BMCR 2000.03.02

War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica

, , War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica. Cambridge, MA: Center for Hellenic Studies, 1999. 484. $50.00.

There is an astonishing amount of literature dealing with the numerous battles, conquests, empires, political systems, and wars of the ancient and medieval time period. This scholarship typically centers on the importance of personages, kings, major conflicts and confrontations between opposing forces, and changes in the political and economic aspects of society that war engenders. Very little, if anything, has been written regarding the social history of war in the ancient and medieval worlds. A study of the complex interrelationships between the political, social, cultural, and economic practices of war and the military in antiquity would involve a broad spectrum of specialists and scholars engaged in extensive comparative analysis.

This book attempts to provide a social history of war from the third millennium B.C.E. to the tenth century C.E. in Europe and the Near East, with parallel studies of Mesoamerica and East Asia. The editors have compiled the revised papers from the third Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) colloquium held in June 1996, and presented a serious, systematic, and comprehensive study of the relationship between war and society in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In the introduction, the editors state that the essays were written for an academic readership but also to be of interest and accessible to non-specialists. Two major points were indicated to authors: 1) that the essays should offer a broad and informative survey of pertinent developments and constellations in the field and period provided, and 2) a few key problems in that area should be analyzed in more depth.

Fourteen scholars examined various cultures in the ancient and medieval worlds from the viewpoint of social history. The periods of study include early China, Japan to 1300, ancient Egypt, the Achaemenid Empire, archaic and classical Greece, the Hellenistic world, Republican Rome, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine world, early medieval Europe, the early Islamic world, ancient Maya warfare, and the Aztec world. A fifteenth chapter that examines a paradigm for the study of war and society brings together all of the fourteen essays, as well as other current scholarship, to provide a holistic model of the sociocultural ramifications of war developed through the cross-cultural study of stateless peoples. Finally, an epilogue brings together all of the essays and examines their commonalities and differences and summarizes both content and research for further study.

Robin D.S. Yates examines war and society in early China, from the Xia period of ca. 2000-1750 B.C.E. to the Eastern Han dynasty of 23 C.E.-220 C.E. A number of documents are mentioned as sources for the strategies and tactics of real combat during this period, including the Zuo Zhuan, the Shang Shu, and literary compositions such as the Shi Jing. The origin of the white flag of surrender in this culture is mentioned. In the conclusion, Yates states that the civilian society in late imperial times was actually based on the military system of the ancient period, and that, since literati downplayed war and were biased against the military, the twentieth-century scholar is misled regarding the true significance of war and the military in Chinese history.

W. Wayne Farris provides insight into prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Japanese attitudes towards war in his essay. While knowledge regarding the samurai warrior infuses today’s culture through media and movies, Farris provides necessary background and insight into the development of war in Japanese society prior to the samurai and illustrates how ideological justifications for war developed from Chinese culture. The appearance of the Mongols in the thirteenth century as invaders, and their subsequent defeat due to a typhoon (they would have overwhelmed the samurai easily otherwise), changed Japanese thought and religion towards the concept of Japan as a divinely protected land.

Andrea M. Gnirs examines ancient Egypt from the predynastic period of ca. 5000-3000 B.C.E. to the Roman period of 30 B.C.E.-395 C.E. Warfare was a constant and important factor in Egyptian society and politics. In the Old Kingdom, wars were sporadic, but armed conflict with neighbors was rare. In the Middle Kingdom, warfare assumed a more central role, and an elaborate system of defense based on a chain of forts was established. By the late Bronze Age, Egypt broke out of its isolation, and international contact triggered the emergence of a military class. The danger of foreign invasion in the later New Kingdom period broke down the idea of the god-king, and the rise of a broad literate “middle class” loosened the hierarchical structure of Egyptian society.

The Achaemenid empire is discussed by Pierre Briant. Being the first unified empire reaching from the Indus to the Mediterranean, this empire was a decisive phase in the development of the ancient Near East. A high valuation of warrior qualities among the Persians involved not only prowess in battle but also how many sons one could engender. Indeed, records indicate that the king rewarded warriors for their high reproduction rates with both gifts and promotion. The training, education, and upbringing of warriors in Persian society is extensively examined, as is the rise of the kardakes (elite infantry corps furnished by subject lands) under Darius III.

Kurt Raaflaub provides insight into two of the three “military revolutions” in Greek history: the evolution of hoplite warfare and its relation to the rise of the polis in the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E., and the emergence of naval warfare with its connections to imperialism and democracy in Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. The development of the phalanx and the conflicts between Sparta and Athens are discussed. Warfare was revolutionized in the fifth century B.C.E. when Athens developed a large-scale naval presence. Raaflaub indicates how this development and its accompanying transformations contributed decisively to the rise of democracy in Athenian society.

Charles D. Hamilton discusses the third of the “military revolutions” in Greek history: the transformation of warfare in the late fifth and especially the fourth century B.C.E. with the rise of the Macedonian state. Philip II and his son Alexander the Great regarded the monarchy as the central and single most importance institution. The rise of the sarissa, a thrusting spear much longer than the hoplite spear, transformed infantry formation and required extensive training in its use and effectiveness. Loyalty and commitment to the king, excellent training, and superb and uniform equipment were the secrets of the Macedonian success. It was the appearance of the more flexible Roman formation, with its ability to fight over rough, broken terrain, that brought an end to the dominance of Hellenistic phalanx warfare.

Nathan Rosenstein provides background into the history of Republican Rome. The city’s conquest of Veii in the fifth century B.C.E., and a network of alliances that tripled its military manpower, set the stage for Caesar’s conquests in the first century B.C.E. The development of a new elite, the nobilitas, for whom war played a vital role, provided Rome with the most effective infantry the ancient world ever knew, both with the manipular army and especially with the cohort army. With the death of Caesar and the rise of Octavian (Augustus), the true might of Rome reached its zenith.

The Roman Empire and its developments in warfare are examined by Brian Campbell. Campbell discusses the organization of the imperial army, its divisions and units, and the perks of military service. The integration of Roman armies into conquered or subject societies is extensively examined, particularly how the intermarriage of Roman officers with local women encouraged the development of towns and culture far from Rome itself. With the division of the empire into a western and eastern half, Rome found itself isolated from the growing importance of Constantinople as the imperial center, and in the path of “barbarian” tribes and their conquering forces.

John Haldon examines the Byzantine world from the fourth to the fifteenth century C.E. The territorial and religious constructions of the Roman state during this time period are introduced. The Byzantine army essentially went through a series of defensive and offensive phases due to threats from the outside. By the sixth century, mobile field forces and stationary frontier units comprised the bulk of the defenses. Haldon spends considerable time on the topic of the soldier in Byzantine society and the growing role of recruitment and maintenance for the state. The rise of the once-subordinate and dependent state elite as a semi-independent social class challenged the state for the control of resources by the end of the eleventh century C.E.

Early medieval Europe from ca. 400-ca. 900 C.E. is taken up by Bernard S. Bachrach. Two subperiods are examined. First is the age of the Romano-German successor states before the Islamic conquests, and second is the Carolingian world, from its origins to its dissolution in the early tenth century. The civitas was the basis for political, social, and economic organization during this period as it had been during the Roman period. Generally, early medieval Europe went from a defensive stance with large fortified cities, to an offensive stance with the Carolingians, and then back to a defensive stance when the Muslims, Vikings, and others became a threat. Bachrach discusses the defense of fortifications from a manpower point of view, and how sieges became the main military offense of armies.

Patricia Crone provides insight into the early Islamic world, and divides her discussion into the conquest society of the seventh and eighth centuries and the early Abbasids of the eighth and ninth centuries. With its military successes, Muslim society became dominated by urban scholars and notables who disapproved of imperial government and who instituted personal networks over formal institutions as the foundation of government and policy. The rise of the freedmen transformed Muslim society from a high military participation ratio to an unusually low one. As such, there was no strong development of a Muslim “state,” and tribal solidarity became more important than demands of the state.

Moving to Mesoamerica, David Webster examines ancient Maya warfare, which developed from about 250 C.E. to 800 C.E. Webster provides some historical background to the Mayas from the prehistoric period up until the contact period of the sixteenth century. Many polities developed similar to ancient Greek city-states, where principal lords resided. Maya warfare and their technology, as well as the way Maya wars were conducted and organized, is described in extreme detail by Webster. Basically, wars were fought as rituals, as competition for resources, and as status rivalries. Webster ends by stating that the idea of the “peaceful Maya” has been laid to rest, and that a new phase of research has begun that examines the epigraphic and iconographic documentation of the cultural history of Maya war.

Ross Hassig continues with the other, more well-known Mesoamerican empire, the Aztecs. After a brief history, Hassig examines Aztec war and society using the power differential approach since little evidence survives regarding the development of early Aztec society. Hassig then discusses the various Aztec kings of the fourteenth through fifteenth centuries, and the organization of the Aztec military. Aztec military techniques are given, and the essay ends with a description of the Spanish conquest.

R. Brian Ferguson provides an interesting essay and a paradigm for the study of war and society. Sociocultural phenomena are categorized into infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. Ferguson’s chapter is a test of this paradigm’s applicability to war and society in the ancient and medieval world, using both the essays in this book and previously published research. Some fascinating comparisons and conclusions are reached in this essay, too numerous to report. Suffice it to say that this chapter both summarizes and suggests, incorporating all available literature, how war and society are intertwined throughout history.

Finally, Victor Davis Hanson and Barry S. Strauss provide an epilogue, which attempts to summarize the findings of this book as well as exploring constants and similarities between cultures and time periods. In the conclusion, the nation-state rises to the fore as the dominant force in history, since it is less fragile than an empire but wealthier than a city-state, durable enough for hegemony yet flexible enough for foreign diplomacy. Whether this will continue in the future depends upon the people themselves, many of whom live in a premodern condition and who still have power in numbers.

This book fills a very large void in current scholarship regarding war and warfare in the ancient and medieval worlds. Examining the sociological implications and intricacies involved in war and warfare involves interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches that often rely on little documentary or literary evidence, or else involves the examination of source materials from a variety of disciplines and scholarly communities. I found the essays well organized, easy to read, and highly illuminating. That each essay provided an extensive bibliography was especially useful for further research and reading. I think that these essays will engender more research in this area, and the book is a welcome contribution to the study of war in society and throughout history.