Children of the Fatherland: The Don Cossack War

May 14th, 1281
Anatolian coast, Theme of Paphlagonia



It had not been a bad raid. The lookout beacon had been lit in time, and the village militia had mustered while the women and children ran for the hills. Only three of the thirty houses were burning; the old men and the boys not yet of military age had managed to form a bucket brigade and keep the fire from spreading. The sour reek of smoldering thatch overlay the farm-village odor of manure and fish in an unpleasantly familiar way, but Philippos had smelled worse. Kythoros had been worse, when three ships had struck together and the militia had retreated into their log-built fortress, and burned inside it when they refused to surrender. Roasted humans had smelled so like roasted pork, after a day of hard riding on little food, that Philippos still sometimes felt his gorge rise when pig-meat was on offer; nor could he well refuse it, lest he be thought a secret Muslim.

That had been years ago, when the raids were still rare, and the villages little prepared for them; the only likeness to today was that, hard riding or not, the regular troops had still been too late. At Kythoros, where the raiders had carried off the survivors, at least he had not had to endure the glares, and worse, the flat contempt, of the men who had fought while he had been elsewhere, or the women who had lost husbands and brothers. This was a victory, in a sense. The raiders had not been able to beat the militia, nor to induce them to break ranks by firing flaming arrows at the houses. But still, three men lay dead and another half-dozen wounded – heavy losses, for a community of two hundred; men of fighting age, whose labour would be badly missed come harvest time. The near-equal Cossack losses were no consolation, nor that they had been driven off without the loot they’d come for. Where had the regulars been? The question was not spoken, but Philippos felt it every time a villager’s gaze rested on him for a moment, then flicked away. It was no use to protest that they had ridden their horses near to lameness, that they had mounted the instant they saw the smoke of the beacon; what use was that, to men dead and women bereaved? We are too few, he wanted to shout at them; the coast is too long. Minor raids, incursions of a single vessel, had to be dealt with locally; there just were not enough regular troops – not if all the themata of the Empire were gathered for defense against raids – to meet anything but the largest attacks, the sweeps of ten or a dozen ships. But what was the use? The villagers knew it as well as he; his hecatontarch Meneios knew it, and so up through the ranks until, no doubt, the Emperor Konstantinos himself knew it as well. There was no answer to the reproach of the women; none, at least, that Philippos could give.


August 14th, 1281
Great Palace, Constantinople

“Read the Czar’s words again.”

“Yes. I quote: ‘Although the Cossacks pay tribute to our throne, and acknowledge Our suzerainty, by ancient treaty they make war and go to peace without Our knowledge; and if God has not seen fit to restrain them, We consider it no duty of Ours to make the attempt.'”

“That is a deliberate provocation.” Alexandros, Megas Domestikos and owner of wealthy estates – less wealthy now, with the raids – in Anatolia, thumped the table with a huge fist to emphasize the point. “The next best thing to putting a chip on his shoulder and daring us to knock it off.”

“And for precisely that reason, we should not respond,” Honoria interjected. The slight female who was Kanikleios of the Roman Empire, responsible for all its diplomatic correspondence, glared at her huge husband. “Boys and their games! The Czar would like nothing better than for us to attack his subjects. He says so right there, ‘acknowledge our suzerainty’; in other words, he’ll defend them. Defend them right up to the Theodosian Walls, if we oblige him!”

Alexandros’s mouth twisted sourly. “At least the Cossacks would come on horseback then, and we could get at them and beat the fuckers. None of this faffing about in boats.”

“Why? If ‘faffing about in boats’ is working so well for them, why would they stop if it came to serious fighting?”

A third courtier spoke up diffidently; Romanos, commander of the basilikon ploimon, the fleet that defended the City. “If I may, my lady? The chaiky galleys the barbarians use are very well for raids, but they can’t stand against us in a pitched battle. If the Cossacks ever come at the city in any numbers over water, we’ll hammer them to flinders.”

“Then why haven’t you hammered the raids into flinders?”

“But we do, my lady. Every time we catch one. Just as the regular themata troops crush any raiding band that stays too long ashore. The problem is similar: Too much coastline, not enough war galleys. A chaiky can get from the mouth of the Dnieper to anywhere on the Black Sea coast in forty hours; less if they catch a good wind. And in the entire world there’s no people more careless about dying. They are perhaps the poorest people in the world; they own nothing but their horses and weapons. A single raid can make the fortune of a Cossack, if it brings him nothing but a slave or a few trinkets. We cannot stop them by killing them; not if we caught every second raid and sent the survivors home one-handed, blinded and castrated, as was the excellent custom of our ancestors. It would still be worth the risk for them.”

“This is a side track,” Alexandros said. “We won’t stop any raids by beating off another siege of the City, either by sea or by land. What we would need to do is to send an army to the Crimea, establish control of the sea of Azov, stop the raids at their source. Ideally, beat the Cossacks so badly that they acknowledge our sovereignty, not the Czar’s. Let them raid his lands for a change.”

Romanos shrugged. “Give the word, and in a month I’ll land twenty thousand kataphrakts at our old fortress of Cherson. No amount of chaiky will stop my galleys from going where I want; in fact I hope they try. But as to what happens next, I don’t know.”

“Persia will come to our aid; they have Cossack issues too.”

“Persia is beset by rebellion. Perhaps in ten years, when they’ve recovered – ”

“In ten years the coast of Anatolia will be depopulated!”

“If we fight Russia, it’ll happen even sooner!”

“Denmark – ”

“Croatia – ”

“Raids within sight of the City!”

“The mob – ”

“The Senate – ”

The meeting dissolved into a chaos of shouting, as a dozen courtiers each tried to make themselves heard. After a minute the Emperor spoke, for the first time.

“Enough! ENOUGH, I say! Silence!” The guards along the walls slammed the iron butts of their spears on the floor, and eventually order was restored. Konstantinos spoke again, grimly.

“I have heard enough. You weigh the losses of the senatorial class against the chance of winning a war with the Czar, as is your duty; and you do it well. We could come down on either side of that balance. But there is another weight in the scale.” He gestured to the pile of parchment that had started the meeting in the first place; reports of raids, petitions for redress, pleas that the Emperor send more troops to guard the coast.

Roman citizens have been attacked.

“What is Rome worth, if it cannot protect its citizens? Why do they pay their taxes, why do they send sons to the armies and tribute to the City, if we do not in turn hold our shield over them? Our people call for aid, and Rome must answer. The barbarian is at the gates. If we do not take up the sword against him, then we are only one more successor state, squatting in the ruins of sacredness, and our sovereignty is a lie.”

“The odds cannot be allowed to matter. The Czar thinks he can provoke us by killing our citizens and burning our fields. He is entirely correct. Whether he will enjoy the results remains to be seen. He has unleashed the wild horsemen from the steppes; he has sown the wind. Muster the kataphrakts. And if they complain about fighting outnumbered, tell them their ancestors who stood against Celts and Cimbri will lend strength to their sword arms.”

“On the day that Rome fails to ride against the barbarian, on the day that we calculate the benefits and costs of defending our people, and find the cost too heavy… on that day, the work of Attila is finished, and civilisation falls.”

“But it is not this day.”


Some screenies, but first an observation: Some time ago OrangeYoshi boasted that he had screenies of his troops engaging mine on equal terms and winning. He said he would post them before the next session. The session is tomorrow, and the hour is not yet struck… but it grows very late.

I, on the other hand, do have some screenies. Consider, for example, the battle of Mesembria, in which Rome demonstrates its superior command of strategy and logistics by getting there the fustest with the mostest:

Mesembria I
Mesembria II

Observe, however, that (due to the morale bug) the Croatians are actually doing well in this one; some regiments, it is true, began to give way, and for a time there was disarray on the Roman flanks. But Roman discipline held! The Theme of the Optimatoi, not morale-bugged, stood like rocks even when their comrades fled, throwing back all that the Croatians could throw at them, and astounding all the world with their courage:

Mesembria III

Discipline, OY. That’s how Rome turns battles and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Discipline. As opposed to, for example, this little debacle:


Imagine running from half your own numbers. Shoo! Shoo!

I found I have some older screenies lying about, that may throw some light on the history of this Don Cossack War. Recall that in the Two Emperors War, the Czar raised every banner he could find along the Dniepr and the Don, perhaps two hundred thousand sabres in all, and sent them south to attack the City; naturally such a host suffered dreadfully from starvation and disease. The historians of the Roman Empire were not the only ones to theorise that the Czar was trying to shoot two birds with one arrow and indulging in a bit of ethnic cleansing; the atamans of the Don Cossack host reached a similar conclusion, and at the end of the war they rose in revolt:

Cossack Revolt

which was, of course, promptly crushed. However, the treaties explicitly allowed the Cossacks their ancient freedoms of making war on those who do not acknowledge the sovereignty of the Czars. In other words, Rome. Hence this war.

Finally, proof that the Persians are not the only necromancers about:

Zombie Rasputin


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