You are led to a huge, ornate palace. On either side of you in the audience hall there are golden mechanical lions who open their mouths and roar. In golden trees are mechanical birds who sing. In front of you, seated upon a golden throne, is the emperor, attended by a chief minister. You approach the throne and prostrate yourself in front of it. You are bidden to rise and when you look up you discover that the emperor, throne and all, is suspended high above your head. Later, imperial officials give you rich presents and inform you that more wealth and support will be forthcoming if you will fight the emperor’s enemies (pocketing any booty you may pick up along the way). It was a rare tribal chief who would turn down such an offer. This process was repeated time and time again throughout the history of Byzantium and it encouraged many to ally with the empire.
Another tactic was bribery. The bezant was the dollar of the Middle Ages and it purchased a lot of influence. Money was spread around freely, but bribery was actually very cost-effective. Often a well-placed bag of gold saved Byzantium from raising, supplying and deploying an army. No one was considered above targeting for bribery. In the late eleventh century, a Seljuq Sultan sent an ambassador to Constantinople to settle a border dispute. The Emperor Alexius I Comnenus struck a secret deal with the ambassador, ‘buying’ the fortress of Sinope from him. By the time the Sultan discovered what had happened, Byzantine troops had already occupied the city.
Some 200 years later, the empire’s greatest enemy was Charles of Anjou who controlled the island of Sicily and much of the Italian mainland. Charles had ambitions to take Constantinople and establish himself as emperor. Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus prevented an Angevin attack in 1270 by sending a shipment of gold to Pope Nicholas III. In exchange, the pope forbade Charles to attack Constantinople and diverted his efforts to a crusade in Tunisia.
A further diplomatic ploy was the use of surrogates. The Byzantines hated the expense of war and could hardly afford the cost in human life. Often they would get others to fight for them. If the Bulgars were troublesome, the Russians were called in. If the Russians were troublesome the Patzinaks (a central Asian tribe) were summoned. The Cumans and Uzes acted as checks on the Patzinaks and so on. The Byzantines almost always had an ally to the geographic rear of a potential enemy.
The Byzantine emperor maintained a ‘stable’ of pretenders to almost every foreign throne in the known world. For instance, if the Turkish sultan seemed poised to attack, the Byzantine emperor could release a pretender, perhaps a younger brother of the Sultan. With Byzantine gold in his pockets and some armed supporters, the pretender could be counted on to wreak havoc in Turkish territory, spoiling the Sultan’s attack.
In 1282, faced once again by the threat posed by Charles of Anjou, Michael VIII helped instigate the War of the Sicilian Vespers, in which native Sicilians rose up against Angevin rule. The rebellion ended Charles’ dream of ruling in Constantinople. Michael VIII himself wrote: ‘should I dare to claim that I was God’s instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth’.