Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.06.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.06.25

Ekaterina Nechaeva, Embassies – Negotiations – Gifts: Systems of East Roman Diplomacy in Late Antiquity. Geographica historica, Bd 30.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014.  Pp. 306.  ISBN 9783515106320.  €54.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Doug Lee, University of Nottingham (

Table of Contents

There is a wealth of material from Late Antiquity concerning the conduct of diplomacy. This reflects, among other things, the interests of Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ excerptors in the tenth century, whose work preserved so much relating to this subject from no longer extant late antique sources, but also the fact that the changed geopolitical circumstances of the Roman empire in this period forced it to rely more heavily on diplomatic initiatives. Although this material has previously received attention from a variety of angles, this study aims to provide a more systematic collation and analysis of the evidence relating to certain aspects of central importance, as reflected in the book’s title.1 The chronological parameters are defined as the period from the mid-fourth century, when Ammianus’ history starts to provide detailed insights, through to the late sixth century and the end of Theophylact’s history, while the geographical focus is primarily on the eastern half of the empire and neighbouring regions.

After an opening chapter on the ‘mechanisms of diplomacy’ – essentially an overview of its broader institutional infrastructure – there follow chapters on diplomatic negotiation, embassy structure and personnel, and gifts, before a final chapter on a specific category of gift, namely insignia given by the empire to client kings. The table of contents, with its detailed breakdown of each chapter into sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, and occasionally a further level, provides a clear guide to the detailed content, as well as being a telling indicator of the book’s approach, with its emphasis on categorisation. English is not the author’s first language, and this is occasionally evident in awkward turns of phrase; it does not, however, affect understanding of the meaning, although it may be relevant to the observations made below on certain points of terminology.

The book’s careful collation of evidence relating to embassies, their personnel, and diplomatic gifts makes it a very useful resource for anyone interested in late antique diplomacy, and its publication is to be welcomed for this reason. The analysis of that evidence is more variable in terms of its success. The discussion of gifts (Chap. IV) , and the subsidiary question of rulers’ insignia (Chap. V), are, in my view, the most valuable part in this respect. Building on a tabulation of the surviving data about gifts (helpfully set out in an appendix), the analysis emphasises the notion of gift-giving as a form of diplomatic language, replete with symbolic significance. The author also makes some use of the famous tradition in anthropological studies concerning gift-giving to highlight differences between diplomatic gifts and financial subsidies – the former usually involved the expectation of reciprocation – and usefully notes the surprisingly limited detail that survives about Roman gifts to Sasanian Persia. While this discussion by no means exhausts the subject,2 these chapters will be a useful reference point for future work.

The earlier chapters on negotiations, embassies and their personnel also provide a helpful collection and dissection of data on these subjects and aim to provide a ‘typology’ of embassies and an assessment of the criteria for the selection of envoys; once again, it is valuable to have all this material conveniently assembled in an accessible and well-ordered manner. However, there are aspects of the analysis in these chapters that prompt questions, above all the use of the word ‘professional’ and cognates with reference to envoys and interpreters. To be fair to the author, she is clear at a number of points that there never existed in Late Antiquity anything that could be characterised as a ‘corpus of professional diplomats in the modern sense’ (p.160; cf. p.117), but at the same time she suggests that ‘we have some arguments to speak, very prudently, about a certain degree of professionalism in this sphere’ (p.129) and that ‘one can speak about an evident tendency towards professionalizing diplomacy’ (p.131; cf. p.238). The main basis for this claim is the undoubted evidence for the use of the same individuals and/or successive generations from one family on multiple missions. While this was certainly an important trend, and the language used in the above quotations shows recognition of the need for caution in advancing such claims, I nonetheless found the use of the word ‘professional’ in this context unhelpful. It is a slippery term with a wide range of potential connotations in the modern world, some of which risk importing anachronistic assumptions when transposed to antiquity, however many caveats accompany it.

Similar reservations hold with reference to interpreters. The author rightly highlights the importance of interpreters with the reminder that ‘translation always implies some interpretation’ (p.28) and their listing in the Notitia Dignitatum as part of the staff of the magister officiorum implies a greater degree of formal organisation than was the case for envoys, but this remains a slender basis on which to posit the existence of ‘a corps of professional interpreters’ (p.133; cf. p.135). In what sense were they professional? Their presence on the magister’s staff presumably implies that they received a salary, which is pertinent, although this is not an aspect that receives comment. At the same time, it is accepted that there is no evidence for formal training (p.28), which removes one criterion that might, on some definitions, be thought integral to professional status. If interpreters – and envoys – are to be described as in some sense professional, then the term needs to be unpacked and carefully defined; but I think it is better avoided altogether.

A related, but broader, terminological issue is the use of the term ‘system’ (or sometimes ‘systems’) in relation to late antique diplomacy (see, e.g., the book’s subtitle and conclusion [pp.237, 240]).3 The issue here is whether it is wise to use a term that can imply a degree of central control and efficiency at odds with the evidence for duplication and inefficiency in late antique bureaucracy, which emperors had an interest in encouraging as part of a strategy for restricting the autonomy of powerful officials.4

The study takes account of a wide-ranging bibliography that sometimes highlights the need for revised readings of evidence. An important example is a Sasanian seal which in the 1970s was thought to refer to a ‘major envoy’, thereby corroborating evidence from the sixth-century historian Menander, but which has since been shown to have ‘nothing to do with the titles of the diplomats’ (p.90 n.91); indeed this is a conclusion that could have been flagged more prominently, particularly since the seal’s fourth-century date had been taken to show the use of this terminology from much earlier in Roman-Persian relations. Perhaps inevitably in a work that covers such a broad timespan, there are a few bibliographical omissions that are worth mentioning for the benefit of interested readers, notably P. de Souza and J. France (eds), War and Peace in Ancient and Medieval History (Cambridge, 2008), which includes a number of relevant essays; and P. Rance, ‘The date of the military compendium of Syrianus Magister’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 100 (2007), 701-37, which presents compelling arguments for the tenth-century date of the text that includes the so-called Peri presbeon (cf. p.34 n.101). There are also some unfortunate slips that ought to be noted: Fergus Millar is presented as endorsing the view that emperors ‘could and did draw on systematic sources of up-to-date information from beyond the frontiers’ (p.24) , whereas what he actually says in the cited reference is effectively the opposite – that ‘the burden of proof must rest on those who would claim [this]’; and D.A. Miller’s place of work at the time he published his article on Byzantine treaty-making in the 1971 issue of Byzantinoslavica – Rochester, New York – has mutated into a co-author, N.Y. Rochester (p.271). Such slips and omissions are, however, rare.

Overall, despite my reservations about some of the terminology deployed, it is worth reiterating that this book is a valuable resource for the study of late antique diplomacy, and a timely reminder of just how much material has survived relating to this important subject. The author has provided a helpful guide through this material, for which those wishing to undertake further research in the field will have reason to be grateful.


1.   The Introduction sets out a range of aspects of late antique foreign relations that the study does not aim to cover, such as matrimonial diplomacy and international law (pp.15-16).
2.   Cf. the forthcoming study by Nikki Rollason, Gifts of Clothing in Late Antique Literature: Taking on the Mantle of Authority (Ashgate).
3.   The blurb on the back cover also refers to the system as a ‘diplomatic machine’, although the author may not have been responsible for this particular phraseology.
4.   Cf. C. Kelly in Cambridge Ancient History, XIII (1998), pp. 169-75.

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