Imperial Byzantine diplomatic bodygards (Boukellarioi) – the might of the Empire in enemy lands.
By Alexander Koev (M.A.), member of the Academy of Historical European Martia Arts “Leontes”
I dedicate my article as a Christmas gift for Leontes Academy.
Byzantine Empire had to conduct an active foreign policy. It included sending diplomatic representatives to foreign lands, which already implied escorting them with most trained bodyguards in order to reach safely the location where diplomatic negotiations should take place. (Haldon: Byzantium At War, p. 21-28)
Byzantium existed in highly violent and aggressive world. The travel was dangerous and it may end up lethally. Also, it was the right of the mighty and no compromisses could be reached easily. Thus, a mighty Byzantine warrior could prove a warlord or enemy king in a contest with his/her knight that Byzantium should be feared of and respect is necessary. (Haldon: Byzantium At War, p. 21-28)
As a result, one can see from the aforementioned that Byzantium invested in knoweledge and learning both mental and physical. Byzantium was an amalgam of Greco-Roman culture and to follow the principles already placed by Ancient Greeks, spread by Alexander the Great, firmed by the Hellenic States, continued by the Romans and passed to Byzantium for protection was of great imprortance for the Empire. (Haldon: Byzantium At War, p. 21-28)
2. What is Byzantium?
Byzantium, generally speaking, is the remainder of the Roman Empire’s provinces in the East. It can trace its history to 330 AD – the founding of Constantinople by Constantine the Great as the capital of the Roman Empire. Then, division of the Roman Empire to West and East in 395 AD. This established a new power in Europe for the next 1000 years and Byzantium ended in 1453 AD by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It was a center of culture in Europe and its turbulent history was marked by constant warfare where Byzantium managed to survived for a thousand years. Although Roman at the begining, the Greeks were the leading force of the Empire and Latin language was replaced by Greek. Its religion was Christianty and after the Great Schism in 1054 AD when Christianity split to Roman Catholic in the West and Orthodoxy in the East – Orthodox Christianity was the main faith of the Empire. However, Byzantium became very weakened after the Fourth Crusade took Constantinople in 1204 AD, which led to the fall of Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans. Its culture and heritage survive today by taking into account the Orthodox religion in various countries. (Haldon: Byzantium At War, p. 21-28)
3. Display of Power
I would like to quote here an interesting article by Iver Neumann: “The diplomatic set-piece of having barbarians standing around the throne wearing their native gear (axes at the right shoulders for Vikings) and holding rods and swords belongs to domain of staging not covered by Longinus. But the effect striven for, usually successfully, was indeed a knock-out effect.” (Neumann: Sublime Dimpomacy, p. 6) Thus, Byzantium employed mercenaries and most probably Viking (so called the Varangian guard), who fought for Byzantium and protected its interests. This display of might was key to survival. Here, I would like to refer to the following quote in order to demonstrate further the use of bodyguards in Byzantium: “In addition to guards entrusted with the defense of the palace (Hetaireia), there were small units designed to protect the person of the emperor; when the Emperor traveled, the palatine somatophylakes guarded him.” (Oxford Encyclopedia, p.299) I would like to mention that it is important to know that these guards are often mercenaries from foreign lands as well as Byzantines. In order to supoort this claim, I would like to quote the following: “Bodyguards were often recruited from foreigners in West and East. Protection of the emperor was also assigned to some courtiers.” (Oxford Encyclopedia, p.299)
It is important to know that Byzantium’s guards might be placed not only to the Emperor, but his agents, especially generals (military) and ambassadors (diplomatic). Here, I will quote the following moments: “High ranking military officers and influential private individuals might also have bodyguards (sometimes called Boukellarioi).” (Oxford Encyclopedia, p.299) I strongly refer and argue that Byzantium assigned bodyguards to its agents, because interpreters and translators worked for the high ranking officials. Here, I quote, the following: “Ambassadors, who also collected intelligence, were assisted by a corps of interpreters” (Oxford Encyclopedia, p. 634-635). All this is logical as nowadays, it is normal for us to see vip persons using security for protection.
Skillful Byzantine warriors could take part in a knight tournament and prove Roman Catholic powers, for example, that Byzantium is strong and it is a true power. As a result, Byzantine guards should have been great fencers and skillful in armed and unarmed combat. As a proof that Byzantine knights were engaged at tournaments, I would like to point attention to Emperor Manuel Comnenus himself: “The Greek emperor, Manuel Comnenus, fought in person at the tournament held at Antioch, and by a single thrust of his lance unhorsed two French knights, whom he threw to the ground one upon the other.” (Deeping: Evening Entertainments, p. 321). Byzantine discipline and training was of greatest quality. Example of Byzantine power would have be a good victory in a tournament, which would give a bonus in diplomatic negotiations.
I would like to make clear who took decisions on foreign policy. The foreign policy was set by the Emperor or the Magister Officiorum (later Mesazon). (Oxford Encyclopedia, p. 634-635) Thus, foreign policy was the art of the intelligence agents of Byzantium. In order to avoid war – gifts, bribes, disinformation, assasinations could be freely used as nowadays (Sun Tzu: Art of War, Ch. XIII. THE USE OF SPIES). Of course, skillful people who are versed in combat were used to protect and argue in favor of Byzantine interests. Byzantium could do all this, because it was an Economic Powerhouse with adaptable economy. (Angeliki Laiolu: The Economic History of Byzantium, 73 page). As a result, employment of extra protection could never be a problem for Byzantium, if in rare cases unskilled Emperor was in charge. Byzantium had turbulent history and it even has continuation today in the face of Patriarchate of Constantinople. Although, of course, Byzantium was destroyed in 1453 AD. However, even when Constantinople fell, there were remnant territories, which had longer survival time as in case with Trabzon. Thus, Byzantium fascinates how it existed for more than 1000 years.
I periodically write these small articles for Leontes Academy and I mentioned a manuscript – Die Blume des Kampfes (“The Flower of Battle”), ca. 1428 A.D. in my previous article. It is attributed to the Italian master Fiore de’l Liberi. Thus, I would like to point out that many styles of armed combat were similar in European countries and a culture of physical training was very prominent in Medieval Europe. Many techniques can be discovered and reworked to fit Byzantine style, flavor and weapons nowadays. As a reuslt, Byzantine guardsmen used similar techniques described in Old manuscripts of Italian fencing masters.
In order to summarize the aforementioned, I would like to point out the main conclusions, which this article makes. Firstly, Byzantine guardsmen or bodyguards existed and were active in Byzantine foreign policy. Secondly, the Mesazon most probably indirectly assigned these guardsmen and they were ancient intelligence agents of Byzantium. Thirdly, they were highly trained locals or foreigners. And fourthly, old Italian manuscripts may hold a key to rediscovery of ancient Byzantine fencing techniques. In conclusion, this article provides a new window to further studies of Byzantine armed and unarmed combat techniques used by Byzantine most skillful knights.
Deeping, J.B.: Evening Entertainments. London: 1822.
de’l Liberi, F.: Die Blume des Kampfes (“The Flower of Battle”). Italy: ca. 1428.
Haldon, J.: Byzantium At War. Ospfey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, England.
Laiou, A. E.: The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh Through the Fifteenth Century. Volume 1. Dumbarton Oaks, 2008.
Neumann, I.: Sublime Dimpomacy: Byzantine, Early Modern, Contemporary. Antwerp, 2005.
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed.: Alice-Mary Talbot. 3 Vol.. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991
Sun Tzu: The Art of War. Translated by L.Giles. London: Luzac, 1910.