The Komneniad: Eagle and Dragon

Here begins Victoria; it is my custom to write something taking a long view of history when we switch games.

A thousand years!

Who can truly conceive of such a span? Men live, perhaps, eighty years; yet it is a rare man who will lay plans stretching more than a decade. We hand off the future to our grandchildren, like runners in a relay, and we wish them joy. But we do not plan for them, nor truly envision their lives; that is their business. As for their grandchildren in turn – who plans for such a time? Yet four generations, from the first squall of the ancestor to the last dying gasp of the descendant, is less than a quarter of a millennium.

The days of our lives are short, and made the shorter by drudgery; if your memories of the decade just past were made into a play, how much time would the acts and scenes cover? A year, a month, a week? We remember the highlights, and forget the routines; remember the birth of a child, and forget the ninety-seventh time we wiped its snotty nose. No living man remembers a full decade of deeds. A century, a millennium – these are as beyond us as is the Moon.

And yet – are we not citizens? We each of us belong to a larger entity, a nation beyond our selves. The state can outlive our grandchildren, and their children. The state may last three hundred years, or five hundred, each new generation seamlessly taking up the burden, carrying the torch. Is there not satisfaction in the thought? Here is continuity beyond the vagaries of childbirth; here is the fixed place where a man may build something lasting.

And yet – three hundred, we said; or five hundred. Not a thousand. It is a rare state that fills its millennium. Invasion, plague, crop failure, plain decadence and loss of will – the horsemen take their toll, and when they have passed there is a new crop of states rising, to fight fiercely for their place in the Sun, and to grow old and fail in their turn. Egypt, of the Old Dynasty, lived nearly three thousand years after the first Pharaohs united the red and black earths. But Egypt is almost uniquely defensible: Warded east and west by impassable desert, to its south by highlands held by savage tribes, and to its north approachable only by a narrow path, easily held by small numbers. And even Egypt fell, in the end, first to Cambyses, later to Caesar and Mohammed. Japan, a sceptred isle hedged about by the sea, claimed two thousand years between the crowning of its first Emperor and the suicide of the last. Japan also asserted, before its conquest by younger nations, that its royal line was descended from its gods. Neutral scholars do not support either claim.

What other nations have lived more than a thousand years? Only two, in all the long history of mankind: Rome, and China. Eagle and Dragon. West and East.

It is true that the Eagle glares, from a distant exile, across the Urals at the barbarians who possess its ancient cities. It is true that the Dragon lies bound by the Unequal Treaties, driven back from the coastal plain by foreign invaders. It is true that that jumped-up tribelet of the Balkans, the Radomir kingdom, vaunts its temporary possession of Rome and Constantinople alike, and loudly proclaims itself the Third Rome. None of this matters. Rome is not a place; it is an idea, an ideal of citizenship, equality, and sacrifice. China is not a set of borders or cities; it is the Mandate of Heaven expressed by the consent of the Han people.

So long as the Komnenoi send their sons to serve in the Legions, and swear loyalty to their salt “though they be whipped with scorpions and driven by fire”; so long as every man in the Roman Khanate may gain the vote through his honoured service; so long as the Senate and the People of Rome maintain the final authority of life and death, whatsoever territories may temporarily rebel against it – for just so long, Rome shall live. And while men who have sat the exams and revere the Analects rule the Han, there will be a China.

But mere existence is not enough. What is the purpose of a China that does not rule the whole of All Under Heaven? What is the use of Rome, if it does not seek to bring its peace to the barbarians? Where the Legions have conquered, arrow-straight roads run between unwalled cities. Outside the limes, anarchy reigns. Warlords rise and fall, and terror marches in their wake; in every generation the armies descend upon some fertile territory and leave behind burnt-out wasteland. The tiller of the soil tends his plough with a musket by his side, and no city dares let its wall decay.

Rome has spent centuries taming the wild horsemen of the steppes; the terror of nomad raids no longer hangs over the borderlands like a stormcloud. The high-cheeked tribesmen remain, recruited into the Legions; under the Eagle hang horsetail banners, feared from the Crimea to the Great Plains. Now a new age dawns, of iron horses and rifled guns. Will the untapped wealth of Siberia give Rome renewed strength? Will the toiling masses of the Han reconquer their heaven-given territory? Time will tell. The only thing certain is that both Eagle and Dragon stand, even against tyranny’s bloody banner.

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One response to “The Komneniad: Eagle and Dragon

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

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