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Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part I: Soldiers, Warriors, and…


Looking at things through history, “citizen soldiers” were in fact superior, in terms of defending a society, when compared to either conscripts, full-time professionals or mercenaries. The reason for this was exactly the reason why warriors believed themselves to be superior: those soldiers are citizens, fundamental part of the society they defend. While warriors are also part of the society, they are – much like full-time professionals – set apart from it by their unique role and experience. But warriors are even more removed from society than professional soldiers are, thanks to their warrior ethos.

A warrior will often feel contempt for the noncombatants, whereas a soldier who is imbedded into civilian society (such as Byzantine stratiotes) is still a fundamental part of the civilian society, and bound to defend it. This was a problem for successive Byzantine emperors, as thematic forces served not only to defend local communities, but also as a medium through which these communities could formulate their interests. Thanks to the theme system, the Empire became in essence a military democracy. This process can be seen much earlier: Greek democracy, those few cases that did exist, was only possible because of the dependence on the small landowners who formed the hoplite class. Same goes for the Roman Republic, which depended on its assidui. And when citizen soldiers of the Republic were replaced by the full-time professionals (mercenaries, in essence), it did not take long for the Republic to fall and make way for dictatorship.

Same reason why these societies democratized (even if, in the case of Byzantium, it remained a formal monarchy) was also part of the reason for why the system was so effective. Because soldiers were part of the society, they were uniquely motivated to defend it, and also stiffened the resistance of the society as a whole. They may not have had the battlefield effectiveness of fully professional troops (though this is unclear), but the theme system managed to preserve the Empire by simply refusing to die: a disaster that would have rendered a standing army combat ineffective was merely a “duh” moment for the thematic armies.

It is however important to note that while thematic soldiers were soldiers, they were not entirely devoid of the “warrior” qualities cited in the article. Stratiotes were, among other things, representatives of their community and a sort of aristocracy, such as it were. But they were still not warriors – they were clearly nowhere close in terms of power and influence to the actual aristocracy, the dynatoi, and they remained subordinated to their own military commanders (who, it should be noted, were – at higher levels – also civilian governors of the area). Dynatoi themselves were a sort of a warrior class, dynasties of military commanders (such as Phokaides, Maleinoi, Komnenoi) who achieved their wealth and status thanks to generations of military service – a warrior class which was a product of a service as soldiers in the army, and which continued to provide soldiers for this same army.

A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

This is the first part of a three part (II, III) discussion of an idea I am going to term (borrowing from one of its proponents) the ‘universal warrior’ – the idea that there is a transcendent sameness about either the warrior experience or warrior values which provides some sort of useful blueprint for today or a fundamental truth about viewing the past (it is generally presented as both).

Of course the ‘universal warrior’ is not meant literally; no one, save George S. Patton, is claiming that a single warrior was reincarnated through a host of battles, always the same in each case. Rather, the claim that there is a ‘universal warrior’ is really a claim that there is a universal war experience, which all combatants in all wars take part of and which remains largely unchanged or that there is fundamentally a universal set of…

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