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.