The Komneniad: The Mandate of Heaven

The Komnenoi consider the conquest of the steppes to be one of the chief signs of divine favour for the Roman Empire; and, looking at the spectacle of twenty thousand refugees – hardly ragged; the Diaspora carried off the gold and steel of the great cities of Anatolia before the Persians could loot them, but refugees nonetheless – establish their rule of two million hardy nomads, even an objective historian is tempted to agree. Nonetheless, it must be said that the men of the Long March did have some worldly factors in their favour. The splendid kataphrakt cavalry, probably the best armoured horse in the world either before or since, springs immediately to mind; but five thousand horsemen, no matter how skilled, could not have imposed their will on four hundred times their number for very long. The fact is, of course, that they did not need to do any such thing; with twelve thousand fighting men of whom five thousand were kataphrakts, the Diaspora could put more men in the field than any single tribe that opposed them, and better armed men at that. European tales of ‘hordes’ of steppe cavalry were always somewhat exaggerated, but in any case the great invasions were the result of ephemeral unities lasting a generation at most, when some leader with great genius and luck would briefly hammer the tribes into an alliance. The unique achievement of the Komnenoi was not in creating such a unity, but in making it last generation after generation, until their subjects almost forgot that the world had been otherwise. And this brings us to the decisive factor that favoured the Komnenoi, the one that is always overlooked in their own historiography: There was no other polity of remotely comparable sophistication that wanted the steppes.

The steppes, in fact, were the last large area of Eurasia to come into the state system, for the good and simple reason that, in addition to being essentially worthless for agriculture, it was difficult of access from existing civilised areas – cut off from Europe by the Urals and from China by the Loess Plateau and the Jingdu mountains. Consequently they had subsisted for thousands of years, at least since the domestication of the horse and invention of the war chariot, at a tribal-feudal level of organisation, in which any supra-tribal polity had to be based on personal loyalty. Hence the rapid success and equally rapid collapse of the Gengid and Timurid empires: They fell apart on the collapse of the charismatic leader who had created them.

To give allegiance to the Senate and the People of Rome, even in the rather diminished form of twenty thousand holdouts too stubborn to surrender to the Persians, was a horse of quite another weight class – grain-fed, armoured, and bred for the size to carry an armoured kataphrakt. The Komnenoi were heirs to two millennia of state government; when they built a coalition, they built it to last. In truth, probably any of the major states of the early gunpowder period could have repeated the feat; the steppes, like a saturated solution, seem to have been ripe for statification. However, if China or Russia had unified Siberia under their rule, the result would have been quite different from the state the Komnenoi built: It would have been bureaucratic, top-down, reliant on the resources of these respective homelands for enforcement. The Komnenoi, with no vast agrarian homeland to draw force from, had to rule with the lightest possible hand. It is this which is the source of their hands-off ideology in economic matters: For hundreds of years New Byzantium simply did not have the strength to impose its will in matters of money, and naturally the Komnenoi made a virtue of necessity. Since all they could manage to impose on their subjects was military service, they created an entire moral theory around this power-political fact, whose central thesis is that the State has power over matters of life and death, and therefore has the obligation to stay clear of all lesser matters. Even now the Khanate has the smallest government, as measured by percentage of GDP, of any major or even regional power.

All this is well known, and only mentioned (*) by way of introducing what a massive problem the Komnenoi created for themselves in conquering China. To hammer steppe tribes into a limited military, and later even proto-national, unity was one thing. To impose foreign rule on the Han Chinese was quite a different problem! The Han already had a state, thank you very much; indeed their tradition of government was as long as that of Rome, and, even accounting for the periods of civil war (“dynastic renewal”, as the Chinese put it), more continuous. In particular, the tradition of rule by men who had sat the exams, mandarins, gave Chinese government an unparalleled continuity.

Nonetheless, the Komnenoi found a wedge: The practice of “dynastic renewal”, or in other words, the forceful removal of a regime which had grown too noticeably corrupt or inefficient, could be extended to accommodate foreign rule. In their three millennia, the Chinese had built an ideology of cyclical renewal, based on the idea that loss of legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven, was demonstrated by the very fact that a government had been overthrown. This abstract concept had the very practical consequence that the winner of a civil war found himself relatively unopposed. A usurper in a European kingdom would find that even a defeated king, or dynasty, could still retain large amounts of mana, legitimacy, baraka, causing endless renewal of conflicts. In China, when the war was over, it was decisively over, minimising the bloodshed.

The Mandate of Heaven was among the many ideas discarded as reactionary, bourgeouis, or feudal by the Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng, the Communist Party; but in their twenty years of rule they were unable to stamp it out of the workers and peasants they claimed to represent. When discontent with their collectivisation policies finally tipped the uneasy balance of their compromise with the army and open revolt broke out, “dynastic renewal” was one of the slogans of the rebellion. It would, nonetheless, have been crushed with characteristic brutality – the training of the armed revolutionary cadre was the one area in which the Party was a model of efficiency – if not for foreign intervention. The Khanate thoughtfully allowed the Party to destroy most of the formal armies of the rebels, while taking in refugees who later formed the nucleus of their administration; thus the rebels were beholden to the Khanate for their aid, while not having armed units above the level of guerrillas to form an independent power base.

Faced with simultaneous invasions from north, south, and west through Tibet, Communist armies nonetheless succeeded, by dint of conscripting practically every man (and many women) who could hold a rifle, in retaining control of its core industrial areas for a year. Then the Japanese, seeking a share of the spoils, invaded from the sea, and resistance became futile – although it was nevertheless carried on with desperate fury for another six months.

The main problem of the Khanate, then, was not in the formal conquest of China, but in administering the annexed areas – and defending them against the claims of nations who had sent a few regiments (or in one case, a few observers!) to the fighting front and expected, in return, to gain millions of cheap labourers. The traditional method of setting tribe against tribe was no use here; the Han were all one tribe, and aware of their unity against foreign oppression. Nor did the hands-off approach of New Byzantium in economic matters appeal; the Han expected governments to govern, and to them, that meant having a presence in every department of life. By appealing to the Mandate of Heaven, the Komnenoi were able to set themselves up as a new legitimate dynasty (the old Emperor, kept as a figurehead by the Communists, having conveniently disappeared in the final desperate fighting in the capital), which calmed matters for a while. In the end, though, the Khanate was going to have to come to an actual accomodation with the Han; twice the number of Rome’s prewar
population could not be ruled without some measure of their own consent. Nor could they, as the Komnenoi saw it, be allowed the traditional measure of autonomy as a bloc; such a tail would soon be wagging the steppe dog.

The answer was found in the traditional method of Rome, suitably adapted: Although the Han could not be divided tribe against tribe, their economic interests were by no means identical. The coastal cities wanted free trade, the agricultural interior wanted protection. Every industrial area wanted subsidies to continue, while the traditionally-minded scholar-gentlemen class wanted a return to the land and the end of noisy, polluting factories. In these regional and class divisions the Komennoi found their opportunity. As they had done in Korea, they created administrative regions, in effect city-states, and appointed a proconsul in each, ‘advised’ by a Komnenoi Envoy just like the steppe tribes. The proconsuls were chosen from the ranks of the surviving rebels, and were acceptably Chinese and schooled in the Analects; no man being given rule of a city near where he was born. Each city was then given considerable autonomy in its internal affairs, allowing the rule of scholar-gentlemen to continue – the Komnenoi cared nothing for how their subjects organised their bureaucracy – but required to send delegations to New Byzantium to argue for its larger economic interests. Some of these petitions were granted, always favouring a relatively poor area. In this manner the Khanate built up a coalition of interest groups who had done well from their rule. As for those who hadn’t, the Han were given to philosophy in matters of government; what they chiefly required in their rulers was the ability to maintain order – in a phrase, the Mandate of Heaven. And this Rome had clearly acquired. The two governing traditions of ancient times were thus united in a single nation; and for the first time, New Byzantium had acquired the strength that might make it possible to fulfil the ancient ambition of a Return to Europe.

First, however, they had to deal with the desire of other Powers to wet their beaks in the collapse of China. It remained to be seen whether the Senate and People of Rome could maintain the Mandate of Heaven.

(*) My narrator is like me: He’s an academic who can’t ‘mention’ anything without giving you enough material for a dissertation.

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