Thither to Tsargrad
Despots from the North
“The Slavs and the Finns lived alongside each other but the Slavs were braver, stronger, handsomer and more manly than the Finns”
Alexandra Ishimova, History of Russia for Children, 1836
I'm not making this up. Oh, those interesting people in 1836.
The new professor seems intense. I never expected my innocent question to provoke the long response. Schoolbooks may not be enough; I think I need to get that essay collection translated. I did go to the Russian Cultural Centre, like Kostas said. They always spend enormous money on big embassies and cultural centres; Nikas always jokes that the size of the cultural staff is proportionate to the days of sunshine per year. I know Demetre works in the library there. He was a student last year but now graduated, so I went to speak to him. He looked at the book, frowned, and then said they don’t have a Greek version and that perhaps I should look in the university library for the essays separately. We then talked a little about nothing much and he asked me how I was doing and then whether I had any plans for next week Thursday. I told him I was probably busy. For some reason he laughed at that and said that he’ll have another look later. Then I went to a café near my house to study.
I was done eating dinner and just came back home when the phone rang and Demetre was on the line and he said he found a translation and it was all bound in one cover and was just what I was looking for. He didn’t say where he got it, but I never really asked. Then he asked if I wanted to have coffee tomorrow morning before he goes to work and for some reason I said yes.
It was a quick affair but he seemed upbeat and I asked him about life after university and how he found the job and how he’s liking it. He says it’s a stepping-stone and he’d like to go into diplomatic work. His degree is in foreign relations. He left me the book when he went and over the next couple of days I read all the essays relevant to the period Mr.Howard said we’d be talking about. These were the ones I read: “Development of the Eastern Empire as a Feudal State under the Monomach Despotate”, “Exchange of Socio-Cultural and Technological Innovations between Aegean and Rus territories of the Monomach Empire”, “Succession and Legitimacy: Familial dynamics and dynastic politics of the Despotate”, “Pagan Resurgence of the 12th century and the Empire’s Estonian Gambit”, and finally “Byzantine Foreign Policy in the aftermath of the Northern Crusades and the Novgorodian Civil War”. I made notes out of them, to get a better sense of the big picture and not to get too lost in the details; there were always too many details, and the papers contradicted each other in lots of ways.
They couldn’t, for one, agree on which term was most appropriate. The Despotate is one that a lot of modern scholars like, and one that’s also used in Western studies, according to one author, at least. I don’t know, but I’m sure the professor will tell us all about it. Really it’s a question of legitimacy; even though Basil adopted the Imperial style after his marriage to Anastasia Botaneiates, he is called Despot of Constantinople by his own diplomatic office in some regal correspondence, especially with the Seljuks and the Mouzakioi, but he insists on Avtokrator of the Greeks alongside “Great Prince of Rus and Tzar of the Bulgars” (even though he was not in full control of either) when corresponding with Hungarians and the Polish. He uses “your brother, Grand Prince of Tzargrad” when writing to beleaguered Rostislav of Novgorod. A lot of older Russian scholarship prefers the Avtokrator, and numbers him as Basil III and his son as Herakios II, followed by Constantine XI; newer writers are conflicted and some include the Rhodian Emperors instead of the Despots in the numbering.
The problem seems to arise from the fact that Basil married Anastasia very late in his life, and had no children by her. It was not a new thing for Imperial dynasties; many generals marrying Basilissas became Avtokrators in their own right later; but Anastasia wasn’t an Empress, just the daughter of one, and unlike Zoe or Theodora she had nothing like a measure of political acumen. Some authors claim that this made her adopted sons’ claims shaky; the opposing side says that “Despot” was used merely as a means of appeasing the Mouzakioi and avoiding conflict with the Rum Seljuks, as would be expected of the characteristically cautious foreign policy of the Monomachoi of that period.
Basil was married thrice; his first marriage was to Agnes of Barcelona, the young princess of a realm being overrun by the Moors. He had two sons by her, Miloslav (the future Heraklios II) and Berenguer, a religious man who preferred to speak Catalan like his mother, and whose descendants ruled the Mari, Cheremis and Anatolian territories as prince-bishops for a long time afterwards. After her death, he married a Russian woman of boyar stock; she was perhaps one of the most intelligent Basilissas of the period and is widely held responsible for teaching Basil’s bureaucrats about how to politely deal with the Rus vassals, which lead to the great consolidation of the Russian lands in 1119-1120. Her sons – Yaropolk, David and the future Theodore the Great were all very capable and talented men and all in turn served in the circle of their father’s advisors despite their young age. It is thought that Miloslav was unsure of his descendants’ ability to retain the throne with his half-brothers around, which is why they were given distant fiefs when he became Despot. It was only after Sbyslava died that he married Anastasia and claimed her father’s title. I drew a family tree to make it clearer in my head.
Miloslav was a seasoned campaigner, under whose command Galatia was unmolested despite two wars with the Seljuks under his father; when he inherited, it was thought he would bring the Empire military strength which is still sorely lacked. There’s some indication of that, as castle construction commenced everywhere, in particular in cities directly controlled by the Despot. Those territories – Galatia, Pereyaslavl, Novgorod-Severskiy, and Vidin – would form the basis of the Emperors’ future strength in centuries to come and were always ruled either by the crown or the heir; however, all these cities, along with Constantinople, also acquired an abridged amount of rights and public self-rule that Rus cities practiced during the early days of the 11th century, which curtailed the Emperor’s powers somewhat. By contrast, all other territories were dealt out to vassals, a new development for the Empire
In Rus, almost all territories were ruled by Rurikovich descendants, who were technically subjugated to the Princes of Kiev through a complex ladder system. With the acquisition of vast Cuman, Bulgarian and Greek territories, the Monomachs suddenly had to deal with the local aristocracy. Having faced terrible rebellions by influential rulers inherited from Pereyaslavl under St.Vsevolod, Basil promised his vassals self-rule, enforcement of own law, and ownership of land in perpetuity by descendants of current rulers in return for loyalty and providing the Empire with armies. In reality, almost all the wars the Empire fought were mostly fought by regiments raised from the Emperors’ own holdings, along with Constantinople; the more distant subjects, such as the Republic of Novgorod, or the Estonian Princes, were summoned to war rarely, with the notable exception of Theodore the Great’s Caucasian campaigns. On the other hand, self-ruling vassals were better able to raise the kinds of troops that the new battle tactics called for, and were thus able to make campaigns independently of the Empire, thereby offsetting the latter’s size handicap.
The venerable system of Druzhina, Mercenaries and Opolcheniye had been replaced with a more permanent system of Boyars, Gentry and City Militia, all of which were under obligation to provide troops for their Prince, who in turn was obligated, in theory, to the Emperor. Boyars and Gentry provided the cavalry, which had become the main force of arms. Greek warhorses were big enough to carry fully armoured knights into battle, but Greek cavalry was almost non-existent due to Thessaly and Cappadocia, the traditional areas supplying cavalry, being out of both Monomach and Mouzakioi control. However, the pastures of Russia were vast and its warriors experienced. Efficient and strong, the so-called “steppe” design of armour, inherited by the Russians from the Khazar, Oghuz and Bulgar nobility, combined with superior Byzantine metallurgy produced some of the best-armoured knights of the period; in addition, lighter but still well-armoured cavalry, armed primarily with bows or throwing spears, but still unafraid to close in for melee was widely recruited from both the core territories and the tributary Cuman, Bulgar and Circassian nations. By contrast, city militia were in a strictly subsidiary role and were armed only lightly.Instead they were instructed and lead by Greek captains who put strategy above personal leadership which previous Rus armies had to heavily rely upon.
Miloslav, being a war-leader first and foremost realized that outside Constantinople, his Greek holdings were of little military strength and his hope lay with Russia providing the warriors for future wars. Unfortunately, Russia’s biggest cities all lay outside his domain. Halych and Kiev were German, Chernigov Hungarian, Pskov and Polotsk Norwegian. Novgorod was in the middle of a civil war between the Republic and its hereditary prince, Rostislav. The war continued for many years, until the Republic won and the proud sons of Izyaslav gave up their supremacy to become hereditary generals under constant watch of the city’s mob. Therefore, Miloslav needed to consolidate his position in Russia before he could strike at the encroaching Westerners.
At the same time, the pagan tribes of the Baltic – Finns, Lithuanians, Letts, Prussians and Livonians fond themselves hemmed in by Sweden, Poland, the Crusaders and the Empire. Several of the tribes were already lead by scions of noble houses of Rurik or Piast, who realized full well what this meant for them in the future, and others had produced formidable leaders of native stock. The successful wars of the pagans against their neighbours in the 12th century are termed “the Pagan resurgence”; it threw back the Polish and by 1139 had driven Sweden from both Livonia and Finland. By contrast, the Empire made gains against them, first persuading the Estonian Rus princes to become vassals, and then conquering several areas, like Narva and Near Karelia if their Princes resisted. This achieved a double purpose – the Crusaders in the larger Northern Rus towns were now surrounded by Imperial holdings, and the pagan advance against the Empire was checked; instead the energy was redirected against other encroaching powers such as Sweden.
Doubtlessly Miloslav woild have pressed on with the attacks, but for his death. However, before I can go on to his sucessors, I have to settle the matter of succession. Although birthright was always a factor in Byzantine inheritance, under the Despotate it was strict primogeniture that was enforced; under Vladimir because he was afraid his many vassals would find fault with any other arrangement and compete against each other, and under Miloslav because he felt threatened by his talented half-brothers Theodore and Yaropolk. His own line, despite his fecundity, lacked a worthy successor. Of his surviving children, Roman the Bloody, although acknowledged as a son and probably his father’s favourite, was a bastard, and tongues were wagging he was a heretic. Oleg, though the eldest, had a child’s mind in a man’s body; and Constantine, although a talented treasurer, was prone to depression and was not liked by his father, who thought his soft and effete. Andrei was young, inexperienced and unexceptional.
Given the few choices the Despot had before him, it is upon Constantine that Miloslav banked his future dynasty. Between 1127 and 1130 he had Roman and Oleg killed to clear the way for Consantine; Roman in particular played into his father’s hands when he backed his Crimean liege-lord’s rebellion in 1129. The Despot’s military prowess and a reputation for rutlessness kept dissent in check while he lived but when he died in 1131, he was condemned by both the Russian and Greek patriarchs as a filicide and an apostate and posthumously excommunicated. The Russian tradition gives him the epithet Nemilositviy, Unmerciful.
His son Constantine inherited him, and almost at once the storm engulfed the Empire…