The Komneniad: Narrow Victories

Intuitively it seems strange to call the steppe front ‘narrow'; what could be wider than the broad, treeless plain? And it is true that there was no lack of room for the armies to maneuver; the steppe front never bogged down into grinding trench warfare as happened in the Caucasus. But sheer space was not the only reason for this elbow room; for the steppes were narrow in the sense that neither combatant could engage there with the full strength they were theoretically capable of putting in the field. Moreover, due to the existence and ‘neutrality’ of tiny Kokand, a tribal statelet which had for centuries maintained a nominal independence by a careful balance of public allegiance to the Czar, private reminders that the Khanate would be delighted to have additional allies, and having no resources worth annexing, there were actually two steppe fronts, one arctic and one subarctic. Both Rome and Russia considered violating its neutrality, but rejected the idea. In the first case this was because of the danger of bringing Germany, nominally a Russian ally, into the war; in the second case because the last thing the Russian high command needed was still another place to scrape up an army for, whatever the immediate tactical advantages.

For Russia, then, beset on four fronts and hard pressed everywhere, the steppe front was one of the few bright spots, or at least less dim than the deadly fighting in the Caucasus and Ukraine. The Khanate, on the other hand, found the situation immensely frustrating. Recruiting from wealthy Korea and populous China, the Legions had grown to an immense size, with peacetime ration strengths counted in millions. But what was the good of that, when the railroads to the fighting front could keep only a fraction of that strength supplied? The thirty years since the Russian War of 1893 had changed war immensely. The railroads, built originally to allow the scattered tribesmen to bring their herds to market in the east, were well enough, if slightly strained, for armies whose main weapon remained the bolt-action rifle. They were completely inadequate for a war of machine guns, heavy artillery, and armoured vehicles. The Komnenoi thus found themselves with the strongest army they had ever fielded, the hated Russians standing at bay with enemies on every side, and no way of bringing their full strength to bear!

The small part of the Khanate’s strength that could be supplied was, nonetheless, sufficient to drive the Russian front back over several hundred miles; but there was no rupture, no break in the Russian line of resistance through which a million men could drive for the Urals, as certainly would have happened if even half the Legions could have been brought to bear on the relatively weak Russian defenders. Indeed, even if there had been such a breach, it could not have been supplied.

Considered, then, as a war to finally bring the vengeance of Rome down on the hereditary enemy – and that was the way it had been sold to the public – the Caucasian War, as it became known after its most famous campaign, was something of a failure. The much vaunted Kataphrakts, as armoured vehicles were inevitably called in Greek, proved unreliable in steppe conditions: The distances defeated them in summer, and in winter they frequently would not even start without hours of being thawed over open fires. Much to their surprise, the Komnenoi found themselves calling up nomad allies mounted on sturdy ponies, which even if they weren’t armoured did at least retain mobility even in snow. The Russians were no better off; nobody had fought a modern war in Siberian winter, and everyone had all the lessons to learn. Lubricants that did not freeze, insulated engine blocks, wide tracks, electric heating coils – all this had to be thought of, engineered, manufactured, and brought to the front over railroads already inadequate to their task. Meanwhile the war was fought in the old way, with wide cavalry sweeps pinning the enemy until the infantry and heavy guns could be brought up. Against such armies as the Russians could spare for a fourth front, it sufficed. But there was no glory in it; and there were none of the sweeping advances and thousand-mile running battles that the theorists of the Εθνικής Ενότητας had spoken of before the war.

The peace treaty, when it came, also proved a disappointment. The border moved several hundred miles towards the Urals, and with the annexation of Kokand the last vestige of tribal independence was snuffed out. In earlier centuries, when the Czars had been driving for the Pacific and the Khanate had fought savagely merely to keep the crumbling frontier, such a treaty would have been hailed as a great victory. Now it was received almost as a defeat; there were riots in New Byzantium after the terms had been read. The National Unity party, widely seen as the architects of the war, were discredited and in consequence became all the more radicalised, in a classic case of evaporative heating. Conversely, the Party for Peace and Progress, led by Georgos Ioánnou, tripled the number of its Electors after what came to be called the Nika Election, reaching almost half the size it had had when it was called the Industry Party and did not advocate an unpopular pacifism.

These internal tensions, and their counterparts in Ethiopia, partly explain why the long-expected war against threatening German hegemony did not materialise in the twenties. The Kongolese might remonstrate and bluster, but they were no longer in a position to stand alone against the behemoth of Europe; and both Rome and Ethiopia were, in the opinions of their respective leaders, simply too divided to risk another great war so soon. In the absence of action, the painfully-built alliance fell into disuse; like any large-scale international structure, entropy was against it, and constant work required to maintain it – work which was not forthcoming, as two of its three major Powers turned isolationist after their expensive, narrow victories. The cynical calculation of the German government in not coming to the aid of their erstwhile ally was, thus, richly rewarded; while Russia, smarting from the loss of border areas but retaining its vital industries and major populations, sought its opportunity for revenge.

– From The Road to War: Eurasian Diplomacy 1921-1941,
Adam Tewksbury,
Deutsch-Anglische Informations-Presse, (C) 1967.

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The Komneniad: Bloody Shirts

June 23rd, 1918
A villa in New Byzantium
Late afternoon

Ave, Nika!

The chanted slogan, shouted by ten thousand deep male voices, resounded down the brick alleys. Even here, a full mile from the stadium and through windows shuttered against the summer heat, you could not avoid hearing it, though it lacked the mind-shattering force of being in the epicenter. It droned out with near-metronomic regularity, whenever the speaker, inaudible here, paused in his cadences.

“Fucking Lysandros,” one of the silent men around the table said at last. The obscenity had become a mantra to them over the campaign, wavering uneasily between in-joke, curse, and prayer; now it signalled the beginning of business, a nearly ritual invocation.

“Fuck him, yeah, but what are we going to do about it now? Election’s over, we lost. Go home, get drunk. Pray.” Kleitos didn’t look up as he spoke, directing his remarks to the table, Ethiopian mahogany inlaid with ivory. Kleitos had two sons in the Legions.

“Pretty shortly you’ll be able to pray at the shrine of Lysandros,” Eusebius said. “Fucking Lysandros! If that goddamn assassin hadn’t – “

“Yes, yes,” Leonidas interjected impatiently. The assassination was an obsession of Eusebius’s – of them all, really, but Eusebius was the only one who spoke of it regularly. Still Georgos felt his mind whirl down the old familiar path. Lysandros had turned the Forum around with his speech; Lysandros had been shot; Lysandros’s last words had been of justice against Russia; Lysandros had given the war party everything it needed, and then died, making it impossible to argue with him. Fucking Lysandros. The assassin had been a Roman subject, some disgruntled survivor of the Rising and the labour camps; but what was the use of mere truth, against a demagogue who had an actual, literal bloody shirt to wave around at his rallies? He shook himself; the thought was ancient, useless. Had he no new thoughts in him? Perhaps the maura poukamisa were right after all, that the Komnenoi families had grown tired and old, that fresh blood was needed.

“There will be war,” Georgos said at last. The others quieted to listen to him; he was still their leader, for whatever leadership of the Industry Party was worth these days. “It can’t be helped now. Well then, we have lost this round, this decade; but there comes another. This is Rome, after all. Surely if three thousand years of history are good for anything, it is to show that there’s always another decade. So. This war will kill a hundred thousand men; half a million, if Germany comes in. That’ll curb their enthusiasm; and we’ll be there to pick up the pieces. The tumult and the shouting dies, and what happens? The border moves, ten miles, a hundred miles; and the ancient problem is still there. How shall men live in peace with each other?”

He paused. They were listening, rapt; not lost in their private bitternesses anymore, but lifted out of themselves. Had he finally found the words? Perhaps the defeat had been necessary, if it brought him this inspiration; all his life he had struggled to express the ideas that flowed so easily now.

“Once, Roman soldiers killed a man who had taught nothing but peace; and the echoes of that vast mistake are still reverberating. To kill a man who taught nothing but war – well, the event made its splash, no doubt, and there will be shrines built and there will be men who call him a bodhisattva… but they will be wrong, that’s all; and in the end the truth comes through. There will be a stroppy little cult of blood and war, strutting its hour – its decade – on the stage; and in the end it will be sound and fury, signifying nothing, and the vastness of Truth will encompass it all, and erase it as though it had never been.”

Georgos felt his own words rush through him like cool water, clearing out the petty bitterness, the filthy grudges of party politics; in their wake was calm. Was this a vision? He felt uplifted, exalted; this was the speech he had been trying to give since he first entered politics. It was almost a pity that it should be given here, to these few friends – but no; he knew with calm certainty that the words would come to him again, that he would speak these truths to listening thousands.

“We have been defeated, today and for many days to come; but not for all days. Let our defeat be our lesson, then. We have erred; we have tried to compromise with the dragon War, have sought influence among the Senate and the People by the accepted methods; have sent our sons out to kill. There is our mistake. Peace can make no compromise with war. We have sought tactical advantage – ha, there’s a phrase! – at the expense of principle. We must do so no longer; we must abandon all thought of showing the Komnenoi their error by their own methods. Kleitos, your sons must resign their commissions, or their party memberships.” Kleitos nodded gratefully, tears in his eyes. He had fought in the Persian war; the thought of his sons doing the same had driven him to distraction. Yet there was no path to power in Rome, except through the Legions; and so he had seen them take the oath, and swallowed his despair.

“Eusebius: We will speak no more of `fucking Lysandros'; he was a man, that’s all, and no spirit or devil sent to torment us. Leonidas: We will publish no more accusatory pamphlets. The party may become smaller, but it will be the better for it.”

He looked at them challengingly, but they nodded, offering no resistance, and he went on. “It is said that the last word of Lysandros was ‘Russia’, but that is not true. I was there, and I heard. It was ‘justice’. Perhaps he was wise, in the last fading seconds of his long life. Between justice and war there is, in the long run, no middle ground. Let us cleave to justice, then; and in the end truth will prevail. And truth will make us free.”

Through the windows, faintly now, came again the roar of the crowd at the stadium; “Ave, Nika! Ave, Nika!”

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The Komneniad: Final Speech

May 1st, 1911
Forum Romanum, New Byzantium

The crowd – for you could not very well refer to the sovereign People, as in “Senate and People of Rome”, as a ‘mob'; it wouldn’t be polite – growled, and Lysandros smiled cynically. Two years ago the same crowd, indeed many of the same men, had hailed him Saviour of the State and voted him a corona aurea. Now he was their scapegoat for the riots in China, and when he rose to speak the sound of their displeasure was like a lion the size of a mountain. It was intimidating, and meant to be. In all the world there was perhaps nothing so dangerous as a thousand angry human males. Yet there was nothing the lictors could do; no man had made a threat or offered violence. There was only the rumble of discontent, all the more threatening for being without a specific source.

Lysandros waited patiently for the sound to subside; the powerful amplifiers mounted all around the Forum allowed even an old man’s voice to override the grumble, but he intended to demonstrate that he was in control of the debate. If his enemies actually intended to break the law and attack a Senator speaking to the Forum, let them do so; every second the incipient mob failed to actually charge the thin line of lictors and tear Lysandros limb from limb underscored the emptiness of their threat.

Only when the point was well made and the Forum was quiet did Lysandros speak. “I thank the Forum for its courtesy; my words have been long considered,” he began, the formal invocation of a Senator speaking to the Forum. “My right honourable friend has ably laid down for us the charges brought against me. He alleges that I have intentionally caused wars between Rome and Russia, and between Rome and Persia, knowing that these wars could not be brought to a victorious conclusion, but intending to gain experience for the Legions in conditions of modern warfare. He has shown letters addressed to certain of my friends, obtained, I have no doubt, merely by asking nicely, in which the writer – who signs himself with my name – outlines such a plan, estimating the actual casualties of the wars of 1893 and 1896 rather precisely, and saying that this is regrettable but necessary to deal with the true enemy, Communist China. He further gives us the sworn testimony of an unnamed Tribune of the Legions, saying that on such and such a date I revealed to him that this had been my reason for fighting Persia.”

“Now he asks, and it is his undoubted right to ask, do I deny these charges? Do I admit that the half-a-million casualties of the wars of the 1890s are to be laid on my shoulders, and that my reason for causing them was not any honourable quarrel with the Czar or the Shah, but instead my desire to destroy the Communists of China? And if I deny it, then how do I account for the evidence laid before the Forum?”

“My answer is simple: I shall deny nothing; I shall defend my actions.” Lysandros paused to let the ripple of startlement pass through the Forum. “Of what, after all, am I accused? My opponents have gathered a nice bundle of epithets: Warmongering is a favourite.” There was a shout of “Damn right!” from the back rows, and Lysandros sent a quelling glance that way. “You honourable gentlemen had your turn to talk, now it is mine; that is what we call Debate.”

“Warmonger, that is the word. Well, what does that mean? It means I worked to place the Roman Khanate into a state of war. This is perfectly true. It is also no crime. It is my duty, as it is every citizen’s duty, to untiringly work towards any war that I think will, on balance, advance the interests of the State. I thought the war necessary, and therefore it was as much my duty zealously to advance it as it is a centurion’s duty to fight and, perhaps, die when war is declared. These are the duties that the State assigns to her citizens, Senator and soldier alike; and we must all meet them. Warmonger? Very well, I accept the title; I wear it proudly.”

“There is a certain trend of thought in the world today, which holds that the very act of declaring war is itself a crime, and that those who see wars as necessary are therefore criminals. Perhaps, in the Final Judgement, that will be so. But no such law is on the books of any nation; and on this Earth we can do no better than to advance the State by the means which mortal judgement give us. Either the Senate and the People of Rome are sovereign, in fact the only legitimate sovereignty and authority in the world, or they are not. If they are not, then all these proceedings are farce, the barking of buffoons with delusions of grandeur; we should, in such a case, each of us immediately surrender to whatever may be the true and sovereign authority, and beg that justice be tempered with mercy. If they are sovereign, then they have the power to declare war and make peace, to conclude binding treaties, to raise armies and contract alliances, according only to their own good judgement of their necessities. If that is the case, then war may be regrettable, but it is no crime, and no such charge may be lawfully brought in this or any other court.”

Lysandros paused to gauge the reaction to his words. His “right honourable friend”, a Senator named Georgos, was looking pained; the men around him were to various degrees annoyed and surprised. It seemed his defense had caught them by surprise; good. The electors standing in the Forum itself seemed by turns surprised and thoughtful; even better. To appeal to the rule of law combined with the sovereignty of the Roman state was to reference some of the most famous moments in Komnenoi history; it brought into play schoolboy history and national legend. Add the flattery of that empty phrase by which the People declared itself, not only sovereign, but the sole legitimate sovereign – a point which was sure to cause a flurry of diplomatic protests and make every non-Roman newspaper in the world squeal in outrage, but that couldn’t be helped – and he had them, not in the palm of his hand, but at least stopped and thinking about what he said rather than emoting angrily about it. Nonetheless, a dry legalism wouldn’t get him out of this scrape; he would have to tackle the main issue head on.

“We may dispense, then, with the charge of starting the war. It is neither disputed, nor relevant, nor yet a lawful indictment. We come instead to the epithet of ‘deceiver'; to the charge that I hid my true motives from the Senate and the People, and led them into war on false premises. Let me remind the Forum of the good and just reasons that the Governments of 1891 and 1893 gave for their respective declarations of war: In 1891, that the so-called trans-Ural territories of Russia are, in fact, the occupied cis-Ural territories of Rome, seized by the unjustified aggression of the Czars. And in 1893, that Persia had violated the borders of our ally Punjab, and also that the Shahs had broken solemn promises for the good treatment of Christians within their borders – a point of particular interest to Rome, which once in fact and even now in justice rules those areas. Those reasons are good and valid ones. They held much weight in the minds of the then Electors and Senators; or if they did not, if the avowed reasons for the declaration of war were not what the Senate and the People said they were, then all Romans are guilty alike. I believed then, and I believe now, that our avowed causae belli were just and weighty, and that there was a fair chance of achieving our aims. The chances of the battlefield were against us; but that is hindsight. At the time, it seemed that we might enforce our rule over large areas of the barbaricum. For such a cause any Roman should be prepared to die, if necessary. If, in addition, there were reasons which were not given emphasis in public debate; if there were points that might be added to those that were already sufficient for such a weighty decision as war – why then, so much the better.”

He paused again, enjoying the look of fury on Georgos’s face and the tenseness in the Forum as men became, almost against their will, caught up in the cadence of his argument. They were ready now, he thought, for his clincher, the closing that would see him walk out of the Forum with his power intact or improved, and Georgos’s reputation for finding the weakest point to slide his dagger into ruined. “All that I have said so far are points of law, or of justice. But there is one more tribunal to which I would appeal; namely, that of results. It is alleged that I caused bloody wars in order to gain experience for the Legions, so that they might overthrow Communist China. Well then, if it is so… I suggest to the honourable Forum that I got you China. If men have died for my decisions, and they have; if blood is on my hands, and it is; then still they did not die in vain. All the broad lands of China, saving a few insignificant coastal cities, are now reduced to the obedience of Rome; all the mighty strength of the Han people, the well-named Dragon of the East, is yoked to the Eagle. All the – “

For a long moment he did not understand why his voice had failed. There was a vast roaring confusion in his ears, and his knees buckled dizzily; but not until he saw the puff of smoke from the spire of the Alexandros Cathedral that overlooked the Forum did he become consciously aware of the impact in his torso. Powder smoke, and a bullet the size of his fist – not a modern weapon; it wasn’t his enemies in the Senate who had killed him, then. He felt weirdly comforted by the thought as his head hit the boards of the platform; at least the rule of law still held. Some Chinese holdout (Persian guerrilla? Russian tribesman?) assassin out for revenge, armed no doubt with an ancient rifled musket from the Khmer War. There was irony in it, for the man they called the Mahdi of the Machinegun to be killed with a weapon from the last century, a gun that might be older than him.

There were men around him now, rushing to his aid; but that would be no use. It was eerie to be so calm while his life’s blood poured onto the planks; but in that zone of shock he could still think, and realise that the bullet had gone through his liver and out the other side. Even a young man would be vastly lucky to survive such a wound; a man closer to eighty than seventy would have only moments. Best make use of them, then. “I thank the Forum,” he gasped out, surprised that he could hold his voice so steady through the agony of breathing, “for allowing me to speak.” That would look well, in the history books, that he had managed the formal closing of a Senatorial speech even while his blood poured out in steady streams. “Tell them – tell them – ” he was losing his train of thought, now; the sky that had been blue a moment before was darkening to gray. “Russia! Raids – Cossacks… just shoot him… justice…”

His lungs failed him; not a terrible final word, he had time to think, and then he didn’t.

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The Komneniad: The Mandate of Heaven

The Komnenoi consider the conquest of the steppes to be one of the chief signs of divine favour for the Roman Empire; and, looking at the spectacle of twenty thousand refugees – hardly ragged; the Diaspora carried off the gold and steel of the great cities of Anatolia before the Persians could loot them, but refugees nonetheless – establish their rule of two million hardy nomads, even an objective historian is tempted to agree. Nonetheless, it must be said that the men of the Long March did have some worldly factors in their favour. The splendid kataphrakt cavalry, probably the best armoured horse in the world either before or since, springs immediately to mind; but five thousand horsemen, no matter how skilled, could not have imposed their will on four hundred times their number for very long. The fact is, of course, that they did not need to do any such thing; with twelve thousand fighting men of whom five thousand were kataphrakts, the Diaspora could put more men in the field than any single tribe that opposed them, and better armed men at that. European tales of ‘hordes’ of steppe cavalry were always somewhat exaggerated, but in any case the great invasions were the result of ephemeral unities lasting a generation at most, when some leader with great genius and luck would briefly hammer the tribes into an alliance. The unique achievement of the Komnenoi was not in creating such a unity, but in making it last generation after generation, until their subjects almost forgot that the world had been otherwise. And this brings us to the decisive factor that favoured the Komnenoi, the one that is always overlooked in their own historiography: There was no other polity of remotely comparable sophistication that wanted the steppes.

The steppes, in fact, were the last large area of Eurasia to come into the state system, for the good and simple reason that, in addition to being essentially worthless for agriculture, it was difficult of access from existing civilised areas – cut off from Europe by the Urals and from China by the Loess Plateau and the Jingdu mountains. Consequently they had subsisted for thousands of years, at least since the domestication of the horse and invention of the war chariot, at a tribal-feudal level of organisation, in which any supra-tribal polity had to be based on personal loyalty. Hence the rapid success and equally rapid collapse of the Gengid and Timurid empires: They fell apart on the collapse of the charismatic leader who had created them.

To give allegiance to the Senate and the People of Rome, even in the rather diminished form of twenty thousand holdouts too stubborn to surrender to the Persians, was a horse of quite another weight class – grain-fed, armoured, and bred for the size to carry an armoured kataphrakt. The Komnenoi were heirs to two millennia of state government; when they built a coalition, they built it to last. In truth, probably any of the major states of the early gunpowder period could have repeated the feat; the steppes, like a saturated solution, seem to have been ripe for statification. However, if China or Russia had unified Siberia under their rule, the result would have been quite different from the state the Komnenoi built: It would have been bureaucratic, top-down, reliant on the resources of these respective homelands for enforcement. The Komnenoi, with no vast agrarian homeland to draw force from, had to rule with the lightest possible hand. It is this which is the source of their hands-off ideology in economic matters: For hundreds of years New Byzantium simply did not have the strength to impose its will in matters of money, and naturally the Komnenoi made a virtue of necessity. Since all they could manage to impose on their subjects was military service, they created an entire moral theory around this power-political fact, whose central thesis is that the State has power over matters of life and death, and therefore has the obligation to stay clear of all lesser matters. Even now the Khanate has the smallest government, as measured by percentage of GDP, of any major or even regional power.

All this is well known, and only mentioned (*) by way of introducing what a massive problem the Komnenoi created for themselves in conquering China. To hammer steppe tribes into a limited military, and later even proto-national, unity was one thing. To impose foreign rule on the Han Chinese was quite a different problem! The Han already had a state, thank you very much; indeed their tradition of government was as long as that of Rome, and, even accounting for the periods of civil war (“dynastic renewal”, as the Chinese put it), more continuous. In particular, the tradition of rule by men who had sat the exams, mandarins, gave Chinese government an unparalleled continuity.

Nonetheless, the Komnenoi found a wedge: The practice of “dynastic renewal”, or in other words, the forceful removal of a regime which had grown too noticeably corrupt or inefficient, could be extended to accommodate foreign rule. In their three millennia, the Chinese had built an ideology of cyclical renewal, based on the idea that loss of legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven, was demonstrated by the very fact that a government had been overthrown. This abstract concept had the very practical consequence that the winner of a civil war found himself relatively unopposed. A usurper in a European kingdom would find that even a defeated king, or dynasty, could still retain large amounts of mana, legitimacy, baraka, causing endless renewal of conflicts. In China, when the war was over, it was decisively over, minimising the bloodshed.

The Mandate of Heaven was among the many ideas discarded as reactionary, bourgeouis, or feudal by the Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng, the Communist Party; but in their twenty years of rule they were unable to stamp it out of the workers and peasants they claimed to represent. When discontent with their collectivisation policies finally tipped the uneasy balance of their compromise with the army and open revolt broke out, “dynastic renewal” was one of the slogans of the rebellion. It would, nonetheless, have been crushed with characteristic brutality – the training of the armed revolutionary cadre was the one area in which the Party was a model of efficiency – if not for foreign intervention. The Khanate thoughtfully allowed the Party to destroy most of the formal armies of the rebels, while taking in refugees who later formed the nucleus of their administration; thus the rebels were beholden to the Khanate for their aid, while not having armed units above the level of guerrillas to form an independent power base.

Faced with simultaneous invasions from north, south, and west through Tibet, Communist armies nonetheless succeeded, by dint of conscripting practically every man (and many women) who could hold a rifle, in retaining control of its core industrial areas for a year. Then the Japanese, seeking a share of the spoils, invaded from the sea, and resistance became futile – although it was nevertheless carried on with desperate fury for another six months.

The main problem of the Khanate, then, was not in the formal conquest of China, but in administering the annexed areas – and defending them against the claims of nations who had sent a few regiments (or in one case, a few observers!) to the fighting front and expected, in return, to gain millions of cheap labourers. The traditional method of setting tribe against tribe was no use here; the Han were all one tribe, and aware of their unity against foreign oppression. Nor did the hands-off approach of New Byzantium in economic matters appeal; the Han expected governments to govern, and to them, that meant having a presence in every department of life. By appealing to the Mandate of Heaven, the Komnenoi were able to set themselves up as a new legitimate dynasty (the old Emperor, kept as a figurehead by the Communists, having conveniently disappeared in the final desperate fighting in the capital), which calmed matters for a while. In the end, though, the Khanate was going to have to come to an actual accomodation with the Han; twice the number of Rome’s prewar
population could not be ruled without some measure of their own consent. Nor could they, as the Komnenoi saw it, be allowed the traditional measure of autonomy as a bloc; such a tail would soon be wagging the steppe dog.

The answer was found in the traditional method of Rome, suitably adapted: Although the Han could not be divided tribe against tribe, their economic interests were by no means identical. The coastal cities wanted free trade, the agricultural interior wanted protection. Every industrial area wanted subsidies to continue, while the traditionally-minded scholar-gentlemen class wanted a return to the land and the end of noisy, polluting factories. In these regional and class divisions the Komennoi found their opportunity. As they had done in Korea, they created administrative regions, in effect city-states, and appointed a proconsul in each, ‘advised’ by a Komnenoi Envoy just like the steppe tribes. The proconsuls were chosen from the ranks of the surviving rebels, and were acceptably Chinese and schooled in the Analects; no man being given rule of a city near where he was born. Each city was then given considerable autonomy in its internal affairs, allowing the rule of scholar-gentlemen to continue – the Komnenoi cared nothing for how their subjects organised their bureaucracy – but required to send delegations to New Byzantium to argue for its larger economic interests. Some of these petitions were granted, always favouring a relatively poor area. In this manner the Khanate built up a coalition of interest groups who had done well from their rule. As for those who hadn’t, the Han were given to philosophy in matters of government; what they chiefly required in their rulers was the ability to maintain order – in a phrase, the Mandate of Heaven. And this Rome had clearly acquired. The two governing traditions of ancient times were thus united in a single nation; and for the first time, New Byzantium had acquired the strength that might make it possible to fulfil the ancient ambition of a Return to Europe.

First, however, they had to deal with the desire of other Powers to wet their beaks in the collapse of China. It remained to be seen whether the Senate and People of Rome could maintain the Mandate of Heaven.

(*) My narrator is like me: He’s an academic who can’t ‘mention’ anything without giving you enough material for a dissertation.

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The Komneniad: The Reason Why

March 24th, 1896
Near Mashhad, People’s Republic of Persia

“We sent men out to fight in this?”

Lysandros looked without favour at the staff tribune; the broad stripes on his collar proclaimed high rank, but his question was idiocy.

“Of course we did,” he said calmly. “Didn’t you know?”

The ground in question had the characteristic look of land that had been fought over with heavy artillery: Mud, churned and rechurned by tens of thousands of shells until not even the craters could be discerned, so fine was the consistency of the powder that remained. The fine grains absorbed water – and blood – like a sponge, clinging to any liquid that fell on it to form a glutinous mass on which it was unsafe to stand for very long. Lysandros could already feel it sucking at his boots, trying to drag him down. The smell attested to the presence of many men who had not been able to move fast enough. Here and there a limb broke the surface; there were strange currents and eddies in the mud, and sometimes things long buried would rise to the surface again. Indeed, there were rumours about Persian “special units”… but there always were; soldiers were a superstitious lot. Lysandros shook his head, dismissing the thought. He had come here for a reason, and medieval claptrap wasn’t it.

The tribune looked shocked, and wasn’t likely to be useful for some time; Lysandros turned instead to his aide, who bore the same red staff stripe as his superior, but over the crested-helmet rank tabs of a centurion. “How many attacks were launched over this ground?” he asked.

The centurion returned his gaze coolly, showing no signs of being intimidated by an Arch-Strategos who was also the most influential Senator in New Byzantium. “It depends, Strategos,” he said. “If you refer to formal attacks of entire army corps, preceded by a week’s barrage, then the tally would be three of ours, two of theirs. If you refer to local actions of a Legion, to straighten this or that bit of the line, then I should say several dozen. And, of course, any action at all consisted of many hundreds of movements of every size from contubernia to cohort; I do not think any accurate count could be made now.”

“Thank you, Centurion. I appreciate your precision.” Lysandros turned again to look at the trench line. Without soldiers constantly repairing the walls, the soggy mud was filling it in. In a year only a trained eye would be able to see the line for which tens of thousands had died. By then the grass might even be growing again.

“You knew?” The tribune had recovered from his shock.

“Of course I did, Tribune.” Lysandros raised an eyebrow. “If I had not known the conditions in which I asked men to fight, I should have been derelict in my duty.”

“Then why?” The tribune gestured wildly at the barren mud. “What possible purpose… you must have known we couldn’t break through!”

“Well, no,” Lysandros said mildly. “All men are initiates in the mystery of death; the Persians no less than we. There was always a possibility that their hearts would break and their armies shatter under the flail of the guns.”

The tribune frowned. “And you flung the Legions at the mountains for that slim chance?”

“Not at all. Oh, if the Persians had broken, then so much the better. But if they didn’t, it was no great matter. True, Persia must be destroyed, eventually; but after all, between our border and Persia is mountainous Punjab. To destroy Persia is necessary but not urgent; I do not expect it will happen in my lifetime.”

“Then… what enemy do you see, sir?”

Lysandros looked at the aide with respect; that was the sort of quick thinking he wanted on his own staff. He would have to get over the horror Lysandros could see in his eyes. There was no room for sentimentality in steering the Republic; if a hundred thousand deaths were necessary, then you took the actions that produced them, and didn’t waste time agonising over it. But he had brains, and that was valuable. Ruthlessness could be learned. After all Lysandros himself had once balked at a single death, when he was a little younger than this officer.

The tribune, on the other hand, would have to be removed from his position; even with the broad hint of his aide’s intuitive leap, he wasn’t getting it. “All this… as preparation for some other enemy? What war could possibly justify all these deaths?”

“Surely it’s obvious, ” Lysandros said. “Whose arrogance brings the anger of the Powers down upon Asia? Whose ambitions have for centuries entangled us in India and IndoChina, distracting us from the great task of return to Europe? Who, above all, has allowed filthy communist rebels into the halls of power, and preaches state ownership of the means of production?”

“China…” the tribune breathed. “You would fight China.”

“No,” Lysandros snarled. “I would fight the Dragon, the swinish idea that killed my sister.” He felt purpose filling him, the purpose that gave meaning to his life now, that had guided his climb from a minor officer of the Legions to the most powerful Senator in Rome. “Communism,” he hissed. “The envy of grasping little toads for their betters, made into a system of government! The opposite of all that is good in Rome. The righteous State makes every man a soldier: A noble calling, a life larger than a man’s petty concerns. What does the Communist state do? It makes every man a nasty little rentier, assiduously drawing his dividends from other men’s labour! It appeals to the very worst in humanity: Greed, envy, the instinct to pull down anyone who does well. And the Chinese allowed this poison into their halls of power! It is intolerable; it shall not stand. Death to China.”

He became aware that both officers were looking at him warily, and that he had perhaps glared a little more wildly than he really intended to, or spoken a little more truth than was really necessary. He deliberately calmed himself down. “But China’s a large place, it’s true; and while we have some friends in the People’s Army, still, that’s not to be relied on. So it’s necessary to study the true conditions of modern warfare. Here, for example, I wanted to learn the precise power of a well-prepared defensive in good terrain. And so I did: No amount of blood, it seems, will shift an army that can be reinforced as fast as new attackers are brought in. Well then, that’s useful to know, and will serve us well when The Day comes.”

“You sacrificed a hundred thousand men just to learn about modern warfare?”

“More like three hundred thousand, counting the cripples. On the other hand, don’t forget that we now have a really excellent experienced cadre for the vast expansion of the Legions.”

“You’re mad.” The tribune spoke with conviction.

“Am I? Perhaps so. You were young when the Revolution raged; too young to join the colours. Perhaps the slaughter drove me mad. But if I’m mad, there’s method to my madness; and there are many in high places who think like me.” He grinned, deliberately leaving his eyes still, knowing the effect was hideous. “Try to cross me, if you dare. I’ve personally ordered the crossing of a thousand traitors. What’s one more? Speak a word against me, and you’ll command the officer cadets at Penchisky for the next forty years.”

The tribune tried to stare him down; but Lysandros had looked men in the eye before condemning them to death. An officer who had stayed behind the lines for most of the war was no challenge.

“All right,” Lysandros said at length. “I’ve learned what I came to learn. Let’s go. There’s work to be done before China dies.”

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The Komneniad: Red Banners

Well… the Communist risings are occasionally useful when your neighbours have them. A series of three allowed me to annex China and thus rise from regional power to a significant world player.

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The Komneniad: Unhealed Wounds

February 17th, 1877
A mansion in New Byzantium

“Crucifixion,” the Chinese ambassador pontificated, “is the very pinnacle, the finest invention of Roman culture! The truly sovereign remedy for all rebellion and unrest. I only wish I could persuade my own government to adopt this wonderful custom; this little unrest in the provinces would vanish like dew in the sun.” He paused to gulp his wine, imported from Japan and liberally spiced with opium. It was his fourth cup, but he showed no effects beyond a slight heaviness in the eyes, and a complete obliviousness to the reaction of his audience. The foreigners considered crucifixion a barbarous custom; the Romans considered it a necessary evil, but hardly a fit subject matter for discussion at a party.

For a moment Lysandros considered intervening. It would probably not be possible to cause the ambassador to stop with a clinical description of the actual effects of crucifixion; he was too drunk for that. But a suggestion that he try the brandy would likely distract him, and then he could change the subject and get his sister’s party back on track; he’d be the hero of the hour… bah. He shook his head; the effort would be vast, and who cared about the damn party, anyway? He was only here to please his sister; let her rescue her own conversations.

The slight spark of interest faded, and he wandered off to refill his own drink. The haze was making him nostalgic; he remembered parties in his youth, before the Rising, where he’d hardly touched a drop, and yet had talked himself hoarse and gone to bed smiling. That had been in the old mansion, of course, the one the rebels had torched. It had had gaslights, not the flashy and expensive electrics that this party was showing off; there had been dark corners suitable for seduction. The soft blue light had made young faces enchanting, old ones wise; gold jewelry had glowed then, it hadn’t flashed vulgarly as the harsh electric lights made it do. He looked with sudden distaste at his fellow party-goers, at their brittle nervous laughter and too-energetic gestures that made their rings flash. But no; the change wasn’t in the lights. Surely the Revolt had not changed the Komnenoi that much? Yet he could not recall, before, having seen grinning skulls so close to the surface of the skin. He’d had vague thoughts, earlier in the evening, of talking to some suitable woman, perhaps starting a courtship; it was time he married. But all the women he saw had haggard eyes and thin faces. Who knew what they had done, to survive the siege? Only one of his sisters lived; what had Eudokia done that Aikaterina hadn’t? Or had it been luck? It was impossible to ask. But the eyes of the Komnenoi women who had lived through the New Byzantium Commune spoke silent volumes.

He felt a tinge of sympathy for the sweating ambassador; perhaps he had sisters too, or daughters. His pomposity was a mask for deep anguish; the regime he represented was tottering, its armies struggling to hold even the mountain capital at Xian. The Senate and the People had declined to intervene – Lysandros had voted against it himself, in fact – and so had the European Powers. Any day now the word must come that the new government in Nanking had been recognised, and that the ambassador was recalled, to who knew what fate.

Hard-faced men in the uniforms of the Legions, women old before their time… but it wasn’t just the Komnenoi. The party was a major event; theirs was the first Senatorial family to complete a new mansion, and it had electric lights at that – all the upper crust of New Byzantium was here, rejoicing in the return of normalcy. The foreigners could not have been so badly affected by the war; they had not lived through the siege. Yet in Lysandros’s eyes they were all become ugly: Oleaginous German merchants gobbling imported sausages; the swarthy Persian envoy looking down his hooked nose at the non-Aryans; two arrogant Croatians in togas, of all things, as though the usurping bastards had any claim to being Romans… the change couldn’t be in them, Lysandros realised. The ugliness was in the eye of the beholder.

He was contemplating getting seriously drunk when there was a shingle of breaking glass and a burst of screams. His hand went to the pistol strapped to his leg under the formal toga; all over the room Komnenos males were grasping for weapons, while foreigners stood frozen in shock. The paraffin had, praise the bodhisattva, not splattered anyone, but the lacquered wood floor was starting to burn fiercely. Lysandros ignored it to run for the door; his sister was quite capable of handling a mere fire. His lethargy was gone. An enemy! A traitor rebel, quite literally at the gates! His lips drew back in a snarl.

The cold air hit him like a hammer, sobering him. If there had been more than one rebel, they might have someone waiting in ambush precisely to kill the first few Komnenoi out the door. But the winter night was still, and dark as Satan’s heart; the only light was what spilled out of the open door behind him. He caught a movement from the corner of his eye, and whirled to fire. The muzzle flash lit the scene for a second; in the harsh orange light he could see the rebel struggling to get up from where he’d stumbled on a decorative bench. His bullet had gone wild, but no matter; Lysandros sprinted the twenty meters to where the terrorist had just managed to disentangle himself, and leaped at him with a savage scream. They went down together, Lysandros uppermost. The rebel flailed wildly with his fists, but Lysandros hardly felt the blows. He smashed his elbow into the other’s head, then got his knee into his stomach. The other stopped struggling as Lysandros’s weight drove all the air from his lungs. In the sudden calm Lysandros could see that his enemy was tiny, not an adult terrorist but a mere boy. His pride in his accomplishment suddenly faded; a grown man, and an officer of the Legions at that, against a teenaged terrorist who hadn’t even managed to plot an escape route without stumbling over a bench… it had been no fair combat.

Still, this boy had, after all, tried to kill him. Lysandros gave his captive another blow to the head, to keep him dazed and still, and rose, lifting the boy by his wrist twisted behind his back. Others had come rushing to his aid, and there was a circle of excited, somewhat drunken party-goers offering congratulations. Loudest was the Chinese ambassador, calling for summary execution; “Crucify the little swine, I say! Teach him a lesson!” There was nervous laughter, and someone said, “That’s right, a lesson he’ll remember all his life!” Someone else called for a hammer and nails. “We don’t need timber, that tree will do fine.”

So it would, Lysandros knew; he’d presided over any number of such improvised crucifixions, in the savage mopping-up campaigns after the siege of the Commune had ended. Nor was anyone likely to object, if a man of Senatorial rank took the law into his hands, against a bomb-thrower taken on his own estate. But something in him rebelled at the thought. Not in my garden! he shouted silently. Not in the new mansion that had been untouched by the war. He thought of walking past a tree where a rebel had taken three days to die, every morning for the next thirty years, and shuddered; and found his voice again.

“Enough!” he shouted; then when that wasn’t enough, fired his revolver again, into the air. That cut off the excited babble around him. He looked coldly at the guests. “Is this Rome, or some barbarian country outside the law? I’ll have no lynch mobs here, if you please.”

Most of the guests looked down, shamefaced; but the ambassador – who else? – was drunk enough to stand his ground. “Come, Senator! This rebel swine just tried to kill you! You surely have the authority under the law; was it not you who ordered a thousand rebels crucified, and another three thousand shot, after the siege?”

“Yes, ambassador, it was. The Senate and the People of Rome authorised the expedited tribunals, because there were too many prisoners for the usual courts; and I carried out their mandate. Then that lawful authority came to an end, because its task was done. The war is over; the courts have resumed their tasks. Let them do their work.”

Something in his tone got through the alcohol and opium, and the ambassador looked down. The rebel, on the other hand, laughed derisively. “Komnenoi courts! That’ll be justice!”

Lysandros shrugged. “More justice than being nailed to that tree in the next five minutes. And anyway, what do you call it when you throw lighted bottles of paraffin through someone’s window? Lighthearted pranks?”

“I call it justice! You sent my brother to the mines!”

“Ah.” Lysandros was quiet for a moment. “Did I, indeed? And for this mercy, you repay me with arson and attempted murder?”

“Mercy!” There was something like laughter in the rebel’s voice, and tears as well. “You call it mercy! The Communards were right. We’ll have no peace until you’re all gone, all you rich bastards. Your words don’t mean anything. Mercy and justice! Christ have mercy on us all!”

“Kyrie eleison, indeed,” Lysandros said softly. “Christ have mercy on the Republic.” A vast weariness was descending on him, and suddenly he didn’t feel like arguing. To sit in the Senate of Rome was to have power and privilege; and with privilege came duty, no matter how much he would have liked to tend his own garden, and his wounds. The body of the Republic took precedence. And it would be a long time healing.

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