Bonus Book Review: Amanda H. Podany, Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East

As I’ll discuss in tomorrow’s regularly scheduled post, I will soon be stepping away from blogging again for a while. Today, however, I want to offer some thoughts on this month’s book club selection and to connect it to the previous entries in the “Bonus Book Reviews” series. Since the book club is moving to a quarterly, rather than monthly, selection after this title, this will provide me a perfect opportunity to step back and reflect briefly on the six books we’ve read so far.

Owing to a busier-than-expected June, I didn’t get to spend quite as much time with this month’s selection–Amanda H. Podany’s Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East–as I have with many of the previous book club selections. However, as someone who periodically teaches classes on the history of the ancient world, I found Podany’s work to be a useful and very readable introduction to the longer history of diplomacy and its place in the human experience. Even though I’m not particularly qualified by my training to speak to the accuracy of Podany’s content, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of international relations, the political culture of the ancient world in and around Syria, the broader Ancient Near Eastern context of the Bible, and similar topics.

Brotherhood of Kings is largely a work of synthesis, and according to Podany, it “represents an attempt to bring [previous scholars’] remarkable findings together in a single narrative and, in the process, to recreate an ancient world.” (p. 11) As Podany puts it in the introduction, the book is focused on “the ties and interactions between ancient peoples, who often lived at great distances from one another, and how those contacts gave shape to a shared international community spread over a vast area.” (p. 10) While we often associate international communities with more modern organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations, Podany shows how participants in the ancient “brotherhood of kings,” so called because the members of the system often conceived of each other as family members, “shared an understanding of acceptable behaviors which, though not written out as international law, were agreed upon by all.” (p. 11) The common languages, marriages, treaties, gifts, and other aspects of ancient diplomacy held together an important, if somewhat less formal, system of alliances which did much to reduce the frequency of war and ensure stability both within and across local governments.

Aside from a few prefatory materials and a brief epilogue, the vast majority of the book is divided into four main chronological parts, each covering several decades or centuries. The first part does not go all the way back to the origins of diplomacy–as Podany mentions, “Diplomacy only becomes visible to us when people began to write about it” (p. 14)–but rather focuses on the era of King Irkab-damu of Ebla. Even by this early juncture (2500-2000 BCE), a sophisticated system of contacts was present within Syria and Mesopotamia that did much to delay, if not always prevent, conflict and to shore up individual leaders’ powers at home. The second, slightly shorter section (2000-1595 BCE) hones in on two main figures: King Zimri-Lim of Mari and King Hammurabi of Babylon. This era saw a continuation of the older system but also increasingly found traders and explorers venturing out into the wider world, sharing goods and ideas in a much larger international community than had been imagined previously. The third part (1595-1400 BCE) covers a season of great change in the ANE, as incursions by the Hittites and by the Egyptians “threatened the established diplomatic system” (p. 15) which eventually grew to incorporate those invading powers into its networks. Finally, part four (1400-1300 BCE) spotlights King Tushratta of Mittani, devoting significant attention (five of the book’s twelve chapters) to a relatively peaceful era in which diplomacy concerned itself primarily with economic and personal matters rather than warfare.

Like most of the half-dozen book club selections to date, Brotherhood of Kings is a big book that asks big questions. (To be fair, the smallest book, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, also asks some pretty big questions!) Even though it doesn’t investigate the origins of diplomacy or connect its stories to the present day (in fact, Podany is quite clear that this system of diplomacy had little direct impact on later manifestations), it still gets at issues related to the human experience writ large. It does so by drawing on examples from an impressively broad swath of time, perhaps only exceeded among our selections by Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy. Similarly to Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, it pulls together advances in recent scholarship to challenge widely held notions about an area of the world which we often presume to know much about. And like Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Brotherhood of Kings concerns itself with how human beings (and groups thereof) interact with each other, for good and for ill.

Whether or not I am able to read and type up a review of the book club’s July-September selection, Derk Pereboom’s Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, I have greatly enjoyed having a reason to read more broadly across the last six months than I might have otherwise done. Until then!

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