Killing of an Ambassador: A History Lesson

By Barry Strauss

Killing an ambassador can lead to dire consequences. President Obama has promised that the killers of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other State Department employees will be brought to justice.

Indeed. Justice is essential, but equally essential is taking the fight to the terrorists who were behind the attack. The U.S. government now suspects an al Qaeda link.

No one will be surprised if the American response requires the use of violent force. If so, we can only hope for something short, sharp, and effective. It ought to make the point that American lives are costly to take but without taking innocent lives in turn.

History shows that this is a dangerous moment. In the past, the death of an ambassador has sometimes marked the start of a war. Let’s look at two examples from European history, one from the early modern era and the other from the ancient past.

In 1618 there occurred the infamous Defenestration of Prague. What is a “defenestration?” Thereby hangs a tale.

It was the era of the Reformation, a period that saw Europe torn apart by disputes between Catholics and Protestants – conflicts involving not only theology but also politics and power. By 1618, Europeans had grown used to a century of on-again, off-again sectarian violence. Now it was the turn of Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic). When a new Catholic king, Ferdinand of Styria, took the throne, he moved to limit Protestants’ freedom.

King Ferdinand sent four Catholic nobles as representatives to speak to the Protestant leaders. On May 23, 1618, the meeting took place in Prague Castle. After a tense series of exchanges, the Protestants tossed the two most hardline Catholic leaders and their secretary out the window – from the third floor. It was 70 feet to the ground, but all three survived. The ambassadors lived but there was no mistaking the violence of the attack on them. “Defenestration” means “throwing out of the window.”

It was the signal of a Protestant Revolt in Bohemia. More important, it marked the opening of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the worst and bloodiest conflict in European history until the world wars of the twentieth century. Most of Central Europe was devastated, including Bohemia. And it all began with the attempted murder of ambassadors.

King Ferdinand’s representatives survived, which was not the case of a Roman ambassador to Illyria nearly two millennia earlier. Let us go south now about 500 miles to the Adriatic Sea, which separates Italy and the Balkan Peninsula. In the late third century B.C., Rome dominated the western Italian shore. It was used to peace and quiet in the east, when suddenly it was faced with a new power.

The kingdom of Illyria (located on the coast of what is today's Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania) began expanding along the Adriatic seaboard. Their leader was King Agron. The Illyrians were raiders – pirates, really. They conquered several important cities and began to interfere with trade between Italy and Greece. The people of the island of Issa (today, the Croatian island of Vis), realizing that they were next to be attacked by Illyria, sent ambassadors to Rome to ask for help.

Rome was always suspicious of rising powers, always ready to snap into military action at the sign of a challenge. So they took the Issaeans’ request very seriously. In 229 B.C., the Romans sent two members of the Senate to accompany the representatives of Issa back home and to investigate the situation. Before they could arrive, Illyrian ships attacked. They killed both the leader of the Issaean delegation and one of the two Roman Senators.

As far as Rome was concerned, the murder of its ambassador was a casus belli. It declared war, sent an army and navy across the Adriatic, and handed the Illyrians a thorough defeat within a year. The Illyrian kingdom was reduced in size and effectively disarmed. It was forced to acknowledge Roman supremacy and pay tribute.

But the First Illyrian War (229-228 B.C.) was just the beginning of Illyria’s downward slide. The Illyrians rearmed and found new allies, but the Romans came back twice and defeated them each time (in 220-219 and 169-167 B.C.). In the end, Illyria lost its independence and became a Roman province. 

Like the Bohemians, the Illyrians found themselves at war after attacking ambassadors with deadly intent. But in neither case was the assault on diplomatic representatives the only cause of war. It was the immediate cause, but if the attack had been the only thing at issue, then the parties would surely have found a way to settle their dispute peaceably. In both cases, bigger problems were at stake, whether of religion, authority or national security. 

If King Ferdinand or the Romans had failed to act, then they would certainly have faced additional challenges. The Protestant lords of Bohemia would have made good on their independence, and the Illyrians would have become a major naval power just a short distance from Roman Italy. By going to war, Ferdinand and Rome each tried to prevent what they considered a serious threat.

There is a lesson here for the United States today. In the case of the murder of Ambassador Stevens, the United States has to thread a needle. Failure to respond will only invite future attacks but an overly violent response runs the risk of war.

Finding the right balance will not be easy, but doing so is the stuff of statesmanship. And statesmanship, along with wisdom and good fortune, is what this challenging moment calls for.

Barry Strauss is professor of history and classics at Cornell and author of Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership (Simon & Schuster 2012).

Barry Strauss
Author Archive