Byzantine Diplomacy

In protecting the state against the barbarians who surrounded it, diplomacy was a weapon as important in the eyes of the Byzantine government as soldiers or fortifications. The peace on the frontiers was maintained not only by strong military defences, but by more or less skilful management of the frontier peoples. In the later Empire this kind of diplomacy; which may be defined as the science of managing the barbarians, was practised as a fine art; its full development was due to Justinian.

Its methods fall under three general heads. (1) One people was kept in check by means of another. The imperial government fomented rivalry and hatred among them. Thus Justinian kept the Gepidae in check by the Lombards, the Kuturgurs by the Utigurs, the Huns by the Avars. (2) Subsidies were given to the peoples on the frontiers, in return for which they undertook to defend the frontier adjacent to them, and to supply fighting men when called upon to do so. The chiefs received honours and decorations. Thus the Berber chiefs on the African border received a staff of silver, encrusted with gold, a silver diadem, white cloak, embroidered tunic, &c. More important potentates were invested with a costlier dress. In these investitures precedence was carefully observed. The chiefs thus received a definite position in the Empire, and the rich robes, with the ceremony, appealed to their vanity. In some cases they were admitted to posts in the official hierarchy - being created Patricians, Masters of soldiers, &c. They were extremely fond of such honors, and considered themselves half-Romans.

Another mode of winning influence was to marry barbarian princes to Roman wives, and rear their sons in the luxury of the palace. Dissatisfied pretenders, defeated candidates for kingship, were welcomed at Constantinople. Thus there were generally some princes, thoroughly under Byzantine influence, who at a favorable opportunity could be imposed on their compatriots. Throughout Justinian's reign there was a constant influx of foreign potentates to Constantinople, and he overwhelmed them with attentions, pompous ceremonies and valuable presents.

(3) Both these methods were already familiar to the Roman government, although Justinian employed them far more extensively and systematically than any of his predecessors. The third method was new and characteristic. The dose connexion of religion and politics at Constantinople found Christian propaganda going hand-in-hand with conquest, and the missionary would co-operate with the soldier. The missionary proved an excellent agent. The typical procedure is as follows. In the land which he undertakes to convert, the missionary endeavours to gain the confidence of the king and influential persons, and makes it a special object to enlist the sympathies of the women. If the king hesitates, it is suggested that he should visit New Rome. The attraction of this idea is irresistible, and when he comes to the capital, the pomp of his reception, the honors shown him by the emperor, and the splendor of the religious ceremonies overcome his last scruples. Thenceforward imperial influence is predominant in his dominion; priests become his advisers; a bishop is consecrated, dependent on the patriarch of Constantinople; and the barbarians are transformed by the penetration of Byzantine ideas. By the application of these various means, Justinian established Roman influence in Nubia, Ethiopia and South Arabia, in the Caucasian regions, and on the coast of the Euxine. The conversion of the Lazi (of Colchis) was specially notable, and that of the Sabiri, who were politically important because they commanded the eastern pass of the Caucasus known as the Caspian Gates. It will be observed that the great prestige of the Empire was one of the conditions of the success of this policy.

The policy had, of course, its dangers, and was severely criticized by one of Justinian's contemporaries, the historian Procopius. Concessions encouraged greater demands; the riches of the Empire were revealed. It was a system, of course, which could not be permanently successful without military power behind it, and of course it was not infallible; but in principle it was well-founded, and proved of immeasurable value. Less prejudiced writers than Procopius fully admit the far-sightedness and dexterity of the emperor in his diplomatic activity.

In the 10th century again the government conducted its foreign policy on carefully thought out principles. The Empire was then exposed to constant danger from Bulgaria, to inroads of the Magyars, and to attacks of the Russians. The key to the diplomatic system, designed to meet these dangers, was the cultivation of friendly relations with the Petchenegs, who did not menace the provinces either by land or sea and could be incited to act against Russians, Bulgarians or Magyars. The system is explained in the treatise (known as De administrando impcrio) compostd by the emperor Constantinc Porphyrogennetos (c. 950). The scries of these northern states was completed by the kingdom of the Khazars (between the Caucasus and the Don), with which the Empire had been in relation since the time of Heracllus, who, to win its co-operation against Persia, promised his daughter in marriage to the king. Afterwards the Khazars gave two empresses to New Rome (the wives of Justinian II and Constantine V). Their almost civilized state steered skilfully between the contending influences of Islam and Christianity, and its kings adopted the curious means of avoiding suspicion of partiality for either creed by embracing the neutral religion of the Jews.

Commercial and political relations with the Khazars were maintained through the important outpost of the Empire at Cherson in the Crimea, which had been allowed to retain its republican constitution under a president and municipal board, though this freedom was limited by the appointment of a strategos in 833, a moment at which the Khazars were seriously threatened by the Petchenegs. The danger to be feared from the Khazars was an attack upon Cherson, and it seems probable that this was a leading consideration with Leo III when he wedded his son Constantine V to a Khazar princess. In the 9th century it was an object of the government to maintain the Khazars (whose army consisted mainly of mercenaries) against the Petchenegs; and hence, if it should become necessary to hold the Khazars in check, the principle was to incite against them not the Petchenegs, but other less powerful neighbours, the Alans of the Caucasus, and the people of "Black Bulgaria" on the middle Volga (a state which survived till the Mongol conquest).

For this systematic diplomacy it was necessary to collect information about the peoples whom it concerned. The ambassadors sent to the homes of barbarous peoples reported everything of interest they could discover. Priscus provides a famous graphic account of the embassy which he accompanied to the court of Attila. An account of an embassy sent to the Turks in Central Asia in the second half of the 6th century is derived from an official report. Peter the Patrician in Justinian's reign drew up careful reports of his embassies to the Persian court. When foreign envoys came to Constantinople, information was elicited from them as to the history and domestic politics of their own countries. It can be shown that some of the accounts of the history and customs of neighboring peoples, stored in the treatise of Constantine Porphyrogennetos referred to above (furnishing numerous facts not to be found anywhere else), were derived from barbarian ambassadors who visited Constantinople, and taken down by the imperial secretaries. It is conjectured with some probability that the famous system of the Relazioni, which the Venetian government required from its ambassadors, goes back originally to Byzantine influence.

Join the mailing list