The Komneniad: Plain Religion

The twenty thousand Greeks who escaped the destruction of the East Roman Empire carried, in the words of their own chronicler, little physical baggage with them; fleeing destruction through the lands of their foes, they limited themselves to gold and steel. But there was no similar limit on the concepts and ideas they could carry, and they were heirs to millennial traditions of rule, citizenship, and theology. Indeed the purpose of their flight was to preserve their ideas, rather than their power or wealth – which they could have retained much better by making peace with the Persian conquerors, and ruling Anatolia as loyal subjects of the Shahanshah.

Those who joined the Long March did so because they were loyal to some idea of Rome – at least this is true of the leaders; children and wives followed fathers and husbands, and the kataphrakts fought, as soldiers will, for loyalty to their salt and their comrades. But the purpose of the exodus, the cause for which the Komnenoi abandoned great estates and a life of power and prestige (*), was that of preserving the Roman tradition as a sovereign country – indeed, in a sense, the sovereign country. In strict legal theory, the Komnenoi hold the Senate and People of Rome as the single legitimate source of authority, against which all other sovereignties are in rebellion. This tradition was part military, consisting of the horsemanship and archery of the kataphrakts – a style of fighting which, in spite of its effectiveness and several attempts by the Persians, was never revived in Europe, because all those who might have taught it were dead or fled – and, more importantly in the long run, the concept of an officer class leading a professional army. It was also partly social or ideological, in the idea that every man had a duty to serve as a soldier and to cheerfully accept discipline and authority, because that authority had been placed over him by the Senate and People of which he himself was a part. And lastly, the tradition was in part religious; if the first two concepts descended ultimately from the pagan Republic, by 1395 Orthodox Christianity, and the concept of a state church, was as much a part of the Roman idea as the legion and the Forum.

(* It is worth noting that there are still Komnenoi in Anatolia, descendants of those who did not join the exodus; and if they no longer rule through feudal privilege, they still own quite a remarkable fraction of the productive capital. As for power, it would be a careless Shahanshah indeed who deliberately offended an interest group that can so easily sway his Greek-speaking subjects. If the rural grandees now send their sons to the court at Baghdad instead of the court at Constantinople, and profess submission to Allah rather than the filioque clause – nu, in another context it was said that Paris was worth a mass. )

Alexandros and his immediate circle did not conceive of a Rome without, not only Christianity, but Christianity in the particular form it had taken in the Byzantine Empire: Patriarchs appointed by the State, with the power to settle theological disputes in council, and to withdraw the protection of law from apostates and heretics. In fact one may reasonably doubt whether, had they known that such a church was impossible in the Third Rome they were determined to build, they would have embarked on the Long March in the first place. But impossible it was, for the good and simple reason that the tribes refused to take dictation in points of theology.

Christianity was not new on the steppes; in its Nestorian form it had been preached and practiced for centuries when the Komnenoi arrived. Yet it remained one cult among many, of which the most prominent was a nominal Buddhism, strongly mixed with ancestor-worship and animism. In the first few years of the unification this did not become an issue; when the question was which tribe should rule the steppes and have the right to extract tribute from others, beliefs about the supernatural faded into the background. But once the Komnenoi had established by right of conquest that they were, in fact, the legitimate heirs of Genghis and Tamerlane, the question arose: Just what did this legitimacy entitle them to do, apart from extracting tribute and sending out the war-arrow?

The Komnenoi, acting on habits inherited from a thousand years of State-sponsored Christianity, felt that one obvious answer was, “require the tribes to worship as we specify”. The tribes, on the other hand, saw the problem with a fresh eye, uncluttered by structures developed for rule in settled lands. They quickly pointed out that Komnenoi propaganda, on which their crucial ability to recruit tribal allies rested, had been based on an alleged connection between the Roman custom of equality between citizens, and the tribal custom of equality between warriors. But the latter did not include any particular prescription for what the warrior should believe about spirits or ancestors, provided he was loyal to his salt and fought well. If the Roman conception of equality did have such a provision – then suddenly the promises to be no more than the first among equals in a struggle against the hierarchical settled states looked rather like mendacious propaganda of the very finest stripe.

Below this fine theoretical point, of course, lay the sharper reality that the tribesmen were no fools. The steppes might be a backwater, but they were not completely isolated from the outer world; they could see how state-organised religion was used as a tool of control, and they wanted no part of it. They were willing to accept Komnenoi primacy in matters of tribute and levies because that primacy had been established on the battlefield and could only be maintained there, and also because the Komnenoi had carefully supported relatively weak tribes against relatively strong ones in their initial divide-and-rule diplomacy; there was therefore a mutual interest in maintaining Komnenoi primacy. But to give the Komnenoi a tool of control that did not rest on battlefield strength was to give them something for nothing, and this the tribes uniformly resisted. They could foresee their children or grandchildren fighting in some Komnenos war not because it was good for the tribe, but because a Patriarch appointed in New Byzantium had called them to do so. A solid bond based on mutual advantage and military strength was one thing; intangible loyalty to an ideal that was under the control of one party was quite another.

This was not to say that the tribesmen resisted conversion; as always, Christianity had much to offer as a theology of the downtrodden. But individual faith was no threat to the tribal system. Comparison with the analogous case of the Christianisation of Scandinavia may be instructive: In that case, kings found Christianity a useful tool as against their fractious nobles – they could foresee the children of the present generation supporting throne against clan because a bishop appointed by the king had said it was right, and consequently they imposed the faith by fire and sword. On the pagan side, nobody had objected to individual conversions, which were no threat to the position of the nobles; it was when the Kings claimed the right to make everyone pray to the White Christ, and obey their bishops, that the regional grandees took up arms.

The Komnenoi, however, ruled explicitly by appeal to the legitimacy of warrior brotherhood, and implicitly by military superiority to any single tribe and their consequent ability to divide and conquer. They could not resist a united demand to back off, or else. And as it became clear that State-appointed bishops were the one thing that the tribes would not tolerate, the Komnenoi displayed once again their famous ability to triage: They dropped, almost as one man, the attempt to impose a state church.

This did not mean that they dropped the attempt to Christianise the tribes; that was both a heartfelt religious duty – it must be noted, in this analysis of religion as dominance relationships and cynical maneuverings, that many of the Komnenoi were genuinely pious and felt actual anguish at the thought of their subjects burning in Hell – and a slower means to the same end of imposing a State church. Christian tribes, presumably, would not object as strongly to appointed bishops as did pagan-Buddhist tribes.

This strategy had the advantage of not causing the overthrow of the Komnenos state a few decades after its creation. But it had a hidden weakness, squarely in the blind spot of monotheistic religions: It assumed that, because Christianity was true, it would eventually prevail. In fact, for the Komnenoi, all of twenty thousand strong, to attempt the conversion of two million pagan tribesmen was much like a drop of ink trying to blacken a bucket of milk. The end result is milk that is, perhaps, a little greyer than the next bucket, but ink that is not very black at all.

Likewise, the Komnenoi of the eighteenth century, by which time the homogenisation process was more or less complete, were certainly nominally Christian; they believed, indeed, that Jesus had preached peace and performed miracles, had been crucified, and had risen from the dead. They still made icons of various saints and of the Virgin Mary. But these facts are cherry-picked; they are not the full picture. They also believed that Jesus was one of many bodhisattvas, especially righteous men who had chosen not to break free of the cycle of suffering and reincarnation, but rather to aid others in accomplishing that end. Their saints had become, in effect, local gods or protecting spirits in the style of Hinduism and popular Buddhism (as opposed to its theology). This is not unknown to other Christian traditions, many of the saints having been absorbed from local spirits in the first place, but the extent to which the Komnenoi were willing to declare any tribal ancestor or river-spirit a saint was unusual. Further, the Bible’s words on bodily resurrection had come to be reinterpreted in terms of reincarnation; a monastic approach with an emphasis on personal development, rather than communal piety, was emphasized, and the list of borrowings from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism could be extended almost indefinitely.

If one were to construct a vector space for classifying religions, one would find that what the Komnenoi (and their tribal subjects) believed and practiced in the eighteenth century was, as far as its surface appearances and public rituals went, still quite close to contemporary practice in Christian Europe; but that the substance of its theology was much closer to Eastern ideas.

In a sense, of course, this did not matter: Theology, by construction, consists of beliefs about things that are not empirically testable, and which therefore have no effect on men’s actions. That is, it is not completely unknown for deeply religious men to insist that their god will intervene to save them, and therefore fight hopeless battles rather than submit; but it is rare. When it comes to making actual decisions, the deist position, that no god’s aid is to be relied upon, is much more common. But while belief in divine intervention is rare, belief in the righteousness of particular beliefs is not; and humans have been known to use force to impose correct belief. Thus, the long war on the crumbling steppe frontier was made particularly vicious by the (quite reasonable!) Russian belief that the Komnenoi were not only infidels, but apostates and/or heretics as well. (One might remark in passing that for any single religion to plausibly collect all three of these epithets is a perhaps unparalleled achievement. The Komnenoi were infidels in that they believed in various spirits, apostates in having left the mainstream Christian faith, and heretics in that they held uncanonical beliefs about Jesus.) Nor was viciousness ameliorated by the existence of a Moslem Punjab, making not only the territorial but also the religious struggle three-cornered.

Excerpt from The Plain Religion: A Study of Christianity in Siberia,
Carlos Three Bears Santiago,
(C) Fighting Navajo(tm) Publishing Company, 1993.

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