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Building a Fantasy Army Part 2: Society and Politics

Society and Culture

Tribal armies are often infantry-based; while nobility may fight mounted, they rarely develop an effective cavalry arm. Tribal society often has an emphasis on individual valour which is not tempered by the military discipline. As a result, warriors will mount frontal attacks against the enemy that squander their numerical superiority – as was the case with Gallic and Germanic tribes. Excessive individualism of noblemen meant that Gallic cavalrymen fought as individual combatants, with no coordination either with infantry, or even within cavalry itself. Infantry meanwhile was despised and composed of ill-disciplined rabble incapable of any degree of tactical sophistication, lightly armed and lightly armoured, but highly motivated.

Feudal state appears where there is not enough administration to allow for a relatively centralized state of Roman model. It is essentially homegrown system. As a result, army will very closely resemble the society it has sprung from, as central government’s ability to force reforms will be very limited. A state with many free cities may be able to field large armies of professional pike infantry, assuming ruler has enough authority to demand – or buy – such armies from the cities. On the other hand, less urbanized state will have more cavalry and/or levied infantry. This in turn will lead to predominance of cavalry, as levied infantry cannot stand up to heavy cavalry charge, even in theory. Levies usually do not have the training and cohesion for such a thing, and feudal system itself makes it worse by having levies as a socially lower class: this reduced value in social terms also means that levies see themselves as less valuable, and thus have lower morale and are more likely to panic and run when faced with a determined enemy. For this reason, Hungarians preferred to fight battles with cavalry while leaving most of the infantry in wagenburg – and when they did utilize infantry in open battles, this was often foreign mercenary infantry, raised from the cities. It should be noted however that Ottomans too saw cavalry as a primary military arm, despite the availability of Janissaries. The result is that landowners form the core of the military, and also the core of the state which cannot afford centralized administration. These two roles reinforced one another, leading to development of castles and armed retinues.

Federal state has similar advantage in that it only requires local administration, but local units do have to have highly developed administration. This also means that there are more options for military organization: all federal units may contribute to the common army, or there could be a central army of mercenaries or full-time professionals backed by local / regional militias. These militias themselves could be regulated by the central government, or else have wholly local nature and thus very high diversity of organization, tactics, military culture etc.

…or you can have a state that is feudal and federal BOTH. Enjoy the mess. At least you won’t be oppressed… or will you? [Snickers in feudal]

Centralized state can be more or less centralized depending on the extent of the central bureocracy, but no matter the form it requires bureocracy, and thus organized educational system. Example of a regionally organized state is Middle Byzantine Empire: state is centralized and governors appointed by a central authority, but these governors have wide powers and can, if needed, resist the central government. Late Byzantine Empire however is an example of a highly centralized state, as everything depended on the Emperor – which caused a slew of problems when a series of incompetent emperors appeared, leading first to Sack of Constantinople in 1204., and then to second loss of Anatolia in 14th century after Michael VIII decided to transfer pronoia troops West. When that happened, the Empire was beyond saving – next 50 years or so consisted of a continual contraction of the frontiers.

Religious conflicts often flaunt normal limitations: God has more unlimited claim to person’s time than a lord. Consequently, many things which were not normally done happen when religion is behind the war: such as conscription of peasants (seen when Hungarians had to defend themselves from expansion of Muslim Ottomans), unusual levels of violence (as in Crusades and Thirty Years War).

Culture may also speed up or else slow down (or prevent) military adaptation. If there is a belief things should be done in the certain way, then it is entirely possible for a society to keep doing things that way even as by doing so it pushes itself towards certain destruction. On the other hand, a society which has no faith in its own capabilities might adapt foreign way of doing things even if it is objectively inferior to the ingenious approach, or else unsuitable for the society in question.

Culture has massive impact on military – both culture of the society but also the internal culture of the organization (associate link)

Culture also determines how much an army will value life – both of its own soldiers and of the enemy civilians. Will state pour material resources and/or adopt diplomacy in order to preserve lives of its soldiers (such as Byzantine Empire, Hungary in 15th century and US during World War II), or will it spend soldiers’ lives to compensate for a deficiency (such as Roman Republic in Punic wars, USSR and Japan in World War II)? How will it treat the enemy civilians? Romans tended to treat the entire population as valid targets. Polybius writes about Roman way of waging war that “The Roman troops are sent, as is the Roman custom, against the inhabitants of the city with orders to kill all they encountered, sparing none, and not to start pillaging until the signal was given. They do this, I think, to inspire terror, so that when towns are taken by the Romans one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of other animals…”. Under Roman rules of war, city could surrender and receive honourable treatment up until the point when the first battering ram touched the wall. This survived into medieval Europe, where there were two legally recognized ways of waging war: bellum Romanum and bellum hostile. Under bellum hostile, enslavement of prisoners was discouraged, as was the massacre of noncombatants – the massacre of civilians in Jerusalem was considered something exceptionally cruel, and several commanders of the crusading army actually attempted to shelter inhabitants from the violent Crusaders. When fighting under bellum Romanum, army followed Roman rules: nobody was spared, not even the weak and infirm. Normal way of declaring the intent to fight under bellum Romanum was to march under a red banner. But this was rare, and in general terms medieval warfare was unusually non-violent compared to warfare in antiquity and modernity both.

Crusaders being very good Romans.

All of the above however concerns soldiers: people who are part of the army system. While way of fighting in such a system can be extremely individualistic – Roman way of combat was very much so, especially contrasted with Greek phalanx – individuals were still part of a greater whole, and fought for a purpose. If distinction is used, then warriors are people who fight not for their society but for personal glory. They are thus given to displays of flamboyance, vanity and overall impractical manner of waging war. Whereas soldiers will seek to achieve decision as quickly as possible, warriors might drag the conflict out to no greater purpose other than doing so. They will also have a code of honour which might get in the way: good example are Western knights, whose chivalric ideals often made them a liability when facing Ottoman armies (such as at the Battle of Nicopolis). A nation with an army comprised of warriors will thus rarely have an effective military, and not just for reasons of tactical indiscipline: even in peacetime, warriors will be impossible to control. Typically, however, warriors will form an elite of society, while majority of fighting is done by (semi)professional soldiers (again, feudal Europe), thus leading to a mix of warrior and professional ethos, with different areas, states and cultures placing different degrees of emphasis onto each.


Feudal armies are, as noted, outgrowth of the society. In fact, since the entire point of the feudalism is that central state cannot administer territories effectively, armies are also a tool of political power. King depends on magnates for his own power, because he needs their armies; and magnates depend on middling and lower nobility for their power as they are only magnates because they can call upon their vassals’ armies. This has the effect of distributing political power downwards – even cities are significant political players in feudalism, due to their economic power and fortifications. Disadvantage of a feudal state is that italso enables jockeying for power, which may prevent the state from fully mobilizing its resources for war, or even lead to civil wars.

Federal state is similar to feudal one in terms of relations of power, but with difference that power is vested in local communities instead of individuals and families. In Roman Republic, main unit was the city, and Holy Roman Empire (a combination of feudal and federal systems) also had many independent cities. This has also had impact on structure of the army: army of the state might well be a confederation of armies of its federal units. A centralized army to which all units contributed was also possible, but there would always be some sort of local military force, even if militia, present. But this decentralization was often helpful: fact that Romans gave so many rights and freedoms to their allies meant that they were not seen as tyrants, and that allies would stand by Rome through thick and thin, as Hannibal learned to his sorrow. While Hannibal assumed that Roman allied cities would switch sides after he smashed Romans a few times, this never happened.

Divide and Conker, the original. And yes, for those of you who had lived in a cave all this time, this is an Asterix reference (from “Asterix and the Cauldron”).
Turns out, Roman Republic was actually much more similar to Holy Roman Empire than to Roman Empire

Centralized state appears along with central, fully professional army, and is both its cause and effect. Centralization of the state increases royal revenues and thus allows for the formation of the royal army and strenghtening of the royal authority. Strenghtening of the royal authority leads to further centralization and increase in revenues, which in turn allows for further strenghtening of the royal army and authority. Most important technological advance which allowed centralization and professionalization in the modern Europe was the acquisition of the paper and printing press and consequent improvement in overall literacy as well as increased availability of literature. This also allowed formal education of officers, whereas previosly education was done through either practice, apprenticeship, or both. Thanks to influence of Byzantine military manuals, a vast literary tradition arose in the West after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This growing theoretical basis further propelled development of the military organization and military science. Another important – maybe just as important – aspect was the introduction of gunpowder artillery. Combined with the return of scientific approach to warfare, it made fortifications highly vulnerable to assaults, while its logistical requirements (such as production of gunpowder) required involvement of state itself.

However, centralized state can face massive issues if it is too centralized. After Roman Republic turned into Roman Empire, provinces were run as basically protection rackets, with governors who looked only to get rich at the expense of provinces, and significantly reduced local autonomy compared to the Republic. This autonomy then got even more curtailed and taxes further increased by Diocletian’s reforms, which created what was essentially a modern centralized state, with secret service and governmental oversight on every level. Between reduced autonomy and crushing taxes, provincial population was not interested in dying for Rome, and in fact welcomed their new barbarian overlords as liberators.

No, you are not allowed to have any legions, Senate. Now be a good kid and play in the sand.

Politics impact nature of the army as well. A government which remains in place by force or has the cause to fear the popular revolt will focus on the professional army while seeking to dismantle any kind of home-grown militia. This is true even in a non-tyrannical government which fears revolts: Byzantine emperors in 11th century dismantled thematic forces in favour of central standing army and foreign mercenaries, as both groups were a much lesser political liability. In the process however they sacrificed the strategic flexibility and structural resillience provided by the provincial thematic armies, with disastrous results – Anatolia was lost after a defeat at Manzikert. In a feudal state, authority is based on the ability to provide protection for vassals, which means that political authorities will also be military authorities. This may also happen with professional armies: if said armies are paid by their commanders, temptation will be significant for a commander to try and use army to gain political power; violence, after all, is the basis of all authority. And this is exactly what happened in the late Roman Republic, leading to its replacement with the Empire.

Politics also determine how and when military force will be used. For this, one must know of country’s national policy – or grand strategy. Grand strategy may be conscious or unconscious. If former, it will be clearly defined and determined by the long-term goals, ideology and strategic situation, and will be actively pursued by the political establishment. If the latter is the case, then it will be much more diffuse, and determined by the society’s culture, tradition, norms, historical experiences and other “background” influences. That being said, even conscious grand strategy cannot wholly escape these factors. Key elements which affect the national policy are the political leadership, economy, military, population, geography and national will.

Political leadership has its goals, which may or may not be in line with wishes of population as a whole. War, as defined by Clausewitz, is a continuation of politics by other means: countries do not go to war for no reason. So the goals have to be defined, and these can be extremely varied. Country may go to war in order to relieve internal pressure. This can mean quelling the political dissent by redirecting it outwards, towards an external target. It could be trying to relieve population pressure through expansion of territory, or to feed its growing industry by providing it with new resources. Political system may be built around personal reputation gained in the war. Nation may fear an attack, and thus mount a preemptive strike, or be trying to support an ally, as happened in World War One.

This is so accurate that it might be funny. Or sad. Or sadfun. Or tragicomic, for those of you not from the Ministry of Truth.

Economic status affects two of the major aspects discussed later – numbers which can be deployed as well as the logistics, as well as the social structure of the army discussed previously. In terms of internal politics however, army presents one of major centres of power. As long as the political power can keep a hold of military, two can remain basically independent. But this implies a society which is relatively peaceful. Major external threats, particularly if they are present for a long time, mean that army rises in terms of social importance and status. As a result, military performance becomes – especially in a premodern society – tied to political power. This process can be seen in Byzantine Empire where essentially civilian emperors who relied on their generals to run the military (e.g. Justinian) became, with the arrival of Muslim and Slavic threat, essentially military dictators, with military competence being directly tied to political legitimacy, as evidenced by Basil II’s generals rebelling against him after his defeat at Trajan’s Gate.

A lot of course also depends on the political or national will. If motivation is high, even a highly fragmented political structure would still be able to mobilize its resources effectively. If it is low, state may not be able to mobilize properly – and may even have to rely on mercenaries, potentially leading to bankruptcy. An army fighting an unpopular war will face desertions, and state will have trouble in mobilizing all the resources needed (such as collecting the required taxes). If war is unpopular enough, people may refuse to pay taxes or outright rebel, leaving the state unable to fight at all. This is important, as cities were always major sources of revenue and thus taxes – and in pre-gunpowder era, a fortified city is a major military problem. Political will itself will depend on a lot of things. Was the nation invaded, or is it invading? What are the reasons for invasion? Do people have political rights and freedoms? Note that this does not automatically mean “democracy”: far more important is the strong middle class.


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