Barbarians and Byzantines

Fix, my son, your mind’s eye upon my words, and learn those things which I command you, and you will be able in due season as from ancestral treasures to bring forth the wealth of wisdom, and to display the abundance of wit. Know therefore that all the tribes of the north have, as it were implanted in the by nature, a ravening greed of money, never satiated, and so they demand everything and hanker after everything and have desired that know no limit or circumspection, but are always eager for more, and desirous to acquire great profits in exchange for a small service. And so these importunate demands and brazenly submitted claims must be turned back and rebutted by plausible speeches and prudent and clever excuses…
De Administrando Imperio
, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, trans. Jenkins

In an earlier post, I went into the charming challenges of life in the Southern United States. However, when I think about this flavor of culture clash (and I think about it often), I use a different historical referent than the one that titles the earlier post. As I go through my North Carolina days, one major category of these daily stresses gets labeled like this: “ooooh, this is one of those Barbarians and Byzantines moments.”

De Administrando Imperio, the source of the quote kicking off this post, is a volume of foreign policy advice written to his son by the 10th century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. What do the importunate Northerners from the above quoted text demand? Rich vestments; Greek fire; and noble Christian brides are the specific examples given. Fortunately, Constantine also gives an example of how to fend off such demands. This is a long quote, but suitable levels of distraction and diversion are not to be accomplished tersely. I like the way it starts with stern principles and then gradually meanders out to weird anecdote. So “plausible speeches and prudent and clever excuses”: example, please, Constantine!

Should they ever require and demand, whether they be Chazars, or Turks, or again Russians, or any other nation of the northerners and Scythians, as frequently happens, that some of the imperial vesture or diadems or state robes should be sent to them in return for some service or office performed by them, then thus you shall excuse yourself : “These robes of state and the diadems, which you call ‘kamelaukia’, were not fashioned by men, nor by human arts devised or elaborated, but, as we find it written in secret stories of old history, when God made emperor the former Constantine the great, who was the first Christian emperor, He sent him these robes of state by the hand of His angel, and the diadems which you call ‘kamelaukia’, and charged him to lay them in the great and holy church of God, which, after the name of that very wisdom which is the property of God, is called St.Sophia; and not to clothe himself in them every day, but only when it is a great public festival of the Lord. And so by God’s command he laid them up, and they hang above the holy table in the sanctuary of this same church, and are for the ornament of the church. And the rest of the imperial vestments and cloaks lie spread out upon this holy table. And when a festival of our Lord and God Jesus Christ comes round, the patriarch takes up such of these robes of state and diadems as are suitable and appropriated to that occasion, and sends them to the emperor, and he wears them in the procession, and only in it, as the servant and minister of God, and after use returns them again to the church, and they are laid up in it. Moreover, there is a curse of the holy and great emperor Constantine engraved upon this holy table of the church of God, according as he was charged by God through the angel, that if an emperor for any use or occasion or unseasonable desire be minded to take of them and either himself misuse them or give them to others, he shall be anathematized as the foe and enemy of the commands of God, and shall be excommunicated from the church; moreover, if he himself be minded to make others like them, these too the church of God must take, with the freely expressed approval of all the archbishops and of the senate; and it shall not be in the authority either of the emperor, or of the patriarch, or of any other, to take these robes of state or the diadems from the holy church of God. And mighty dread hangs over them who are minded to transgress any of these divine ordinances. For one of the emperors, Leo by name, who also married a wife from Chazaria, out of his folly and rashness took up one of these diadems when no festival of the Lord was toward, and without the approval of the patriarch put it about his head. And straightway a carbuncle came forth upon his forehead so that in torment at the pains of it he evilly departed his evil life, and ran upon death untimely. And, this rash act being summarily avenged, thereafter a rule was made, that when he is about to be crowned the emperor must first swear and give surety that he will neither do nor conceive anything against what has been ordained and kept from ancient times, and then may he be crowned by the patriarch and perform and execute the rites appropriate to the established festival.”

In addition to the plausible speeches, etc., overall the devices used in Byzantine diplomacy were varied. Here is a nice overview. So, from this article we note fancy presents, impressive displays, infiltration, complex deals and alliances, among other strategems. The article doesn’t mention it but careful deployment of noble Christian brides  was indeed an example of one such area of complex alliance. But such in-depth involvement with the enemy had some long-term downsides.  In regard to a common type of military alliance:

The system of client states goes back to the time of the Republic. The princes of these peoples were bound by a definite treaty of alliance…to defend themselves and thereby the Empire against an external foe, and in return they received protection and were dispensed from paying tribute. In the later period with which we are concerned the treaty generally took a new form. The client prince received from the Emperor a fixed yearly sum, supposed to be the pay of the soldiers whom he was prepared to bring into the field. We shall meet man of these federates, such as the Abasgians and Lazi of the Caucasus, the Saracens on the Euphrates, the Ethiopians on the frontier of Egypt. It was on the basis of a contract of this kind that the Visigoths were settled south of the Danube by Theodosius the Great, and it was by similar contracts that most of the German peoples who were to dismember the western provinces would establish, in the guise of Federates, a footing on Imperial soil.
History of the Later Roman Empire, J.B. Bury

A millennium or so is an awfully good go, though.

My carpetbaggers post mentioned above that I am now winding into this one– how does it relate? The basic dynamic remains similar. There’s a society that by remaining rooted has the opportunity to build up complex (social, cultural, …) networks to a level of perhaps decadent fragility. Never a bludgeon; always a filigreed scalpel.

And then there are the people who are on the move out of innate dissatisfaction, pressure in the homeland, curiosity about noble Christian brides, what have you.

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Posted in general observations, history

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