His father Mikael had shaped his life to become a byword for the virtue of loyalty: Although constantly at odds with his namesake, the Mad Emperor Michael, he nevertheless raised his banner and fought, season after season, to put down rebellion against Rome, and indeed died of the wounds he sustained while leading Antiochene troops in northern Anatolia. If Stilicho had been the last of the old Romans, Mikael could thus claim, posthumously, to be the first of the new. Arkadios, raised by his uncle Iohannes with that example always held before him, continued the tradition of unquestioning allegiance despite any personal difference with the Emperor. Nonetheless, it was not for loyalty but for ruthless cunning in intrigue that he became known; and if his father had shown the world what it meant to be Roman, Arkadios demonstrated why the adjective Byzantine had been added to its lexicons.
To marry the eldest daughter of a sonless King is not, of itself, unusual. Such marriages became a traditional reward in fairy tales because they were, after all, not impossible, but something that could be dreamt of and, very occasionally, accomplished; and if a literal King is a rarer catch than, say, a wealthy landowner, Arkadios was himself a feudal magnate of no small water. In any case, the marriage was arranged before Arkadios had reached his majority, and might be held to be the work of his uncle, or perhaps of the Chancellor, Iakobos. A diplomatic stroke, to be sure, bringing Georgia – sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy of the Roman state in its perennial struggle with Persia – firmly into the Roman orbit; but not one to build a legend as enduring as that of Odysseus.
To plan on leaving a kingdom to a son is nothing so very unusual in a feudal lord; nor is it an unusual misfortune for the father-in-law to suddenly recover his virility and sire a son, cutting his grandson out of the line of inheritance. Many a magnate has ground his teeth over such a contretemps. But Arkadios was unusual in his reserves of low cunning, even at the age of eighteen. (Iohannes was by this time well into the sickness that would eventually kill him, and bedridden; the theory sometimes advanced, that he and not Arkadios was responsible, does not bear close examination.) He orchestrated a campaign of gossip and sniping – in a court four hundred miles from his own – against Giorgi’s young Queen, Zoe of Samos; in an early example of a coordinated propaganda campaign, the slanders eventually became so widely believed, in every land bordering the Black Sea, that Giorgi (by this time an old and sick man) felt he had no choice but to disown his son David, lest the realm erupt in civil war on his death.
Even so, the Bagratuni king and his strong-willed young Queen were not the sorts to give up easily. Sick as he was, Giorgi still hoped to produce an heir who would be incontestably of his body. With Zoe’s full cooperation, he installed her in a tower with only women for companions, the famous Amazon Guard; built an impenetrable maze of traps around the tower; and grimly – or perhaps not so grimly, for Zoe was a famous beauty as well as a woman of brilliance in her own right – went about the business of convincing the world that his second son, named Giorgi to hammer the point home, was legitimate.
The scheme worked, so far as it went; Arkadios did not even try for a second round of slanders. Having exhausted cunning, he now used ruthlessness and plausible deniability instead: Even now, there is no proof that he ordered the death of his cousin. Infant mortality being what it was, Giorgi’s and Zoe’s grief was shared by many a peasant who had no land to be disputed among heirs. But qui bono? Giorgi, his illness much worsened by depression, was certainly not alone in his belief that Arkadios had had a hand in the apparent crib death.
Roman and Byzantine. Mikael and Arkadios. Loyalty and ruthlessness. Such are the two faces of the Komnenoi.