Book Summary: “War in World History (Vol 1)” by Morillo, Black and Lococo

Title: War in World History: Society, Technology and War from Ancient Times to the Present Volume 1
Author: Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black & Paul Lococo
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

The authors overview war in human history. This first volume starts with ancient history and goes until 1500.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My comments

I believe that this book (in two volumes) is the best overview of world military history ever written. The authors do an excellent job explaining military history, but they also integrate in political, economic and cultural factors.

Important Quotes from Book

Bronze and Chariots

If we define war as organized human violence against other humans, as opposed to the odd murder, there is almost no evidence for it prior to about 8000 BCE.

This suggests that warfare was an invention, a cultural phenomenon that, though it inevitably contains some biological component simply because humans are biological creatures, was not a product of biological determinism.

The places and times involved suggest that the conditions are associated with (though not dependent on) the emergence of agriculture.

The rise of such social and political hierarchies and structures did not necessitate the invention and use of war, but they facilitated such a move—that is, made it more possible, even if not making it inevitable. They were the preconditions for war.

Furthermore, the consequences of warfare and agriculture often reinforced each other, contributing to the spread of each.

First and most obviously, it was a successful technique, at least from the perspective of the initially victorious societies.

Perhaps even more important, then and thereafter, for the perpetuation of warfare as one of the tools a society could deploy was the interaction of warfare with social class and political leadership.

Warfare was potentially more beneficial to the elites than to the farmers.

Furthermore, as the most intense form of crisis that societies now faced, warfare made strong leadership at the very top all the more crucial.

In early warfare, the key developments were in metallurgy, fortification, and animal domestication.

The emergence of state-level societies was marked above all by the appearance of cities (except perhaps in Egypt).

The warriors who rode on the chariots now possessed specialized skills in combination with expensive technology. Possession of both virtually ensured (or resulted from) their position as not just a military but a sociopolitical elite.

The two biggest revolutions in military practice that we describe are simply aspects of the two major transformations in human history— the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

[At the end of the Bronze age] undeniable. Heavy infantry played a newly prominent role, assuming the central place in warfare that it has never relinquished since, although effective cavalry, which emerged by the eighth century BCE, joined infantry as the other major component of most military systems until well into the nineteenth century.

The key to effective infantry is cohesion.

It was only with the Assyrians and Qin that all the major elements of warfare as it would be practiced by most major state-level societies came together in a single military system: At the tactical level, with heavy, disciplined infantry, true cavalry, and (siege) artillery; at the organizational level, with standing military units and logistical support systems run by a central administration; and at the strategic and political level, with the use of this military system in the service of a centralizing, transformative imperialism, directed by a culture of the inseparability of war and state.

Variations on the Assyrian-Qin theme would dominate the warfare of sedentary states until the Industrial Revolution.


This link between warfare, warrior elites, and new systems of thought constitutes one of the defining characteristics of this age in Eurasia.

Both Alexander and his successors, and later the Romans, ended up where the great Asian empires had already arrived: as autocratic, imperial political structures supported by professional military organizations, which depended more on training than on communal sources of cohesion for their effectiveness, and with subject populations whose “citizenship,” even where the concept existed, had become both attenuated and separated from military duty.

Unlike the Greeks, whose communal infantry was eventually swallowed and appropriated by large states external to Greece, Rome assumed the role of swallower, if not appropriator… Thus, though it took a different route, Rome ended up at roughly the same destination: the sort of large state military-political formation pioneered by the Assyrians and Qin. The latter’s successor, the Han, joined with Rome to bookend Eurasia in the Age of Empires.

The instructive contrast is with China. There, the consolidation of imperial state power under the Qin involved the delegitimation of warfare and the submergence of the remnants of the old chariot warrior elite under civilian state mechanisms in favor of a monopoly of legitimacy on the part of the central ruler. The Romans, having no chariot elite to depose and having built a state on an antimonarchical basis around a militarized aristocracy, population, and ethos, arrived at similar structures of centralized state power, although animated by a different culture of the relationship of warfare and the state.

This divide in political culture also shows up at the level of the individual soldier in the Chinese and Roman armies. Both institutions stressed discipline and training, but the officer corps and soldiers of the Roman army retained a notion of competition and of individual glory, within the structures of hierarchical command, that translated into individual initiative on the battlefield. Thus, Roman generals could give broad orders and trust their subordinates down to the centurion level to make the most of the opportunities they encountered. The centralizing Qin political ideology, on the other hand, as played out in military manuals such as Sun Zi’s, vested all decision-making authority in the general, reducing subordinates and soldiers alike to military automata. It is hard to say whether one system was militarily superior.

The imperial Roman army ranks as one of the great institutions of the premodern world… It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the army was the (central) Roman state.

One curious result of this was that, while military glory remained a central aspect of Roman culture, its expression and the prestige that glory generated were increasingly vested in the institution of the army and in its overall commander, the emperor, rather than in individual soldiers… The concentration of military glory in the person of the emperor to the exclusion of other individuals and the marginalization of military values also operated at the level of elite culture. Political courtiers and cultural elites dominated at the capital, while local urban elites focused on civil service and civic and religious building projects; both, especially the former, showed little understanding of or sympathy for military values and the life of soldiers. The identity between Roman society and its army had been transformed into a near-polar opposition.

Naval Warfare to 400CE

Naval warfare developed later than land warfare and long remained something of an adjunct to land warfare, acquiring semi-independent freedom of action only after 1500 CE.

Only in the Mediterranean, and at first only at its eastern end, did conditions lead to the rise of naval warfare in the ancient world.

The eastern Mediterranean is a relatively calm sea, especially in summer, with fairly limited tides and prevailing winds from the northwest. Except for parts of North Africa, its shores have an abundance of natural harbors and beaches, without much in the way of shoals, including on the many islands, some substantial, that break up the open sea-lanes. It is, in short, amenable to navigation even in ships of limited technological sophistication. In ancient times, the lands bordering the Mediterranean to the north and east possessed abundant forests—notably, the cedar forests of Lebanon—that produced good wood for ship building.

Of these, Egypt initially led the way in the development of maritime technology and activity. This is probably because, unlike the unpredictable and often rocky Tigris and Euphrates in southwest Asia, the Nile offers a broad, flat run of navigable water uninterrupted by rapids or falls for nearly 500 miles from its mouth to the First Cataract. The Nile also flows north, into the prevailing winds, so boats could drift or row downstream with the current and then sail back upstream, making round-trips easy.

Conclusion to 400CE

Yet the relationship between warfare and state power proved complicated as early as it arose. Successful conquests could strengthen a state by providing it with increased resources, especially in the form of agricultural land and the labor that worked it, as well as control over important trade routes and elimination of dangerous enemies. But it could equally prove disastrous: For every big winner, there was at least one big loser. And the costs even of victorious warfare were high for states built on fragile agricultural economies characterized by low productivity. Over-expansion, unsustainable tax rates, and rebellion could threaten imperial powers, especially pioneering conquerors such as the Assyrians or the Qin.

While conquests could provide new lands with which monarchs could reward warrior elites for their service and loyalty, such rewards eventually had to end, raising the prospect of internal strife, and could in the meantime enrich provincial leaders enough so as to threaten central control.

Two roads to effective infantry emerged as early as the end of the Bronze Age. The first was social and communal: Infantry units’ cohesion reflected the social ties of the community from which the military unit came—indeed, the social community and the military force were, in terms of the adult male members of the community, often essentially identical. The second was state-centered: A state with enough financial and administrative resources could afford to raise and train effective infantry, essentially creating through drill, education, and experience units that became communities. The communal model probably came first and provided the model for what effective infantry forces should look like (at least in the Near East and the Mediterranean worlds; the Chinese case is less clear). However, the state-centered model proved more stable—communal infantry was subject to decline with every transformation of the society itself, transformation often brought about by military success—and capable of providing far-larger forces.

But the very success of these giants of the Age of Empires complicated the job of their successors in reproducing such organization. They spread the tools of militarized state rule, raising new potential enemies both within and beyond their borders, and connected the Eurasian world in ways that further complicated states’ struggle to survive. Connections and new enemies met most clearly and threateningly among the horse nomads of the Central Asian steppes.

The early history of warfare also saw the establishment of the major technological components of warfare. Fundamentally, these consisted of the abilities (social and political as much as technological) to build walls, to harness stored energy (whether through muscle, torsion, tension, counterweight, or, later, explosion) to hurl missiles at men and walls, to shape hard metals into weapons and armor, to domesticate horses, and to build seagoing ships.

These technological components would remain essentially stable at least into the seventeenth century, when improved ships and firearms began to alter some of the balance of these components in some places. And more fundamentally, the limitations of nature and technology faced by ancient armies lasted until the Industrial Revolution and in some cases beyond—armies still marched on foot or rode on horseback beyond their own railheads well into the twentieth century.

Further, once the essential suite of technologies—walls, missiles, metal weapons and armor, domesticated horses, and seaworthy ships—had been incorporated into warfare, no particular invention or technology would alter the fundamental patterns of warfare until the steam engine, which was itself not, of course, a necessarily military technology.

The impact of culture on military organization and patterns of warfare can be seen most clearly in comparisons of the major fiscal-military states of the Age of Empires. Structurally, they all appear similar. But their reasons for going to war; the methods they thought of as acceptable, glorious, treacherous, and so on; the value they placed on warfare in terms of its ability to generate personal glory and domestic political capital; and the ethical perspectives conquerors brought to ruling those they conquered— all were products of cultural outlooks that could vary considerably.

Nomads to 1100

The culture of the pastoralists who lived on the Eurasian steppes was based on the relationship of three key components: equestrian expertise, herds of grazing animals (in particular, cattle or sheep), and wagons usually pulled by oxen. These three components combined to make the peoples of the steppes exceptionally mobile: They could move en masse from one pasture to another as the seasons dictated. They did not generally wander aimlessly but, rather, moved between a few pasturelands that would allow yearlong grazing; indeed, they even practiced limited agriculture while there. But mobility also allowed these nomads simply to pick up and move when political, economic, or climatic exigencies dictated.

Perhaps more important than the offensive potential was the security provided by the horse. The horse made it possible for the warrior to flee without fear of serious pursuit.

The full potential of the horse as part of a devastating tactical system was realized when it was combined with another steppe innovation, the composite bow, bringing together both mobility and firepower. The composite bow appeared during the second millennium BCE.

Life on the steppes gave nomadic military forces one further advantage over their sedentary enemies: They were used to constant campaigning.

And, yet, the two worlds could not be separated, because pastoralism could rarely be completely self-sufficient as an economic system. Though disdaining agricultural peoples, nomads often needed the products of agricultural societies, especially those made possible by a settled life, such as large-scale metalworking. Even if some products such as silk cloth were not strictly necessary, they had value to nomads both in practical

terms and as status symbols. As a result, the settled and nomadic worlds were in constant contact with each other.

Domestication of the horse was undoubtedly a technological breakthrough of the fi rst magnitude (construing “technology” broadly), rivaled only by metallurgy, widespread use of gunpowder, and the technologies of the Industrial Revolution in military significance.

Nomadic confederations were often strongest when they interacted with a strong (or at least prosperous) settled civilization, for prosperity generated the wealth of tribute and booty necessary for the creation of political hierarchy among the nomadic tribes.

The second was that the strongest nomadic confederations were often the ones most influenced by the culture of their settled neighbors, despite their disdain for sedentary peoples. This is because the goods that flowed to the steppes from civilizations were not value neutral. Rather, they often came with ideas and cultural values embedded in them, especially ideas about the organization and display of political power settled states they conquered, had the opportunity to invigorate the leadership of those states.

But nomadic conquerors also faced a difficult problem: It was impossible to remain a nomad and rule a settled state effectively. Conquest therefore often introduced a tension between those nomads who wished to become the settled elites of the area they conquered and those who wished to remain true to their roots.

Western Europe 400-1000

Cavalry became more important on the battlefield, not because it got better, but because infantry got worse.

The period from roughly 950 to 1050 was a fundamentally important age of transition for Latin European civilization. It saw a broad set of linked changes in economic activity and social structure that would have immeasurable consequences for government, military organization, and culture. These changes established patterns that would remain central to western European civilization down to the Industrial Revolution.

The starting point of this reconstruction was a new technology that had spread rapidly in the disorder of the time of invasions: the private castle.

The structure of aristocratic families was the backbone of the entire social structure, and the transformations of this structure after 950, stimulated at least in part by the spread of the private castle, had enormous consequences for European social, governmental, and military organization. A new system emerged, what we might call a socio-military system, that would be a fundamental part of European development for the next 800 years and more. The key elements of this system were castles, knights, and urban or nonknightly soldiers, with each being far more than just a military component.

Thus, outside of the Anglo-Scandinavian world, where the elite warriors traditionally fought on foot, most infantry in this period and for centuries to come were urban based.

One crucial part of the development of European armies over the next eight centuries was to be the steady improvement of infantry skills, first on the Greek model and later on the Roman model. For now, the most effective infantry usually came from the two most urbanized areas of Europe— northern Italy and Flanders.

Islam and Byzantine 400-1000

Abbasid leaders turned increasingly to their personal dependents to run the state. And to ensure their reliability, such dependents were increasingly foreign and sometimes servile.

The key characteristics of these armies were a powerful separation of the soldiers from society and an equally powerful dependence on the ruler for their livelihood. Separation and dependence came from foreign origins and, increasingly in the century after 850, from servile status.

Mamluk armies—armies of slave soldiers—were therefore the ultimate expression of Muslim states’ problematic relationship to Muslim society and the failure of Muslim civilian administrations to effectively control their armies. The institution spread rapidly throughout the Muslim world and no farther. Virtually no one else adopted this military model.

The institutional heritage of the Abbasid revolution thus gave Islamic states after 950 (including those after 1050 such as the Seljuk and Ottoman empires and Mamluk Egypt) the character of permanent conquest societies… They therefore oscillated between despotism and anarchic infighting.

One crucial result of this character of Islamic states was a serious decline in agriculture in the Islamic heartland of Iraq. Periodically plundered by out-of-control slave armies and ruled in the best of times by armies with little cultural interest in settled agriculture, peasants throughout the Islamic world escaped when they could, with pastoralism advancing at the expense of agriculture. In Iraq, where continued farming depended on maintenance of the complex irrigation system, the decline was particularly steep and hard to reverse. The decline of Iraq shifted power within the Islamic world to Egypt and increased the importance within the larger world of southwest Asia of the Turkic nomads to the north.

Finally, the Abbasid heritage marginalized military power in Islamic society. Warriors were either geographically marginalized as frontier ghazis or socially marginalized as foreign slaves in the standing armies of Islamic states. The core of Islamic society was civilian, but unlike the civilian government and society of China, which kept close control over its armies, this was a civilian society with little control over or even connection to its wielders of military power.

China 400-1000

The period of disunion in China 9220-589) saw north China ruled by a succession of nomadic dynasties from the north and west that relied on their mostly cavalry armies to maintain control of the region. Nearly all of these dynasties established dual administrations, in which the Chinese areas were ruled primarily by Chinese in civil matters, while the non-Chinese peoples and the military as a whole were ruled separately by the tribal rulers.

All of these conquest dynasties—indeed, every native Chinese dynasty throughout the history of China—had to pay special attention to threats from other tribal peoples in the north.

The Song went to great lengths both to ensure imperial control over the Song military and to reduce the prestige of the military as a career.

A whole bureaucracy was created to evaluate, promote, reward, and punish the officer corps.

One of the most effective means of reducing the army’s potential threat to the dynasty involved reducing the army’s importance in society. Instead, prestige, position, and wealth were attained through success in the civil bureaucracy. It was in the Song that the civil examination system became the primary means of access to high-government appointment and all its attendant benefits, a process aided by the

invention of block printing, which allowed wider diffusion of the Confucian classics on which the exams were based.

Conclusion 400-1000

Both the impact of nomads and the rise of holy war highlight a central focus of this book as a whole: that warfare is one expression of the societies that wage it, an expression dominated in this age by landed warrior elites.

Mobility, strategic and tactical, was the military key to the success of all types of nomads. Horses or ships, tied to no particular base of operations, let nomadic forces strike from unexpected directions and at unexpected times, making planned responses to their raids difficult. To this advantage, the horsemen of the steppes added accurate firepower on a large scale from their composite bows and their unmatched soldierly skills bred from their lifestyle—the skills honed in constant competition with other nomadic groups, and the hardness that led them to hold settled peoples in contempt as “soft” and “effeminate.” Used to a life on horseback with short rations, the horsemen added a ruthlessness such that massed infantry were viewed as just another slaughterable herd animal. Such conditions also trained effective leaders; unity among nomads was the major limitation on their offensive actions.

Horse-archers had appeared on the scene early in the classical age, but their impact increased noticeably after 400. Why? … Most important, the various civilizations surrounding the steppes had grown in size and wealth over the prior millennium. Not only did their greater wealth make them more attractive targets for nomadic raiders, but the export of some of that wealth to nomadic tribes in the form of trade and tribute stimulated and made possible the formation of the nomadic hierarchies and state structures that were a prerequisite to successful nomadic invasions. The geographic spread of areas under settled control put pressure on nomadic territories while at the same time making routes into settled lands more accessible.

But fundamental economic constraints also imposed an underlying similarity on many of Eurasia’s peoples in terms of social and therefore military organization, a similarity that stands out with particular clarity in this age.

This widespread tendency to the domination of society by a mounted, rural warrior elite manifested itself in a number of ways throughout Eurasia. In less centralized polities, arrangements for the landed support of warriors were formalized in one way or another, becoming central to the sociopolitical organization of such areas… In areas that retained or recovered traditions of central control, accommodating the role and power of rural warrior elites proved a lasting challenge, for their very military usefulness made them a potential threat to state power.

In military terms, the same factors that heightened the role of mounted rural warriors—weakened central authority and urban economies in decline or disruption— also made the creation of effective infantry forces more difficult. Thus, after the emphasis in the classical age on the emergence of trained massed infantry forces, this age appears, in contrast, to be an age of cavalry. The effectiveness of nomadic horsemen adds to this impression, and, in some cases, nomadic cavalry were the rural warrior elites of various civilizations: The Tang and many Islamic states drew heavily on the military skills of their nomadic neighbors and rewarded them with land.

Middle East 1100-1450

[In the Crusades] at the military level, there was little adoption of military techniques or organization between any of the three civilizations. The organization of each society’s armed forces was too much an outgrowth of each social structure to be borrowed easily, even if the idea had been conceived.

Thus, the Ottomans may be seen to have successfully combined many of the best elements of the military striking power of nomadic warriors such as the Mongols with the staying power and administrative strength of settled civilizations. Nomadic conquerors of settled areas usually followed one (or both) of two paths: assimilation into the conquered population, and consequent loss of their nomadic military advantages (a common result in China, for example); or isolation and eventual expulsion as a foreign elite of tribute-extracting rulers (essentially, the fate of the Mamluks in Egypt). But a combination of luck, policy, and Turkish demographic expansion allowed the Ottomans a creative middle ground. The sultans certainly ruled a large, polyglot empire, but not as foreign overlords (save to the extent that almost all Muslim polities resembled conquest societies): Turkish was the language of a substantial portion of the population as well as of government and culture, and the sultans certainly created a stable, settled government system. But they also consciously retained a nomadic ethos as part of their identity.

The Ottoman Empire thus not only grew large but stayed in one piece, drew on the military skills and heritages of its many and varied subjects, and so became one heir to the meeting of military traditions in the eastern Mediterranean initiated by the Crusades. By 1500, the empire was the greatest military power on earth.

After so much conflict, the Holy Lands would fall into military insignificance until the twentieth century.

Western Europe 1050-1500

The political instability and social transformations of the period 350–950 in western Europe gave rise, in the century between 950 and 1050, to a new aristocratic social order and a new socio-military system. This system was built around three major elements: the private castle, knights, and mostly urban non-knightly soldiers.

First, the rise of the system as an aspect of the aristocratic reconstruction began to fuel a steady expansion of the frontiers of this civilization. Second, the system functioned as a foundation for new state building as regional rulers and then kings slowly reasserted some element of control over the elements of the system.

The system that had emerged by 1050 proved prone over the next seven centuries and beyond to continuous instability, to competition—both between distinct political units within Europe and among the various elements of the system within the separate polities—and thus to innovation… Such evolution—essentially uninterrupted, unlike in much of the rest of Eurasia, by the Mongol scourge—eventually produced results that were increasingly noticeable, in a global context, after 1500, and revolutionary after about 1720. But there was no short moment in those seven centuries between 1050 and 1750 that can be convincingly pinpointed as the revolutionary turning point.

A crucial consequence of the emergence of this socio-military system was the establishment of a European culture of war that would remain fairly consistent for centuries. A set of values and attitudes evolved by the early twelfth century in relation to killing in warfare, conquest and colonization, and the legitimacy of authority.

What is more certain is that much of this expansion had the character of private enterprise at the level of local and regional lords. At least at first, kings played little role.

In important ways, the expansion of civilization begun in this age continued uninterrupted for nine centuries.

The private castle, the heavily armed knight, and crossbow-bearing infantry drawn from the towns provided the military mechanisms that opened the way for expansion of western Europe’s frontiers.

[They] drew on the demographic advantage that the intensive cereal farming of European culture provided over the less intensive pastoral and seminomadic agricultural economies of many neighboring cultures. Weight of numbers was particularly important in garrisoning numerous castles and besieging enemy forts.

Military success was ultimately secured by colonization, not conquest, and life along the frontiers was characterized by much give-and-take technologically and culturally.

The spread of western European systems of law and urban organization were crucial mechanisms in expansion and were closely tied to military organization and effort. New castles were often closely associated with new towns; castles both protected and controlled urban populations, while the economy of a town, especially if it had a successful market, helped support the lord of the castle. Security helped attract new settlers, as did the legal privileges offered to peasants and townsmen alike as lords sought to populate their new lands with productive workers.

Much of the success of western European expansion in the Middle Ages can be traced to the linkage on the frontiers between demographic and economic growth on one hand, and military aggression on the other.

Much of the success of western European expansionism resulted from the fact that the cultures and polities it faced on its frontiers were usually at least as fragmented, if not more so, and often less technologically advanced. The major western European kingdoms did not face a strong, sophisticated, expansionist foe until late in the fifteenth century.

In addition to fueling expansion, the socio-military system of castles, knights, and infantry functioned as a foundation for new state building.

All these trends gave to rulers greater resources for better governance. The result, between 1100 and 1350, was a steady increase in most states’ administrative and fiscal capabilities, driven by the increasing costs of war in the context of constant competition. In turn, military systems and the armies they produced were transformed as rulers brought increasing resources and control to bear on them.

Perhaps the most significant transformation in this period occurred among urban infantry forces. The revival of towns and the rise of politically independent communes to govern them led to a re-creation of a Greek-style effective infantry: neighbors bound together by common interests fighting side by side.

Northern Italy and Flanders, the two most urbanized and commercial zones in western Europe, were the most consistent producers of infantry forces.

Only in the next century, when the Swiss reintroduced marching in time to music, did infantry regain a real offensive role on the battlefield, a role lost since Roman times in Europe.

By the mid-fourteenth century, the developments of the previous three centuries had produced stronger states that could call on better administrative techniques and more-sophisticated financial mechanisms in pursuit of their aims. Their aims continued to be dominated by war. Armies therefore tended to get bigger, and there was a slow shift to more effective infantry forces.

[Charles VII of France] reorganize his kingdom’s finances and finally exert firm control over royal armies. Establishing the first permanent standing units in French history, Charles was able to impose discipline on his troops, and for the first time, French forces began to demonstrate the ability to coordinate infantry, cavalry, and the newly established artillery forces on campaign and in battle. It was the artillery that proved most decisive.

The establishment of a permanent core of cavalry companies and artillery units in the king’s pay presaged developments in European warfare generally.

The Swiss created the first heavy infantry forces with a consistent offensive capability, even in the face of good cavalry forces, since the heyday of the Roman legions. Organizationally, however, they harked back more to the phalanxes of the Greeks.

Above all, they learned to march in time, which gave them the ability to maintain the cohesion of their blocky formations while maneuvering on the battlefield. Swiss pike phalanxes were copied first by German mercenary landsknechts and later by the Spanish. Despite Spanish experiments with sword-and-buckler formations that were effective against pikemen, Swiss-style phalanxes would become the foundation of European infantry forces for several centuries, in combination with missile troops.

Even by 1500, hand-gunners were far from a decisive element on any battlefield. Rather, handguns’ effect on tactics was simply to reinforce trends toward better infantry and greater missile fire that had already developed for other reasons, not to initiate change by themselves.

By the end of the era, Spanish tercios had standardized an effective combination of shot and pike that would dominate European warfare for 150 years.

Mongols 1150-1400

The foundation for Mongol success was established by Chingiz Khan (Genghis Khan), who organized the Mongol military and tribal society. The Mongol military was hardly unique for a steppe army and almost never had technological superiority over its enemies; what was distinctive was its organization.

The system that he eventually organized was one based on commanders whose loyalty was to him and him alone, not to their tribes or clans. In effect, he created a new supra-tribe, one loyal to him and his successors.

Every able-bodied adult male Mongol was considered liable for military duty, making Mongolia truly a people in arms.

These reports were supervised by officials working directly for the Mongols. Usually, these officials were from distant lands, to prevent collusion with the locals.

One other aspect that distinguishes the Mongols from just about any other premodern army was their willingness to improvise and utilize whatever might be helpful in achieving their aims.

Militaries throughout premodern history were often reluctant to alter established patterns, strategies, and tactics because styles of warfare were so often expressions of deeper cultural patterns and social structures. Mongol military flexibility was one of their greatest weapons.

On the other hand, the facilitation of trade throughout the Eurasian world was of minor importance in comparison with the unprecedented death and destruction that attended the Mongol expansion and conquest. Cities were left in ruins, farmlands were made desolate, and untold millions died from Mongol slaughters or, more often, the diseases and famine that accompanied the invasions…  Chingiz Khan feared the consequences of his nomadic horsemen becoming influenced by urban civilization, and so he encouraged the destruction of cities and their inhabitants. Slaughter and devastation became the norm in such cities as Samarkand, Bukhara, Beijing, and Kiev. These massacres were often conducted in a deliberate manner: the population herded into nearby fields, forced into groups, divided among the Mongol units, and then methodically slaughtered.

They contributed little to the civilizations within their empire.

Mongol rule throughout the empire was marked by heavy demands on both people and resources. The populations were required to perform sometimes onerous work duties, including the construction of bridges, roads, irrigation works, buildings, and walls. Vast numbers of artisans, engineers, and other skilled craftsmen were shifted throughout the empire to wherever the Mongols needed them.

Asia 1100-1500

The differing reactions of China, Japan, and India, to the Mongols in particular and to the generally increasing level of global contact through war and trade, reveal much about the different institutions and values of the three civilizations. The role and place of warriors in the larger social and political structures of each civilization, especially the relationship of military to civil power, is one key to understanding these differences.

Japan had from the start a different economy, social structure, governmental structure, and culture from China. And it followed a very different trajectory of development, one in which a warrior class played a significant role. In some ways, Japan’s history is more comparable to western Europe’s, as both were somewhat marginal outliers from the mainstream of Eurasian civilizations.

This near immunity from invasion meant that Japan’s cultural borrowing from the mainland took place selectively and on its own terms, and that Japan’s political and military development were almost entirely internally driven—uniquely for a major Eurasian civilization.

Indeed, the lack of any consistent external threat raises an interesting question: Why did Japan develop such a rich and sophisticated military tradition? What the isolated military development of Japan highlights is a universal but often overlooked feature of warfare in traditional civilizations—namely, that a main (if not the main) function of a warrior class is self-preservation, especially against rivals from within that same class, and maintenance of that class’s dominance over the primary producers of wealth, the peasantry. War was thus as much, if not more, a feature of factional politics and internal state building as of defense against external threats.

The classical roots of Indian political structures and warfare had developed by this era into a pattern with several important characteristics for military history. First, Indian warfare was conducted not by states but by a complex hierarchy of elites: There was little notion in the culture of firm borders and governments with monopolies on the use of violence, partly because the right, and duty, of bearing arms was class and caste bound.

This led to a second characteristic of Indian politics: Allegiances were almost always for sale at any time in a conflict. The geopolitics of the subcontinent were further complicated by the continued existence of a large inner frontier consisting of the jungle and arid areas unsuitable to settled agriculture. Such areas became pathways for pastoralists, merchants, and warrior bands.

Successive Chinese dynasties struggled with a serious problem: Too much civilian control of the army, and military effectiveness suffered; too little control, and overmighty generals could threaten the stability of the government. A similar struggle between military and civil aristocrats dominated Japanese politics for centuries. These two cases highlight what was, in fact, a general problem in traditional societies: the place of warriors among a civilization’s elites.

Warrior elites were often, though not always, rural-based landholders… This rural bias set up one potential conflict with other elites, civil or religious, who tended to be city-based: the tension between rural warrior values and urban civilian values.

In China, civilian control was generally dominant, while in Japan, the practical triumph of the warriors led to instability, military transformation, and a search for legitimacy. Balance initially, but eventually destructive conflict, between military and civil aristocrats was central to Byzantium’s history.  A long but more creative conflict between states dominated by a warrior aristocracy and a separate church hierarchy defined crucial aspects of western Europe’s development.

Perhaps only in the societies of horsed nomads, where military authority, lifestyle, and social structure came together seamlessly and pervaded the entire society, not just its elites, was this issue not problematic—and, then, only until a successful nomad group conquered a sedentary area and set themselves up as a rural warrior elite. Then, as the Yüan emperors of China and the Ottoman emperors discovered, the same issues reappeared.

Naval Warfare 1100-1571

The two models of naval activity that dominated the previous period of naval warfare—navies of imperial defense and predatory sea peoples—continued to exist.

Both models tended to converge on a new model of naval activity that was government directed or sponsored, as in the imperial defense model, but in greater partnership with thriving merchant marines and with trade assuming a more central role. Thus, this new model also tended to be outward looking and even aggressive, as the predatory model had been, but, again, with a far greater measure of formal government organization and permanence.

In large part because of the emergence of this new model, this was also a period of significant advances in maritime technology. The changes mostly affected the seaworthiness and navigability of sailing ships. Such changes made ships more efficient and profitable carriers of goods, and so created a self-reinforcing trend of rising trade and improving technology. They also presaged the eventual decline of oared ships as a significant factor in trade or warfare. But only late in the period would technology begin to affect tactics or significantly change the potential uses of naval force. For most of this period, naval tactics, including those of oared galleys, remained relatively stable.

First, Italian ports were well situated geographically. They lay at the center of the major trade arteries that followed the north shore of the Mediterranean, with easy access to the central islands and thence to all corners of the sea. At least prior to the mid-fourteenth century, supplies of timber and other raw materials were plentiful.

Second, they also benefited from their political geography. The north Italian cities that led the Latin Christian naval resurgence were effectively independent city-states.

Limited hinterlands not only made the city-states dependent on trade but reduced the power of landed aristocrats in government. Instead, merchant oligarchs often dominated city-state governments, ensuring trade-friendly policies and support for maritime defense. Italian city-states pioneered the proto-capitalist organization of naval force.

At its height, the Song navy deployed twenty squadrons of ships and over 50,000 conscripted sailors and marines, dwarfing any other navy of the time. The sea-keeping abilities of Chinese ships and the empire’s wealth and defensive strategic orientation gave the Song navy a tactical emphasis on ship killing as opposed to capture, much like the Byzantine navy in its heyday.

But after 1200, a change in the navy’s command structure and adverse court politics led to a decline in standards and efficiency. Though still large, the fleet was in poor condition when the Mongols renewed the threat from the north in the mid-thirteenth century.

[After the failed Mongol invasions of Japan] Confucian scholars in the bureaucracy again began to assert control over trade policy, imposing new regulations and making travel abroad by Chinese merchants more difficult. Even coastal shipping declined as the grain trade shifted to the safer inland routes of the rebuilt canal system. The navy again was allowed to decay.

[After voyages of Huang He] No more treasure fleets sailed with Ming sponsorship. But the Chinese abandonment of the seas was far more complete than simply the ending of government- sponsored missions. Progressively, over the next century, private trade was more strictly regulated, and Chinese merchants were increasingly restricted in where they could sail. Foreign merchants coming to China also found themselves more restricted, and foreign populations living in Chinese cities faced growing xenophobia. Eventually, even the building of ocean-going junks by Chinese merchants was prohibited, and the once-thriving and technically superior Chinese shipbuilding industry contracted to local markets and lost many of the skills that had put it in the forefront of global maritime technology.

Consequently, Chinese seas were left to foreign merchants, Korean and Japanese pirates.

By the second decade of the sixteenth century, the principal components of the new naval technology were in place. Full-rigged ships carrying large cannon would prove effective tools for exploration, commerce, and warfare. They would also prove technologically capable of staying at sea for extended periods, making control of the sea possible in the modern sense for the first time. Given this capability, control of the sea-lanes along which traders traveled became far more valuable than any individual ship, and so the incentive for ship-killing tactics increased along with the gunpowder technology that made ship killing possible in a new way. Until the nineteenth century, changes in this technological package would consist of refinements in sail plans and hull shapes and, above all, the working out for warships of effective tactics for broadside batteries in the form of the line ahead. When European governments developed the financial and administrative resources to match the technological capabilities of their ships, the new capitalist model of naval power would also be fully in place.

When English and Dutch privateers armed with plentiful cast-iron cannon entered the Mediterranean in the 1580s, even the guerre de course that was the lifeblood of the galley system became untenable, and the era of oared fighting ships that stretched back into antiquity finally came to an end.

Portugal led the way in the development of the full-rigged ship and broadside gunnery.

The cannon-bearing, full-rigged ship was the key tool of this expansion.

China was ruled by a strong, centralized, and bureaucratic government.… The bureaucracy of scholar-gentry was recruited by examination based on the Confucian classics, which gave the government ideological coherence. That ideology saw the role of government as fostering the “good of the kingdom”: the emperor and his ministers were responsible for the welfare of the empire.

Commerce was important to government finances through taxation, especially from the Song period on, but that importance was underacknowledged ideologically. Revenues from agricultural and land taxes were the most important source of government income, and the only true source of government wealth to most Confucians. Thus, in China, market forces were limited by and subordinate to political forces, a common situation in most preindustrial societies.

Europe, on the other hand, was fragmented politically. Further, individual governments were underdeveloped by Chinese standards. Their bureaucracies were rudimentary, and they exercised limited ability to control or regulate trade. In fact, most governments’ limited authority to collect taxes meant that commerce was usually crucial to government finances, especially as kings looked for sources of revenue with which to wage war. They could not afford to risk killing off trade and, in fact, often looked to stimulate it.

This also reflected long-standing attitudes to practical governance. Kings and princes ruled, in theory, for the good of the people, as in China, but in practice acted much more like business owners maximizing the returns on their private property, an attitude fostered by localism and weak powers of taxation. In such a political atmosphere, market forces were given much more leeway and influence over both public and private policy decisions.

These government attitudes toward commerce were in some ways simply an outgrowth of deeper social structures and attitudes. In China, merchants were numerous and successful but had a subordinate role socially and in terms of influence. Confucian social theory assigned merchants to the lowest social strata, below peasants…

Rich merchants aspired for their sons to become scholars and bureaucrats, reflecting both the monopoly of prestige that government service exercised in society and the openness of the meritocratic exam system to new entrants.

Geography also shaped the methods of internal trade. For China, the seas were not crucial. China’s was a large, land-based empire with decent rivers, canals, and roads. Europe’s coasts and seas were relatively longer and far more significant as connectors of the regions whose differentiation was at the base of European economic growth.

Finally, the political structures outlined above shaped the economics of technology. Chinese technological innovation was significant and world leading but was often sponsored by and dependent on central investment and direction, or at least approval and fostering of private initiatives. Particular areas of technology such as warships were thus often subject to the whims of central policy. In Europe, governments had neither the influence nor the resources to direct technological innovation, except perhaps as purchasers of weapons. Technological innovation was thus more bottom up than top down and tended to follow market forces more closely.

China’s view of itself as the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world, encouraged an ideology of self-sufficiency that saw all trade as tribute honoring the emperor, not as a necessary activity. Similarly, a Middle Kingdom officially had little reason to conquer or directly control parts of the world that were nominally already subject to the Dragon Throne.

European naval power—above all, its warships—emerged from the fabric of its socioeconomic structure, a potent genie barely controlled by the warring kingdoms that helped release it. European naval power was woven into the pattern of European commerce, expansion, and war.

By 1550, Europe had developed tools of global naval dominance. The same tools—the full-rigged ships heavily armed with large cannon—had the potential to transform war at sea from the amphibious adjunct of land power that it had always been into a new and much more independent sphere of military activity. It was European navies, far more than their armies, that would open a whole new world of global contact and conflict in subsequent centuries.


The foundations of classical culture, the ending of the age of migration, and the rise of the salvation religions combined in this era to create a variety of cultural traditions that were either new or newly elaborated. The larger traditions were not necessarily military, but many of the world’s civilizations contained warrior subcultures that exerted a strong pull on the culture as a whole.

Despite their many differences in detail, all warrior cultures tended to share certain basic features. Foremost among these were an emphasis on individual honor expressed through fame, heroism, boasting, and fear of being shamed, and an emphasis on loyalty to the group and its leader—at times, as in Japan, to the point of death.

The potential contradiction between these two imperatives was often a source of

creative tension in the traditions. Warrior traditions also leaned (as did most traditions among the elites of agrarian societies) toward conservatism. This expressed itself in the tendency of warrior classes, especially at the upper end, to become closed castes entered only by birth and in the attachment many warrior groups developed to particular weapons or tactics.

The reason for this was the strength of the warrior cultural traditions each area had developed, reinforced by the close linkage between style of warfare and social system.

That is, most tactical systems in this age were, not purely military inventions created for their battlefield effectiveness, but expressions of the ways of life and internal political and economic arrangements of each people. Thus, any significant change was likely to prove economically unfeasible and, more crucially, politically off limits because of the dishonor involved for individual warriors. The increase in trade also had significant effects on military history. It began to create a new source for the sinews of war—the economic and financial means rulers used to pay for armies. The wealth and produce of land was still fundamental to almost all military forces. But Song China relied heavily on revenues from foreign trade to finance its military establishment, whereas in England around 1300, kings leveraged the wealth of the wool trade through loans from Italian bankers, whose wealth also derived originally from commerce, to pay for expeditions to France. Such examples pointed toward future developments. The rise of commerce also directly affected modes of naval warfare, calling into being ships.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s