This paper will attempt to answer the as yet unsettled questions of when the two most famous cities of the ancient Mediterranean world—Athens and Rome—established interstate relations, and the precise nature of that relationship, formal (via a treaty of alliance, foedus) or informal (via informal friendship, amicitia). The diplomatic relationship between Rome and Athens lies at the heart of what Arthur Eckstein has recently called a “diplomatic revolution” in the Greek East, when in 201-200 BC, numerous lesser eastern states, including Athens, called on Rome to intervene against an aggressive pact of alliance between of Philip V of Macedon and the Seleucid king Antiochus III to destroy the Egyptian boy-king, Ptolemy V, and divide Egypt and its possessions between themselves. Since 1921, when Maurice Holleaux condemned as an annalistic fabrication Athens’ status as an adscriptus on the Roman side in the Peace of Phoenike in 205 BC, scholars have debated where and in what context the beginning of the Rome – Athens relationship should be placed. John Briscoe, John Rich, Erich Gruen, Valerie Warrior, and Arthur Eckstein argue for 228 BC, when Rome sent diplomats to Athens (and elsewhere in the Greek East) in order to publicize their victory in the First Illyrian War (Zon. 8.19.7; Polyb. 2.12.7-8). But despite Zonaras’ assertion that Athens became a Roman philos (amicus) on that occasion, Polybius fails to mention this—in one of the few of his books that is fully extant. Zonaras’ account is vitiated by the additional, clearly spurious information that the Romans were granted entry to the Eleusinian mysteries and isopoliteia with Athens in 228 BC. There is also no evidence for Roman – Athenian interaction post-228 BC, including during the First Macedonian War, which is owing to the fact that this was during the period when Athens cultivated a careful neutrality. This latter point makes it even less likely that a Roman – Athenian amicitia was established in 228 BC.
Here I will argue that the best date is either 209, or, more likely, 208 BC, when the Athenians attempted to intervene and mediate an end to Philip’s war with the Aetolian League (and, incidentally, Rome’s war with Philip) (Livy 27.30, Polyb. 10.25 [209 BC]; Livy 28.7.13-16 [208 BC]). Although Eckstein questions whether such mediations, likely against Rome’s best interests, could possibly result in friendship (much less cordiality), his view is undermined by examples where this in fact occurred, including the case of Heraclea Pontica in 190 BC, when that minor Hellenic city in Asia Minor tried to intervene, against Rome’s interests, between the Romans and Antiochus III (with whom Rome was currently at war)—and indeed, held up Rome’s war plans for at least a month—an intervention that issued in amicitia. As for Holleaux’s objection that Roman interest in the East was so minimal before 200 BC that formal relations with Athens could not possibly have resulted, and therefore Athens’ status as an adscriptus on the Roman side in the Peace of Phoenike in 205 BC was an annalistic fabrication, this followed from his mistaken notion (actually Mommsen’s) that Roman socii et amici possessed formal treaties of alliance, called foedera amicitiae. But no such thing actually existed: as as has been recently systematically demonstrated (Burton 2011), amicitia was but the loosest and most flexible of diplomatic connections—intentionally so. Moreover, the annalistic tradition (represented by Livy) sometimes omitted Athens in the Romans’ lists of grievances against Philip in 201-200 BC, so it is illogical that the same tradition would fabricate adscriptus status for Athens in 205 BC to provide an additional Roman casus belli against Philip V. This paper thus confirms the broader thesis that informal “friendship,” amicitia, rather than formal treaties, foedera, typified Roman overseas relationships during the formative stages of the construction of the imperium Romanum in the East.