The Komneniad: Senator, Cadet, Equestrian

The reforms of Achilles had opened the ranks of the Equestrians to tribesmen not of the Komnenoi. That is to say, men who had done their twenty years’ service in the legions, the regular standing army as opposed to the tribal levies raised for particular wars, were allowed to declare their support for a particular Senator, and thus lend weight to his vote in the Forum. However, the upper ranks of the Komnenoi state remained firmly in the grasp of the noble houses of New Byzantium, comprising perhaps as many as a thousand adult males at any one time. Election to the Senate required (albeit by custom rather than law) that one’s father or grandfather had held the position. Thus the number of eligible men was more or less constant in spite of the increasing population, as men failed of election or simply pursued other interests; on average only one son of a Senator followed his father, and to get three sons into the Senate was held to be a notable feat.

The Komnenoi thus came to have three tiers, with men of Senatorial rank – either actually serving, or eligible for the office – at the top. At the bottom (although the poorest Komnenos still ranked before any tribesman or other subject) were the Equestrians, whose main privilege apart from their share of the State revenue was that of serving in the regular army. (Confusingly, the Equestrian class is distinct from the Equestrian order. The latter consisted of those men who had served in the legions and could thus vote for Senators. The former consisted of those Komnenoi families with a tradition of sending their sons to the legions, and who had no other political or economic distinction. Thus the order consisted of enfranchised male veterans, not all of whom were Komnenoi, while the class consisted of Komnenoi, with or without the vote, including many women and children.) The enfranchisement of the tribesmen had somewhat diluted this privilege; but volunteers for twenty years of arduous service were not so common as to make the vote meaningless. Moreover, privileges in law were one thing, and proximity to the center of power another; it was a rare Equestrian who had no friend in the Senate, and the Komnenoi stuck together. It was possible for a citizen of Equestrian rank to fall into poverty, but only by dint of considerable effort to demonstrate that they did not deserve the aid of the more fortunate. Alcoholism was the most common cause of such falls from grace. The majority, however, did well enough with small family businesses, with Senatorial charity (usually in the form of interest-free loans) as a fallback.

Between these two classes were what came to be called Cadets, originally consisting of men descended from Senatorial families but who were not eligible for the Senate, or who had repeatedly failed to be elected – this was more common, though not universal, for younger sons, hence the name. They nevertheless retained the right to a tenfold share of State revenue (where Equestrian males had the right to a single share), for this privilege of Senatorial families was enshrined in law and not mere custom; Cadet families therefore commanded great wealth. Eventually the class came to be defined by wealth rather than descent; increasing trade led to some individuals amassing incomes beside which a tenfold share could be quite insignificant. (Shares, of course, increased in value in proportion to Roman GDP, which in this agricultural period was growing at about half a percent yearly; but their value was also inversely proportional to the Komnenoi (not total) population, which was growing at a much more rapid 2% clip.) Thus the boundaries of the Cadet class were fluid, and initially there was a division within it. Men could fall into Cadetry from the Senatorial ranks, in which case their income was likely to be mainly from their share of the state’s income; or they could rise to Cadet rank from the Equestrian class, in which case their income was likely to be much larger and derived from trade. In 1673, however, a law was passed which made State-revenue shares alienable, that is, they could be bought and sold like stock in a corporation. Since every nouveau-riche former Equestrian made it his first priority to acquire income from a respectable source (and the shares therefore traded far above their net-present-value as future revenue streams), the distinction soon vanished.

It is worth noting that in the first Rome, ‘Equestrian’ had been a noble rank, albeit a minor one. The naming was deliberate: The Komnenoi were declaring themselves to be all nobility, all aristocrats – even down to their poorest members, who made a living by taking in laundry! Hence, incidentally, the vulgar tribal phrase for visiting a prostitute in New Byzantium: “F—ing a duchess”. The proud tribesmen were on occasion rather nettled by Komnenoi pretention, especially after seeing the mud-and-clay buildings of the poorer quarters in the capital, and were rarely shy about expressing their contempt. In fact Komnenoi women were very rarely forced to resort to prostitution, and most of the ‘duchesses’ had fled from one tribe or another. But insults need not be reasonable, and anyway the ‘duchesses’ generally did their best to act like noblewomen fallen on hard times, including exquisite manners as well as makeup to lighten the skin and prostheses (or even primitive surgery) to mimic the stereotypically sharp Komnenoi nose. If the result would not always have passed muster in a Senatorial salon, that did not matter as long as all parties got what they wanted: For the tribesmen, an opportunity to symbolically restore their equality with their overlords; for the Komnenoi, a safety valve against their subjects’ resentment; and for the ‘duchesses’, a livable (if squalid) income.

Fashions in prostitution were the least of the effects of the Komnenos claim to nobility, however. It contributed signally to the martial tone of New Byzantium; “a dreary barracks town, endlessly marching to the drum and trumpet, without charm or grace”, as one Russian ambassador (possibly not entirely unbiased) put it; if the Komnenoi were nobles, they were very much a military aristocracy. It pushed even the poorer Equestrian voters towards a long view; although the Komnenoi controlled no great estates (the factor that was supposed to make European aristocrats consider decades and centuries), shares in State income had a similar function as a long-term revenue stream affected by policy. Conceiving themselves an aristocracy among commoners, the Komnenoi tended to stick together; no nobleman likes to see another fall on hard times. Indeed, the same applies to every class except the lowest wherever men organise themselves in social classes, which is to say, in every state above the tribal level; and although wealth varied widely among the Komnenoi, class is not necessarily tied to wealth, as is usually thought in industrial societies. In New Byzantium the markers of class were dialect, manners, skin tone, and facial features, not money; and the city was small enough that the differences even in language between Senators and laundresses were not great. Hence the legendary solidarity of the Komnenoi, of whom it was said that they would rather barbecue a hundred foreign children than see one of their own suffer a scraped knee.

From Ever the Twain Shall Meet: Custom and Law in the Roman Khanate,

Thomas Mattson,

Oxford University Press, (c) 1972.


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