The Byzantine diplomatic service

The Byzantine Empire, 330-1453 CE, was originally the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where emperor Constantine established a capital, Constantinople, in 330 CE. When Rome itself was overrun and sacked by various wandering tribes, the empire survived in the east. In fact, the Byzantine Empire was to last for another thousand years and it comprised at the height of its power all lands around the eastern Mediterranean, including North Africa and Egypt. The Byzantines spoke Greek, they were Christian and they spread their language and their religion to all parts of their empire. An educated person in Egypt or Syria prior to the ninth century was likely to have been Christian and Greek speaking.

An important reason for the longevity of the Byzantine empire was its aggressive use of diplomacy. They set up a “Bureau of Barbarians” which gathered intelligence on the empire’s rivals and prepared diplomats for their missions abroad. The diplomats negotiated treaties and formed alliances with other rulers, but they also used diplomacy as a way to make friends of the enemies of their enemies. Lavish gifts were bestowed on the neighbors of a state which threatened to attack in order to convince them to join the Byzantine alliance. And foreign governments were often undermined by various underhanded tactics — friends were cultivated among the opposition to a present ruler and in Constantinople itself there was a whole stable of exiled royalty who the Byzantines were ready to reinstall on their thrones if an occasion presented itself.

Constantinople was thoroughly sacked by the participants in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event which left bitter resentment and strong anti-Catholic feelings among Orthodox Christians. In the thirteenth-century, the Turks began expanding into the Anatolian peninsula, and eventually the vast Byzantine empire came to comprise little but the capital and the surrounding countryside. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the large cathedral, Hagia Sophia — the largest in Christendom — was converted into a mosque. The fall of Constantinople is still remembered as a great disaster by the Greeks while Turks celebrate it as ordained by Allah himself.

“Byzantine,” by the way, is an English adjective which means “devious” and “scheming” but also “intricate” and “involved.” Learning about the diplomatic practices of the empire, it is easy to understand why. But then again, their diplomacy served the Byzantines well.

External links:

History of Philosophy, “Purple Prose: Byzantine Political Philosophy”

In Our Time, “Byzantium”