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Diplomatic Marriages

Amanda H. Podany is Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her new book, Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East, is a vivid tour of a thousand years of ancient Near Eastern history, from 2300 to 1300 BCE. She focuses on the establishment of international diplomacy, how the great kings of the day devised diplomacy and trade. In the excerpt below we learn about a marriage contract between two kings, one of the ways countries sealed alliances.

When Tushratta took the Egyptian envoy to Mane to see the princess whom he had selected to marry Amenhotep III, Mane “praised her greatly.” Tushratta promised the pharaoh that he would get her safely to Egypt and hoped that the gods would “make her the image of my brother’s desire.” But Tushratta was probably only in his early twenties at the time; he had only recently thrown off the oppressive rule of his regent, and it’s almost impossible that any of his daughters was yet grown. But he wouldn’t have wanted to say no to Amenhotep’s proposal. His reply was “Of course I will give her,” and, though he must have been decades younger than the pharaoh, he promptly started referring to himself as Amenhotep’s “father-in-law.” The daughter he had chosen was named Tadu-Hepa, and Tushratta seems to have been very attached to her.

It would be hard to overstate the centrality of diplomatic marriages in international relationships by this time. The Amarna letters give us much more information about these marriages than we have for any other period of ancient Near Eastern history. The letters provide fascinating details: the stages of the negotiations, the vast quantity of gifts exchanged, the kings’ emotions and strategies, and even the words of one princess before her marriage. It does seem that an alliance wasn’t seen as entirely complete until the kings were related by marriage, as true family members, not just fictitious “brothers.” At that point, they said, their lands were united.

Mane, on returning to Egypt, probably did praise Tadu-Hepa, but perhaps told the pharaoh that the girl was still quite young. The Egyptian king seems to have required that his wives be “women” before marriage. The Babylonian King Kadashman-Enlil I wrote about his daughter on another occasion that “she has become a woman; she is nubile” and therefore could now be taken to Egypt to marry the king. Perhaps Amenhotep wanted to be sure his wives could bear children right away. But it was not unheard of in the ancient Near East for young girls to be “married” while continuing to live with their parents, waiting until they were older to consummate the marriage. Amenhotep III himself might well have been less than fourteen years old when he married Tiy. In any event, Tushratta must have been pleased when he could write in another letter, perhaps a few years after Mane had first seen his daughter that, “she has become very mature, and…has been fashioned according to my brother’s desire.”

This issue of “my brother’s desire” seems to have been important. Amenhotep III wanted the woman chosen as his wife to be beautiful. Not only had Mane been sent to see the girl and give his assessment of her for the pharaoh, Tushratta also wrote, in all four letters that led up to the sending of Tadu-Hepa, “May (the gods) Shaushka and Aman make her the image of my brother’s desire.”

Mane came back to Mittani, some time after Tushratta had given the go-ahead for the marriage, to carry out the negotiations and to anoint the princess by pouring oil on her head. Although this act had its roots in Syria and Mesopotamia and wasn’t an Egyptian tradition, the pharaoh was willing to go along with it. It marked a crucial point in an engagement and is mentioned in other Amarna letters and in laws from around the same time Assyria.

The Assyrian laws provide us with a picture of the events involved in marriages between commoners during the era. Royal marriages were based on the same principles, but took place on a much grander scale. The main ideas hadn’t changed since the Old Babylonian period, but some of the details were slightly different. The engagement agreement for commoners was between the father of the bride and the father of the groom, not between the married couple themselves. For a royal marriage of a ruling king, the father of the groom was obviously dead, since he had been the former king, so it was the groom – the king himself- who negotiated with the father of the bride. As part of the marriage, the groom’s father (or in this case the groom himself) was required to bring a bridal gift to his fiancée’s father. Among ordinary people this could include “lead, silver, gold,” along with grain and sheep, food and drink. In a royal marriage, the bridal gift was of spectacular size and value. This bride-wealth belonged to the woman’s family even if her husband later divorced her. The woman also received a dowry from her father, which she could pass on to her children. The exchange of gifts was only part of the engagement; the families also participated in a ceremony that could include an elaborate banquet. It was at this point that the bride was anointed with oil by her new father-in-law.

The anointing ceremony, even among commoners, marked the moment when the woman was considered a member of her husband’s family, though she could still live with her father. One law stated that if “the son to whom (his father) assigned the wife either dies or flees, he shall give her in marriage to whichever of his remaining sons he wishes.” That is, after the anointing took place, the husband’s family controlled the woman’s future; they could even marry her to a different man within the family if they chose.

Tadu-Hepa’s marriage preparations followed the same course. Needless to say, Mane was not Amenhotep’s father, but since the king himself could not travel to Mittani to anoint the bride, his trusted official took on the role. The anointing must have been a solemn occasion. From then on, Tadu-Hepa was considered to be Amenhotep’s wife, even though she had not yet met him.

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