Byzantine Power of Survival


The unique status of the Byzantine emperor was written into diplomatic correspondence and treaties. Psellos boasted that in his correspondence with the Fatimid caliph, he exalted the office of his master the emperor and subtly denigrated that of the caliph. The treaty he drew up with the Norman duke Robert Guiscard in 1074 is much more than a mere dry enumeration of obligations. It is also a carefully thought-out defence of the office and claims of the Byzantine emperor, assuring the duke that ‘the word of a pious emperor is truly a seal of gold, for the purity and integrity of his soul is worth more than material gold’. The emperor’s status was even enshrined in Byzantine law, which laid down not only that the emperor should ensure the temporal welfare of his people, but also that he had a bounden duty to ‘guard and secure by his ability the powers which he already possesses [and] to recover by sleepless care those that are lost’.

This was no mere empty rhetoric. The ideological stance expressed by Psellos and other courtiers was the key factor in dictating Byzantine foreign policy goals. In practice, these goals were reduced to two overriding concerns. The first was the security of the Roman empire, the Oikoumene, which in practice meant that of the all-important city of Constantinople. The second was to secure recognition in the wider world of the claim of the emperor to be the supreme overlord of the Christian world and of the empire to be that unique state endorsed by God.

At first sight the idea that foreign policy could be motivated by a metaphysical ideal appears unlikely: it is sometimes tempting to see Byzantine imperial claims as simply a cloak for ‘real concerns’ such as the annexation of territory or economic advantage. The very words ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’, which are used to describe Byzantium, imply that the larger such a state is, the better it is, and that its sole aim must be physical aggrandisement. Byzantine dealings with the Slav peoples whose lands lay to the north of the empire demonstrate how their foreign policy aims were essentially defensive and ideological rather than acquisitive. While the famous ‘Bulgar-Slayer’, Basil II, did finally conquer Bulgaria and incorporate it into the empire in 1018, such drastic action was very unusual. The Byzantines were generally content to accept an acknowledgement of the emperor’s suzerainty and this they received during the ninth and tenth centuries from the rulers of the small Balkan princedoms to the north. In 874, for example, a Serbian embassy arrived in Constantinople, probably with a view to making an alliance. A court official who recorded the event interpreted it in through the prism of Byzantine ideology. The envoys, he claimed, asked to ‘be placed under the humane yoke of Roman authority’. The request was graciously granted and ‘the emperor’s authority was fully restored over their country’. But that did not mean that Serbia was incorporated into the empire. Instead, the envoys returned with Byzantine priests who set about converting and baptizing the population. The Serbs continued to ‘be governed by princes, chosen by them’. The incident and the way it was portrayed by the chronicler are revealing. To the Byzantines, acceptance of Christianity from Constantinople also meant an acceptance of the authority of the emperor. This was entirely logical: if the emperor was God’s appointed ruler of the Christian world, all Christians owed him allegiance. The fiction was maintained by the emperor ‘allowing’ the Serbs to be ruled by their own princes. Such rulers were often designated as the ‘sons’ of the emperor, an unmistakeable indication of the nature of the relationship, which at the same time fitted them into the hierarchical world order, headed by the emperor in Constantinople. It was set down in the records that henceforth imperial correspondence sent to rulers of the Serbs was to carry a gold seal to reflect their status as obedient sons. The arrangement was also a practical one as it relieved the emperor of the necessity of holding down the Serbs by force of arms.

The Byzantines had similar concerns in their dealings with their eastern, Muslim neighbours, who had long ruled over the lost Byzantine provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. There are plenty of instances of the Byzantines fighting bitter wars against the Muslim powers of the region, whether the Hamdanid emirate of Aleppo or the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt since it was, after all, part of the perceived role of the Roman emperor to protect Christians by fighting against the infidel. In 975 the emperor John I Tzimiskes had led a campaign into Syria and Palestine which had reached as far south as Caesarea. This was, however, no war of conquest: the emperor’s main concern was to extort large sums of money from the undefended cities of Syria before withdrawing back across the frontier. John was also interested in acquiring relics to add to the collection in the Great Palace and on this occasion returned with the sandals of Christ and part of the beard of St John the Baptist. Nor was the expedition, by any stretch of the imagination, a crusade. Although the Byzantine army came within striking distance of Jerusalem and the emperor boasted in a letter to the king of Armenia that he hoped to liberate the Holy Sepulchre, no attempt was made to seize the city.

While annexation of Arab territory was not the aim of Byzantine emperors, recognition of his position as the head of the Christian world was and they were as concerned to obtain it from ‘infidel’ Arabs as they were from Christian Serbs. In 1027 a treaty was made between the emperor and the Fatimid caliph of Egypt, who then ruled southern Syria and Palestine. It permitted the emperor to rebuild the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to designate the patriarch of Jerusalem. In return the Byzantines promised to repair the mosque in Constantinople, which existed for the use of Arab merchants visiting the city. The mosque would have its own muezzin, and Friday prayers there would be said in the name of the Shi’ite Fatimid caliph, rather than his Abbasid rival in Baghdad. The treaty was renewed in 1035, in 1047 and again in 1063 when the emperor negotiated special juridical status for the patriarch’s quarter in Jerusalem and paid for a wall to be built around it. These treaties secured for the Byzantine emperor the role of Protector of the Holy Places and of the interests of Christians under Muslim rule.

The vindication of an ideology therefore lay at the very heart of Byzantine foreign policy. While that may sound like an illogical basis for foreign policy, it was no more so than the aim of the crusades, which was to seize and hold the strategically useless, but spiritually significant, city of Jerusalem.

While Byzantine aims and ideology were fixed, the means used to achieve them were often infinitely flexible. Military force, or at least the threat of it, was certainly an option. In 864, the Byzantines moved an army north through the Balkans and a sent fleet along the western coast of the Black Sea. The purpose was not to annex the neighbouring khanate of Bulgaria but to force Khan Boris to accept Christianity from Byzantine clergy and to acknowledge the authority of the emperor. When he did this, the troops were withdrawn. Nevertheless, the Byzantines had a pronounced reluctance to go to war. Unlike western Europe where prowess in battle was a mark of status and distinction, the Byzantines seem to have regarded war as, at best, a distasteful necessity. Emperor Leo VI (886–912) had insisted that war should only be undertaken as a last resort when forced upon the empire by others. Constantine IX allegedly made peace with the Pechenegs in 1053 because he would not allow Byzantium ‘to be cut to pieces from its youth up’. These attitudes should not be confused with pacifism. The main objection to war was the danger of losing. ‘You should never be enticed into a pitched battle’, warned Leo VI, ‘. . . success is a matter of luck rather than proven courage’. If there were any other way of achieving your aim, it was to be taken and Leo was in no doubt as to what that way was:

You will achieve frequent victories against your enemies without actual war by making use of money. When they have other enemies lying in wait for them somewhere, an offer of money should be persuasive in getting this people to wage war on your adversaries.

It was an option that the Byzantine emperors were extremely well placed to take advantage of for they commanded an enviable supply of ready money. Unlike the rulers of western Europe, who drew services in kind from their vassals, the Byzantine emperors presided over a society where coinage circulated widely. They could therefore levy a range of taxes both on their own people and on those passing through to fill their treasury. There was the Kommerkion, already mentioned, which they imposed on trade passing through the port of Constantinople. One twelfth-century visitor to Constantinople reckoned that the imperial fisc profited to the tune of some 20,000 gold pieces a day from these customs dues, as well as from rents from markets and shops. In the provinces, households without land paid a hearth tax, while those with land paid a combined hearth and land tax, all rendered in gold. These sources yielded an estimated annual revenue of some 7 million gold pieces and by 1025 the treasury had a huge surplus, the result of prudent management by Basil II. No wonder that Michael Psellos considered wealth, along with the system of ranks and honours, to be one of the twin pillars of the ‘hegemony of the Romans’.

There was no end to the uses to which this seemingly inexhaustible supply of wealth could be put when it came to dealing with the peoples beyond the empire’s borders. In emergencies, it could be used simply to pay them not to attack. Alexios I specifically advised his son John to store up valuable goods for the very purpose of ‘stopping the greed’ of surrounding nations. This practice was not entirely approved of in all quarters, however, and tended to bring criticism for weakness. Gold could also be used to employ mercenaries from outside the empire to complement the Byzantine armies, often Turkic peoples from central Asia such the Khazars or Hungarians, who are attested in the tenth century, and the ‘Turcopoles’, probably Pechenegs or Cumans, reported in the Byzantine armies in the eleventh. It could also be used to pay one powerful foreign nation to attack another. In 967, rather than bother to do the job themselves, the Byzantines paid the Russian prince Svjatoslav to attack their troublesome northern neighbour Bulgaria. Or, more economically, the Byzantines could merely threaten to do so. In 968 Byzantine officials harangued the envoy of Otto I and warned him that ‘With our money, which gives us power, we shall induce all the nations to attack [Otto] and we shall shatter him like some ceramic’.

There were, however, more subtle uses of wealth, aimed not so much to purchase the immediate security of Constantinople but to impress ‘barbarian’ outsiders with the special nature of the emperor, his city and his empire. One tactic was to overwhelm with sheer magnificence. In the mid-tenth century, Olga, the widow of a Russian prince of Kiev, visited Constantinople and was baptized as a Christian. Eager to encourage her to lead her people in the same direction, the Byzantines treated her and her entourage to a series of lavish banquets in the Great Palace. The visitors were received first by the empress to the sound of organ music before being conducted through a series of magnificent halls into the presence of Emperor Constantine VII. After polite conversation, everyone sat down to dinner during which they were regaled by singers from Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles. Bags of silver coins were distributed to all the guests, although Olga received her 500 on a gold plate, encrusted with precious stones. An Italian bishop, Liudprand of Cremona, experienced much the same treatment on his visit in 949 as the envoy of a Byzantine ally in Italy. He was received in the Magnavra hall of the Great Palace by the emperor and at the end of his stay, he was presented with a pound of gold.

Another use for surplus gold was the diplomatic gift, often with heavy ideological significance attached to it. A gold crown apparently presented by Michael VII to King Géza I of Hungary (1074–7) carried portraits of Michael and his son Constantine, both bearing the usual nimbus and identified in the inscription as ‘emperor of the Romans’. Géza is also depicted, but without a nimbus, his gaze fixed deferentially on the emperor, and identified simply as ‘ruler’ (krales) of Hungary. Thus his place in the order of things was thus made unambiguously clear. Silks were another common gift and Constantine VII recommended that emperors should also take a good supply of them on campaign for this specific purpose. The rarity of such objects in the lands inhabited by their unsophisticated recipients helped to bolster the empire’s reputation as a centre of wealth and power. Sometimes the gift took the form of a golden reliquary, housing portions of relics of the saints. These were, for example, sent to the English king Edward the Confessor (1042–66) and the western emperor Henry IV (1056–1106) during the second half of the eleventh century. Again, there was an ideological significance here: the relics connected their donor, the emperor, with the heavenly kingdom, the source of his power and dignity, and thus were a vital element in achieving the empire’s foreign policy aims.

While the first of Michael Psellos’s ‘two pillars’ referred to above, that of money, is indisputable, the second, honours, might be thought to refer only to internal matters in Constantinople and to reflect the typical Byzantine civil servant’s obsession with rank. Yet gradations of titles and honours were as vital a part of the Byzantine approach to foreign relations as they were to the structure of the court hierarchy. Thus, hard-pressed by the Pechenegs in the 1050s and wishing to make peace with them, the Byzantines invited the leaders of this troublesome steppe tribe to Constantinople where they were given not only gifts but also imperial titles and offices. The 1074 treaty with the Norman leader Robert Guiscard conferred the title of Kouropalates on one of his sons. Just as was the case with Byzantine officials, foreign office holders could expect to receive an annual pension in gold and an appropriate silk garment, which no doubt greatly added to the lustre of the title. The rulers of Byzantium were well aware that, for the granting of such titles and garments to have full effect, both must have a certain rarity. Accordingly they were very careful to make sure that certain types of silk garment did not circulate too widely. Merchants who sold prohibited silks to foreigners were liable to be flogged, and when Bishop Liudprand attempted to take some silks home with him in they were confiscated by imperial officials. Cloths of gold and silk, warned a thirteenth-century cleric, were the ‘blood of the Romans’.

The involvement of foreigners in imperial ceremonial was also important. Constantine VII claimed that through ceremonies the power of the empire was made manifest and that the sight of it would incline foreigners to better behaviour. Provision was specifically made for foreign allies and title holders to attend feasts and ceremonies in Constantinople, no doubt to observe and report back on the majesty and wealth of the empire. Like the gifts, ceremonies involving foreigners were imbued with a heavy and unmistakable significance. It was standard practice for visiting rulers to be given a seat carefully placed at a lower level than the emperor’s throne. Just in case the message was not clear, the Byzantine emperor had a mechanical throne that could raise him up almost to the ceiling from where he could look down on his humble visitor below.

Apart from their twin pillars of money and honours, the Byzantines also excelled at the type of strategies that diplomats over the ages have employed to manipulate their friends and to neutralize their enemies. For example, on occasion they employed the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to threatening border tribes. Theophylact, bishop of Ochrid, praised Alexios I in a panegyric because he dealt with the Pechenegs in 1087 by first haranguing them ‘with words short and shrill, now offering words soft as flakes of winter snow’. There was the ‘divide and rule’ principle. Constantine VII advised his son to ensure that the Pechenegs were never on friendly terms with the Russians, in case they combined against Constantinople. The Byzantines fished in the complex affairs of the city states of northern Italy to prevent them from ever uniting against the Byzantines. Lastly, they were adept at using foreigners’ own customs to manipulate them to the advantage of the Oikoumene. One such tool was that of the oath, which seems to have had little place in Byzantine society, but which was commonly used to secure the loyalty of foreign allies and mercenaries. The Byzantines were flexible enough to allow them to make this vow according to their own customs. When a contingent of Turks pledged loyalty to Nikephoros III, for example, they did so by crossing their hands on their chest which was presumably what they were used to doing. When Alexios I required an oath from some Turks who were enrolled in his army, they duly swore ‘after their own fashion’. In short, the Byzantine emperors and their advisers knew what they had been urged to know by Constantine VII in the tenth century: the customs and manners of life of their neighbours and how to turn those to the empire’s advantage.


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