Lecture: "Building diplomatic rules: attempts at dialogue between Sasanian Persia and Byzantium"


Professor Antonio C. D. Panaino
Department of Cultural Heritage
University of Bologna
Ravenna Campus, Italy

20 December 2022, 14:00 
Room 449, Gilman Building  

Professor Antonio Panaino is ​a 2022/2023 Sackler Lecturer of the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies.



The dramatic confrontation opposing “the two eyes of the world”, Eastern Rome and Iran, for about three centuries in a ruinous and nonsensical attempt at mutual annihilation, and which paved the way for eventual self-destruction in Persia, and a quasi-self-exsanguination in Byzantium, should inspire modern historians. A crude observation of the results these wars produced would require a deep meditation on the irrational trends inspiring blind politics of universal conquest. Thus, if we call our attention to the approach given by Hegel in his lessons about the Philosophy of History, he completely missed the relevance of the Irano-Byzantine wars, and their impact on the expansion successfully brought by the Arabo-Islamic armies. As prophesized by Peter the Patrician (6th c. CE), the two previously mentioned “eyes” were ready and able to make themselves reciprocally blind (fr. 13). Hegel’s total disregard with respect to this historical phase shows that academic sight is strongly connected to our contemporary historical and political agenda so that at the beginning of the 19th century, this area and its significance on future history was not seriously considered. When the Eastern Roman world started to understand that the Persians represented a serious competitor, mutual relations assumed a more stable character. The two Empires felt it necessary to fix some reciprocal rules, which we can easily deduce even from Greek letters; honorific titles were fixed and recognized, while royal authority confirmed a status of reciprocal brotherhood. The ambassadors, as The Book of Ceremonies confirms, were attributed special privileges, and their sacred status was accepted. In short, Persians and Romans were ruthless enemies, but sharing some common rules! Thus, these two societies were in a condition to maintain stable armies, and the economic and human investments in the reciprocal attempts at destruction were very expensive in any term. But the permanence of the conflict produced also some inevitable phenomena, such as, if not real curiosity for the otherness, at least the need for practical means of scrutiny about the enemy’s behavior. From the Roman side, it was necessary to master the Persian language, and the same problem was equally felt from the Persian side, where Greek, but also Latin, current in the army, were considered necessary knowledge. These facts confirm the evaluation given by some specialists of ancient diplomacy, such as K. Güterbock and St. Verosta, who observed that the bureaucratic system created by both imperial apparatuses fixed some of the rules for modern diplomatic models. We can, for instance, emphasize the importance of peculiar and unexpected situations, such as the one in which King Kawād I, in 522, asked Justin I (518-¬27) to adopt Xusraw I as his own son in order to protect his future ascent to the Persian throne. It is even more interesting to observe that Justin, being without a direct descent, was invited to decline such a proposal, because this kind of adoption would have given the young Persian prince the theoretical right to legally claim the Roman throne. This example shows the complexity and modernity of these relations. But the most interesting opportunity for pacification in the Perso-Byzantine relations can be detected in the final results concluded at the end of the Lazika War (541 – 561). After an exhausting negotiation, all the single points of the treaty were synthesized, according to the reports we possess thanks to Menander the Guards¬man, but also, in a shorter Arabic version by Ṭabarī. These points are exactly 13 (plus a protocol concerning the treatment of religious minorities), and form the main body of the so-called “Fifty-years Peace”. The ratification was signed by means of “Official Letters, confirming the decisions assumed in the names of Xusraw I and Justinian. This treaty shows a high level of cooperation between the two sides, which prepared a bilingual redaction of the text, one in Greek, the latter in Pahlavi, following a double-check process of textual scrutiny that presumably saw the Persians writing in Greek, the Romans in Persian. All these facts demonstrate the willingness to obtain a good solution, and confirm that the parties did their best to avoid any occasion for a further potential crisis.


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