In which Venice strives to retain its cultural superiority and maintain the integrity of its chosen format, but is sabotaged at every turn by characters who think being funny is as easy as referring to the works of others.
June 8th, 1691
Spanish Kongo, near the coast
The Spanish infantry came up the road at their slow march, eighty steps to the minute; they were in no hurry, conserving their strength against the blazing African sun. Why not? The Norwegian expeditionary force was, obviously, entrenching at Luanda, hoping to hold hastily-dug earthworks long enough for their fleet to evacuate. There was certainly no question of a pitched battle. Outside of Jaguar Knights, no army in the world tried to face Spanish infantry in the open on anything like equal terms.
Johann bared his teeth, not liking the thought, but it was true. Even this imperial garrison, troops sent to keep the natives under control in a poor backwater, marched with a precision and alertness he would have loved to see in his own men. The Norwegian army recruited from a far smaller population than that of vast Spain, and the open lands of the American frontier gave its poor better options than following the colours. Worse, the Navy got the pick of such recruits as did arrive. The army was left with the dregs of the dregs, the men too dull or brutal even to work as farm labourers. Of the hundred men in Johann’s company, only two were above 170 centimeters – and one of them was Johann.
Still, size wasn’t everything. The Spaniards thought they had the Norwegians cornered – and though they weren’t, precisely, wrong, they had perhaps forgotten in which circumstances a rat fights best. There was no fighting the elite regiments recruited in the Spanish highlands on equal terms; but an ambush on a narrow road was anything but equal. Johann had even allowed the native auxiliaries to pass, in spite of the immense chaos even his second-rate European troops could inflict on such. He could wipe out every native regiment in the Kongo without much affecting Spanish strength for a pitched battle. The resulting rebellion might flare through the region for a decade, but that would do the Norwegians no good. No, Johann wanted the real thing: Castilians, Catalunyans, Andalucians – the fighting heart of the garrison. A harder target, but a better one as well.
The Spanish regiment’s banner crossed the line Johann had mentally marked for himself, and he nodded to Espen, his second-in-command and the other man in the company taller than 170 centimeters. “Right, it’s time.” Espen nodded back and lit the fuse of his grenade, rising up to fling it down at the Spanish troops with a yell. That was the signal, and scruffy men in half-ragged uniforms – supplies to this distant theater were hit and miss, but being honest, even at the best of times Johann’s men were more likely to sell their uniform buttons than to polish them – rose all around them, bringing their muskets to bear and firing. There was no kind of coordination to the volley, but at twenty paces and with complete surprise it hardly mattered.
“Storm!” Johann shouted, pointing with his sword for a moment and then charging himself. Espen would follow, he knew, so he wasn’t really attacking a Spanish regiment all by himself. Still, it was a vast relief when he heard the answering yells of his men, and the howling of his own natives. Half-naked savages, armed with spears, not even the cheap trade muskets that Spain gave to its auxiliaries and that would blow up after fifty shots; but they’d guided him to this excellent ambush spot, and spears were just what was wanted for the close-up fighting that would follow.
The Spaniards, surprised or not, reacted with professional speed and violence, turning to face their attackers with bayonets at the ready. One man had apparently been marching with a loaded musket, endangering himself and his comrades in violation of all regulation; but his hasty shot hit someone, so perhaps his sergeant would only strip off half his skin, if he lived. Then the ambushers were in among the Spanish, who for all their speed hadn’t had time to form the line of bayonets that would have held their enemies off. Every man had eighteen inches of good Toledo steel in front of him, but the rear ranks hadn’t stepped into the holes left by the Norwegian volley, and so many men were left without someone on their flank. Johann swept aside a bayonet with his sword, then reversed the stroke to slash into the soldier’s throat. The momentum of their downhill charge carried him past the man’s falling body. He shouldered into the next Spaniard, conscious of the need to get through them not just into them; if they got bogged down in fighting here it was all over. He cursed the height, the sheer mass, of the well-fed Castilians; the contrast to his own stunted men was exaggerated by the huge conical caps they wore, and would give them an advantage in this kind of push-and-shove fighting. Still, even with their caps they were not ten feet tall; only six and a half, and the colonial road was narrow, making them march only four abreast. With another slash of his sword he was through them. He ran another ten paces, then stopped and turned. Risky as it was, his company would have to form up and make at least a brief pause before retreating, or he’d lose half of it to panic. “Rally here!” he shouted, spreading his arms to indicate the line. Espen, stopping twenty yards further up the road, took up the shout, and his men began to trickle into line, turning to face the dazed Spaniards. There wouldn’t be all that many men actually dead in the enemy regiment, but it would be an hour, or perhaps two, before it could be got into order and start marching again, and meanwhile it would hold up every man, ammunition cart, and gun behind it.
Some of his men, carried away by the heat of the moment, were stopping to fight it out with their immediate enemies, forgetting that they were outnumbered. That couldn’t be helped. Many of the natives were getting stuck as well, their spears flashing in the sun or dripping red. Those who were willing to take arms against their overlords were the ones with strong grievances, of the sort that made a man forget his own safety when he could finally strike back, if only for a single red minute. Johann shrugged mentally; they couldn’t expect to repeat this close-quarters ambush – the Spanish would keep scouts out, now, which would slow them further – and the spear-armed natives would not be much use in the open field, nor could they be evacuated. If they died taking Spanish soldiers with them, their purpose would be served.
As many men had formed up as were going to; he whistled sharply, cutting through the shouts and screams of pain. “Retreat, double-time!” he ordered. A few stray shots pursued them – impressively fast loading; the fighting hadn’t lasted more than half a minute – but no soldiers, which was a pity. Another company was waiting to cover their retreat, but it seemed they’d have no customers; the famed Spanish discipline would save them some deaths.
Deaths, but not delay; Johann grinned savagely as he ran. The Spanish would move more cautiously after this, would probe the hills for ambush and trap. Every hour was another company marching off a Luanda dock. He would escape this horrible sauna, would return home with his life and with a victory to his name. He looked behind him at where the Spaniards, recovering from their confusion, were mopping up the last natives.
Not today, then; but sooner or later the Spanish Empire must run out of men to hold their natives down. Then there would be blood and fire all across Africa. Today’s work was only a tiny chip in a vast edifice. But with enough chips it would all come tumbling down.
Death to Spain.
Against Spain, merely escaping with our lives is victory; though defeated, the battle lasted long enough for the ships to arrive.
“I had a dream,” the merchant said;
something there was in it, that made us listen.
“Spires and minarets and towers,
built in ivory and alabaster,
gleaming white in the noonday sun.
Tall ships came to that city,
our power and our pride,
brought on shining sails.
There every man was a trader,
in spice or tea or fierce-colored silk,
and none bore sword or pike.
Laughing women carried water.
The jewel-colored birds flew.
For God’s sake give me water,
cut one-fourth with wine;
it’s thirsty work, dreaming!
Fever dreams, you say?
It may be so; but listen.
Is not Christendie ruled
by the Prince of Peace?
Bring me wine, cut one-half with water;
it’s thirsty work, laughing.
They nailed him to a cross,
the Romans; and he brought not
peace, but a sword.
The ships came home.
Kings dressed in silk;
dukes ate their meats spiced.
And what then?
Men who wear silk
may still move counters on maps.
Yet there is much room
in a ship’s hold.
Silk enough for all;
men who wear silk
do not follow the drum.
May not Dives bring peace
though the man who told his story
is invoked to bless armies?
They don’t like to fight,
men who can drink tea daily.
Yes, a dream. But think:
Is there not gold in the East?
Gold will bring no peace,
but it rings sweetly
and glitters in sunlight;
a man can throw gold coins in the air
and let them rain down on his head,
and take no harm from it.
For gold you can buy wine
– cut it one-fourth with water;
it’s thirsty work, talking.
If peace gives you no pleasure,
what of gold? There’s gold in
the Eastern cities, sure;
and jewels, not only on birds’ wings.
Send the tall ships east,
the power and the pride,
and bring them home laden with gold.
You can bathe in gold,
and save water for drinking.”
We left him there,
shaking with his fever;
but we bought him wine.
It’s thirsty work, dying.
Fever dreams? Surely.
But something there was in it
that made us listen, and stop,
and look around. And when we did,
our heads turned east.
We had drunk the night away,
and the sun was rising.
My strategy is decided: I ally with England and turn east, heading across the Suez for Asia. By diplomatic means (rumours of mind-control rays are so two AARs ago) I have acquired a strip of land connecting the Med to the Red Sea, and can thus project power into the Indian Ocean, and in principle onto the subcontinent; also south into uncolonised Africa. The spice must flow!
The first session did not entirely meet my expectations. I vassalised the Pope, but this was roughly speaking my only success; I lost the union with Milan to the untimely death of my converted Doge, and after I wasted a hundred dip points on the annex, too. I reconquered most of it, but unfortunately I had to fight that war at exactly the time that Byzantium’s vassals rebelled, thinking they were going to get support from me and Russia. Well, they did get support from Russia, but, gentlemen, can I have a moment here? Just because I support your independence doesn’t mean I’m going to put up with any insolence from half of Northern Italy. So instead of a nice two-front pincer crushing what was left of Byzantium’s armies after his peasant rebellions, he rallied every last fighting German in the world, destroyed Russia’s zombie hordes (I am reliably assured that those armies were drastically mismanaged), and is currently metaphorically looking westward (to where I’m standing with my dagger not precisely in his kidney, but not precisely out of that general area either) with one eyebrow raised, saying without words “Yes Venice? Was there something you wanted?” Well, right now I would like some white peace, and also perhaps a bit of empathy for small powers led into bad decisions by the wicked examples of Big Empires. It wasn’t my fault, all the cool Russias were doing it… I suppose a sympathy province is out of the question?
I did reach admin and mil tech 4; I’m holding off on diplomatic tech because in my present situation marketplaces are useless, so I may as well maximise the neighbor discount. Additionally, exploration is a strong contender for my first idea group, in which case I’ll have need for my diplomacy points elsewhere.
Mediterranean, 1455. New Venetian provinces picked out in red. Note the disappearance of the Mamluks, what used to be Syria; Persia now has access to the Middle Sea.
January 10th, 1642
It was, of course, raining; a drizzling, chilly rain with more than a hint of ice in it, driven by a gusting wind off the North Sea. Even in his good down-lined fur cloak, Greger felt the water creep into sleeves and down his neck, chilling him to the bone; the watching crowd muttered and stamped, shivering in patched woollens. There was a notable lack of furs, linens, and other finery. Hangings were usually a popular entertainment with the merchant class as much as with the commons; but not today. Today the wealthy were staying home; it was not the custom for executions to cut them close to the bone, and they had no stomach for it. But their absence was more than made up for by the poor, even though the crowd had a noticeable lack of bearded faces. The women of Nordnes had turned out in force, and brought their sons not yet of fighting age; widows and orphans there were enough of in Bergen, in this year 1642. But their men had not come with them.
The prisoners came out single file – line ahead, Greger corrected himself with dark amusement; these were naval men – not-quite-marching to the slow tap-tap-tap of a single drum. They were five, today. There had been more, many more, through all the grim days of December; tens and twenties had hanged daily before the muttering crowds, only Christmas Day bringing a pause. But these were the last and the highest-ranked, men with connections at court and friends everywhere but the streets of Bergen; even to this morning there had been rumours that they would escape the noose – and people in the ministries working to make it so. But here they were, D’Herrer Admiraler – the Lords of the Admiralty: The five men in charge of naval policy, and therefore responsible, beyond all others, for the Battle of the Cape. The five who would show, even more than the hundreds of lesser functionaries who had strangled and kicked here through the past three months, that the MacRaghnall court understood the plight of its seafaring population, and would honour their grief with reform. New brooms sweep best; and after today nobody could doubt that there were new brooms at the Admiralty. There were no old ones left. From the newest writ-servers and letter-copiers, to these very rulers of the Norse Navy, every last one had been swept out in the most final way possible, here on the Nordnes Oak.
The prisoners walked heads up, not precisely defiant, but not acknowledging guilt, either. Greger had to work to meet their eyes; over the winter he’d watched a round thousand men kick their lives away here, and he was a veteran of bloody fields, but these were men he knew. Teodor Ragnvaldsen, the Fifth Lord, was even a relation by marriage, husband of his wife’s cousin; the others he’d met on occasions of state and at balls and dances, hunts and parties. Now they were dead men, walking – as are we all, always, he reminded himself; but there was a difference between ten minutes and ten years – and yet they had done nothing but their best, as Gregor well knew. They were being hanged, not because anyone really thought they were traitors – though treason was their official crime – but to appease the mob; a sacrifice of a few, to save most of the upper classes from revolution. But for the chance that the defeat had been at sea and not on land, it might easily have been Greger walking up the thirteen steps of the Nordnes Oak, and Teodor marking him to his place, struggling to look him in the eye.
They knelt before the bishop – a single concession to their rank; everyone else had been shriven by priests – for the confession and Viaticum. The hangman fitted their nooses; then it was Greger’s turn.
“Johan MacRaghnall, Eirik Stenkil, Roar Randale, Steinar Rosendal, Teodor Ragnvaldsen” – he gave them their order of rank, but left off their titles for the bare names, just as their uniforms had been stripped of buttons and insignia – “for the crime of high treason, you have been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, which shall be done this day before noon. Do you have any last words?”
The First Lord shook his head, tight-lipped, but Teodor spoke: “I hope someone is encouraged by this.” Gregor winced inwardly at the bitterness in the jest, but did not let anything show on his face. All these men had fought storm and gunpowder; but to stand under an oaken beam with a thirteen-coiled knot on your neck, and find it in you to make a quip – that was something else again, that went beyond the ordinary courage of seamen and soldiers. He met Teodor’s eyes and nodded, gravely, letting him know that one man, at least, had understood what he did. Then he spoke; no sense in drawing it out, since nobody else had anything to say.
“Execute the sentence.”
I think I see a host of ships
spreading their sails i’lee
as down the Channel they do glide
bound for a Southern sea.
I think I see them yet again,
and all on board’s all right,
with their guns run in
and their decks washed clean
and their sidelights burning bright.
A people that makes its living from the sea will necessarily suffer its share of disasters from storm and tide; and a great imperial power does not come into being without paying the price of admiralty. But the Battle of the Cape stands out, in Norwegian folk-memory, far beyond the everyday losses of feeding the sea. To lose ships and men in battle or storm was one thing; to lose almost the entire Kongelige Leidangsflåte in a single engagement was something else again, and the shock reverberated through Norse society like the tolling of a great bell. There was no family near the coast – and all of Norway is near the coast! – that had not lost a son or brother; only the timely hanging of a thousand clerks and officers of the Admiralty, the infamous Purge of Forty-Two, prevented a full and bloody revolution from breaking out. Even so late as 1680 labour agitators in Bergen stirred a vicious riot by spreading the rumour that Eirik Stenkil, the Second Lord, had escaped and that the authorities had hanged another man in his place.
A seafaring folk naturally had its songs and stories to describe, and thus soften, the grief of loss at sea. After such a blow as the Battle of the Cape, the existing body of mournful ballads were pressed into service (an apt metaphor, with the literal press-gangs roaming far beyond their accustomed coastal cities, hunting for crews to man the replacement navy) for this new disaster.
October night was such a night
was never seen before
with masts and yards and broken spars
come drifting to the shore.
There was many a heart in sorrow,
there was many a heart full brave;
there was many a hearty sailor lad
did find a watery grave.
Thus, for example, the curious case of “Three Score and Ten”, which for some centuries has puzzled scholars with its anomalies; although by common consent of those from whom it was collected it refers to the Cape, it is hard to see how any battle off southern Africa, no matter how bloody, could plausibly lead to any flotsam on the coast of Norway! The discovery of a collection of songs from 1623, twenty years before the battle, makes it clear that “Three Score and Ten” in fact refers to an older catastrophe, probably the Storm of 1611, which did cause a measureable uptick in the number of flotsam claims brought before the sea-courts in that year.
And it’s three score and ten,
boys and men,
were lost from Grimstad town;
from Tromsø down to Arendal
many thousands more were drowned.
The men of war, the frigates
the merchantmen as well
alone they fought the bitter fight
and battled with the swell.
To lose seventy men from such a flyspeck town as Grimstad is a disaster of epic proportions, and could be dismissed as hyperbole or artistic license if not for the careful record-keeping of the Admiralty at Bergen, whose paybooks indeed do show sixty-eight entries “Missing, presumed dead” for the year 1642 – from Henrik Tarvaldsen, 11, cabin boy on frigate Kong Ragnvald, to Arne Olsen, at 57 surely one of the oldest men in the fleet, bosun of the first-rate Sleipnir. It is unlikely that either one drowned, although that was no doubt the most common cause of death in the original fishing disaster; in a clash of ships-of-the-line, wooden splinters the size of a man’s head, flung about at half the speed of sound by cannon impacts, were the likeliest killer, followed by musketry. Young Henrik would likely have been sent to the orlop deck, below the waterline, before the battle started, and thus would have been safe from either threat; he probably died of fever clearing the Malayan jungle for a spice plantation.
In one sense, the memory of the Cape in song and story was the least of the changes it wrought on Norse society – as no doubt those thousand-or-so Admiralty bureaucrats who paid with their lives for the mistakes of others would agree. In another sense, it is through symbols that humans understand their world; such a sea change as occurred in Norway’s ballads in the 1640s is the expression as well as the companion of a society-wide revolution – in the original sense of everything being turned upside down. The old Kongelige Leidangsflåte was abolished, each ship-district being to pay a fixed sum of money directly to the King for his use instead of outfitting a ship more or less as it saw fit; the new navy thus raised was given the name of Nordsjøflåte, denoting its task of sea control. Between the losses at the Cape and the Purge, it had almost no continuity with the old fleet that descended from the Viking ship-muster. The ships, too, were built to a uniform new design, with three rather than two masts and more guns; there would be no more idiosyncratic sixty-three gun third-rates from the outlying districts. Finally, as if to underline the completeness of the break with tradition, it was decreed that the new ships should bear no dragons’ heads in time of war, as had been the custom from pagan times; only upon returning from a victorious campaign, the Fleet Order of 1645 laid out, should the dragons’ heads be raised, as a special privilege and reward for success. Until victory was assured, the Nordsjøflåte was instead to carry on its ships’ prows a broomstick, a silent reminder both of its task of sweeping the sea clear of enemies, and of the motto of the Purge.
New brooms sweep best.
God of our Fathers, the first part of Recessional, is at an end; 240 years of crusade, dynastic dynamics, and backstabbing are at an end. Poland, France, and Hungary have been ground to dust. Persia has suffered the far worse fate of being corrupted from within, and is now a puppet in the hands – say rather, the manipulative organs – of the thing that rules Egypt, the heart of darkness. Now we enter the age of exploration and colonies, pike and musket, sail and broadside; we are done with wars to please our gods, and will now openly struggle only for Dominion over Palm and Pine.
Venice enters this new era in an un-enviable (perhaps even un-viable) strategic position. I was constantly at war for the last fifteen years of CK, and consequently convert with no money and practically no army. Moreover, I’m surrounded by much bigger empires: To my east is Byzantium, south is the African Republic (which just kicked me out of Libya), north is my ally Germany, and west is, of course, the Wicked Warden of the West, the English Empire – occupier of the Mediterranean islands, largest naval power, enforcer of embargos, and all-around bully. My chances of winning a war with any of these powers are, to put it mildly, not good. My one major strategic asset is control of the Venice end-node and most of its provinces. It is fortunate, then, that I am playing a dynasty long noted for its lust for gold, rather than land or soldiers or glory. Wealth that cannot be quickly packed into a getaway bag and stashed on the back of a fast horse is not true wealth; land and cattle and even ships are merely a means to the end of acquiring gold, lovely bright gold coins that glitter and gleam and chime sweetly when flung up in the air to rain down over your head… ahem. As I was saying, although my main strength is economic, it is clear that to become a significant power in Victoria, I’ll need to parley that gold into soldiers, while sitting in the middle of major empires with a lot of soldiers out looking for gold. Not a happy situation. Some diplomacy may be called for.
So what are my diplomatic options? As mentioned, Germany has been my ally for some time; and as he has no navy to speak of, but can muster a large army, our strengths complement while our ambitions do not clash; the Alps are a Schelling point for a border. Germany is, however, embroiled in a lengthy conflict with Denmark over the Baltic coastline, which to be fair was Danish before it was German. Denmark has for a considerable time been an English vassal/ally; if England comes in, I doubt Germany can hold the line. (Indeed England tried that quite a few times in CK, but was only able to get CBs involving claims by minor countlets, who all unaccountably died a few months after the DOWs were delivered.) Allying with Germany is not, at any rate, a short-term play.
East is Byzantium; that border has been peaceful for three centuries, but this does not translate into adventurism in the Western Med. Byzantium is skirmishing with Russia over the Balkans and with Persia over eastern Anatolia; the last thing they need is another front. Which does suggest that a teamup with Persia might be a viable strategy, traditional enemy and puppets of the Jackal though they are. But I can’t say I’m too excited about acquiring a lot of wrong-culture, wrong-religion, not-too-developed, inland Balkan provinces. A similar objection applies to expanding into Russian Hungary (perhaps with Byzantine aid since they’re already in that fight), though I did try this in CK. (And it would have worked, too, if not for the damn lag that made me five days late to that decisive battle.) Additionally, Russia has a long tradition of squealing for English help whenever the going gets rough, and getting it too.
The African Republic has been an enemy of Venice since it was the Castilian Kingdom; but as they have finally acquired my Libyan colony that they spent two hundred years drooling for, perhaps they have no further territorial ambitions in the Med? At any rate I’m prepared to let poor provinces full of dark-skinned people be bygones; Libya is an expendable out-march for an Italian power. (Which is why I spent exactly zero CK ducats building it up, though I can’t speak for my vassals.) With the core reason for our traditional hostility gone, an alliance here might be possible. As with Germany, there’s a natural border, the Med; unlike Germany, though, our strengths match instead of complementing – we’re both naval-ish powers. A possibility, at any rate.
What of Persia? Admittedly it would be a deal with the devil, but eh, after all I play Crusader Kings. An alliance pact with an alien entity intent on the enslavement of mankind and the return of the old gods that demanded human sacrifice won’t break into the top ten questionable things I’ve done. The question is what commonality of interest we can find; I’ve already noted the problems with attacking Byzantium, and as for Africa, who is going to get the resulting provinces?
And then there’s England. Much of CK’s diplomacy revolved around various people’s attempts to form a coalition against England; it would be just my luck to throw in my lot with Baron just as somebody finally succeeds. And, of course, he has those Mediterranean islands, and the end-node in Genoa is obviously mine by right. On the other side, England is much the most powerful nation around, which works to its allies’ advantage in two ways: One, when he hits your enemies they stay down, two, everyone’s keeping a careful eye out to see he doesn’t grow any bigger. So a large amount of the spoils of war can go to small-but-useful vassal-allies.
Many options, none obviously excellent, all mutually exclusive, and picking the wrong one means death. Still, the Aiello have survived the back streets of Venice, where men are occasionally murdered for the clothes they’re wearing. The truly poor know what it means to make alliances, to pick the best among bad options, to choose the strategic moment to change sides. The stakes have been raised, from ragged shirts to rich provinces; but the game remains the same. How hard can it be?
Custom ideas of Venice. I am disappointed that EU4 doesn’t show flavor text for the traditions and ambition; here they are:
- Azure Three Bezants (Trade Steering +10%): The founder of the Aiello family had a legendary nose for a good deal, and the talent has not deserted his descendants.
- Crossroads of the World (-5% Tech Cost): All the world comes to Venice, and all its best ideas, too.
- The Rods and the Axe (+7.5% Discipline): Behind every Venetian soldier stands the shadow of a Roman Legionnaire, reminding him that to run is death.
Europe, 1444. Note that apart from vassals, we have several large personal unions, so the map is less fractured than it looks: Milan is in a union with Venice, Saxony with Germany, Novgorod with Lithuania (better known as Russia), Sweden with Denmark, and Burgundy with England.
Although the Indian Ocean Standoff was so named because the antagonists’ fleets mainly just glared at each other, it was not completely without incident in the early stages. We had some skirmishes like this one:
in which the entire Scottish fleet would surprise Malayan scouting detachments. (I guess? Maybe they were antipirate patrols.) There was also the invasion of Malta, where Malaya had stationed about 20 ships, whom I forced out of port by taking the fort, defeated soundly – and then watched helplessly as the “retreat-to-friendly-port” function kicked in and they sailed around all of bloody Africa in a state of complete immunity to attack, right past the 500 ships of the Royal Navy. Not Paradox’s finest moment, perhaps; how about a max-province-retreat parameter?
At any rate. Although I didn’t take a screenshot, there was one battle in which my entire fleet, 450 bigships, fought exactly one Malayan frigate. Allowing for the usual factor 10 in EU3’s army and fleet sizes, this comes to roughly 50 ships against one. So you have to wonder, what on Earth are the guys aboard the one ship thinking?
Their enemies called them the Sea People, and for three millennia no human has known their origin or their language. The few scraps of their writing we possess has resisted all attempts at translation, although its glyphs are common with Linear B, a script we know well; assigning the same syllabary produces sounds that are mainly liquidly unintelligible, the exceptions being the ones that are throatily unpronounceable. Few people study so unrewarding a subject; the ones who do tend to invent gods and rituals unknown to any other culture, and find correspondences with languages ranging from Phoenician to Sanskrit (*).
To read what their enemies said of them is a little more fruitful; based on consonant resemblances in the Egyptian names “Shardana” and “Shekelesh”, their homeland has been placed in Sardinia and Sicily. Left unexplained is how these small islands are supposed to have supported enough fighting men to invade and topple the Great Powers of the Levant. For where the Sea People went, cities burned.
The Collapse of the Twelfth Century is, so far as we can tell, the first time that civilisation ceased to spread over a wide region, and a Dark Age descended on what had been the domain of thriving empires. Four hundred years later the Greeks invented a word, ‘cyclopean’, to explain how the ruined works of the previous Golden Age had come to be. They could not believe that mere humans had moved such immense blocks of stone to make buildings, and created instead a race of giants to be the builders. That is the nature of a Dark Age: When men lose not only the knowledge of how to do a thing, but also the knowledge that once it could be done. And the inscriptions and tablets that are closest to the layer of ash that marks the transition, those that were written in the years or months or days before the end, uniformly speak of “the ships of the enemy”.
It is currently fashionable to suggest that it was caused by climate change and a cascade of earthquakes, and that the Sea People were merely the final straw – or, in some accounts, not even a contributing cause of the collapse, but merely opportunists who moved into a power vacuum, perhaps fleeing similar troubles in their homelands. And it is true that the pollen deposits show a vast century-long drought all across the Fertile Crescent, and that there are many cities where pillars and walls lie tumbled in ways characteristic of the earth shaking rather than deliberate destruction. But as we shall see, these factors do not exculpate the Sea People.
Sea People captives.
For where, if not Sicily, did they come from? At Medinet Habu there was a relief, currently at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, which shows captives of the Sea People, their elbows tied together, kilted and wearing elaborate head-dresses. A typical Egyptian depiction of a defeated barbarian tribe. And yet, when we examine them more closely, there is something disquieting about these particular barbarians; a vague discomfort, which other reliefs are incapable of evoking. Are not their fingers a little too long? Their feet, too, seem out of proportion even to their elongated legs, almost as though the artist had intended to depict flippers. And the faces – they are flat-nosed, broad-lipped; the pupil-less eyes bulge whitely from the oddly narrow foreheads. The phrase was three thousand years in the future; but the unknown Egyptian artist has perfectly captured the thing itself, the “Innsmouth look”.
It all falls into place: The insistent identification of the invaders with the sea; the lack of an identifiable homeland; the alien gods; the inscrutable language, unrelated to any human tongue; above all, the utter fury of the destruction of the cities. At Ugarit the layer of ash is two meters deep; the very walls are reduced to piles of shapeless rubble. Why this complete devastation, far beyond what might have been caused by an attack, if not to deny beloved homes to an invader too cold, too inhuman, for his touch to be borne? Again and again we find the pattern: Cities systematically burned to the ground, sometimes with signs of fighting, sometimes not, but always destroyed with cold, relentless fury. These are not the acts of humans fighting human enemies, to whom submission (and hence survival) may be possible. The city burners acted in despair and horror, far beyond what could be caused by a mere conquest.
The drought and the earthquakes, too, fit into the pattern: The Hound is known thus to weaken its enemies long before armies clash. Its human pawns are the least of its powers; always, where its soldiers go, its servants have been there first, gnawing relentlessly at the walls of cities, spreading secret rot and corruption. A rash of earthquakes is simply what happens, when the fault lines are steadily weakened for a century beforehand.
The single remaining question is this: Why is it that the Levant, and indeed the world, is not ruled by these people of the sea? They drove all before them, all across the Fertile Crescent; and yet when the Greeks, the Medes, and the Persians arrived from their respective hinterlands, they expanded into near-empty lands, in which scattered farmers eked out a living where there had been thriving empires. We know what happened to the men who lived there; but what of their conquerors?
The answer must lie in Egypt, in the desert. There is an ancient temple there, where for uncounted centuries the Hound lay dreaming; somehow the Egyptians bound it there, and sealed the mortar with blood. It cost them dear: The Old Kingdom was never the same again. But the captives of Medinet Habu were the least of the human victories in this struggle.
From The Longer War: The First Victory,
Dr William Wilcox,
Miskatonic University Press, (C) 1992.
(*) I am not making this up.
I recently read “1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed”; I recommend it strongly, though you have to take into account that the author is a respectable academic and cannot afford to publish every truth that he might come across in his investigations. Obviously the facts are well known to people who actually study this sort of thing, but there are limits to what you can say in public; tenure is only so powerful.
There was a strong expectation that this week would be our last CK session; to almost everyone’s surprise, we did not get the required two-thirds majority for conversion, and will play the final seven years of CK as well. However, preparations for the conversion went on apace; most pertinently, England attempted to embargo Germany (in effect, Venice), interfering with the vital flow of spice all across the Mediterranean in order to gain a few thousand paltry ducats for last-minute buildings. There being little to be done about that, I moved my army out of the way and watched him stand about at 99% warscore for three years; then I declared independence from Germany, ending his war since the CB was no longer valid. (This is actually against the rules, but Fivoin was absent and the ruling had slipped my mind.) The game engine called it the Venetian War of Independence, but the “War of Trolling Baron” is clearly a better name. Baron immediately renewed his war, this time against Venice, which he would have won; however, he made a mistake by asking Khan to assassinate me. (It may be of note that I was studying forbidden knowledge at the time, and may have had the power to cloud men’s minds.) Khan has found some exploit that lets him reliably kill people in three months; when my Doge died, his independence war against Germany ended – and Baron’s war against independent Venice also disappeared. Some howls of laughter may have occurred.
Desperate times, desperate measures.
Baron, nothing if not optimistic, re-declared against Germany; once again I ran out the clock of the no-major-battles warscore cap and then DOWed for independence. Baron once again re-DOWed against me, but with a territory CB instead of the embargo – a misclick? However, since my independence shenanigans were, as noted, against the rules, we’ll likely edit this and he’ll get his money in the end.
Central Med, 1437. Alas, Africa is lost to an opportunistic assault by Dragoon; Venice is now much the smallest power in Europe.