Children of the Fatherland: The Palaiologos Deluge

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same”; thus the poet enjoins mankind to equianimity. Twice, now, Komnenoi emperors have held Triumphs, in the old Roman style; it was only to be expected that Disaster would eventually catch up.

The direct line of Arkadios (whose son Tomas begat Michael the Elder, who begat Michael the Younger, who begat Basileios) ends with Basileios, dead at the age of ten by an assassin’s blade. A cousin of a collateral branch might have taken the purple; but which one? Had Basileios died of illness, the family would have arranged to have its chosen heir in the capital, with a contingent of personally-loyal troops at the ready. But who truly expects the death of a child, except those who arrange them? In the chaos after the assassination, with rioting mobs swirling through the City and the Komnenos Strategoi out in the provinces, the Senate meets and, for the first time in hundreds of years, imposes its will independently… more or less. Its choice falls on Thomas Palaiologos, of an illustriously patrician family, with a lineage going back centuries. A man of senatorial rank, as are all the great magnates of the Empire, entitled to speak on the selection. An accomplished rhetor, cutting an imposing figure as he browbeats the Senate in a time of crisis. A Strategos in his own right, holding the eastern march of Trebizond against the wild hillmen out of the Caucasus; in the capital on unspecified business, with a bodyguard of a hundred men. Not a large force, but veterans all and well led; enough to be decisive when all is uncertain. All hail Thomas, thrice-exalted Autokrator, chosen of the Senate and the People of Rome!

Another dynasty might have risen in revolt; the armies, if it comes to it, are largely led by Komnenoi, and the Trebizond theme cannot alone uphold the purple. But Thomas is childless and old, posing no true dynastic threat; and, in this year 1209, the purple is no prize. The enemies of Rome have taken advantage of the turmoil; Croatian armies pour across the Balkan border, in Italy a hundred banners of revolt are raised, the Samos and Dyrrachion Strategoi assert their equal right to the throne, the infidel corsairs rub their hands with glee. The Senate wishes to assert its power to choose Emperors? Very well; let the Senate take the blame of the ensuing disaster. When Thomas dies, the Komnenoi will still be there, and the people will remember who led the Empire to glory, and who allowed Italy to be lost. By whose decree did traitorous Slavic mercenaries guard the gates of Byzantium, later opened to the Croatian invaders? Who refused to send troops to lift the siege of Rome, citing the need to crush internal rebellion? Who, indeed, rose to the throne in an irregular manner, thus provoking that rebellion? And on the other hand, who accepted with stoic calm the decree of the Senate, and loyally led the themes against the rebels? The people will remember, when the time comes. Already they groan to the tramp of foreign boots in the City of Men’s Desire; already the old days of Komnenoi rule seem a dream of a Golden Age. Such an interlude, such a legend, cannot be bought for any money; it would be a foolish dynasty that rejected it. And though many epithets have been flung at the sons of Mikael, ‘fool’ has never been one of them.

Mikael refused to rise against the Mad Emperor Dukas; Arkadios did not take the purple, when his veteran theme held Constantinople and none could have opposed him. Both gave as their guiding principle legitimacy, the one thing that cannot be had by force. To rise against a lawfully elected Emperor damages the one thing that gives the purple its value: The willing obedience of men. This is the strength of the Komnenoi, that they uphold the law, and that men know it. It is not to be cast away for short-term advantage. That is especially true in the middle of a two devastating wars, one civil and one foreign; in such times, one more revolt might be the death of the Empire itself. What sort of fool reaches for a prize, when the very act of reaching may destroy his goal? Not, at any rate, a Komnenos.

Thus far pragmatism; there is one more thing to consider. The Komnenoi are, when it comes to it, not only dynasts but also Romans. It is useful to be seen as loyal to the Empire, to present a public image of service even when the Purple goes to another. It is also virtuous to genuinely serve the Empire thus. Komnenoi are men like other men, and no saints; none of them is immune to ambition. But still they have an ideal of service, and a desire not only to be seen as, but to be, Romans of the old school. To serve the Republic, Mucius Scaevola thrust his hand into the fire, and won a name that has lasted a thousand years; shall a Komnenos balk, merely at being denied the purple? No. Mikael said it: His proudest title was not, “Strategos of Antioch”, but “Citizen of Rome”. That honour cannot be taken away; that honour carries responsibility with it. The Komnenoi banners will be raised to uphold the empire, not to tear it apart.

Virtue, they say, is its own reward; but sometimes, it is a weapon. The Komnenoi wield loyalty to the Empire, and dutiful service to the lawful Autokrator, like a rapier: It strikes precisely, and inflicts deep wounds. The peasants have a name, now, for this time of troubles, of wasted fields and slaughtered men; a name that bodes well for a restoration of the dynasty. They call it the Palaiologos Deluge.

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