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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Episode 29 & 30: Embassy to Constantinople

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

This week, we're jumping into the firsthand account of Bishop Liuprand of the Holy Roman Empire. After being sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, he sent this letter back to his sire Emperor Otto with... incredible snark. We're surprised he wasn't executed for what we're reading now! So, let’s jump into this terrible Yelp review.

Bishop Liuprand’s letter was written in the tenth century, during Holy Roman Emperor Otto’s reign. Liuprand was sent to Constantinople to deal with Nicephorus, the reigning emperor of the “Eastern Roman Empire” at the time. He was supposed to make an alliance between Otto by formalizing a marriage between the emperors’ respective children as well as reclaiming territory for Otto, but… failed miserably.

The letter we are looking at in these episodes is Liuprand’s mid-mission report back to Emperor Otto, and given that the joy of this text is Liuprand’s choice of language, we’ve combined these episodes into a single blog post. We highly recommend listening to this letter, as the summary contained herein doesn’t encompass Liuprand’s utter horror at being stuck in Constantinople.

The letter begins with Liuprand despairing over his “poor” reception into Constantinople. Housed in only a smaller palace, he complains of the bad food and pitch in the wine. The bishop also calls himself and his entourage prisoners in the abode, since guards are posted outside and they cannot leave without an escort.

In an effort to emphasize the rudeness of his hosts, Liuprand notes that Nicephorus referred to Otto only as rex (“king” in the Latin) rather than imperator (“emperor” in the Latin). Such language was an affront to Otto since it lowered his station from a rightful emperor to a “king” and therefore subservient or lesser than Nicephorus. To add insult to injury, Nicephous accepted Liuprand’s letter via an interpreter and not into his hand himself.

Liuprand demonstrates a shocking lack of respect and propriety that would be out of place in any modern ambassadorial role, but is quite common in medieval travel letters. While surveying a parade, Liuprand describes the emperor in horrific manner: as a dwarf, fat-headed, with mole’s eyes, a grey beard, no neck, dark as an Ethiopian, with a lean posterior, a big belly, small legs, wearing old linen, and a fox by nature. Liuprand describes him as some “crawling monster” while those watching the parade call him the “pale death of the Saracens.”

Shortly after this event, Liuprand is invited to dine with the emperor, but is not impressed with the meal whatsoever. Instead, he is insulted because he is seated 15th from the emperor, and without a tablecloth. His entourage is not allowed to attend, and he is fed many leeks, onion, garlic, and a strange “fish liquor.”

At the meal, Nicephorus insults Otto, saying that the Holy Roman Empire is invading his borders, and that Otto’s people are not “Romans,” but simply “Lombards.” Liuprand replies that it is better that his people are Lombards, since the Romans are founded on a city of criminals. The bishop insists that “Roman” is an insult, and they are better off without the term.

After a brief interlude of begging to be sent home after coming down with an illness, Liuprand is finally admitted to meet with Nicephorus about his reason for visiting. The emperor absolutely refuses to marry his daughter off to Otto’s son, especially because she would be “marrying down.” Nicephorus then asks the bishop to acknowledge his position as emperor, not Otto. Liuprand refuses and says he will not act beyond the confines of his orders (though we doubt that).

Finally, Liuprand goes to the parks around Constantinople, where the emperor tries to impress upon him the sheer number of wild asses in the city. Liuprand simply says that there are asses back home, and they can carry things for him, too.

Liuprand then takes a moment to discuss the interpretation of an old prophecy with Nicephorus. The prophecy declares that “the lion and his whelp shall exterminate the wild asses.” The emperor declares that his kingdom is the lion, and Otto’s Holy Roman Empire is the whelp, and together, they will crush the Saracens. Liuprand disagrees, and emphatically states that Otto and his son are the lions, and Nicephorus is the ass.

After this escapade, Liuprand takes a moment to explain why precisely Nicephorus is a terrible emperor. He notes that the emperor caused a famine in the area, as one gold piece did not even buy two Pavian measures of coin. The famine worsened because Nicephorus collected measures of the corn through mandates, and then sold it for twice the price. While this famine is historically accurate and Nicephorus was a poor emperor, Liuprand’s harsh views ought to be read with a grain of salt. Liuprand also stated that Nicephorus looked for quanity, not quality in his troops, and his chief officers were like those from Venice and Amalfi — whatever that means.

On the 27th of July, while visiting Umbria, Liuprand received permission to depart back to Otto, but when he visited the palace at Constantinople, the court eunuch Christopher (a “gentleman of neither gender” and “a man ‘of sorts,’” according to the text), he was told he cannot leave in safety because the Saracens occupy the sea and the Hungarians the land. Liuprand considers these lies.

Further, the pope had sent an embassy to Nicephorus to try and make peace between Otto and Nicephorus. However, his letter stirred an uproar among the people as it named Nicephorus “emperor of the Greeks” and Otto the “emperor of the Romans.” Further, Christopher believes that Otto is masterminding the pope’s message and embassy, stating that “the silly blockhead of a pope” doesn’t know that Constantine made Constantinople the head of the Roman world, not Rome.

Several other problematic occurrences arise, including Liuprand’s “wardens” and “guards” trampling the fruit he was gifted and beating the messengers away. Liuprand becomes ill for a time, but does manage to pray and bribe his way into seeing the relic of the cross.

Finally, he has a final meeting with the emperor and his two co-emperors, Basil II and Constantine — the children of the previous emperor. Basil, despite being ten at the time, makes a verbose speech about how he refuses to let Liuprand leave the city with the purple cloaks he has bought, because only his people are fit to wear the purple. Liuprand is aggravated, but the boys send him off with “many loving kisses.”

Before he departs, Liuprand wants to “pay Nicephorus back” for his poor hospitality, so he writes two poems on the wall and on the table. We don’t know how he wrote them, but we’d like to think he carved them in with a knife. Still, how he wasn’t killed for this broach of protocol, we don’t know.

Liuprand writes his journey home as a second Odyssey, full of hardships and toil. He complains he found no hospitable bishops on his journey to house him, and that some of them were even eunuchs (which was not acceptable in Canon Law at the time). He was also astounded that the bishops had to pay taxes to Nicephorus, but we suspect that was more a hint to Otto than any real complaint.

The bishop ends his letter with a tirade against individuals named “Michael,” as the captain who escorted them back was named Michael and he ostensibly left them stranded and extorted gold from them throughout the trip. Liuprand is convinced that every Michael he met in the Eastern Empire is a terrible person, and so ends his account to his lord and emperor, Otto.

Such an underwhelming and personal ending seems out of place for an embassy, but Liuprand has made a point of pursuing personal vendettas and complaints the entire time he was in Constantinople. We don’t know where he ended up, but if he made it home, we hope he stayed there.

A few other notes for interested parties:

Sumptuary Laws: While it may seem ridiculous to us that any type of clothing would be “off-limits,” during the medieval period, “dress-code laws” were common to differentiate people’s status and role in society, as well as regulate luxury and morals.

Eunuchs in Court: There is a long history of having eunuchs in high court positions in various cultures around the globe. Many times, eunuchs were felt to be more trusted than others because they were, by “default,” ineligible in more legitimate roles of power. Because of their status, they could be advisors but were not “threats” to the ruling family.

Final Rating: 7.5

Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!

Searching for our sources? Read The Embassy to Constantinople here, and check out our Library for more! Here is also a link to a homemade garum recipe, which we think is similar to the "fish liquor" Liuprand hates.

Additional references for interested scholars:

  • Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton University Press, 2007. Link

  • Lambourn, Elizabeth, editor. Legal Encounters on the Medieval Globe. Arc Humanities Press, 2017. Link

  • Tougher, Shaun, et al. Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond. Edited by Shaun Tougher, Classical Press of Wales, 2002. Link

  • "Sumptuary Laws of the Middle Ages." Link

We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!

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