Children of the Fatherland: The Military Frontier

To trap half the Don Host between a Roman army and the Ingulets, and thus bring them to heel, was one thing; to usefully integrate the new fighting men into the Roman military, quite another. Konstantinos was well aware of the dangers of foederati, barbarian troops allowed to serve under their own leaders. At Adrianople a millennium earlier, the Goths, revolting from such terms, had killed an Emperor and set in motion the loss of the West. Konstantinos was careful to avoid the mistakes of the Emperor Valens: He took hostages from the families of the hetmen, but he also soothed their touchy pride by producing Komnenos daughters (of collateral branches, to be sure) to marry into the Cossack families. Unlike the Czar, he did not make treaties with the Host as with a sovereign entity; as he had just demonstrated, sovereign entities can be induced to change their minds at inconvenient times. Rather he assigned each stanitsa a Roman officer, and spread the new units across the Balkan military frontier with Croatia – making sure that each Cossack unit was paired with a powerful Roman one to keep an eye on it.

Rome had always had the advantage in pitched battle with the Croatian tribes. Croatia had no millennial tradition of disciplined regular infantry such as were recruited from the Anatolian hills, nor did the Hungarian plains supply the heavy grain-fed horses that supported cataphracts. But in the perennial warfare of raid and razzia conducted across the Military Frontier, the light cavalry of Croatia had the same advantages that the Cossacks had enjoyed on the Black Sea: They were too many and too fast for the regulars to stop. Roman retaliation against Croatian villages merely produced more wasteland for the light cavalry to maneuver in; in this fashion, the valley of the Danube had, over two generations, been reduced to a lawless battlefield. Although Rome claimed, in principle, all this land up to the southern Carpathians, in practice it belonged to men on horseback, nominally loyal to the Croatian throne, who extracted from the remaining peasants ‘taxes’ amounting to confiscation of all that was not needed for bare survival.

Into this cauldron, Konstantinos now released the Cossacks of the Don Host, equipped with the output of the State forges of Constantinople; where the Czar had supplied arrows, Konstantinos opened his hands to shower mail coats, sabres, and helmets on his new troops – and relocated peasants from the Anatolian hills, recruited with the promise of farmland, for their support. Thus armed, the Don Host swept through the valley of the Danube like a cleansing flame, and in their tracks rose new villages, built atop the blackened ruins of the old. The Croatian raiders had never been numerous, drawing their support, as they did, not from a great State capable of moving hundreds of tons of grain across the Black Sea, but from such poverty-stricken villages as had survived. It was speed and elusiveness, not military formidability, that had made them such a problem.

With the first stage of his design accomplished, Konstantinos unleashed the second: Regular warfare, intended to seize the fortresses along the Carpathians, to which the Croatians had retreated. He had no intention of allowing the Danube basin to be permanently militarised, even if it was now patrolled by troops loyal to Rome rather than Croatia. Here, too, his Cossack auxiliaries showed their worth: To their traditional advantages in set-piece engagements, the Romans now added equality in foraging and scouting. Worse, the Czar, his lands in turmoil from his recent defeats and a repeated Persian invasion, could not come to Croatia’s aid. The result was a tide of victory that recalled the days of Thomas the Conqueror, and indeed it looked as though Konstantinos might add that accolade to his name before the age of forty.

To all things there is a balance. Unable to muster enough steel to defeat the warrior Emperor on a daylight field, the Croatians instead turned to gold, and bought daggers in the dark.

Konstantinos dies

His successor, though an able man, did not have quite the scintillating brilliance of the Breaker of the Don. He could not wield the armies of Rome like a knife. Nor did he have the lingering aura of terrible victory and destruction that had overawed the hetmen since Konstantinos had stood by the Ingulets and threatened to wipe out their people to the last unbearded boy. He was a competent administrator, popular enough among his Komnenos peers to win the election, and withal a good-enough man to hold the Purple. But he did not understand the dread instrument of war that Konstantinos had forged from the union of civilisation and barbarism; and he squandered the victory the Cossacks had won, imposing only a light peace on the Croatian kingdom.

The legacy of Konstantinos, then, was not all it might have been; but still he had won peace on the Black Sea and in the basin of the Danube, had brought to heel the Croatian tribes and curbed the overweening power of the Czar. For far lesser deeds have men been acclaimed Shield of the State. It is not to be wondered at if his successors, mortal men all, were cowed by his massive shadow.

Konstantinos Komnenus, in all his glory:

His merely-mortal successor Mathias:



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