The Komneniad: The Northwest Frontier

By 1938, Konstantin’s internal position was essentially stable. The purges had removed his enemies’ power base in the Legions, the final arbiter of power, and the reforms had restored the strength of Rome, if not beyond foreign challenge, then at least to the point where military power was no longer a usable club to beat the regime with. Moreover, the factional schism had not progressed to the point where the Komnenoi lost sight of the ultimate aim of keeping their nation (and thus the base of their wealth and power) strong. Konstantin, therefore, had no need for extensive (and expensive, not least in political capital) purges of the Senatorial class; there were no executions, no proscriptions, and while there were a few cases of house arrest, the last of these (Georgos, the charismatic leader of the Peace Party) was released in December 1936. It is true that Herakles, the leader of the maura poukamisa and a personal as well as political enemy of Konstantin, was sent to take charge of the officer training program at Penchisky, the world’s most northerly university, traditionally regarded as a post of unofficial internal exile and mild disgrace; but it appears that he was not entirely unwilling to take the job, seeing it as an opportunity to put his ideas into practice and show the nation what could be done. In later years he was known to quip that at any rate the post was about as far away from Konstantin as it was possible to get while remaining within the borders of the Khanate.

Building, then, on the still-strong patriotism that had underlain even the bitterest years of the conflict, Konstantin was able to form a government that could, without irony or mockery, be referred to as one of national unity. Certainly Konstantin’s faction, the War Party founded by Lysandros, was dominant; but they did not try to rule alone, nor, once it was settled who was to formulate overall policy, did they try to keep all the most prestigious positions for themselves. Even so influential a position as Overseer of Barbarian Territories (what other polities called Foreign Ministers) was given to Erastos, nominally of the Peace Party. This may have reflected Konstantin’s belief that Rome was not ready for war, but it also served as a powerful gesture of reconciliation after the bitterness of the civil unrest and the military purges.

This slow rebuilding of Komnenos unity found a powerful boost in the unexpected transfer of Kongo-Over-The-Sea, or northern India. India was a traditional battleground for the Khanate’s forces; neither the Cold March across Tibet, nor the slaughters of the War of 1821, were forgotten in New Byzantium. True, the mountain border had been mostly peaceful since the partition of Khmer in the first half of the nineteenth century; but to Roman minds, that was yesterday. An army which traced its ancestry, and drew its institutional memory and tradition, in a straight line through the Breaking of the Don and on back through the Teutoburger Wald to Cannae and Lake Trasimene, did not consider a hundred years to be a long time. The shift in the regional balance of power implied by the Kongolese retreat, therefore, immediately riveted Roman attention.

In real terms, that shift was not, it is true, so large as is implied by a glance at the map, or even by a more informed look at population densities. The negotiated transfer of the Ganges plain increased Punjab’s mere geographical extent by roughly 50%; in terms of population the gain was even larger. But the economic reality was otherwise: The cotton, spices, and other cash crops that had made northern India a source of immense wealth through most of the period after the African conquest were no longer particularly valuable, and as a point of colonial policy the Kongolese had never strongly encouraged Indian industries. In the era of steamships and machine guns, India was not an asset to Kongo, but a liability; the need for troops to defend it against possible Roman or Japanese predation – troops which would have to be supplied across a possibly-unfriendly sea, or over the Persian mountains if both Ethiopia and Punjab were of a mind to allow that – far outweighed its enfeebled economic benefit. In terms of cold calculations of national strength, the transfer to Punjab, in return for concessions that were not made public at the time, was not unreasonable, and may indeed be considered something of a diplomatic coup.

Nevertheless, such a cold-blooded cutting of losses is unusual for empires of several hundred years’ standing; if nothing else, whatever the realities of national strength, there are always interest groups who benefit from imperial arrangements. The event therefore sent a shockwave through the chancelleries of Asia, and most especially through New Byzantium, which was most closely affected. Rome had generally regarded Punjab as an ally of sorts, but a relatively unimportant one; at times the relationship had even been explicitly that of vassal and overlord. To find it suddenly enlarged by lands over which Roman troops had many times fought and died was an unpleasant shock, quite apart from the sudden necessity of defending a much longer border against this evidently expansionist state. (In truth, this danger was more apparent than real, the Himalayas being eminently defensible.) From the point of view of a dictator creating an external threat to unify disparate elements of his government, then, the Indian Transfer was a godsend; indeed much ink has been spilled in various attempts to prove that Konstantin was the mastermind behind the transfer, brokered it, forced it upon the Punjabis or Kongolese by the sheer force of his will, or used necromantic mind-control rays acquired from the Persian moon-colonies to prevent Ethiopia from using its well-known control of Kongolese foreign policy to stop the deal from going through.

Whatever the truth about the mind-control rays, it is clear that the consequent movement of Roman troops to what was now regarded as a more dangerous border was one element in the general ratcheting-up of tension between the power blocs that characterised the late thirties. The Punjabi goverment, feeling its oats but realistic enough to know that it still could not face Rome alone when Konstantin’s reforms were completed, were pushed into closer alliance with their African benefactors, as indeed the Kongolese (or perhaps their Ethiopian masters!) had no doubt intended. Conversely the Khanate, understanding that it could destroy Punjab but not Africa, began to cast about for allies of its own, and its eye naturally fell on Europe.

From The Road to War: Eurasian Diplomacy 1921-1942,
Adam Tewksbury,
Deutsch-Anglische Informations-Presse, (C) 1967.

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