Children of the Fatherland: Two Emperors War

In-character explanations of the events of the comics.

The Two Emperors War ended in defeat and the cession of important provinces; its name, indeed, comes from the two Komnenoi emperors who died leading their armies in battle. Nonetheless, both at the time and in retrospect, it was seen as demonstrating the deadly prowess of Roman armies and the skilled diplomacy of the Byzantine court. Nor is this hard to understand: Facing foes with twice or three times its weight of metal, the wonder was not that the Empire lost the war, but that it got off so lightly.

The 1231 Treaty of Friendship (see below) had left Rome and Persia in possession of several disputed border marches; but, failing to break the power of Russia over the Ukrainian steppe, the victorious powers had not achieved their real goal of dominating the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Levant. Indeed, it is a commonplace to argue that, by doing their powerful enemy a small injury, they had merely awakened a sleeping bear. Worse, the war had convinced the Caliphate’s diplomats that their neighbours could not be trusted to remain content with the new border. Both sides, then, expected that the other would eventually strike, either for further gains or to recoup their losses. Naturally, this was a perfectly self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the best possible intelligence (and both Caliphate and Empire had highly-placed informers in the other’s court) would only confirm the existence of preparations for war – triggering a renewed bout of shoring up defenses, which would in turn be reported to the other side as an aggressive act!

Victory, moreover, is a poor teacher, while the two decades before the outbreak of war in 1251 demonstrated that the Caliphate and Russia had learned not to depend purely on their own resources. Sicilian Pact (see below) and the marriage treaty forced on a reluctant Denmark by Russian threats cleared the flanks of the revanchist powers, while Croatia added to its strength by overrunning doomed Poland. No balancing gains occurred on the Romano-Persian side; by 1251, both courts were desperate, and saw a pre-emptive strike as their only option. Their hope was to swiftly overrun the Caliphate’s Levantine possessions, before the Russians could mobilise their vast forces or reinforcements be brought from Africa, and then negotiate a lasting peace, or at least another temporary truce during which allies might be found, from a position of strength.

Militarily, this scheme worked reasonably well; Persian troops reached the Red Sea and even threatened Mecca, while Byzantine armies took Aleppo and Edessa and, on the other side of the realm, destroyed vast Cossack and Croatian armies. However, its success relied not only on victory in the field but also on establishing psychological dominance. “Defeat,” the Caliph observed, “is an event that takes place in the mind of a ruler”, and he refused to be thus defeated. Rather than yielding, he stamped new armies out of the ground, sent vast subsidies to his allies, and offered peace based on the borders of 1200, including a demand that Constantinople admit a Croatian garrison as surety for the behaviour of the Emperor.

In so doing, he proved that willpower is a double-edged sword: In refusing to submit even when his armies melted away, he had saved his realm from defeat; but in stubbornly insisting on the restoration of a bygone era, he handed his enemies the weapon they needed. No amount of Roman diplomacy or gold had been able to restore the old Crusading spirit; the Western kingdoms very reasonably pointed out that Rome’s ally Persia was infidel, that Croatia and Russia were Christian powers (and Croatia wasn’t full of schismatics, at that), and that, if anything, they could just as well launch a crusade against the Persian necromancers and treat Rome as a traitor against Christendom. The Pope – remembering, perhaps, that his predecessor had been forced to hand Thomas the keys to the city of Rome – pointed out that Rome was still in schism against the authority of St Peter; if they wanted spiritual help, he acerbically suggested, they might consider repenting their sins. This was, of course, completely impossible for an Emperor who did not want his head on a pike; the cession of Constantinople would have been less disastrous. Nothing, therefore, came of these efforts until the Caliph made public his demand for a complete overthrow of the balance of power in the Middle East. At that point, when the actual interest of the Western states was touched, the Crusade that had got nowhere became suddenly the order of the day, and “Deus Vult!” was on everyone’s lips.

At this point the cracks in the revanchist coalition began to show. Croatia, bordering as it did all three of the suddenly-restive Western powers – Denmark, Bavaria, and the German Empire – and therefore guaranteed to take the brunt of their intervention, proved quite unwilling to suffer an invasion from the West to support Egyptian notions of jihad justice; they sent out feelers for a separate peace. The Caliph, shocked at the sudden threat on what he had considered a secure flank, sent out bitter communiques about the sanctity of treaty and the need for a supranational authority (unspoken was the implication that the Successor of the True Prophet was the obvious candidate) to restrain the sovereignty of kings. However, when no such authority volunteered for the job, he quickly reduced his demands rather than face an invasion from Sicily. Russia, meanwhile, was hampered in negotiation by the sheer distance of Novgorod from the fighting front; by the time instructions arrived for its diplomats, they were months out of date. The Caliph, personally leading what remained of his armies in the Levant, was able to take advantage of this slowness to arrive at a peace that favoured the Caliphate far more than its erstwhile allies; he thus gained Roman Syria, Crete, and important border adjustments in Iraq, while Russia was given the sop of a worthless Trans-Caucasian conquest and Croatia (perhaps because of the affair of the separate-peace feelers) had to be satisfied with the promise of a future subsidy.

Rome, then, had got off lightly; although Crete was a valuable base for privateers, and Syria a wealthy province, they were still border marches – strategic assets, certainly, but not vital to the very survival of the empire as a sovereign nation, as was the case with the Straits and the Anatolian heartland.

At this point, however, the internal politics of Rome became important. Two Emperors, Andronikos and his son Michael, had fallen during the war, both in combat with the Cossack hosts invading along the Black Sea coast. In previous Roman history, such deaths had been disasters, leading to civil war, usurpation, and massive losses of territory. But the Komnenoi, unlike earlier dynasties, had managed to place family members in most of the important positions of the Empire, the main exceptions being the themes of Samos and Macedonia. Now, at the moment when the Empire most needed unity and leadership, they rose to the challenge by providing both, and by commanding the armies to make their decrees stick. It was clearly out of the question that Rome should be ruled by a child Emperor during such a crisis, and the dangers of a regency had been amply demonstrated by the Palaiologos Deluge sixty years before. The Komnenoi, meeting in conclave (which they declared to be a quorum of the Senate; since many of them did in fact have Senatorial rank and they also, between them, controlled most of the Empire’s fighting men, nobody felt impelled to protest, although no non-Komnenos Senator (of which there were several in the City) was invited) in Constantinople with a Cossack host barely a hundred miles north of the city, solved the problem in typically ruthless fashion: They completely ignored the hereditary custom, revived the theoretical principle that the Emperor was appointed by the Senate, and gave the purple to the general commanding the largest army – who, naturally, happened to be one of their own.

In a sense this was a breach of the principle of legitimacy that had been the guiding star of the Komnenoi since the days of the Loyal Peace; but it could also be argued that the hereditary custom was just that, a custom, and that the Komnenoi had merely restored the original intent of the office of Emperor, not to mention the power of the Senate. It also could not have escaped anyone’s notice that the Emperor had been elected by the Komnenoi from their own ranks; clearly, if the strict hereditary principle had been abandoned, the dynastic principle remained alive and well. In any case, in the midst of war nobody was likely to quibble over legalities; inter armes, silent leges had been a maxim of Rome since the days of the Republic. The intellectual establishment thus went to work, as one man, to demonstrate that the new system of electing the absolute ruler was a true expression of the Republican idea, that it was a splendid compromise between the old custom (which was excellent) and the meritocratic principle (which was also excellent), that it was necessary for prosecuting the war, and that in any case there were precedents going back to Augustus.

The election of Nikolaios undoubtedly saved the Empire during the war; but once peace came, the wartime Emperor found the throne less steady under him than his saddle had been. Komnenoi or not, the ruling class of the Empire were still Byzantine Greeks, and the children of the emperor Michael formed a very convenient point for intrigues to swirl around. Nikolaios therefore sought a distraction, something to make his fractious court point all their weapons in the same direction; at the same time, the truce with the Caliphate freed powerful armies for operations in the Balkans. It may have mattered that Nikolaios had fought on the Syrian front, and had not gained a good impression of the Cossack and Croatian hosts; here he was perhaps a victim of the Empire’s own propaganda. It is true that the Roman armies in the Balkans had been outnumbered three to one and had nevertheless managed to hold off the attackers and inflict much worse casualties than they suffered; but it is also true that they did so mainly by scorching the land in front of the invaders, and that losses in actual battle were roughly equal. Further, the Czar, fighting Persia on the Caucasian and Caspian fronts and well aware of the traditional logistical strategy of Rome, had not committed his full strength to the Thracian campaign. In any case, the upshot was that, in 1269, Nikolaios declared renewed war on Croatia, this time without Persian support. The formal causae belli were the treatment of the Orthodox communities in Nikopolis and the issue of the Transylvanian Succession; but the reality was that Nikolaios sought a short, victorious war to subdue his domestic problems, and underestimated the difficulty of the project.

He was enlightened in short order; although the disputed border provinces rapidly fell to the kataphracts, the incensed Czar, unhampered by any Persian commitment, mustered the entire Cossack strength of the Ukraine, a force that has been estimated at perhaps two hundred thousand sabres. Such a host could not long be supplied in foreign territory, and it has been suggested that the Czar may have been trying to cement his rule in the southern regions with an early attempt at ethnic cleansing; but while the Cossacks died of hunger and disease in the tens of thousands, they also drove unstoppably to Constantinople and laid siege to its walls.

Meanwhile Nikolaios was fighting a fluid war of maneuver and logistics against the Croatian counter-invasion; but although Croatian casualties are estimated at twice the Roman, this mattered little when his foes could draw on three times his population. In spite of such brilliant exploits as the ambush at Epiros and the famous March of the Lesbians, Nikolaios was eventually forced to concede that he had bit over more than he could chew. Since he had, however, been careful to put his domestic enemies in the front rank and to send them against the Cossacks, the real aims of the war had been achieved, and the loss of the Black Sea coastline and the Transylvanian Succession could not have bothered him much. Indeed, the Komnenos Duke who had inherited Transylvania had promptly repaid Nikolaios’s scheming to make it so by rebelling against his authority; one cannot help feeling that, in signing the Duchy over to the Croatians while managing to keep it in his kinsman’s hands, Nikolaios was wishing them much joy of each other.

With peace restored to his court, Nikolaios turned to the project of establishing full Komnenos control of all the themes and rebuilding the wealth burned by the invading Cossacks…

Bribes and Barbarians: Byzantium 1200-1314,
Constantinople University Press.


Belated Treaty of Lasting-but-not-Eternal Friendship and Non-Aggression

The Most High Contracting Parties, comprising

the Basileus Romaion, the Shahanshah of Iran and non-Iran, the Most Puissant King of Bavaria, the Grand Duke of Finland, and the High King of Denmark, for the one part; and

the Czar of All the Russias, the Caliph of Dar al-Islam, the Most Holy Roman Emperor, the Sultan of Cordoba, the king of France, and the king of Croatia, for the other part;

desiring a period of peaceful preparation for the next conflict, and each believing that he will himself benefit more than his neighbour, have this day agreed the following terms of compact:

I. No sovereign of either party shall attack any sovereign of the other party, nor their vassals; and shall make swift peace on behalf of any vassal that attacks a sovereign or vassal of the other party, requiring no reparations or tribute.

II. No sovereign of either party shall send assassins to the realm of any sovereign of the other party.

III. No sovereign of either party shall accept a liege oath for any land now owned by a sovereign of the other party, whether by rebellion, diplomacy, or inheritance; but shall return any such lands without prejudice to their current owner. For this purpose it is understood that those boyars currently in rebellion against the Czar shall nonetheless be considered part of the Czar’s realm.

IV. Poland is specifically excluded from all protection of this treaty, and is to be held an outlaw nation, beyond the pale of civilised law, to be dealt with as wolves are.

V. This treaty and compact shall last until the first of January, 1250; and past that time, all acts which have been held unlawful under this agreement will no longer be punished by God or man.



The Emperor of the West, and the Calipha of the Dar al-Islam, recognizing the grievous damage the Emperors Crusade has done on Mediterranean trade as well as the need to combat the rising threat of piracy and Greeks, agreeing to put past grievances behind them, vows to use their power and influence to stabilize the volatile seas by decreeing peace between the two realms. Both lords shall do their utmost to arrest any brigands or pirates operating out of their lands, and bring any man found guilty of funding or providing safe haven for such activities before justice. Lord or otherwise. No burden of toll shall be lifted heavier upon one trader over the other based on skin or creed, and no fleet shall be denied port for any reason other than unlawful piracy. Pertaining to the Arabs in Sicily and the other islands, and the pilgrims to Jerusalem, both lords shall them give full protection from harm within their realms and allow no unlawful harm to become them. Thus shall peace and security return to our seas, and prosperity to our peoples. In the name of Allah, most wise, most merciful.

The Sicillian Pact;

I. No sovereign of either party shall attack any sovereign of the other party, nor their vassals, nor their allies; and shall make swift peace on behalf of any vassal that attacks a sovereign, or vassal, or ally of the other party, requiring no reparations or tribute.

II. No sovereign of either party shall send, or have a third party send, assassins against the realm or dynasty of the other sovereign or his allies.

III. No sovereign of either party shall accept a liege oath for any land now owned by a sovereign of the other party, or his allies, whether by rebellion, diplomacy, or inheritance; but shall return any such lands without prejudice to their current owner.

IV. This treaty and compact shall last until the first of January, 1270.


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