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Thoughts about the Thyatian Empire, Thyatian Feudalism and Subdividing Thyatisby Simone Neri
1) THE THYATIAN EMPIRE AS THE ROMAN EMPIRE
First of all, I'd be wary to wholly parallel Thyatis to imperial Rome or Byzantium. I mean, the cultural reference to those RW imperial cultures is quite clear (Caldwell's cover picture in DotE, blurbs about the empire in RC and X1, introductory paragraphs in DDAs adventures). But one thing is using those RW cultures as inspiration to describe the way Thyatians appear and see themselves, what the deem important, and so on - another is interpreting their political system as a copy of the Roman of Byzantine one. IMO, the latter requires the downgrade, tweaking or utter lack of consideration for some canon elements in the Empire's description.
Thyatis, to start with, is not an autocracy. It has a powerful Senate upholding the interests of rich peoples (supposedly the urban elite/landowner/noble class) which can make laws and even - in time of broken dynastic succession - even name a new Emperor. More precisely, the Senate is the only political body holding legislative power (the Emperor has to rely on one of "his" senators to make laws, he cannot propose legislation in the assembly). As DotE has it, the Emperor has great, not limitless power; he needs the Senate for creation of laws (and the Senate needs the Emperor for the laws' approval, since the Emperor can veto the bill); he also needs the Senate to start foreign wars. So, while DotE is clear in saying the the Throne exerts much influence over individual senators (he bestows titles, names ministers and generals, etc.), the Senate has quite a lot of power, especially if an Emperor is weak, young, lazy, uninterested in ruling, or whatever. In DDA1-2 it seems that Prefects commanding Thyatis' legions are also drawn from the Senate's members - which would make some senators quite influential among parts of the army as well. Lastly, note that the Senate includes members chosen by dominion rulers (besides elected senators), so there is a large number of senators representing the upper aristocracy, that is hereditary noblemen who have a power base of their own, and which would normally oppose, as a class, any attempt by the Thronw to further autocratic projects.
Note also that the role of the Emperor and Senate, alogside the rights of noblemen and common citizens, were established by the Citizens' Proclamation in 20 AC, which makes the Empire a sort of constitutional realm (like a rough Bill of Rights, in a fashion maybe more akin to the relationship between the Parliament and the Crown in late Medieval-early modern England). So, I'd not describe Thyatis as an autocracy; it has been in Zendrolion I's times, surely, and might have come close to becoming one again during its long history, but (from the history section in DotE) it seems quite clear that the Senate has been successful in thwarting the Throne's attempt to hold absolute power. This makes Thyatis hugely different from imperial Rome and Byzantium - where the Senate, while still being the formal source of imperial power until the end of the 3rd century AD, became packed (especially in the East) with the Emperor's cronies and faded into irrelevance as political body.
2) THYATIAN FEUDALISM
Second, about feudalism. Thyatis has a sort of feudalism: higher noble titles confer hereditary ownership of land, and can be granted by the Emperor (any title) or by the Senate (Baron and Lord Knight only). There is a knightly class, as made evident by the presence of Knight and Lord Knight among the noble titles and the "Right of Arms" granted to noblemen (which would led to suppose a development of the landed aristocracy not unlike European one - with the knightly class developing out of fighting men gradually entering the noble ranks, and the landed aristocracy gradually adopting the knightly values as its own - and something quite different from the property-based equestrian order in ancient Rome). Noble rulers (from Baron on) also are expected to maintain a military force to protect their dominions, and some of them (Dukes only) can introduce new laws relative to their lands - both aspects seem consistent with the presence of some sort of feudalism in Thyatis.
Another important thing about feudalism. We shouldn't forget that the kind of feudalism found in Karameikos was brought there by the Thyatians. Nothing lets us suppose that they did make up a new system for Traladara – rather, they imported there their own system, with knights, noble titles, etc. The same is true for the system introduced by the Order of Vanya in Heldann, and by the Ispans in the Savage Baronies. I can’t see why the Thyatians should become suddently “feudal” only when they leave their motherland, moreso because the “feudal” (maybe not exactly the Middle Age type of feudalism we all think of – whatever this might mean, since there is still little consensus among historians about the usefulness and content of the “feudalism” concept) character of the Empire is clearly established in DotE…
So, if the Thyatians are M-Romans, we should portray the Karameikan, Ispan (Narvaezan?), and Heldannic-Hattian nobility as M-Roman as well... but this isn't the case, and we tend to see those peoples and places as “standard” 15th century late Medieval cultures and settings, while keeping Thyatis at a “classical antiquity” level – no armored knights, centralized empire, etc.
Feudalism (sort of), knights, military (religious) orders, a limited monarchy - all of this seems very little "Roman" to me. So, Thyatians may dress like ancient Romans (roughly – see for example the pictures inside DotE) and behave in Roman fashion, have things called "Senate" and "gladiators" and "Legions" and "tribunes" and "centurions", but their institutions and society - at least from what DotE lets us suppose - seem to be quite different from Roman ones. So, IMO, while the Thyatians show some traits of the Roman culture, we should not be too rigorous in the enforcement of this parallelism.
Also, I'd not ascribe these "Middle Age" elements to the Hattian culture only, since they seem to belong to the whole Empire. [By the way, I still can't understand the reason behind the "Kerendans are M-Byzantines, Thyatians are M-Romans" issue... what would actually make the Kerendans more "Byzantine" than the Thyatians, or vice versa?]
We should delve a lot more deeply into Thyatis’ history to understand and define how the Empire became what it is today (AC 1000). Actually, besides fan works - which IMO tend to portray a too static society and state during the course of a thousand years – we know very little of the development of Thyatian society and institutions. Also, the kind of voting system featured in DotE for the Senate leaves a lot of blanks and inconsistencies, neither we can understand how many Thyatians are actually voting in the senatorial elections (all males and females, according to the Citizens’ Proclamation – but this seems very unlikely).
Maybe the kind of federal-decentralized structure featured in the Empire (duchies, dominions, etc.) is a very old tradition of the Thyatian peoples; like agathokles said, maybe the first leaders who led these peoples from Davania to Brun bore the title of “dukes” (i.e. chiefs); this federal nature was then continued in the Empire with the addition of two other peoples (Ochaleans, Nuari) on the same ground of the Thyatians. If this is the case, likely the title of “duke” has changed its original meaning and has come to indicate a semi-autonomous dominion (otherwise it’d be strange to find so many dukedoms in the Empire, equal in status to that of the “founding” peoples).
Or, maybe at some point (during Zendrolion I’s reign?) the Thyatian throne tried to turn the state toward centralization, only to be resisted – more or less successfully – by the aristocracy represented in the Senate; or this centralization process could also have succeeded, only to be partially dismantled during the reign of a young, incompetent, or unsuccessful emperor, or because of a civil strife.
3) SUBDIVIDING THYATIS
So, coming to the issue raised by Gecko, whatever the history of Thyatis may be, according to DotE what we have today is an Empire split in various dominions of different rank:
Baronies: the lowest-level dominion, granted by the Throne, the Senate, or any duke;
Counties: mid-level dominion, granted by the Throne only, the ruler names his own senator;
Duchies: upper-level dominion, granted by the Throne only, the ruler names his own senator; dukes are semi-autonomous and can enact special laws for their lands (which implicitly means that barons and counts can’t); dukes can also create baronies within their lands and grant baronial title.
Grand duchies (ruled by archdukes – it seems grand duke/granduchy is the same thing as archduke/archiduchy in Thyatis) are simply semi-independent areas of the Empire which only pay taxes, send senators, keep the citizens’ basic rights (and likely class divisions), but are left to rule themselves as they please (including having a different set of administrative structures and nobility ranks, I suppose). In this fashion, the Karameikan “large degree of autonomy” might appear not so incredibly special (apart from the abolition of slavery and the fact that Stefan does not send senators to Thyatis – if this is really the case).
Probably the grand duchy status is granted to regions where the presence of an autonomous ruler able to introduce different laws and to confront a special situation is deemed a necessity; for example, a place with a quite different culture from the mainland (Ochalea and the Pear Islands), or with a sizeable non-imperial (unallied or untrusted) minority (Terentias with its water elves, maybe Westrourke with local Alphatians or Dawn peoples); or it can be granted to raise to a position of power a relative or ally of the Throne (Archduke Donegal of Westrourke is Thincol’s nephew).
This is what canon says. It seems you could have subdivisions (i.e. lesser dominions) within duchies or within directly-controlled imperial lands (those which aren’t dominions – like the Hinterlands, the Imperial Territories in the northern mainland, Septentriona, Meridiona apart from Caerdwicca and Furmenglaive, and – prior to AC 1010 – also in Redstone and West Portage).
Inside other territories (baronies, counties) you could still have a lot of property subdivisions between the various landowners, but they would have at best only the title of “lord” in imperial hierarchy, and no military, fiscal or administrative power.
My guess is that “imperial” barons appointed by the Senate or the Throne would have (like in the Holy Roman Empire, as Gecko said in the first post) imperial immediacy, which means they don’t answer anyone but the Senate and the Emperor; other barons (but I suppose these “mediate” rulers can actually have any other title, and I suppose most actually bear the “landed lord” title found also in Karameikos rather than “baron”) have to answer their duke. I’d also assume that lesser titles found in the provinces (especially existing ones at the time of a conquest) are at best ranked like barons in imperial hierarchy – for example, the Archduke of Westrourke could even appoint a marquis or a count, but these – being “mediate” rulers – are ranked as an imperial (immediate) baron and never above him; while lesser nobles appointed by the archduke could count only as “lords” in the imperial hierarchy.
It could be that in formal circumstances and events where showing privilege and rank is vital, immediate dominion rulers premise “imperial” before their title (like, “Imperial Count of Halathius”, etc.).
The same could be true for knights. “Imperial knights” would be those appointed by the Senate, the Throne or other Imperial Lord Knights, and would rank higher than other knights (if any) appointed by the various dominion rulers, which would count only as “lords” in imperial hierarchy.
Just an additional idea. Thinking about “immediacy”, it comes to my mind that this concept could also be used to justify the (in)famous “each alliance of ten or more towns (pop. 1,000 or more) not belonging to a dominion elects one Senator”. The Throne or Senate, for example, could grant “immediacy” (i.e. “imperial” status like in the HRE) to individual towns or cities, putting them outside the direct control of a dominion ruler, thus allowing a local government (maybe a locally elected assembly with a prefect appointed by the central government of the Empire). Since using the senator count explained in DotE we end up lacking a huge amount of senators (because there are not enough known “town alliances” in Thyatis), the numer of “immediate” towns could also be quite high.
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That’s all about my take on Thyatis. All of this would need some more refining to make it work, but I think it could be a way to avoid discarding part of canon Thyatis or having troubles retconning the culture of the “classical” Empire with the “medieval” ones of the realms founded by it.