The Komneniad: Eagle and Dragon

Here begins Victoria; it is my custom to write something taking a long view of history when we switch games.

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The Komneniad: War Reporting, Second Chinese War

The Khanate is still north of Qin. I lost Best Korea to Kongo and one province to Punjab; Russia, fortunately, wasn’t in the war. Or it would have been rather shorter. Although, to be fair, their neutrality did force Bavaria to keep considerable forces in Europe.

Briefly, the Great Powers – Ethiopia, Bavaria, Catalunya, and Croatia – with some yapping jackals in support, decided that Qin should be stripped of its ability to intervene in the affairs of Europe. They therefore ended the war that we had at the start of the session by demanding a chunk of Chinese coast – the blue bit in the screenie – to Ethiopia; additionally Khmer was rewarded for its lies (Ike had promised to fight on Qin’s side) with another five provinces, and Kongo got Best Korea. We were then told that the attacks would continue while China had a coastline. In an attempt to comply with this outrageous demand while maintaining some semblance of sovereignty, China signed over South Korea to Japan, and agreed to sign over its remaining coastline to the Khanate. We were then informed that this was insufficient, that the coast had to be given to the coalition; all pretence of concern for the balance of power was thus abandoned, and the contours of the naked land grab became clear. China then became a vassal of Japan, and Asia cast its defiance at the Great Powers.

Alas, our powers were not sufficient. Attacked by Bavaria and Ethiopia from the southeast, and by lapdog Khmer and Kongo from the southwest, we nevertheless stood firm on the Asian mainland. But Japan alone could not keep the seas against the combined fleets of Ethiopia and Catalunya, and in short order groaned under the boots of invaders. Jackal Punjab was bought off with the single province of Altishar; but when Croatia joined its forces to the Kongolese attack out of Korea, even the 180 regiments freed by that surrender were insufficient to defend the Khanate. With Japan effectively out of the war, we therefore perforce accepted the Unequal Treaty dictated to us.

Some images from the war. At the beginning, believe it or not, Khmer actually had the temerity to attack us – in Dangla, at that, some of the best defensive terrain in the world!

Dangla 0
Dangla I

That was over pretty quickly, to be sure. We then went in and seized Qamdo, also some of the best defensive terrain in the world, not that this did Ike any good:

Qamdo I

and held it against a rather monotonous series of counterattacks:

Qamdo II
Qamdo III

At some point Kongolese troops joined the Khmerese ones, with very similar results:

Qamdo IV
Qamdo V
Qamdo VI
Qamdo VII

As you can see, it wasn’t the fighting quality of our enemies that forced us to accept their diktat. Rather, it was sheer numbers. Here is a glimpse at the Taklamakan campaign, in which the Punjabi jackals treacherously stabbed me in the back and forced me to pull troops from the victorious advance into Khmer to deal with them:

Kuruk Tag

As you can see, Punjabis fight about as well as Khmerese. Alas, in the end 90 regiments cannot stand against 230.

Finally, the early stages of the Korean campaign, in which I’m driving back the initial Kongolese attack:


Unfortunately, once Japan lost control of the seas, Croatia reinforced the Kongolese with about 300 regiments, and I couldn’t stand against that.

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The Komneniad: Lines of the Dniestr Delta

The signs had long been clear to internal observers of the Khanate, especially those born early enough to have fought in both the successful American War and the abortive Polish Campaign. However, to the armies of Europe, Legion tactics in what became known as the battle (more accurately the siege) of the Lines of the Dniestr Delta were a most unpleasant surprise; especially so, if briefly, to the more than fifty thousand Croatian troops who died in the six months of the siege.

Khanate armies were not a new enemy to the regular forces of the European empires, but in previous conflicts they had defended Asia from Western invasions, rather than launching their own attacks on the Ukraine. Moreover, when fighting in China, in India, and especially on the crumbling Russian border, the Legions had taken a form that, over their centuries of ruling the steppes, had become stereotyped: A swarm of light cavalry with a core of kataphrakt lancers, with a relatively lightly-armed and fast-marching infantry for logistical support and to act as a base of fire in swirling cavalry engagements often many miles wide and deep. This organisation gave excellent results on the steppes, where mobility was at a premium and there was no particular point that had to be defended or attacked. An opponent seeking a set-piece battle could be foiled simply by avoiding the place where he had set his pieces.

Such Legions had, nonetheless, been quite unsuited to the cramped battlefields of Europe; in particular, their lack of artillery had allowed Bavarian, and earlier Russian, troops to hammer them with impunity and then punish them for seeking to close the range. “Lack of guns” was the constant complaint of the Komnenos strategoi in the American War, and although the actual materiel shortage had been considerably rectified by the time of the Polish Campaign, the Legions were still feeling their way into the best use of their new weapons. Thus, in 1813, Khanate armies were still perceived in Europe as an unruly steppe rabble, to be brushed aside by the discipline and firepower of regular soldiers. This, however, was quite inaccurate. Whatever their flaws, the Komnenoi cannot be accused of being slow learners, and they had been studying the lessons of the Polish Campaign quite closely.

The expeditionary forces that were sent to the Ukrainian Campaign to form the southern flank of the Russian defense were very light on cavalry compared to the traditional Legion order of battle, although what cavalry they had was excellent; most of the nomad levies were simply not called up, and a large portion even of the Komnenoi kataphrakts were kept at home to maintain order – a sad comedown for the pride of Aleksandros’s exiled army! The bulk of the Legions now consisted of infantry, recruited from Korean and Chinese city-states, from Siberian tribes which were only semi-nomadic and often fought on foot, and from younger sons and poorer families among the nomads proper, who might inherit only two or three ponies and thus were of little use in a traditional swarm formation, which required every man to have a good dozen remounts. The infantry were commanded by those Komnenoi of Equestrian rank who preferred an officer’s commission, even if in the infantry, over serving in the rank and file of the prestigious kataphrakt cohorts – which, of course, rapidly lost their prestige when it was realised how few of them were committed to the European front. More importantly, they were supported by a vast artillery, with gun-to-men ratios that even the Bavarians considered excessive; the Khanate, for all its reputation as a featureless wasteland, was (and is) actually rich in iron and copper deposits, and had the State industries to develop them by forced draft and conscript labour.

Still more central to the sudden success of the Legions were the changes in their tactics. The suddenness of the shift to infantry enabled the Romans to look at foot warfare with fresh eyes, and find methods which had eluded those whose emphasis had changed more gradually. In particular, the spade was raised to co-equality with the musket, and Roman infantry were trained to throw up earthen ramparts whenever they stood in one spot for more than an hour. For halts intended to last more than a week, the old custom of the fortified camp – and the associated jest, that barbarians were more easily defeated by seeing the Legions encamp than by fighting – was revived; Roman infantry thus acquired skills which in other armies were more associated with engineers.

In the Dniestr Delta these new methods burst upon Europe like a shrapnel shell – also an invention of the period, although not used by the Khanate. “Strategic offensive, tactical defensive” had been a maxim of Rome since the days of Belisarius, but had not been very practical for a cavalry-based army which could not force its enemies to attack any particular point. In seizing the Delta, however, Adai Quygungge had found a point which the Croatian army had to attack. At first this was because doing otherwise was to let slip a rich prize, the large Persian force trapped in the Balkans by the Ethiopian closure of the Straits. Later, it appears, the Croatian commanders were angry and not thinking clearly, and as the campaigning season ended they may have been influenced by the belief that the defenders of the Delta must be at their last gasp, and would surely be forced to retreat in the face of one more strong push.

In fact the Lines of the Dniestr Delta were one of the strongest defensive positions in recorded history, the more remarkable for being built largely with hand labour over the course of a single summer. The rich loam of the Delta was well suited for rammed-earth fortifications and trenches; timber was shipped in, along with uncounted tons of other military supplies, across the Black Sea from Georgia and from Russian Ukraine. Strategos Quygungge intended, at first, only to form a solid base for the battered Persians to stream past, forcing the Croatians to break off their pursuit lest a large force in their rear turn hunter into hunted. But, the Persians having passed into safety, he found the Croatians very obligingly continuing to attack his line of cohort redoubts; and, nowise wishing to pass up a good thing, gave orders to “dig in our heels and heap piles of grannies to the Heavens”. As he later remarked, “it is a capital error to interrupt an enemy who is making a mistake”, and indeed one might say that his later reputation as the finest general of his age was built, in large part, on his counterpart’s inability to believe that the despised nomads could stand against a sustained assault by the armies of the True Successors of Rome. So it goes; it takes a Terentius Varro as well as a Hannibal to make a Cannae!

Blackpowder armies, it is true, are harder to destroy than consular Legions; the Lines of the Dniestr Delta was neither a battle of annihilation, as Cannae was, nor decisive in the sense of destroying Croatia’s ability to continue the war – as Cannae also wasn’t. Like consular Rome, the Radomirs could stamp new armies out of the earth and fight on. Nevertheless, like Cannae in its time, the moral effect of the battle was huge, perhaps even out of proportion to the actual result. The image of waves of European soldiers being cut down by grapeshot and musket fire from redoubts manned by, in the parlance of the times, `natives’ (less politely, `wogs’), and of their generals ordering yet more regiments into attacks on the same positions – all luridly conveyed by daily newspapers, still another innovation of the era – sent shockwaves through Croatian society. What was the use, people asked themselves, of being the most superior nation in the world, if your soldiers couldn’t drive a few poxy nomads from your borderlands? Army reform quickly followed, starting with a much sharper emphasis on religious discipline (*); both pay and standards for chaplains were increased, weekly masses were made mandatory, and a new book of sermons for the army was approved, emphasising the rewards that waited for those who fell in battle against the heathen and heretic. But this was the least of the changes; Croatian civil society was swept by worries about decadence and a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the Noble Savage, as embodied by the “simple, hardy tribesmen” who had, presumably, demonstrated the military advantages of the nomadic lifestyle. (This was, of course, based on a misunderstanding – Roman infantry, as noted above, were primarily recruited from the Khanate’s Korean and Chinese possessions, which, although a small fraction of its geographic extent, weighed very heavily in its demography.) Mountain-climbing guilds, weight-lifting societies, cold-bath clubs, and even in extreme cases flagellation fraternities (!) were all the rage, on the theory that deliberate hardship and self-denial was the way to military preparedness.

In the cool light of hindsight, all this is a little overblown. True, fifty thousand dead in a single campaign, and one which failed of its object at that, is a blow to any army. But as in all blackpowder warfare, most of the casualties were from sickness rather than battle. What killed so many ‘grannies’ was not the superior fighting quality of nomads, nor even the strength of the redoubts (formidable as this undoubtedly was), but rather the high command’s insistence on keeping vast forces concentrated in a small area, and the consequent logistical difficulties. There were, it is true, repeated attempts to seize individual redoubts by assault, as well as three large-scale attacks on a front of many miles in an attempt to overwhelm the defenders’ ability to rush in reinforcements to threatened points; and these engagements did indeed go badly for the Croatians. But on the other hand it is worth noting that Adai Quygungge never contemplated leaving his fortifications and taking up the assault; he could hold off superior numbers, but he could not inflict such a crushing defeat as to seize the initiative, or even force his opponents to the negotiating table.

For the historian, the Lines of the Dniestr Delta are chiefly noteworthy as a herald of the return of Roman armies to European battlefields, and their consequent abandonment of the cavalry emphasis they had clung to since Byzantine days. Of course, given a history as long as Rome’s, practically anything could be, and was, justified as a “return to ancient practice”; but in the case of infantry tactics the break with existing tradition is both unusually clear and unusually parallel to an actual historical example. Moreover, with the decreasing military importance of nomad cavalry, Khanate recruiting – and with it, prestige and power – began for the first time to match its demographics, with ripple effects that were still being felt a century later.

The Twain Damn Well Will Meet: Occidental and Oriental Influence on Roman Military Thought,
monograph by Tegus Burulgi,
Beijing Military Academy Press, 1923.

Dniestr Delta I
Dniestr Delta II
Dniestr Delta III
Dniestr Delta IV

(*) That is to say, Croatia became Defender of the Faith, increasing army morale from 8.70 to 9.2 (numbers approximate).


I found it hard to get going on this installment. It didn’t seem like quite the thing to write another veteran’s tale so soon after “Feud Across the Ocean Sea”; if nothing else, I don’t have four weeks to work on it, and I find it difficult to write a convincing memoir style in short form. So I tried a dialogue style and an impersonal-narrator-overview style, but couldn’t quite see where to take either one; I ended up with the history-book discussion by default. (What can I say, I’m an academic; I punch out reams of dryly formal exposition at the drop of a hat.) Below my two false starts, in case anyone wants to see what writer’s block looks like for me. :) You’ll see that I’ve been working with the same basic ideas in each form.


August 23rd, 1814
Delta of the Dniestr

The grannies were driven from the Delta only a short month ago; but the Legions have not been idle. Already the marshy ground is dotted with redoubts, hastily packed up out of rammed earth, but bristling with guns. Individually they are no great obstacle either to deliberate siege or even to a determined assault; there are limits to what can be done in a month. But several hundred of them, in easy supporting distance, are a formidable military fact. Long ago it was said of the Legions that barbarians were more easily defeated by watching them go into camp, than by fighting. Since then much blood has been shed, and if the truth were told the art of field fortifications is no ancient tradition handed down through Aleksandros’s kataphrakts from the legionnaires of Caesar. The Legions have been an instrument of control on the endless steppe for half a millennium, and the nomad swarms they have contended with there are not easily defeated by redoubts they can easily avoid. But nobody has ever accused Romans of being slow learners, and a new-invented art kills as readily as a hoary lesson of military tradition. The hard battlefields of Kansas and Poland have taught the kataphrakts to abandon their horses and take up cannon and spade, as once they abandoned gladius and pilum for stirrup and lance.


August 23rd, 1814
Delta of the Dniestr

“You have not been idle,” Anatoliy observed mildly, managing to keep his eyebrows from rising. The nomad troops had only seized the Delta a month earlier, yet already the marshy ground was dotted with their fortresses and redoubts, bristling with guns. And since when did the nomads have a heavy battery for each regiment – each cohort, in their barbarous language – anyway?

“Nor do we intend to be,” Mikhael replied; the liaison officer spoke passable Russian, accented but fluid. “The redoubts are a good start; next is the construction of good timbered roads between them, for mutual support.”

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The Komneniad: Feud Across the Ocean Sea

One year there was feud between the Komnenoi and the distant lords of Bavaria-over-the-sea. Now you may say that this is not so very unusual, for the Komnenoi are like any tribe: They are always quarreling with someone or other, and cruel as cats with it; and their men die in battle like as not, just like ours. And why not? All men die, soon or late.

So it was not so uncommon, you might say, when the war-arrow went around the tribes, and the Legions mustered; and you’d have the right of it. But there was this to be said: The fight was to be over the ocean sea. Now here was a new thing! It was the talk of the tents for a month and more – aye, that was before I left. For all I know they talked of it for a year after that; there’s not so many new things in this land, that we can let one go to waste. Or anything else, come to that; there’s little wealth for the wasting around here. But it’s good land for horses.

I was young then and wanted to make a name for myself; so then what cared I where the fight was to be? Ride west or sail east, it was all one to me; so I followed the war-arrow and took the Komnenoi coin. And I’ve got it still, see? An Equestrian that makes me; and if I went to New Byzantium, the lords are bound to hear my voice at council. That much honour I won for myself, over the ocean where the Sun rises.

We sailed east, yes. They’ll tell you terrible stories about ships, to try to scare you; but you needn’t believe them. Yes, they’re big as city houses, that’s no lie; bigger, even – I never met a man who had a house as big as a ship that can cross the ocean sea. But they don’t sway any worse than a horse with a limp. As for storms, a wind out of the tundra will freeze your face off right quick on land or sea, if it catches you ungreased. Weather’s weather, you just have to be ready. And anyway we were two months on the ship, and I never saw a storm that would have scared a horse. Well, it was summer, true… Ah well. All men tell tales of their dangers, Korean and Mongol alike; I suppose in my time I may have curled the hair of one or two Korean lads with a story of snowdrifts fifty feet high, or piss that froze before it landed.

It was September when we landed; the end of campaigning season, you’d say, and that’s true here. But such a land for fighting you never saw! There was sweet grazing even to the end of October, and almost no snow fell. So we did not go into winter camp, but rode east, a thousand miles and more – it may be that no man of the Nenet has ever been so far from our lands, and we are a far-ranging people, no farmers. We crossed mountain and desert, and three pairs of shoes my horse wore out before we reached the place where the fight was to be. And then it was winter; the mildest winter you ever saw, with rain in place of snow. But like sensible men, the Komnenoi and their enemies did not choose to fight in it, so we sat in camp until spring. Ah, now that was a fine way to make war; once a week we’d ride out to look about, in rain mild like a mother’s kiss. Sometimes we’d see our enemies on patrol, and then we’d fire a musket, or maybe two, at three hundred paces, and they’d do the same, and we’d both turn about and go back to report; and if anyone died of that it didn’t reach my ears. That land is so rich in trees, we could build a roaring fire every night, so we had warm barracks and fine light in the evenings… it was no wonder the lords of Bavaria wanted it; who wouldn’t? If I were Komnenoi, I’d have made alliance with them and no feud, and divided up that fine land between us; there was enough and more than enough for two to share. But, true, it’s often the stronger gets the best of such a bargain.

In the spring it was different. We fought in earnest then. The Bavarians marched up the Red River, a hundred thousand strong, and we went to meet them; and we made the river earn its name. Three days we fought, and in the end they turned back. But we hadn’t the heart in us to pursue. Two horses I had shot from under me, and there were so many men killed I had no trouble finding new ones. I was in the Third Charge, when Hercules the Arch-Strategos tried to break the Bavarian left flank. Three hours he pounded them with all the guns he could move. Three shots each barrel each minute, as they say, for hours on end; but the Bavarians didn’t break, though their dead heaped up around them. Then he unleashed us, ten thousand lancers, and we went screaming all the way, ai-ya-ya-ya! I wouldn’t have cared to be on the other end of that charge, truly I wouldn’t; but the Bavarian infantry stood. Lobsters we called them, for the style of their helms, that covered the neck against sabre strokes. They stood. I picked my man, and he was splattered with blood on both sides where his comrades had fallen, and their replacements too, when they closed ranks. There was no shoulder-to-shoulder for him, he held his place alone. But when the word of command came he leveled his musket and shot, cool as you please; and the next thing I knew I was barreling forward over my horse’s head. And they broke our charge. We limped back to our lines, nine thousand of us and many of those wounded; I found another horse that some poor bastard wouldn’t be needing anymore, and that was the end of the Third Charge.

In the end we drove them back, yes. They couldn’t force us to yield, nor shift us out of their path; and when they couldn’t go forward and couldn’t stay, they had to go back. So that was victory. But we were too tired to have the fruits of it. We slept for a day, and then the lobsters were long gone. They weren’t running, you understand; they were marching back in good order, for their own reasons and in their own time. So we advanced after them, but carefully. We had some skirmishes with their outriders, and we had the best of that; the lobsters are deadly enough on foot but they ride like children of three winters.

I think the Strategoi had had enough of the Bavarians, and them of us. At any rate we slanted our march north, to the English lands; they were vassals of the Bavarians, and no wonder, for they couldn’t fight a damn. They tried to give us what we’d given the lobsters. I was on the right wing then, where we had most of our cavalry. I was a bit worried to begin, for the English had fifteen thousand mounted men against nine thousand of us, and very fine they looked. Their horses were all matched, each regiment in one colour, black or grey or roan; and fine proud mounts they were, eighteen hands if they were an inch. But “mounted men” I said, and not “cavalry”. We charged again, screaming all the way; and they came out to meet us, but it wasn’t the same. Oh, they were well enough for the first clash of lances, I suppose; they held their gallop and didn’t flinch, and their ranks didn’t shiver or break. But then it came to sabres, and we had all the advantage there. We broke them apart, and then we rode circles around them; much good their eighteen-hands mounts did them, when our fifteen-hands were behind them! Their saddles were meant for fighting in ranks, they couldn’t turn and twist so easily as we did; when it was down to sabres and pistols they were like children in our hands. We broke them there, and harried them a mile and more; my sabre ran red with blood and my arm was tired with killing by the time we formed up again.

Now if we’d driven off Bavarian cavalry, their infantry would have turned left-about-face, refused that flank, and stayed right where they were, thanks. Not the English! Nervous about their flanks like so many virgins, they were. Oh, I don’t say their soldiers panicked. But the officers, that’s another question. I saw three regiments trying to get to the same spot to stop us, and getting in each other’s way; their chiefs, colonels as they say, shouting at each other, and pistols drawn! Maybe they’d not have come to shots fired; at any rate we didn’t give them the chance – we swept right down on them and cut them to pieces. And that was the end of their stand, that should have held us and forced us back to our own lands; when he saw his lancers in among the enemy, the Arch-Strategos ordered attack all along the line. We had fought the Bavarians three days; the English were running inside of three hours.

So that was victory again, and we were drunk on it. I had three new horses, a matched set in black; and we took guns too, and provisions. But then we made, as drunken men do, a mistake. We thought the English beaten, and we pursued them north and east, into the dry midlands of their empire. By the time we realised that, for broken remnants of a shattered army, they were running in suspiciously good order, it was too late. The Bavarians had stopped retreating, and come up from the south behind us.

Our line of supply was supposed to be guarded by the Chinese and the native wogs, who had even less fight in them than the English. You can imagine how that went, against lobsters that could stand against a charge of the Legions. So they were behind us, and in front the English; and we had no maps, or only bad ones. How much water do eighty thousand fighting men drink in a day, and their horses? If a man does not drink, the first day he will live, with only a pounding ache in every joint that leaves him unfit to fight. The second day he shrivels, and is lucky if he can lift himself onto his horse, much less wield a lance. The third day his lips go black, and he dies.

We could only move where there were rivers or springs; so we of the lancers were sent out as scouts, to find water and a path out of the trap. But the English were ahead of us, and the tribes that served them: Kiowa, Lakota, Comanche… vassals of the English as we are vassals of the Komnenoi; and they knew their land as we know ours. They poisoned the springs against us, so we could only use the streams; and wherever we went to find one, their skirmishers were there ahead of us. I said the English had mounted men, but no cavalry; they should have taken their Kiowas to the battle, and stayed my mockery. Those servants of servants ride like Cossacks, and are twice as savage. If they had numbers they would rule the world; and so would the Nenet, if we had numbers. But we are few, and so we serve the Komnenoi.

The Komnenoi had led us into a trap, then; but we were eighty thousand fighting men, and guns, and there is a deal of ruin in an army. The English thought they had us. Twice we showed them otherwise, when they sent their armies, so they thought, to smash exhausted men and harry our broken remnants until their arms grew tired with killing. We showed them otherwise, yes. Twice we threw them back in disarray, and broke off, and continued our march. But we could not break them, and we were driven north, and every day took us further from our comrades. I’m told that twenty thousand men died, trying to drive the Bavarian army back south and clear our path; and I believe it. Twenty thousand men, and as many lobsters. But they stood, same as us. It’s a hard truth, but true all the same: You can hammer an army with guns, you can kill a tithe of it with musket shot, you can ride down regiments caught out of square and sabre them into red ruin… but if the men are brave and true to their salt, you will not shift them from where they choose to make their stand, though you heap the ground with their corpses. The lobsters stood. And so did we, when the English came for us. But it cost us, in men and horses and above all in powder and shot.

Twice we drove them off, I say; but by the end of it we were fifty thousand strong, and each man had powder enough for ten shots. We’d fight no more battles on such a ration as that, and every man knew it. Daily we expected the word of surrender to come; we were loyal to our salt, but there are limits to loyalty. Better some years cutting timber in Canada than fighting with naked steel against guns. Wars end and prisoners are exchanged; there is no ransom from the next incarnation. But the Arch-Strategos had other ideas. “Are we not free citizens?”, he said, and we stood a little straighter, hearing that. Straight backs load no muskets, though; it was his plan that fired us with hope. “Ride west,” he said, “over the great plains where the English writ runs lightly or not at all; ride for the coast.” It was surrender, in one sense: Such a journey would take months, leaving the English free to attack our friends in the south. But we would keep our banners, and thus our honour. And anyway the war might go on for years, and we’d get our own back. The banners, though; that was the important thing. We’d carried them through four victories; they were ragged with shot and stained with the blood of brave free men, and they were ours. We’d been resigned to giving them up, yes, when we saw no other way; but Hercules offered us a way to save them from the English, and ourselves from the Canadian snows.

We rode west, then, into the sunset; but first we double-shotted all our guns, and fired them so they broke. We left nothing for the English, and took nothing that would slow us; a gun’s a great comfort on a battlefield, but no use to men fleeing defeat.

It was high summer, and the land baked beneath the sun; and still we had no maps. But now we had no need to twist and turn and come about south, nor to take any but the straightest routes, for men and horses can go where guns and wagons will not. So we followed the Platte River, five hundred miles and more, and after the first week the English gave over their pursuit. We hadn’t enough powder for battle, but plenty for hunting beasts that don’t shoot back; and such hunting you never saw. Great fat shaggy oxen, enough to blacken the plains, enough to ride past you all day without ending; we shot and shot, and fifty thousand men ate good meat every day with never a dent in their numbers. The Komnenoi have a word that means “a thousand thousands”, and I never before or since saw any use to it; but we used it then, on the plains.

The tribes there were those that had fled west rather than submit to English rule – like us, I suppose: Apache, Cheyenne, Cree. They were no friends to us or to any man, but they did not care to fight so strong a host, and would barter guides for powder and shot. Still we could not go very fast. By myself, I might have ridden the distance in five days, if I didn’t care how many horses I killed; or twelve if I had only the one mount. As it was, we reached the mountains in October; and that would still have been fine, had we known the passes.

The tribes there know their own hunting grounds well, but they do not range across the continent; they have no overlord to keep peace between them, and so each guards its territory jealously against the next, and no man learns the whole of the land. Perhaps we were the first men to travel the breadth of the plains and the mountains; certainly we were the first army to do so. So our guides were little use; they knew where there was water, shelter, and good hunting, but none had crossed the mountains, and they could not tell us which passes would serve an army, and which were dead ends. Besides, so far from the English writ their grasp of our interpreters’ speech was tenuous, and their interest in barter less; they still hunted with bow and arrow, reserving muskets for war. So again the lancers went out for scouts, dividing into regiment and then companies and even single squadrons. Each detachment rode up a likely-looking pass, seeking the lowest and broadest, and trying if they would come out the other side or peter out in ridges and cliffs. True, without our guns we might have forced even a bad passing, one step at a time; but winter was coming, and we were anxious to spend as little time in the mountains as we might. An early storm catching us on an exposed ridge might kill thousands; and that risk was increased with every narrow defile, every slope that might be churned into mud by thousands of bootheels. Weather is weather, as I said; and a wise man respects its hazards, especially in a foreign land when he is far from aid.

Respect, nonetheless, takes you only so far; as with so many things, you have to be good and you have to be lucky, and our luck did not quite hold. We found a good pass, but it took three weeks for our scouts to be sure that it went all the way through and to come back and report. So by the time we were on its downward slope it was November; and the storm that hit us there wasn’t particularly early.

Seeing what happened later, I’d have to say that the storm wasn’t so bad. We were on the downslope, sheltered from the worst of it; we were fat and sassy from our feasts of buffalo; and most of all, we were fresh, not worn down by weary weeks of fighting the snow. But at the time we thought it bad enough; there were many cases of frostbite, some lost fingers, and one whole squad that froze to death through putting up their tent on a small ridge where they got the worst of the wind. I see you scoffing; what sort of tent doesn’t stand up to a bit of early winter storm, you ask? But these weren’t triple-layered horsehide stuffed with down, suitable for steppe winter and handed down from mother to daughter for generations. They were military-issue (not Legion, but supplied by our allied wogs to save space on the transports) single-layered wool, made by the lowest bidder and meant for summer campaigning in the American plains.

That was the true hell of it: There we were, three full Legions, less our fallen comrades, whose worst problem was a bit of winter, and not even Siberian winter at that. And we were dying, because our equipment was sitting at home, too bulky to be shipped over the ocean sea! Our journey should have been a bit of a lark, with joyful sleigh rides and singing around campfires, if only we’d had real Legion-issue winter gear.

I think we might have gone back then, when we knew what we had got into; even into a Canadian lumber camp, even having to give up the banners. But what could we do? The storm had closed the pass beyond any possibility of crossing as an army; perhaps ten or a hundred strong men on snowshoes could have made it back, but not three Legions. We could sit and wait for certain death, or march west into uncertainty. We chose the march.

With our guns, we had marched fifteen miles in a day, or twenty if we forced our pace; it is slow work, wrestling ton weights of metal over cattle tracks. When we abandoned them and fled west, our speed had doubled; and we outriders, not bound to the pace of the column, might ride as much as fifty miles in a day. But that was in autumn. Now we marched in columns of platoons, and every half-hour the foremost men paused to let someone else take over the hard work of breaking the trail. Thus we made, perhaps, ten miles in a day. But the snow kept pouring down, and our exhaustion mounted. Soon we were making eight miles in a day, and then five; and the toll of fingers and toes, and limbs and men, lost to frostbite kept rising.

I’m not much good with tallies and counts, but here was a simple enough sum: At five miles a day, and ten men lost, how many would we have left when we reached the coast, and when would that be? It became our favoured talk around our meagre campfires; now even wood was in short supply and often wet at that. How we longed for the great forests to the south and east, out there on the shelterless desert! We could argue it endlessly, for who knew how many men we might lose daily in the depths of winter; ten, twenty, fifty? Or how fast we could march if the snow came up to our thighs instead of our knees; three miles a day, one mile? Then again, when would spring come, in this foreign land? Who knew, even, how far it was to the coast? But whatever numbers we used, the answers were never good. Soon it was only the optimists who held that a few thousand men might stagger into our allies’ territory sometime in March, if the snows broke by then.

No doubt the officers were doing the same sums, and not liking their answers any better than we did. At any rate, sometime in December the order came down that we were to make winter camp and ride out the storms in one place.

Of course there wasn’t any question of fifty thousand men making a single vast camp – bigger than most cities, it would have been, and with no convenient farmers to bring us food! We had to split up, to get far enough apart that we could hunt through the winter without killing off all the game. But we couldn’t divide into such penny packets that the tribes could kill us off one by one. They didn’t like us any more than they liked the English, and we were passing through their land and eating the game they needed; and besides it was winter, so what else did they have to do?

We marched in cohorts, then; east and west and south and north. We had to get far enough apart to hunt through the winter; but how far was that? Even in such a rich land, five hundred men need a lot of land. No doubt there was some calculation done by the officers, that’s their business after all; and they decided the farthest-flung cohorts had to be a hundred miles from our starting point. A hundred miles! You could ride it in a day, if not for the damn snow. Not that there was any way of keeping the horses; we shot them the morning the Arch-Strategos decided on wintering.

A hundred miles, what was that to us who had crossed oceans and continents? And yet it was the worst part, our hardest ordeal. Each cohort had to break its own trail, now; and it was the darkest part of the year. Not the coldest, although the chill was bad enough; but it was the dark that sapped our spirits, hour after hour of trudging through snow up to our knees. At least we knew how far we were going, that helped a bit; we could count down the days. But still… there were men who decided that they wouldn’t do it, that they would rather die than face one more day of the cold and the dark. They stepped out of the line of march, gave their food – if they had any – to their friends, and sat down. Waiting for death. Sometimes their comrades would try to talk them out of it, at least at first. Sometimes it worked. I saw one man, what was his name? Boke, that was it; and he was well named. When he couldn’t argue his friend into getting up and marching, he just picked him up, musket and all, and carried him over his shoulders. He only had to do it for maybe a hundred paces; then – I think out of plain embarrassment – his friend asked, very politely, to be let down, and took up the march again.

But for the most part, we just had to let them sit. They were cheerful, mostly. Why not? They’d made their decision and had only a few hours to go, sitting down and not working. They say cold’s a good death, though how anyone knows I can’t tell you. But I saw men, hard veterans of six years’ service, looking enviously at the ones who’d given up.

What kept us marching? Who can know the hearts of men? I think each of us would tell a different tale. Some had women waiting for them; others had only hopes. For some – like me – it was hate; the snow and the cold were just another weapon of the English, and I wasn’t going to let them win with that when I’d beaten them with sabre and gun. Then there was fear; deathly tired, cold, soul-chilled by the darkness, we still wanted to live, and see the sun again. Death marched beside us then, and we envied the rest he gave to those who chose his company. But at the last, if there was nothing you wanted more than rest and the end of struggle, you could get what you wanted.

I lost count of the days and the miles. Perhaps we went the full hundred, perhaps not. But someone was keeping track; officers have their uses. We stopped on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Then we built a town; not from wood nor rock, but from snow. We started with our tents, poor woolen things that they were, and packed hard snow outside them, then layered soft snow on top of that; then we took down the tents, and had our buildings – long and low, but proof against wind and cold alike.

We might have left the tents inside the snow, but we wanted their ropes for snowshoes. After so long trudging through snow to the knees, it was unutterable relief to have proper equipment at last; men actually volunteered for hunting duty, going out three and four days into the cold, just for the sheer joy of gamboling across the top of the snow. And rest! We slept, I think, a day and a night once our buildings were done.

We spent a lot of time sleeping, that winter; what else was there to do? Well, we hunted and gathered firewood, yes, but that took only so much time. And we went hungry. On the march we had eaten freely of our stores, dried meat from the buffalo herds mainly; marching through cold and snow cannot be done on an empty stomach. Now we were almost out of food. And the desert wasn’t like the plains, where you could fire a musket into the air and the ball would be pretty sure to hit something you could eat; hunting was a slow business. But a man can go a long time on little food, if he’s not doing heavy labour; and after the second day or so it doesn’t bother you so much. We sat in our miserable snow huts, feeling our bellies contract towards our spines, and waited for spring.

It wasn’t very cold in the huts, but it was dark, and after a few days of little food you don’t feel like doing much, not even talking. We drifted in and out of sleep. When one of the hunters got a kill we woke and ate, and then there was chatter for a few hours; but mainly we sat, each man with his thoughts. When the weather cleared we’d sometimes get up and walk around a bit; but it wasn’t as though there was anything to see, just the low mounds of the huts, and the lake where we got water.

We were all hungry; but it wasn’t hunger that killed, not even disease, though we had a bit of typhus. Madness was our scourge then. The unending sameness, the dark and quiet – men’s minds broke under that slow pressure, which had been calm in the middle of battle and steadfast during our long march. Some just walked out into the dark during storms, and were never seen again. But the worst were those who turned on their comrades in their madness, swinging knives and bayonets. A man who doesn’t care if he lives or dies is a terrible enemy. The day three men died from one’s mad rampage, we began keeping a loaded musket in every hut. That helped; but in the winter damp our powder wasn’t perfectly dry. And sometimes the madness was sly, and went for the gun first.

All winter must end; and so did the winter of our madness. In March the last snow melted. Our snowshoes became tent-ropes again, and we resumed our march towards the coast. We met our mates in that springtime; a broken, scattered band! We had been fifty thousand strong; now we were, perhaps, half that, and gaunt with long hunger. But after all it was spring, and we could move again; and we were glad to be alive. We went west with something of our old strength, and the land came to life around us.

In April we crossed the low mountains that mark the eastern border of our allies’ land, and shocked a local garrison by demanding food and other supplies for twenty-five thousand men. Then it was all ease and comfort; we reached the coast on roads, and if you’ve never marched a thousand miles through trackless waste you have no idea how pleasant it is to see a gravelled surface stretching endlessly before you.

The war was still on; but we didn’t fight in it that year. We needed guns and horses, powder, new uniforms – the ones we had were rags after that winter – and above all, reinforcements. But it wasn’t so easy to reinforce Legions that had been through what we had. We had lost three-fourths of our comrades, and what new chum could be worthy to stand in the place of our honoured dead? Men who hadn’t marched with Death beside and behind; men who hadn’t faced the hunger and the dark in the winter of madness – what use were they to us? In the end we were made a new Legion, the XVII Sol Invictus; and the Eagles of the Komnenoi, the Victrix, and the Fusilia were shipped back over the ocean sea, for new musters to form around. That suited us well enough; but we kept our cohort banners, and the honours of our old Legions were transferred to the Sol Invictus. That’s why the newest Legion of the Empire has more battle honours to its name than the ancient I Komnenoi.

Was it worth it, in the end? I don’t know. Perhaps the dead would say it wasn’t. But we made our choices, and lived, or died, with them. And we saved our banners. Pieces of cloth, yes; they are that. But that’s not all they are. The bodhisattva said that men do not live by bread alone; that which is eaten in memory of him, is it only bread? Men die for all sorts of reasons, from stupid quarrels to plain old age. Why shouldn’t some die for the honour of their Legions?

I served out my twenty years in the Sol Invictus, and I never found a better answer.

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The Komneniad: Penchisky Penance

I invested heavily in universities, and thus built them in fairly absurd places, such as Penchisky, well north of the Arctic Circle and on the Siberian coast. Ingame this makes perfect sense, but why would anyone in their right mind put a university in such a place? I came up with a reason for the Komnenoi to do so.

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The Komneniad: Diplomacy and Distrust

To explain the breakdown of the international system in the decades following 1730, we must carefully balance two competing models of geostrategic behaviour: The formal realist theory and the more ad-hoc statesman model.

Realist theory holds that states always act to maximise their relative power, thus increasing their security in the anarchic international system; to the extent that one can sum up a model of diplomacy in a slogan, “there is no 911″ is the slogan of realists. Realism claims to be both a prescriptive and a descriptive model: That is, it says that states should act to maximise relative power, in order to ensure the security and welfare of their citizens; and it also says that states in fact do act as it says they should. Realism does not concern itself with the internal details of states; its theorists claim show that democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, oligarchic republics, and New Guinean tribes all act according to its prescriptions. Realist theoreticians, therefore, consider states as billiard balls, varying in size, but otherwise indistinguishable.

Realism is, nevertheless, a model: Like Clausewitz’s (*) “True War”, it is a Platonic ideal that, when implemented by fallible humans, can only be approximated, never fully reached. The difference between what we might term “True Geopolitics”, the ideal of the state which always seizes any slightest possible advantage, and “Actual Geopolitics”, war and diplomacy as practised by actual humans who have – perish the thought! – hesitations, moral scruples, public opinions to deal with, a lack of complete ruthlessness, pacifistic ideals, and even in some cases actual piety – this difference, which we may call the friction of realism, can only be explained by some theory outside of realism. Such a theory must pay close attention to the internal details of states, taking indeed a diametrically opposite approach to the black box of realism. Thus we have statesman theory, which attempts to explain the actions of states in terms of what their presidents, dictators, oligarchs, or tribal chiefs were thinking at the time, and – in principle – whether their ulcers or gout had been bothering them that day.

(* This timeline doesn’t, of course, have a Clausewitz per se; but I expect that some similar theorist will arise, and to avoid confusing my readers I follow a translation convention. Similarly, this timeline won’t have a Marx, a Nietszche, or a Schrödinger by those names, but their ideas will be thought by someone, and if I need to refer to them I’ll do so by the OTL names that my readers will recognise.)

The models do, however, interact: For statesmen may, among their many other motives, be moved to act by ideas of realism, whether maintaining the balance of power or straightforwardly seeking power for their country. Indeed, the realist theoretician seeking support for his theory can easily find it in the private letters of many a diplomat or politician. At the same time, it is important not to cherry-pick: History also offers examples of famous statesmen who have expressed, even in private letters, the idea that such-and-such an act might be of great advantage for their country, but would be dishonourable and must therefore be avoided. Still more common are those who held that an act would be advantageous, but that it could not be defended to an un-cynical (or un-realist) public. It is worth noting that even in a dictatorship there are interest groups whose support must be courted, and if powerful men benefit from, say, an alliance with X, they cannot be quickly convinced of the need to betray the alliance and conquer X, no matter how beneficial that would be for the country as a whole. Indeed, it is a characteristic of dictatorships to be run for the benefit of small groups rather than the entire population; intuitively, then, we might almost expect dictatorships to be less realist than democracies, since it should be easier for other states to bribe the relatively small leadership into actions that reduce the dictatorship’s security, while increasing the personal welfare of the elite. But in fact, dictators who are straightforwardly kleptocratic are rare, and so are examples of dictators bribed to betray their country into another’s hands.

In considering the diplomatic developments surrounding the various wars of the middle eighteenth century – what at the time were called the World Wars because almost every civilised state was fighting at one time or another – we need a full appreciation of both models. One can view this period as the struggle of Catalunya for full regional hegemony in the Americas, and the construction of a balancing coalition to stop this attempt; in Europe, one can see Bavaria reaching the status of potential hegemon, and others forming an encircling coalition to reduce its power. This is the realist view. Alternatively, one can see these decades as an object lesson in the importance of trust, not institutional but personal, even between states whose self-interest dictates alliance.

At this point a summary of the major events is needed as a framework for analysis. In brief, then:
Around 1735, economic development in South America advanced to the point where its Iberian rulers felt, first, the need for a different project to absorb their energies, and second, sufficiently strong to complete their centuries-old ambition of full hemispheric hegemony. They accordingly provoked a war with the native confederation that ruled the western seaboard of North America. The piteous cries for help of that state created a coalition of Pacific powers to maintain its independence and, more to the point, prevent Catalunya from gaining access to the resources of an entire continent; it may be added that the Chinese and Roman oligarchies were not shy about asking for trading privileges in the state they were rescuing ostensibly from the sheer goodness of their hearts and an unflinching commitment to the balance of power.

At the same time, tension between Persia and the African alliance that dominated the Indian and Mediterranean seas – a tension compounded of irredentism and aggression on both sides, in that both Persia and the Caliphate could claim to be the traditional rulers of the Levant, though at this time Persia was in actual possession – boiled over into war. The African alliance was joined by Croatia, which – in the name of being the true successor of the Roman Empire, whose old capital of Constantinople it held – sought to add Anatolia to its domains.

This, however, immediately raised concern about the balance of power in Russia, Bavaria, and as far afield as China and New Byzantium. As with the American Confederation, a coalition was formed to rescue Persia from the aggressor; but this Eurasian conflict was complicated by the existence of treaties of friendship and even alliance between several pairs of belligerents on opposite sides. Thus Bavaria, for example, intervening to uphold Persian sovereignty, remained at peace with its neighbour Croatia, while fighting Croatia’s African allies as far south as the Sinai!

However, while this tactic allowed Bavaria to accomplish its goal of saving Persia from annihilation, the long-term effect was to undermine the belief, among the elite of all nations, in the sanctity of treaties. Accusations of bad faith and treaty-breaking flew even thicker than musketry volleys, and in particular the African elites came to distrust those of Russia and Persia, and vice-versa. Consequently, when Bavaria entered the American war in support of Catalunya’s ambitions – partly because Chinese diplomats, with the customary arrogance of the Middle Kingdom, had spoken to their German counterparts in terms of “loyalty to the Dragon Throne” and “the filial duty-to-obey of vassal rulers”, and been unsubtle in making threats of “the Emperor gathering all his loyal vassals to punish those who breach his peace” – it proved nearly impossible to reverse the diplomatic momentum and form a coalition against this potentially hegemonic alliance.

In particular, Persian courtiers proved nearly hysterically resistant to the idea of making common cause with their African enemies, on the grounds that the Black Empires were not to be trusted and would certainly make a separate peace at the first opportunity, and then turn again on Persia. Baghdad also contained a considerable faction who felt that Bavaria had aided them in their time of trouble, and that they owed some gratitude. Although it has been said that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests, this cold maxim is not the whole of the truth as long as decisions are made by men who remember seeing a foreign uniform march to their aid on a stricken field.

Conversely, both African and Croatian oligarchs looked askance at the idea of an alliance with the Czar; Catalunyan diplomats had an easy time of dredging up old grievances and perceived breaches of treaty by Russia. Nor was the common cause of alliance against Bavaria aided by our old friends, the Chinese mandarins, who rarely bothered to hide their contempt for anyone not trained in the Analects. In fairness to the Chinese, they may also have been frustrated by the failure of both the Black Empires and the Russian/Persian bloc to act in their own best interests, but they were also quite unable to shed their cultural assumption that an envoy of the Middle Kingdom did not need to persuade, but could simply order. Indeed in several cases negotiations broke down into harangues and browbeating of dumbfounded African diplomats, who for their part found it hard to believe that a civilised realm could so completely ignore accepted etiquette between sovereign states.

Thus in 1742 a fragile anti-Bavarian coalition collapsed when the Black Empires, citing bad faith on the part of Russia, instead joined Bavaria in attacking the eastern states; meanwhile Catalunya renewed its attacks on the American Confederation, again with Bavarian support. The fact that any state could fight effectively on two fronts, one of which was across an ocean, was widely pointed out as evidence of Bavaria’s near-hegemonic status; but events now had their own irresistible momentum, and by 1748 Croatian troops were occupying much of the Ukraine, while both Czar and Shahanshah issued communiques on the necessity of fighting to the very end, as Rome had once done.

Heads, nevertheless, had now had time to cool, and when a chastened China sent new diplomats to attempt mediation in this Vengeance War, they found the Black Empires ready to listen. Negotiations to save Russia from dismemberment and avoid the destruction of its vast armies – badly needed if any credible resistance against Bavaria was to be built – were hampered, nonetheless, by a long list of “distrust dyads”, traditional hatreds and tensions between the states:

  • Ethiopian elites refused to engage with Russia; and their Kongolese allies went so far as to state that they would not even eat a Russian noble – the ultimate insult in the empire of the Eaters.
  • Persians were paranoid about African attack.
  • Croatians carried a chip against Persia.
  • Visits from Chinese diplomats cheered nobody.
  • The Khanate retained its traditional aspiration to Russian domains in Siberia – and the Russians knew it well.
  • And, of course, everyone hated the Jews.

Against such a backdrop of personal dislikes, vendettas, insults at banquets, misunderstandings of cultural quirks – admittedly, the Kongolese habit of ostentatiously licking the lips while looking someone up and down, although usually intended for a compliment, is somewhat unnerving – it is amazing that anything could be done at all.

Excerpt from Diplomatic history of the World Wars, volume I, 1725-1748,
Andronikos son of Telemakhos,
Beijing University Press, (C) 1910.

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The Komneniad: Plain Religion

The twenty thousand Greeks who escaped the destruction of the East Roman Empire carried, in the words of their own chronicler, little physical baggage with them; fleeing destruction through the lands of their foes, they limited themselves to gold and steel. But there was no similar limit on the concepts and ideas they could carry, and they were heirs to millennial traditions of rule, citizenship, and theology. Indeed the purpose of their flight was to preserve their ideas, rather than their power or wealth – which they could have retained much better by making peace with the Persian conquerors, and ruling Anatolia as loyal subjects of the Shahanshah.

Those who joined the Long March did so because they were loyal to some idea of Rome – at least this is true of the leaders; children and wives followed fathers and husbands, and the kataphrakts fought, as soldiers will, for loyalty to their salt and their comrades. But the purpose of the exodus, the cause for which the Komnenoi abandoned great estates and a life of power and prestige (*), was that of preserving the Roman tradition as a sovereign country – indeed, in a sense, the sovereign country. In strict legal theory, the Komnenoi hold the Senate and People of Rome as the single legitimate source of authority, against which all other sovereignties are in rebellion. This tradition was part military, consisting of the horsemanship and archery of the kataphrakts – a style of fighting which, in spite of its effectiveness and several attempts by the Persians, was never revived in Europe, because all those who might have taught it were dead or fled – and, more importantly in the long run, the concept of an officer class leading a professional army. It was also partly social or ideological, in the idea that every man had a duty to serve as a soldier and to cheerfully accept discipline and authority, because that authority had been placed over him by the Senate and People of which he himself was a part. And lastly, the tradition was in part religious; if the first two concepts descended ultimately from the pagan Republic, by 1395 Orthodox Christianity, and the concept of a state church, was as much a part of the Roman idea as the legion and the Forum.

(* It is worth noting that there are still Komnenoi in Anatolia, descendants of those who did not join the exodus; and if they no longer rule through feudal privilege, they still own quite a remarkable fraction of the productive capital. As for power, it would be a careless Shahanshah indeed who deliberately offended an interest group that can so easily sway his Greek-speaking subjects. If the rural grandees now send their sons to the court at Baghdad instead of the court at Constantinople, and profess submission to Allah rather than the filioque clause – nu, in another context it was said that Paris was worth a mass. )

Alexandros and his immediate circle did not conceive of a Rome without, not only Christianity, but Christianity in the particular form it had taken in the Byzantine Empire: Patriarchs appointed by the State, with the power to settle theological disputes in council, and to withdraw the protection of law from apostates and heretics. In fact one may reasonably doubt whether, had they known that such a church was impossible in the Third Rome they were determined to build, they would have embarked on the Long March in the first place. But impossible it was, for the good and simple reason that the tribes refused to take dictation in points of theology.

Christianity was not new on the steppes; in its Nestorian form it had been preached and practiced for centuries when the Komnenoi arrived. Yet it remained one cult among many, of which the most prominent was a nominal Buddhism, strongly mixed with ancestor-worship and animism. In the first few years of the unification this did not become an issue; when the question was which tribe should rule the steppes and have the right to extract tribute from others, beliefs about the supernatural faded into the background. But once the Komnenoi had established by right of conquest that they were, in fact, the legitimate heirs of Genghis and Tamerlane, the question arose: Just what did this legitimacy entitle them to do, apart from extracting tribute and sending out the war-arrow?

The Komnenoi, acting on habits inherited from a thousand years of State-sponsored Christianity, felt that one obvious answer was, “require the tribes to worship as we specify”. The tribes, on the other hand, saw the problem with a fresh eye, uncluttered by structures developed for rule in settled lands. They quickly pointed out that Komnenoi propaganda, on which their crucial ability to recruit tribal allies rested, had been based on an alleged connection between the Roman custom of equality between citizens, and the tribal custom of equality between warriors. But the latter did not include any particular prescription for what the warrior should believe about spirits or ancestors, provided he was loyal to his salt and fought well. If the Roman conception of equality did have such a provision – then suddenly the promises to be no more than the first among equals in a struggle against the hierarchical settled states looked rather like mendacious propaganda of the very finest stripe.

Below this fine theoretical point, of course, lay the sharper reality that the tribesmen were no fools. The steppes might be a backwater, but they were not completely isolated from the outer world; they could see how state-organised religion was used as a tool of control, and they wanted no part of it. They were willing to accept Komnenoi primacy in matters of tribute and levies because that primacy had been established on the battlefield and could only be maintained there, and also because the Komnenoi had carefully supported relatively weak tribes against relatively strong ones in their initial divide-and-rule diplomacy; there was therefore a mutual interest in maintaining Komnenoi primacy. But to give the Komnenoi a tool of control that did not rest on battlefield strength was to give them something for nothing, and this the tribes uniformly resisted. They could foresee their children or grandchildren fighting in some Komnenos war not because it was good for the tribe, but because a Patriarch appointed in New Byzantium had called them to do so. A solid bond based on mutual advantage and military strength was one thing; intangible loyalty to an ideal that was under the control of one party was quite another.

This was not to say that the tribesmen resisted conversion; as always, Christianity had much to offer as a theology of the downtrodden. But individual faith was no threat to the tribal system. Comparison with the analogous case of the Christianisation of Scandinavia may be instructive: In that case, kings found Christianity a useful tool as against their fractious nobles – they could foresee the children of the present generation supporting throne against clan because a bishop appointed by the king had said it was right, and consequently they imposed the faith by fire and sword. On the pagan side, nobody had objected to individual conversions, which were no threat to the position of the nobles; it was when the Kings claimed the right to make everyone pray to the White Christ, and obey their bishops, that the regional grandees took up arms.

The Komnenoi, however, ruled explicitly by appeal to the legitimacy of warrior brotherhood, and implicitly by military superiority to any single tribe and their consequent ability to divide and conquer. They could not resist a united demand to back off, or else. And as it became clear that State-appointed bishops were the one thing that the tribes would not tolerate, the Komnenoi displayed once again their famous ability to triage: They dropped, almost as one man, the attempt to impose a state church.

This did not mean that they dropped the attempt to Christianise the tribes; that was both a heartfelt religious duty – it must be noted, in this analysis of religion as dominance relationships and cynical maneuverings, that many of the Komnenoi were genuinely pious and felt actual anguish at the thought of their subjects burning in Hell – and a slower means to the same end of imposing a State church. Christian tribes, presumably, would not object as strongly to appointed bishops as did pagan-Buddhist tribes.

This strategy had the advantage of not causing the overthrow of the Komnenos state a few decades after its creation. But it had a hidden weakness, squarely in the blind spot of monotheistic religions: It assumed that, because Christianity was true, it would eventually prevail. In fact, for the Komnenoi, all of twenty thousand strong, to attempt the conversion of two million pagan tribesmen was much like a drop of ink trying to blacken a bucket of milk. The end result is milk that is, perhaps, a little greyer than the next bucket, but ink that is not very black at all.

Likewise, the Komnenoi of the eighteenth century, by which time the homogenisation process was more or less complete, were certainly nominally Christian; they believed, indeed, that Jesus had preached peace and performed miracles, had been crucified, and had risen from the dead. They still made icons of various saints and of the Virgin Mary. But these facts are cherry-picked; they are not the full picture. They also believed that Jesus was one of many bodhisattvas, especially righteous men who had chosen not to break free of the cycle of suffering and reincarnation, but rather to aid others in accomplishing that end. Their saints had become, in effect, local gods or protecting spirits in the style of Hinduism and popular Buddhism (as opposed to its theology). This is not unknown to other Christian traditions, many of the saints having been absorbed from local spirits in the first place, but the extent to which the Komnenoi were willing to declare any tribal ancestor or river-spirit a saint was unusual. Further, the Bible’s words on bodily resurrection had come to be reinterpreted in terms of reincarnation; a monastic approach with an emphasis on personal development, rather than communal piety, was emphasized, and the list of borrowings from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism could be extended almost indefinitely.

If one were to construct a vector space for classifying religions, one would find that what the Komnenoi (and their tribal subjects) believed and practiced in the eighteenth century was, as far as its surface appearances and public rituals went, still quite close to contemporary practice in Christian Europe; but that the substance of its theology was much closer to Eastern ideas.

In a sense, of course, this did not matter: Theology, by construction, consists of beliefs about things that are not empirically testable, and which therefore have no effect on men’s actions. That is, it is not completely unknown for deeply religious men to insist that their god will intervene to save them, and therefore fight hopeless battles rather than submit; but it is rare. When it comes to making actual decisions, the deist position, that no god’s aid is to be relied upon, is much more common. But while belief in divine intervention is rare, belief in the righteousness of particular beliefs is not; and humans have been known to use force to impose correct belief. Thus, the long war on the crumbling steppe frontier was made particularly vicious by the (quite reasonable!) Russian belief that the Komnenoi were not only infidels, but apostates and/or heretics as well. (One might remark in passing that for any single religion to plausibly collect all three of these epithets is a perhaps unparalleled achievement. The Komnenoi were infidels in that they believed in various spirits, apostates in having left the mainstream Christian faith, and heretics in that they held uncanonical beliefs about Jesus.) Nor was viciousness ameliorated by the existence of a Moslem Punjab, making not only the territorial but also the religious struggle three-cornered.

Excerpt from The Plain Religion: A Study of Christianity in Siberia,
Carlos Three Bears Santiago,
(C) Fighting Navajo(tm) Publishing Company, 1993.

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