No nation-state did more to advance the cause of activist foreign policy than the Byzantine empire. For over 1,100 years it survived and expanded by skilfully manipulating opponents through its intricate diplomacy. Hundreds of years before Machiavelli, Byzantine historian, John Kinnamos, wrote: ‘Since many and various matters lead toward one end, victory, it is a matter of indifference which one uses to reach it’. An examination of Byzantine diplomatic tactics could help today’s diplomats understand the motivations of their counterparts at the negotiating table…

As the years passed, the Byzantines were continuously beset by a flood of hostile peoples who coveted the lands and riches of the empire. Huns, Goths, Persians, Slavs, Arabs, Bulgars, Normans and others each had a turn at destroying the empire but all were turned away. With a military force that never numbered more than 140,000 soldiers, the Byzantines employed an activist foreign policy which enabled them to expand their influence throughout Central Europe and Italy while preserving the Graeco-Roman culture for posterity. Oddly enough, one of the strongest Byzantine influences was in the field of diplomacy, as Venice, Russia, Ottoman Turkey and the Balkan countries all adopted Byzantine practices.

The Byzantine emperor established no permanent missions in foreign countries though he usually sent the same highly trusted nobles and clerics on his embassies. As a matter of practice, these ambassadors were familiar with the countries they visited, either through previous travels or through their ethnic backgrounds. Even so, they were thoroughly briefed before they set out. Not only were they drilled on the details of the goals to be achieved, but they were also apprised of current developments in the court they were visiting. Constant contact was maintained with Constantinople, and diplomatic missions could sometimes last up to a year. The Byzantines probably initiated the practice of sending regular diplomatic reports home to the government.

What separated Byzantium from other nations of the early Middle Ages was its active involvement in manipulating internal events in other countries. Today we take for granted the existence of government agencies which gather and interpret intelligence, cultivate support in foreign circles and perhaps even instigate rebellion. To find such a sophisticated and centralised arrangement as early as the sixth century is truly remarkable.

To aid in dealing with other nations, the Byzantines established an organisation called the ‘Bureau of Barbarians’, which gathered information from every source imaginable (even priests) and kept files on who was influential, who was susceptible to bribery, what a nation’s historical roots were, what was likely to impress them, etc. In many cases, the information gathered by the Bureau was the first written record of these peoples, since barbarian tribes rarely had writing of their own. Armed with this knowledge, Byzantine emperors and diplomats had a complete understanding of the strengths of their allies and the weaknesses of their enemies.

The Byzantines employed a number of tactics, both overt and covert, to achieve their aims through diplomatic means rather than through force of arms: the use of ceremony was one such tactic. Imagine yourself as the chief of a nomadic tribe whose home is the steppes of central Asia. You are visited by representatives of the Byzantine emperor who shower you with fabulous gifts and invite you to the imperial palace in Constantinople. Your entourage arrives in a city inhabited by almost half a million people – perhaps three times the size of your entire tribe. Its buildings are protected by huge walls, deep moats and well-armed soldiers. You see goods from all over the world in the bazaars. You view centuries-old cathedrals and are mystified by the Christian ritual.