EMBASSIES AND POLITICAL
COMMUNICATION IN THE
Embassies were ubiquitous, constant, and crucial during the break-up of the late Roman West and the establishment of the first medieval kingdoms in the fifth and early sixth centuries. The conduct of political communication through formal conventions was a shaping force in this period of change, more frequent if less obvious than warfare. This study examines the literary monuments for the envoys who carried out the task of communication. Their story brings to the fore new aspects of political processes in the late and post-imperial world. Late antique embassies present uninterrupted continuations of Greco-Roman public oratory and administration, functioning in new and complex circumstances. The patterns of communication traced by envoys reveal a wide range of participants in political affairs. Envoys had long been the voice of cities and provinces to imperial authorities; in late antiquity, municipal envoys spoke not only of taxation and civic honours, but also of war and peace. Envoys now became also, as one himself put it, the ‘voice of kings’: with the rise of a multiplicity of states, rulers required forms of representation not needed by emperors in earlier centuries.1 Many constituents of the western polities employed envoys as their instruments, participating in classical conventions of communication which remained common to all regions and all parts of society in the West, long past the fragmentation of political boundaries. Rewards accrued to those who successfully undertook embassies, either on palatine service or for local communities. Their missions moulded both the grand and the local politics of the late antique West.
Embassies were important cumulatively. Regularity and ubiquity of political communication, constantly sustaining relations among the gamut of participants in public life, characterise the role of embassies in the politics of the West. Sources, however, often present narratives of embassies
1 Senarius, Epitaph, line 4.