Turkish [Seljuk] Rule in Persia I

The arrival of the Saljūq Turks marks a new era in Persian history. There had been Turks in the Islamic world before the eleventh century – the caliph’s mamlūks in Baghdad, such dynasties as the Ghaznawids – but these were all, in origin, slaves who had been recruited as individuals. In so far as they had held power, they had acquired it by taking over a going concern from the inside. The Saljūqs were different. They conquered Persia, and other lands, from the borders of the Dār al-Islām; they were still nomads, and they were still organized tribally. Their conquest marked the beginning of Persia’s period of Turkish rule, a period which lasted until the early sixteenth century and even, in some sense, until 1925.

The origins of the Saljūqs

The Saljūqs were a tribe of Ghuzz or Oghuz Turks, named after their leader, Saljūq (or, in a more Turkish spelling, Seljük [Seljuk]). We first hear of them in the second half of the tenth century, when they were living on the lower reaches of the River Jaxartes in Central Asia, at the edge of the Dār al-Islām proper. At that time they were converted to Islam, apparently as a result of missionary work on the part of travelling ṣūfīs. Such ṣūfīs professed a personal and emotional mystical faith. At this stage they had only loose associations, though the Saljūq period saw the foundation of convents for them, and also of orders or systems of organization (ṭarīqa, “way”). Each of these had its own form of instruction, initiation and ritual, and each its hierarchy of teachers. Early Saljūq Islam was probably, then, of a popular kind likely to be viewed with suspicion by the orthodox Sunnī ʿulamāʾ. It may have included elements that were closer to the traditional beliefs of the Central Asian steppe than to “official” Islam; though it is noticeable that when the Saljūqs had established themselves in Persia and Iraq, the Islam they supported was of a very orthodox Sunnī type.

Around the end of the tenth century, the Saljūqs gained a foothold in the Islamic lands. They were hired as mercenaries, first by the Samanids and then by the Qara-Khanids, the Turkish dynasty which had established itself in the former Samanid territories in Transoxania. The Saljūqs settled in that area, the land between the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers. In 416/1025 Maḥmūd of Ghazna, who also hoped to find them useful, installed some of them in Khurāsān, to the south-west of their earlier home. But this group behaved in a disorderly fashion and was driven out.

The Ghaznawids, as we have seen, ran into difficulties after the death of Maḥmūd in 421/1030, and during the ensuing disorders the Saljūqs as a whole were able, in 426/1035, to move into Khurāsān, led by two brothers, Toghril Beg and Chaghri Beg. It would seem that Saljūq rule did not strike the population of Khurāsān as less acceptable than that of the Ghaznawids. At any rate, the province speedily submitted. Nīshāpūr was taken in 428/1037, and later became the first of the Saljūq capitals. Open warfare with the Ghaznawids culminated in the battle of Dandānqān in 431/1040, at which the forces of Masʿūd of Ghazna were routed. The Ghaznawids withdrew to their Afghan lands and, ultimately, to India. The Saljūqs were the new masters of Khurāsān.

Toghril Beg: the establishment of the Saljūq empire

The two Saljūq brothers ruled together till the death of Chaghri Beg in 452/1060. This was in accordance with the Turkish conception of the nature of political sovereignty which they had brought with them from Central Asia. The Turks and Mongols of the steppe, organized as they were as nomadic tribes, saw sovereignty as the possession more of the ruling family as a whole than of any one individual member of that family. Hence, while the overall supremacy of Toghril was accepted, it was equally perfectly regular that when he headed to the west in order to extend Saljūq rule further into the Dār al-Islām, Chaghri should remain as ruler in Khurāsān. The division of power between the various members of the ruling family was later to be a cause of strife, but this initial arrangement between the brothers appears to have been amicable enough.

After the expulsion of the Ghaznawids from Khurāsān, the Buyids in western Persia and Iraq were the major enemy. They were soon eliminated, though they survived in some areas for a few more years as subject rulers to the Saljūqs. Toghril entered Baghdad in 447/1055, and the capital of the caliphate was at last restored to demonstrably Sunnī rule.

So far as the ʿAbbasid caliphs were concerned the change of secular ruler was distinctly for the better, though this did not mean that relations between them and the Saljūqs were always free of tensions and disagreements – even, at times, breaches in relations. The caliph al-Qāʾim conferred on Toghril the title of sulṭān. There was, and is, much discussion as to quite what was meant by this. An older generation of scholars, accustomed to concepts deriving from European history, liked to suppose that Toghril had become emperor to the caliph’s pope: that we see here a clear division between the spiritual and the secular power. More recent scholars have emphasized that the church/state distinction did not exist in medieval Islam, and moreover that the caliph, though certainly recognized as head of the Islamic community, had few of the powers of the pope: for example, he had no authority (at least in this period) in the matter of defining doctrine.

Muslim thinkers at the time, too, were aware of the difficulty. The leading intellectual of the day, al-Ghazālī, carefully formulated a theory that would accommodate the institution of the sultanate acceptably within the boundaries of Islamic thought. His approach was to argue that the sultanate was not separate from the caliphate, or imamate: it should be seen, he contended, as a part of the imamate. Thus the risk of positing an illegitimate division between spiritual and secular government and authority was, though possibly only notionally, avoided.

This was fair enough as far as it went, but it did, perhaps, come perilously close to envisaging the sultanate almost as a medieval papal propagandist might have wished to see the position of the Holy Roman Emperor: as the secular arm of the caliphate. Whatever the theory might say, and whatever the situation may have been in the early days of the caliphate, historians do seem to be to some extent arguing against the political realities if they deny that there was, in practice, a distinction of function in this period between caliph and sulṭān: a distinction which, at least up to a point, looks suspiciously like one between the ecclesiastical and the secular spheres.

It is also perhaps worth remarking that Islamic historians, in their wholly justifiable enthusiasm for discouraging misleading parallels between Islamic society and medieval Europe, have sometimes tended to exaggerate the extent to which medieval Christians drew a church/state distinction that was as sharp as in later centuries. In the central Middle Ages (to use, again, a European term of limited usefulness for the Islamic world), the relative positions of “church” and “state” in the two societies, though not identical, were more like each other than the experts on either side sometimes appear to imply.

By around 451/1059 Saljūq rule was established, reasonably securely, throughout Persia and Iraq, as far as the frontiers of Syria and of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. Toghril’s capital was at Rayy, a few miles from modern Tehran (the capital was later transferred to Iṣfahān). Chaghri Beg’s death in 452/1060 had left his brother as sole ruler, and when Toghril himself died in 455/1063, he could legitimately have claimed to have founded an empire. It was a remarkable feat for the chieftain of a tribe of Turkish nomads to have achieved in less than thirty years.

The consolidation of the Saljūq empire (455–485/1063–1092)

Toghril Beg left no sons. He was therefore succeeded by his nephew, Chaghri Beg’s eldest son, Alp Arslan. This was not allowed to pass without opposition from other members of the family and their supporters, but Alp Arslan was the most experienced of the contenders; and, like his father, he had a formidable power base in Khurāsān.

Alp Arslan’s reign was one in which the newly established Saljūq empire was stabilized. Even at this quite early stage, it had become apparent that to base the state on the military support of the Ghuzz tribesmen who had originally brought Toghril Beg to power was potentially hazardous. They were certainly highly efficient cavalrymen but they did not, except in wartime, take kindly to discipline; and they were not in the least inclined to submit to the central government of an Islamic sultanate.

The tradition of the steppe was quite different. According to this, a tribal khān would be freely elected, or acknowledged, by his tribe; and if he were to secure acceptance, he would need to be a member of an appropriately noble family. Which member of such a family would be accepted as khān would often depend on the tribe’s judgement of who was most suitable. A prospective khān’s suitability might well be determined by his efficiency in wiping out or otherwise neutralizing the other contenders. Once accepted, he could expect to be obeyed in war, but in peacetime, while he would occupy a position of honour, his interference in the affairs of his tribesmen would not be welcomed.

Such a system of extremely limited government worked well enough in the nomadic environment of the steppe, but it could hardly be appropriate to the very different demands of a sultanate which purported to rule the largely settled and heavily urbanized lands of Persia and Iraq. In these circumstances the state required a military force on which it could permanently rely. Alp Arslan therefore created a standing army, much of which was made up of slave (mamlūk, ghulām) troops, also of Turkish origin, after what had become the normal pattern in the central Islamic lands. This army was probably about 10,000–15,000 strong.

Such numbers may not seem very large, but it has to be remembered that a standing army, unlike a tribal levy, had to be paid, and paid all the time. For a Central Asian nomad, warfare was simply an aspect of normal life to which the techniques used in hunting were adapted, with little change. A steppe nomad would hope for plunder from battle, but he would not expect a salary; and even after the Saljūqs had established their standing army, the tribal levy could still be called on for an individual campaign if greater numbers of troops were needed.

It was not only in military affairs that the Saljūqs speedily found that what had served them adequately in a different environment would not suffice when they had become the rulers of a great settled state. They discovered that they could not do without the services of the existing Persian bureaucracy. Toghril Beg’s administration had been headed by a Persian wazīr (chief minister), al-Kundurī. He had had the misfortune to back one of the unsuccessful candidates for the throne after the death of Toghril in 455/1063, and his fall from power duly followed. His successor, perhaps the major figure in Persian history in the whole of this period, was Niẓām al-Mulk, who remained wazīr until almost the end of the reign of Alp Arslan’s son, Malikshāh. During Niẓām al-Mulk’s time in office an administrative framework was set up on Persian lines. This was of lasting importance, for in its essentials Persian government for many centuries followed the pattern established before and during the Saljūq period.

Fortunately for the historian, much may be learned about Niẓām al-Mulk’s approach to government from a treatise of his that has survived: the Siyāsat-nāma, the “Book of Government”. This work has much in common with a notable genre of Islamic, and particularly Persian, political writing known as “Mirrors for Princes”. It consists of advice to the ruler about how the government was, and should be, run, with a strong ethical emphasis on the necessity of justice and right religion in the ruler. The advice is illustrated by appropriate anecdotes from the Islamic and, in the case of Persia, the pre-Islamic past. Certain heroes who are remembered as paragons of good and just government make numerous appearances in these anecdotes. From the Islamic period, Maḥmūd of Ghazna is especially prominent as, for the pre-Islamic period, is the great Sasanian shāh Khusraw Anushirvan.

As illustrations of Niẓām al-Mulk’s points, the anecdotes serve admirably: this, after all, was their intended purpose. The difficulty arises over whether or not it is possible to use them as historical evidence, not for the Saljūq period but for the periods to which the stories refer. The temptation, for example, to give some credence to Niẓām al-Mulk’s account of Mazdak and his subversive heresy is a strong one, for we are given a good deal of fascinating detail, and sources actually deriving from the Sasanian period are very scant. Nevertheless, while some of the material may well be accurate, it is impossible to tell what, or how much. What we can say – and this is in itself of some interest – is that we have in the Siyāsat-nāma, among other things, an impression of what was known and believed about the past in educated Persian circles at the end of the eleventh century. A further point which the Siyāsat-nāma’s anecdotes serve to emphasize is the extent to which the approach to government typified by Niẓām al-Mulk and the Persian bureaucracy of his day was influenced not only by Islamic models, but also by what were thought to have been the administrative traditions of pre-Islamic Persia.

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Turkish [Seljuk] Rule in Persia II

Alp Arslan’s reign did not see any considerable further expansion of the territory under Saljūq control. The most notable military event occurred near the end of the reign, as the result of the unruly behaviour of the Ghuzz tribesmen. Groups of them, unwilling to submit to the authority of the central Saljūq government, had kept going in a westerly direction, beyond the sulṭān’s jurisdiction. They had ultimately arrived on the eastern Anatolian borders of the Byzantine Empire, where they proceeded to raid and plunder in the traditional nomad way. To permit this to continue in an uncontrolled fashion was unacceptable to Alp Arslan, and he therefore marched west, in an attempt to bring an end to this manifestation of frontier private enterprise.

The result was unexpected, and quite unintended by the sulṭān. The Byzantine Emperor Romanus Diogenes chose to march east with his own forces into eastern Anatolia. In Alp Arslan’s view this was a breach of truce, and he therefore proceeded north from Syria to meet the Byzantine threat. The two armies met, in 463/1071, at Manzikert. The Byzantines were soundly defeated, and Romanus Diogenes himself was captured. Although the Byzantine Empire survived in various forms for nearly another four centuries, it was never again able to put so formidable an army into the field.

This was because of what happened in the aftermath of the battle. Byzantine control of eastern and central Anatolia lapsed, the Ghuzz tribesmen poured across the frontier, and there they stayed. The area they occupied had been one of the Byzantine Empire’s chief sources of revenue, and also its principal military recruiting ground. At the end of the century the Byzantines were able, as a result of the First Crusade, to regain possession of western Anatolia and the coastal strips. But the centre was lost for ever. In due course a new Turkish state, the Seljük sultanate of Rūm (i.e. “Rome”) was formed in Anatolia, to be followed after many vicissitudes by the Ottoman Empire. “Turkey” was a consequence of the battle of Manzikert, even though nothing had been further from Alp Arslan’s intentions than to attack the Byzantines or to occupy any of their territory.

Alp Arslan died in 465/1072. His son, Malikshāh, made good his claim to the throne, but as before the succession was not undisputed. This time the main rival was Malikshāh’s uncle, Qavord, who in accordance with the Turkish principle of family sovereignty had been made semi-independent ruler of Kirmān, in the south-east of Persia. His claim was based on the contention that as Alp Arslan’s brother he was the senior member of the family, and should therefore take precedence over the late sulṭān’s son. He resorted to arms, and was defeated and executed. Malikshāh’s position was assured, and his reign was characterized by an imperial unity that was never subsequently to be seen in Saljūq times.

There was some expansion of Saljūq territory during the reign: Malikshāh made his mark in northern and central Syria, where (again conforming to the notion of family sovereignty) a subject kingdom was set up by his brother Tutush. Niẓām al-Mulk remained at the head of the bureaucracy throughout the reign. Attempts were made by jealous rivals to unseat him, but he successfully (though not always easily) fought them off, and he seems to have retained Malikshāh’s confidence almost to the end.

Niẓām al-Mulk owed the security of his position in part to the extent to which he installed his own sons in responsible posts. There was no civil service “esprit de corps” in medieval Persia. The way to the top was often that of discrediting – and bringing about the fall of – the current wazīr. Only by retaining the support of the ruler and by installing as many reliable people as possible at the lower levels could a wazīr hope to remain in office. It is not naive, however, to say that one way of keeping in the good graces of the ruler was, in fact, to be an efficient administrator, since efficiency made for stability and high receipts from taxation. Niẓām al-Mulk seems to have been efficient, and he was probably honest enough according to his lights and by the standards expected of the powerful in his day.

In 485/1092 Niẓām al-Mulk was, literally, assassinated: that is, he was murdered by a member of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī sect, otherwise known, at least in Europe, as the Assassins. They had become firmly established in Persia only two years before, in 483/1090.  Niẓām al-Mulk was one of their first and most illustrious victims, but he was very far from the last. Malikshāh himself died in the same year, not long after his great minister. His death marked the end of stability in the Saljūq empire, and the beginning of a gradual decline.

The impact of the Saljūq conquest of Persia

It is important to remember that the Saljūqs came to Persia not as barbarian destroyers, but as quite long-standing converts to Islam who were familiar with – and to an extent sympathetic to – Islamic civilization and urban life. Their arrival had more the character of a tribal migration than of an outright invasion and conquest: it has been said that they acquired a vast empire “almost by chance”. There is no reason to doubt that their incursion involved some destruction and dislocation, at least temporarily; but this seems to have been comparatively incidental, and was probably no greater than that caused earlier by the depredations of the Ghaznawid armies. In all this the Saljūqs were very different, as we shall see in a later chapter, from the Mongol conquerors of the thirteenth century.

This was inevitably linked to the numbers involved in the migration. They seem to have been fairly small. We should be thinking in terms of tens rather than hundreds of thousands. Alp Arslan’s standing army of 10,000–15,000 was not untypical. Contemporary and later chroniclers normally put tribal hordes of the period in the bracket 700–10,000. Such numbers of Turks, bearing in mind the very large area involved, are perhaps unlikely to have done an excessive amount of damage.

The most important long-term effect of the Saljūq conquest was probably the change it initiated in the balance of the population of Persia. This had both ethnic and economic aspects. A large proportion of Persia’s present-day population is composed of Turks, i.e. those whose first language is some form of Turkish and whose ethnic origins are perhaps also Turkish. The question therefore arises: did the ancestors of these Turks come to Persia in the Saljūq period?

Scholars who have studied the problem have come to widely different conclusions, but as far as it is possible to judge, it would seem that while the Saljūq period certainly saw the beginnings of the significant Turkicization of Persia, the bulk of the Turks first arrived in later centuries. Nevertheless there were major Turkish movements into, for example, Gurgān and Marv in the north-east and Āẕarbāyjān and upper Mesopotamia in the northwest; and lesser settlements were established elsewhere. It would appear that the Ghuzz tribes tended not to establish themselves very extensively where there was already a significant tribal or semi-nomadic population, as in Fārs, Luristān and Kurdistān.

As we have seen, many of the Ghuzz took ill to the new Saljūq polity, and kept going to the west, to Syria as well as to Anatolia. But while this may have been in some ways a considerable relief to the central government, the difficulties did not go away. For the Ghuzz hordes were continually augmented, throughout the Saljūq period, by further immigration from Central Asia into the eastern parts of the empire, especially the province of Khurāsān. There, in the twelfth century, they presented Sanjar, the last of the Great Saljūq sulṭāns in Persia, with his most serious problem.

A further factor of great importance was that the newcomers were not only Turks: they were nomads. It is clear, then, that there was at least a limited shift of the balance of the population, not only ethnically but also away from the settled and towards the nomadic sector. It does not, however, seem that this necessarily resulted in a reduction in the amount of land cultivated, as certainly happened as a result of the Mongol invasions. There is good reason for supposing that, for the most part, the nomads probably occupied land that had previously been unexploited. Indeed, it would even be reasonable to suggest that the new nomadic settlements were beneficial to the country, in that they played an important part in the economy as a whole through their provision of meat and milk products, wool, and skins to the towns.

Overall, then, a verdict on, at any rate, the first half-century of the Saljūq period is likely to be a fairly positive one. The Saljūqs were not, by the standards of the region, destructive conquerors. The ethnic changes that occurred were not on an excessive scale. Economically the rule of the Saljūqs was probably, on balance, of advantage to the country. Administratively their achievement, or the achievement of the Persians they employed, was creative and lasting.

 

Cyrus and the Achaemenids

Around 559 BCE a Persian prince called Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan on the death of his father. Persia and Anshan at that time were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia, making himself king of Persia, making Media the junior partner, and Persia the centre of the Empire. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth throughout antiquity. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, and also Phoenicia, Judaea and Babylonia, creating an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

But without romanticising him unduly, and although it took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian and Babylonian empires (notably in its written script and monumental iconography), it seems that Cyrus aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of Kings and the supposed favour of their terrible war-gods were a commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism after the man who found it) measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was found near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BCE–681 BCE). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king… king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters… guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me… has made powerful my weapons… he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare…

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils… I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city…

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities… by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines… I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil…

The way that the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was similar, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently.

By contrast, another not dissimilar clay object, about nine inches by four inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon, and has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world. This is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation, but the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of a family that always exercised kingship…

but it continues, describing the favour shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities…

and concludes:

As to the region… as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda, but it is propaganda of a different kind, presenting Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk, and declared that he had returned to other towns and territories the holy images that previous Babylonian kings had confiscated. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BCE) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no-one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that Cyrus permitted freedom of worship to the Jews too. He and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (being accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs in return).

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased, but that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite also, including the priests, the Magi, and (leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s own personal beliefs, which remain unclear) it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian, and according to one version was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed some light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of husbands or sexual partners (but men only one). Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in the apparent holding of women in common practised later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD and the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest, which might indicate an underlying folk tradition. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child (it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives). But in general the custom of Persian society seems to have limited the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence; but this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there that can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared). The tomb is massively simple rather than grandiose; a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings (many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs half-way up a cliff-face). Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs; effectively different religions. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizon-tal—in other words, a question of geography and tribe rather than social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Half-way between heaven and earth: itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise; a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’ memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with an imaginative vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as the other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period, as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.

Religious Revolt

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses (Kambojiya), who extended the empire by conquering Egypt, but in a short time gained a reputation for harshness. He died unexpectedly in 522 BCE, according to one source by suicide, after he had been given news of a revolt in the Persian heartlands of the empire.

An account of what happened next appears on an extraordinary rock relief carving at Bisitun, in western Iran, about twenty miles from Kermanshah, above the main road to Hamadan. According to the text of the carving (executed in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian) the revolt was led by a Magian priest, Gaumata, who claimed falsely to be Cambyses’s younger brother, Bardiya. Herodotus gives a similar version, saying that Cambyses had murdered the true Bardiya some years earlier. The revolt led by Gaumata seems to have drawn force from social and fiscal grievances, because one of his measures to gain popularity was to order a three-year remission of taxes—another to end military conscription. Pressure had built up over the decades of costly foreign wars under Cyrus and Cambyses. But Gaumata also showed strong religious enthusiasm or intolerance, because he destroyed the temples of sects he did not approve of.

An Iranian revolution, led by a charismatic cleric, seizing power from an oppressive monarch, asserting religious orthodoxy, attacking false believers, and drawing support from economic grievances—in the sixth century BCE. How modern that sounds. But within a few months, Gaumata was dead, killed by Darius (Daryavaush) and a small group of Persian confederates (a killing that sounds more like an assassination than anything else). The carving at Bisitun was made at Darius’s orders, and it presents his version of events, as put together after he had made himself king and the revolt had finally been put down. The carving itself says that copies of the same text were made and distributed throughout the empire. And what a revolt it had been—Babylon revolted twice, and Darius declared that he fought nineteen battles in a single year. It was really a series of revolts, affecting all but a few of the eastern provinces of the empire. The Bisitun carving illustrates this by showing a row of defeated captives, each representing a different people or territory. Whatever the true nature of the rebellion and its origins, it was no simple palace coup, affecting only a few members of the elite. It was just the first of several religious revolutions, or attempted revolutions, in Iran’s history, and it was no pushover.

Bisitun was chosen for Darius’s grand rock-carving because it was a high place, perhaps already associated with the sacred, close by where he and his companions had killed Bardiya/Gaumata. The site at Bisitun is a museum of Iranian history in itself. Aside from the Darius rock relief, there are caves that were used by Neanderthals 40,000 years ago or more, and by others generations later. Among other relics and monuments, there is a rock carving of a reclining Hercules from the Seleucid period, a Parthian carving depicting fire worship, a Sassanian bridge, some remains of a building from the Mongol period, a seventeenth-century caravanserai, and not far away, some fortifications apparently dating from the time of Nader Shah in the eighteenth century.

Many historians have been suspicious about the story of the false Bardiya. The Bisitun carving is a contemporary source, but it is plainly a self-serving account to justify Darius’s accession. It is confirmed by Herodotus and other Greek writers, but they all wrote later and would naturally have accepted the official version of events, if other dissenting accounts had been stamped out. Darius was not a natural successor to the throne. He was descended from a junior branch of the Achaemenid royal family, and even in that line he was not pre-eminent—his father was still living. Could a Magian priest have successfully impersonated a royal prince some three or four years after the real man’s death? Is it not rather suspect that Darius also discredited other opponents by alleging that they were impostors?

If the story was a fabrication, Darius was certainly brazen in the presentation of his case. In the Bisitun inscriptions, the rebel leaders are called ‘liar kings’, and Darius declares, appealing to religious feeling and Mazdaean beliefs about arta and druj:

[…] you, whosoever shall be king hereafter, be on your guard very much against Falsehood. The man who shall be a follower of Falsehood—punish him severely […]

and:

[…] Ahura Mazda brought me aid and the other gods who are, because I was not disloyal, I was no follower of Falsehood, I was no evil-doer, neither I nor my family, I acted according to righteousness, neither to the powerless nor to the powerful, did I do wrong…

and again:

This is what I have done, by the grace of Ahura Mazda have I always acted. Whosoever shall read this inscription hereafter, let that which I have done be believed. You must not hold it to be lies.

Perhaps Darius protested a little too much. Another inscription in Darius’s words, from another site, reads:

By the favour of Ahura Mazda I am of such a sort that I am a friend to right, I am not a friend to wrong. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it my desire that the mighty man should have wrong done to him by the weak. What is right, that is my desire. I am not a friend to the man who is a lie-follower […] As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback…

The latter part of this text, though telescoped here from the original, echoes the famous formula from Herodotus and other Greek writers, that Persian youths were brought up to ride a horse, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth. Darius was pressing every button to stimulate the approval of his subjects. Even if one doubts the story of Darius’s accession, the evidence from Bisitun and his other inscriptions of his self-justification and the use of religion by both sides in the intensive fighting that followed the death of Cambyses nonetheless stands. It is a powerful testimony to the force of the Mazdaean religion at this time. Even the suppressors of the religious revolution had to justify their actions in religious terms. Although Darius by the end reigned supreme, the inscriptions give a strong sense that he himself was nonetheless subject to a powerful structure of ideas about justice, truth and lies, right and wrong, that was distinctively Iranian, and Mazdaean.

The Empire Refounded

Darius’s efforts to justify and dignify his rule did not end there. He built an enormous palace in his Persian homeland, at what the Greeks later called Persepolis (‘city of the Persians’)—thus starting afresh, away from the previous capital of Cyrus at Pasargadae. Persepolis is so big that a modern visitor walking over the site, wandering bemused between the sections of fallen columns and the massive double-headed column capitals that crashed to the ground when the palace burned, may find it difficult to orientate himself and make sense of it. The magnificence of the palace served as a further prop to the majesty of Darius, and the legitimacy of his rule; but helped in turn to create a lasting tradition, a mystique of magnificent kingship that might not have come about but for the initial doubts over his accession. A dedicatory inscription at Persepolis played again on the old theme:

May Ahura Mazda protect this land from hostile armies, from famine, and from the Lie.

The motif of tribute and submission is also repeated from Bisitun: row upon row of figures representing subjects from all over the empire are shown queuing up to present themselves, frozen forever in stone relief. The purpose of the huge palace complex at Persepolis is not entirely clear. It may be that it was intended as a place for celebrations and ceremonial at the spring equinox, the Persian New Year (Noruz—celebrated on and after 21 March each year today as then). The rows of tribute-bearers depicted in the sculpture suggest that it may have been the place for annual demonstrations of homage and loyalty from the provinces. Whatever the grandeur of Persepolis, it was not the main, permanent capital of the empire. That was at Susa, the old capital of Elam. This again shows the syncretism of the Persian regime. Cyrus had been closely connected with the royal family of the Medes, and the Medes had a privileged position, with the Persians, as partners at the head of the Empire. But Elam too was important and central: its capital, its language, in administration and monumental inscriptions. This was an empire that always, for preference, flowed around and absorbed powerful rivals: its first instinct, unlike other imperial powers, was not to confront, batter into defeat, and force submission. The guiding principles of Cyrus persisted under Darius and at least some later Achaemenid rulers.

Darius’s reign saw the Achaemenid empire in effect re-founded. It could have gone under altogether in the rebellions that followed the death of Cambyses. Darius maintained Cyrus’s tradition of tolerance, permitting a plurality of gods to be worshipped as before; and maintained also the related principle of devolved government. The provinces were ruled by satraps, governors who returned a tribute to the centre but ruled as viceroys (two other officials looked after military matters and fiscal administration in each province, to avoid too much power being concentrated in any one pair of hands). The satraps often inherited office from predecessors within the same family, and ruled their provinces according to pre-existing laws, customs and traditions. They were, in effect, provincial kings; Darius was a King of Kings (Shahanshah in modern Persian). The empire did not attempt as a matter of policy to Persianise as the Roman empire, for example, later sought to Romanise.

The certainties of religion, the principle of sublime justice they underpinned, and the magnificent prestige of kingship were the bonds that held together this otherwise diffuse constellation of peoples, languages and cultures. A complex empire, accepted as such, and a controlling principle. The system established by Darius worked, proved resilient, and endured.

Tablets discovered in excavations at Persepolis show the complexity and administrative sophistication of the system Darius established. Although some payments were made in silver and Darius established a standard gold coinage, much of the system operated by payments in kind; assessed, allocated and receipted for from the centre. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds, in the same locations. Messengers and couriers were given tablets to produce at post-stations along the royal highways, so that they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BCE. But there are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than 15,000 different people in more than 100 different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. It is known from other sources that the main language of administration in the Empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of that Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that the histories once existed, and that there were poems written down and all sorts of other literature which have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (like the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated it with inferior subject peoples; or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth; but not to write it. That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite or Assyrian empires either—it is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BCE, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks the anomaly.

To ourselves, at our great remove of time, awash with written materials every moment of our working lives, dominated by the getting and spending of money, a human system that was largely non-literate and operating for the most part on the basis of payments in kind, not cash, even if it be a great empire capable of stunning monuments and great sculptural art, seems primitive. But the history of human development is not simply linear. It is not quite right to see the oral tradition of sophisticated cultures like that of Mazdaism as unreliable, flawed or backward, something we have gone beyond. The Persians were not stupidly trying, with the wrong tools, to do something we can now, with the right tools, do incomparably better. They were doing something different, and had evolved complex and subtle ways of doing it very well indeed, which our culture has forgotten. To try to grasp the reality of that we have to step aside a little from our usual categories of thought, for all the apparent familiarity of Mazdaean concepts like angels, the day of judgement, heaven and hell, and moral choice. The Achaemenid Empire was an Empire of the Mind, but a different kind of Mind.

The Empire and the Greeks

In general Darius’s reign was one of restoration and consolidation of previous territorial expansion rather than wars of conquest like those that had been pursued by Cyrus and Cambyses. But Darius campaigned into Europe in 512 BCE, conquering Thrace and Macedonia, and toward the end of his life, after a revolt by the Ionian Greeks of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, his subordinates fought a war with the Athenian Greeks that ended with a Persian defeat at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. This ushered in what the Greeks called the Persian wars, the shadow of which has affected our view of the Achaemenid Empire, and perhaps Persia and Iran and the Orient generally, ever since. From a Persian perspective, the more serious event was a revolt in Egypt in 486 BCE. Before he could deal with this, Darius died.

The standard Greek view of the Persians and their empire was complex, and not a little contradictory. They regarded the Persians, as they regarded most non-Greeks, as barbarians (the term barbarian itself is thought to come from a disparaging imitation of Persian speech—‘ba-ba’), and therefore ignorant and backward. They were aware that the Persians had a great, powerful, wealthy empire. But for them it was run on tyrannical principles, and was redolent of vulgar ostentation and decadence. The Persians were therefore both backward and decadent—at which point we may be irresistibly reminded (via the judgement of that supreme chauvinist, Clemenceau, that ‘America is the only nation in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation’) of the contemporary French view of the United States. Perhaps the view of the Greeks also was better explained in terms of a simple resentment or jealousy that the Persians rather than the Greeks were running such a large part of the known world.

This in itself is a caricature of the Greek view of the Persians, and cannot have been, for example, Plato’s attitude or the attitude (openly, at any rate) of the many Greeks who worked for or were allies of the Persians at various times. The Greeks were also an imperialistic, or at least a colonising culture, of pioneering Indo-European origin. Perhaps, as at other times and in other places, the hostility between the Persians and the Greeks had as much to do with similarity as with difference. But in contrast to the Persians the Greeks were not a single unified power, being composed of a multiplicity of rival city-states, and their influence was maritime rather than land-based. Greeks had established colonies along almost all parts of the Mediterranean littoral that had not previously been colonised by the Phoenicians (including the places that later became Tarragona in Spain, Marseilles in France, Cyrenaica in Libya and large parts of Sicily and southern Italy), and had done the same on the coast of the Black Sea. Unlike the Persians again, their spread was based on physical settlement by Greeks, rather than the control of indigenous peoples from afar.

Just as Persians appear in the plays of the great Greek playwrights, and on Greek vases, there are examples to show the presence of the Greeks in the minds of the Persians. As well as vases that show a Greek spearing a falling or recumbent Persian, there are engraved cylinder seals showing a Persian stabbing a Greek or filling him with arrows. But it is fair to say that at least initially, the Persians were more present to the Greeks than the Greeks to the Persians. Persian power controlled important Greek cities like Miletus and Phocaea in Asia Minor, only a few hours’ rowing away from Athens and Corinth—as well as Chalcidice and Macedonia on the European side of the Bosphorus. In Persepolis, Susa and Hamadan by contrast, Greece would have seemed half a world away; and events in other parts of the empire, like Egypt, Babylonia and Bactria for example, equally or rather more pressing.

Darius was succeeded by his son, Xerxes (Khashayarsha). The set-piece of Xerxes’s reign in the historical record was the great expedition to punish Athens and her allies for their support of the Ionian revolt, but at least as important for Xerxes himself would have been his successful reassertion of authority in Egypt and Babylon, where he crushed a rebellion and destroyed the temple of Marduk that Cyrus had restored. Xerxes is believed (on the authority of Herodotus) to have taken as many as two million men with him to attack Athens in 480 BCE. His troops wiped out the rearguard of Spartans and others at Thermopylae (when Xerxes asked them to surrender, demanding that they lay down their weapons, the Spartans replied ‘come and get them’), killing the Spartan king Leonidas there in a protracted struggle that left many of the Persian troops dead. Xerxes’s men then took Athens, his hardy soldiers scaling the Acropolis from the rear and burning it, but his fleet was defeated at Salamis, leaving his armies overextended and vulnerable. He withdrew to Sardis, his base in Asia Minor, and his forces suffered further, final defeats the following year at Plataea and Mycale (479 BC). Among other effects of the Persian defeat was the loss of influence on Macedon and Thrace on the European side of the Bosphorus, permitting the subsequent rise of Macedon.

Xerxes’s son Artaxerxes (Artakhshathra) succeeded him in 465 BCE, and reigned until 424 BCE. The building work at Persepolis continued through the reigns of both, and it was under these two kings that many of the Jews of Babylonia returned to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The latter was Artaxerxes’ court cupbearer in Susa, and both returned eventually to the Persian court after their efforts to rebuild Jerusalem. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah give a different picture of the Persian monarchy to contrast with the less flattering image in the Greek accounts.

The wars that continued between the Persians and the Greeks ended at least for a time with the peace of Callias in 449 BCE, but thereafter the Persians supported Sparta against Athens in the terribly destructive Peloponnesian wars, which exhausted the older Greek city-states and prepared the way for the hegemony of Macedon. At the death of Artaxerxes palace intrigues caused the deaths by murder of several kings or pretenders in succession. In the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE) there were further wars with the Greeks, and a sustained Egyptian revolt that kept that satrapy independent until Persian rule was restored under Artaxerxes III in 343 BCE. Palace intrigue and murder had already claimed the lives of several of the Achaemenid kings, but a particularly lethal round of events orchestrated by the vizier or chief minister Bagoas caused the deaths of both Artaxerxes III and his son Arses, bringing Darius III to the throne in 336 BCE.

The Iranians must have changed their way of life considerably over the two centuries between the reigns of Cyrus and Darius III. One indicator of social change (as is often the case) was the constitution of their armies. At the time of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece and before, large numbers of Medes and Persians fought on foot, but by the time of Darius III the armies were dominated by large numbers of horsemen and the previous Assyrian-style big units of spear-and-bow armed infantry (and shield-bearers—sparabara) seem to have disappeared (though there were Greek mercenary infantry, and Persian infantry called Cardaces who may have been young men in training for the cavalry). The impression is that the wealth of empire had enabled the Iranian military classes to distribute themselves across the empire and supply themselves with horses, changing the nature of Persian warfare (though there seems also to have been a deliberate policy of military garrisoning and military colonies, notably in Asia Minor). According to Herodotus, Cyrus had warned that if the Persians descended to live in the rich lands of the plain (he probably had Babylonia particularly in mind) they would become soft and incapable of defending their empire. It is too neat to suggest that this is precisely what happened—it may be somewhat the contrary, that by the time of Darius III taxes had risen too high and the Iranians, having had their expectations raised, had become impoverished and demoralised. But whatever their exact nature, fundamental changes had taken place, and Iran had already moved closer to the social and military patterns of the later Parthian and Sassanid empires.

Holy Roman Empire and Feudalism

Italy around 1000, short after Otto II’s death in 983.

The distinctions between domains, benefices and allodial property remained fluid into the thirteenth century, because it was often not clear how individuals had acquired particular manors and other assets. The greater use of written documentation to record possession inevitably encouraged sharper distinctions and more coherent and exclusive concepts of personal property. Crucially, this occurred during the change from transpersonal kingship to enduring Empire. The exact nature of this process remains hotly debated.

The root problem is semantics: a wide variety of terms were used well before they were defined in legal treatises in the twelfth century. The process of definition undoubtedly changed their meaning and use, complicating the interpretation of earlier evidence. The situation for the Empire was exacerbated by the excessive romanticization of the Germanic past, which reached new heights under the Nazis. Writing in the 1930s, Theodor Mayer presented the Empire as a Personenverbandstaat, or a state formed by ties of personal allegiance. This term proved very influential, yet it rested on imposing quite narrow and often anachronistic definitions on earlier medieval terms. Mayer’s model suggested the early Empire was organized with the king as leader of free warriors bound in personal allegiance. Finally, anglophone historiography brings its own problems, because the term ‘feudalism’ has been overloaded with other anachronistic interpretations implying a conscious system. Variations were part of the reality, not aberrant discrepancies within an otherwise coherent system. Local arrangements were negotiated according to immediate needs. Renegotiation could involve exemptions and changes to the level of burdens associated with fief-holding.

Some viable generalizations can be made. Relations between monarch and fief-holders were always asymmetrical, based on reciprocity and constituting a form of vassalage that became more clearly defined as ‘feudal’ during the twelfth century. Both parties were free men until the emergence of the ministeriales as a new group of unfree vassals in the eleventh century. Throughout, relations involved questions of loyalty and trust, because they were mediated primarily through oral rather than written agreements. General rules were not fully codified until early modernity. The Carolingians and Ottonians used the term honores for both benefice and the function associated with it.

Vassalage could emerge from below as ‘commendation’ whereby a free man placed himself subordinate to a superior lord in return for ‘protection and guardianship’ (Schütz und Schirm). It could also come from being entrusted with a benefice to carry out a specific task. A sharper articulation of rights and responsibilities around the mid-twelfth century clarified this act as ‘enfeoffment’. The term ‘benefice’ was simultaneously displaced by ‘fief’ (feodum).

Vassalage always included rights for the subordinate, especially excluding ‘servile duties’ (opera servilia) like manual labour, which remained a characteristic of the unfree population. Instead, vassals were expected to serve in ‘word and deed’ (consilium et auxilium). The former encompassed constructive advice, while the latter was understood primarily as military service and was driven by the introduction of the armoured cavalryman as a distinguishing feature of Carolingian warfare. The necessary equipment exceeded the resources of most free men, requiring assets to be grouped as benefices to sustain an elite of armoured knights. Although Carolingian and Ottonian lords expected royal campaigns to secure plunder, all accepted that benefice-holding would cover most of the costs of service. This freed the king from having to pay his army. Service was not fixed, but a period of six weeks became customary. Longer campaigns, like Roman expeditions, were restricted to exceptional circumstances agreed in advance at an assembly. The distribution of rich benefices to the imperial church resulted in this providing a substantial part of most emperors’ forces: 15 bishops accompanied Otto II’s ill-fated Italian campaign in 981–2, while twelfth-century archbishops could bring up to 1,700 troops, with 200 to 400 being the average size of an episcopal contingent. Other duties could be expected, especially if these were tied to a particular benefice; for example, garrisoning castles or guarding frontier marches. Senior lords were also expected to attend the royal court, assist in passing judgements, uphold the law and provide advice. Failure to perform duties opened the culprit to charges of ‘felony’ (felonia), providing grounds for the king to escheat the fief.

Vassalage already extended to chains of three of more lords and vassals by 800. A Carolingian capitulary of 799 allowed the church to assign its property as benefices to lay subvassals to circumvent the canon law restriction on clergy serving as warriors. Longer hierarchies benefited the king by creating denser networks capable of mobilizing more men. The trend to hereditary possession was already obvious and could be deliberately granted as an inducement. For example, Charles II ‘the Bald’ allowed those accompanying his Roman expedition of 877 to bequeath their benefices to their heirs. Hereditary possession could aid the king by stabilizing arrangements and giving benefice-holders greater incentive to promote economic development.

The rituals of vassalage changed in line with the shift from benefice to fief, but always remained personal even after written codification. Homage (Latin homagium, German Huld) was the more solemn ceremony in which the vassal became the ‘man’ of his lord; hence the derivation of ‘homage’ from the Latin homo for man. Homage had to be performed in person and was often tied to land or services. Fealty (fidelitas) was an expression of personal allegiance, which could be sworn in person or by proxy. Both types involved personal oaths, which played a prominent part in medieval political culture. The vassal ‘commended’ himself by placing his hands inside those of his lord. The solemn oath accompanying this ‘joining hands’ was sworn on a holy object, such as the portable imperial cross accompanying the king on his royal progress. ‘Defiance’ meant literally renouncing fidelity. Those doing so lost entitlement to their lord’s protection and opened themselves to his punishment, including being deprived of their lands and offices.

Initially, the oath preceded investiture, which involved the lord handing the vassal an object symbolizing both the benefice and the vassal’s status in a wider hierarchy. The Ottonians introduced the practice of handing over a flag to senior lords, which ritual came to characterize duchies, margraviates, counties palatine and landgraviates collectively as ‘flag fiefs’ (Fahnenlehen). Other objects included sceptres, swords, lances, gloves and even twigs. The Salians’ problems with the papacy led investiture to precede the oath under the Staufers, while the whole process came to be considered enfeoffment.

In line with its personal character, vassalage ended in the event of Herren- und Mannfall. At the death of a lord (Herr), all vassals were required to seek renewal of service from his successor, while the death of a vassal (Mann) obliged his heirs to request a fresh enfeoffment. These requirements persisted after the Staufers formally accepted secular fiefs as hereditary. Hereditary fiefs meant that the king could not refuse to enfeoff a legitimate, able-bodied heir, but renewal was still required for the successor to exercise any rights or functions associated with the fief. Lordly families could choose one of their members as legitimate heir. This still required royal endorsement in the case of immediate imperial fiefs, creating additional opportunities for the king to intervene as arbiter of inheritance disputes.

Crown and Imperial Lands

Virtually any kind of property or right could be held as royal domains, fiefs or allodial possessions. Royal domains originally consisted of fairly extensive farmland worked largely by slave labour, as well as mills, fishponds and vast tracts of thinly populated forest reserved for hunting, notably the Dreieich Forest by Frankfurt and the Ardennes near Aachen. These possessions were not managed through centrally planned extraction. Most of the produce was perishable, bulky or both. It was difficult to transport across a kingdom that even an unencumbered rider required a month to cross. Much was consumed locally, just maintaining the producers and those who administered individual assets like palaces. Some produce might be concentrated regionally, for example to support a military campaign. However, the main purpose was to feed the royal entourage on its endless tours of the realm.

It seems likely that the Merovingian monarchy was already partially itinerant and while the Carolingians had favoured sites, they never stayed at them for long. Royal progresses were common in medieval Europe, but itinerant monarchy became a distinguishing feature of the Empire, persisting long after other European kings had largely settled down, and in stark contrast to the self-exclusion of the Chinese emperor in his Forbidden City. The ability to travel extensively distinguished the king from his lords, since he alone could freely move throughout the entire realm. Others would have to pay their way, unless they had strategically placed relations, and could find that prolonged absence weakened their local authority. The practice of royal progress continued well beyond the mid-thirteenth century, but gradually lost its significance as the formalization of elective monarchy by 1356 lessened each new king’s need to show himself to lords absent at his accession. The institutionalization of assemblies in the form of the Reichstag by the late fifteenth century also provided a convenient way to meet everyone at once, while the parallel move to territorially based imperial governance established a new focus in the capital of the imperial family’s hereditary lands.

The needs of itinerant monarchy dictated the extent and location of royal domains, which needed to be scattered to provide sustenance and accommodation along major routes and in areas of political and strategic significance. The Carolingians and Ottonians preferred travelling by river or lakes, given the lack of all-weather roads north of the Alps. Charlemagne had 25 major and 125 minor palaces sustained by 700 different royal estates. Most of these were on or close to the Rhine, Main, Danube, Saale and Elbe.

Aachen was the most important palace (palatium, Pfalz), used since the 760s as a winter residence because of its thermal springs. Other important sites included Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg, Ingelheim and Frankfurt. Paderborn provided a base in Saxony, while Regensburg served the same purpose in Bavaria. Konstanz and Reichenau on an island in the same lake were key staging posts between Italy and Germany. These locations remained significant into the later Middle Ages. Subsequent royal lines added further sites around their own family properties. The Ottonians developed Magdeburg, Quedlinburg and Merseburg in the Elbe–Saale region. The Salians added Speyer near their own base on the Middle Rhine, but also Goslar in the rich mining region of the Harz in northern Germany. Chapels were already present in Carolingian palaces, but the Ottonians developed closer connections between royal residences and religious sites, favouring royal abbeys and major cathedrals.

Most palaces were unfortified, except those near frontiers. There was no standard design, but the royal apartments were in an imposing building containing a great hall and chapel, while stables, servants’ accommodation and storehouses completed the complex. Aachen became the model for Magdeburg and Goslar as the Ottonians and Salians stressed continuity with the Carolingians. The later Carolingians began fortifying palaces, and already allowed other lords to protect their own residences from the 870s, especially if these were in frontier areas or along rivers vulnerable to Viking raids. Fortifications generally consisted of wooded palisades, sometimes atop a hill (Motte). Henry IV broke tradition by embarking on extensive castle-building to assert tighter control over royal domains in the former Ottonian heartland of Saxony, which risked becoming a ‘distant’ region with the transition to Salian rule in 1024. Using new wealth and manpower from economic and demographic growth, Henry IV constructed at least eight stone castles perched on rocky crags. The most powerful was the Harzburg, built after 1067 on a high hill south-east of Goslar, only approachable along a narrow path. Unlike earlier fortifications that had been intended as refuges for the surrounding population, Henrician castles were only large enough to accommodate a royal garrison intended to dominate the surrounding area.

The Carolingians had already created a special jurisdiction called a Burgwerk surrounding fortifications, which allowed the commandant to draw the resources and labour required to construct and maintain defences. Similar rights were attached to palaces, but were also granted to bishops and abbots so they had the means to develop their churches. Henrician castles were held by the unfree vassals known as ministeriales. By the thirteenth century, castle commanders were called ‘castellans’ (Burgmänner) and were usually endowed with a fief sustaining themselves and their garrison of between 30 and 50 men. These developments promoted the emergence of knights as a distinct group of vassals who were considered the lower echelon of the nobles.

The transfer of fiefs to support castellans was just part of a wider redistribution of resources under revised relationships throughout the Middle Ages. The Carolingians had already endowed monasteries and abbeys with additional royal assets, and the Ottonians extended this to enhance the ability of crown vassals to meet demands for royal service (servitium regis). The practice peaked under the Salians, who added few palaces, preferring instead to stay with abbots and bishops. The difficulties created by repeated clashes with the papacy prompted the Staufers to promote imperial cities as alternative accommodation on crown domains.

Resources were earmarked as Tafelgüter, literally ‘table properties’, supplying food and other consumables to sustain the royal court when it stayed in the associated palace, abbey or city. A rare surviving list from 968 records just one day’s requirements: 1,000 pigs and sheep, 8 oxen, 10 barrels of wine, 1,000 bushels of grain, plus chickens, fish, eggs and vegetables. Information from the better-documented Staufer era indicates that an army of 4,800 troops needed 8,400 baggage attendants, 19,000 horses, mules and oxen pulling 500 wagons, together consuming 2.4 tons of food and 57 tons of fodder daily.

The royal prerogatives included the right to fodrum regis, obliging communities to supply fodder, and to Gistum (hospitality). Various other rights existed, though their terms are not always clear. Fodrum regis retained its original meaning north of the Alps, but by the late Middle Ages meant accommodating the king in Italy where a separate term (albergaria) emerged by the eleventh century to denote obligations to house royal servants and troops. Non-material services could also be required, as indicated by Henry V’s charter removing legal and fiscal obligations from Speyer’s inhabitants in 1111 in return for their performance of an annual mass to commemorate his father buried in the cathedral. Royal service was commuted into cash in Italy during the eleventh century in a process that had become general across the Empire by the thirteenth century. As we shall see, however, indirect control of the Empire through vassalage remained the most important means of governance into early modernity, while the role of royal domains was taken by more extensive hereditary possessions directly held by the ruling dynasty.

Henry II and Eleanor

Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

From an early age, Henry FitzEmpress was affected by his parents’ struggles to win England and Normandy, as well as the fact that they spent little time together – this was, after all, a marriage brokered out of diplomatic necessity that no one, including the couple, really warmed to. For the first few years of his life, Henry was looked after in his mother’s household, mainly in Anjou, although he would have been present during her attempts to win over the Norman barons in the mid-1130s once the succession crisis broke, given that the young boy provided a more palatable alternative to Matilda and Geoffrey’s rule. From around 1137 he undertook a formal education that included classical training, with knowledge of reading and writing in Latin; and was based primarily in his father’s court of Anjou. Then in 1142 or 1143 – after the final conquest of Normandy had begun in earnest, and Matilda had established a firm base in the south-west of England – Henry was invited to join his mother; this somewhat risky decision seems to have been at the insistence of Geoffrey of Anjou, although Matilda appears to have been equally keen to have her son with her. Either way, Henry was placed into the care of Robert of Gloucester, whose court was also frequented by scholars and learned men, despite the war. We know that ‘master Matthew’ tutored him in ‘letters and manners’; other prominent men included Adelard of Bath, who was probably connected with the early exchequer and corresponded with similar men of letters and learning in Spain. Adelard was therefore able to receive translations of Arabic works on science and lost texts from antiquity; and it was to the young Henry that Adelard dedicated his treatise On the Astrolabe, written around this time.

Henry returned to Anjou around 1144 when the conquest of Normandy was virtually complete. During the period after Normandy had been captured, Henry started to learn the art of government at first hand, benefitting from closer proximity to his father as Geoffrey consolidated his hold on the Norman administration, watching and learning about the key figures at court in preparation for his own future career as its leader. Indeed, it is possible to discern and assign several later character traits from influences in Henry’s early upbringing, such as a love of intellectual discourse learned from his tutors; military skill (as well as red hair) from his father; and, according to Walter Map, ‘all those traits which rendered him unpleasant’ from his mother, including some of the expedient talents in the art of prolonging negotiations to derive a more favourable settlement. ‘An untamed hawk, when raw flesh is often offered to it, and then withdrawn or hidden from it, becometh more greedy, and is more ready to obey than remain.’

Yet he also had a reckless side (possibly a characteristic inherited from his grandfather) that surfaced in 1147 when, at the age of fourteen, he decided to intervene in the war in England. Henry abandoned his studies, hired mercenaries on the promise of future payment from campaign spoils and, accompanied by his small household, sailed for England to take up his mother’s cause, rushing to the aid of magnates he had never met, but hoped one day to govern. It is likely (but not certain) that he landed at Wareham, and attempted to assail Cricklade and Purton in Wiltshire albeit without any success. However, he was unable to pay his troops and appealed to Matilda, and Robert of Gloucester, for money. Both refused, as they were not in favour of his escapade. In perhaps one of the more remarkable incidents in a war that defied logic, Henry then ‘sent envoys in secret to the king as to a kinsman’ asking for cash; even more unfathomably, Stephen agreed.

If it was a calculated gamble, it appeared to have paid off. Henry was back in Normandy by 29 May 1147; four months later, on 31 October, Matilda’s military commander, Robert of Gloucester, died and she abandoned England in early 1148. From that point onwards, the empress devoted her time to Norman affairs, settling in Rouen at the priory of Notre Dame du Pré where she had special quarters made for her. With his work in Normandy completed, Geoffrey largely returned to internal politics in Anjou, where he had been forced to suppress unrest against his own rule from 1145 stirred up by his younger brother Elias. Thereafter, if Henry wanted to claim his entire inheritance, he would have to fight for it himself. In 1149 he returned to England, this time making an alliance with his relative King David of Scotland – who knighted Henry at Carlisle on 22 May, thus formally ushering him into the ranks of military commanders – and Stephen’s enemy Ranulf of Chester. However, Henry lacked the necessary resources to strike a decisive blow against the king, and once more withdrew to Normandy in early 1150.

Even if Henry’s campaign had no discernible impact in England, his authority and leadership had impressed his parents; Geoffrey declared his son to be ‘of age’ and, with the support of Matilda (in whose name he governed), handed control of Normandy to him. As nominal overlord, King Louis VII was unimpressed, doubtless irritated by the fact that the decision was made without his knowledge, and alarmed by the prospect of a unified Norman–Angevin power bloc. Instead of recognising Henry as duke, Louis formally proposed that Stephen’s son Eustace should be considered the lawful ruler of Normandy, and Eustace did not hesitate in joining forces with the king of France to wage war against the duchy. Henry faced the first serious challenge to his authority; whilst Louis and Eustace captured Arques and Séez, the Norman border defences largely held; and Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most respected ecclesiastical scholars of the era, brokered peace negotiations between Henry and Louis around 24 August 1151, which Henry’s father, Geoffrey, strongly advised him to accept. By the end of the month, Louis had invested Henry as duke of Normandy in Paris, with Henry making concessions to his new liege lord in return, ceding any claims on the Norman Vexin (which Louis had possessed since 1144 as part of his recognition of Geoffrey’s conquest of the duchy).

Henry appears to have spent some time with his father during 1150, learning more about the politics of Anjou first hand when he accompanied Geoffrey on a prolonged siege of a rebellious baron’s castle; they apparently passed the time outside the castle walls reading the classical work by the Roman author Vegetius on strategy and tactics. However, Henry was not able to draw upon his father’s advice for long; on 7 September 1151 Geoffrey was stricken with fever and died suddenly at Château-du-Loir, aged only thirty-nine. Henry was proclaimed count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, unifying these territories with Normandy under one ruler for the first time. However, Henry’s inheritance of Anjou was not without terms and conditions; as he lay dying, it was alleged that Geoffrey insisted that his body remain unburied until Henry swore an oath that he would hand Anjou to his younger brother Geoffrey once – if – he ever took possession of England. There are doubts as to the veracity of this story, but Henry certainly spent the remainder of the year ensuring his position in Anjou was secure, thus further postponing any plans to invade across the Channel, for fear Geoffrey might move against him. However, the rivalry between the brothers intensified in the spring of 1152 when both made a play for the same woman; it did not help that she was the recently divorced queen of Louis VII and one of the wealthiest, most beautiful and formidable women in Europe. Her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The duchy of Aquitaine had grown into one of the richest and largest regions under the nominal control of the king of France, occupying nearly one-third of the extent of the modern country but sufficiently far from Paris for the duke to be semi-autonomous – indeed, many of its lords also displayed a similarly independent attitude towards their duke, with Poitou and Gascony often pulling in opposite directions. Given its proximity to Spain, with the heady infusion of Arab influences alongside Christian tradition, the ducal court was a more liberal environment than some of its northern counterparts – which was reflected in the personality of the ruling dynasty.

Born around 1122, Eleanor was the eldest daughter of Duke William X and his wife Aenor of Châtellerault. This was a complicated situation, as Aenor was the daughter of William IX’s lover, Dangerose, by her husband Aimery. Indeed the family never lost the whiff of scandal that accompanied William IX’s ducal reign. He earned a reputation as a lyric poet or troubadour, boasting in verse of his various sexual conquests, and as a territorial troublemaker after he pressed the claims of his wife Philippa to neighbouring Toulouse, creating problems that would manifest themselves in Henry II’s time. As the oldest daughter of William X, and from 1130 the heir presumptive after her brother William died aged only four, Eleanor had enjoyed the benefits of a varied education at her father’s court. She learned an eclectic mix of traditional skills required to run a household, including needlework, sewing, spinning and weaving; intellectual scholarship in music and literature, reading and writing Latin, arithmetic, history and the sciences; and the courtly skills of riding, hunting, singing and playing the harp. Indeed, it was said that she was a keen player of games similar to draughts, backgammon and chess that had been introduced from the Arab world.

On 9 April 1137 William X died, having fallen ill whilst on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to visit the shrine of St James. As he lay dying, William requested that Eleanor be placed under the guardianship of his liege lord, Louis VI of France. Although seriously ill with dysentery himself, the king duly obliged; however, he ensured that his seventeen-year-old son Louis was betrothed to her first, thus extending the influence of the monarchy to a traditionally distant part of the realm. They were married on 25 July 1137 and Louis took up the titles of duke of Aquitaine, duke of Gascony and count of Poitou by right of his wife – although they were to be kept independent from the French crown, and not absorbed into the royal demesne lands. Within a few days of the marriage Louis VI was dead, and the couple were crowned King Louis VII and Queen Eleanor on 25 December 1137.

By all accounts, Eleanor was beautiful and highly intelligent, but also very independently minded. Eleanor was used to a more relaxed and, frankly, flirtatious atmosphere at court in the south of France, but it was not just her dress and behaviour that provoked dismay amongst the more conservative courtiers in Paris – her family contributed to a growing sense of disapproval. Her sister Alix accompanied the new queen to court, and sparked outrage in 1142 when her dalliance with the married Raoul I of Vermandois, seneschal of France, led him to repudiate his wife, Eleanor of Blois. In a move supported by Louis VII, Raoul completed Eleanor of Blois’s humiliation when he wed Alix. The diplomatic fallout was huge, given that Eleanor was the sister of Count Theobald IV of Blois, who reacted furiously and demanded that the new marriage was annulled. Louis was already embroiled in a dispute with Pope Innocent II, who seized the opportunity to excommunicate the king for failing to act in defence of Eleanor of Blois. Louis responded by marching an army into Champagne, of which Theobald was also count, and was personally involved in the assault of the town of Vitry-le-François – an atrocity in which at least a thousand people were burned to death when the church in which they were seeking refuge went up in flames. Even against the backdrop of the chaos engulfing England and the war raging in Normandy, it was a barbarous act; in the aftermath Louis bowed to the papacy’s wishes, withdrew his troops from Champagne in 1144, and the following year agreed to go on crusade to the Holy Land by way of penance.

Such a vow was necessary because the county of Edessa, one of the four main crusader states in the Middle East, had fallen to Muslim Turkish forces led by Imad ad-Din Zengi in 1144, whose encroachment in the region was helped by the death of King Fulk of Jerusalem (Henry FitzEmpress’s grandfather) from a hunting accident. According to William of Tyre, Fulk fell from his horse and was crushed by the saddle, causing such trauma to his head that ‘his brains gushed forth from both ears and nostrils’. With Christian influence in the area in severe peril of being extinguished, Bernard of Clairvaux was charged by Pope Eugene III to drum up financial and military support for the crusade, and concentrated much of his early efforts in France. Both Louis and his wife took the cross, with Eleanor leading a military contingent from Aquitaine in her own right as their duchess.

Despite Bernard’s strenuous efforts, the campaign was not a success on many levels, particularly for Louis and Eleanor. Whilst drawing fulsome praise when they reached the court of the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Comnenus, at Constantinople in 1147, the residual tension between the crusader states and the claims of the emperor in the region meant that logistical support through Byzantine-held lands in Asia Minor on the route to the Levant was half-hearted at best. The worst disaster came when Louis’s army was massacred in January 1148 by a Turkish ambush near the summit of Mount Cadmos, whilst crossing the Phrygian mountains in modern Turkey; Eleanor’s general was widely blamed and Louis VII was lucky to escape with his life.

The remnants of the army limped on to Antioch, which was ruled by Eleanor’s uncle Raymond. He requested help from Louis in his struggles against the Turks based at Aleppo, but the king refused, wishing instead to press on towards Jerusalem so that he could fulfil his crusading vows. Eleanor’s impassioned pleas to her husband fell on deaf ears, and when she refused to accompany him on the next leg of their journey, Louis threatened to invoke medieval French marriage tradition and force her against her will. Her retort was to question the validity of their marriage on grounds of consanguinity, whereupon Louis arrested her in the middle of the night and carried her off to Jerusalem. At the heart of Louis’s behaviour lay a suspicion and jealousy about Eleanor’s overly familiar relationship with her uncle, of which rumours of ‘excessive affection’ began to surface from this point and dogged her for the rest of her life. The remainder of the crusade was a failure, and they headed home in separate vessels, such was the bitter nature of their disagreement. Despite an attempt at reconciliation (to which Eleanor reluctantly agreed) and the subsequent birth of a second daughter, Alice, the marriage continued to struggle. On 11 March 1152 the parties met at the château de Beaugency on the banks of the Loire to discuss a divorce, accompanied by prominent members of the clergy. Ten days later, with the permission of Pope Eugene III, an annulment was granted on the grounds of fourth degree consanguinity and Louis removed any remaining royal troops from Aquitaine.

For Louis, the risk of losing possession of the duchy was outweighed by the pressing need to produce a male heir, and thus secure the inheritance of the throne within his family. However, he could not have imagined how rapidly events would move after his divorce. On her way back to Poitiers, attempts were made to kidnap Eleanor by Theobald V of Blois and Geoffrey, Henry FitzEmpress’s younger brother.

On arriving at Poitiers, Eleanor sent envoys to Henry asking him to come at once and marry her, which he duly did; the couple were hastily wed on 18 May 1152 ‘without the pomp and ceremony which befitted their rank’, according to chroniclers who tut-tutted at the unseemly haste. Roger of Torigny was left uncertain whether the marriage took place ‘either suddenly or by premeditated design’, suggesting some earlier discussions between Eleanor and Henry had occurred. It is likely that they had met the previous August when Henry was in Paris to be invested as duke of Normandy. Henry, dashing and handsome, had certainly made an impression at the French court, even if he was eleven years younger than Eleanor. Later writers elaborated upon the stories that had emerged from the Middle East, and depicted her as sexually voracious; not only had she ‘cast her lascivious eyes’ on the new duke of Normandy, but,

… having contrived a questionable divorce, she married Henry despite rumours circulating to the effect that she had already shared Louis’s bed with Geoffrey, Henry’s father. This, one supposes, is why their progeny, sullied as their origins were, finally came to naught.

Despite the rumours, this was a stunning political coup. By the time Louis had realised what had happened, Henry had taken possession of Aquitaine, and thus two-thirds of France was under his direct control – the largest amount of territory held under one ruler since Charlemagne. Louis was both furious, as the marriage had taken place without his permission, and highly concerned about the rapid accumulation of power in Henry’s hands. He renewed his alliance with the house of Blois and, once again accompanied by King Stephen’s son Eustace, embarked upon a further invasion of Normandy on 16 July 1152. However, Louis had little success. Henry devastated the Norman Vexin, and Louis (who had fallen ill) withdrew from Henry’s lands to conclude a truce. At the same time, Henry quelled a rebellion in Anjou led by Geoffrey, who also submitted to his brother’s will. Meanwhile, in England, Stephen had taken the opportunity presented by Henry’s troubles in Normandy to renew his assault on Wallingford, which was of great strategic importance and loyal to Henry. As winter progressed, and with little chance of relief, the garrison contacted the king and agreed to surrender if no help was sent by their lord. Observing feudal etiquette, the message was also sent to Henry who, contrary to expectation, arrived in England with a modest force of 140 knights and 3,000 infantry in January 1153. Gathering his supporters, he attacked Stephen’s stronghold at Malmesbury; the king brought his army to relieve it, intending to win a decisive battle in the tradition of Hastings or Tinchebrai. The scene was set for a fight for the kingdom.

However, after so many years of warfare, the leading barons were far from keen on the idea; many had reached private concords with their neighbours after Matilda left England, recognising that they had sworn allegiance to different sides in the conflict but promising not to wage war on one another unless specifically instructed to by their liege lord. Consequently, the principal supporters of each side were reluctant to commit to battle; it seems that the preferred option at Malmesbury was for each side to withdraw to separate parts of the kingdom, a form of truce that held for six months. Robert, earl of Leicester, seized the opportunity to defect from Stephen, allowing Henry to shore up his position in the Midlands, and in late July or early August Henry finally moved to relieve Wallingford. Once again, Stephen gathered ‘an inexpressibly large army from every part of his kingdom’ in another attempt to engage Henry in battle but the barons prevented conflict on the grounds that it ‘meant the desolation of the whole kingdom’. It was stalemate.

With the two armies facing each other across the river Thames, neither Stephen nor Henry appeared willing to compromise, yet were unable to persuade their armies to engage in a decisive encounter. Instead, Henry moved east, captured Stamford and sacked Nottingham, whilst Stephen gained Ipswich castle. Although negotiations continued behind the scenes, the deadlock was only broken by the death of Stephen’s son Eustace on 17 August 1153; Eustace had most to lose from a peace that excluded him from the succession, and therefore had started to raid enemy territory once more in an attempt to rekindle the war. Even so, it took until 6 November before Henry and Stephen finally met face to face at Winchester to explore a diplomatic solution, and it was here that an outline arrangement was brokered. In front of the assembled barons and earls of the kingdom, Stephen acknowledged Henry’s hereditary right to England after his death, whilst in turn Henry ‘generously conceded that the king should hold the kingdom for the rest of his life’. As part of the settlement, England’s war zones would be demilitarised, including the destruction of the private castles that had been erected during the conflict. The arrangement was formalised in a charter issued at Christmas 1153.

Agreeing terms and issuing a charter was one thing; translating intention into practice was quite another. Many regional lords resented having to cede the castles that had given them power and autonomy, and it was even harder to untangle the claims and counter-claims of those who had been disinherited or disadvantaged during the war. The atmosphere had grown so bad, with whispered rumours of assassination plots against the king-in-waiting, that Henry withdrew to Normandy after Easter 1154. In contrast, Stephen embarked upon a progress of the northern lands, ‘encircling the bounds of England with regal pomp, and showing himself off as if he were a new king’. Henry might yet have lost his negotiated advantage had Stephen been able to capitalise on his newfound authority, but the king died suddenly on 25 October. Unlike the last two English successions, there was no urgency on Henry’s part to rush to England to secure the throne. Accompanied by his wife, the new king sailed from Barfleur on 7 December and twelve days later was crowned by Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, at Westminster. At only twenty years of age, Henry was now master of England, lord of Normandy and Anjou and, thanks to his marriage, in possession of Aquitaine.

A JAPANESE GAME OF THRONES I


There was a time—only a year earlier, at the time of his triumphant entry into the capital—when Yoshinaka had commanded 50,000 warriors. Those were the days. He had scoffed at the effete courtiers and taught them a few lessons in so-called etiquette.

Yoshinaka had clambered into the palanquin any way he saw fit. If he needed a bowl to drink, he would just take one from an altar. If he needed something done, he would just shout at the closest courtier. He had no time for the careful rituals and picky ceremonies of the imperials. There was work to do.

But now he was on the run, commander of just a few hundred horsemen, pursued by his own cousins in the Minamoto family. A roadside scuffle reduced his numbers to fifty, then a mere dozen.

One of them was a woman.

Critics are divided as to why Lady Tomoe should show up in The Tale of the Heike as Yoshinaka is fleeing for his life. Perhaps, as modern feminists hope, she is more typical than the historical record lets on. Traditions imply that samurai women are only expected to fight in the last-ditch defense of the homestead, but perhaps things were different in the twelfth century. Perhaps Tomoe, with a bow taller than she was and a sword that she swung with two hands, was just one of many samurai women who fought on the front line. Modern archaeology has uncovered mass graves on samurai-era battlefields in which up to 30 percent of the bodies were female. Were female fighters more prevalent than Tomoe’s lone appearance suggests?

The Tale of the Heike begins in sexist terms, speaking of Tomoe’s great beauty, her white skin, her long hair…and then, as if shaking himself awake, the author suddenly returns to matters of greater importance: her skill at archery; her abilities at breaking in horses and riding on rough terrain; the fact that, even though she was a woman, she was a front-line captain in Yoshinaka’s forces. “She was a warrior worth a thousand,” says The Tale of the Heike, “ready to confront a demon or a god.”

The awe with which the teller of tales appears to have regarded Tomoe does not come across in Yoshinaka’s own dialogue. As his forces decline and he finds himself leading little more than a fugitive platoon, Yoshinaka knows that his days are numbered. He knows that he is not going to make it out of the forest alive. And so he turns to Tomoe and tells her:

You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please. I intend to die in battle, or to kill myself if I am wounded. It would be unseemly to let people say that [Yoshinaka] kept a woman with him during his last battle.

Yoshinaka has already been presented as a buffoon, committing a series of ridiculous gaffes in his brief sojourn in Kyōto. Perhaps Tomoe is included as an example of just how clueless he is—letting a woman fight on the frontline? What savages these Minamoto clansmen must be, if even their womenfolk wrestle in the mud for trinkets of power!

Why does he want Tomoe to run away? It is usually assumed that he still has some unreconstructed macho sense of honor, the first stirrings of bushidō, what would be later known as the Way of the Warrior. It would be dishonorable to die with a woman present. Perhaps Tomoe was just a plaything; perhaps she was one of the shirabyōshi “sword-dancers”—military-themed strippers who enjoyed something of a fad in the age of the samurai.

Or perhaps Yoshinaka cared for her deeply. The wording of his command for her to leave is open to interpretation. “You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please.” In other words, anyone and his henchmen will be sure to recognize a male warrior on the run, even if he cast off his armor, even if he threw away his sword. They will see who he is from his haircut and his scars. But you, Tomoe, you can melt away into the forest. With a dab of mud and a switch in clothing, you’ll look just like any other peasant girl, and the enemies will be none the wiser. You’ll have a shot at living. There is no need for me to cause your death, too.

An alternate version of the same story has him actively threatening her with punishment beyond the grave. If she does not do as he says, he tells her, he will revoke the bonds that join lord and vassal for three iterations. In other words, if she obeys him on this occasion, he promises they will be reunited in the next life, perhaps with their roles reversed. But if she refuses to leave, their souls will never meet again.

Tomoe allows her horse to slow, dropping back in the party of fleeing samurai. Before long, she and her mount are alone on the forest path, the sound of Yoshinaka’s squadron already faded away in the green distance.

Sadly, Tomoe wishes for one last battle.

Then she hears the thunder of hooves.

A troop of thirty horsemen is in pursuit, chasing after Yoshinaka, led by the samurai Morishige. As he passes, Tomoe rides her horse straight into his, grabbing the surprised leader and dragging him across her saddle. She draws her dagger and knifes Morishige in the neck, savagely twisting his head from his shoulders.

Spattered in warm blood, she holds his head aloft, a trophy that in better days would have been retained to show to one’s lord for rewards and prestige. But Tomoe has no lord any more, not in this life, so she hurls the head into the trees and whirls her horse around to gallop away.

The Tale of the Heike does not say whether Morishige’s men give chase or not. Do they break off the pursuit of Yoshinaka, or do they even notice that one of their men is down? Regardless, Tomoe and her horse fly between the trees as she tears off the bulky, blood-drenched panels of her armor. She throws her helmet into a ditch, she loses her sword. By the time she rides out of the forest, she is a merely a woman on a horse…then she loses the horse, washes in a stream…and fades into the countryside.

Yoshinaka was right; he would never make it out of the woods. His horse gets stuck in the mud, and he leaps off with his own sword in his mouth to guarantee he won’t hit the ground alive.

As for Tomoe, some say she was unable to stay away from the battlefield, and would become the wife of another samurai and the mother of a famous strongman in the following generation. Others said that she went into seclusion and died in her nineties as a Buddhist nun. Another story claims that she hunted down Yoshinaka’s pursuers, stole back her lover’s severed head, and was last seen cradling it in her arms, walking out to sea.

In 1068, the Fujiwara were successfully played at their own game. The seventy-first emperor of Japan, Go-Sanjō (1032–73), was the first emperor in 170 years not to have immediate connections to the Fujiwara family. Consequently, his career was initially blocked by the Fujiwara faction at court, but the death of his predecessor without a direct heir suddenly propelled him to the throne. He immediately set about annoying the Fujiwara clan, overriding his kanpaku (spokesman) and calling for an audit of shōen estates and provincial governors. Inconveniently for the Fujiwara, the constitution set in place all those years ago by Prince Shōtoku and his successors made this all reasonable, and the threat loomed that Go-Sanjō might sweep all the Fujiwara from the court with a single edict. He was only headed off when the Fujiwara effectively threatened to go on strike—there were so many of them that their complete removal would have rendered the state powerless and unable to function.

Quitting while he was ahead, Go-Sanjō abdicated while still in his thirties, leaving the throne to his adult son, who had a Fujiwara mother and might thereby be expected to run things more in accordance with the wishes of the shadowy power brokers. But Go-Sanjō was young enough to be able to interfere himself, and his chosen successor, the seventy-third emperor, Shirakawa (1053–1129), was demonstrably old enough and able enough not to require a regent.

Go-Sanjō’s run of luck ended with his death, at the suspiciously young age of forty, shortly after taking holy Buddhist orders. Shirakawa, however, would continue to play his father’s game, himself abdicating only fourteen years later and then entering a monastery to embark upon his own scheme to steer events from behind the throne. Owing to the location of his hideout, this process became known as “cloistered rule” (insei); it would be used by many of his descendants.

For Shirakawa and his immediate heirs, cloistered rule was a success. More by luck than judgement, Japan enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, and the stranglehold of the Fujiwara on government appointments was broken. But in divorcing his descendants from collusion with the Fujiwara, Shirakawa cut the imperial family off from its main supplier of muscle—and cloistered emperors had no army of their own. In order to secure their position with force, many of his descendants would lean upon the loyalties of their hungrier, less-established cousins from the frontier—the likes of the Minamoto and Taira clans, long excluded from court life, but always keen to find a way back in.

Many years after the events recounted in this chapter, scribes set down a collection of epic tales about the early part of the great struggle for mastery of Japan. It is a wholly different Japan from the image presented by Murasaki Shikibu, as if the weepy romance of The Tale of Genji suddenly gained a distaff war-movie sequel. Genji was a fictional creation likely to have been distantly inspired by real people, created over many years by a female author in the court. Two centuries on, his complement is the rise and fall of an entire rival clan, born from the same kinds of family politics and pruning that shunted Genji from the spotlight, memorialized in a huge and occasionally untrustworthy saga of battles and betrayals, seemingly written by a committee of excitable men. But even The Tale of the Heike cannot resist beginning on a melancholy tone. Although later chapters are full of glorious deaths and stirring heroism, its opening pages lament the pointlessness of it all, foreshadowing the desolation of its own finale:

The Gion bell tolls, sounding the knell that all things must pass. Like the colors of the summer camellia, prosperity is ever followed by decline. The proud do not endure; they are like a dream on a spring night. Even the mighty meet with destruction, until they are as dust before the wind.

Sometime around the year 850, Japan had ceased to be a nation with an insecure frontier. There was a trading post on the southern tip of Hokkaidō during this period, but Japanese rule did not extend far beyond it. The Korea Strait separating Japan from Korea, along with the Tsugaru Strait between Honshū and Hokkaidō, functioned as an effective barrier for potential large-scale trouble. Unlike China, from which much of its model government was derived, medieval Japan did not really have a border problem—there was no serious chance of foreign invasion or of disaffected noblemen forming alliances with foreign tribes. Japan was neatly cut off, which allowed its system to prosper and flourish without further adaptation. China’s Tang dynasty was deteriorating, and when it fell, the Japanese did not rush to communicate with its successor states—although China was not entirely forgotten, the great influx of Chinese culture was shut down. The only drawback here, for a system that relied on pushing its dregs and spares onto the borderlands, was that without any new lands to be won, the Japanese would soon start fighting each other over the lands they already had.

Inevitably, the shōen estates and the farthest marchlands assumed the status of autonomous counties or baronies. In particular, the Taira and Minamoto families, united by their mutual ancestry and shared experience of exile, came to dominate many of these outer estates, turning the edges of the nation into a patchwork of holdings with allegiance to either Red (Taira) or White (Minamoto). To this day, these two colors remain a symbol of polar opposites for the Japanese; teams in game shows are divided into Red and White, and the colors of the Japanese flag even represent the standoff. From the tenth to the twelfth century, these two clans experienced a series of huge reversals and resurgences in an era that some commentators call “feudal Japan.”

Others vigorously deny the classification. It is easy to see elements of feudalism in medieval Japan, but the term is unpopular with many historians. There is an easy temptation, particularly in popular accounts such as this one, to over-translate all terminology into European equivalents, talking of Japanese dukes and viscounts, barons and knights. British parallels are particularly alluring—an island kingdom at the edge of a continent, with a monarch ruling by divine right over contending noble houses…But even though the samurai pledged allegiance to a semi-divine emperor, each emperor’s real-world power was highly limited. European schoolchildren might learn about the deeds of their great kings and queens, but Japanese schoolbooks often gloss over the emperors in favor of the real rulers—the regents who held power through several reigns, the shōguns who effectively ran the country in the name of their bosses, or the relatively lowly princelings who achieved something concrete while their imperial siblings were kept busy with rituals and ceremonies. It was, in theory, possible that any lord might lose his manor overnight and be ordered to hand over the keys to a successor newly appointed by the government. The real question in Japan, as ever, was who the government actually was: all orders were given in the emperor’s name, but true power resided in the ability to gain that particular stamp of approval.

In many ways, this is what the samurai houses were fighting over. It no longer mattered quite so much if they had access to the luxuries of the court—many of them were living very well on their own estates. But now they required greater influence at that same court in order to make sure that everything they had built over generations was not taken away from them because a minister had fallen out of favor, or because the arrival of a pretty concubine had propelled her father into a new ministerial role at court and ousted his predecessor. Whereas the samurai families had once been “servants” of the court, they now increasingly tried to make the court serve them.

There was, at least on paper, no need for the Taira and Minamoto to be at odds with one another. They were, after all, both supposedly loyal to the same emperor. In the early days of their ascension, they were not even clearly divided into Us and Them—multiple branches of both Taira and Minamoto were often pitted against others of their own surname. Inevitably they would clash over allegiances and the nature of their service. The Taira lost their Kantō power base after one of their major lords, Masakado, proclaimed himself to be independent. That in itself might have been enough to plunge Japan into civil war in 940, but the problem was dealt with by his own clan—the Taira pretender was defeated by his own Taira cousins. The scandal cost the Taira their hold on the Kantō plain, but left them eager to prove to the emperor that Masakado was the exception rather than the rule. They were swift to volunteer for piracy suppression operations in the Inland Sea and on the western coast, in which capacity they were even obliged to sail against a Fujiwara sea-lord who had also decided to defy the central authority. Back in Kyōto, the emperor was pleased with their loyal service; his Fujiwara in-laws, not so much. Luckily for them, they could find some military champions of their own among the Minamoto.

The greatest expansion of the Minamoto came under the leader Minamoto Yoshiie (1041–1108), who made a name for himself carrying out dirty work for the capital’s prominent Fujiwara family. After he led a campaign to neutralize rebels in the Kantō region, the court found a way to wriggle out of paying him off. Instead of complaining, he reached into his own treasury for the money. This made him popular not only with his own troops, who now trusted him more than their government, but also with many newfound allies, who flocked to associate with him and extended the reach of his already-large holdings.

As the generations passed, the tensions caused by the samurai families became increasingly obvious. Two year’s after Yoshiie’s death, his son started a revolt in the provinces that was put down by a Taira general. His grandson Tameyoshi almost caused the downfall of the entire clan in 1156, when he backed the wrong side in an imperial power struggle.

Bear with me. We’ll slow down for a moment and look at the origins of this one crisis just to get a sense of the complexities and hidden conflicts that would characterize dozens of similar intrigues throughout the period. We won’t do this for the next thirty emperors, many of whose situations were no less confusing, but the roots of what became known as the Hōgen Insurrection are a textbook case of the intricacies of court politics—a multisided standoff with half a dozen factions. The conflict dated back to the seventy-fourth emperor, Toba (1103–56), who spent his whole childhood and teens as the ruler in name only, while his “retired” grandfather ran the state from a monastery. At age twenty Toba himself retired, leaving the throne to his own infant son, the seventy-fifth emperor, Sutoku (1119–64).

With up to three imperial predecessors still at large, Sutoku stood no chance at all of making his own decisions; he passed a frustrating, boring twenty years as emperor in name only. He, too, looked forward to the day when he could skip the court with his own entourage, but his father was still very much hands-on. Retired Emperor Toba was still only in his thirties, and had recently become a father again. Favoring the new child’s mother (a Fujiwara) over Sutoku’s (another Fujiwara), Toba shunted his son off the throne and had the new successor, Konoe (1139–55) crowned as Japan’s seventy-sixth emperor.

Stories would be told about the incident for centuries afterwards. Later authors would create an entire supernatural scandal around the events, claiming that Toba had been bewitched and cursed by an evil twin-tailed fox spirit. The spiteful creature had originally come from China, where, in the glamorous form of a famous beauty of ancient times, it had caused the downfall of an ancient king. It had moved on to India, where it had similarly caused havoc among impressionable men. Now it was in Japan, where it adopted the sensual form of Tamamo-no-mae, an impossibly beautiful servant girl at Toba’s monastery. Toba, who was at least officially a monk now, engaged her in conversations about philosophy, in which her replies came with citations from ancient scriptures no human girl should have known.

A JAPANESE GAME OF THRONES II


Toba fell ill, and his condition progressively worsened, until a bold fortune-teller said the words no other courtier would utter: that his mistress, with her odd mastery of scripture and her propensity to glow in the dark, was not a Buddhist saint at all, but a malicious demon who intended to kill Toba and supplant him. Tamamo-no-mae supposedly disappeared at this point, leading to a savage cull of foxes in the surrounding countryside until Toba regained his health.

I repeat the story here not for its historical accuracy, which is nonexistent, but for the glimpse it offers of the whispers and petty jealousies of Heian life, with bedroom companions influencing political decisions, and courtiers hiding behind coincidence and innuendo in their fox-shaming campaign against some poor concubine. Tamamo-no-Mae was never seen again, although her angry spirit was said to influence many of the scandals that followed. Even in the afterlife, it seems, there were intrigues and scandals, dead emperors and wronged courtiers who might be persuaded to avenge forgotten insults. It was, some said, the curse of Tamamo-no-mae that brought down Toba’s young proxy, Konoe; the young boy was always sickly, and reigned for barely more than a decade, dying at the age of seventeen, before he had the chance to sire an heir of his own.

The year was 1155. Retired Emperor Sutoku hoped to regain the throne, but Retired Emperor Toba still had seniority, and managed to recommend that his own fourteenth son, Sutoku’s brother, should be crowned as Japan’s seventy-seventh emperor, Go-Shirakawa (1127–92). Sutoku had hence been passed over in the succession three times—forced to abdicate against his will, and then replaced by two of his siblings when he regarded himself as a prime candidate for restoration. There was also a scurrilous rumor, never quite discounted, that Toba hated Sutoku because he wasn’t really his son at all, but the secret love-child of Toba’s father, sired on Toba’s wife in some tawdry incident.

If all that looks confusing, it’s only half the story, since these feuding emperors were themselves merely the outward manifestation of another conflict underway over who got to be the emperor’s chief minister. In fact, it hardly mattered who the emperor was; the real issue was who his mother was, with the various fallings in and out of imperial favor masking internal conflicts within the Fujiwara family, which had supplied most of the brides and concubines, and hence most of the regents.

Nobody dared challenge the decision directly, and the new emperor Go-Shirakawa, a man who had never expected to be emperor and rather seemed taken by surprise by the whole thing, endured a tense first year on the throne, ending in the summer of 1156 with the death of his father Toba. Toba had taken two months to die, on a sickbed attended by hushed whispers and intense conferences, in a mansion guarded by stern samurai.

It was Toba who had held everything together, and whose factions had crushed any resistance. With him gone, Sutoku was the new senior retired emperor, and he was ready to pounce.

Emperor Go-Shirakawa knew trouble was brewing. Three days after his father’s death, his officials were ordering samurai to steer clear of the capital. Two days after that, known associates of Retired Emperor Sutoku were directly ordered not to recruit troops. Forty-eight hours later, samurai loyal to the incumbent emperor and samurai loyal to the retired emperor clashed in open combat on the streets of Heian.

It was a landmark moment. The intrigues of the court had erupted into open violence, and had done so not at the border, but within the very capital itself. That, at least, was how things felt to the court at large—the attentive reader will recall that some of the courtiers’ own ancestors were not above stabbing their enemies to death in the emperor’s presence in ages past—but it seems that many of the contemporary courtiers had come to believe their own hype, and were ill-prepared for violence returning to their doorstep.

The samurai in play amounted to several hundred on each side, but the only prize was Go-Shirakawa himself, who might be persuaded to abdicate if he fell into the hands of his brother’s rebels.

There were Fujiwara courtiers and Minamoto samurai on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately for the pro-Sutoku faction, their nominal leader, Fujiwara Yorinaga, was very much an armchair general whose ideas about warfare were based solely on the idealized, rather ceremonial events described in old stories and songs. His Minamoto advisers, veterans of many an asymmetrical skirmish in the northern wars, suggested that the best thing to do was to start a fire at the emperor’s residence, which was sure to lead their target to flee in his palanquin with a small group of bodyguards. They could then overwhelm the guards, seize the palanquin, and thereby obtain control of the only figure who could order the enemy to stand down. The conflict would be over before it started, with minimal loss of life.

Yorinaga was not interested. The whole thing sounded sneaky and underhanded to him, and he very much preferred to imagine things the way they were in the old songs, with a few hundred samurai marching out to a nice area of flat ground, stating their names and lineages, and then taking each other on in single combat until the victor was revealed.

It does not seem to have occurred to Yorinaga that if his own samurai had come up with the idea for such a ruthless, surgical strike, then the enemy, whose samurai hailed from a different branch of the same family, was liable to have a very similar idea. In fact, his enemies had already apprehended one of his men, who had spilled all their plans, leading the incumbent emperor to authorize the seizure and search of Yorinaga’s house.

At dawn on the eleventh day of the seventh lunar month, 1156, the emperor led his court in prayers while his loyalists converged on Yorinaga from three directions with several hundred mounted men. Within an hour, there were flames and smoke in the east of the city. The battle was bloody but brief, although its aftermath would stretch on for two generations.

Several of the rebel leaders were killed in the skirmish. The pretender Sutoku was packed away into monastic exile on a remote island, where he lived for another eight years, muttering curses against his enemies, and, it was said, forming a malicious faction in the afterlife with the fiery fox spirit Tamamo-no-mae. In subsequent years, his angry ghost would get the blame for many famines, earthquakes, and misfortunes, becoming one of the great bogeymen of Japanese history.

For centuries, the Kyōto aristocracy had boasted of the civilized nature of their capital. It was a mark of the drastic changes in attitudes and expectations that the uprising ended with a round of beheadings. Courtiers had prided themselves on the peaceful capital for the last three and a half centuries—nobody had been executed in Kyōto since the failed coup of Retired Emperor Heizei in 810. Now, Sutoku’s surviving supporters were executed, sometimes in cruel situations in which their own relatives were ordered to carry out the task.

In the most infamous case, the Minamoto loyalist Yoshitomo was ordered to behead his own father. He was unable to carry out such a terrible command, but one of his lieutenants, seeing that a Minamoto would die at the hands of a Taira unless he took action, did the deed himself. Shortly after he had spared his lord from committing patricide, the loyal lieutenant killed himself in contrition.

It was by no means the first reference to suicide in the tales of the samurai, nor even in the events of the Hōgen Insurrection. But it is during this failed rebellion that the chronicles of the samurai first start referring not only to suicide, but to a particular kind of suicide. The cult of the samurai had already begun to take on certain new elements. One was the desire to wear flashy armor, decorated with striking icons or tied with distinctive color strings, in order to make it clear who was winning fame on the field of battle. Samurai helmets, in particular, became notorious for their ostentatious adornments; these have included, among many other things, a giant snail shell, insect’s wings, antlers, devil horns, sunbursts, and rabbit ears. The samurai had started to develop a sense of themselves that placed them on a hierarchy of bravery and battle prowess, and that meant it was necessary for their victories to be obvious to all. A side effect of this ease of identification was that it would also be clear who was running away. The distinctive nature of samurai battlefield adornments promoted a gung-ho sense of always charging, never retreating.

There were times when victory was impossible. Samurai might be surrounded with no possible retreat. They might be disarmed. They might find themselves just about to fall into enemy hands, where they might suffer the further shame of being used as hostages or bargaining chips, or tortured for information. Or, like Yoshitomo’s lieutenant, they might find themselves in an impossible situation, where they had done the right thing by their lord but could not possibly be expected to go on living after having done so.

Instead, they chose to kill themselves, but not with the throat-slitting or defenestration favored by women in search of a quick death. Instead, they killed themselves in the most painful way imaginable, by slicing open their own abdomen as a mark of their bravery and inner strength—the belly was thought to be the seat of the soul, and hence also a mark of sincerity. Cutting the belly, seppuku (more vulgarly, hara kiri) was a one-way trip to agony. There was no cure; only a slow, lingering death. The decision to slice open one’s abdomen was also a get-out clause for one’s underlings—they would not dare lift a finger against their master, but would be justified, once he had voluntarily wounded himself in such a fashion, in ending his suffering by beheading him.

Over the years, seppuku would take on new rituals. Samurai would wear a white kimono, symbolising death and purity. They would write a death poem, ensuring that parting words, criticisms, or curses were encapsulated in repeatable form. The nature of the wound would become deliberately cruel, with “tradition” demanding four cuts through the abdominal muscles—shi, meaning four, being a homonym for death, but also demanding incredible determination and strength of purpose in the self-harming samurai. Seppuku started as a battlefield compromise—a last resort by besieged men in burning castles, determined not to surrender to enemies who would torture and humiliate them. But once it became enshrined in tradition, it became the default means of repentance, and even criticism. It faded out after the era of the samurai, but still occasionally returns to haunt the country.

If this seems shocking to the modern reader, we should bear in mind that religious belief played an important part. Buddhism had taken hold, but with a certain nihilistic angle. The concept that “all life is suffering” had been embraced by the Japanese with a melancholy sense of poetry, as well as a certain sense that the end of the world was nigh. Certain Buddhist scriptures predicted the rise, peak, and subsequent fall of the Buddha’s teachings: five hundred years of struggle for success, a thousand years of worship and achievement, and then five centuries of worsening conditions as things fell apart. It was, hence, widely believed among the medieval Japanese that they were living in the “Latter Days of the Law” (mappō). Any natural disasters, reversals of fortune, or atrocities could be written off as further evidence that the teachings of Buddha were under attack, and that any ends available would justify the means of sustaining them.

One particular Buddhist sect, the Essence of the Pure Land (Jōdo Shinshū) gained ground in medieval Japan. Pure Land Buddhism regarded the country’s troubles as yet another example of the Latter Days of the Law, in which it was almost impossible for anybody to engage in correct Buddhist devotion. In a sense, Pure Land Buddhists all but gave up trying, instead paying a new form of devotion to Buddha that recognized that things were terrible—people were trapped in cycles of toxic karma, eating meat, drinking booze, fornicating, and otherwise coping with the onrushing end of the world—but that it was still possible to at least make it obvious to Buddha that you bore him in mind. You would do this by chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” (I take refuge in Amida Buddha) as often as possible, as a little spell to hold back the worst of the world. Most importantly, Pure Land Buddhism was a sect that offered the chance of rebirth in a Buddhist paradise to absolutely everybody. It was not restricted to monks or the rich who could afford costly demonstrations of devotion; literally anyone could find refuge in the Pure Land—even warriors.

Buddhism was actually abundantly clear about killing people being a sin. “A disciple of the Buddha,” said the fifth-century Sutra of Brahma’s Net, “should not possess swords, spears, bows, arrows, pikes, axes, or any other fighting devices. Even if one’s father or mother were slain, one should not retaliate.”

It was, however, the Zen flavor of Buddhism, originating in the Shaolin Temple in China, which achieved prominence among the samurai. Yes, killing people would bring about bad karma, but what about standing up for what was right, if that involved breaking a few heads? What about killing an assassin hell-bent on killing one’s lord? In such cases, presumably we would not be talking so much about bad karma, but about the least-worst.

Zen found plenty of adherents in Japan’s warrior class, in part because of some of its teachers’ habit of cutting through knotty issues of philosophy with seemingly dismissive put-downs. In fact, there was substantially more to it than that, but the nature of certain Zen parables and questions for meditation did lend itself well to a breed of anti-intellectualism. The Chinese Zen master Linji, for example, once famously said, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” He meant that the earnest Zen scholar should question all presumptions, and never lean on credentials or blind faith. But in the hands of the samurai, this became a recipe for a nihilistic battlefield philosophy.

It is often necessary to read between the lines in comments from the history books about “Buddhist monks” in medieval Japan. We already know, for example, that certain retired emperors were shaving their heads and ruling “from the cloisters,” even though their lives (and loves) continued in much the same way as they did in lay life. We also know that wily landowners were evading their tax responsibilities by “donating” their lands to Buddhist monasteries. With such deceptions at all levels of Japanese religious life, it should come as no surprise that there was an entire class of Buddhist “monks” who were little more than shaven-headed militia employed as military muscle to deal with their institution’s widening secular responsibilities. Even legitimate temples got in on the act, employing mercenaries to protect them from their newly proactive rivals.

Despite proscriptions against violence in other areas of Buddhism, and indeed within Zen itself, the interpreters of Zen among the samurai came to regard it as a warrior’s creed. Meanwhile, monasteries of doubtful provenance—some established as tax refuges—were prepared to offer prayers for the soul of a samurai who killed in the name of justice. Although not quite like the selling of indulgences in a European sense, it did give rise to a warrior class whose members felt that their religion entitled them to fight.

It was during the time of the wars of the Taira and Minamoto that Zen Buddhism first began to take hold in Japan, brought back to Japan, like so many other things, by monks who had studied in China. Zen was an offshoot of Buddhism that emphasized self-reliance. As brought to China by the monk Bodhidharma, Zen was a teaching “outside the scriptures”; sometimes this was interpreted as an extremely brawny, no-nonsense dismissal of much scripture and philosophy in favor of sparks of insight and moments of direct action.

Zen Buddhism hence threw away many of the accretions of Buddhist religions in favor of the cultivation of enlightenment (satori)—a perpetual moment of clarity. The version brought to Japan by the monk Eisai (1145–1215) was keen on short, punchy aphorisms designed to function as tools for thinking. Known in Japanese as kōan, these parables have come to characterize much Zen thought, as acolytes meditate on such questions as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”; “What is the face you had before you were born?”; and that old favorite from Tang-dynasty China, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Later sects postdating the Taira-Minamoto war would introduce other ideas, such as zazen, “sitting meditation,” in which the aspirant emptied his mind of all thought except for a single mantra or goal. This was particularly appealing to the samurai, who loved the idea that there was no difference between life and death—there was only the singleminded pursuit of one’s mission.

Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, soon turned in the hands of the samurai into an elaborate game of death in which killers accepted the risk of bad karma balanced against the accrual of merits for loyal service and just actions. As Buddhism splintered and evolved in Japan, there were plenty of sects that could offer warriors the chance to buy off bad deeds with donations and penances, and priests who spoke of the wheel of reincarnation. The samurai believed that the relationship between a lord and vassal was, if not immortal, then sure to last for at least three lifetimes. Die well in this life, and you were assured of respawning at a higher social station, under better conditions, perhaps even having been dealt a better hand. Die badly or with dishonor and you might not return as a samurai at all, but as a peasant, or a woman or an animal. In the multiple reversals of fortune and wars over nothing that would come to characterize medieval Japan, a “good death” became one of the primary aims of a samurai life.

And the result? As implied by the opening lines of The Tale of the Heike, you might say that it was all for nothing. Go-Shirakawa, the reigning emperor in whose name so many fought and died, sat on the throne for barely two years before deciding that he, too, would abdicate in favor of his own teenage son, the seventy-eighth emperor, Nijō (1143–65).

Go-Shirakawa would remain the main power broker for the next thirty years, through the troubled reigns of five successors. He gained such a reputation among historians for cunning plans and dastardly schemes that he is still referred to as the “Grand Crow-Demon” (Dai Tengu) or even the “Shadow Lord” (Anshu). Meanwhile, there were mixed feelings among his supporters in the skirmish. Taira no Kiyomori (1118–81), the scheming, moustachioed courtier who brokered the power behind the scenes, gained an impressive promotion and a nearby coastal fief to rule over. Minamoto no Yoshitomo, however, who had done the actual fighting in a conflict that had cost him the deaths of his own relatives—sometimes at his own hands—received much less. As far as the court was concerned, he was a loyal servant being granted some great concessions of noble rank and title. Yoshitomo felt that Kiyomori was getting the glory for his own hard work, and that once the fighting was done, the courtiers had suddenly remembered again how much they despised the samurai.

The Fujiwara, meanwhile, were up to their usual tricks, making sure that the new emperor had a Fujiwara bride. The one they found had previously been the child-bride of her new husband’s uncle, the sickly teenage emperor Konoe. Kiyomori made sure one of his own daughters was married to the new emperor’s chief minister, and, it seems, dismissed Yoshitomo’s complaints that he was not getting what he deserved.

Yoshitomo took action in January 1159, waiting until Kiyomori and his cronies were on a pilgrimage. His men snatched both Emperor Nijō and his father Go-Shirakawa, who were then obliged to sack many of their ministers and replace them with appointees favorable to the Minamoto clan.

This was by no means the first time such a power grab had occurred, but the outcome was different. It used to be that whoever had lost the upper hand would run for the provinces, to lean on their power base there. But Kiyomori had observed the fate of such former figures: absent from the capital, they had been branded by the captive administration as “rebels,” which led all loyal samurai to take arms against them. Kiyomori had seen several such examples in recent memory, and was determined not to be another one. Accordingly, instead of running for the coast of the Inland Sea, he rode straight back to Kyōto, daring his enemies to make their move.

Kiyomori and his Taira samurai were unable to act for as long as commands were issued in the name of the emperor—the confidence of the samurai had yet to achieve that arrogant tipping point whereby they acted out of regard for what the true emperor’s orders might be. Instead, the capital endured a tense ten-day standoff of messengers and conferences, with a substantial number of samurai at battle readiness. Four years earlier, the troops fielded had numbered in the hundreds; tellingly, there were now thousands ready to strike.

The impasse was broken through subterfuge. Two aristocrats switched sides and dolled up the teenage emperor Nijō in makeup and women’s clothes, sneaking him out of his palace in disguise and whisking him away to Kiyomori’s compound in the middle of the chaos caused by a convenient fire at the palace. Go-Shirakawa was even bolder, sneaking from the palace by simply dressing in commoner’s clothes and riding out the gate.