Is it not passing brave to be a King, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?
May 14th, 1153
It was the boast of the cataphract regiments that their charge would carry the walls of Constantinople. Here, where the towers of the Theodosian Walls loomed over mortal men like houses built by giants, Thomas understood why they made that particular brag; and he also knew it for a jest, although spoken in earnest. He had seen the cataphracts charge through Croatian infantry as though across an open field; he had seen them ride through slaughter and rout until the blood spattered their horses’ withers; he had even, on one memorable occasion, seen them indeed carry a wall, an ancient construction of age-darkened timber that had served a Croat hill chieftain well in his tribal conflicts, and which he had thought would protect him even against Rome. But to think of charging the walls of Constantinople was to make sport of the very concept. The walls were invincible. They had never been, could not be, taken by storm. Arkadios himself, commanding the finest thematic army in the Empire and facing only the household troops of nobles and city militia, had never dreamt of trying it – had preferred the desperate option of a seaborne assault across the Golden Horn, before the Emperor Leo had opened the gates to him. His own Army of Anatolia, laying siege while Thomas led the campaign in Croatia, had not expected to take the city, against a garrison of five thousand Frankish mercenaries roundly hated by the Greek citymen. Only the chance of an opened postern gate, its guards supplied with beer mixed half with spirits, had allowed Thomas to keep the vast lands he had overrun with the intention of trading them for the City of Men’s Desire.
Thirty years before, Thomas had left this city as a fosterling child of six, following the Emperor Leo’s court into shameful exile. He had not noticed the walls then; his child’s eye had been more concerned with the fury and despair of the adults around him. But now he saw, and marvelled. There were no greater fortifications in the world than those of the second Rome, and no larger city; and he, Thomas, was about to enter it, a conqueror.
The gates were open now, in this peaceful summer. The cataphracts had done their work, and no enemy army lay within five hundred miles; and cheering citizens, not grim soldiers, lined the walls. Elsewhere the peasants might care nothing for who ruled them, if only the taxes weren’t too high. But Constantinople knew itself the center of the world, and had little enjoyed its time as a distant fief of barbarian kings. The Greek citizens welcomed back their Greek Emperor with joy, and a fierce determination not to be surrendered again. The shouts of “Komnenos” as Thomas rode through the vast gates were deafening.
The throng was amazing, as was the smell of close-packed humanity in the summer heat; but Thomas revelled in it. No city in the world was larger than Constantinople, nor wealthier, nor more cultured; and every human in it that could walk – and some who couldn’t – had come out to acclaim his victories. They cheered for the cataphract banners; they shouted derision at the Croat hostages – chieftains’ children, mainly – in their motley rags and chain; they cried out in pleasure at the tableaus and tapestries showing the battles the Roman armies had won. But for Thomas, they chanted. Before him and behind him there were unstructured cheers; but where he went, every throat gave out the phrase, “Komnenos – Conqueror. Komnenos – Conqueror.” It lifted him out of himself, shattered all thought and left him only with the feeling of triumph and elation, reeling in the repeated waves of sound. “Komnenos – Conqueror!” Battle was a little like this, when fear and fury lifted you out of your rational self; or making love to a woman. But the heady wine of public acclaim continued for hours, and there was no fear in it. Perhaps the ecstacy that monks and saints reported from prayer could come close.
An unknowable time later it ended, as Thomas rode into the Sacred Palace. The chant faded as the thick stone walls closed in, and he dropped at last into the ordinary space of thought and action, where reason ruled. It was, perhaps, a little like being cast from Heaven down into Earth. He drew a deep breath, and settled his shoulders. There was work to do, and there would be for many years yet; and not to every man was it given to have such a day while he yet breathed the air of mortal Earth. If the price was that you had to come back, and live through common ordinary days – it was still worth paying. And there would be an eternity, later on.
“In the old days,” he noted, “I would have had a slave riding beside me, to whisper in my ear, `remember that you are mortal.’ Perhaps we should revive the custom.”
His companions were blinking, coming back to themselves in the half-silent darkness; they too had been caught up in that eternal moment, and were finding their balance on coming down.
“Well. I’ll remind you if you like, though I’m no slave.” Ioannes, the Megas Domestikos and thus second officer of the Roman State, grinned to show he saw the irony. “But – I think there’s a better reminder. They cheer us today because we beat the Croats; well and good, beat them right thoroughly we did, and the City is ours again. But let’s not forget that behind the Croats are the Germans; it wasn’t Croats that took these walls from Leo. And behind the Germans, again, are the infidel. The Caliphs are spiders; they move a limb in Alexandria, and their web quivers in Venice and ten thousand men are on the move, and never an infidel dies for it. So – memento mori, by all means. But remember, too: They were only Croats.”