BMCR 2004.01.04

Envoys and Political Communication in the Late Antique West, 411-533

Andrew Gillett, Envoys and political communication in the late antique West, 411-533. Cambridge studies in medieval life and thought ; 4th ser., 55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xvii, 335 pages) : maps.. ISBN 0511120451 $65.00.

This book bears all the stigmata of a doctoral dissertation — the more than exhaustive bibliography, the more than necessary documentation, the elaborate step by step explanations — but in this case vice becomes virtue, because the under-researched subject positively calls for an encyclopedic style. Of the envoys G examines, Hydatus bishop in Gallaecia (roughly modern Galicia in north-west Spain), and author of Continuatio Chronicum Hieronymianorum in Mommsen’s title, receives particular attention, not because his prose compares with Jerome’s, but because he describes no fewer than forty-two embassies, an unusual interest for clerical chroniclers, who could hardly emphasize such secular concerns. The simple explanation is that Hydatus himself served as an envoy, once in particularly dramatic circumstances: in 431-432 he journeyed from his remote province to find Aetius, then in Gaul fighting the Franks, to ask for help against the excesses of the Sueves. And Hydatus also deserved G’s attention no doubt because of his relative obscurity, as compared to the celebrities and saints here discussed in their role as envoys. There is the pope Leo I, with Attila of course, Germanus of Auxerre, Orientus of Auch, Vivanius of Saintes, Epiphanius of Pavia, and the indefatigable Senarius much praised by Cassiodorus. But the first envoy G discusses at length is Avitus, or rather the heroic Avitus of Sidonius Apollinaris (himself an envoy), whose panegyric nowhere indulges in the error of under-statement while not being mere romance either.

Avitus, praetorian prefect of Gaul when negotiating with the Goths of Toulouse with amazing success before rising to yet higher office if only briefly, was almost unusual in being an office holder in an age of unofficial envoys, mostly churchmen of course, here discussed under the chapter heading “The saint as envoy: bishops’ Lives”. As G notes, that represents continuity with prior times, for when the empire was still whole and envoys did not yet travel to barbarian rulers or for them within its boundaries, envoys were all necessarily laymen sent to speak for their fellow-provincials before the emperor. But of course those envoys could not negotiate with the emperor, because they could not loyally withhold any benefit in their power from him. They could only plead for the emperor’s indulgent care — unlike G’s envoys who could hardly expect success in their embassies if they had no quid to offer for a desired quo — and a quid that could be withheld.

G carefully avoids the anachronism of “diplomacy” in his title or text — for it is not merely that the word itself is Mabillon’s 1681 coinage in his original meaning of documentary analysis, whence the analysis of treaties, whence their negotiation, but also and more importantly, as G points out, that the practices of diplomacy as we know them were not institutionalized before almost another millennium had passed. But in the absence of today’s professionals operating permanent legations under detailed regulations and reporting to specialized bureaucracies at home — whose archives provide the raw materials of diplomatic historiography — there were nevertheless elaborate modalities and firm rules.

These G briefly presents in his introductory chapter on “envoys and political communication”, before examining them in the specific contexts of the various envoys and their missions, and then again and much more systematically in a closing chapter (“Negotium Agendum”). There were modalities for the honorable reception of envoys, at the entrance of cities to show respect, for their conveyance — still by the cursus publicus in late fifth century Gaul if the privilege was accorded, for their upkeep, for the presentation of sealed written messages along with verbal declarations, and more. There were also rules, starting with the essential pre-condition of the immunity of envoys, explicitly stated as a principle of ius gentium by Ulpian and other jurists recorded in Justinian’s Digest, and indeed the best possible validation of its universalist presumption, because it was evidently familiar to even the most savage exotics. They either respected the immunity of envoys as strictly as the most established powers or, if they did not, their violation was a conscious and deliberate exercise in frightfulness, designed to intimidate. The Attila of Priscus, an exotic certainly but scarcely a savage in his handling of political communications with multiple powers simultaneously, did not even punish the miscreant envoy who conspired to procure his death, retaliating rather against the official who sent him.

I could find no misprints in a book commendably printed and well produced in every way, and with blessed footnotes instead of infuriating end-notes. G’s well written and most useful contribution to the political history of a complicated if not badly documented era — Justinian’s destructive restoration had yet to begin — thus has a worthy publication.