The Komneniad: The Career of Honour

If the Komnenoi were organised into a pyramid, that pyramid was still the very tippy-top of their society, resting on a flat desert of non-citizens. These residents of the Roman state had, of course, their own internal hierarchies. Although the tribes were fairly egalitarian as humans go, they still observed a distinction between free warriors and slaves, and between warriors and chiefs. As for the settled peoples under Komnenoi rule, with their much greater economic specialisation, they naturally fell into an ordinary pattern of stratification by some combination of wealth, birth, and education – which of course tended here as elsewhere to go together. No such distinctions, however, were known to Roman law, which, when it was done outlining the privileges of the different ranks of citizens, consigned everyone else to a single category marked `Other’. After the reforms of Achilles, it was possible for non-citizens to join the Equestrian order through military service, but since the privilege was not hereditary, this did not greatly expand the citizen class.

Such a system might have bred resentment, if it were flaunted. But apart from exacting tribute and levies, the Komnenoi kept themselves to themselves, leaving their subjects to manage their own affairs. Each tribe and each city kept its own law, and even a limited amount of horse-stealing and skirmishing for grazing rights were tolerated, as long as it did not cut deeply into productive capital. In effect, New Byzantium had set itself up as simply a pre-eminent tribe, which did not interfere in the internal affairs of others provided the tribute was paid; a truly minimal night-watch government. Nevertheless, one cannot run an empire without some sort of government; subjects who are allowed to forget that their government exists might decide to forget about their tribute payments as well. Thus each tribe and each city in the Roman Khanate had assigned to it a single Envoy, representative and sole functionary of the government. In practice the Envoys, at least in the settled lands, tended to acquire a small staff; but on the steppes many tribes did indeed have a single man as their only contact with their nominal government. Such service was the first step in the ladder of the Cursus Honorum, the Career of Honour by which ambitious Komnenoi men advanced to, ultimately, the Senate. After serving as Envoy for a few years – three was the minimum, but promotion after such a short period was rare in peacetime – the budding politician (sometimes still shy of twenty years) would be posted to a Legion. After at least five years in the military, he would become eligible for transfer to the civil service in New Byzantium; but in practice most Komnenoi served in the Legions for at least ten years, and twenty was not unusual. The reasons were twofold: First, military service was the prestige posting, the raison d’etre of the entire citizen class; and second, a short military service was a liability in New Byzantium’s politics. Finally, after ten years in the Administratum a civil servant could be elected Senator. In theory, then, the minimum age was 34, but in fact the youngest Senator on record is Telemakhos son of Hercules, who achieved election at the unheard-of age of 44.

The powers of the Envoy were theoretically vast and practically constrained. As the sole holder of Imperium, right-to-command, in his region, he could in principle order his subjects flogged and (in time of war) beheaded; hence the Fasces badge of his office. In practice this right was almost never exercised against civilians, for the good and simple reason that the Envoy could not very well act as his own lictor against any sort of resistance; to enforce a flogging he needed the cooperation of the locals, and that was usually only forthcoming when some local law had been broken – in which case the Envoy’s right did not need to be invoked. An exception to this rule was when someone had behaved in such a way as to scandalise his neighbours, but without strictly speaking breaking any law, as in the famous Xian Lu Incident, where the eponymous Xian Lu was driven to suicide by her schoolmates. There was no law against mockery and bullying; but Ioannes son of Alexandros, the local Envoy, ordered the guilty parties flogged, to widespread satisfaction. Exceptions could also occur when a faction in local politics managed to suborn an Envoy and have their opponents whipped; but this usually led to the recall in disgrace of the Envoy, and was therefore rare.

Likewise, in principle an Envoy could call for military support – up to and including the entire thirty-Legion armed force of the Roman Khanate – to deal with threats ranging from bandits through rebellion up to invasions by Great Powers. Again, however, most threats were dealt with at the local level; no city benefited from having bandits nearby, and New Byzantium’s policy of crucifying liberally after any rebellion that required Legion intervention meant that neighbouring cities were often willing to send their militia to crack heads if a riot got out of hand. Thus the enormous army that an Envoy could in theory call upon served mainly as a deterrent, ensuring that the velvet glove could usually be kept on the mailed fist.

To load such responsibility on boys not yet out of their teens tended to produce a binary outcome set: The Envoy either cracked under the pressure or grew up very rapidly – which was, of course, the intention. The Komnenoi were (and are) not a numerous people, and loved by none; they had no room for deadwood. Hence the famed coolness under pressure, expressed in laconic wit, of those who had served their time as Envoys. The response to the invasion of Bengal, for example, is classic; the panicked Bengalese, faced with expeditionary forces outnumbering their armies three times over, had begged for ten Legions as well as invoking their alliance with Qin. The actual Roman response was rather smaller; as their leader said: “Of course the Senate knows that Kongo is invading with a hundred thousand men, that all of India is on the march, and that the situation is very serious. That’s why they sent two Komnenoi.”

In this case, laconicism was reinforced, presumably, by the knowledge that New Byzantium was bound by treaty to make no war on Kongo, had only a minor interest in the exact location of the Indian border, and in any case could not have supplied any ten Legions across the Himalayas. Still, by all accounts the response to the Russian invasion in 1714 was similar: The various Envoys reported an aggregate of a quarter-million men coming across the border, and calmly retreated their tribes eastwards, poisoning wells and setting grass fires as they went. When the Khanate’s armies eventually met the Russians in battle, the peasant conscripts of the latter were exhausted and hungry, easy prey for the well-fed kataphrakts; the initial invasion was turned back almost without loss to the Khanate, leaving tens of thousands of dead behind along with a hundred guns.

The enormous manpower of Russia enabled it to absorb such a blow where a smaller state would have been forced to sue for peace. Nonetheless, the point remains that perhaps three dozen young men, none of them above the age of twenty-three, had by their collective decision moved a hundred thousand nomads, at least a million head of cattle, and many millions of horses and sheep; had rendered hundreds of square miles impassable to formed units; and had, in effect, defeated the foremost, or at any rate largest, army of the day – long before the Khanate’s regular troops closed with the starving remnants of the Russian regiments.

The particular circumstances of the Russian Vengeance War were rare, and not many Envoys actually had to make such weighty decisions in their few years of service; but they were all required to be ready for them, and in the pinch, the Komnenos ethos of firm decision came through. The entire government of the Khanate was composed of such men, and indeed any lesser mortals might well have found it impossible to impose the will of thirty thousand men over one-fifteenth of the land surface of the Earth. One shudders to think what they might have accomplished, had they been numerous enough to send two Komnenoi to each tribe.

From Ever the Twain Shall Meet: Custom and Law in the Roman Khanate,
Thomas Mattson,
Oxford University Press, (c) 1972.


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