The Komneniad: Travelogue

I realised that, for reasons of WordPress interface, I’ve skipped ahead by several episodes. This post should immediately follow “Flowing Like Water”.

Gameplay notes: The Khanate is currently a Noble Republic. I am not getting much income from trade, due partly to terrible prestige, partly to low tech, and partly to military-focused national ideas. My two manufactories are both weapons; land-tech is the only field in which I am reasonably up to date. I still got hammered in my recent war with Tibet, but it was due to serious tactical errors on my part, not to inferior armies.

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Excerpted from “Journeys of the Merchant Ieremias”:

After several months of travelling thus, we arrived at the optimistically-named New Byzantium. I had expected that a city which rules so vast a hinterland, even though most of it is nomadic waste rather than the agricultural territory that makes for true strength, would be grandly built, or at least of considerable size; but here I was disappointed. The capital of the realm which styles itself the Third Rome has as many inhabitants as would, in Europe, make a harbour town of moderate importance. As for comparing it with the vast cities of China and India, New Byzantium might be dropped into any one of them without making more than a new neighbourhood – and an inconspicuous neighbourhood at that, for the Komnenoi do not count their wealth in stately buildings. The mercantile wealth of their realm, such as it is, is concentrated in nearby Beijing. But for political power, there is no doubt that New Byzantium is the place to be; and it is true that their Forum, where the Citizens meet to debate matters of policy, compares favourably with the one in Rome, which for the last century has been used as a marshalling-ground for Spanish cavalry, and smells rather strongly of horse. The Citizens themselves will tell you that the drabness of their city is a deliberate choice; “when Rome was built in brick it conquered the world, when Augustus covered it in marble the Fall began”, they say. Perhaps they make a virtue of necessity, for the site of New Byzantium was chosen with an eye to strategy and symbolism rather than the convenience of importing marble and timber. Still, this low-slung mix of one-story houses and, in some cases, literal tents, does give shelter to a people who rule from the Aral to the Pacific Sea; so perhaps there is something to their approach.

During my first week in the city I was something of a novelty. Although there is trade across the caravan routes, it is handled mostly by middlemen; not many merchants personally make the journey from Europe, and I was probably the only man in the city who had with his own eyes seen the Greek cities of Anatolia. Thus I was invited into the houses of several important people, and asked about my views on everything from the Trinity to the feasibility of Reconquest, which I gave freely: I am Orthodox regarding the dual nature of Christ, and Reconquest will happen when Persia has three Shahs in a year that also sees a mad Czar. In return I learned as much as I could about the power structures of New Byzantium, which after all was the purpose of my journey. “Make friends with the rulers, learn about their dreams and their intrigues”, my father had told me before I set off; “thus we will know what disturbances to expect, what goods will fetch the best profit, and who can impose the highest tolls on our competitors”. Thus I found that, although all the Citizens have a voice in the Forum if they choose to exercise it, some can shout louder than others; among the thousand-or-so distinct lineages or gens that New Byzantium recognises, perhaps fifty are considered to have Senatorial honour, and these in practice make the decisions. Each Senatorial family is supported by an entourage of equestrians, who by hereditary right send their sons to the heavy cavalry on which, in the final analysis, Komnenos rule of the steppe tribes rests. The Senators spend much of their time intriguing to draw away equestrian families aligned with other Senators, and to strengthen the loyalty of their own; the ability to bring a large retinue to the Forum is the mark of a powerful and respected statesman – the presumption being that those who support a man in debate would, if necessary, support him in battle. This custom, it seems to me, may be considered representative of all the politics of the Third Rome: The Komnenoi teach their children never to lose sight of the reality of power, but also that government directly by raw force is not workable in the long run. They strive for a compromise, clothing their actual military strength in swathes of custom, respect, and formality, but never losing track of the underlying iron. Such, at any rate, is their ideal; like all men, the Komnenoi do sometimes fail to practice what they preach.

At first I thought I might trade on the connection of our family to the old Komnenos dynasty; in the homeland, of course, we usually find it politic to emphasize the cadet nature of our branch, thus avoiding the negative attention of the Shah’s officers looking for possible disloyalty. (I do not blame them for this: If the Greeks were to rise in revolt against the Shah, perhaps supported by Croatian or Russian gold, who can doubt that some figurehead Komnenos would be found to lead the rebellion? The Shah has as good a right to enforce the safety and obedience of his subjects as any other king.) In New Byzantium I thought I might promote some second cousins and younger sons among my ancestors, and gain in prestige thereby. Alas, I was soon disabused. The Citizens use ‘Roman’ and ‘Komnenos’ interchangeably, but the meaning has changed: Anyone whose ancestors took part in the Long March is considered a Komnenos and a Roman, whether or not his bloodline has any connection to the noble dynasty. Conversely, ‘stay-behinds’ such as myself, whatever our ancestry, have no claim on any such honourable title; shared hardship, purpose, and myth define the Komnenoi now, rather than any ties of blood. Even so, I think I was accepted, more than any other outsider would have been, partly because of that ancestry. For the Komnenoi look has bred true, and many of the Romans shared my own features: The straight thin eyebrows, hooked nose, and sharp chin that is shown in so many mosaics of the Old Empire. I believe, therefore, that the Romans saw me somewhat as one of their own, and treated me accordingly.

I said that the Komnenoi do not count their wealth in stately buildings; like the tribes they rule, they think a man wealthy if he has a large herd of good horses (and the grazing rights to support them), many sons, and a powerful fighting tail. But even by this standard, there are not many Romans who have vastly more wealth than their compatriots; there are rich families and poor families, but there are no men who could buy and sell twenty or thirty others out of their sons’ pocket money. Partly this is because much wealth is publicly held; the kataphrakt horses that mount the equestrian order, for example, are owned by the state, and no stallions or mares of that breed are ever sold, in spite of the high prices that the geldings command. It is also because the steppe offers very little in the way of capital, as we understand the term in Europe: Arable land, high government office, and shares in trade all make money which can be used to purchase more of the same, and a fortune can thus accumulate. But grazing rights will support only so many horses, there are limits to how many sons one can have, and fighting men do not pay dividends except in wartime. The wealth of the Komnenoi, therefore, is all in consumption, not in investment. And this is not unintentional; for the Komnenoi believe that the accumulation of vast personal fortunes led to the Fall of Rome, that men who are allowed to compete for the distinction of being the wealthiest will forget to compete for the distinction of being the most honourable, or the best servant of the state. Hence they have revived the ancient sumptuary laws of Rome, and the women of Senatorial rank take pride in wearing ornaments no larger than those of the meanest equestrian’s daughter. But, alas, human nature is not to be overcome. If the Komnenoi intended, by these measures, to suppress competition and one-upsmanship among themselves, it must be said that they have failed dismally. When competition in the display of precious metals and jewels is forbidden, the women instead turn to displaying their inborn beauty to the best advantage; at times, indeed, it seemed to me that women and men alike competed aggressively to see who could dress the most plainly, and wear the most understated jewelry, and still look the best. The effort that New Byzantium expends on ‘artless’ coiffures and ‘natural’ complexions has on occasion made me long for Baghdad, where a woman’s jewelry tells you all you need to know about her husband’s rank, and a man knows where he stands! Still there is no denying that the Romans know how to display a woman to advantage. Even those not well-favoured by nature can be turned by the beautician’s art into a jewel of femininity, and as for those whom God has blessed with good looks, their slightest glance can take a man’s breath away.

If, in these pages, it seems that I often admire the Komnenoi more than my own people, that is partly true. They are the descendants of those Greeks who would rather die than submit to the ancient enemy; who fled into darkness and obscurity rather than make peace, and who built a great nation out of nothing but ruin and sheer determination. My own ancestors, the stay-behinds, were undoubtedly more pragmatic, more sensible even: The Persians, after all, know the difference between fleecing a sheep and butchering it, and their rule lies no heavier on us than that of any other realm. My own family, merchants of no particular account, command greater wealth and comfort than the richest Komnenos Senator. And yet I cannot help but be drawn to the defiance and bortherhood of their saga; and I admire their pragmatism, the way they organise their public life in accordance with their professed beliefs and goals. Many a nation whose rulers are nominally Christian would do well to heed that example. But, with all that said, I would never choose to replace the Shah’s rule of Anatolia with that of these Romans, although nominally we share language, ties of blood, and religion; and I was secretly glad when word came that Tibet had thrown back their invasion. For the qualities that they cultivate in themselves, in order to prepare for Reconquest, are the virtues of a warrior polity; their every law and custom is deliberately designed to subordinate the individual to the state in the name of military strength. And that is very well for a people at war. But what will they do if they ever win their Protracted Struggle? I fear that, having changed themselves out of all recognition to retake what once they had, they will find that they do not want it in the form that their fathers possessed it: And in trying to remake the cities of their long desire in their own image, they will create a desert where they meant to remake an empire.

Nomadic tribes have come out of the steppes before, to make war on their settled neighbours: Scythian, Magyar, Hun, Mongol. But although they sometimes conquered and became the rulers of wide lands, they never tried to remake the inhabitants of those lands; they took tribute and women, and were satisfied. In the Komnenoi, I fear that the world faces something new: They have married the Republican virtue of Rome, an ideal of manhood and service, to the barbarian vigour and ruthlessness of the steppes. Neither component is compatible with the wealth and freedom of modern civilisation. The word itself means “the art of living in cities”; and it is precisely this art that the Romans have deliberately destroyed in themselves. They have taken the customs of nomadic tribes from the steppe part of their inheritance, and those customs are well suited to making a nation of conquerors. But then they have imposed those customs as laws, which is something else entirely: From their civilised ancestors comes the concept of written law, which applies equally in all circumstances. And thus, if they win, they will not be able to do as their predecessors did, and bend with the tide of victory: They will adhere rigidly to the laws that brought them strength to conquer, and they will fail completely to build.

There have been barbarian victories in the past; but in every such disaster, tribal custom could bend, and the nation of conquerors could become a nation of builders and lawmakers. The Romans already have a law; they cannot readily make another. And their law forbids trade, forbids the accumulation of wealth, forbids all that does not support the life of a soldier, or servant of the state. What then will they do, if ever they have no more need to be soldiers?

I trust the Shah’s armies will prevent us from ever finding the answer. But sometimes I dream of cities burning under the pitiless gaze of men on horseback. And when I wake, I realise that every horseman had the same look: The features of the Komnenoi dynasty, endlessly repeated. My own face.

Editor’s note: It is worth noting that Ieremias was a moderately-prominent Greek subject of the Shah, with (as he says) some distant connections to the deposed dynasty. Some of his words may be intended for the consumption of the Shah’s bureaucracy, to assure them of his loyalty. On the other hand, his account was originally meant to be seen only by his immediate family, to aid them in their caravan trade across the steppe; it is difficult to see how he could have anticipated the printing and widespread publication of his book after his death. Perhaps, then, his warning was heartfelt. Who but God knows the inmost minds of men? We have given his words as he wrote them, and leave the reader to form his own judgement.

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  1. Pingback: The Komneniad: Ferocious Soldiers Roaring | Ynglinga Saga

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