Renaissance diplomacy: Compromise as a solution to conflict

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The term ‘Byzantine’ comes from the name of the ancient Greek city Byzantium which the Roman Emperor Constantine I (Constantine the Great) rebuilt and renamed Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), and in 330, moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. Situated on the Bosporus (part of the boundary between Europe and Asia), the city’s location ensured that it could be supplied from the sea in the event of a siege. 

The tale of the founding of Byzantium speaks about its favourable position. According to the legend, the ancient Greek prince Byzas consulted the oracle of Delphi on where to establish a new colony. The oracle instructed him to settle opposite the ‘land of the blind’. When he arrived at where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus, on the border of Europe and Asia, he understood the meaning of the oracle. Opposite of him was the Chalcedon colony in Asia Minor, whose inhabitants he considered ‘blind’ as they did not see the advantages of the European shore. In 667 BC, Byzas founded the city of Byzantium.

The Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, was known to its inhabitants as the ‘Roman Empire’ or the ‘Empire of the Romans’, even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. During its golden period in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian, this empire covered much of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including what is now Italy, Greece, and Turkey, along with portions of North Africa and the Middle East. 

Byzantine diplomacy: Highlights 

One of the most impressive achievements of the Byzantine Empire was its longevity (330–1453), and it remains one of the longest lasting social organisations in history. The empire survived through adaptation, and its backbone was its administration which managed to adapt to the frequent changes of rulers and continuous crises on its borders. With relatively limited military force, diplomacy was crucial for its survival.

Constantinople. Illustration by Juan-Leon Huens

Diplomacy was a necessity because it had enemies along its long borders which could not be protected by its limited military strength. Thus, one of the golden rules of the Byzantine elite was to avoid wars at almost all costs. Byzantine rulers were fully aware that, even with an occasional victory, the empire would lose in the long term if it engaged in military conflicts. Wars were expensive even then, and cost much more than bribing the enemy or finding a resolution to a conflict. 

Byzantine diplomacy: Inherited practices

The Byzantine period was probably the most important in the history of diplomacy. Today it is seen as the bridge between ancient and modern diplomacy. The empire was both a practitioner of the practices from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome and an innovator of new practices which were passed on to our time via Venice and the diplomacy of Renaissance Italy. 

Byzantine diplomacy applied the following practices of the ancient civilisations:

  • from the Hellenistic East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia): elaborate protocol and ceremonies, dynastic marriage to cement an alliance, trade diplomacy by merchant ambassadors
  • from ancient Greece: the use of rhetoric as a tool of public diplomacy (although Byzantine envoys relied far less on oratory than those dispatched by the Greek city-states)
  • from the Roman Empire: divide and conquer tactics, using civil-engineering projects to impress foreigners


Byzantine diplomacy: Innovations

A proto ministry of foreign affairs

In the Byzantine Empire, diplomacy evolved from ad-hoc to organised government activities through its ‘Office of Barbarian Affairs’. The term ‘barbarian’ referred to all foreigners, thus the office could be understood as the ‘office of foreign affairs’. The office housed numerous interpreters and translators, and similar to a modern ministry of foreign affairs, it prepared Byzantine envoys for missions abroad, analysed reports which arrived from envoys, organised visits of foreign dignitaries to Constantinople, prepared international treaties, etc. The office established archives as a way to preserve institutional memory. Unlike modern diplomacy, Byzantine did not have permanent diplomatic missions. Envoys were sent abroad in order to deal with specific issues, even when they took several years to solve.

Soft power, public diplomacy, and protocol

The Byzantines realised early on the importance of winning the hearts and minds of their neighbours. Whenever possible, the empire turned neighbours from potential enemies to allies and friends. Their public diplomacy toolkit included: the conversion of nomadic tribes (especially Slavs) to Christianity, the use of ceremonies for impressing foreign dignitaries, and the education of future neighbouring rulers in Constantinople’s leading schools. Some of these public diplomacy techniques are still in use today. The empire particularly excelled in the use of protocol and ceremonies with the aim to impress foreign dignitaries, as the location and civil-engineering of Constantinople (e.g. Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome of Constantinople) remain impressive even today.

The Byzantine emperor received foreigners in the Magnaura, where he sat on an automated golden throne surrounded by golden lions that roared and golden birds that tweeted. A special hydraulic system elevated the throne to the ceiling, making a lasting impression on visitors. The Book of Ceremonies, compiled by Constantine VII (945–959), describes court rituals, seating arrangements, and other protocol details.

The Golden Automata of the throne room. Source: camerainthesun.com.

Introduction of regular diplomatic reporting

Envoys had an obligation to send written diplomatic reports back to Constantinople. The reports were archived in the office of barbarian affairs. The content of the diplomatic reports was not very different from modern diplomatic reports, as we could see from WikiLeaks’ diplomatic reports and cables. They dealt with local political developments, the personalities of leaders, analysis of power struggle, etc.

Proto intelligence service

Access to information was central to Byzantine diplomacy. In order to obtain the right information, the empire founded the first intelligence service, consisting of a network of official and unofficial agents (including merchants, missionaries, and military officers) who were sent abroad. In order to ensure secure communication, they further enhanced the Caesar cipher encryption technique.

Early multistakeholder diplomacy 

The Byzantine Empire used the services of merchants, priests, and other citizens who travelled abroad. All of them served as Byzantine diplomats, and had a duty to report back to Constantinople from their travels. In this way, Byzantine diplomacy managed to achieve the difficult task of maintaining a huge empire with very limited military power and financial resources.

Early international law

The Byzantines signed international treaties with neighbouring tribes, although these were framed as unilateral decrees since the emperor claimed to be the ruler of the whole world.

In the long term, the empire benefited from introducing predictable and legal relations with otherwise unruly tribes on its borders. Even when it had to go to war, it tried to find legal justifications such as the concept of ‘just war‘ (reclaiming lost territories or defending the empire). The introduction of a legal aspect to relations with foreigners had an important impact on developing more civilised relations in Europe and the Mediterranean. In some cases, adherence to legality restricted room for manoeuvring for the otherwise very pragmatic Byzantines, but even in these situations, they avoided breaking the rules. They employed a very complex interpretation of treaties in order to justify their actions in accordance with signed treaties, making them masters of interpretation and constructive ambiguities.

Mastering time management 

Time always played an important role in the Byzantine Empire. During its 1,123 years of existence, the empire preserved many distinctive features, including the way it conducted diplomacy. Byzantine diplomacy mastered the use of time in its activities. In most cases, playing the waiting game was in Byzantine’s best interest. With stable institutions, Byzantines were always ahead of nomadic tribes, which were easily affected by disease and the weather. Thus, in times of conflict, the smart approach was to let time pass in order to defuse tension and choose the right moment for counter-action.

Byzantine communication and technology 

Byzantine contributions to technology, philosophy, science, art, and architecture are numerous, and include both inventions and innovations.

Communication

Communication across the expanses of the empire was necessary for both diplomacy and administration. During the 9th century, the Byzantines used a system of beacons during the Arab–Byzantine wars to transmit messages from the border with the Arab caliphate, across Asia Minor, to Constantinople. The system was devised by Leo the Mathematician during the reign of Emperor Theophilos (829–842). The main line of beacons stretched over some 450 miles and functioned through two identical water clocks placed at two terminal stations. 

The rise of Rome from a small city-state into a vast empire required reliable and speedy communications with the governors of distant provinces. This need was met by the cursus publicus, the courier service of the Roman empire and the most developed postal system of the ancient world. The relay stages (established at convenient intervals along the great roads of the empire) formed an integral part of its complex military and administrative system. The speed with which messengers were able to travel was not to be rivalled in Europe until the 19th century: it is claimed that more than 270 km could be covered in a day and a night.

Warfare

Greek fire played a crucial role in the defence of the empire against the early attack of the Muslim Arabs. Invented by Callinicus, Greek fire was a naval weapon resembling the modern flamethrower, and used to set fire to enemy ships. The exact composition was a well-guarded state secret. 

The hand-trebuchet, a staff sling mounted on a pole using a lever mechanism to propel projectiles, was used by Emperor Nicephorus Phocas’ army in his campaigns to disrupt enemy lines.

The counterweight trebuchet, which was far more powerful than the normal traction trebuchet, was used by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, and it’s said that it impressed his crusader allies during the siege of Nicaea.

Architecture

The Byzantines developed new forms in architecture: 

  • Cross-in-square layout: Buildings with a square centre and an internal structure shaped like a cross and topped by a dome. This layout was used in Greek Orthodox churches for 1,000 years.
  • Pendentive dome: A circular dome placed over a square room. The first (and most famous) example of a pendentive dome is Hagia Sophia, designed by Isidore of Miletus.
  • Pointed arch bridge: A bridge resting on a pointed arch. It appeared in the 5th century.

Daily life

The Justinian Code or Corpus Juris Civilis was a collection of legal rulings from previous centuries, and an agreement to form a definitive body of law. The Byzantine Empire continued the Roman legal tradition, while making its own revisions.  

Due to the ideals of Christian charity, Byzantines built hospitals, i.e. general and permanent spaces for medical care. After the first Council of Nicea in 325, headed by Constantine I, their construction began in every place that had a cathedral.

Ship mills were introduced by General Belisarius during the Siege of Rome (537/538) as the Ostrogoths had cut off the water supply by aqueducts. A ship mill is a watermill built on a floating platform or ship. The passage of the water turns the wheel and this then produces a force that can be applied to grinding wheat. 

From Byzantine to modern diplomacy

Many core elements of Byzantine diplomacy exist even today. They were passed on to the modern era via the Italian city-states – mainly Venice. For example, Italian city-states established the first permanent embassies.
From Italy, the way of running diplomacy moved to emerging European national states. France created the first formal ministry of foreign affairs in the 17th century, and other European states followed. When we remove the trappings of our time, we can see that – in essence – many tools of Byzantine diplomacy are still in use today.
 
Lessons for our time

What are the lessons that we can learn from Byzantine diplomacy?

  • Time management: Successful diplomacy requires consistent efforts over a long period of time. Diplomacy requires time, which is in opposition with our continuous need for immediate action. 
  • The centrality of information: The Byzantines realised the importance of knowing what’s happening abroad, and they used this information to control neighbouring tribes for over 1,000 years. The advancement of technology, and especially the internet industry, has brought a significant asymmetry with the rest of the players in the policy field. 
  • Gradual innovation: The Byzantines learned new techniques, collected feedback, and then included it in their revisions. They were masters of the Gartner hype circle, and understood the phases of emerging ideas. 
  • Don’t forget the basics: We always need to remember the purpose of diplomatic work. In the case of the Byzantines, it was the survival of the empire. Despite numerous difficulties, they managed to last over 1,000 years.

 
Today, the adjective ‘byzantine’ is sometimes used to describe a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation: intrigue, plotting, and bribing. Still, historical records show that Byzantine politics were morally neither worse nor better than politics in previous or later years. In the end, their diplomacy served the Byzantines well.

Byzantine served as a buffer zone between Europe and nations from Central Asia and the Middle East. By resisting attacks and skilfully integrating new peoples (e.g. Slavs, Arabs, Turks), the Byzantine Empire gave Europe time to recover from plagues and wars.

Meanwhile in Asia …

In the 13th century, the largest contiguous land empire in history was growing in East Asia: the Mongol Empire. 

The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in present-day Mongolia under the leadership of Genghis Khan who ruled 1206–1227. Setting on numerous ferocious military campaigns, he spread his rule from Korea to the Caspian Sea, while his successors continued the expansion, reaching Poland and Asia Minor in the west and conquering the whole of China.

A major Mongol contribution was that they built trade routes across Eurasia, including the famous Silk Road on which Marco Polo travelled. The routes were safe and well maintained, ushering in an era of great exchange between the West and the East.
The Mongols were open to various influences, practiced religious tolerance, merit over birth, and equality before the law. Their approach to diplomacy was also open: in contact with other nations, the empire employed specialised personnel who knew how to adapt to the cultural frameworks of others. The aim of Mongol diplomacy was to set up a network of more or less formal dependencies.
In short, the rules of this vast empire were fairly simple: surrender, be loyal, and enjoy privileges – or perish.

 

Cheers! Here’s to wine

The drink of the Byzantine Empire was wine. The original Byzantines were considered to be the foremost wine-drinkers (oenophiles) of the ancient world. It was said they could not bear the sound of the war trumpet even in their dreams, as their ears were accustomed to the sound of flutes at drinking parties. In medieval times, both Constantinople and the empire itself were viewed as a place where wine flowed freely, and since then we have the proverb ‘Byzantium conquers all with its wine’. Monasteries and the Church were catalysts both for the dissemination and Christianisation of the wine culture, as well as for the evolution of the symposia (drinking parties) of the ancient world into more morally acceptable forms of wine consumption. 

Noah drinking wine, Mosaic in the Baptistery of St, Mark’s Basilica.
Source: prisma

A number of Byzantine provinces were renowned for their sweet, aromatic wines, in particular Bithynia. Many celebrated wines from the early Byzantine period came from Syria, Palestine, Carthage, Egypt, the Aegean islands, the Peloponnese, and Italy.

Wine was a key part of the Byzantine diet. The average Byzantine adult male drank about a litre of wine per day. Women would drink about 0.5 litres of wine per day, and children a bit less, so the average family consumed about two litres a day, and a city the size of Antioch (c. 150,000 citizens) needed around 15 million litres of wine per year.

Why was wine so important? It was a terrific source of calories, 40–80 grams of carbs per litre, so adult males were getting 160–320 calories from their wine: about the same as eating a burger. Plus, it’s full of nutrients, particularly potassium and vitamin C. In an age when disease was endemic, the nutrients in wine helped replenish those lost to diarrhoea. It was also safer to drink than most sources of water.

People who couldn’t afford wine drank ‘posca’, a drink made by mixing vinegar, water, and perhaps herbs. It was actually a wine gone sour, possibly mixed with sweeteners or other flavours to make it taste better (we don’t really know). It was drunk by soldiers, the lower class, and slaves. The advantage was that it had already gone bad, so it had a pretty stable shelf life for shipping into cities or out to distant military posts. 


You can reference this text as
Jovan Kurbalija, Byzantine diplomacy: The elixir of longevity, ‘Diplomacy and Technology: A historical journey’, 2021, DiploFoundation

Listen to the podcast or watch the recording of our June Masterclass Renaissance diplomacy: Compromise as a solution to conflict. Consult the PPT presentation.

Recordings from all sessions are available on our YouTube channel.

[Podcast] 

[Recording]

For more information on this topic, you can consult the following resources:

The Evolution of Diplomatic Method
Author: Harold Nicolson, Praeger, 1977

Four polished lectures by an eminent British historian dealing with diplomacy in Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy, seventeenth century France, and the twentieth century.


Renaissance Diplomacy
Author: Garrett Mattingly, Cosimo Classics, 2009

This 1955 work is the classic history of the development of modern diplomacy in Renaissance Europe. Sometime after the year 1400, the diplomatic traditions of civilised cultures-which have existed as far back as the records of human history extend-took a sharp turn that was the result of new power relations in the newly modern world. Mattingly believed these could be illustrative of how nations and traditions change...and that we might apply those lessons to our own rapidly changing global culture. Discover: the legal framework of Medieval diplomacy; diplomatic practices in the 15th century; the Italian beginnings of modern diplomacy; precedents for resident embassies; the dynastic power relations of European nations in the 16th century; French diplomacy and the breaking-up of Christendom; the Habsburg system; early modern diplomacy, and more.


Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome, The Rise of the Resident Ambassador
Author: Catherine Fletcher, Cambridge University Press, 2015

Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is an investigation of Renaissance diplomacy in practice. Presenting the first book-length study of this subject for sixty years, Catherine Fletcher substantially enhances our understanding of the envoy's role during this pivotal period for the development of diplomacy. Uniting rich but hitherto unexploited archival sources with recent insights from social and cultural history, Fletcher argues for the centrality of the papal court - and the city of Rome - in the formation of the modern European diplomatic system. The book addresses topics such as the political context from the return of the popes to Rome, the 1454 Peace of Lodi and after 1494 the Italian Wars; the assimilation of ambassadors into the ceremonial world; the prescriptive literature; trends in the personnel of diplomacy; an exploration of travel and communication practices; the city of Rome as a space for diplomacy; and the world of gift-giving.


Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Structure of Everyday Life,  Vol. 1 
Author: Fernand Braudel, University of California Press 1992

By examining in detail the material life of pre-industrial peoples around the world, Fernand Braudel significantly changed the way historians view their subject. Volume I describes food and drink, dress and housing, demography and family structure, energy and technology, money and credit, and the growth of towns. 


The Rise of Modern Diplomacy, 1450-1919
Author: M.S. Anderson, Routledge, 1993

Though international relations and the rise and fall of European states are widely studied, little is available to students and non-specialists on the origins, development and operation of the diplomatic system through which these relations were conducted and regulated. Similarly neglected are the larger ideas and aspirations of international diplomacy that gradually emerged from its immediate functions.

This impressive survey, written by one of our most experienced international historians, and covering the 500 years in which European diplomacy was largely a world to itself, triumphantly fills that gap.


The Quest for Aqua Vitae
Author: Seth C. Rasmussen, Springer, 2014

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is one of the most ubiquitous chemical compounds in the history of the chemical sciences. The generation of alcohol via fermentation is also one of the oldest forms of chemical technology, with the production of fermented beverages such as mead, beer, and wine predating the smelting of metals. By the 12th century, the ability to isolate alcohol from wine had moved this chemical species from a simple component of alcoholic beverages to both a new medicine and a powerful new solvent. Of course, this also began the long tradition of production of liqueurs and strong spirits for consumption. The use of alcohol as a fuel, however, did not occur until significantly later periods. This volume presents a general overview of the early history and chemistry of alcohol production and isolation, as well as a discussion of its early uses in both the chemical arts and medicine.

Time-travel to Renaissance Europe by listening to the music of the period! The Renaissance music was significantly influenced by the developments which define the early modern period: the rise of humanistic thought; the recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of ancient Greece and Rome; increased innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprise; the rise of a bourgeois class; and the Protestant Reformation. From this changing society emerged a common, unifying musical language. The invention of the Gutenberg press made distribution of music and musical theory possible on a wide scale.

Here are some of the songs that may get us closer to the Renaissance: