Barbarian envoys at Byzantium in the 6th century
By Ecaterina Lung
Hiperboreea Journal, Vol.2:1 (2015)
Abstract: Byzantine diplomacy has been for long time an object for the historical research, its efficiency being considered one of the explanations for the so long survival of the Empire. The barbarian embassies sent to Constantinople were studied mainly in the context of general discussions on byzantine diplomacy. We intend to focus on the possibility of deciphering a barbaric point of view regarding the relations with the Byzantine Empire, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when the narrative sources that are available to us have a Byzantine origin, or, when referring to barbarian kingdoms in the West, they are profoundly influenced by Roman and Roman-Byzantine traditions.
Introduction: We intend to use for our analysis the narrative sources from the 6th century, because this period represents a turning point in the military and political situation of the Byzantine Empire and most of that we know about it derives from chronicles and histories. Old and new enemies confronted the imperial power, especially during the huge effort of reconquest made by Justinian and the relations weren’t always of confrontation, but also diplomatic ones. We propose to try to adopt the point of view of the barbarians who send envoys to Constantinople or who participate to negotiations with the Byzantines, which is a very difficult attempt. The Byzantine diplomacy was very often studied, but that of post-Roman barbarian kingdoms from the Occident entered the attention of academics only recently and partially . Also, the envoys that came to Byzantium from the East were studied only in the context of the attention paid to the imperial diplomacy. When it comes to Western Barbarians, we have some narrative sources written in the successor kingdoms, but usually, we can know something about the Eastern barbarian embassies or envoys only from Byzantine sources, which pose the problem of the bias of the authors. But even if we use Byzantine sources to discuss the Barbarian embassies we can stress some specificities of the societies the envoys came from, some aspects of the Byzantine diplomacy, and more often some Byzantine ideas and stereotypes.
The most important methodological problem is how to decipher a Barbarian point of view in sources written by Byzantines or by very Romanized Latin authors. Also, we can not always give weight to the information about Barbarians presented in the narrative sources, because the authors were often politically motivated or tried to hide internal controversies and not to offer valid data about the strangers, because they use the Barbarians as a mirror for the Byzantine society. It is true that the authors interested by ethnography have sometimes transmitted a barbarian point of view, that some of them admired the Barbarians, and some of them used the strangers to criticise their own society. In Byzantium, the ethnography could have been used with subversive intentions.