The Roman Empire in the West dissolved under the twin pressures of external invasion and internal decay, but the richer, more urban eastern half of the empire survived. Transformed by Christianity, truncated by the early Islamic conquests, and predominantly Greek rather than Latin in culture, what became known as the Byzantine Empire was nonetheless the direct heir of Rome and preserved Roman wisdom about dealing with peoples like the Huns—peoples Byzantine writers often referred to as Scyths, using the Classical Greek name for the steppe nomads of Herodotus’s time. In short, Byzantine dealings with steppe powers was informed by a combination of practical politics and learning based on literary tradition. And the need for successful relations with the steppe powers north of the Black Sea was pressing between 600 and 900, a period when Byzantium was largely on the defensive against the vastly superior power of the Islamic caliphate while also facing threats in the Balkans and in Italy. Alliance with the nomadic power of the moment in order to provide a counterthreat to Arab power was a necessity of survival. One of the best examples of Byzantine official culture, containing a clear statement of these diplomatic imperatives, is the treatise called De Administrando Imperio (“On the Administration of the Empire”) by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905–959). Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”—that is, the legitimate heir of a reigning emperor—and Constantine took his heritage seriously. He came to the throne early in life, but achieved full power, free from the domination of regents representing the military aristocracy, only in middle age. In the meantime, he had become a student of classical literature and a prolific writer and compiler, mostly of treatises such as this one. Composed between 948 and 952, the treatises were aimed at educating his own son Romanus in the duties and intricacies of running the empire. The selections here focus on the Pechenegs, the dominant steppe power north of the Black Sea in Constantine’s time, and form part of a survey of the lands and peoples surrounding the empire.
Selections from Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gy. Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, rev. ed., 49–55, 167–71. 1967 Dumbarton Oaks.
By 1260 the Mongol Empire in the west stopped expanding; in the east the conquest of southern Song China in 1278 by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai effectively ended Mongol expansion. Even before this time, however, the Mongols had shifted from being brutal plundering conquerors to clever administrators. They employed subjects from all over their lands to assist them in the task, always difficult for nomads, of ruling settled territories, drawing Persian administrators to China and vice versa. The second half of the thirteenth century has sometimes been called the “Pax Mongolica,” the Mongol peace, as their rule secured the safety of the trade routes across the steppes and encouraged the exchange of goods and ideas throughout their vast empire and beyond.
It was in this setting that the most famous visitor to the world of the steppe nomads, the Venetian Marco Polo (c. 1253–1324), made his career. Marco’s father and uncle were merchants who had visited the court of Kubilai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan and emperor of China, between about 1260 and 1269, returning with a request from the Great Khan for Christian missionaries. They set out again in 1271 with two Dominican friars (who gave up almost immediately) and young Marco. They arrived at Kubilai’s capital in northern China in 1274 or 1275, and Marco entered into service in the Mongol government, traveling widely through the empire for nearly twenty years. Although doubts have been raised about whether Marco actually did travel to China (or even existed), none of the doubts are well founded, and we can accept the picture he paints of his travels as largely accurate. He and the elder Polos left in the early 1290s, reaching Venice again in 1295.
While in a Genoese prison, Marco told his account to a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa, who tried to shape Marco’s largely utilitarian accounts of cities, goods, and travel routes into a tale of adventure and strange lands. The stylistic result is far from successful, but the book was nonetheless hugely popular in a Europe at the height of its medieval prosperity and eager for more information about the largely mysterious world around it. The text enjoyed widespread readership for several centuries, influencing explorers (including Christopher Columbus).
Selections from The Book of Ser Marco Polo, trans. Henry Yule (London, 1874), i, 241–60.