Justinian Diplomacy

In the first of five guest blogs on this site, Will Buck – who is graduating from Cardiff University this week (well done!) – writes about his two-week work placement researching the diplomacy of the sixth-century Emperor Justinian.

It has been a joy to work on an area of history which is so disputed due to one author, Procopius, and being able to side step this dispute completely to focus on the content of the text, and largely ignore the opinions of the said author. Procopius’ ‘Wars’ is a text which describes, largely first hand, the wars in Africa, Italy, and the East between Justinian and his contemporaries. It does this in remarkable detail, and you cannot but help believe you are among Belisarius’ household staff, watching the action.

Miniature of the Emperor Justinian with a sword, surrounded by several figures, at the beginning of Justinian's Digestum Vetus. BL MS Arundel 484, f.6

Miniature of the Emperor Justinian with a sword, surrounded by several figures, at the beginning of Justinian’s Digestum Vetus. BL MS Arundel 484, f.6

My task during my two-week work placement was to go through this collection of eight books, and record every instance of diplomacy which I came across. At first I found it daunting that I was going to have to read eight books of what I assumed would be very repetitive descriptions of the back and forth of war, but very quickly these worries were dispersed by both the Thucydidean style, and the remarkable times Procopius was recording.

Alongside this main task, I also found it of interest to make note of any mention of Britain in the text, as it is a shared interest of Dr Benham and I how they were perceived and interacted with other peoples, in the ‘international’ world, during the so called Dark Ages. In this respect we were both surprised by Procopius’ statement that “the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants” (III.II 32-39) as this is almost word for word what Gildas states; a British contemporary of Procopius, often thought to be cut off from the Roman world. This raised questions in both our minds that contact between the Romano-British and the Roman Empire was not as dead as scholars have often assumed, as it is unusual that Gildas decided to use the word ‘Tyrant’ when he was writing in Latin. For Procopius, writing in Greek, tyrant is exactly how we would expect him to refer to the kings in Britain; in Latin, this is unusual.

Returning to my primary task, it became immediately obvious to me that much of the diplomatic action was conducted through the written word. This did not come as a surprise in diplomatic relations between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, but when, for example, the Franks, and Goths interacted they too used letters primarily. This I can only assume was due to their pretence at being continuations of the Western Roman Empire and in assimilating the old Roman bureaucracy which still existed in the cities of the West.

Overall this has been a very enjoyable task, which I hope will prove useful to Dr Benham and any students who have to use my work. It has also allowed me to keep my eye in, so to say, over summer before I start my postgraduate work; an MA in Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies. Thankfully this topic covered the period exactly, and I look forward to being able to continue studying this area of history at Cardiff University.

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