A Military Revolution or Evolution?

Spanish Tercios
The Spanish tercios (“third”), a military formation composed of pikemen, swordsmen, and harquebusiers (musketeers) of 3,000 troops, was a formidable force in early modern European warfare. This infantry formation developed in the Italian Wars (1494-1559) as a response to counter cavalry forces. Pikemen, a Swiss development in infantry, staved off cavalry forces with large spears, or pikes, protecting swordsmen and musketeers within the formation. The Spanish Habsburgs used tercios in their many wars of the sixteenth century, exhibiting the combination of the pikeman (defense against cavalry) and the musketeer (firepower) in battle, the old and the new, illustrative of the dynamic nature of the military revolution of early modern Europe. Moreover, fielding these large forces required the Habsburg state to create a viable system of taxation, supply, and military organization, also exhibiting the development of the absolutist state (at least with the composite state of Castile) vis-a-vis the military revolution. However, tactical improvements in the seventeenth century, by the military innovations of the Swede Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years’ War and the Dutch Maurice of Nassau in the Habsburg-Dutch War, reduced the effectiveness of the tercios in battle, illustrating the evolution of long-term military transformations vis-a-vis tactics, technology, and the state.

The term in “Military Revolution” was coined by historian prominent Roberts Michael in a 1956 military essay. In it was Roberts Michael coined argued that the nature of warfare changed profoundly in the period between 1560 and 1660 and marked a turning point in virtually all aspects of war. Army organization, strategies, tactics, and weapons went through major transformations as a result of the innovations of various European military leaders, notably Maurice of Nassau in Holland and Gustavus Adolphus in Sweden. The concept of the Military Revolution was widely accepted for two decades until an academic debate around it emerged in the 1980s. British historian Geoffrey Parker expanded the concept to cover changes in fortress designs and naval innovations and stressed the worldwide implications linking the Military Revolution to the rise of Europe to global dominance. Scholars questioned whether a process lasting for over 100 years can be truly called a revolution. Instead, American historian Clifford J. Rogers suggested the idea of successive military revolutions at different periods, for example, the “infantry revolution” of the fourteenth century, the “artillery revolution” in the fifteenth century, the “fortifications revolution” in the sixteenth, etc. He compared this process to a biological concept of “punctuated equilibrium evolution” that implies short spurts of rapid military innovation followed by longer periods of relative stagnation. Other historians noted that the Military Revolution was not necessarily a purely European phenomenon and that military transformation occurred outside Europe as well, such as in the Ottoman empire, in India, and in Qing China. More importantly, scholars contend that Military Revolution is not just about transformation of tactics and strategies but is also about profound political, economic, and social changes that occurred between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Did the Military Revolution cause these changes in state formation, or did political and social changes contribute to the Military Revolution? The debate is ongoing, and no clear consensus has emerged so far among historians.

European Military Transformations

Developments in military technology and advances in battlefield tactics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in Europe led to what historians refer to as the “military revolution,” which changed not only the nature of warfare itself but also diplomacy and statecraft. In 1955 historian Michael Roberts proposed that four major changes in warfare, occurring from 1560 to 1660, constituted a military revolution: the use of firepower replaced shock, the size of armies was increased, field strategies replaced sieges in offensive operations, and warfare affected civilian societies directly on a vaster scale. Roberts further suggested that these developments allowed for the establishments of constitutional centralization of states (using Protestant Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus as an example) and in effect were a major contributing factor in the evolution of the modern state. However, the historiographical debate that Roberts sparked allowed for other historians to explore developments in military and state transformations in early modern Europe, which contributed to European hegemony in the world in later centuries.

Historian Geoffrey Parker, while in agreement with Roberts’s overall concept of a military revolution taking place, disagreed with his contention regarding the development of constitutional modern states. Parker also believed that Roberts overlooked developments in France and Spain. Roberts had argued that the state had been required to centralize its authority to administer and tax the populace in order to field and supply standing armies. Parker countered this contention by arguing for the Spanish Habsburg regime, which had not implemented political changes and was still able to maintain and field major forces throughout Europe, most notably the formidable tercios. Moreover, according to Parker, the Spanish had been the first in the fifteenth century to create a centralized bureaucratic structure to finance, train, and command its military forces without structural constitutional changes to the Habsburg composite state.

Parker also proposed that Roberts’s argument concerning the transition from siege warfare contributing to developments in tactics on the battlefield was not causally linked from the former to the latter. According to Roberts, modern warfare developed in response to the disuse of fortifications, which were less efficient due to vulnerability from artillery barrages. Parker was critical of this thesis and argued that improvements in fortifications actually contributed to the increase in field troops and the use of artillery. The development of the trace italienne in early modern military geography, where low walls, obstacles, and bastions allowed fortress artillery to defend itself from attacking forces, became an important innovation. These new fortifications forced military organizations to field larger armies to attack and maintain larger sieges. Garrisons and defensive forces were also forced to grow in size to match the increase in troops mustered by offensive military commands. Therefore, according to Parker, the revolution occurred nearly a century (1570) before Roberts had suggested (1660).

Historian Jeremy Black argued that the military revolution had actually occurred much later than proposed by both Roberts and Parker. For Black, the implementation of the ring bayonet, which meant the end of the use of pikemen, allowed for a vast increase in the number of infantry. Pikemen had been used in early modern Europe to protect the infantry from cavalry through the use of large pikes, in effect creating a wall around the columns of musketeers. The ring bayonet allowed armies to dispense with pikes and thus use their manpower for more musketeers in their infantries. Moreover, Black contended that standardization in weaponry and uniforms also contributed to the onset of the military revolution. He proposed, in contrast to Roberts’s thesis, that the modern state, in its administrative and bureaucratic capacities, allowed for strategic developments rather than vice versa.

Historian Clifford Rogers takes an entirely different framework to explain the military transformations in Europe by examining developments before those espoused by Roberts, Parker, and Black. Rogers discusses developments in preceding centuries and formulates these changes by discussing the “infantry revolution” and the “artillery revolution.” According to Rogers, the infantry revolution occurred in the thirteenth century during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France, where the use of the longbow illustrated the value of the infantry as an integral component in battle against heavily armored knights. Moreover, pikes were also used to fend off cavalry attacks and thus conclusively began being used in larger numbers to counter traditional medieval knight cavalry charges. The need for larger infantries forced states to recruit and maintain troops of non-elites as these became integral components in national armies. Moreover, the artillery revolution, which also grew out of the Hundred Years’ War, was characterized by technological improvements in cannon barrels and more efficient use of gunpowder and contributed to changes in battlefield tactics, sieges, and the development of the state. They became pivotal to destroying strongholds and fortifications and could only be afforded by centralized states due to their expense. Therefore, according to Rogers, these developments, while antecedents to Roberts’s military revolution, illustrate the long-term process of the development of the modern state and changes in military technology and tactics in what he frames as a punctuated equilibrium evolution. In using this model, Rogers proposes that there was a series of military revolutions, all in reaction to previous disequilibrium introduced by prior revolutions and all part of a long-term process of transformation.

Bibliography Black, Jeremy. A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society, 1551-1800. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990. Bobbitt, Philip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. New York: Anchor Books, 2002. Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Rogers, Clifford J. The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995


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