Recorded: May 20, 2022
Event: The World of Ancient Iran and the West
Citation: Nabel, Jake. "Parthia, Rome, and the Horizons of Ancient Diplomacy." Pourdavoud Center: The World of Ancient Iran and the West (May 20, 2022).
by Jake Nabel (Pennsylvania State University)
Jake Nabel is an Assistant Professor of Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is a historian of ancient Rome, pre-Islamic Iran, and the points of contact between the two. His research interests include Roman-Parthian relations, the reception of Alexander the Great in Persian literature, early imperial Latin poetry, and late antique Armenia. He is currently writing a book on a group of Arsacid princes who lived at the court of the Roman emperor in the first century CE.
Parthia, Rome, and the Horizons of Ancient Diplomacy
Over the past decade, political scientists have challenged conventional definitions of diplomacy as Eurocentric, historically contingent, and unable to account for the increasing importance of non-state actors such as transnational firms, non-governmental organizations, international institutions, and diasporic ethnic or religious groups. Ancient historians stand to benefit from this literature, but also to contribute to it. As the study of diplomacy decouples from its traditional pairing with the nation-state, the political formations of the ancient world – useful precisely because antiquity was not an era of nations – can provide alternate models that are good to think with. This paper therefore surveys diplomatic relations between the ancient empires of Rome and Parthia to contribute to interdisciplinary discussions about the theorization of diplomacy. Roman-Parthian relations merit attention because they show both the utility and the limitations of modern views of diplomacy as a state-bound form of communication. Some aspects of Roman-Parthian high politics can be fruitfully analyzed as diplomacy in this sense: summits, treaties, and the exchange of letters and ambassadors all accord well with conventional definitions. Other modes of interaction, however, do not, and these show the limits of a state-based approach. Into this category fall sub-state relations with Roman and Parthian dependencies; the employment of non-state agents for diplomatic missions; and the cross-border movement of dynasts outside the remit of the reigning king or emperor. By delimiting the state’s involvement in Roman-Parthian relations, I put ancient history in dialogue with a theoretical literature that explores diplomacy’s pasts for signs of its future.