Although the steppes are conventionally called “the sea of grass” by poets, the Roman Khanate had, since its founding by Alexandros, been a relentlessly land-focused state. The reason was twofold: First, for at least a century after the founding, the Komnenoi regarded revenge on Persia as their highest calling, looked west and north for imperial expansion, and prioritised the army accordingly; and second, the bleak Pacific coast did not at first produce much in the way of sailors or shipbuilders. As the Komnenoi extended their rule northwards, punitive expeditions – if their targets’ territories were close to the coast – would sometimes find it convenient to go by sea rather than marching, and a few oar-powered galleys were built to suppress riverine piracy and enforce harbour tolls; but as for blue water, the Komnenoi left that to the Japanese and the Malayans.
However, as the eighteenth century began, the systematic exploitation of Siberian resources – chiefly iron, furs, copper, and precious metals – had caused a considerable coastal trade, mainly run by Koreans, to come into existence. Coast-hugging junks made great profits in exports to silver-starved China and copper-craving Japan, as well as supplying European merchants with furs; in a classic mercantilist pattern, the Korean trade cities had been granted a monopoly on Siberian goods in exchange for taxes in cash and kind – the latter consisting of supplying the State arsenals at New Byzantium with iron. Thus, although no captain of any Roman warship (given their usual duties and designs, “armed police-ship” better conveys the facts) built before 1725 would have dreamed of going out of sight of land, there was a considerable merchant fleet, bearing the circularly symmetric emblems of Korean merchant clans subject to New Byzantium, in the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, and as far north as the delta of the Amur.
As with any monopoly, the Siberian trade attracted its share of smugglers, mainly Japanese merchants trying to cut out the middleman in the copper trade, to the great annoyance of the middlemen – who naturally petitioned the Senate at New Byzantium for help in enforcing the monopoly they had granted. The Senate, however, was slow to respond; although the dream of revenge on Persia had faded with the centuries, Komnenoi attention was still focused on the west, in particular on the long conflict with Russia over the crumbling steppe frontier. The military aristocrats of New Byzantium did not really understand the sea; even those of the Cadet class who had made their money in trade had done so largely on the overland Silk Roads. Prestige and political power came from commanding the Legions to victory over Russia; the Pacific coast, in spite of its increasing wealth – recall that the world then had few statistical tools for measuring such things, and that the Roman civil service was deliberately tiny so as to exclude non-Komnenoi – was, by and large, ignored.
If the peace and sovereignty of Rome did not extend far beyond its coast, however, New Byzantium’s light hand in dealing with its subject peoples had always allowed them to raise their own militias – indeed, the tribal levies were a considerable part of Roman military strength. The Korean cities, seeing no advantage to drilling their young men to die on the distant Russian border, had not participated much in this system beyond police forces suitable for suppressing banditry in their immediate hinterlands. Having their commercial privileges threatened was something else again. The merchant guilds found enough room in their profits to arm their junks so that each trading voyage was also in effect a customs patrol, in which any foreign ship found north of Sakhalin was liable to capture or sinking. Naturally this led the smugglers to arm themselves in their turn, and sometimes to organise veritable smuggling fleets with dozens, even hundreds, of guns. Japanese and Malayan authorities, not wishing to antagonise the Komnenoi into turning their attention eastwards (and in any case not too sympathetic to the travails of poor smugglers from Hokkaido) did not interfere, and the Sea of Okhotsk thus became a lawless zone, with Korean and Japanese subjects fighting a private war outside the ken of their respective empires.
Arming merchant ships was an unsatisfactory compromise – the results had neither the commercial capacity their tonnage would allow, nor the firepower of a dedicated warship. As the demand of armies for for copper and iron increased, the conflict between smugglers and monopolists intensified, and much of the profit was diverted into an arms race which, over the course of a few decades, recapitulated the evolution of warships built by states. In 1650 a typical merchantman carried a dozen man-killing swivel guns, suitable for sweeping the decks of a lightly-built Japanese smuggler or, more likely, overawing it into surrender. By 1720 the principal Korean cities were launching frigate-built ships carrying two dozen ship-killing 36-pounder guns apiece.
Such ships did not serve any military purpose in the Amur delta. Firstly, the smugglers – unable to match the resources of the wealthy Koreans – had largely lost the undeclared war, and secondly the frigates were too large and expensive for monopoly enforcement; the same amount of money spent on smaller, faster sloops-of-war would have done a better job of coastal patrolling. But two generations of quite real naval skirmishing had produced a culture in which ships – strongly armed, well crewed, skillfully officered – were the means by which the merchant clans one-upped each other. The nouveau riche built ships to demonstrate that they had arrived; the established clans built ships to demonstrate that they were still top dogs; the not-quite-wealthy bought shares in ships so they could feel they were making a contribution to the defense of their city. The launch of a new ship became an occasion for city-wide festivals, in which those wealthy families who did not own the new ship competed to offer the finest food and fireworks in compensation, and the ship-owners were envied and celebrated.
Even a runaway competition for prestige could not be completely divorced from economic reality. The merchants did not try to build three-decked men-of-war requiring a thousand men to man their guns; nor, of course, were their internal negotiations for influence and trading rights entirely unaffected by the existence of private fleets of varying power, capable of interdicting the voyages of a rival house. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that far more was spent on such fleets than a purely mercantile cost-benefit calculation (that is, ignoring the intangible factors of prestige and patriotism) would have called for. Consequently, when in 1728 the Khanate found itself at war with Ethiopia – in other words, with a maritime empire whose fortified harbours and vast navy held the Indian Ocean in a grip of iron – the rulers of the Roman Empire had, for the first time since the Arabic invasions a thousand years before, to grapple with naval strategy.
The questions weren’t, it was true, very complex: The tiny Korean navies could not hope to wrest command of the sea from mighty Ethiopia, nor even to do much to protect their coastal commerce. What they could do, however, was to win a few skirmishes, and to establish that the Siberian coast was no longer a naval wasteland to be effortlessly dominated by a tiny handful of minor combatants. In particular, during the summer of 1729 the Εμπορικής Ναυτιλίας fought several single- and two-ship engagements against the few obsolete units that the Ethiopians had sent to interdict trade in the Sea of Okhotsk, and by carefully engaging only when circumstances were favourable, won them all. This was, of course, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things: The annoyed Ethiopians simply shuffled squadrons around and sent thirty ships which forced the Koreans to keep to their harbours. Nevertheless, the result in Roman domestic politics was electric. As the news of victories at sea came in, the military aristocracy suddenly realised that here was a source of victory-prestige which they had completely neglected. Further, the coastal trade had grown to the point where its revenue was sorely missed by a state mobilising for war; again, the effect was to make the Komnenoi take a sharp look eastwards, to the sea. And finally, while everyone understood that a state which bordered mighty Russia would never be able to fight a maritime empire like Ethiopia straight up, Ethiopia was not the only naval power in the world. Even a small navy, it was realised, might hold the balance of power in a contest for the seas – or at the very least, make the Siberian coast sufficiently dangerous that a state fighting for control of the Indian Ocean could not afford to divert forces to blockade it.
This handful of sea encounters, insignificant in themselves, thus took on an importance far beyond their real strategic effect, vastly raising the status of the coastal provinces of the Khanate and the perceived importance of their trade. The Komnenoi, never shy about muscling in on what they now saw as a good thing, quickly began building their own warfleets – and, with money voted by the Senate, they were not above making a domestic-political point by funding three-decked warships capable of blowing any Korean frigate out of the water.
The new Roman Navy thus came to have the same two-tiered structure as the army, with federal troops – or in this case, ships – backed by privately-funded militia units. The military utility of such an organisation may be doubted; but Rome still clung to a theory of government by which every man had the right and duty to bear arms. Thus the Komnenoi made a virtue of what was, perhaps, necessity on the steppe, since federal troops could not keep the peace between every pair of minor tribes; and in the name of consistency this virtue was transferred to the sea.
Excerpt from Citizen Sailors: The Rise of Roman Naval Power, 1660-1740,
(C) Frankfurt University Press, 1983.
A quick look at some of the battles of this war.
Forcing the Himalayas:
Biting the ankles of the Ethiopian blockade:
Holding the Allahabad river line against heavy Kongolese counterattack:
Notice the enormous concentration of guns on the Kongolese side; of course the Roman and Qin armies had great difficulty hauling such equipment over the mountains.