Crusader Kings, more than any other Paradox game, lends itself to writing stories that contain characters, rather than nations. Michael the Average is one.
Michael: Basileus Romaion, thrice-anointed Imperator and Autocrator by acclaim of the Senate and the People of Rome, Perpetuus Augustus, Paterfamilias of the Komnenos gens, Citizen of Rome. If happiness were measured in titles, surely he would be the most blessed man on the Earth.
He commands the legions and the kataphracts, the finest heavy cavalry on the face of the Earth; his titles are no empty show, there is real power and authority in his order and his signature. On his word a quarter-million men will arm for battle; at his peremptory gesture heads will roll. His father broke the power of the nobles; his grandfather disciplined the court; his great-grandfather trained the army to obedience. If power is what men seek, there can be few men more satisfied.
There is no city greater or wealthier than Constantinople, the Sublime Porte, through which half the trade of the world flows; and yet the City of Men’s Desire is only the jewel in the great crown of productive provinces and lucrative trade routes that pay tribute to Rome. Gold, silk, spices, jewels; clever toys, beautiful tapestries, strange beasts, lovely birds; gorgeous foods, wise scholars, rare books, delightful perfumes: There is no luxury that may not be had in Constantinople, and none that its Emperor may not command. If swimming in gold is the apex of delight, Michael is one of the few men who may achieve it.
What of women? We tread on more difficult ground. The heart is not to be commanded, not by Emperors or armies or gold. Not all women are impressed by such trappings; indeed many honest women, loving their husbands however humble, might actively fear the attention of so powerful a suitor. An Emperor who desired such a one might have cause for sorrow, whatever his power; and even a luckier man might, in the inmost recesses of his mind, wonder whether he was loved for himself, or for his position. Yet Michael is not much given to sentiment and emotion. And if we disregard the heart, there is surely no man less hampered in obtaining whatever his body may desire. If soft thighs and curved hips can satisfy, if sweet caresses and wild passion can sate, then the Emperor of Rome has more cause for joy than any man.
Not every man is delighted by the pleasures of this world, and the gentle Christ, it is said, cares only for a man’s soul. But in the consolations of religion, too, an Emperor has opportunities denied lesser men. If he retreats with his priests and scholars, hearing Mass three times a day, and leaves the daily business of the Empire to his court – why then such piety is surely a good omen for the realm. If he uses his vast wealth to commission good works, feeding the poor or founding monasteries, that too is pleasing to the Lord. If he prays and purifies himself, asking for guidance on what he should do to ensure his ascent to Heaven – he may well find answers, and at least his sons will not go hungry for his neglect of worldly affairs. And if he pays theologians and scholars to delve into the gospels, to pry out the real truth of what God desires of men and have the results widely published, there is certainly no city in the world better suited for that endeavour than Constantinople, where bath attendants debate the merits of the filioque clause and bakers hold opinions on the nature of the Trinity. If piety is the way to happiness, no man has a smoother path than the Imperator of Rome.
Yet Michael of the Komnenoi is troubled in his soul.
In a dynasty of brilliant strategists, elder statemen, victorious conquerors, and ruthless intriguers, what shall a man do who, for all his ambition, is merely… average?
Michael of the Komnenoi. A man of surpassing… averageness.
As a young man, Michael thought (as young men are wont to do) highly of his own abilities, and balked at the thought of waiting years or decades before taking over the purple and showing the world what he could do. So he raised his banners, thinking that the nobles would join him against his tyrant father; but, to a man, they preferred living under the old lion to the risks of battle in the service of the new. Thomas did not so much as stir from the capital; instead he sent Michael’s nurse bearing a letter. The letter carefully explained, in short words, that Michael had perhaps 25000 men in his entire theme, that Thomas had 30000 much better ones within hearing range of his voice, that Thessalonika was indefensible against a Croatian army, much less a Roman one; and that Thomas was giving Michael a single chance to repent of his utter stupidity by submitting once more to punishment by his nurse, as though he were a child. The Roman code allows only one penalty for an adult’s rebellion, and Thomas had no wish to impose it. Michael still winces at the memory of his complete humiliation; sometimes he thinks he would have preferred to die crucified, rather than bend over his nurse’s knee, in full view of his court, for a spanking.
The event is well known; in later years his father sometimes referred to it, jokingly, as “The Incident with the Rebellion”, as one might speak of a child’s unfortunate accident the first time he is allowed to sit at dinner with the adults. Michael would smile thinly, but he could never find it funny. Sometimes he sees a smile on the face of a courtier, or a mocking glint in a submissively downturned eye, and whatever jest has just been spoken, he feels certain he is being laughed at. After all, why should a servant not smile at the thought of the Basileus Romaion, a grown man eighteen years of age, with his bum upturned and reddened from blows of a paddle? Thus are the highborn made humble in the sight of God! At such times he writhes in shame and humiliation, and glares at the offender. He is wise enough not to punish for what is, after all, his own thought, or perhaps his own imagination; but his court is little given to merriment and jest.
He has, now, a surer estimate of his own ability: To make such a monumental mistake, he admits, is not the mark of a brilliant man. Yet he is Emperor, and must daily make decisions that will affect the lives of thousands and tens of thousands. At such times, the gnawing pain in his gut, which never entirely goes away, flares. Often he turns to his advisers, the men who served his father, and merely accepts their suggestions. Yet they are his father’s men, and he has never had the brilliant insights that would enable him to stamp their policies as his own; in this as in so many things, he cannot stand up to the memory of Thomas the Conqueror. Worse yet, he dreads the day when even this bitter remedy is no longer available; for he has not (of course not! He is only Michael, he is only human) his father’s gift of attracting the finest minds in the land as friends and advisors.
His son, perhaps, could be a consolation to him, for the younger Michael shows, even at a young age, all the gifts of the Komnenoi. And indeed he loves him with a father’s helpless love and joyous pride. But even that pride is tinged with bitterness; for he knows that his son has the talents that he himself was denied, and so his love is poisoned with sharp-edged envy. Michael the Golden, he sometimes whispers to himself; Michael the Blessed; and while he does not grudge his son the names, his heart aches with the wish that he could himself take his place with Arkadios the Ruthless and Thomas the Conqueror.
The younger Michael. A true scion of the dynasty!
Longing for great deeds, fearing his own inadequacy to achieve them, Michael twists between the poles of his fate, seeking a path forward. He cannot bear the thought of being only a caretaker Emperor, a gap between two brilliant generations of the illustrious Komnenoi; yet he is desperately afraid that whatever measures he takes will only make things worse. Better a caretaker than a disaster.
He is the Autokrator of Rome, charged with the fate of millions; and he is Michael, son of a father whose talents he cannot match.
Such men are dangerous.