One of the running problems in the study of international relations is the question of how universal its practice and theory is. On the one side we have the argument that all international relations in any place and period are fundamentally the pursuit of political advantage between state-like entities, engaged in by social elites who are all playing the same game with differing levels of skill, having been dealt better or worse hands. In such a reading, we can draw up universal laws for international relations that apply for any era and circumstances. On the other, we have a more anthropological approach, which stresses the need to take into account the material and ideological differences between people and places, arguing that both the practice and aims of international relations are shaped by the resources, means of communication, structures and general worldview of the individuals and societies involved.
Both approaches hold dangers for the medieval historian. The first risks distorting the medieval period by making it a slightly muddier version of modern international relations, losing what is distinctive and different about the period. The second can result in the Middle Ages being condescendingly hived off as a primitive time when no diplomacy of any sort took place because everyone was too culturally determined to be capable of strategy. The medieval historian thus has to walk a line between a pragmatic ‘realist’ reading of the game of international relations, and a sympathetic attention to what our sources actually say and the points of view they reveal.
With this in mind that I present the following letter, sent in early 811 by Charlemagne to the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I (r.802-811), not just because it provides us with an opportunity to read an early medieval emperor sounding like a lovesick teenager, but because it forces us to reckon with the sorts of questions I began this post with:
Charlemagne, Epistolae variorum, ed. E. Dümmler, MGH Epp 4 (Berlin, 1895), no.32, 546-548.
Since the help of God should be asked for at the beginning of all human affairs, greatly should the aid of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ be implored by all means in this business, which by God’s mediation is being carried out between us so that we, who are marked by His name and are confident that we are redeemed from the eternal peril of death through the dispensation of His passion, may deserve to bring what we begin at his instigation to an honourable and useful end and conclusion.
In His name and in His honour, we have kindly and with honour received into Our court your envoy, Our brother, whom you sent to our son, King Pippin of good memory, namely Arsafius, the famous imperial spatharios, along with the words and letters of your affection. And although he had not been sent to us, we have taken care of him as if he was sent to us, and we listened to him and, because we thought it prudent, talked with him about what he brought. This was not undeservedly, for such was the fullness of the desired and ever-desirable peace, not only in the letters he brought with him, but also in the words that reached our ears from his mouth, that his message was able to please us and all those who fear God greatly. Indeed, they were seasoned so heavily with the salt of goodwill and peace that they could taste of true sweetness on the palate of any of the faithful, and even a complete fool, to whom such things seem tasteless, could tell. Therefore, after we had received the news that he had arrived within the borders of our kingdom, as if we had known in advance of his great and godly mission, we could not hold back, and bade him come to Our presence at an appropriate moment; especially because him to whom he had been sent, Our beloved son King Pippin, had been separated from human life by divine judgement, and we could not bear it that he return with empty hands and with such a great work as that he had been sent on incomplete.
And not only because of that, but also because since that time in the first year of your reign when Your Belovedness sent the Metropolitan Michael, the eminent Abbot Peter and the famous candidatus Calistus to establish with us a long-lasting peace in order to unite and bring together we two in the love of Christ, we have been in anxious suspense with long-lasting expectation, like someone stationed in a watchtower, while we waited to receive bearers, whether through a messenger or a letter, of friendly responses from you, our brother, to our important letters. As is the nature of the weakness of the human spirit, despair had already begun to dominate our heart instead of hope. And yet we have trusted in Him, who never forsakes those who trust in Him, because according to the apostle, our efforts with him will not be in vain, and our wish, which as we believe we have made at His urging, will be fulfilled according to the abundance of His mercy and sooner or later be effected. Therefore, we were extremely pleased at the news of the arrival of the already mentioned envoy from your esteemed person, the famous sword-bearer Arsafius, in the firm conviction that we would get from uncertain circumstances to the desired certainty and that we would receive a response to what we gave to your aforesaid envoys to pass on to you. And indeed it happened that way. We have observed on the one hand the favour of divine aid in the fulfilment of our prayers in what we desired and [on the other hand] noticed that we received no small part of the answer we longed for in the words and letters which were brought by the embassy of the aforesaid envoy, although they were written for our son.
We have therefore thanked the Almighty, not as much as we should have, but as much as we could, because He has deigned to instil in the heart of your esteemed person, where as the desire for peace for which we have asked and pleaded, and we pray like the apostle so that God, who has granted you the will to this peace, also grants that it may be brought to a conclusion.
Because of this, we have brooked no delay, but without hesitation and without any kind of delay we have prepared our ambassadors to send them to you, our brother, with friendly love.
Ed.: What is probably Arsaphius’ personal seal, which is cool! (from Dumbarton Oaks, source)
There is clearly quite a lot going on beneath the surface in this letter which, like so much diplomatic correspondence, drops us in media res. I’m going to provide only the briefest outlines of context for this whole affair, which got complicated very quickly, as befits any mess that involves Byzantium, Venice and questions of imperial status.
The first decade of the ninth century saw tension between the Carolingian empire and Byzantium for a couple of reasons. The first was Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in Rome in 800 by the Pope. This rather vexed the rulers of Constantinople, who took the view that they were the only Roman Emperors around. The second was Venice and the neighbouring region of Dalmatia, theoretically under Byzantine authority, but in practice a collection of border territories with a penchant for playing Constantinople off against the Franks.
This second issue was primarily a problem for King Pippin of Italy, as Charlemagne allowed his son considerable autonomy within his realm. Nikephoros had sent an embassy to Charlemagne in 803 to announce his assumption of imperial authority, having overthrown the Empress Irene the previous year. In 805 the dukes of Venice and Zara had come to Charlemagne, with the emperor settling the affairs of Venice and Dalmatia. Nikephoros sent a fleet to retake Venice and Dalmatia, blockading the Adriatic. The war lasted from 806-810, culminating in Pippin dying from a disease acquired while besieging Venice in 810. Pippin left a teenage son, Bernard, as his heir, so Charlemagne felt the need/saw the opportunity to intervene. Doing so allowed him to revive the issue of his imperial status, something that Nikephoros seems to have been ignoring since 803 hence Charlemagne’s wistful sighs at the lack of any message from the Byzantine Emperor since then.
This is a very abbreviated account of the ins and outs of a very complicated diplomatic situation that I’m still not convinced I entirely understand yet. Neither of the big issues are directly mentioned in the letter. Charlemagne asserts equality of status with Nikephoros by referring to him as brother, and alludes to the need for peace, but otherwise we can assume that these were matters quietly addressed between Charlemagne and the envoy Arsafius.
I want to flag up a few points here. The first is to observe just how hard making peace could be. Truces had been attempted from 807 but kept collapsing. Charlemagne wanted Byzantine recognition of his imperial title. By 810 at the latest it was clear that Venice and Dalmatia weren’t going to just fall into the Carolingian sphere of influence as had seemed possible in 805 and the war had already cost Charlemagne too much, including his son. From Nikephoros’ perspective, Byzantine forces in the Adriatic were acting in response to Frankish aggression, so status quo ante bellum represented a win for him. In the meantime, Nikephoros had more urgent problems to deal with, most notably Krum, the Khan of the Bulgars, who had recently captured Serdica (modern Sofia) and was expanding rapidly in the Balkans.
All the incentives were there for peace, but the truces kept breaking down. The dukes of Venice seem to have been actively hindering the process, driving off a Byzantine commander with orders to enter talks with Pippin in early 809. The death of Pippin also wouldn’t help things, as early medieval diplomacy tended to take place between rulers as individuals and it was by no means guaranteed that existing agreements would continue when a monarch was replaced. This is part of the reason Charlemagne was at such pains to spell out his connection to Pippin in the letter, to strengthen the notion of continuity and his ability to make an agreement stick despite not being the person Arsafius was sent to talk to. But a final problem here with the peace process were simple logistics. There were no permanent ambassadors and no easy means of communication, with the result that messages needed to go back and forth slowly and it was easy for things to get misinterpreted, or for new developments on the ground to screw things up.
A second thing to observe is the explicitly Christian terms that Charlemagne used. In working for peace they were following a desire inspired by God, not just carrying out His wishes but acting in a way only possible because of divine blessing. A cynical reading of this would be that such language was largely meaningless bumf covering over the real business of realpolitik, allowing Charlemagne to skirt past the reality that the war was not going terribly well for the Franks. An alternative interpretation would look at Charlemagne’s very real piety and concern for Christians beyond his lands and take this as a serious insight into how the Frankish emperor structured his relations with his fellow Christian monarchs.
Both of these rhetorical strawmen are clearly flawed. Throughout his career Charlemagne demonstrated a ruthless pragmatism in his dealings with his Christian neighbours, as the king of the Lombards, the duke of the Bavarians and his own nephews could attest. Nonetheless, Charlemagne was deeply pious and it is really hard not to read his letters and other documents and not get the sense of a man desperately trying to understand and fulfil God’s purpose for him. Any interpretation of this letter to Nikephoros that does not try to hold both Charlemagnes in mind, and which doesn’t see the way in which they joined together to form a coherent whole, is doomed to fail.
One way forward here is to see the Christian framing in this letter as both sincere and carefully chosen to highlight uncontroversial things both Charlemagne and Nikephoros had in common, offering both of them shared language they could use to reach a compromise. It’s also worth thinking about the audience for this letter. That it survives in multiple western copies suggests that it was meant to be read by people in Charlemagne’s empire. But it was also meant to be read out loud in the court in Constantinople. It therefore needed to portray Charlemagne in a positive light, while also being persuasive for a Byzantine audience.
Another point to note is what this letter tells us about diplomats. Charlemagne is extremely complimentary about the Byzantine envoy, Arsafius. This might be partly to reassure Nikephoros that he hadn’t mistreated this envoy meant for Pippin, whom he had effectively hijacked. But it also suggests the type of things an effective envoy might do. Arsafius impressed Charlemagne in their private conversations. He also performed well in public, helping Charlemagne sell the prospect of peace even to the dimmer or more truculent members of his court by speaking with sincerity. Charlemagne connects this to the memory of Pippin, mostly to make it clear that these talks were indeed carrying out Arsafius’ mission. I wonder if there might also be a hint at Arsafius’ emotional intelligence, using their shared experience with Pippin to create a bond with the grieving emperor.
Nikephoros may never have read the letter. He went on campaign against the Bulgars and was killed in battle in July 811. His skull was later used a drinking cup by Krum. Yet many of Charlemagne’s objectives were achieved. Emperor Michael I (r.811-813), who usurped Nikephoros’ son, received the Frankish envoys. In 812 his own embassy, which included Arsafius and the Bishop Michael Charlemagne had also written warmly about, publicly acknowledged the Frankish ruler as Emperor in Aachen. Venice and Dalmatia were left in the Byzantine sphere. Embassies went back and forth over the next few years, but peace and positive relations were achieved. Whether we give the credit to Christ or to the diplomats shall have to be left for another day.
 Charlemagne’s son, King of Italy 781-810.
 Literally ‘sword-bearer’, a high-ranking Byzantine official.
 Envoys sent by Nikephoros to Charlemagne in 803.
 1 Cor 15.58 ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’