Bestriding the World: The Politics of Hegemony in Francia and China

In May 823, Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) held an assembly at Frankfurt. Much of the business at hand concerned his neighbours to the east. These included the brothers Milegast and Cealadrag, two kings of the Wilzi, a Slavic people who lived on the Baltic. The older, Milegast, had been deposed by his subjects in favour of the younger and the pair now came to the Emperor for arbitration. Louis decided in favour of Cealadrag, judging him to be the true choice of the Wilzi, but softened the blow by giving them both gifts. The brothers swore oaths to keep the agreement, before being sent home. Next on the agenda was (the confusingly similarly named) Prince Ceadrag of the Abodrites, the people to the west of the Wilzi. Not for the first time, Ceadrag had failed to attend the assembly, and he was accused of treachery to the Franks (probably with the Danes). Envoys were sent to the Abodrites to investigate further. The prince moved quickly to rectify this breach, sending messengers promising to attend upon Louis the following winter. When he did so, Ceadrag was able to mollify the emperor with acceptable excuses for the years he had been absent, and was allowed to go home with gifts.

The Wilzi and the Abodrites were two of a number of client states that ringed the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and Louis the Pious. They were particularly common on the eastern frontier. When Louis held an assembly in Frankfurt in the winter of 822, he received offerings from the ‘Abodrites, Sorbs, Wilzi, Bohemians, Moravians, and Praedenecenti, and from the Avars living in Pannonia’. As the events of 823 indicate, their kings were expected to act in a matter that benefitted Frankish aims and to regularly attend upon Carolingian rulers to show their submission with tribute. Louis acted as the court of final appeal for internal disputes, but otherwise the client-kings operated with a great deal of domestic autonomy.

Classical International Relations theory finds such arrangements hard to deal with. The dominant realist school views diplomatic relations as something that happens in conditions of anarchy between states that are acting entirely independently of each other in their own self-interest. In this view, if Louis was sufficiently strong to compel the Abodrites, he should have sent someone after Ceadrag, and not waited to hear his excuses. Likewise, if Ceadrag was powerful enough to put off the Franks, why did he submit to Louis at all? This school of IR thought emerged out of Europe in the nineteenth century, where multiple great powers ruthlessly jockeyed for position in a rotating set of alliances that sought to balance against any single state that looked like it might achieve a dominant position. Whether it analyses even that world accurately is unclear to me. It most certainly doesn’t help us with the assembly of May 823.

This is frustrating, because I genuinely think that other disciplines have a lot to teach medieval histories about our approach to our subject. Early medieval sources are often terse, with the Carolingian annals very rarely explaining why people did what they did. A school of thought that gives us analytic tools to expand these gnomic utterances would be extremely useful. Likewise, there’s a danger of burying oneself too deeply in one particular space and failing to notice what makes it distinctive or interesting because the lack of alternative examples makes you assume that what you see is universal. With this in mind, I went looking for a different model for the way states might interact.

I found it with the help of my friend Joshua Batts, whom I met when we were both fellows at Darwin College, and who does fascinating work on relations between the Tokugawa in Japan and the Spanish empire. At some point over lunch in college several years ago he drew my attention to a recent(ish) book by David C. Kang entitled East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010), which I read, and has been floating around in my head ever since because it gave me a model for a what a long-term stable system of hegemony might look like, as an alternative to Westphalian anarchy. My ignorance of East Asian history is vast, so what will follow will contain mistakes, none of which are attributable to poor Joshua, who did his best to educate a barbarian medievalist.

Kang begins his book with the observation that between 1368, when the Ming dynasty began to rule China, and the First Opium War (1839-1841), there were only two wars between China and its most important East Asian neighbours, that is, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Apart from the Chinese invasion of Vietnam (1407-1428) and the Imjin War when Japan invaded Korea (1592-1598), these four states existed in peace with each other for the best part of five centuries. Other conflicts still happened, including civil wars, Chinese wars against seminomadic peoples on the north and west frontiers, and battles against wakō pirates. But unlike late medieval and early modern Europe, the great powers of East Asia did not routinely go to war with each other.

Kang attributes this stability to the hierarchical tribute system that structured relations between these four states, with Korea, Vietnam and Japan orbiting the Chinese sun. This system was built on the simple fact of overwhelming Chinese power. First, China was so enormously strong and rich that it was effectively invulnerable to its neighbours, something that all parties knew. Second, China’s wealth and cultural confidence meant that it didn’t need anything from these neighbours. Commercial, political and cultural contact and exchange were minor luxuries. As a consequence, what Chinese governments most wanted from these neighbours was the surety that they weren’t going to start any trouble and regular demonstrations of respect in the form of tribute that served to reinforce China’s understanding of itself as the centre of the world.

It didn’t come from Korea, Vietnam or Japan, but how was I possibly supposed to resist this picture of a giraffe presented to the Ming court from India in 1414?

For their part, the rulers of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were mostly willing to go along with this. They had practical reasons. None of them wanted to antagonise China, and all benefitted from Chinese protection. Access to carefully guarded Chinese commercial markets was also of immense importance to them. But Kang suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate how important Chinese political and cultural norms were for these states. Their rulers very deliberately and genuinely bought into Confucianism, poetry and other aspects of Chinese civilisation, and modelled their governments upon them. There was variation to this. Korea was the most perfectly Sinicised neighbour, taking pride in being the closest imitator of the Chinese model. The highest ranked official of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for most of this period took the clothes and titles of a third-rank Chinese official, with the rest of the Korean hierarchy slotting in below. Japan by contrast, being more distant, was more suspicious of Chinese models, and tended to be the readiest to challenge Chinese hegemony (see the Imjin War).

By participating in the Chinese driven hierarchy, these Confucian states made themselves legible to Ming and Qing officials. Peking understood the institutional structures and philosophies that guided their politics, and could therefore predict their behaviour and assume their goodwill. Any difficulties could be resolved because all participants were speaking the same language both literally and figuratively. The security this provided allowed China to be generous to its clients. Although the tribute they provided were trumpeted as part of the Middle Kingdom’s conception of itself, they were outweighed by the gifts and commercial opportunities the tributaries received in return. A similar generosity applied to frontiers. Despite China’s vastly more powerful military force, disputed borders with Korea and Vietnam were decided by legal negotiation, with the non-Chinese party winning more often than not. This credible commitment to non-exploitation in turn strengthened the willingness of the Confucian states to take part in the Chinese system, creating a virtuous cycle that more-or-less lasted until the collapse of Chinese power in the nineteenth century.

In summarising the core thesis of the book, I have simplified much, leaving out the evidence and the detail. But I think the three key elements here – an overwhelmingly powerful hegemon; client states that go out of their way to be legible and predictable to the hegemon; and generous behaviour by the hegemon – offer a useful lens for thinking about Carolingian hegemony, both for how it was constructed and for why it failed. (Fair warning here – while what was above was constrained by the holes in my knowledge about East Asia, below is me speculating wildly and loosely.)

An example of this is the emphasis on generosity in the Frankish annals. Early medieval rulers were expected to be givers of gifts, so it’s not surprising that we find Louis showering leading Wilzi and Abodrites with presents. Nonetheless, the Chinese example suggests that successful hegemony depends upon such beneficence. It is neither a novel nor a sophisticated insight that people like getting stuff, and will be more likely to acknowledge your power if there is a material benefit to them for doing so. It’s nonetheless worth bearing in mind when we try to understand why the likes of Ceadrag allow themselves to be summoned to attend upon the Emperor. On the other hand, the Chinese example of settling land disputes does suggest another benefit of the relationship for the client. Milegast and Cealadrag came to Louis because they thought he could arbitrate their dispute. This implies at least some respect for Carolingian justice and Louis’ ability to make a settlement stick. Solving political problems by acting as an honest judge might also lie behind a hegemonic relationship.

Another interesting trend is the ‘Carolingianisation’ of many of the neighbours of the Franks. This is reflected in the material remains, with Frankish goods such as metalwork and glass being found in increasing amounts in Central Europe. Missionaries travelled among these client kingdoms, spreading familiarity with Christian ideas. Although it’s hard to say much about the political structures of these places before the Carolingian period, the appearance of kings and dynasties seems to have something to do with copying Frankish models. (The number of Slavic words for king that are derived from Charlemagne’s name, Karl – Bulgarian крал, Czech král, Polish król, Russian коро́ль, Serbian краљ etc – is suggestive of the influence of Carolingian kingship in Central and Eastern Europe). The emergence of royal dynasties literate in Carolingian culture and embedded in Frankish networks of exchange would make the satellites much easier for Carolingian rulers to do business with them, whether or not this was a deliberate or an accidental development.

But where the Chinese example really shines for me is the hints its gives for why Carolingian hegemony was so short-lived. Whereas Kang’s model describes a system that lasted nearly 500 years and survived the dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing in the seventeenth century, Carolingian hegemony barely lasted a generation (I would place it at roughly c.790-c.830 but that’s a gut assessment and there are signs of trouble in the 820s). The differences between our two examples help explain that discrepancy.

The first difference, and the most important, is that the Carolingian empire was never as overwhelmingly powerful as China. Even at the apogee of Frankish power, the distance between the Carolingians and their neighbours was never as great as that. This was a situation that only became less hegemonic following the division of the empire into rival kingdoms from 843, lessening the resources any single Carolingian monarch could bring to bear on any single problem while giving them dangerous peer competitors. While for most of the ninth century the East Frankish realm was more powerful than any of its non-Frankish neighbours, even that begins to shift with the rise of Moravia in the 860s and 870s, a former client turned increasingly great power.

Further, the Carolingian world was never as unipolar as that of East Asia. In the south-east and south-west respectively, Byzantium and Umayyad Spain competed with the Carolingians for influence within client states. In the north-east, the main rival was the Danish kingdom, who offered Abodrite and Wilzi leaders options if they chose to oppose the Franks. Thus, in 808 the Danish king Godfrid gathered the Wilzi, Smeldingi and Linones into an anti-Frankish alliance. In 821, Ceadrag of the Abodrites was suspected of plotting with the sons of Godfrid.

As a consequence, Carolingian rulers were never as secure in their dealings with client states as their Chinese counterparts. This acted to destabilise the system because it made Frankish monarchs less open-handed and more prone to interfering. I suspect that the ratio of tribute to gift between the Franks and their clients was rather less generous than in the case of China, undermining the relationship’s value. Because of the different balance of power, the Carolingians had to watch their tributaries for signs of rebellion rather more closely, resulting in moments like Louis’ heavy-handed intervention into Abodrite politics in 823. Indeed, Ceadrag became leader of the Abodrites in the first place when Louis ordered Sclaomir to share power with him in 817. Being a client of the Carolingians also made you a potential target, such as when King Godfrid attacked the Abodrites in 808 as an indirect strike at Charlemagne.   

These were not the sort of circumstances that would make you feel good about your more powerful neighbour. Even if you came to power with Frankish support, the conditionality of such backing would encourage you to look for alternative options once established. As a result, Carolingian hegemony was much more dependent upon military coercion than the Chinese equivalent. Said coercion only made it harder to win the genuine allegiance of clients, creating a cycle leading to instability and distrust.

Another difference that I suspect has an impact is in the structure of imperial power. Most Chinese emperors ruled through a tax base administered by the state which supported the bureaucracy, living expenses and standing army. Martial excellence was not a particularly vital requirement so long as the borders were safe and the tribute was coming in. Carolingian emperors depended on their own estates for sustenance and the loyalty of their followers for their military support. A reputation for military skill was much more important, as was the financial rewards of booty and conquest. This doesn’t mean that the Franks needed to be constantly at war, but that domestic tensions might incentivise aggressive behaviour towards one’s neighbours in a way that was hard to predict from the outside.

To sum all of this up, because the Carolingian empire was a weaker superpower, with more plausible rivals, and had a political structure and culture that made it more aggressive, it was a much less predictably benevolent hegemon. This made client states more likely to look for opportunities to free themselves of this dependence and also made it more likely that moments of crisis would emerge that would provide those opportunities.

This isn’t necessarily inevitable. Politics is never written in stone. At different points of their careers Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald seem to have experimented with styles of rulership that depended less upon military expansion. A Carolingian empire that never divides, or where the different members of the family manage to keep the peace between them might change the calculus. Nonetheless, I think the Chinese example of international hierarchy provides us with a useful comparison of a very different system to Westphalian anarchy which at least helps us to ask some of the right questions when it comes to understanding hegemonic systems elsewhere.

King Lothar and the Origins of Valenciennes and Ename

At some point in the third quarter of the tenth century, several military commands appeared on the river Scheldt, based at Antwerp, Ename and Valenciennes. By the year 1000, their purpose was clear enough: defending Lower Lotharingia against attacks from the counts of Flanders. However, their original purpose is a bit fuzzier. The extant debate in historiography pitches one side which sees them as creations of the mid-960s, after the death of Duke Godfrey of Lower Lotharingia from plague whilst on campaign in Italy; and another which places their genesis in the early-to-mid-970s, responding to the return from exile of the sons of Reginar III, who had a military following, a lot of claims to land, and a grudge. (The wars began in 973 and kept going for years.) Basic to all these claims is the idea that from the very beginning the Flemish marches were a creation of the Ottonian emperors.

However, I wonder if we might not benefit from inverting our perspective. As I have written about before, when Count Arnulf the Great of Flanders died in 965, Lothar launched an invasion to take over as much of Flanders as he could get. Eventually, he grabbed most of the southern portion and placed his own man (Baldwin Baldzo) in the north, watched over by Queen Gerberga and Lothar’s brother Charles. This was presented to the East Frankish king Otto the Great – possibly as a fait accompli – and he signed off on it. One of the reasons he signed off on it was that he was keen to get back to Italy, where he spent most of the years from then until his death, bringing with him his heir Otto II and a surprisingly large chunk of the Lotharingian nobility.

Nothing about this time period is easy or clear – in fact, I’ll put an asterisk next to all the seemingly simple statements of fact which would require a lengthy discursive footnote to justify – but there are hints that Lothar took advantage of the cats being away to try and spread his influence across the Lotharingian frontier. Let’s work north-to-south. From the latter part of the tenth century, we find scattered references in our sources to a ‘county of Ghent’ which did not exist in Arnulf the Great’s time. In 969, however, we find Lothar granting Count Dirk of Holland ‘the forest of Waas in the same county’.* One of our sources explicitly equates the county of Ghent and the pagus of Waas. It may well be that Lothar deliberately sliced off an area of territory around Ghent to give to Dirk in return for the count’s support. Notably, despite the fact that Baldwin Baldzo had been put in place by Lothar as the guardian of the child-count Arnulf II, we find Dirk and Arnulf together in Ghent a few days before Lothar’s grant*.

Even more interestingly, Dirk’s donation was witnessed by Godfrey the Prisoner, count of Verdun. Godfrey’s powerbase lay around Trier and Verdun, and he had no existing ties to the Scheldt region – except one. Probably around this time*, he married Matilda Billung, the widow of Baldwin III of Flanders and Arnulf II’s mother. It is also around this time that Godfrey and Matilda were endowed with a significant estate at Ename. This is extremely unlikely to have belonged to either of them as their own hereditary property, and Matilda is also unlikely to have received it as a dowry from Baldwin. It has been suggested that Ename was a strategic wedding gift from the Ottonians. However, we know that the (by this point recently deceased) Queen Gerberga held estates in this area, just up the river at Krombrugge. Given this, Lothar is as if not more likely a source for this estate than the Ottonians.

Map from Dirk Callebaut, ‘Ename and the Ottonian West Border Policy in the Middle Scheldt Region’, in de Groote & Pieters (eds), Exchanging Medieval Material Culture, p. 224.

This leaves Valenciennes. Valenciennes had been a Carolingian royal estate in the ninth century, but had been badly hit by Viking attacks. I need to do some more reading about this – Leeds’ library doesn’t have the relevant books – but it could well have belonged to Gerberga by the mid-tenth century as well. More significantly, though, Count Arnulf of Valenciennes (whose career would stretch well into the eleventh century) emerges into our sources in the 960s* as a man whose interests and estates were split between Lotharingia and southern Flanders. In fact, he seems to have acted as Queen Gerberga’s advocatus when she donated Meerssen to Saint-Remi in 968*.

However, there is more. Later in 969, Archbishop Odalric of Rheims died. His successor was Adalbero, a canon of the church of Metz. Metz’s cathedral was one of the tenth century’s ‘episcopal finishing schools’, so this is not by itself surprising; but more significant than his ecclesiastical background is the fact that he was Godfrey of Verdun’s brother. In light of all of the above, the shadows thrown by our sources come together to form a picture that looks rather like Lothar was trying to weave a network of alliances covering the whole of northern Lotharingia, infiltrating himself into a area stretching from the Netherlands to Luxembourg. This was probably not, originally, intended as a military rather than a political network. Archaeological excavation at Ename has revealed that at this time it was set up as a trading rather than a military site. The transformation of the site into a military base probably did come in the 970s with the return of the Reginarids, which pushed Godfrey and Arnulf away from Lothar and towards Otto II.

It is questionable whether Lothar’s plan would have worked that well anyway. Godfrey and especially Adalbero turned out to be very canny political operators, neither of whom cared that much for Lothar’s interests. Still, it’s worth thinking about Lothar’s part in the story of these marches, because otherwise we run the risk of putting the Ottonians at the centre of everything, perpetuating the stereotype of the West Frankish rulers as weak and lacking initiative. Quite apart from anything else, this doesn’t explain anything about late tenth century politics. By the 970s and 980s, Lothar thought he could fight and win against the Ottonians, and he was never definitively proven wrong. His schemes came to an end with his death in 986, and the reaction against them led to the end of his dynasty as kings in 987. As such, putting Lothar back in his place as a major Lotharingian player is key to explaining political changes which had repercussions for centuries afterwards.  

Christian Diplomacy: Charlemagne’s Letter to Nikephoros I (811)

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[1] of good memory, namely Arsafius, the famous imperial spatharios[2], 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[3] 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[4], 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.

arsaphios

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.

[1] Charlemagne’s son, King of Italy 781-810.

[2] Literally ‘sword-bearer’, a high-ranking Byzantine official.

[3] Envoys sent by Nikephoros to Charlemagne in 803.

[4] 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.’