Rhomania’s General Crisis, part 2.1-The Regime of the Tourmarches:
Ironically, one of the first things the Tourmarches do is to promote themselves to Strategoi. Plytos, Nereas, and Gyranos all become Strategoi of the Athanatoi, Varangians, and Akoimetoi respectively. The elevation of the first two isn’t unusual, considering their service records, but Gyranos going from a career staff officer to commanding a guard tagma is. The new Strategos himself is wary and uncertain of the move, but his colleagues argue that it would be better politically if he commanded a guard tagma rather than remaining in the War Room.
The political aspect is also why they go for guard tagmata rather than the larger theme tagmata. The latter would put more troops directly under their command, but they’d be stationed away from the capital, and proximity to and influence over the Emperor is the true basis of their power. Meanwhile Isaakios Laskaris also moves up, becoming Strategos of the Thracian tagma. Although the Thracian theme recruits from Constantinople, the capital is not part of the theme and the headquarters is in Adrianople. However, that is close to the capital, with regular carriage service, and Isaakios is quite frequently in Constantinople, not Adrianople.
The Four ‘Tourmarches’ also rely on placing friends and ideological supporters in key positions, or the support of ones already in place. Examples of the latter include the Strategos of the Armeniakon and the Megas Tzaousios; the last is particularly helpful, since that is effectively the Imperial Chief of Police and Intelligence Services. Examples of the former are the promotion of war hawks to be Strategoi of the Optimatic and Opsikian themes, meaning that three of the five guard tagmata and all three theme-tagmata next to the capital are commanded by Tourmarches or their close allies.
Timing here helps the Tourmarches out, given the passing away of old guard elements whose prestige might’ve hampered them. Between 1655 and 1659, Thomas Amirales, Manuel Philanthropenos, Iason Tornikes, and Konstantinos Mauromanikos, all prominent leaders from the War of the Roman Succession, die. A changeover in leadership was thus necessary anyway, with the Tourmarches perfectly placed to take advantage.
That does not mean the Tourmarches have carte blanche. Even though all of these arrangements are legal, since they are decreed by Emperor Herakleios III who is the authority, many still feel that there is something shady about all this. It smacks too much of political appointments, which disparages the honor of the Roman army, and there are many Roman soldiers and officers who’ve had quite enough of that. This is the case even among some war hawks who support the Tourmarches’s agenda. Plus, there are many officers and officials who while not hostile to the Tourmarches or their agenda are not necessarily supportive of them either. These neutrals need to be wooed or, at the very least, not alienated, so a clean sweep isn’t possible.
There might’ve been more pushback, if not for the nature of much of the early pushback. Much of the criticism came from civilian officials who disliked the non-bureaucratic nature of the promotions. Some more came from newspaper editors, who eagerly covered the controversy as a way to boost sales in a stale but competitive news environment. Per their usual practice, the Roman newspapers exaggerated and exacerbated the issue. Personal and scurrilous attacks and vicious prose were more exciting, which mattered more than accuracy.
This pricked at sensitive nerves. Military-civil relations in Rhomania had been shaky since the War of the Roman Succession, and these opened up old wounds. They resented what they viewed as slanderous and unqualified civilian interference. The Tourmarches were fellow soldiers, at least, and so officers and soldiers supported them against the criticism, or at minimum kept silent on the matter.
The phrase ‘mutilated victory’ is commonly used to describe the war hawks’s attitudes to the peace that followed the War of the Roman Succession, and they certainly wished to redress what they viewed as its shortcomings. But much of the bitterness and anger was directed less at the Latins but at what many military men viewed as the stupid and ungrateful civilians behind them. The bitterness aroused in many an officer’s breast by the calumnies against them in Roman newspapers during the war was the wound that proved most stubborn to time’s effort to heal it. Even many officers who were no longer interested in expansionist policies still expressed strong resentment against Roman civil society.
It should be noted that discussions of military and civil society here are concentrated in the uppermost quintile of Roman society. For most Romans, the rural poor, politics continues to be that of the village. Also, the expansion of candidates able to get into both military and civil ranks has weakened another previous bond across this divide. Individuals are less likely to have family relations working on the other sides, removing that earlier connection, while the lingering tensions of Mashhadshar and the War of the Roman Succession hamper the creation of a collective corporate identity to replace it.
This attitude had festered in Roman military culture, spreading down the ranks from the officers and dekarchoi who’d served in the War of the Roman Succession. For the moment it was useful, since it made it harder for army recruits from the peasantry to find solidarity with peasants staging grain riots, but some were concerned that if this kept up, Rhomania might turn from ‘a state with an army’ into ‘an army with a state’. Others, including Nereas, seemed to like such an idea.
Roman print media (which includes not just early newspapers, which get much historical attention, but the more common broadsheets and pamphlets devoted to one specific topic or event), not content with alienating military and civil society, were also trying to fragment and alienate Roman civil society. It is extremely unlikely that this was their conscious intention, but in their writings it is clear that dramatics took serious priority over accuracy. While the market was small by modern standards, it was huge by the standards of the mid-seventeenth century, but also an extremely competitive one. Invective was a good way to get attention, and so many indulged in it. It sold well.
A good example is the coverage of grain riots during this period. The beginning of the Regime of the Tourmarches had, of course, done nothing to mitigate the effects of the Little Ice Age and the pressures they were putting on society. Riots and uprisings related to food availability, price, and distribution were increasing in number and scope as support systems failed. But these grain riots could vary quite widely.
Many ‘riots’ barely deserved the name, since they were surprisingly nonviolent. If grain merchants attempted to ship food out of an afflicted district, likely because other better-capitalized regions offered more profit, they would be stopped and their goods confiscated. Oftentimes, they weren’t even just taken away by the rioters. The rioters would pay for the confiscated grain, but at a price that the rioters considered just and within their means.
This is not to say that violence couldn’t happen. It did, but oftentimes it was triggered by resistance to the demands of the rioters. Local officials were frequently in sympathy with the rioters, especially in the more orderly ‘riots’, since they viewed those demands as just. Nobody could expect fathers and mothers to be silent as food was shipped away in front of them while behind them their children cried from hunger.
But that made for a boring read, especially as the story repeated itself. So, the tales were improved. They grew more violent, the behavior of the rioters more bestial. Taking imagery from the War of the Roman Succession, they even became cannibalistic, reportedly murdering babies and mixing their blood with the flour made from the stolen grain. Interestingly, none of these lurid atrocities took place in close proximity to where they were reported, but were always at least ‘one theme over’. People knew their neighbors well enough to not believe they’d engage in cannibalism and child sacrifice, but people further away were a different matter.
Historians debate over how significant these accounts were in shaping attitudes. Athena, when Regent, did little to curb them, because she saw them as utterly ridiculous and thought that no one intelligent would believe such tales. The Tourmarches thought they were useful as they emphasized the need for law and order, for a strong and firm hand at the helm which they could provide. Others, such as the Patriarch of Constantinople, thought that they contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear and anger.
It is probable that this issue loomed larger after the fact than during. The papers had been more significant earlier, during the War of the Roman Succession, in alienating army officers, who kept a memory of grievance. While their circulation was widespread during this period by the standards of the time, that still left many millions of Romans who infrequently or with noticeable delay were exposed to the print media. In the aftermath of the War of Wrath and the Army of Suffering, the print media was exposed to intense criticism for its perceived role, partly because of that precedent, and the popular narrative has largely copied those criticisms.
After solidifying their power base, the Tourmarches convince Herakleios III to pass a decree that nullifies all legal restrictions on land sales and purchases, the first step in removing any just profit provisions. All land sales are to be solely on contracts between the parties, freely negotiated with no infringements by other parties. Previously, many land sales were limited by rights of preemption. A peasant couldn’t sell their plot to a village outsider without the relatives or village neighbors having a right to preempt the sale. Those are now gone, and the land price can be whatever is negotiated between the parties.
Given the recent harvest failures, now is a very bad time to be a smallholder. Desperate for money to feed their families, many are forced to sell their land, with speculators taking absolutely as much advantage as possible. Notably, both Isaakios Laskaris and Konstantinos Plytos expand their landholdings by more than 40%, while paying only 15% of what the lands were worth based on 1650 tax assessments. They are far from the only example. This is not to say that the only beneficiaries were dynatoi. Even peasants slightly wealthier than the neighbors could and did take the opportunity to enlarge their holdings. But for the recipients, who’d lost their source of livelihood and sustenance (and gotten very little for it), it was absolutely devastating.
Those who had lost their land might stay on as tenant laborers if that was an option, but that was not always the case. Marginal farms could be converted into pasture, which needed much less labor, and in that case the former occupants were just in the way. (And it should be noted that the owners of marginal farms were the ones most likely to be driven to the wall by the Little Ice Age and forced to resort to such desperate measures.)
The dispossessed head for the cities hoping for food and jobs. They are mostly disappointed in those hopes, and their presence exacerbates sanitation issues, with issues of overcrowding and waste removal. Many don’t have to endure ruined hopes for long as endemic urban diseases ravage the newcomers. Others head in the opposite direction, to the highlands, where they often become brigands.
The consolidation of land into larger agricultural estates is a good thing from the Tourmarches’s perspective. These larger estates are more effective at producing large surpluses that can be used for the army, since they focus on efficiency rather than security as subsidence small-scale farming does, and they have the advantage of economies of scale. Furthermore, the mass of dispossessed poor is the ideal recruiting ground for an army.