Children of the Fatherland: To Hold the East

Extracts from To Hold the East, a documentary about the Byzantine civil disorders of 1095-1115. (Which should not be confused with the Byzantine civil disorders of 1066-1076 or the Byzantine civil disorders of 1080-1089.)

(View: Burning villages, horsemen riding down a fleeing child, someone screaming in the background. Then Constantinople, and we swoop down through an office window to see a fat man in silk signing papers. As we come in closer we can see that they refer to “the recent scandal of the Strategos Manuel Boutoumites and the courtesan Antheia”.)

Voiceover: The first decade of the twelfth century saw the old scenes of war and disruption repeated yet again over the western half of the Empire, as overmighty vassals extended their power. With a child on the throne, Constantinople was in disarray, the factions (bureaucracy, church, army – or rather armies, each Strategos jockeying for supplies and recruits) spending more time struggling to establish their dominance than enforcing the peace which made such dominance valuable.

(View: Map of the Empire, with battle sites and sieges marked with flames. The Theme of Antioch is picked out in a lighter colour; there are no battles within it.)

Voiceover: The eastern regions of the Empire, however, particularly the border march of the Theme of Antioch, were peaceful, except for the successful expedition against the Moslem emirate of Edessa.

(View: Farmers tending fertile fields; women trampling grapes. A disciplined column of armoured men, with the Two Lions banner of Antioch and the Imperial Eagle at the front.)

Voiceover: This tranquility was mainly due to the loyalty of the Strategos of Antioch, Arkadios Komnenos. In spite of his reputation for ruthless slyness, acquired chiefly in the Antiochene Intrigue which put his eldest son in line for the crown of Georgia, he refused to raise his banner against a rightful Emperor – even an underage one completely dominated by his court.

(View: The Komnenos palace in Antioch; we zoom in to see ARKADIOS KOMNENOS dictating a letter – specifically, the famous Tirade on Loyalty. Visible through the scene is the ragged and stained parchment preserved in the Imperial Museum at Constantinople, with his words being written by a feather quill. As he speaks he walks back and forth, emphasizing his words by slamming his right hand into the left.)

Arkadios: And therefore, dear Cousin, I must refuse your offer, and pray that God in His Mercy does not chastise you too harshly for entertaining it; for its presence in your mind is surely a device of Satan. I have belaboured the evil of plotting against God’s anointed, and will say no more, but I leave you with a final thought. If the Komnenoi can overthrow the Dukas because the rightful Emperor is in the thrall of his court, then what shall prevent the Malakoi, the Bourtzes, or the Phokas from overthrowing the Komnenoi, when one day one of my dynasty is in the thrall of his court because he is young and inexperienced – as indeed they rise, now, against the Dukas?

(View: A map of the empire, with regions flaring into the red of rebellion and war, and fading again, while a counter in the corner ticks off the years 1100-1106 month by month.)

Voiceover: And rise they did. But the loyalty of the Komnenoi was about to be put to its hardest test. In the chaos of the disorders, many lesser lords sought the strong protection that Constantinople was no longer providing. The Strategos of Antioch, with his powerful army – stronger than that of the Emperor himself, weakened after years of disorder and poor finances – and reputation for war-luck from campaigns against the infidel, was an attractive protector. And, seeking to hold the Empire together in the face of its near disintegration, Arkadios did not turn anyone away – although it was rather debatable whether he had a legal right to accept the oaths of lords already sworn to the Emperor.

(View: The map of the empire again, with blue blotches marking the new extensions of the Theme of Antioch – even as far west as the Adriatic coast. Through the map we can see pirate galleys descending on Rhodes.)

That dubious legality was the problem: For when the Count of Rhodes called on his new overlord for protection against pirate raids out of the Aegean islands, Arkadios was bound to respond… and a faction in Constantinople, seeing an opportunity to reassert sovereignty over the increasingly over-mighty eastern lord, declared that by taking arms against the Aegeans – still nominally loyal to Constantinople by virtue of not having bothered to declare themselves independent – Arkadios was in rebellion. For Arkadios, this was the final straw.

(View: A sword being forged; the clang-clang-clang of the hammer beating it underlies the narration.)

Arkadios: Enough is enough. The Emperor’s person is sacred, and none shall harm a hair on his head. But the court at Constantinople must be cleansed; if possible by the gentle light of reason, if necessary by sword and flame. I have drawn my sword against the infidel, and there are many in Constantinople today who owe their lives and freedom to my work. And they will repay their debts by naming me traitor, and calling down raiders on those whose lives I am sworn to protect?

[The documentary now covers the swift westwards march of the veteran Antiochene troops. Poorly garrisoned after years of supplying reinforcements for the Emperor’s field armies, the Imperial forts on the Anatolian side of the Straits fell quickly, and Arkadios was able to cross over and lay siege to Constantinople itself. In spite of repeated offers of peace, however, the bureaucratic faction at Constantinople refused to negotiate.]

(View: A model of the walls of Constantinople, with Arkadios’s siege camp outside.)

Voiceover: With the Antiochene army actually outside the walls, the court was finally restored to contact with reality. Although Constantinople had seen off sieges in the past, Arkadios had brought enough men to build and man a fleet of galleys and close the harbour; worse, the population of the city saw him as a saviour, a strong man to take the throne and end the years of chaos. Arkadios, however, maintained that he had taken the field not against the Emperor Leo, but against his corrupt court, and this thin legal fiction allowed the young Dukas – who at fifteen could no longer be completely disregarded as a player in his own right – enough leeway to save his crown. Against the advice of his court, the Emperor Leo left the walls under flag of truce to negotiate with Arkadios.

(View: A row of crucified men, with ravens poking at their flesh. One of the men is still alive, and jerks feebly as a bird tears his eye out.)

The resulting compromise saved face for everyone. Arkadios’s troops entered the city peacefully, without a sack, and were welcomed as liberators. With this force at his back, Leo was able to become master in his own palace for the first time; the personal forces of the nobles and the wealthy bureaucrats were no match for a field army blooded against the infidel, even had they been united. The most obnoxious players of palace intrigue were crucified, Arkadios being intent on demonstrating enough ruthlessness that it would not be necessary to repeat the campaign. Others had their wealth or estates confiscated, refilling the State treasury – from which, it must be said, a good portion of their gold had come in the first place. In his turn, Arkadios was confirmed as Strategos of Antioch, and given the additional title Shield of the State.

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One response to “Children of the Fatherland: To Hold the East

  1. Pingback: Children of the Fatherland: The Komnenos Restoration | Ynglinga Saga

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