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«Ecaterina Lung Abstract. The byzantine diplomacy has been for long time an object for the historical research, its efficiency being considered one ...»

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Ecaterina Lung

Abstract. The byzantine diplomacy has been for long time

an object for the historical research, its efficiency being

considered one of the explanations for the so long survival of the

Empire. The barbarian embassies sent to Constantinople were

studied mainly in the context of general discussions on byzantine


We intend to focus on the possibility of deciphering a barbaric point of view regarding the relations with the Byzantine Empire, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when the narrative sources that are available to us have a Byzantine origin, or, when referring to barbarian kingdoms in the West, they are profoundly influenced by Roman and Roman-Byzantine traditions.

Keywords: Byzantine diplomacy, barbarian embassies, diplomatic envoys, narrative sources.

We intend to use for our analysis the narrative sources from the 6th century, because this period represents a turning point in the military and political situation of the Byzantine Empire and most of that we know about it derives from chronicles and histories1. Old and new enemies confronted the imperial power, especially during the huge effort of reconquest made by Justinian and the relations weren’t always of confrontation, but also diplomatic ones. We propose to try to adopt the point of view of the barbarians who send envoys to Constantinople or who participate to negotiations with the Byzantines, which is a very difficult attempt. The byzantine diplomacy was very often studied, but that of post-Roman barbarian kingdoms from the  Ph.D. Professor at Faculty of History, University of Bucharest, ecaterina.lung@gmail.com We use the term “narrative sources” because the historical writings in the Middle Ages represent a kind of federation of subgenres, “the boundaries between which are notably unclear”, to cite Lake, 2014, 345.

Occident entered the attention of academics only recently and partially2. Also, the envoys that came to Byzantium from the East were studied only in the context of the attention paid to the imperial diplomacy3. When it comes to Western Barbarians, we have some narrative sources written in the successor kingdoms, but usually, we can know something about the Eastern barbarian embassies or envoys only from Byzantine sources, which pose the problem of the bias of the authors. But even if we use Byzantine sources to discuss the Barbarian embassies we can stress some specificities of the societies the envoys came from, some aspects of the Byzantine diplomacy, and more often some Byzantine ideas and stereotypes.

The most important methodological problem is how to decipher a Barbarian point of view in sources written by Byzantines or by very Romanized Latin authors. Also, we can not always give weight to the information about Barbarians presented in the narrative sources, because the authors were often politically motivated or tried to hide internal controversies and not to offer valid data about the strangers, because they use the Barbarians as a mirror for the Byzantine society4. It is true that the authors interested by ethnography have sometimes transmitted a barbarian point of view, that some of them admired the Barbarians, and some of them used the strangers to criticise their own society. In Byzantium, the ethnography could have been used with subversive intentions5.

But the Byzantines were really curious about foreigners even if they tried to filter new information through old myths and stereotypes6. We can find this genuine curiosity in the discussion between Justin II and Turk envoys, when the emperor asked many question about a people who inhabited distant lands and who was not a direct threat or a valuable ally7. At the same time, no ally was unimportant from the point of view of Byzantines for whom One of the first works on the subject, regarding the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century, is Andrew Gillet, Envoys and political communication in the late antique west 411-533, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

For the recent bibliography on the subject of byzantine diplomacy, see Whately, 2013, 239-254.

Kaldellis, 2013, 9.

Ibidem, 10.

Luttwak, 2009, 145.

Menander, 1985, 10.9.

the ambassadors were important channels for passing on and obtaining useful information8.

If we can find a lot of information about barbarian envoys in the works of Byzantine historians and chroniclers, the Latin authors are less proficient in this respect. But they tell us something about diplomatic missions and envoys and interpret them in accordance with their own literary or political interests.

Representations of barbarian envoys by Byzantine authors can sometimes give rise to digressions or ethnographic notations.

However, it must be noted that the historical works dealing with embassies were literary pieces written for a competitive literary scene9. They could have an objective form, as the Wars of Procopius or written in the first person, as the diplomatic reports of Priscus Panites10. The tradition required that the authors use references to classical works as the integration of descriptions, speeches before the battle, and diplomatic speeches of persuasion11.

The sources for studying barbarian embassies could be not only chronicles and histories but also fragments of official diplomatic reports, as those written by Priscus, Zemarchos, and Nonnossus. It is possible that the barbarian envoys presented such reports themselves, once back in their country, but we can suppose that their form was an oral one, because, often, the envoys were of high origin, related to their monarch, and not professional writers. A good example is given in Menander’s history, where Yesdegusnap appears, the Persan who negociates the peace of 562, who is related to the milk-brother of king Peroz12.

In the Latin West, the most important sources are the chronicles, but there is some information in saints’ lives, letters, etc.

So, we can point here to another methodological problem, that of the character of our sources, which are fragmentary and often they note only the most important embassies, or offer Drocourt, 2012, 91-112.

Kaldellis, 2013, 2.

Blockley, 1983.

Kaldellis, 2013, 2.

Menander, 6.1. See and Rezakhani, 2008.

insights into the so called „kinship diplomacy” (marriages, baptism, adoptions in arms, etc)13.

Taking into consideration all these limitations, our goal is not to realize another reconstruction of byzantine diplomacy, but to show how a particular category of sources, the narratives ones, enlightens the way the Byzantines related to the Others and to themselves.

We shall start with a short presentation of the byzantine diplomacy in the context of the 6th century. If for the Romans force was the most important tool of their government, and diplomacy came second, for the Byzantines it was the opposite.

They had a lesser military capacity to face more enemies than the Romans, their society had different values and they disposed of other ways of persuasion, as the orthodox christianity14. It is possible to assert that Byzantium survived so long also due to a relative prosperity which allowed it to pay off the enemies when war was not possible15. And although the discussion is stil open, it is said that the Byzantines had a „grand strategy”, as “the setting of the states objectives and of priorities amongst those objectives, allocating resources among them, and choosing the best policy instruments to pursue them”16.

The narrative sources inform us about various diplomatic channels in use in the 6th century and we may begin with those linking various Western barbarian kings and the Byzantine emperor (and then between Barbarian chiefs and Byzantine generals, during Justinian’s wars). Other channels linked the Byzantine empire and Persia, through peace talks during the wars but also through the exchange of information between the two sovereigns, during the more peaceful periods. Finally, there are informations about diplomatic exchanges between the Byzantine empire and various Oriental peoples.

The basic form of diplomatic communication in this period is the mission. The envoy was a person who represents the political authority from which it was sent and who acts as a vehicle of communication. During this period the oral form of communication was essential, the envoys carried letters which Gillet, 2003, 3-4.

Luttwak, 2009, 112.

Whately, 2013, 243.

Kagan, 2006, 348.

were secondary and were only guarantees of their credibility. The letters were used to give them the opportunity to speak to the foreign sovereign. The speech of the envoy is underlying diplomatic relations17.

What can we learn from analyzing reports about barbarian embassies in the Byzantine world? Sometimes it's the issues that we might consider "objective" and which refer to the actual operation of diplomatic relations at the time.

In terms of duration, narrative sources confirm that these were temporary assignments, because obviously no permanent embassies system existed then. But envoys spent much time at the mission, sometimes several years. From this point of view, some may be considered as a sort of ambassadors, others as a sort of hostages. This may be the situation, presented by Procopius, of the embassy sent by the Ostrogoth King Vitiges to Constantinople at the beginning of his reign, who is allowed to go back only after a few years, and is additionally retained by General Belisarius. He used the Ostrogoth envoys in exchange for a Byzantine ambassador, Petrus Patricius, who was sent to the King Theodat in 533 and could go back to Constantinople only in 54018.

The narrative sources from the 6th century record, most often, the missions that reach recipients who are far away. The missions sent to great distances were normal in Byzantium but they were less common in the post-Roman world of the West.

There are also embassies with military character, moving over very short distances, during the war. Procopius of Caesarea gives numerous examples during the war of reconquest. The war is centered on sieges, therefore negotiations regading the surrender of besieged towns have a central role in his works19.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the envoys are in the post-Roman world the voice of kings, due to the multiplicity of political entities existing there. The diplomatic missions can be correlated with the great politics but sometimes also with local politics. I think that the most interesting is a case of the second category, in which a French aristocrat, the representative of a local aristocratic groups, Gontran Boson, goes Gillet, 2003, p. 4.

Procopius, Wars, VI, 22.

Procopius, BP, II, 5 ; I, 13 ; II, 8-10.

to Constantinople, in 581-2 to talk to a royal pretender to the throne.

Presenting the complicated history of an usurper, Gundovald, Greogry of Tours helps us to understand how were regarded those who were too close to Byzantium. The duke Gontran Boson was acused of treason by the king Gontran of Burgundy because he went to Constantinople to discuss with Gundovald, a supposed bastard of another Frankish king, Clotar, and to convince him to come back to Gaul and reclaime his inheritance20. Gundovald, who was protected by Maurice, the Byzantine emperor, come back to Gaul with money given by the Byzantine and a civil war begins21. So, we can ask ourselves if we can consider Gontran Boson a kind of „conspirators’ ambassador”, who was well received at Constantinople and managed to get some help from the emperor, even if Greogory presents us only his discussion with Gundovald, as related by this one.

Another question we have tried to ask to, using our narrative sources, is: to whom are the envoys sent? In general, we can see that they are sent by sovereigns to other sovereigns.

Sometimes, the sources present more than embassies, events that we may categorize as “official visits at the highest level ". Iordanes describes the visit made by the Visigoth King Athanaric in 381 on January 11 at Constantinople. He is received with pomp by Theodosius which comes to meet him outside the walls of the imperial capital. When Athanaric dies on 25th of January he receives an official funeral organized by the emperor, in the Roman rite, as expression of imperial policy of conciliation with the Goths22.

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