History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

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 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 and they were Christian and the spread their language and their religion to all parts of their empire. An educated person in Egypt and Syria prior to the ninth century was likely to have been Christian and spoken Greek. [Read more: The Arab expansion]

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 given to the neighbors of a state which threatened to attack in order to convince them to join the Byzantine alliance. Foreign governments were often actively 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. Foreign diplomats and dignitaries who visited Constantinople were wined and dined and treated to magnificent performances and sumptuous displays in order to overwhelm them with the might of the empire. The visitors often stayed long, perhaps for years, and they were effectively treated as hostages. As far as hostages go, however, they had a nice life and were included in the social life of the capital. By treating the foreigner as honorary Greeks they would come to see the world from a Byzantine point of view. “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.

Constantinople was thoroughly sacked by the participants in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event which left bitter resentment and anti-Catholic feelings. From the thirteenth-century onwards, the Ottomans began expanding into the Anatolian peninsula, and eventually the former empire comprised little but the capital and the surrounding countryside. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and the large cathedral, Hagia Sophia, was converted into a mosque. The fall of Constantinople is still remembered as a great disaster by the Greeks.