out who else was important and relevant to their case and so make advances to them. Like many others, Roman and foreign, all in need of powerful allies, they joined the daily circuit of morning calls on the rich and influential.[2]

These two Tean ambassadors and any Abderans who accompanied them would have returned to Abdera with stories of their experiences and no doubt paraded the new vocabulary which they had acquired. An embassy such as this would have been a valuable source of information on the new power in the West. What was their city like? How did they run their affairs? The degree of detail contained in the passage quoted indicates that the Romans generated considerable interest among the Abderans.[3] But of course this would only have been a fraction of the information which the Abderans would have gleaned from the returning ambassadors.

The decree combines curiosity about Roman practices and institutions with interest in their language; the Romans were barbaroi , in other words non-Greek speakers. The Latin terms, patronus and atrium , are both found transliterated into Greek here, the earliest known examples of them in Greek. They represent two fundamental elements of Roman patronage, firstly the powerful man himself, the patronus , secondly the imposing hall, the atrium , where he met his callers or clients. The appearance of these two terms serves to emphasise the subservient position the Greeks found themselves in while at Rome, though I suspect that the ambassadors themselves were using these obscure and new words to impress the Abderans with their knowledge of Roman affairs.

Important as this embassy was to the people of Abdera, it was in fact only one of many embassies from Greek cities to visit Rome in the second century B.C. Rome was establishing itself as the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean and it was becoming the political focus of the Greek world. Even the great hellenistic kings had to recognise the superior power of Rome. At Apamea in 188 the Romans had dictated terms to the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great. He had accepted. Twenty years later the Roman defeat of the Macedonian king Perseus put an end to the kingdom of Macedon. The contemporary Greek historian Polybius records many embassies to Rome in the aftermath of this Roman victory.[4] These included embassies from individual cities such as Athens and Rhodes, leagues such as the Achaean League and kings such as Attalus of Pergamum and Prusias of Bithynia, whose obsequious performance before the Senate disgusted Polybius. The evidence of inscriptions confirms Polybius' picture of numerous cities sending embassies to Rome. Polybius normally only details those embassies that were politically significant, but inscriptions give us a broader picture. Here many lesser cities are found honouring their hard-working envoys, places such as Eresos in Lesbos (IG XII Supp 692.13-14) and Epidaurus (IG IV2 1.63).

The visits of these embassies would have been fairly brief and they would have brought back to their respective cities their own interpretation of how the Romans conducted their affairs, just as the Tean/Abderan embassy had. In the early years this no doubt aroused great curiosity and it is likely that such embassies would have been one of the main sources of information about Rome itself, in particular about its politics. Other Greeks such as traders went to Rome but they would not have come into contact with the political centre. The accounts given by these envoys would vary from place to place. Initially different images of Rome would have been generated highlighting different aspects of this new power. While one city might be interested in the round of morning calls and atria of the rich, another might be more interested in the Senate itself. A state that wins Rome's favour is far more likely to view the Romans as benefactors, euergetai.

Few inscriptions are as illuminating as the decree from Abdera on the practical approach required by ambassadors in Rome. But an important decree from Lampsacus in Asia Minor does give some impression of how much 'mental and physical suffering' ambassadors may have to endure.[5] In the 190s Lampsacus honoured their fellow citizen Hegesias who had gone on a long circuitous embassy to gain the support of the Romans. He went first to the Roman naval commander in Greece, L. Quinctius Flamininus, after which he met the quaestor attached to the fleet. Next, he made the 'long and dangerous journey by ship to Massilia (Marseilles)' in the western Mediterranean, hoping to acquire their assistance and to persuade them to give the Lampsacenes an introduction to the Roman Senate; then he proceeded to Rome itself. Finally, he returned to Greece to meet the Roman commander there, T. Quinctius Flamininus and the ten commissioners who were organising Greece after the Roman defeat of the Macedonian king Philip V. This arduous journey is recounted at great length and the number of stops suggests some confusion about where power actually lay in the Roman state. Something too is said of his dealings with the Senate. He was introduced by the accompanying Massiliotes and made his city's case by appealing to the kinship that existed between the Romans and the people of Lampsacus. Lampsacus is in the Troad, where the Homeric city of Troy was located, and Hegesias clearly drew attention to the story that Rome was founded by the descendants of the Trojans. It is interesting to see Lampsacus exploiting the connection in this way but more interesting to see that they were familiar with it at all. Mentioning it in the decree also had the function of affirming and advertising their kinship with the Romans. Such a story would have had particular significance for cities in that area. Ilium, which had been founded on the site of Troy, is one of the cities appended to Rome's first peace treaty in Greece, the Peace of Phoenice in 205.[6]

Greeks would have known about what the Romans did in the Greek world, their victories, their growing power, their treatment of the Greeks. Roman magistrates and soldiers were frequently present in Greece. But the city and institutions that lay behind this visible presence must have seemed mysterious and far off. Polybius who spent more than fifteen years as a hostage in Rome sought to explain Rome to the Greeks. Who, he argued (1.1.5-6), would not want to know about Rome and how it became great? Embassies such as those from Abdera, Teos and Lampsacus must have done much to enlighten their fellow citizens about the nature of Rome. They might have described the halls of the great houses where they had to wait to see the Roman senator who they hoped would solve their problems. Or something else might have impressed them. No doubt so many embassies from so many cities led to a multitude of different competing images of Rome.


1. SIG3 656; the extant text is from Teos; on the text L. Robert, BCH 59 (1935), pp. 507-13 = Opera i.320-26, P. Herrmann, ZPE 7 (1971), pp. 72-7; cf also G. Chiranky, 'Rome and Cotys, Two Problems: I. The Diplomacy of 167 B.C. II. The date of Sylloge3 656', Athenaeum 60 (1982), pp. 461-86. For a translation, R.K. Sherk, Rome and the Greek East to the Death of Augustus (Cambridge, 1984), no. 26.

2. T.P. Wiseman, 'Pete nobiles amicos: Poets and Patrons in Late Republican Rome', in B.K. Gold (ed.), Literary and Artistic Patronage in Ancient Rome (Austin, Texas, 1982), pp. 28-49, A. Wallace-Hadrill, 'Patronage in Roman Society: from Republic to Empire' and D. Braund, 'Function and Dysfunction: Personal Patronage in Roman Imperialism', both in Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), Patronage in Ancient Society (London, 1989).

3. They had earlier had the traumatic experience of enduring a Roman sack of their city, Livy 43.4.8-13.

4. cf Polyb. 30.13, 18-21, 23, 30-32; 31.1,3, 20 and for earlier, cf. 22.3, 5-7, 11; 23.1-4.

5. SIG3 591, I.Lampsakos 4.

6. Livy, 29.12.14; Chios shows knowledge of Romulus and Remus in an inscription from 180s B.C. or earlier, P.S Derow and W.G. Forrest, 'An inscription from Chios', ABSA 77 (1982), 79-92; on Greek beliefs about the foundation of Rome, E.S. Gruen, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome (Ithaca/London, 1993), pp. 6-51.

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