Here begins, by analogy with the Aeneid, the Komneniad proper; that is to say, the tale of the exile of the Komnenoi, their founding of a new city and empire, and their dream of returning to the land their ancestors lost. I find that I do my best writing in defeat and retreat, not in victory; the Long March of the exiled Romans through Georgia is no exception.
Thus we sailed from doomed Nicaea across the wine-dark water, and came to the mountainous land whence Jason fetched the Golden Fleece; and we left our ships, and burned them lest they should fall into the hands of the Persians. Here began our true travails, and many who had complained bitterly of the hard life they had suffered on shipboard now looked back on the sea journey as a golden age of ease. Strategos Alexandros – who refused, now, to be addressed as ‘Autokrator’ or ‘Emperor’, saying that those titles had been left behind with the throne in Nicaea, and that none should bear them again until the lost City itself was recovered – decreed that neither horses nor mules were to be ridden, in the first case to save them for battle, and in the second so that they might carry provisions. An exception was made for the sick, and for women more than five months pregnant, and it is true that a child’s rest on horseback was often winked at; but for the most part we marched on our own feet, the men bearing their arms, the women carrying grain and dried fruit. The smallest children rode on their parents’ backs, and the jest ran that to have a young child was to have an easy life, for if the parent carried the child, they did not weigh much; and the child would carry the supplies. But those above five years walked, and grew lean and sinewy; if at first our marches were short, by the end of summer the girls of six years’ age were united in contempt for anyone who did not regard a day of twelve miles as a disappointment.
Although we were marching through a Georgian kingdom subject to the Shahanshah, we were not at first opposed, for two reasons. First, the military vassals who might have brought their fighting tails to hold the roads against us had answered the call to arms, and were even then descending towards the coastal plains west in Anatolia. Second, the ordinary people did not hold their distant overlords in great regard, and were quite prepared to wink at a host of refugee Romans – especially since we made sure to establish a market wherever we went, and pay well for our grain and meat. For before leaving, we had stripped the coastal cities, unsacked within living memory, down to the very churches; the accumulated hoards of centuries had gone aboard our ships, leaving nothing for the Persians. Indeed our chief difficulty had been to find mules enough to carry our gold and jewels. Although we owned no great estates, fine clothing, or broad acres – nothing, in short, of real wealth, except good soldiers and the horses to mount them – our mules’ packs overflowed with useless, precious metals, and we left behind us a trail of villages that sparkled with riches they could not eat. This served the strategy of Alexandros in two ways: In addition to winning the good will of the people we passed, it ensured that a pursuing army would find nothing to eat. But day after day vanguard and rearguard alike reported no enemies; the Persians, it seemed, were unaware of our passing, or perhaps were content that we should escape into, as they thought, obscurity and nothingness.
As soon as the snow began to retreat toward the peaks, however, we left off our passage up the Kolkheti lowlands, keeping the Greater Caucasus to our left, and instead turned north, avoiding the garrison at Tblisi, into the heart of the mountains. This is a wild region where the writ of Persia runs but lightly, or not at all, whatever colours the mapmakers in Baghdad might use. If the war-arrow had passed into these lands at all, it had been roundly ignored, and the wild tribesmen had all their fighting men at home, ready to resist our passing. Nor did they fail to do so; for, ignorant of both the Greek and the Persian tongues, and suspicious of anyone outside their clans, they would not hear our explanations or offers of tribute in exchange for safe passage, but closed the passes against us lest our numbers – in those mountains a thousand men is commonly thought a great host – should come too close to their settlements. Time after time Alexandros marched us around a peak to avoid an uphill battle, only to find that the next valley was likewise lined with warriors ready to fill us with arrows from the cover of a hundred stone-built sangars. Nor was he willing to spend irreplaceable fighting men to force our way through; for although any one tribe might have been overcome by a stout charge, there were hundreds of ridges between us and the steppes on the other side. Worse, the tribes were for the most part content to leave us alone once they saw that we would not try to force their pass; but to settle the issue by battle would have been to provoke a hundred blood feuds, and then they would not only have mustered to hold the ridges, but harassed our camps at night and our marches by day, and bled us to death in a thousand tiny skirmishes.
Here was the first great difficulty of our Long March, and there was considerable grumbling in the ranks; we could no longer rely on markets to bring in fresh fruit and meat, and subsisted instead on our stores of oatmeal, which holds body and soul together but is a miserable meal after a days’ hard march on mountain trails. Many blamed Alexandros for his decision to land at Ureki, instead of going further north and avoiding the Greater Caucasus altogether; but as he pointed out, that would have meant forcing our way through the domains of the Czar, who (bribed to neutrality by promises of the return of the trans-Volga) had not called out ban and arriere-ban, and could have easily mustered a real army to stop us, if he or his governors chose to take exception to a foreign host within his realm. Still, as day followed unsuccessful day and we were no further north, but drifted ever westward, discontent grew. At last, when Shota Rustaveli was well behind our left shoulders and yet another tribe had passed the flaming axe against us, Alexandros decided that the mountains could not be forced, and that there was no choice but to go through the Jvris Ugheltekhili, keeping Gora Dzhimara on our left.
Such a course meant confronting the Persian garrisons we had been hoping to avoid; although the lowlands had been stripped of fighting men, the Shahanshah was not going to weaken the forts enforcing his control over the single military road to his trans-Caucasian domains. Still, patrols against marauding tribesmen and bandits are one thing, and enough troops to stop a determined Roman army quite another. We were twenty thousand in all, five thousand regular soldiers of the kataphrakts – the last remnant of the thematic armies that had ground themselves to dust trying to stop the Persians in the Anatolian highlands – and another seven thousand men of fighting age, who could at least carry a spear. And we did not need to take the forts, as in a conventional military campaign; for we had no lines of supply or retreat to be cut. The risk was, rather, that an enterprising commander might mobilise all the garrisons and meet us in some defensible spot; or, still worse, call out the veterans of the military colonies on either side of the pass, which the Shahanshah had planted there for precisely such events. Speed, therefore, was essential. We needed to be halfway through the pass before the Persians could collect themselves to resist us; and if there was confusion and dissent among their leaders, so much the better. But there were limits to our ability to force our march; children of five, no matter how tough and strong for their age – and after all we had only been on the road two months – can go only so fast. Nor could we very well put them on horseback, when our cavalry had to be held ready for battle.
Alexandros decided, therefore, that if neither simple speed nor iron weaponry would serve us, golden arrows might. It is an ancient truism that of ten Persians, eight will sell you their sister, the ninth will prefer to rent her out, and the tenth will cry because his father has already taken another offer; and in truth, when garrisoning such an empire as the Shahanshah rules, it is not easy to find rigidly honest men for every little backwater fort, even among the proud Aryans. Even better for our cause, we did not need to bribe men into abandoning their posts, an impaling offense which the most greedy and dishonest men might yet balk at from simple self-preservation. No, all we wanted was that they should be slow in mobilising to meet us in the field, that none among them should be able to take the initiative, establish command over his brother officers, and climb to a better posting on a pyramid of Roman skulls. We asked for no treason, but merely a stiff-necked refusal to take orders from officers of the same rank, a great concern over abandoning the fort that was one’s sacred charge from the Shahanshah himself, and a quarrelsome attitude; and, to speak truthfully, when dealing with Aryan nobles this happy outcome did not require a great deal of gold.
In this manner the important fortresses of Gognauri and Sioni were neutralised, their garrisons manning the walls but not opposing our passage; better still, although the military colonies of the southern end of the pass were raised, the call to muster did not go out in time and a strong force was left to straggle up the pass many days behind us. Even so, this would have been a disaster if anything had delayed us; we might have been trapped between two armies in the narrow pass, and forced at best to scatter into the mountains and abandon our baggage train, at worst to actual surrender and slavery on Persian estates. Knowing this, every one of us pushed our limbs to the limit, gasping and struggling in the thin air. Many, especially among the women and the young, fell by the wayside; but none were left behind. I saw men bent almost double under the weight of three children; but they kept going, onward and upward.
On the fifth day we reached the summit and began to descend more often than we climbed; but now, at last, the Persians came to meet us. The fortress commander of Daryalskoye had proved more susceptible to dreams of glory than to our bribes; although he had been unable to convince his brother officers to take the field in his support, he had mustered a considerable force from his own garrison and from the military colony of the northern end of the pass, perhaps eight thousand men in all. Although it is true that we outnumbered them, it must be remembered that the Persians were all trained veterans in formed units, while many of our men were new to soldiering. Moreover, for us delay would be catastrophic, while the Persians needed only to take position on a ridge and dare us to attack.
Although, as a general, our Strategos had won a great reputation through avoiding frontal assaults, it was now a question of breaking through or perishing; the Persians had us in precisely that dilemma a good officer strives to inflict on his foes. The enemy had no vulnerable flanks, he did not lack for time or for supplies; and we had a desperate need to take his position. In the wars in the Levant, Alexandros had destroyed three separate Caliphate armies through precisely such a maneuver; now, with no good options, he grimly ordered readiness for a general assault.
Our care to keep the horses ready for battle proved to be a waste, for the enemy commander – whose name was Arsalan; that means ‘Lion’, and his parents had made no empty boast – had chosen his position well. The Persians stood on a barren ridge, the slope lightly scattered with loose gravel; even the mules would have to step carefully, and a mounted charge into the Persian line was out of the question. It would be an infantry struggle, then; and with this decided, Alexandros wasted no time. The youngest children and old women were told off to hold the horses. A screen of skirmishers armed with light crossbows went forward to harass the Persian lines, consisting of those who wanted to fight but did not have the muscle needed to stand against men grown in the line of battle; beardless boys and a surprisingly large number of the adult women. Later I asked my wife what she had been thinking, to go into battle as though she were a man. She replied rather sharply – and to my shame, I did not discipline her – that if we had lost, she would rather have had the mercy that victors give to fighting men, not to helpless women. There were many who felt the same, and such was our desperation that few among the men objected, and those were soon silenced by their fellows. In the narrow passage there is neither brother nor friend, and we were come to a narrow pass indeed, with eight thousand armoured Persians between us and freedom, and only death and disgrace behind. In such a strait it was well, at least, to have a wife with a stout crossbow.
While the skirmishers exchanged shots with the Persians, the kataphrakts formed up in a tight wedge, with our remaining fighting men behind them to follow up and lend weight to their punch. As though he were a hero out of legend, Alexandros himself stood at the head of the formation, with his chief officers and the eagle banner. The nine horsetails below the golden Eagle flew bravely in the eternal wind that blows through the pass; and though in my heart I knew that if Alexandros fell we were all lost, still I felt heartened by his gesture. Nor do I think I was the only one who felt thus.
Soon the cornicens blew, and we went forward at a steady pace, no hurried run but the slow, measured tread that fills the heart with determination and makes the earth shake. As we came into range Persian arrows began to fall on us; but now at last the heavy armour of the kataphrakts, a dreadful burden on our journey, came into its own, and not many fell. As we walked we unconsciously fell into step, and the sound of our boots hitting the ground all together was like the world ending. I had never felt anything like it; it felt as though my own footfalls were making the earth tremble, as though I were invincible, unstoppable. In response the Persians began to beat their shields with their swords; but this backfired, for their rhythm in doing so soon matched ours, and thus they merely added to the thunder of our advance. If you have never been in an army of many thousands of men, marching shoulder to shoulder towards victory or death, you cannot be told what it is like. Even among those who have, the memory of exaltation slips and slides; like the moment of orgasm, it cannot be held in the mind. But I would share my last crust of bread with any man who marched with me at Jvris Ugheltekhili.
Because of the slope, Alexandros made no attempt to pick up the pace as the two lines drew close; the kataphrakts kept their measured, hieratic tread to the very moment of impact. And in that phrase lay our victory; for it is rare that lines of fighting men actually collide. Usually one side or the other will stop, a short distance away from their foes, and attempt to thrust their spears into the enemy ranks, or to use their swords. To deliberately step into arms’ range of a grown man wielding edged steel takes unusual courage, even among trained soldiers; few officers can force their men to it. But we were desperate; we had no line of retreat, nowhere to go but forward. And Alexandros was leading us. The kataphrakts attempted no swordplay. They raised their shields and plowed forward.
I believe the Persians were surprised; they were experienced soldiers, who had stood in a line of battle before, and perhaps that was weakness, for there is no surprise so deadly as the one that comes when a man thinks he knows what to expect. But surprised or not they were no cowards, and no fools; they knew that whoever gave way was lost. They stood their ground, and shoved back. They were well fed, and numerous, and stood on higher ground; they had not marched fifty miles uphill in five days; they were ranked shoulder to shoulder with comrades who depended on them for their lives, and would see their courage or their shame. And yet, in the end, they were fighting for king and country, and we were fighting for our lives.
It was a contest of endurance. Nobody who has not experienced the awful draining terror of close combat can know what it is like. In the maelstrom of shouting, glaring faces and edged metal, time disappears. The heart beats faster then than at any other time; the limbs fill with strength, but you know that it will not last. With every second you can feel the draining of that precious, temporary power, and the urgent need for the struggle to end – one way or another – fills your mind to the brim. There is perhaps no primal instinct more powerful than the urge to end a dominance contest that is not going well. That ancient terror fought in our minds with the intellectual knowledge that this was no struggle for position within a tribe, that surrender here did not mean accepting lower status and trying again in a year.
But if we were terrified, what of the Persians? They, too, were initiates in the mystery of death. They, too, stood at the narrow passage. But they were not fighting for the lives of their children and wives. Glory, comradeship, the gaze of an officer, the feel of the cloth – these are powerful motivators. But they were not enough, when facing men who could not retreat. My mouth was dry with fear and I could not find air; but I thought of my wife lying in a ditch with her throat slit, or worse, and I dug my feet in and pushed forward, and around me ten thousand of my comrades did the same. And, grudgingly, the Persian line gave way – and then shattered with the suddenness of a dam bursting.
We yelled! We shouted with the triumph and the glory as we pounded forward in pursuit; the Persian line unravelled on either side of the breach, men throwing away their shields and spears to run faster. We screamed our victory at their backs, and for a mile we cut them down from behind, until our arms were weary with slaughter and we could run no more; but the Persians kept going, sobbing their fear and despair. If not for the awful terrain that kept us from having a cavalry reserve, not a man would have escaped. As it was, during the next days there were many Persian soldiers in the pass, enough to have troubled us greatly; but there was no Persian army, and we marched freely.
On the third day after the battle, we crossed a last ridge and saw before us the unbroken steppe. Someone, meaning it perhaps for a jest, shouted “Thalassa! Thalassa!”, and we all took it up; for if this was not the wine-dark water that carries Greeks in foreign lands home, still it was deliverance. On the steppe, as trackless as the sea, we could disappear. Neither Shahanshah nor Czar would pursue us into the wastes where no man’s writ runs. And one day, we would come back; or our sons, or our sons’ sons. And the Eagle would fly again over the City of Men’s Desire.