Children of the Fatherland: The Strength of Rome

With the exception of the internal troubles of the Palaiologos Deluge, Rome has prospered under the Komnenoi, as prosperity is measured in the affairs of Empires. Syria and Crete have been recovered, Croatia humbled, the Black Sea coast pays tribute; as for Italy, whatever its sentimental and even economic value, it could never be anything more than an out-march for a Balkan state centered on the Dardanelles.

Thus the prosperity of Empire; but what of its subjects? War is the health of the state, but rarely good for the citizens who fill its armies and see their fields burned. But the Romaioi (as they call themselves) are fortunate on this point – fortunate, at least, relative to the serfs and villeins who tend the land they are bound to in barbarian kingdoms, and often die without ever going more than a mile from the hovel where they were born.

Rome, whatever its flaws, has at least its thousand-year tradition of urban living; its classes have ground against each other for a millennium, and the sharp edges have been smoothed. Unlike Egypt, in Rome there is no warrior tribe, a few centuries out of the desert and still bearing its harsh customs, foreign in language and blood, to rule over a discontented urban population. Unlike Russia’s, its cities are not mud-built shacks newly hacked out of howling wilderness, in which peasant law suited to villages of ten houses struggles to deal with a place where one cannot simply defecate in the streets. Unlike France and Germany, Rome has no need to rebuild what the barbarian tribes thoughtlessly smashed, not understanding its value; its cities do not lie on a foundation of smashed mosaic and scattered bricks, and do not suffer the necessity of negotiating status with a landowning aristocracy. The Senatorial class owns land, certainly, but they have no objection to gaining wealth by trade, and they understand, not only that sheep are fleeced and not skinned, but also what amount of taxes is, in fact, skinning.

Roman nobles tax hard, and exploit ruthlessly such surplus as this much-farmed land offers. But they do not tax without warning, as a Russian lord might; their demands do not strike like lightning from cloudless sky, leaving smoking stumps next to healthy trees. Roman law is hard, but it is law and not whim; the peasant who curses his lord’s one-fifth share can still sleep sound, knowing that it will not be a half share next year.

The new-rising cities of the west have their merchants, their bankers, even their artists; a middle class is coming into existence there, a strange new people neither lord nor peasant, neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. In the west, they struggle for position, not through the ignorance or ill will of the lords – although here as elsewhere there is plenty of both – but simply because such a thing is unknown to the tribal custom that still forms the basis of law. What is one to make of a man who is neither a conquered peasant, bound to the land he tills, nor a free warrior due respect for the power of his right arm? But in Rome, these people have a known place, not given the greatest respect perhaps, but understood. In Rome there has been no breach in the long continuity of city life.

Roman cities lack, perhaps, the vigour of those who feel themselves building something new, those who defy established custom to explore a new path. But they are stable; and for all the excitement of defiance and struggle, of gambling vast fortunes and making them back threefold, it is in stability that wealth is truly built. Slow, uninspiring as the wallow of a fat merchant galleon that carries the grain of Egypt to Constantinople, the cities of Rome gather their strength behind the shield of the legions. The Cretan pirates are subdued, the Syrian coastline opened for trade without the prohibitive tolls the Caliph places on the unbeliever.

In quiet prosperity, then, the Roman classes build their nation, as they have for a thousand years. The families of Senatorial rank – still so called after the Senate itself has become a near-empty honour; there are other privileges now, but the name remains – dominate; it is they who command the themes, drill the militia, draw on the profits of their county-sized estates to invest in trade. It is an exclusive class, less than a tenth of a percent of the population, but not a closed one; the Komnenoi themselves, for all their present glory, were not listed in it before the turn of the millennium. The rolls are short, but illustrious: Komnenos, Palaiologos, Phokas, Dukas – names of conquering generals, of skilled emperors, of subtle theologians; names that have celebrated Roman Triumphs.

Below the Senate are the men of equestrian rank. The original meaning, of men who were expected to come mounted to the muster of the Roman army, passed into history before the birth of Christ; yet the term is still in use. It now means, informally, men of middling wealth; men who can afford to have their children taught to read. Equestrians fill the offices of the bureaucracy, not a large organisation but still the most extensive one outside of distant China; equestrians serve as hecatontarchs and merarchs, and may hope to rise even to Strategos of the lesser themes, if no younger son of a Senator is available. Indeed, such events have been the founding of several Senatorial families. The equestrian order is not large, as a nation of steam and industry would count its middle class; one in twenty, perhaps, concentrated in the cities. Yet in this thirteenth century, they are sufficient to the day.

The base of the pyramid, as in all countries, consists of the poor; yet to be poor in Rome is not what it is elsewhere. The tenants who work the great estates are not, at least in legal theory, bound to the land; some rent land by hereditary right, others even own their little patches and pay tax directly to the fisc. In the cities, the baker and the artisan are likely to own their shops, passed down from father to son through decades and centuries.

Yet more important even than these economic matters is the custom of respect. Rome was founded, in ancient times, as a republic of free farmers, each owning the land they could till themselves; and even now, after all the centuries that have passed, the memory echoes. Neither equestrian nor paroikos, perhaps, has read Cato or Cicero, Horace or Ovid, or even heard of them; but their ideals linger. It is not only to secure goodwill and a quiet life that the landlord greets his tenant politely, when the latter comes to complain of the leaking roof; it is because he wishes to appear a gentleman, to others of his class and to himself. A gentleman does not look down his nose at those less fortunate than himself. And it is not for servile flattery that the tenant tugs his forelock, passing his patron in the street; it is because his mother raised him to be polite, and if he ever comes into fortune and becomes a landlord himself, he will nod politely in return, for the same reason.

Of such tiny gestures, of respect between men of equal worth, more than from any formal rights of ownership or equality before the law, is citizenship and loyalty built. And when the trumpet blast calls the legions to charge, no army in Europe stands in their way.

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One response to “Children of the Fatherland: The Strength of Rome

  1. Pingback: Children of the Fatherland: The Weakness of Rome | Ynglinga Saga

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