May 1st, 1911
Forum Romanum, New Byzantium
The crowd – for you could not very well refer to the sovereign People, as in “Senate and People of Rome”, as a ‘mob’; it wouldn’t be polite – growled, and Lysandros smiled cynically. Two years ago the same crowd, indeed many of the same men, had hailed him Saviour of the State and voted him a corona aurea. Now he was their scapegoat for the riots in China, and when he rose to speak the sound of their displeasure was like a lion the size of a mountain. It was intimidating, and meant to be. In all the world there was perhaps nothing so dangerous as a thousand angry human males. Yet there was nothing the lictors could do; no man had made a threat or offered violence. There was only the rumble of discontent, all the more threatening for being without a specific source.
Lysandros waited patiently for the sound to subside; the powerful amplifiers mounted all around the Forum allowed even an old man’s voice to override the grumble, but he intended to demonstrate that he was in control of the debate. If his enemies actually intended to break the law and attack a Senator speaking to the Forum, let them do so; every second the incipient mob failed to actually charge the thin line of lictors and tear Lysandros limb from limb underscored the emptiness of their threat.
Only when the point was well made and the Forum was quiet did Lysandros speak. “I thank the Forum for its courtesy; my words have been long considered,” he began, the formal invocation of a Senator speaking to the Forum. “My right honourable friend has ably laid down for us the charges brought against me. He alleges that I have intentionally caused wars between Rome and Russia, and between Rome and Persia, knowing that these wars could not be brought to a victorious conclusion, but intending to gain experience for the Legions in conditions of modern warfare. He has shown letters addressed to certain of my friends, obtained, I have no doubt, merely by asking nicely, in which the writer – who signs himself with my name – outlines such a plan, estimating the actual casualties of the wars of 1893 and 1896 rather precisely, and saying that this is regrettable but necessary to deal with the true enemy, Communist China. He further gives us the sworn testimony of an unnamed Tribune of the Legions, saying that on such and such a date I revealed to him that this had been my reason for fighting Persia.”
“Now he asks, and it is his undoubted right to ask, do I deny these charges? Do I admit that the half-a-million casualties of the wars of the 1890s are to be laid on my shoulders, and that my reason for causing them was not any honourable quarrel with the Czar or the Shah, but instead my desire to destroy the Communists of China? And if I deny it, then how do I account for the evidence laid before the Forum?”
“My answer is simple: I shall deny nothing; I shall defend my actions.” Lysandros paused to let the ripple of startlement pass through the Forum. “Of what, after all, am I accused? My opponents have gathered a nice bundle of epithets: Warmongering is a favourite.” There was a shout of “Damn right!” from the back rows, and Lysandros sent a quelling glance that way. “You honourable gentlemen had your turn to talk, now it is mine; that is what we call Debate.”
“Warmonger, that is the word. Well, what does that mean? It means I worked to place the Roman Khanate into a state of war. This is perfectly true. It is also no crime. It is my duty, as it is every citizen’s duty, to untiringly work towards any war that I think will, on balance, advance the interests of the State. I thought the war necessary, and therefore it was as much my duty zealously to advance it as it is a centurion’s duty to fight and, perhaps, die when war is declared. These are the duties that the State assigns to her citizens, Senator and soldier alike; and we must all meet them. Warmonger? Very well, I accept the title; I wear it proudly.”
“There is a certain trend of thought in the world today, which holds that the very act of declaring war is itself a crime, and that those who see wars as necessary are therefore criminals. Perhaps, in the Final Judgement, that will be so. But no such law is on the books of any nation; and on this Earth we can do no better than to advance the State by the means which mortal judgement give us. Either the Senate and the People of Rome are sovereign, in fact the only legitimate sovereignty and authority in the world, or they are not. If they are not, then all these proceedings are farce, the barking of buffoons with delusions of grandeur; we should, in such a case, each of us immediately surrender to whatever may be the true and sovereign authority, and beg that justice be tempered with mercy. If they are sovereign, then they have the power to declare war and make peace, to conclude binding treaties, to raise armies and contract alliances, according only to their own good judgement of their necessities. If that is the case, then war may be regrettable, but it is no crime, and no such charge may be lawfully brought in this or any other court.”
Lysandros paused to gauge the reaction to his words. His “right honourable friend”, a Senator named Georgos, was looking pained; the men around him were to various degrees annoyed and surprised. It seemed his defense had caught them by surprise; good. The electors standing in the Forum itself seemed by turns surprised and thoughtful; even better. To appeal to the rule of law combined with the sovereignty of the Roman state was to reference some of the most famous moments in Komnenoi history; it brought into play schoolboy history and national legend. Add the flattery of that empty phrase by which the People declared itself, not only sovereign, but the sole legitimate sovereign – a point which was sure to cause a flurry of diplomatic protests and make every non-Roman newspaper in the world squeal in outrage, but that couldn’t be helped – and he had them, not in the palm of his hand, but at least stopped and thinking about what he said rather than emoting angrily about it. Nonetheless, a dry legalism wouldn’t get him out of this scrape; he would have to tackle the main issue head on.
“We may dispense, then, with the charge of starting the war. It is neither disputed, nor relevant, nor yet a lawful indictment. We come instead to the epithet of ‘deceiver’; to the charge that I hid my true motives from the Senate and the People, and led them into war on false premises. Let me remind the Forum of the good and just reasons that the Governments of 1891 and 1893 gave for their respective declarations of war: In 1891, that the so-called trans-Ural territories of Russia are, in fact, the occupied cis-Ural territories of Rome, seized by the unjustified aggression of the Czars. And in 1893, that Persia had violated the borders of our ally Punjab, and also that the Shahs had broken solemn promises for the good treatment of Christians within their borders – a point of particular interest to Rome, which once in fact and even now in justice rules those areas. Those reasons are good and valid ones. They held much weight in the minds of the then Electors and Senators; or if they did not, if the avowed reasons for the declaration of war were not what the Senate and the People said they were, then all Romans are guilty alike. I believed then, and I believe now, that our avowed causae belli were just and weighty, and that there was a fair chance of achieving our aims. The chances of the battlefield were against us; but that is hindsight. At the time, it seemed that we might enforce our rule over large areas of the barbaricum. For such a cause any Roman should be prepared to die, if necessary. If, in addition, there were reasons which were not given emphasis in public debate; if there were points that might be added to those that were already sufficient for such a weighty decision as war – why then, so much the better.”
He paused again, enjoying the look of fury on Georgos’s face and the tenseness in the Forum as men became, almost against their will, caught up in the cadence of his argument. They were ready now, he thought, for his clincher, the closing that would see him walk out of the Forum with his power intact or improved, and Georgos’s reputation for finding the weakest point to slide his dagger into ruined. “All that I have said so far are points of law, or of justice. But there is one more tribunal to which I would appeal; namely, that of results. It is alleged that I caused bloody wars in order to gain experience for the Legions, so that they might overthrow Communist China. Well then, if it is so… I suggest to the honourable Forum that I got you China. If men have died for my decisions, and they have; if blood is on my hands, and it is; then still they did not die in vain. All the broad lands of China, saving a few insignificant coastal cities, are now reduced to the obedience of Rome; all the mighty strength of the Han people, the well-named Dragon of the East, is yoked to the Eagle. All the – ”
For a long moment he did not understand why his voice had failed. There was a vast roaring confusion in his ears, and his knees buckled dizzily; but not until he saw the puff of smoke from the spire of the Alexandros Cathedral that overlooked the Forum did he become consciously aware of the impact in his torso. Powder smoke, and a bullet the size of his fist – not a modern weapon; it wasn’t his enemies in the Senate who had killed him, then. He felt weirdly comforted by the thought as his head hit the boards of the platform; at least the rule of law still held. Some Chinese holdout (Persian guerrilla? Russian tribesman?) assassin out for revenge, armed no doubt with an ancient rifled musket from the Khmer War. There was irony in it, for the man they called the Mahdi of the Machinegun to be killed with a weapon from the last century, a gun that might be older than him.
There were men around him now, rushing to his aid; but that would be no use. It was eerie to be so calm while his life’s blood poured onto the planks; but in that zone of shock he could still think, and realise that the bullet had gone through his liver and out the other side. Even a young man would be vastly lucky to survive such a wound; a man closer to eighty than seventy would have only moments. Best make use of them, then. “I thank the Forum,” he gasped out, surprised that he could hold his voice so steady through the agony of breathing, “for allowing me to speak.” That would look well, in the history books, that he had managed the formal closing of a Senatorial speech even while his blood poured out in steady streams. “Tell them – tell them – ” he was losing his train of thought, now; the sky that had been blue a moment before was darkening to gray. “Russia! Raids – Cossacks… just shoot him… justice…”
His lungs failed him; not a terrible final word, he had time to think, and then he didn’t.