The Komneniad: Twenty Thousand Strong

May 13th, 1605
East of the Urals
Ortai tribal lands

“If you like, I will ride with you.”

“What good is that?” The Ortai chieftain spat. “The Cossacks come twenty thousand strong! Do you think yourself a hero out of legend, to conquer such a host alone?”

Akhilleus sighed. “No,” he said softly. “I was offering to ride for the honour of the Komnenoi. Not for victory.”

That for the honour of the Komnenoi. Where are the kataphrakts?”

The kataphrakts were in New Byzantium, ready to fight if the latent civil war should break out into the real thing; but the tribes could not be allowed to know that. Akhilleus went on the offensive. “Where are the Ortag riders? You live near the border; you are expected to deal with raids. For this reason we remit your tribute and send you weapons and horses. Riding in I saw a hundred great glossy beasts fresh from the Komnenoi stud. Cossack raids are no new thing in this land; have you not dealt with them before?”

“Yes. We have fought the Cossacks. We have fought the Ostyaks who lick Russian spittle. We have fought the gelded Voguls. All this is true; the Ortai are the finest warriors on the steppe, and we can deal with all these foes. But we cannot deal with the regular infantry of the Czar! The Cossacks are not alone; they brought artillery on their last raid. For the third time I ask you, man of the Komnenoi: Where are the kataphrakts? Where is the protection due to a loyal vassal?”

Akhilleus dropped his gaze. “I do not know, chief of the Ortai. I have not been told.” It would not do to speak truth: To say that New Byzantium had given up on fighting Russia, and had abandoned this western borderland to the eternal Cossack pressure. The Cossacks were pushed in turn by the Russian settlers and forts behind them, and they again were driven by the will of the Czar and the desire of second sons for estates and serfs of their own. Akhilleus thought that the Cossacks might not hold the trans-Ural for long after taking it from the Ortai; the steppes were wide, but there was no room in them for both settler and nomad. But to convince the Cossacks of such a thing was futile; and it would be thin comfort for the Ortai. So he said nothing, and did not meet the chief’s eyes.

“I see.” The chieftain straightened his back and took a deep breath. “Then the Komnenoi have failed in their obligations, and our treaty is broken. And I will act as I must, to save my people. Andrei! Come forth.”

A man stepped out of the darkness behind the chief’s chair; he smirked at Akhilleus, but spoke softly. “Yes? You will accept our offer, then?”

“I will. We will give bread and salt to you, the Czar’s envoy; and will hold our range of the Czar’s grace, and fight the Czar’s enemies. And we will hope that the Czar’s grace lasts, and does not turn to his settlers, when they have done with what were Cossack lands ten years past.” Akhilleus snorted mentally through his despair; the Ortai was no fool, just a man with no good choices. “But needs must when the Devil’s grandmother drives; and perhaps the horse will learn to sing. I renounce the service of the Komnenoi, and accept the yoke of the Czar. And therefore: Go hence, Komnenos envoy; you are no longer welcome in the lands of the Ortai.”

Akhilleus nodded silently, and turned to leave – then turned again, drawing his dagger as he moved with the blinding speed of the agoge. The weapon flew with unerring accuracy, landing in the Russian envoy’s eye; the envoy fell with the instant limpness that comes from massive brain trauma. For a long moment the chieftain stood frozen in surprise, staring wide-eyed at Akhilleus, who smiled bitterly. “Go on, chief of the Ortai. Explain to your new master how his envoy came to be dead, in your tent, after you had given him bread and salt and taken the Czar’s yoke. Who knows? Perhaps you will find him as forgiving as the Senate and the People of Rome. I wish you luck of the explanation, and joy of your new service.”

In truth it wasn’t that likely to cause trouble for the chief; the Czar had other envoys, after all, and would probably accept any explanation that involved a perfidious Komnenos killer. But it was the best Akhilleus had been able to come up with; and anyway it had wiped the damnable smug smirk off the Russian’s face. In the circumstances, Akhilleus felt quite pleased with that accomplishment; it might be his last, but by the God it was a satisfying one!

He turned again to run as the chief fumbled for a weapon and shouted for his warriors; if he could get to his horses he had a reasonable chance of making it out onto the vastness of the steppe, where a man could disappear. There were other tribes to be talked into futile resistance.

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The Komneniad: The Death of Hope

“How long, O Mikael, will you abuse our patience? How long shall we wait for victory? How long shall we send our sons to die on distant frontiers, and bury them for the quarrels of dead men?” Thus begin the Mikaeline Orations, hurled by Ioannes Angelidis at his rival Mikael Konstandis. (*) In so doing Ioannes was venting the feelings of a rising generation of Romans, who chafed at the sumptuary laws, the military discipline, and the austere customs of New Byzantium. They felt, not unreasonably, that if these generations-long sacrifices had failed to bring the long-sought Day of Victory, in which Rome would finally triumph over its enemies, then the Victory was probably not achievable. And if that were so, they asked, what was the use of each succeeding generation shouldering increasingly intolerable burdens?

In this rebellion against the fanatical devotion of previous years, the Hedonist faction (as their opponents, who came in contrast to be called Ascetics, labelled them) was aided by the widespread sense of disillusionment after the War of the Continents (1572-1580). There is a certain amount of irony in this, for the legions had in fact acquitted themselves well, advancing far into the Tibetan highlands and even scoring victories over the dreaded Russian armies. The Komnenoi, who had uncomplainingly borne a century of bitter defeats and ever-increasing preparations for the Next War, now lost their balance precisely when it seemed that all their hard work was being rewarded. Yet it is easy to understand why: For the Siberian and Tibetan fronts, into which the Romans yet again poured blood and treasure, were secondary theatres on the scale of the War of Continents; and when Bavarian resistance on the distant Oder collapsed, New Byzantium – victories or no victories – was forced to make peace.

Defeat was not new to the Roman people, and might have been met by renewed determination to resist, to sacrifice, and to struggle. But to win, to see sons and fathers come home safe and bringing with them the captured weapons of their foes, and then nevertheless be forced to make concessions at the peace table, because of battles lost by foreign peoples on the other side of the world – this, finally, was unbearable. The human spirit will take only so much; and the Roman state was not a dictatorship, with sacrifice and austerity enforced by secret police and informers. Its discipline rested on consensus and peer pressure, in keeping with its own self-image as a society of free citizens who just happened all to be fanatically devoted to the same goal. Now, at last, that dam broke. The extreme ‘consensus’ the Romans had maintained proved, in the end, to be brittle as glass. A few dissenters willing to brave the disapproving looks and the hushes were sufficient. In the end, the Romans really were free citizens of a republic: Once each one realised that they were not alone in resentment, once it was shown that such things could be spoken in public without the sky falling, established custom broke like a mirror under a sledgehammer. Bereaved parents openly admitted that they would rather have their sons back than public honour; veterans spoke of their outrage at seeing their sacrifices wasted.

The sumptuary laws were the first to go; it was impossible to enforce laws that half the population deliberately flouted. Their actual repeal was spearheaded by Ascetics who realised that restrictions on clothing and jewelry as such had become purely symbolic, and were willing to sacrifice the symbol in exchange for maintaining the substance of respect for the law. But this was just the initial skirmish. Next, a substantial body of young men refused to volunteer for military service. Here was a substantive issue, and one that could not be fought on the principle of written law; for the Komnenoi had made a point of not formally conscripting anyone. Military service was theoretically voluntary; it was enforced by custom, expectation, and the fact that no respectable family would marry its daughters to a man who had not served. But this line, too, fell with the instantness of ice cracking in the spring melt: When half a dozen families of equestrian rank announced the military strike together (some of them, it should be noted, quite ignoring that their sons actually wished to serve!) they could not all be ostracised – if nothing else, there were enough of them that they could simply intermarry among themselves, thus avoiding the final sanction. Again, the Ascetics yielded what they could not hold: They realised that they could not afford to split the Komnenoi into those whose sons served, and those who didn’t. Thus they retreated to the higher ground of Roman unity and one rule for all, hoping that in time the bitterest disappointment would fade and military service would regain its near-compulsory character.

In this they were not to be wholly disappointed; for the fact remained that the Roman Khanate was surrounded on all sides by aggressive powers, and that Roman rule was in the final analysis maintained by force. A state which included a crumbling frontier with such a power as Russia, which had to defend against raids out of the Tibetan highlands, and whose own subject peoples regarded horse-stealing as a cross between national pastime and the only proper way to make a living, could not become pacifist. But neither could the high tension of previous decades, the instant readiness to drop everything and wage total war with every man, horse, and speck of gunpowder, be recaptured. The Komnenoi had asked too much of themselves, and the younger generation repudiated the aim of vengeance against Persia (and Russia, and Tibet…) with an almost audible sigh of relief.

Yet it was one thing to end the custom of public fanaticism; it was quite another to decide what was actually to be done. The Roman state still faced intractable border problems and powerful enemies; when even victory in the field was insufficient, what course should the state take? In these circumstances, combined with the sudden loosening of all the old austere customs, it is not surprising that many in New Byzantium turned to the opposite end of the spectrum; as always in times of great uncertainty, “eat and drink and be merry” was a popular slogan, “for tomorrow we may die”. True decadence was not to be achieved in a few short years, but by the standards of 1560, New Byzantium in 1580 was one with Sodom and Gomorrah – nor did there lack Ascetics to predict that it would soon be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Nor, perhaps, were their predictions entirely unjustified. What would be the fate of a second-rank power in the face of Russian expansion and Tibetan imperialism? Militarism had failed to provide an answer; but those who rebelled against complete submission to the State had no positive policy to put in its place. Not for nothing did the peace treaty, formally the Treaty of Jaipur, come to be known in New Byzantium as the Death of Hope.

(*) Since the Greek population at New Byzantium are all considered ‘Komnenoi’ whatever their actual bloodline (and through interbreeding they are most of them descended in part from one of the male Komnenoi who joined the Long March), they have taken up patronymics to distinguish men of the same given name.


Some battles of the War of the Continents. First, Roman legions crushing Russian armies. Roman victoglory, yeah!


Then, Tibet. Terrain malus be damned!

Kuruk Tag

It worked, too. Tibet lacks the manpower to really fight a war of attrition. But as you can see from the peace discussion, it didn’t really matter by this stage.


Tibet’s armies were collapsing at this stage. Unfortunately Bavaria surrendered first.


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The Komneniad: Flowing Like Water

Children of the fertile lands often think of the Khanate in terms of steppe, of grassland: A featureless plain, stretching boringly empty to the horizon, with only the occasional herd of horses to lend it interest. And it is true, even in a land that stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific, that much of it is taken up by such plateaus; and it is not unknown for outsiders to find the sight of them disorienting to the point of dizziness – even to fall down in vertigo at the complete lack of any reference point, and to cry out in joy at the tiniest stunted tree or the most minor rise in the ground.

Georgos of the Komnenoi knows better. In his twenty years, he has thrice ridden the circuit from New Byzantium to the Caspian Sea; he has seen all that the Khanate has to offer. Mountains to rival any in the world, deep forests that stretch for hundreds of miles, lakes larger than some bodies of water that the untravelled call ‘seas’, and, yes, miles upon miles of steppe and taiga. And even within the steppe proper, as he would point out if anyone asked, there is endless variety, and no lack of feature: The tiny changes of hue that signal water nearby, the little dust-puffs that herald a storm, the fields of gopher holes that riders must avoid lest a horse’s leg be broken. The idea of a featureless plain would be incomprehensible to him, who has lived in it all his years.

If the endless stretch of dry grass is a false image, what then of the other thing that most outsiders know about the Khanate: That its rulers, the Komnenoi, burn for vengeance and a return to Rome? Is that also a mirage, an unfair simplification? A fair question; but in turning from geography and biology to the motivations of men, we enter the realms of the subtle, the labyrinthine, and the hard-to-answer. Turning again to Georgos, we find that, of a certainty, he hates the Persians with a passion, and will gladly tell you so if you ask him. Along with the others of his tribe, he cries full-throatedly “Death to Persia” at the yearly recital of the wrongs done to the Romans and not yet repaid; is not this the custom? (And is it not a rare man who will break the custom of his tribe, whatever the strength of his own feelings?) And yet – it is also true that Georgos has never in his life seen a Persian, and that, if he should meet one, he is too much the warrior – conscious always of the nearness of death – to draw his weapons and kill without provocation, as his ritual shouts might imply.

For, if the truth were told, the Komnenoi have closer enemies, these days, than far-off Persia. There is no Roman now living whose grandfathers fought at Jvris Ugheltekhili, though a few grey-bearded ancients can recall hearing tales of the Long March from men who spent their childhoods on the trail. As for doomed Nicaea, or the still-more-distant towers of the City of Men’s Desire, they are as well remembered and as much thought of as lost Troy and seven-hilled Rome. Over such a gulf of time – a single century! – human purpose flows like water. The men who fled Anatolia shone with diamond-edged, flame-forged will; in them the single dominant urge was to return to their lost estates, and their every effort bent to that all-consuming idea. Their sons were willing enough to conquer a steppe realm, to become a power in the land, “for the purpose of defeating Persia”; when have men been unwilling to fight for wealth and fame? And their sons, in turn… proved willing to administer what they had won, to work as judges and soldiers and advisors to the tribes that acknowledge Komnenoi sovereignty, and to build upon their fathers’ legacy. And to shout “Death to Persia” once a year is no great trouble, and men need rituals almost as much as they need bread and salt; if ritual is all that remains of the once-heartfelt outpouring of hate… well, there is nobody now alive to remember the terror of fleeing from Persian armies with only what you could carry on your back, and notice the difference.

Georgos of the Komnenoi claims, with pride, to be a citizen of Rome, and he is well suited to his station. Can he not ride and shoot and wield the lance with the best of his generation? Has he not thrice ridden the circuit, and given judgements in the disputes of the tribes that have been upheld even in the High Court at New Byzantium? Has he not learned by heart the text of the Three Great Grievances, and recited them to shouting crowds at the yearly celebrations? These are the not the accomplishments of a common tribesman, of the merely equestrian ranks; Georgos is the son of a Senator, and will himself become a Senator in turn. The forms are observed at New Byzantium, the traditions of millennia are maintained, although the content is changed nearly beyond recognition. But as for riding to war with Persia to avenge the Long March, it is not likely. The Khanate has no border with Persia, and a grudge cannot be kept burning for a hundred years, when there is no source of fresh oppression to keep it hot.

And yet men do not like to be inconsistent, to have their deeds not match their words. True, Georgos bears no personal animosity towards any Aryan noble, however much his mother frightened him as a child with those terrible bogeymen. He has fought Russians, Germans, and rebel tribes; for these he can muster a healthy sense of vengeance, of desiring retribution for dead comrades and hard days. If you asked him to list the reasons he might go to war, the slow, steady push of Russian settlements from the west would come up in his mind before the long-ago conquest of Anatolia.┬áBut a man who shouts “Death to Persia” and can recite the Three Great Grievances does not need much of an excuse for war, if even a slight opportunity presents itself – he already has one ready made. Georgos does not feel such hatred for Persia as his great-grandfather did, that he would make war for its own sake, as a point of vengeance. But his ritual is not empty; it cannot be. Let there be even a small thing to be gained from such a war, and Georgos will go to with a will.

The pure flame of vengeance cannot burn for centuries. But even its ashes are poisonous seeds for war.

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The Komneniad: Break for Statistics

So as an addition to Oddman’s statistics and commentary, I thought it would be interesting to see where people are getting their trade income, or to put it differently, who is screwing exploiting enlightening through the free exchange of goods and ideas whom.

Ahem. Each row in this table shows the sources of the trade income of one human tag. For example, Croatia is getting 259 yearly from trade within Croatia itself; 69 from English COTs; 578 from Spanish COTs; and so on. So, if you wanted to find out which countries could do you the most damage by an embargo, you would look down the left side until you found your tag, then go along the row looking for high numbers. Conversely, if you wanted to see which nations you have by the short hairs in the sense of being able to damage their income, you look along the top row until you find your tag, then look down your column for high numbers. So we see that the Khanate, for example, is effectively invulnerable to embargos, which should not surprise anyone since I have practically no trade income anyway. My main trading partner is my own COT at Jasagdu, closely followed by my ally Qin. Conversely the nation I could do most damage to is Tibet, which gains 152 ducats yearly from my single COT; not a huge amount, as Tibet is well diversified.

Some general observations:

  • Europeans trade mainly with Europeans and Asians with Asians, but there is more exploitation enlightenment going from Europe to Asia than vice-versa, as is only to be expected.
  • If Croatia were cut off from all European trade (except its own COT) it would lose 802 ducats, or about half its trading income; if cut off from all Asian COTs, it would lose 592 ducats, about one-third.
  • The biggest traders are the most powerful nations, Germany and Spain; no surprises there.
  • In absolute terms, the shortest and curliest hairs are possessed by Spain, which could lose a whopping 758 ducats yearly if Bavaria cuts it off; it could retaliate almost as effectively, by embargoing 720 ducats’ income for Bavaria. However, in each case this represents only one-fifth of the total trading revenue of each state; in relative terms, USA has a better grip on Quebec, with almost half the latter state’s trading revenue coming from US COTs. If we stick to major traders, the best relative grips are Spain’s on Croatia, about one-third; and Bavaria’s on England, another third-or-so.
  • Persia does surprisingly badly on trade, worse even than Novgorod, which is ignoring trade as a deliberate strategy, the better to concentrate on the army. Gujarat also seems surprisingly backward on this point. When the likes of the Khanate, with the worst trade tech in the game, has four times your trading income, you know you’re Doing It Wrong.
  • Khmer, Punjab, and Malaysia are all artifically suppressed by being subbed/ghosted this past session.
  • Tibet does very well, best among the ROTW nations, and is also very diversified, getting no more than one-sixth of its income from any one nation.
  • The Caliphate (TRP) has a reasonable trade income overall, but almost all of it is from domestic COTs.

ETH 171 0 0 51 100 0 0 44 0 0 0 0 0 0 63 0 0 0 0 428 ETH
TIB 165 172 0 83 164 0 35 0 191 0 0 0 0 0 20 152 107 118 0 1209 TIB
QUE 0 0 168 0 0 144 0 0 0 0 0 19 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 332 QUE
PUN 0 0 0 31 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 31 PUN
TRP 84 0 0 0 435 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 519 TRP
USA 0 0 159 0 0 228 0 0 0 0 0 214 239 0 0 0 0 0 0 840 USA
JAP 0 10 0 0 0 0 88 0 38 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 21 0 0 157 JAP
KON 216 0 0 0 127 0 0 217 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 128 688 KON
QIN 0 131 0 0 0 0 0 0 255 0 0 0 0 0 0 23 82 0 0 491 QIN
CRO 0 111 0 0 57 0 151 0 70 259 69 0 578 98 0 131 23 0 106 1652 CRO
ENG 0 0 109 0 194 188 0 0 154 73 147 629 257 208 0 0 0 216 0 2174 ENG
BAV 0 0 296 0 262 0 174 0 214 198 159 783 720 225 101 0 0 293 98 3521 BAV
CAT 291 0 329 0 292 340 194 0 0 88 177 758 962 0 0 0 0 326 0 3759 CAT
NOV 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 184 0 0 0 0 0 184 NOV
PER 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 74 0 0 0 0 74 PER
KHA 0 46 0 44 0 0 0 0 95 0 0 0 0 0 0 101 0 0 0 285 KHA
KHM 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 47 0 0 47 KHM
MSA 0 0 0 14 0 0 0 0 20 154 0 237 86 0 0 131 0 204 0 846 MSA
GUJ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 70 70 GUJ
TOT 928 470 1062 224 1631 900 642 261 1036 771 552 2640 2842 714 259 538 280 1157 401 0 TOT

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The Komneniad: The Young Men

The first step in recovering Rome, obviously, was to fight my way across the Urals to the Caspian sea, against Persia. I tried doing so. It did not go well.

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The Komneniad: The Long March

To understand how the Komnenoi united the steppe tribes they passed on their Long March, it is first necessary to understand the nature of what they built, and in particular, what it was not. Specifically, it was not a territorial state as understood in the rest of Eurasia. Mapmakers in China and India might bring out their biggest brushes, and paint a vast swathe of Asia – up to a twelfth of the land surface of the Earth – in Roman purple. But this did not indicate, as to-all-appearances-similar expanses of dye did in other places, the existence of the heavy infrastructure of civilisation: Roads, canals, fortresses, walled cities. Nor yet did it indicate the less visible parts of an empire: There were no tax collectors, garrisons of regular soldiers, official records of ownership or marriage or inheritance, or state church. Of the four armies that other nations considered essential to stability – a standing army of soldiers, a sitting army of bureaucrats, a kneeling army of priests, and a crawling army of informers – the Komnenoi kept only the first; and even then, since that army in effect consisted of every Roman male of fighting age, it was not a regular army as that term is understood in countries based on the ownership of land.

The new Roman state, then, was in one sense the most fragile of constructs: It existed only in the minds of men. In particular, the state consisted of the continuing choice of a thousand tribal chieftains, in consultation with their foremost warriors, to remain loyal. Now to an extent this is true of all states; even the worst tyrant must, at a minimum, keep the loyalty of his inmost circle, at least to the extent that they do not draw their weapons and kill him while discussing the fate of a million peasants. But in the Komnenos Khanate this fact was exaggerated to absurd lengths. Any chieftain, if he found a yearly tribute onerous, or a levy of horses or fighting men inconvenient, or even if he merely disliked the manners of the envoy sent to treat with him, might simply remove himself a thousand miles, or ten thousand, into the trackless steppe, bringing his herds and fighting men with him; and what then was a central authority to do? True, good grazing and fertile oases are not found everywhere on the steppe, and most tribes recognise at least a rough division into traditional ranges; so the power of the chiefs to resist unwelcome demands of the state was not completely without limit. But it was far greater than that possessed by anyone whose wealth and power depended on farmland. Even a great feudal magnate, who behind strong castle walls could defy – for years on end – the armies of his king, could still have his fields burned or confiscated, and find himself impoverished even though plague or invasion might lift the siege and force a reconciliation.

How, then, did the Komnenoi build a state from the disparate and fractious steppe nomads, and a state, at that, which militarily was a match for anciently civilised and densely settled powers such as China? First, we must note that humans habitually form hierarchies, and the nomad tribes were no exception; by long-standing custom the chief of one tribe or another was recognised as Khagan, and thus exercised at least nominal hegemony. The office was rarely hereditary, shifting with fluctuations in the herds and the fighting tails of each tribe, and there was not always complete agreement on just which leader was Khagan; but there existed, at any rate, the rudiments of a supertribal framework; it was not necessary to introduce the very concept of hegemony – Genghis and Tamerlane, although defeated in their European campaigns, had managed at least that much.

Second, although they had fled Anatolia with only what they could carry, in nomad terms the Romans were actually quite wealthy. Specifically, they owned several thousand excellent horses, in addition to a great quantity of iron weaponry, armour – and cookpots! True, these goods were effectively irreplaceable, and in using them the Romans were expending capital, not income – but the point remains that they had a great deal of capital, by the impoverished standards of the steppes. The five thousand trained kataphrakts that were all that remained of the legions were an immense advance in striking power and even tactical mobility over what an average nomad tribe, or even a dozen tribes together, could muster. Iron weaponry and armour against bone and leather; immense grain-fed cavalry horses [*] against scrubby ponies; and a system of discipline that did not rely on the bonds of family and clan – these all added up to make the Komnenoi a formidable force, easily capable of overcoming any tribe or any coalition of tribes that could be mustered quickly. Of course it is ridiculous to suppose, as some writers have done, that five thousand cavalrymen might have overcome the combined forces of the steppe tribes; but now the lack of state infrastructure cut the other way, for who was going to raise such a coalition? There was always some line of fracture, some blood feud or grudge or vendetta, for the single most powerful military force to take advantage of.

Third, and perhaps most powerful (for this war of unification, ultimately, was waged in the hearts of men more than on the field of battle) the Romans offered a unifying ideology. The nomad tribes had always practiced a rough egalitarianism as far as adult males were concerned; but Roman propaganda – and it must be remembered that the practice of organised propaganda for state purposes was also new on the steppes, and the tribes had no acquired immunity to it – raised the equality of fighting men to the level of an overarching claim to superiority over the settled peoples. The Komnenoi claimed that Rome had been destroyed because it espoused the equal freedom of all citizens, which was to say all men able to bear arms; that the nomads were now the last bastion of this ancient principle; and that it was the duty of all to keep alive the fragile flame of liberty against the slave empires that would impose feudalism or, worse, bureaucracy on everyone. This brilliant piece of manipulation was carefully calculated to appeal to every faction on the steppes, from the Cossacks of the Russian border, whose founding myth involved fleeing from serfdom, to the half-sinicized Mongols of the far east, who had a long and resentful history of Chinese scholar-poet-officials attempting to impose Confucian ideals upon them. To assert the brotherhood of Rome – the epitome of agricultural empires, and the home of mass chattel slavery! – with the nomads who had sacked so many of its cities was, in the words of one historian, “too awesomely mendacious to fail”; however that may be, the nomads united almost as fast as Alexandros could march his refugees past their territories.

This is not to say that the feat was accomplished entirely without fighting; some tribal federations did resist, and some indeed maintained their resistance for decades and centuries, on the marginal subarctic edges of the steppe – tolerated by the Komnenoi partly as a demonstration that fighting men really did have freedom, not merely the freedom to submit to Rome; and partly because subduing them would be more trouble than it was worth. After all there is steppe and steppe; the Komnenoi and their network of tributary allies commanded the best grazing, the fertile oases, the convenient caravan routes – in short, such sedentary wealth as the steppe offers. Reducing every last marginal borderland to formal obedience was quite unnecessary.

The travails of the Long March rapidly became a founding legend of the new Rome, told – even while the marchers were alive, in some cases – in the same tones used for recounting the story of Romulus and Remus. But it is worth noting that the legend does not, with a few exceptions, focus on battles; the Romans overcome hostile weather, mountain ranges, endless distances, and internal dissent, but after Jvris Ugheltekhili, few external enemies.

So much for the unification itself; we may also ask, how was the fragile structure of loyalty maintained? As noted, the heavy cavalry horses and iron weaponry of the Komnenoi were capital, to be husbanded carefully and expended reluctantly. Like any successful and wealthy warband, they attracted recruits from other tribes, mounted and armed more traditionally, and thus rapidly constructed their own swarm of light cavalry to supplement the kataphrakts and infantry. But while this was a welcome addition to their strength, it was, ultimately, the same means that previous Khagans had used to maintain their hegemony – in other words, if the heavy cavalry were allowed to attrite away, the Romans would become just another pony-mounted tribe, susceptible to the usual generational shifts in the Khaganate. To introduce a unifying ideology was one thing, but to make unification under the Komnenoi stick, it was necessary to maintain a strong military advantage against any likely combination of tribes.

To do so, the Romans took for their territory the doubtful lands surrounding the Great Wall of China, where nomad and farmer had pushed the frontier of settlement back and forth for millennia. This area does not offer the best sweet grazing, and the climate is atrocious even by the hard standards of the steppe, and thus no tribe was mortally offended by its seizure. However, the main concern was access to the two crucial goods the Romans needed to maintain their military edge: Iron and grain. With China split by dynastic revolt, the Romans could offer a bargain to the northmost tier of cities: Protection from nomad raids, in exchange for a tribute of the products of civilisation – in particular, the iron weapons and the feed required to keep the kataphrakt tradition alive.

The Komnenoi were, for a short period, something altogether new in the world: A nomad tribe with some of the trappings of civilisation, in particular a splendid heavy cavalry. Under the leadership of Alexandros, they exploited this uniqueness ruthlessly: They positioned themselves perfectly between nomad and settler, gaining strength from both sides – nomad light cavalry for scouting and skirmishing, and settler grain and iron to maintain a core of heavy cavalry that allowed them to overawe the nomads. Thus each part of their strength supported the other, a closed virtuous cycle. No other tribe could have done it, because no other tribe had the initial capital of horses and heavy-cavalry training (a very different set of skills from light-cavalry skirmishing) required; and no other band of settlers would have done it, because it required abandoning homes and cities for the harsh life of a nomadic tribe. When Alexandros announced that his winter camp would lie in the shadow of the Great Wall that separates and unites nomad and farmer, the symbolism was clear to all.

[*] These were something of a double-edged sword, for unlike nomad ponies they could not survive by grazing alone; the Romans dealt with this by marching along the southern border of the steppes, where they could buy grain from the edge of cultivation.

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The Komneniad

I ought to have posted this last week, as it chronologically precedes “Marching Through Georgia”. Think of it as a prequel.

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