An Age of Miracles Continues: The Empire of Rhomania

I suspect he was next to Blucher most of the time; Theodor doesn't seem like the sort of person who would "hide" with the baggage train, but I suspect he's aware enough of his personal importance to not risk his life like the Bishop or the Polish king.

Speaking of Casimir...

There is King Casimir. His cavalry are near useless in this fighting, but still he presents himself in blinding pageantry under the muzzle of Roman guns, deliberately drawing their fire down on him to lure it away from those making the actual attacks.

I'm no fan of the guy on a personal level but that's both really brave and kinda smart. Gotta give the devil his due here.
Speaking of Casimir...

I'm no fan of the guy on a personal level but that's both really brave and kinda smart. Gotta give the devil his due here.
Casimir is one of the most compelling "villains" in this war, honestly maybe even a bit more compelling than Theodor, because he seems genuinely convinced that this is a sort of holy mission.
Casimir is one of the most compelling "villains" in this war, honestly maybe even a bit more compelling than Theodor, because he seems genuinely convinced that this is a sort of holy mission.

Great way of putting it. He's not a flat character and is very well-written.

I used to want him to die on a battlefield in this war. Now I want him to live only to have chunks of his kingdom get annexed by Vlachia/Pronsk/Novgorod. Dying a martyr is too good a fate for him.
Great way of putting it. He's not a flat character and is very well-written.

I used to want him to die on a battlefield in this war. Now I want him to live only to have chunks of his kingdom get annexed by Vlachia/Pronsk/Novgorod. Dying a martyr is too good a fate for him.

puts on expansionist hat - pfft, like I take it off

Not chunks - all of it. Hail Pronsk!
I suspect he was next to Blucher most of the time; Theodor doesn't seem like the sort of person who would "hide" with the baggage train, but I suspect he's aware enough of his personal importance to not risk his life like the Bishop or the Polish king.

I was joking about the baggage train part. B444 makes specific mention of Blucher going above and beyond, putting himself in the line of fire to the point his men insisted he move to the rear.
There is no mention of Theodor at all, even with the Roman Kaisar and Polish King endangering themselves.
If the Latins and the Catholic Church thought the Romans hated their guts before this war, oh Lord they will see how much the Romans will utterly detest them and how badly relations have been damaged for at least a generation. As if the Romans didn't hate them enough.
Wow, even with the Roman army in disarray, the Allies have trapped themselves. Thessalonica will the toughest nut yet to crack for Vauban, and this is their last throw of the dice.

What are the Vlachs doing? Last I remember, their army was still intact, and I'm betting flow of soldiers from Hungary, Poland and Germany are much thinner now....
Wow, even with the Roman army in disarray, the Allies have trapped themselves. Thessalonica will the toughest nut yet to crack for Vauban, and this is their last throw of the dice.

What are the Vlachs doing? Last I remember, their army was still intact, and I'm betting flow of soldiers from Hungary, Poland and Germany are much thinner now....
The Vlachs are doing their thing against the Hungarians on the border, possibly through impalements.

On a grand strategy scale, they're working with the Roman Danube flotilla to raid the Allied supply lines. I'm personally hoping that they're taking in Serbian dissidents to form resistance fighters. "Black Hand" would be a strong, fitting name.
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I've been thinking over the future Roman government and it does sound interesting, if accompanied by some potentially major flaws that Basileus will need to iron out. (Which I'm sure he can, and said ironing might even be part of the story in response to crises)

The idea of a meritocratic and skill based testing to ensure competency in the Civil Service and government is entirely doable. The potential flaw I can see is nepotism and corruption setting. Lord Megas' son, heir to a bloodline stretching back 1,200 years, is going to have all sorts soft power and "understandings" backing his ability to pass the test with flying colours. I mean, the recent college admissions scandal could be a warning for the entire system of governance for the Roman Empire.

I liked what someone else suggested of a government based on more separate bodies than we're familiar with. You might see a Legislature, Judicial, Executive/Imperial, and then.... Censure? An entire branch that's devoted to aggressively policing the exam/meritocratic system and also trying to forecast changes and stay current with it. You might even have the Civil Service again as a more explicit and co-equal branch of government, given the trends and thought processes being discussed.

This all might tie into what I recall Basileus mentioning about industrialisation awhile back - the Romans can't do it first due to resources, but they'll do it well in the second wave. This Roman system might struggle with sudden changes (see, the French military having poor tank doctrine and being overrun), but it's going to be able to take a longer term and measured outlook on things it's familiar with. I could see the internet revolution taking the Romans by surprise and throwing out their systems and planning until they incorporate the new IT systems into their method, but I could also see the Romans taking reports of climate change far more seriously in 1990's and putting in place decades long plans to combat them. In the first example, you might get that second wave again where the Romans invest heavily in fiber optic internet and technical schools. In the second, you could have the Romans corner the renewables market as a giant export machine once other nations start realising the gravity of the issue, and the Romans already have the infrastructure and expertise in place.
For the tests to remain impartial the Romans could implement the Chinese Civil Service Examination methods and expand them.

-isolated testing campus & testing "rooms" (essentially a prison cell with cot, a desk, and writing supplies)
-randomly assigned secret alphanumeric codes per student
-professional copiers who re-write the tests in different handwriting
-randomly allotted test scorers
-randomly allotted re-scorers

Just get super anally retentive on test-marking protocol.
Lord Megas' son, heir to a bloodline stretching back 1,200 years, is going to have all sorts soft power and "understandings" backing his ability to pass the test with flying colours. I mean, the recent college admissions scandal could be a warning for the entire system of governance for the Roman Empire.

Lets just note that thankfully there are NO aristocratic families in the empire with a bloodline going back 1200 years. The oldest are probably any surviving Comnenes (well technically Demetrios III and Lascarids can claim to descend from them, which is why certain of the OTL emperors signed as Doukas Komnenos Lascaris) that go back to about the time of Basil II. Also that the empire may have an aristocracy but it is not a landed hereditary aristocracy in the western fashion. You might get daddy's land and money but there are no earldoms or baronies to inherit. Which extends all the way to the emperor and his family. Yes its hereditary... but technically if the army and people raised someone on shield because the current one is an imbecile, or the heir presumptive is an imbecile or if the emperor marries a commoner that's about it. Which is how the next empress is going to be a former Indian slave and people will be mostly ok with it.

This is going to have certain effects on the future political evolution of the empire. How the details play out is up to Basileus but I could see anything from a constitutional monarchy, to some short of presidential republic, to the French revolution or the English civil war or something in-between happening in Constantinople.
This is going to have certain effects on the future political evolution of the empire. How the details play out is up to Basileus but I could see anything from a constitutional monarchy, to some short of presidential republic, to the French revolution or the English civil war or something in-between happening in Constantinople.
I could also see something akin to the Japanese system, essentially a gradual withdrawal from day-to-day politics for the Imperial household.
I could also see something akin to the Japanese system, essentially a gradual withdrawal from day-to-day politics for the Imperial household.
That's not a good comparison. Japanese Emperors lost power by being made irrelevant by regional warlords who declared themselves "caretakers" of the realm, turning a centralized imperial structure into a stratocratic feudal one.

If you meant the modern rendition, it turned into a weak democracy that got supplanted by the military because the Emperor was mentally ill.
@Cryostorm: Getting Northern Italy to be neutral would be hard because it’s 1) strategically important and 2) really rich. Something like where a neutral Lombardy is enforced by the great powers on the grounds that that is better than having another of the great powers eat it up though is possible.

@HanEmpire: I’m setting the possible groundwork. I got an idea way back for a future war with WW2 tech with Japan and Rhomania on the same side, where the war is going badly for them so the Japanese start using kamikaze tactics, the Romans copying them shortly afterwards.

Interestingly, after I wrote this, I was listening to the History of Byzantium podcast episode on the Pecheneg Wars. In it a captured Byzantine general was brought before a Pecheneg chief, at which point the general grabbed a sword from one of the guards, killed the chief, and was then torn to pieces by the Pechenegs.

For POWs, if captured by regulars they’ll get sent to the ‘work programs’ I described earlier. If they get captured by irregulars, if they’re lucky they’ll be killed on the spot. If they’re not, they’ll be tortured for a while before being murdered. (Inspired by the reports of what Russian peasants did to Napoleonic soldiers they captured in 1812.)

Some sort of blind scoring system is a good idea.

@Stark: The idea I was going with in that was ‘great, someone else can take over this nightmare job, I literally can’t wait’ plus the whole ‘it is one thing to fight to the death when you’re going to die anyway; it’s another to fight to the death when there’s a chance of living’. This is why I stepped up the ‘literally can’t take another minute of this’ aspect in the rewrite.

I strongly believe that a very large portion of OTL would be considered ASB if presented in a TL here.

@chrnno: You have a good point, which is why the Triple Monarchy and Spain in particular I’m catching up. The Ottomans for their part were never really behind the Romans, they just have less resources to throw around. But that said, nobody is good at everything. I remember reading the memoirs of a German panzer commander in WW2 who had a really low opinion of American soldiers, (this is all from memory so take with grain of salt) something to the effect that 1 Russian was worth 10 American soldiers. He did note that Americans brought to bear a huge pile of material which made them dangerous, but thought that they couldn’t fight without said material superiority.

@sebastiao: Thanks! Hope you keep enjoying.

@Babyrage: Not really, for two reasons. The main reason is that he’s already hated by the Roman populace, so it doesn’t really matter. That horse has bolted. The other is that this was in a city that continued resisting after a practicable breach was made in its walls. Per the laws of war, by doing so Skoupoi forfeited any rights to mercy.

@Lascaris: They don’t but there are a lot of powder mills and ammo-making workshops in Lower Macedonia in general, not just inside Thessaloniki (I go into more detail in the next update). If the Allies got their hands on intact workshops, they could literally make their own with the Roman tools.

Didn’t know that about Giannitsa Lake. I just went with a Google map because it was a quick way to cover the area I needed. The lake is still there ITTL; there may have been some drainage toward the end of the Flowering. As Roman population rises, that’ll be a ‘land improvement project’ though.

The Allies aren’t going to enjoy Roman irregulars.

@Duke of Nova Scotia: I do like the idea of Roman democracy requiring a high school diploma or equivalent to vote, and a university degree to be an office holder. It’s an effort to force some meritocracy into the system; a straight popularity contest is not going to fly.

The hate on Michael inspired a lot in the update. Because I thought ‘how would Michael himself react to that, and how would his men react to it?’ I’m going to try and do that more often, because it leads to some interesting trails.

@Curtain Jerker: It’s interesting reading political attack ads from the 1800s; they could get really vicious.

The end-state of the update wasn’t up for negotiation; I’d already written the next 2 updates and the events of summer-autumn 1634 are the reason-for-being of the entire war, and those are dependent on having an Allied army encamped next to Thessaloniki. And while I stand by having Rhomania face skilled enemies, some of the bad luck is institutional. I’ll be going into more detail in upcoming updates, but keep in mind that in terms of ‘battle structure’ these are still Drakid-era armies. Demetrios III Sideros has done transformations on the economic and logistical aspects, but the armies specifically are just upsized Drakid ones.

Regarding your stabbed-in-the-back question, it’s complicated. I’ll be going into more detail in an upcoming update, but can’t say anything here without giving spoilers.

Obviously my plans for 2019 Rhomania are subject to change, but I do want the present-day Empire to feel different to an OTL visitor. Not necessarily bad, but definitely different.

@RogueTraderEnthusiast: There’s still a good chunk of Constantinople between the Theodosian and Herakleian Walls that’s fairly undeveloped, so that’s a good place for improvements. Plus the attitudes of Constantinople might change as the Teicheiotai soldiers who were called up for the regular armies (and the vast majority were in the Army of the Danube) are demobilized and return to their homes.

@Namayan: I wouldn’t say it was impatience. If Blucher had taken Skoupoi once the walls were breached as his intelligence reports said he had, then Michael’s strategy was pointless. The flaw was with the report, not with his reaction. Where his real failing was, was when he didn’t come up with a plan to counter a Macedonian offensive, just in case, and was then forced to improvise one in a rush. A few extra tourmai and batteries detached from the Army of the Danube as part of the Skoupoi garrison from the start would’ve made a lot of difference.

@InMediasRes: Currently Kalomeros is a young naval officer in charge of a captured Triune sloop. Right now he’s probably….trolling Triune Puritans in OTL Connecticut. (Which was originally called the River Land so I’m having a really hard time not making GoT references.)

@JSC: I made a comment about Roman mountain troops being ‘in the Alps’ but I think it got missed; I deliberately minimized it to see if anyone noticed (I’m weird like that) but enlarged it in the rewrite. This is going to be a raid-in-force (think Philanthropenos’ expedition in Mesopotamia/Persia) so everything that needs siege artillery to crack is safe, but everything else is vulnerable. And aside from some civic militias, raw peasant levies, what can be scrapped from training depots, and a palace regiment or two, there isn’t anything in Bavaria. King Stephan of Hungary could provide a few thousand light cavalry to help in the defense; there wasn’t the fodder to support them in Serbia/Macedonia.

And no, I have no ulterior motives in pointing out that little snippet of information. Really.

@CV12Hornet: It turns out there already was a Ministry of Propaganda existing ITTL; I’d forgotten I’d written that. Plus there’s a recently established government newspaper.

@ImperatorAlexander: I admit I never gave it much thought. Not hiding, but not in an area where getting decapitated by a cannonball is a high probability event. There’s a reason why the soldiers would storm hell for Blucher.

@minifidel: While Casimir is the type of person I loathe, I did want to develop him a bit more; he even has a short POV narrative section coming up.

@boringasian: I do think defeats are ‘good’ (to a point) because they do force study and reform. And having bad luck seems to be an OTL trait.

@Iskandar Khayon: I’m thinking of a ‘what did it all mean?’ update once the war is over, and future Roman views of the Latin west will be a big part of that.

@JohnSmith: The Vlachs have been continuing their raids, and there currently are plans for a joint Vlach-Scythian army to launch a proper invasion of Polish Galicia. That region was part of Vlachia in the late 1400s/early 1500s.

@Komnenos002: Nepotism and corruption are definitely an issue. But then, any governmental system is going to have flaws of some kind.

I like the idea of the civil service proper being viewed as a major part of government. Imagine a society where voting rights aren’t seen as a big deal, but free education up to and including the university level is. Because that ensures that anyone with the ability can get into the civil service, without getting priced out by the cost of education (which is currently a big bar for a lot of Romans-passing the entrance exam requires a level of education which is not cheap). Although that does lead to the issue of having more applicants than postings, and the unemployed ones start agitating. Like I said, there are going to be flaws in any system.

I’ve just posted the first special update for Megas Kyr Patrons. It is the first chapter of A New and Ancient World, which helps set the stage for the adventure. Hope you all enjoy.

The special update for next month will be in the “real” world of An Age of Miracles. The working title is A Samurai in the Sunset Lands, which will take a look at the career of one of those Japanese mercenaries mentioned in the ‘1633: Ships in the West’ update that end up serving the Mexican Komnenids. Hope that sounds fun and interesting.
As always, thanks for answering.

@Curtain Jerker: It’s interesting reading political attack ads from the 1800s; they could get really vicious.

You ain't kidding. Just take a look at the 1828 election. Anti-Jacksonian newspapers called Andrew Jackson's wife a bigamist because of some weird divorce between her and her first husband that may or may not have been 100% legal (I honestly forget, but it doesn't really matter in the end. The stress from the coverage probably killed her) and pro-Jacksonian papers accused John Quincy Adams of being a literal pimp for the Tsar of Russia when he was Ambassador there. That kind of hyper-partisan, deeply personal newspaper coverage was par for the course in the first half of the 19th Century.
1634: Lady of the Cannons
As always, thanks for answering.

You ain't kidding. Just take a look at the 1828 election. Anti-Jacksonian newspapers called Andrew Jackson's wife a bigamist because of some weird divorce between her and her first husband that may or may not have been 100% legal (I honestly forget, but it doesn't really matter in the end. The stress from the coverage probably killed her) and pro-Jacksonian papers accused John Quincy Adams of being a literal pimp for the Tsar of Russia when he was Ambassador there. That kind of hyper-partisan, deeply personal newspaper coverage was par for the course in the first half of the 19th Century.

That specifically was a big inspiration for all that bit.


1634 continued: Although the main body of the Allied battle-line was badly damaged by the assault on Skoupoi and the Twelve Days, the formidable artillery train is almost entirely intact and even bolstered by some captured Roman guns. That is very good news to Vauban, for Thessaloniki will not be an easy nut to crack.

Thessaloniki, with its pre-war population of 170,000, is the second-largest city in the Roman Empire and the fifth largest in Europe (after Constantinople, Paris, Milan, and London). Its fortifications date back to the 1550s and 60s, built to stand up to massive gunpowder assaults. The defenses are not quite on the scale of Constantinople, Aleppo, or Theodosiopolis, but they certainly dwarf Vidin or Nikopolis in size and Skoupoi in sophistication.

For city defense, Thessaloniki can draw on a civic militia second in size only to the capital’s; its allagion numbers 14000 strong, although many of them are newer and older recruits to replace the ones called up into regular army service. But in fighting behind walls, that makes less of a difference. There are tens of thousands of more able-bodied men that can be drafted, and some of them have at least some rudiments of training.

There are also regular troops in the city. There are two general types of kastrons (castles) throughout the Empire. There are provincial kastrons, which are overseen by the local kastrophylax and used by the militia forces and constabulary of the Kephalate. And then there are Imperial kastrons, which are maintained and used by the regular army, although confusingly their commanders are also called kastrophylaxes. These are manned by ‘kastron troops’, who are former line troops who’ve served their stint and then opted for garrison service. So while older than the typical line infantrymen, they have the same level of training and are often veterans. The port of Thessaloniki and its defenses are rated as an Imperial kastron, with a siege-start garrison of 1200.

Likardites, before his collapse, reinforced the garrison with 10000 troops, although many of these are recovering wounded soldiers or from the most battered tourmai. There are also four reserve tourmai in the city, all at full strength. Two have at least a few months’ worth of drill, not joining the main army because of lack of logistical support, while the other pair are new formations.

So on the first day of the siege, Thessaloniki can muster 15000 regular troops, 14000 militia, plus whatever can be drawn from the sailors and marines in the warships in the harbor (there are 10, including four battle-line ships). And that’s before touching the civilians. Furthermore, transports carrying a new tourma from Attica arrive just two days after Vauban starts digging his first parallel, and it is far from the only reinforcement to bolster the garrison.

Vauban sets to work with energy and skill, pounding at the battlements, but he is hampered by well-directed counter-battery fire which wrecks several of his pieces at the start. Further entrenchment, moving pieces, and good camouflage help to limit the damage afterwards, but does not eliminate the attrition. Further hampering the siege, the Allies often have to reuse Roman cannonballs in a bid to conserve supplies.

That is thanks to the Twelve Days. If Blucher’s advance had been unopposed, he could’ve made the march from Skoupoi to Thessaloniki in half the time, meaning that the Romans would’ve had half the time to strip Lower Macedonia of valuables to keep them out of Latin hands. And Lower Macedonia is a valuable treasure trove for supporting armies.

One-sixth of Roman small arms and gunpowder is produced in Lower Macedonia, and one-quarter of artillery production. This is due to access to water power (much more prevalent after the Flowering), raw materials such as timber and ores from the north, and availability of manpower. Thessaloniki itself counts for a respectable portion, but there are a slew of small towns throughout the regions with workshops of their own. During the war, each musket workshop specialized solely in making one specific part, with the products carted down to Thessaloniki for assembly in large fitting plants. This was to maximize the use of rural labor (which is still 80% of the Empire). During the Twelve Days, much of the kit of these workshops was removed to safer locations and denied to Allied hands.

The city of Thessaloniki is divided into three main districts, deriving from classical or medieval origins. There is the lower city along the Thermaic Gulf, which is more residential and mercantile, and there is the upper city, which is primarily artisanal/industrial. The boundary line between the two is Aghiou Demetriou Street. Then there is the Acropolis, a semi-triangle-shaped protrusion jutting out from the top right of the upper city. The Acropolis’ purpose is primarily military and administrative. [1]

Although in some places the medieval defenses have fallen into disrepair or been demolished, in other areas they can serve as an ‘inner wall’ to the modern defenses, much like the Theodosian Walls vis-à-vis the Herakleian Walls in the capital. The modern defenses largely parallel the older structures, without much space in between, save for the north upper city where the right-triangle medieval city becomes a rough rectangle with the new addition.

Although sea traffic is unimpaired, without access to the rural markets and with the Skoupoi refugees, plus more from the countryside, feeding everyone is difficult and the cramped and often unsanitary conditions are a serious disease concern. Most transports that come into Thessaloniki with war materials or new troops leave with a cargo of civilians, typically depositing them in the Peloponnesus or western Anatolia. The Roman government, local officials, and generous private Romans do their utmost, but the sheer numbers are often difficult to support by surprised local resources, given the preindustrial difficult of supplying and transporting foodstuffs, and with feeding the army taking priority over feeding refugees. The numbers are unknown, with estimates from 2 to 7 thousands, but many of these evacuees from Thessaloniki perish from lack of nutrition or medical care, most young children or the elderly.

For those who stay in Thessaloniki, there is much work to be done. Aside from the menfolk, women and children are put to auxiliary tasks, mending and bringing up equipment, cooking, cleaning, nursing, and the like. But not all women are inclined to restrict their duties to auxiliary tasks. There are at least five women serving as men in the Thessaloniki garrison, but far more famous than them are the Witches of Thessaloniki.

The name is rather unusual; Rhomania never suffered from a witch craze and the Orthodox Church looks down on such things, viewing them with suspicion as a ‘Latin insecurity’. There are two theories. One is that the term was coined by the Allies and then taken up by the Witches as a badge of distinction. The other is that it was deliberately adopted by the Romans to needle the Latins.

The idea came from an Arletian merchant who was in Thessaloniki when the siege began. Back in 1218, in the holy cause that was Simon de Montfort’s self-aggrandizement (also known as the Albigensian Crusade), Simon de Montfort was besieging the Catholic city of Toulouse. A stone from a catapult smashed in his skull, the catapult in question reportedly operated by the women in Toulouse. On the 400th anniversary of the death of that man, Toulouse unveiled a statue of the women who killed him.

Everybody somehow knows of Demetrios III’s curses. Given those, why not give some of the women ‘modern catapults’, i.e. cannons, and let them have at it? Transports have brought in more cannons for the defense, but trained crews are scarcer (Likardites didn’t send any). Historians are skeptical that alone would’ve been enough, if not for the presence of Lady Athena Siderina. She positively adores the idea, and through cajoling and arm-twisting Kastrophylax Michael Damaskenos, overall commander of the city defense, gets her way. An artillery unit is formed, the gun and support crews composed entirely of women, with a dozen cannon and Athena as commander. With her previous artillery experience and some pointers from Demetrios Poliorketes, she soon has the unit organized and proficient with their weapons. They are posted at what is now known as the Witches’ Tower, near the Empress Anna gate where the eastern side of the Acropolis meets the upper city. [2]

In a bid to keep the women, and particularly Athena, somewhat under his control, Damaskenos has them inducted into the army as the 9th Thessaloniki Battery Droungos. This is complete with army pay, (altered) uniforms, and regulations. Although with her command, she should be a Droungarios, Athena is given the rank of Tourmarch. (Amongst other effects of the Witches, Athena’s first-issue Tourmarch uniform is available to view in the Great Siege museum near the Empress Anna Gate today.)

The siege soon develops into a predictable pattern. Both sides pound at each other with their cannons, damage is repaired, and reinforcements and supplies are brought into the city. The city garrison sallies from time to time, sometimes from the walls or sometimes using the ships in harbor (who lend their guns to the defense) to ferry raiders behind enemy lines. Both Tornikes and Sideros, for their parts, snip at Allied foragers and reinforcements, Tornikes shredding a four-thousand strong column at Atalanti [3] at the end of June. It’d tried to sneak through Lower Macedonia secretly, but one of the Upper Macedonia commune partisan companies sent word and guides that allowed the Mad Lyrist to ambush them.

The Upper Macedonian partisans are, by the middle of June, in Lower Macedonia as well, sniping at Allied foragers and scouts, the fighters maintained by the inhabitants of Lower Macedonia as they provide protection against the raiders. Other irregulars in a steady trickle from the mountains of Hellas and Epirus (which is currently part of the Macedonian theme) also enter the fight, although most lack the combat experience of the Upper Macedonians.

The most effective of the new arrivals are stradioti from Epirus and Albania, many of whom have longstanding traditions of service as Roman irregulars going back as far as the Laskarids. Their greatest prominence though came during the Time of Troubles and the early Drakids when members of this group married both Giorgios Laskaris (and thus are related to the current Khazar dynasty) and Her Serene Highness the Lady Theodora. They operate much in the same way as the Upper Macedonian partisans, basing out of villages that maintain them for protection, but the ones nearest in operation to regulars get some money and supplies from army quartermasters. A few of the earliest arrivals participated at Kidonochori, helping to mask the main body of Roman cavalry so it could be used in ambush.

* * *

Thessaloniki Acropolis, July 8, 1634:

“And screw that with a goat!” Kastrophylax Michael Damaskenos said as Athena walked in, followed shortly by her husband Alexandros. The Kastrophylax looked at her. “Uh, sorry milady.”

“I’ve heard far worse,” she replied, smiling. The Kastrophylax nodded. Their relationship was odd; technically she was one of his officers, and a junior one at that, but she was also the daughter of the Emperor. And possibly said Emperor’s favorite person in the world, with only his mistress Eudoxia a contender.

She looked around at the other people in the room. There was Strategos Alexios Drakos-Komnenos, a member of one of the junior branches of the Egyptian Despotic family who’d emigrated to Rhomania in search of other opportunities. Commander of the Bulgarian tagma, he was a veteran of all the major European battles as far back as Sopot. He’d been the senior-most field army officer in the reinforcements Likardites had sent, and served as Damaskenos’ second.

There was Demetrios Poliorketes, the old Turk smoothing his luxuriant white mustache. He commanded all the artillery batteries along the ramparts, meaning that Athena typically reported to him in her capacity as Tourmarch. His name was most unusual, and had raised many eyebrows and hackles at his choice. But the Old Turk had liked the allusion and had never appreciated the supposed virtue of being normal, and eventually he’d had his way. Perhaps that was why the two of them got along so well from the start.

Despite his vast experience, given his quiet recent conversion to Orthodoxy and Roman allegiance, it wasn’t considered wise to give him command of Rhomania’s second city. Fortunately his still rank plus a large cash payment seemed to have dissipated any resentment he might’ve felt. And Damaskenos, who himself had been a protégé of Stefanos Monomakos and helped retake Jarabalus at the beginning of Andreas III’s reign, knew to listen to his advice.

And there was her husband, Tourmarch of the only guard tourma currently in the city.

Aside from the military men and her, there were also the Kephale, Prokathemenos, and Metropolitan of Thessaloniki. All of them stood and bowed to her, in recognition of her imperial status. She curtsied and they all sat down.

“Theodor has sent a request for our surrender,” Damaskenos sneered as Athena sat down in a chair offered by Alexandros, who sat in another next to hers.

“Who does he think we are, Lombards?” Alexios asked.

“I have no idea,” the Kastrophylax replied. “Apparently he thinks we’re low on food or something.”

Athena looked over at the Metropolitan. “Well, somebody did try to feed us that thing the Germans claim is sugar.”

The cleric blushed a little. “I thought it looked nice.”

“It was a nice shade of red,” Athena responded. “Tasted horrible though. What kind of barbarian thinks sugar from a beet is a good idea? Seriously, everybody from north of the Alps should just not be allowed to cook anymore. It’d make the world a much better place.” Everyone in the room nodded knowingly. One common belief across the entire Mediterranean basin, a perception that carried across cultures and religions and countries, was that northerners’ ideas of food were questionable.

“Speaking of cooking,” Damaskenos said. “We should come up with a response to this, no matter how ridiculous. It wouldn’t do to be rude to the Latins before we shoot them. There are standards to follow.”

“How about ‘nuts’?” Alexandros said.

“I like, but I want something ruder,” the Kastrophylax replied. “I was thinking a nice fish burrito for lunch, taking a dump, and then sending that to that gaseous beer-drinker.”

“But the poor messenger,” Athena intoned. There were several snorts of laughter.

“Valid point,” Damaskenos replied. “Still like it though.”

A moment. “I have an idea,” Athena said. She explained it, all of them looking quizzically at her. “What?”

“You are your father’s daughter,” Alexandros replied.

She grinned toothily. “I can think of worse things.”

* * *

Casimir V, King of Poland, looked at the battlements of Thessaloniki. There were men scurrying along the ramparts and smoke rising from a few places. Vauban was a godless heretic, but he knew how to work the guns. The ‘Manuel’ bastion, placed forward of the much older Tower of Manuel that made up part of the older defenses, had clearly seen better days. Although some godless heretic inside was also infernally good with his cannons.

He grimaced in frustration at the truce banners hanging over the Pistotatos Gate beneath the sunny warm sky, mirroring the ones stationed near him. The Greeks were sending an envoy to reply to Theodor’s request, although Casimir didn’t expect much. Vauban was making some progress, but painfully slowly. A fast approach against these fortifications just wasn’t possible.

To be fair to Theodor, the Holy Roman Emperor didn’t expect Thessaloniki to surrender, or even really believe they were low on food; they’d seen the ships. But it was a possible way to glean some information about the defenses. The Greeks were godless and merited only the sword for their heresy, but they were no cowards. The story of the effeminate Greeks from the days of the armed pilgrimages to the Holy Land may have been true then, but not anymore. No veteran of the Twelve Days would hear that.

It was a pity. Had the Greeks followed the true faith, they might have been good men. But they didn’t, and thus Casimir knew, as his priestly and Templar tutors had taught him, that putting them to the sword was the only proper recourse for them. As St Bernard of Clairvaux had said, killing an infidel was not murder but rather an act pleasing to God. Some had called his tutors ‘fanatics’, even some priests claiming as such, but Casimir also knew that ‘fanatic’ was merely what the weak-in-faith called those more righteous than themselves.

He looked over to his right, down the line of notables waiting to greet the high-ranking Greek envoy coming out of the gate, and sneered. Archbishop Friedrich von Hohenzollern felt his gaze, looked at him, and sneered back.

Casimir hated the Archbishop. It wasn’t proper to loathe such a high-ranking official in Mother Church, but ‘Bone-Breaker’ was hardly a proper cleric. His nickname was quite the clue. He hadn’t been back to his See since the war started, and he hadn’t been much of a priest there either. Hunting and war and partying were his pleasures. As a soldier and commander, Casimir would concede the cleric was good, but he was supposed to be a shepherd to his flock, not a highway patrolmen. Two necessary jobs, but very different ones.

The Archbishop’s two bastards were on horseback, like the rest of them, behind their father, and they were giving him the eye as well. Their existence didn’t bother Casimir as much as their father’s other failings. He’d always found it rather dumb that priests had to be celibate, yet preached to their parishioners on marriage and child-rearing. Celibacy was the holier state, but it made more sense for monks rather than for those out ministering to the laity.

He looked out at Thessaloniki again and the approaching envoy, surrounded by several attendants and followed by a pair of large and heavy-laden wagons. He snarled again in frustration. If only he could go and fight something. Unlike the Archbishop, he was a soldier; that’s was God’s gift to him. Except heavy cavalry had been near useless in the campaign so far and that showed little sign of changing.

The envoy and party grew closer and he stiffened in surprise. It’s a woman! She was riding her horse like a man, wearing one of those gray Greek uniforms. And an attendant to her right unfurled a banner, a field of black with three red spheres. A murmur swept through the lines of horsemen waiting to receive…her. It was the sigil of the family of Sideros, the line of Timur.

She rode up to the lines. General Wallenstein, quartermaster general of the Allied host, nocked his horse forward a few steps. “Lady Athena Siderina, an unexpected honor,” he said in Greek.

“The honor is mine,” she replied in German, with a Bavarian accent of all things.

* * *

Athena entered the great tent that was part of the headquarters section of the Allied army. The red silken canopy, made of either Opsikian or Morean silk, stretched above her head. There were three long tables set up, forming a U with the open end facing the entrance. Theodor was at the center of the setup with an elevated seat, with the twenty highest ranking generals and nobles in his army set around him. There was a small table for her in the middle of that open end. Technically she was equal with Theodor, facing him from the opposite position and even the same height, but the power play to intimidate her was obvious. She took a breath to steady her nerves.

Her attendants entered, carrying silver basins with the contents of the wagons. Latin soldiers had checked them to make sure there were no explosives, and then others supervised to make sure the offerings weren’t poisoned. Apparently Mackensen’s death has made them a bit twitchy… She clung to that thought; it reminded her that those old men across the chamber from her could also feel fear.

Fear itself wasn’t the problem. As her mother would said, not being afraid really meant you were too stupid to recognize danger. But letting fear control you, and showing fear…those were a problem. She took another breath to steady herself, although right now she wanted to chug wine like her father.

Her father…She wondered for the ten thousandth time why she was here, out here in the heart of the lion’s den. She didn’t need to be here; this mission might garner some useful information, but nothing of long-term significance. Perhaps it might make some difference, but probably not. And she wondered too why she was in Thessaloniki, a city under siege. No one had required it of her; no one had asked it of her.

Perhaps…she wanted adventure. Perhaps she didn’t want to just be the spoiled princess who did nothing but be pretty window dressing and a brood mare. Perhaps she didn’t want to be normal, like Poliorketes who’d refused to take a name that would’ve made him blend into the crowd like everyone else. Perhaps she wanted to make a difference, not matter how small, provided it was a difference she made, herself, not as a diplomatic pawn on a political chessboard. And perhaps she wanted to end this war before the strain of it killed her father.

She really needed a drink.

The attendants started ladling out the food she’d brought as clear proof that victuals were not a problem for the Thessaloniki garrison. It was spaghetti and meatballs, a most unusual fare for such a gathering. But one, Athena was in the mood for it. And two, it was a favored dish of one Archbishop Friedrich von Hohenzollern and one General Albrecht von Wallenstein. With silver tongs they dished out the noodles. Another followed, dispensing the meatballs, which as a show were half the size of Athena’s fist. A third came along with toppings, olive oil, garlic, and a couple of different choices of cheese.

“A most unusual repast, my Lady,” Theodor said as her attendants finished. Most left but two remained, standing behind her chair on either side.

Athena nodded. “I agree, but I felt a simple meal would be better than a feast. It is not good for generals and lords to eat better than their men in the field.”

Marshal Blucher, at Theodor’s right hand, nodded thoughtfully. Athena examined him, at least as much as she could without making it obvious she was examining him. He was thinner than she expected, and paler. For a moment she thought his arm trembled as he took a fork-worth of noodle. But she couldn’t be sure if she imagined it either.

“Well spoken,” the Archbishop of Cologne said, cutting up his meatballs and looking rather pleased with the offering. He took a bite. “And well made. I’ve always had a taste for Italian cuisine.”

“If one were to invade the Lombards then, my lord, you might find the conquest more to your liking,” she replied.

The Archbishop laughed. “The thought has crossed my mind…” He glanced, but noticeably, at Theodor. “…as to more profitable endeavors with our resources.”

“There is more to life than profit,” Theodor replied. “There are matters of honor, and right.”

“Indeed, my lord,” Athena answered. “We Romans are in full agreement.” She noticeably glanced at General Vauban. “We are not Triunes, who care only for gold and our self-righteousness.” The general looked angry; Hohenzollern chuckled.

“If that is the case, then you understand our business here,” Theodor said.

“We understand, but do not agree. You desire what you cannot have, while endangering what you already possess. God does not suffer a man to have all things, and will punish the man who seeks to gain such. Rhomania is not your enemy, my cousin Theodor. Your enemy lies to your west, in King’s Harbor.”

“Amen,” Hohenzollern said very loudly.

“These are false slanders against my master,” Vauban replied. “My lord Henri II has the warmest affection and regard for his Imperial brother Theodor.”

“For now,” Hohenzollern muttered loudly. “But no one who calls himself wise trusts a Triune to keep his word.”

“I consider that most uncalled for,” Vauban counted.

“There are a hundred trees within eyesight of my own palace towers that have the marks of my people who were hung by Triunes. I can call them far worse things.”

“Those were a different age. My master is different.”

“In the words of St Peter, bull shit. The leopard cannot change his spots, and Triune shit stinks just as much as anyone else’s, no matter what you claim.”

“I find your lack of Christian charity disturbing,” King Casimir said. “And your blasphemy.”

“Oh shut up, you murderous prick. At least I don’t salivate at the idea of burning children alive.”

“Extreme measures are sometimes needed to preserve the faith.”

“If the church must be maintained by butchering children, as your dung-filled skull seems to think, then it deserves-”


The word was little more than a whisper, rasping from the lips of the speaker, and yet it seemed to cut through the tent better than a war trumpet. And with that one word, everyone settled down.

Athena looked at the speaker. Marshal Blucher, she decided, did not look well. But while the body may be failing, the will endured. And while that lasted, so did this army.

“You are quite right,” she said. “Such discussions are inappropriate for this time and place. They should be held in more private and decorous locales.”

“I admire your spirit, my lady,” Crown Prince Vaclav said. “But I must say, your attempts to drive discord between us are rather transparent.”

“I would never think to do such a thing. You wound me, my lord. I would think you, of all people, rightly renowned for your swift and fair justice, would do better by me.” His face twisted slightly, before shifting into a bland smile that somehow conveyed the Bohemian prince’s desire to murder her on the spot. There’d been a plot amongst some Bohemian officers to kidnap or kill Theodor and desert to Thessaloniki in exchange for the massive bounty. Word had leaked though and Vaclav had the conspirators promptly rounded up and executed, before any Wittelsbach retainers had had any opportunity to seriously examine them.

“Then why are you here, if I may ask?” asked General Wallenstein.

“Ah, my good sir, you may certainly ask. My father speaks very highly of you.”

He blinked in surprise at the non sequitur. “He does.”

“Indeed he does. Logistics are such an important part of warfare, and yet so unappreciated in most parts of the world. But we Romans value it highly, and make sure to support our quartermasters accordingly. And you have been a most excellent quartermaster.”

Wallenstein nodded thoughtfully. Information on the Bohemian noble who served directly under the Wittelsbach banner was somewhat sparse, but he’d done an incredible job with limited resources and organization. To support the task, he’d taken out personal loans and mortgaged a good portion of his family lands to finance them, and was hoping for remuneration from Theodor. But if Theodor went down, he’d take the Wallenstein family with him, unless the Quartermaster General found another line.

“It does not seem that your purpose here is to tender surrender terms,” Theodor said. That seemed rather obvious to Athena, but the German Emperor didn’t sound surprised.

“It is not. I merely wished to present a meal to such distinguished guests.” She left unstated that guests, after eating, then left. The look in Theodor’s eyes showed he’d heard her.

“Well, if that is the case, it would not do let such a meal go to waste,” he replied. “So tell me, my lady, what are the plays circuiting in Constantinople this season?”

* * *

Athena stepped out of the tent, attendants following her. As a gift, they’d left the table set with Theodor. Hopefully Tornikes would show up soon and take it back. Striding to her horse, she gripped the saddle, and then stopped.

She started to tremble, telling herself to stop but her body wouldn’t listen. A rough hand gripped her left shoulder. It was Giyorgis, one of her mother’s faithful old Ethiopian hands, who’d joined her service when she became an Imperial princess. He squeezed comfortingly and she stilled. “You did excellently, my lady,” he whispered in Amharic.

“Thank you,” she whispered back. “It was hard.”

“I know, my lady. But you did excellently anyway. Your mother and father would be proud. I doubt even your mother could beard Theodor in his own tent.” They both smiled.

“Shall we go, my lady?” he asked loudly, in Greek.

“We shall,” she answered, mounting her horse, calmly, confidently.

General Wallenstein approached her. “My lady, it was pleasing to have your company. It is good to have things be different from time to time. I am most grateful and would be honored to bid you farewell.”

“We would be most honored to have you do such.” She held out her gloved right hand to him. He took it, kissing the back whilst simultaneously slipping a bit of paper into her glove down her palm. She withdrew her hand, crushing the urge to pull out the paper and see what was on it. It was hardly the time.

It was a short ride but soon they were back inside Thessaloniki, moving through the big sally port from which she’d exited the city. Kastrophylax Michael Damaskenos, Strategos Alexios Drakos-Komnenos, Demetrios Poliorketes, and her husband were all waiting in a knot for her. She rode up and dismounted.

Before she could say anything, Poliorketes shoved a writing board with an attached sheet of paper, with a Triune-graphite pencil strapped to the side, at her. She started sketching, trying to remember everything she’d seen on the way in and out. It’d only be a look at the section she’d visited, but it was the part of the Allied line facing the Manuel bastion, currently the most battered section of Thessaloniki’s walls.

Thankfully the men all watched her in silence as she bit her lip, tracing the lines. She was nothing like the artist her older brother was, but he’d given her a few sketching lessons in preparation for her and Father’s star-gazing. Now to apply the geometry that Father had taught her to calculate the distances… She chewed on her lip some, tweaked a number she’d written, and then handed it to the old Turk. His eyes traversed the paper, examining every detail, then nodded. Moving surprisingly spryly for a man his age, he bounded up the stairs to the rampart.

“So how’d it go?” Damaskenos asked.

“They didn’t surrender.” Alexios snorted. “But Wallenstein did give me this.” She pulled out the piece of paper from her glove.

“What does it say?” the Kastrophylax asked.

She showed it to him. “Looks like a partial supply inventory. And a name…Captain Franck von Word. That name mean anything to you?” Both Damaskenos and Drakos-Komnenos shook their heads.

“It does to me,” Alexandros said. They all looked at him. “We captured him a week ago.”

“Do you think Wallenstein’s suggesting Word as some kind of contact?” Drakos-Komnenos asked.

“Well, Word is from Harburg…”

“…which is pretty much owned by one Albrecht von Wallenstein,” Athena continued.

“The information could be bogus or some sort of trap, but definitely worth pursuing,” Damaskenos said. He looked at Athena. “Blucher?”

“I’ve never seen him before, but he doesn’t look well. But he’s still holding that army together. As long as he’s kicking, they’ll hold together. Once he’s gone, Bone-Breaker’s going to try and kill Casimir and probably Vauban too, but only once he’s gone.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Demetrios Poliorketes came down the stairs, holding the board and with a huge grin on his face. “That good?” Drakos-Komenos asked.

“Yes, that good.” He looked at Athena. “With this I pinpointed three, maybe four, of those heavy batteries he’s camouflaged.” Considering the accurate counter-battery fire from Thessaloniki, Vauban had been doing his utmost to protect his limited number of heavier pieces, with a good deal of success it had to be admitted. Light pieces kept the defenders’ heads down when the big guns fired, meaning that the target was often the remembered glance of a muzzle flash, which wasn’t much help. But they’d been disguised from the vantage point of the ramparts, not somebody riding between them. “You’re quite amazing, my lady.”

“Indeed she is,” Alexandros said.

“God’s wounds! I didn’t know that was possible. You’ve made her blush,” Damaskenos said, which only made Athena blush the more. Alexandros laughed, giving his wife a hug. She playfully punched him in the shoulder.

“When can you take them out?” Damaskenos asked.

Poliorketes looked at his watch. “The truce ends in thirty minutes, but I can start sighting the guns now. If we get lucky, we can hit them while they’re loading. Maximize casualties and hopefully set off some powder barrels too.”

“Please get to it then,” Damaskenos ordered. “And well done, my lady.”

“Thank you, Kastrophylax.”

“Care to help me sight the guns, my Lady of the Cannons?” Poliorketes asked.

She perked up and smiled. “Indeed I would. And I’m using that title from now on.”

The old Turk smiled. “I knew you would.”

* * *

1634 continued: The ‘meatball meeting’, as the meeting between Emperor Theodor and his chief officers and Lady Athena Siderina is known, is most famous in popular culture for coining the term ‘cannonballs’ for ‘Macedonian meatballs’, the name of the unusually large meatballs served with pasta in much Macedonian cuisine from that point on. [4]

The siege continues on as before, although several heavier Allied cannons are damaged by counter-battery fire shortly afterwards. Meanwhile the Kastrophylax has a long talk with von Word, who is swapped in a prisoner exchange a week later. A week after that, a dead drop is set up down the coast for messages to be exchanged.

Through it, Wallenstein is able to provide Kastrophylax Damaskenos a better picture of the goings-on in the Allied camp. Blucher is unwell, still losing weight although at a slower pace than in May. He still does his daily ride through camp, cheered by the regular soldiers, but even they can see ‘Old Man Blucher’ apparently isn’t immortal. And while Blucher’s existence still keeps the army together, his illness seems to dissipate the army’s drive.

With Mackensen dead, the two most audacious Allied commanders are King Casimir and Archbishop von Hohenzollern. On July 23, a Württemberg trooper takes a shot at King Casimir, reportedly for the Roman bounty on him. He is killed in the process of trying to take him captive, but Casimir claims (without evidence) that the Archbishop had put the soldier up to it.

Vauban, for his part, continues to conduct the siege proper with energy and skill, but he is hampered by limited supplies. He makes some progress, but never enough to be significant. He smashes breaches in two places, but they’re not storm-able and the Romans quickly throw up new defenses behind the breaches.

Meanwhile Tornikes and Sideros continue picking off foragers, tightening the area in which the Allies can draw for supplies, but both are going at it slowly, minimizing their casualties as new recruits arrive in both forces from the Aegean themes. But the fertility of Macedonia means that even so, the Allies are getting enough food, for now, to get by, albeit with belt-tightening.

The Allied army is also shrinking. While Skoupoi is held by an Allied garrison, the route south is unguarded and after the mauling at Atalanti, there are no more columns. Meanwhile Allied soldiers are starting to desert. It is a tricky business, which keeps this to a trickle. Allied soldiers captured by irregulars are, if they’re lucky, murdered on the spot. More commonly, they are tortured for hours before finally being murdered.

It is much better to be captured by Roman regulars; then they’ll go to the work camps, which don’t sound that bad compared to the alternatives. The Serbians have it a bit easier; many have gone on trading expeditions to Thessaloniki so they know the terrain, are Orthodox, and have some knowledge of Greek. A common practice of Serbian deserters is to slip off during the night to make for some nearby fishing grounds where they’re picked up by fishing boats from Thessaloniki (Wallenstein’s dead drop is maintained via this route).

It is not possible to reward Wallenstein with coinage. Large piles of Roman hyperpyra wouldn’t exactly be easy to transport surreptitiously, or easy to explain away. But the Imperial Bank Office in Thessaloniki cuts several bank certificates which combined are worth 8400 hyperpyra, but fakes the registry to make them look like they was issued by the Skoupoi branch office between January and early April. These are easy to hide and can be explained away as war booty.

The siege drags on and on, week after week, the thunder of guns never silent. The Witches become a feared defender of the walls, with excellent targeting and exceptional reload times, but it seems both sides have slumped into a stalemate. The Allies cannot go forward and seem unwilling to fall back; Theodor is fixated on the city and Blucher’s presence and loyalty keeps the army fixed there. And the Romans have not made the great push needed to throw them out.

As summer slips away and the world turns into September, it looks like a new variable will need to be added to the fray to break the stalemate.

* * *

The Witches’ Tower, Thessaloniki, September 18, 1634:

Anna looked over at the eastern horizon, where the sun was cresting, dazzling her view and making it hard to see. Perhaps she’d just been imagining it?

Then the horizon moved. A thick black line undulating on the edge of her world, and getting closer, lights and banners appearing on the heights of Mt Chortiatis. “Mary, Mother of God,” she whispered.

The wind gusted from the east, carrying on it the sound of Pontic askauloi, the bagpipe instruments often used by Roman regulars. [5] And the bells of St Demetrios answered them.

[1] Information is from Charalambos Bakirtzis, “The Urban Continuity and Size of Late Byzantine Thessalonike.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 57 (2003): 35-64.
[2] OTL Gate of Anna Palaeologina.
[3] OTL town of Axioupoli in Greece. It kept its classical name.
[4] @Duke of Nova Scotia helped to inspire the scene.
[5] OTL equivalent is a Tulum. Askaulos is an ancient Greek term for a bagpipe-type instrument.