Golden Journal No. 40:
Byzantium Eternal

Byzantine Society

Note: Byzantium Eternal is our alternative-history Soldier Emperor variant, appearing in Golden Journal No. 40. The Byzantine Empire has survived into the Napoleonic Era, and now once again has to make its way in a suddenly changed world.

In 1669, at the conclusion of yet another inconclusive war with the Turks this time marked by a 21-year siege of the fortress of Candia in Crete, young and energetic soldier-emperor Basil IV of the Eastern Roman Empire realized that his military desperately needed to modernize. The mercenaries who had formed the backbone of his army, mostly Germans and Italians, could not provide the combat power needed to match the mass mobilization of which the Turks were capable.

As befit the emperor of an ancient and conservative state, Basil looked to tradition as his guide. The Emperor restored the themes, or military recruiting districts, that had provided recruits during the years of Byzantine military glory. Each district would be responsible for a number of soldiers, based on its population, and for taxes to support them, based on its wealth.

The army itself would be divided into divisions, or thema, each of 10,000 men. A division consisted of four brigades, called tourmai, and each of those had six battalions, called droungoi. A theme provided a division of infantry and one brigade of cavalry; in some areas this ratio differed. As the years passed after Basil’s initial reforms, some themes became responsible for providing sailors. By the mid-1700’s, the system underwent more adjustment to add urban dwellers to the theme system; the cities provide artillerymen and other specialists as well as the usual infantry and cavalry.

Basil looked to the Orthodox Church, which he also headed by virtue of his throne, to administer his scheme. The church provided the census information to assess each region’s recruiting and tax quotas, and its priests declared both of these obligations to be ordained by God as a means of smiting the heathens. Army and Church became tightly intertwined, something that had not been possible when the ranks were filled with Roman Catholic, Protestant and at times even Muslim mercenaries. Priests accompanied the troops and preached the necessity of struggle against the godless enemy and reverence for the divinely-appointed emperor.

Byzantine soldiers in their standard field uniforms , with red puttees.

In 1801, the troops still wear a traditional uniform: the kilt-like foustanella, a dark blue tunic known as a doulama over the ypodotes, a white shirt with wide flared sleeves, white stockings and a red farion cap with a long black silk tassel. The infantry carries a locally-manufactured musket much like those of other European armies, while the artillery has standardized their field pieces, all of them made at foundries in Constantinople and Thessalonica. The Byzantine Army is well-trained, well-organized and based on a sound replacement system that constantly feeds fresh troops to the field divisions.

When mobilized for war, the Empire can field an army of 100,000 infantry, 25,000 cavalry plus another 150,000 troops in assorted garrisons. The theme system, with its rolls of all draft-eligible men, can pull in fresh recruits rapidly in times of emergency as well. Both Constantinople and Suez are well-protected with modern fortifications, but the Byzantines have built fortresses throughout the Empire at strategic points.

While the Byzantine Navy maintains fleets of galleys to defend the Roman Straits connecting the Black and Aegean Seas as well as at both termini of the Suez Canal, it has long adopted Western-style “fat ships” as well. Constantinople’s Arsenal, a larger version of that pioneered in Venice, can efficiently turn out many types of sailing warship, but Byzantine designs are at least a generation behind those of the European powers. None of the maritime states are willing to lend technical assistance as long as the Byzantines insist on exacting tolls from their shipping passing the Suez Canal or the Roman Straits.

The galley fleets are the most effective naval units the Byzantines field, thanks to the ancient secret weapon known as Greek Fire. The Byzantines have only used it rarely, for fear that others might unravel the manufacturing process, but it was crucial to fending off the British assault on Suez in 1762 and the destruction of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay in 1798. The “fat ships” do not carry Greek Fire, as they lack oars to quickly escape pools of fire floating on the sea, and must depend on conventional cannon fire.

While the Army and Navy provide the Empire’s physical arms, its spiritual defense is no less important. It’s been over a thousand years since Arab armies brought Islam out of the deep Arabian desert, but Byzantine leaders have not forgotten how easily they made converts among the rural population of the Byzantine Middle East and Egypt.

This version of the Greek Orthodox Church is a militant faith, seeing the survival and expansion of the Empire as a miracle wrought by divine intervention. It has no tolerance for Islam and only slightly more for Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Jews, having helped rebuild Constantinople in the decades after the Great Siege, are welcome in Byzantine territory. Offshoots of the Greek Orthodox faith within Byzantine territory have steadily been brought in line with the mainstream church; heresy is seen as worse than rebellion, as it defies both God and Emperor.

The church has been instrumental in helping assimilate re-conquered territories within the Empire. Muslims are given the chance to convert or emigrate; officially, they are not to be harmed but Byzantine and Turk have been locked in a cycle of atrocity and reprisal for centuries. With the church’s assistance, the Empire has also introduced mandatory universal education, which takes place in the Greek language and also serves to instill reverence for the Emperor.

Following ancient practice, the Byzantine government practices large-scale resettlement of conquered lands, moving entire peoples to new places to break up existing social structures and more easily bring them into Byzantine society. In many themes, the Army serves as the school of the nation, helping to teach the Greek language and instill the Orthodox faith. For decades the Byzantines and Austrians have engaged in a population exchange, with Roman Catholic believers moving to Habsburg provinces and Orthodox followers to Byzantine territory.

In short, the Byzantines are fanatics. They have little tolerance for other faiths, outside Judaism, and restrict foreign merchants and other residents to well-defined residential districts in Byzantine cities. The Venetians had the right to maintain Catholic churches in most Byzantine ports, but these were closed following the 1797 fall of the Serene Republic. They have good relations with their Russian co-religionists, and a working relationship with Habsburg Austria, but little regard for other Europeans and deep hatred for the Turks and other Muslims. In the past they cooperated with the Venetians and enjoyed the fruits of Venetian trade with India, but hesitated to form close ties with the Indian kingdoms due to the vast numbers of Muslims and polytheists found there.

The olive groves of Crete, held to be the oldest in the world.

The Byzantines are a wealthy people, overall. Burgeoning industry and trade with the East have buoyed the economy, especially following eight decades of relative peace. Basil’s military reforms meant an end to serfdom, restoring most farmland to small-holders rather than massive estates worked by semi-free labor. Like the ancient Romans, the security of this modern Roman state depends on a vast pool of free manpower.

As has been the case for millennia, the Byzantine diet is built around bread, olive oil and wine. Wheat, olives and grapes are the foundation of Byzantine agriculture, with Crimean and Egyptian wheat helping to feed the big cities. Russian imports have become more prevalent in the last few decades as well.

While the populace may be free of feudal obligations, they have no voice in their own government. The Emperor rules as the living representative of God on Earth, and brooks no disagreement. There is no hint of democracy in the Eastern Roman Empire, and the rapidly-growing publishing industry is subject to strict oversight to prohibit political dissidence. The wealthy merchant classes chafe under this restriction; they have made the Empire rich and powerful, and they wish a voice in its direction.

Word of the French Revolution shook the Byzantine court, and Emperor Constantine XIX’s censors have worked diligently to tamp down discussion of these new and dangerous ideas. The people are not yet restive, but economic decline, food shortages or military defeat could easily change that. As long as the church stands beside the emperor this is not a serious threat, but Patriarch Kallinikos IV would not be the first archbishop of Constantinople to seek to expand his influence during a time of crisis.

The Golden Journal is only available to the Gold Club (that’s why we call it the Golden Journal). We print enough of them to handle initial demand and a few extras, but once they’re gone we won’t reprint them – there’s just no profit in a company as small as Avalanche Press keeping a $19.99 item perpetually in stock. If you want your Byzantines, the time to grab it is now.

You can order Soldier Emperor right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold. Leopold was a good dog.

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