The word ‘byzantine’ has come to mean ‘devious or characterised by intrigue’. This is due to some of the plots of questionable morality (but indisputable utility) that Byzantine emperors concocted. The Byzantines were of the opinion that anything done in the name of the Sacred Empire could not be judged treachery. Though they were diligent in adhering to the letter of their international agreements, they often violated the spirit of them. Strategic advantage was sought with fervour in every situation.

The Emperor Heraclius once intercepted a message from the Persian King Chosroes which ordered the execution of one of his generals, Shahr-Baraz. Heraclius added the names of 400 other Persian officers to the list and diverted the message to Shahr-Baraz. Heraclius’ stratagem was deviously brilliant. Had the executions been carried out, the Persian military would have been decapitated. Instead, Shahr-Baraz and the other officers rose in rebellion against Chosroes and overthrew him, subsequently making peace with Byzantium.

In another episode, a hostile Venetian fleet wintered at the island of Chios, directly threatening Byzantine territory. The Venetians sent ambassadors to Constantinople to negotiate an agreement. The Emperor Manuel I Comnenus refused to see them. The ambassadors returned to Chios with a Byzantine official, who suggested another embassy. The Venetian Doge commanding the fleet agreed to do so. After the second embassy had departed, illness swept through the Venetian camp. More than 1,000 soldiers and sailors died within a few days. The second embassy returned without having met with the emperor.

Sick from the plague (rumours spread that the Byzantines had poisoned the water), the Venetians sent a third embassy to Constantinople. By now well-informed of conditions in the Venetian camp, Manuel realised he need make no concessions. He stretched out negotiations for so long that the Doge was obliged to withdraw the fleet or face a mutiny among his ailing sailors. As the fleet limped back to Venice, a Byzantine naval force attacked without warning and decimated the Venetians. Soon afterward, Manuel sent a message to the Doge which literally added insult to injury: ‘Your nation has for a long time behaved with great stupidity’.

It is important to resist the temptation to dismiss all these tactics as self-serving, self-justifying and Machiavellian. Had the Byzantines been less so, European history might have been greatly changed.

Byzantine diplomacy was crucial not only in preserving the Byzantine Empire, but in preventing the Islamisation of Europe. Without this outpost of Christendom deflecting the Muslim tide from the seventh century to the fifteenth, it is unlikely that Western civilisation as we now know it would have endured. By the time the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II took the city of Constantinople by assault in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, the states of Eastern Europe had absorbed enough Byzantine culture (and diplomatic technique) to stand on their own. The walls of Constantinople and the imperial diplomats gave the fledgling Christian religion 700 years to grow and prosper.

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Excerpts from an article by Michael Antonucci, published in History Today, Volume 43 / 2, February 1993.

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