• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Linguistic Gatekeepers: How Byzantium dominated the diplomatic language game

Updated: Nov 9, 2019


One of the most confusing aspects to potential catechumens of Byzantium’s ideology is its ethnography. Unless well-versed in it, the Byz Ambo’s TL can appear a little bewildering. Why is the West constantly referred to as a bunch of “Franks” or “Latins”? Why are the “Romans” always synonymous with the Orthodox? New historiographies have buried older identities so that they’re now nigh on incomprehensible to most – especially the vast majority schooled in the Westphalian system.


This means many remain oblivious to Byzantium’s most potent weapon (other than its colossal buildings such as Hagia Sophia, its large professional army and extensive history, of course): classical ethnography.


When Byzantine emperors talked to the western leaders of late antiquity, the latter were far from being aliens to the Roman world. Protectors of the Church, guardians of aristocratic land tenure, and often imitators of Roman ideology in the pattern of Theoderic, they brought cultural continuity as well as political fragmentation. Yet, by presenting geopolitical change in classical terms, Byzantium could force an ideological game on the western states that the latter could never win: because Byzantium (as the source of legitimacy) would always play umpire.


In this language game, there was one sovereign (the Roman Empire) lapped by a sea of barbarians and tyrants. This ideology oozed out of everything the Eastern Roman Empire wrote about itself and even western documents until the Latins stopped played (800-1204) and roused themselves as potential successors to Rome i.e. not simply an aggregate of barbaric satellites; a backwards annex to the mansion of its eastern landlord, the New Rome.


There’s a Carolingian manuscript known as the Epistolae Austrasicae that offers a sixth-century window on to the earlier period; a time when Germanics oscillated between cultural deference and defiance (476-800) and Constantinople was keen to foist its ideology on allies and enemies alike.[1] The letters concern a fragile alliance between Franks and Romans as the latter sought to oust the Lombards from Italy.


The differences in terminology are immediately obvious. Byzantium refers to “peoples” (ethne/gentes) who circle the Roman world as planets orbit the sun. Prokopios’ Wars talks of the Romans waging wars against “the barbarians of the East and West” and Agathias announces his continuation as an account of “deeds among the Romans and the greater part of the barbarians.[2] Jordanes, too, is important as a historian who’s one of the first to articulate ( in the Getica) what would become the ultimate historiographical orthodoxy: the arrival of the Germanics as outsiders (in terms of space and time) to destroy the Roman state and bring barbarism in their wake.


The formal correspondence tends to amusingly mask the several dramatic episodes negotiated. Spectacles included Byzantine kidnappings, Frankish failure to render services agreed after taking payments, and double-dealing with the Lombards on both sides.


The events are not what concern us, however. Instead, it’s the fact that the emperor and his exarch refuse to acknowledge that the Franks have created a state on what was ultimately Roman territory. Childebert, by his reckoning, was simply “rex Francorum,” the king of the Franks i.e. a people who happened to (temporarily) tread on Roman soil.



This reduced them (in the Hellenistic mindset) to currents in the pandemonium of peoples who dwelt outside civilisation (i.e. the Oikoumene); peoples who the Emperor had to routinely and dutifully crush much as a woodsman might be obliged to throw wood on a fire in winter. The forty-second letter illustrates this point well, when Maurice “the mild” lists the peoples he’s had to destroy:


“In the name of our lord God, Jesus Christ: the Emperor Caesar Flavius Maurice Tiberius – faithful in Christ, mild, majestic, bountiful, peaceable, the conqueror of the Alamanni, Goths, Antes, Alani, Vandals, Heruls, Gepids and Africans; pious, fortunate, renowned, victor and triumphant, ever Augustus – to Childebert, vir gloriosus, King of the Franks.”


Conversely, Childebert (who considered himself a rex, not just the rex of a single people) respectfully describes the Eastern Roman Empire as “Romana res publica.”[3] He styles himself with terms plucked from the Roman political lexicon such as rex and dominus. He stresses imperial unity both in the sense of convergent interests and the sense that their identities are muddled together in some sense, referring to “both our regions/ territories/ peoples/ communities (utraeque partes/regions/gentes/populi).”


The most interesting phrase is the first (utraeque partes), which suggests that both identities constitute parts of a single body politic. It recalls older terms such as partes imperii, partes orientis et occidentis, partes graecia et italiae etc., which all evoked the conceptual unity of the empire.

Perhaps the only concession the Byzantines made (considering titulature was off the books) was in its adjectives. The classical epithets for peoples tended to be short, snappy and alliterative. Persians were guilty of perfidy, Saracens had a reputation for savagery, Gauls were gluttons, and so on.

Less alliteratively, the Lombards – rather ironically considering the later Byzantine caricature – got lumped as being nefandissimi (most nefarious), probably because their Arianism could easily be used against them. While the Franks (perhaps after invoking Nicene solidarity) were quids-in as florentissimi Franks (the most flourishing Franks) thanks to their repeated promises to act as auxiliaries to the imperial army in order to pincer the pesky Lombards.


While quibbling over nomenclature might appear like a parlour game to many, in reality the stakes (leadership over Rome’s most important legacy: the populus Christianus) were so high that even the most trivial incidents caused political commotion.


One such episode occurred over three centuries after the aforementioned Byzantine-Frankish correspondence. In AD 860, the Byzantine admiral Niketas Oorphas appeared off the Sicilian coast of Bari with a large fleet in order to aid HRE Louis II’s siege of the Saracen city. It left, however, without achieving anything after the admiral’s “insulting behaviour,” which is conventionally assumed to have involved him refusing to acknowledge Louis II’s station as anything above a king.[4] A sure sign that the West had moved from resenting to evading an identity game in which Byzantium was continually able to play jury, judge and executioner.


[1] The collection consists of forty-eight letters written in NE Gaul 480-590 and was preserved in a ninth-century Carolingian syllogue, copied from a sixth-century original. The first half of the collection includes mostly letters from Gallic bishops, it is the second half (25-48) that contains correspondence between the court of Austrasia under Childebert II and the imperial court of Maurice (582-602), as well as the exarch at Ravenna.

[2] Prokopios, Wars 1.1.1; Agathias, Hist. Proem. 20

[3] This wasn’t the first time Roman exonyms refused to negotiate with endonyms. Most famously rex Persarum hardly tallied with “Sahansah Eran ud Aneran” (Lord of Lords in Iran and Beyond). If this point is taken to its extreme with the Germanic tribes of late antiquity, we cannot be sure any of them would have related to the terms we now give them thanks to the supremacy of Roman literary norms. Perhaps most of them acted as the Scythian label, which shifted from referring to a real ethnicity to becoming a label for anybody who inhabited the lower Danube or exhibiting a particular set of (Hunnish?) characteristics.

[4] B. M. Kreutz, Before the Normans: Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (1996) 44.

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