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The Performance of Diplomacy: Verbal and Non-verbal Communication at the Imperial Court of the Late Roman Empire

Audrey Becker

The sources which describe the protocol in operation for the reception of foreign envoys at the court in Constantinople, whether they are Corripus or Peter the Patrician, reused by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, give the impression of a very codified ceremonial which may seem frozen or even ossified. However, as the writings of Priscus of Pannonia, Malchus of Philadelphia or Menander Rhetor, amongst others, show, emperors did not hesitate to play

             with the codes and forms of protocol as far as time, space and personnel are concerned (Blockley, 2000). While formally respecting codified protocol, the introduction of modified uses allows emperors, through non-verbal communication, to multiply the levels on which protocolary ritual can be read and understood. Indeed, non-verbal communication is a means of silent persuasion which includes forms of expression based on the pitch of voice, as well as on physical or symbolic gestures. It can confirm or invalidate verbal communication (Buck, VanLear, 2002 ; Jönsson, Hall, 2003) 

            These two levels of discourse, which an emperor can use simultaneously, allow him to use diplomatic protocol to give a clear message to foreign envoys when verbal and non-verbal communication coincide. Or on the other hand, he can play on possible misunderstandings which can follow from a potential discrepancy between the two types of communication. If for instance the protocol demands a proskynesis of the foreign envoys, the time an emperor takes to have them stand up again conveys a first diplomatic message delivered through non-verbal communication. While respecting the forms of protocol, it clearly apprises the ambassador of the emperor's attitude, without the latter having to put anything into words. Diplomatic audiences thus become an occasion for staging relations, with non-verbal communication, sometimes based on tiny modifications in protocolary usage, impressing on the envoys a second meaning of the diplomatic message delivered by the emperor (Knippschild 2002; Lee 1999). 

            However, this kind of use of protocol can also be turned against the emperor, as shows the humiliation inflicted on Theodosius II in 450 at the reception of the ambassadors Orestes and Edicon, sent by Attila after the discovery of a plot against him. The two envoys, while respecting diplomatic protocol, presented themselves before Theodosius wearing around their neck the money paid by the emperor to the traitors who were supposed to assassinate Attila. They thus showed the emperor, before even saying anything, that the plot had been discovered (Becker 2012). 

            Finally, the use of a double level of diplomatic communication by the emperor implies that his diplomatic interlocutors have a sufficient degree of acculturation to be able to understand the codes of protocol operating at the court in Constantinople, especially an ability to decrypt the diplomatic messages which are part of non-verbal communication (Canepa 2009; Windler 2006).

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The Role of “Performance” in Late Antiquity

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