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Ekaterina Nechaeva: Embassies - Negotiations - Gifts. Systems of East Roman Diplomacy in Late Antiquity (= Geographica Historica; Bd. 30), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2014, 306 S., ISBN 978-3-515-10632-0, EUR 54,00
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Rezension von:
Geoffrey B. Greatrex
Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Geoffrey B. Greatrex: Rezension von: Ekaterina Nechaeva: Embassies - Negotiations - Gifts. Systems of East Roman Diplomacy in Late Antiquity, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2014, in: sehepunkte 14 (2014), Nr. 9 [15.09.2014], URL:

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Ekaterina Nechaeva: Embassies - Negotiations - Gifts

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Nechaeva's book is an admirably lucid version of her doctoral thesis that examines the nuts and bolts of East Roman diplomacy. It is remarkably well organised and laid out, while the tables and excellent indices at the end further strengthen its usefulness. The work is methodologically aware, seeking to elucidate the hierarchies that emerge from her convincing analysis of diplomatic workings, and taking into account for this not only literary works but also artistic depictions. Moreover, in scrutinising the literary sources, she pays particular heed to their descriptions of the insignia accorded to foreign potentates (chapter 5). She is thus able to tease out a picture of the evolution and increasing sophistication of Byzantine diplomacy, the result of contact with Persia in particular.

One might accurately characterise the book as a follow-up to two valuable monographs of the early 1990s, A.D. Lee's Information and Frontiers (Cambridge, 1993) and R.C. Blockley's East Roman Foreign Policy (Leeds, 1992), focussing on the eastern empire exclusively and homing in on its diplomatic workings. The breadth of her reading of both primary and secondary sources is commendable, and it is particularly welcome to see Russian scholarship being brought to bear; a few gaps are noted below, but they should not detract from this general point. A more problematic issue, perhaps, is the author's decision to compose the work in English: she studied for her doctorate in Italy, although her thesis was in English, and later conducted research in Paris. Inevitably, therefore, there are infelicities in the style. On occasion, we are dealing not with infelicities, but with actual errors. Thus we find (79) the term "self-willingly" (cf. "self-willed" on the same page), which simply is not English; the meaning here must be "on his own initiative"; the term "gift donations" (170) seems tautologous, while some other terminology in this section on gifts also reads oddly. A final example: at 221 Nechaeva refers to the Armenian satraps being "obliged to subdue these duces", i.e. the new officials appointed by Justinian. Presumably she means "be subordinate to", although in fact the satraps were abolished entirely. [1] It is likely that young scholars feel pressure to publish in English, but it is surely better to bring out a book in polished French, for instance, than one in stilted and sometimes incorrect English. Despite these quibbles, and thanks to the clear structure of the work, the reader will not have difficulty following Nechaeva's arguments.

After a brief introduction (15-21) dealing with sources, Nechaeva devotes chapter 1 (23-67) to the mechanics of diplomacy, i.e. how decisions were made in Constantinople at the imperial court and how foreign embassies were received. Good use is made of the De Ceremoniis; the entire section concerning the treatment of Persian envoys is quoted and commented upon. Indirect exchanges are also considered, i.e. letters between rulers; the author rightly discusses the issue of the genuineness of what is reported in the sources (45-6). She devotes some attention to the issue of payments to foreign powers, which could be perceived either as a sign of the generosity of the emperor or as a weakness (51-4). A further section deals with the conduct of an embassy abroad and the dangers that surrounded such missions.

Chapter 2 (69-116) is devoted to "Diplomatic Negotiation", which was generally undertaken by subordinates, not the rulers themselves. Such indirect contact protected the status of the emperor and allowed him to disavow the decisions of his envoys, if necessary. Having rightly noted that embassies tended to take place in a series - "blocks" as she terms them - Nechaeva elaborates a persuasive typology of embassies, building on Blockley's system, distinguishing "major", "medium" and "minor" ones (88-93). She introduces a category of "plenipotentiary embassies", which were empowered to conclude treaties on the frontier, although their room for manoeuvre was strictly limited. Attention is given to those who conducted negotiations, such as bishops, and to the aims of negotiations. Nechaeva offers a close reading of the conclusion of the treaty of 562, discussing in detail the issues (e.g.) of translation and the keeping of copies for reference (113-16).

Chapter 3 (117-62) tackles "Embassy structure and personnel", tracing an increasing professionalisation of diplomatic work in Late Antiquity. Ambassadors could be drawn from civilian or military backgrounds, be promoted to a suitably high rank before their despatch if necessary - since status was frequently very important to the state to which they were being sent, e.g. that of the Huns or Persians - and were accompanied often by rhetors or, on occasion, doctors. Again Nechaeva builds on earlier work by examining issues such as the entourage of the ambassador, the question of interpreters, and those who might accompany the embassy. As she points out, embassies provided a good opportunity for intelligence work, as the accounts of Nonnosus and Priscus indicate. She further discusses the logistics of such missions, the issue of escorts, food supplies and the hardships endured, whether of the climate or at the hands of the foreign power; spying is also the subject of one section.

The fourth chapter is entitled "Gifts in the diplomatic practice of Late Antiquity" (163-205). As Nechaeva notes, the sources are exiguous on this point, save when it concerns unusual items sent to the Roman empire. She rightly underlines the propaganda value of such objects, which could be used to portray the donor as a tributary, a popular scene in late antique art (172-174); in noting the parallels between such scenes and the Adoration of the Magi, one ought to note R.M. Schneider, "Orientalism in Late Antiquity: The Oriental in Imperial and Christian Imagery" in J. Wiesehöfer and P. Huyse, eds, Ērān ud Anērān. Studien zu den Beziehungen zwischen dem Sasanidenreich und der Mittelmeerwelt (Stuttgart, 2006), 241-278, which deals with precisely this topic. Nechaeva then examines in detail objects received from and given to various neighbouring peoples, concluding that Roman gifts to foreign peoples were often conceived to underline their own superiority, e.g. through the bestowal of insignia of office or images of the emperor.

Chapter 5 deals with "Insignia in the diplomatic practice of Late Antiquity" (207-235). It provides a close reading of the passages, mainly from sixth-century sources, that describe symbols of office bestowed on foreign rulers, such as the Lazic kings, by the Roman emperors. Nechaeva plausibly detects in these items signs of a hierarchy among client kings, depending on the types of brooch, boots and chlamys given. A brief conclusion (237-241) summarises the book's contents.

The book is an important contribution to late antique diplomatic history and will be essential to anyone studying Roman-Persian relations in particular. The author rightly maintains a limited focus in the work, in order to concentrate on the subject in hand, but always provides good references to further work on tangential points. It is clear, moreover, that she is familiar not only with the late antique period, but with earlier Roman and later Byzantine history, to which on occasion allusions are made.


[1] Nina Garsoïan, "Armenia Megale kai eparkhia Mesopotamias", in Eupsychia: Mélanges offerts à Hélène Ahrweiler (Paris, 1998), 239-64, should have been taken into account here.

Geoffrey B. Greatrex