Ran is a Japanese-French war film/period tragedy directed, edited, and co-written by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear and the legends surrounding daimyō Mōri Motonari. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord who abdicates for his three sons—with disastrous results.
Akira Kurosawa first conceived of the idea for the film that would become Ran (Japanese for “chaos” or “discord”) in the early 1970s, when he read about Mōri Motonari (1497–1571), a powerful daimyō in the Chūgoku region of Japan who is remembered as one of the greatest warlords of the Sengoku period (mid-16th century). Though a brilliant diplomat and strategist, Motonari is best known for an event that probably never happened: the “lesson of the three arrows,” a parable that Motonari illustrated by giving each of his three sons an arrow to break. He then gave them three arrows bundled together and pointed out that although one may be easily broken, three bundled together are impossible to break. Motonari actually had nine sons (two of whom died in childhood) but most prominent of them were the three sons the parable concerns: Mōri Takamoto (1523–1563), Kikkawa Motoharu (1530–1586), and Kobayakawa Takakage (1533–1597). Formulating a scenario that could generate real drama, Kurosawa imagined trouble among the three brothers rather than unity and reasonableness. As he later told an interviewer, “What might their story be like, I wondered, if the sons had not been so good? It was only after I was well into writing the script about these imaginary unfilial sons of the Mōri clan that the similarities to [Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy, King] Lear occurred to me. Since the story is set in medieval Japan, the protagonist’s children had to be men; to divide a realm among daughters would have been unthinkable” (Grilli, 2008, p. 126). Kurosawa and two co-writers—Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide—had a draft of a screenplay completed by 1975, but Kurosawa would not be able to arrange financing for an expensive, large-scale epic set in medieval Japan for another seven years. In the meantime, he painted storyboards of every shot in Ran and made Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980), the latter of which he described as a “dress rehearsal” for Ran. In 1982 Kurosawa finally secured funding for Ran from two sources: Japanese producer Masatoshi Hara (Herald Ace Productions) and French producer Serge Silberman (Greenwich Film Productions). After the box office success of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Silberman was able to put up most of the money needed to back Ran, which ended up costing ¥2.4 billion (i.e., $12 million), the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Kurosawa cast Tatsuya Nakadai (who played the dual lead roles in Kagemusha) as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord based on Mōri Motonari who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. Prior to production, several hundred elaborate costumes had to be created by hand, an arduous process that took two years to complete. Pre-production also involved extensive location scouting and set construction, for example, a castle destroyed in the middle of the movie had to be specially built on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to be burned down.
Akira Kurosawa was 75 years old when he directed Ran (June 1984–February 1985) and was nearly blind when the initial photography started. He required assistance in order to frame his shots, and his assistants used hundreds of his storyboard paintings as templates to construct and film scenes. Almost the entire film is done in long shot, with only a handful of close-ups. An enormous undertaking, Ran used some 1,400 extras, 1,400 suits of armor (designed by Kurosawa himself), and 200 horses, some of them imported from the United States. Over his long career, Kurosawa worked with the same crew of technicians and assistants. Toward the end of the shoot, Kurosawa lost two of his old stalwarts. In January 1985, Fumio Yamoguchi, the sound recordist on nearly all of Kurosawa’s films since 1949, and Ryu Kuze, action coordinator on many of them, died within a few days of each other. A month later (1 February 1985), Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yôko Yaguchi, also died. Kurosawa halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.
[Act I] Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a powerful warlord near the end of his life, decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). The oldest son, Taro, is bequeathed the sought-after First Castle and is named commander of the Ichimonji clan. Jiro and Saburo are given the Second and Third Castles, respectively. Hidetora retains his title of Great Lord, and the two younger sons are expected to rally behind Taro. Saburo calls his father a fool, stating that he can’t expect loyalty from sons who grew up watching their father use the most cruel, heartless methods for power and domination. Hidetora is threatened by his son, but his servant, Tango (Masayuki Yui), defends Saburo. Hidetora responds by exiling both men. Nobuhiro Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), a visiting warlord, sees Saburo’s fervor and forthrightness and asks him to wed his daughter. [Act II] After Hidetora divides his remaining lands between Jiro and Saburo, Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), encourages Taro to gain control of the entire clan. Emboldened, Taro tells Hidetora to give up his title of Great Lord. Hidetora, now betrayed by two sons, runs to Jiro’s castle only to discover that Jiro plans to use him in his own scheme for power and influence. Unsure of where to go, Hidetora and his company depart from Jiro’s castle. Tango finds his father and informs Hidetora of Taro’s new decree: anyone who assists Hidetora will be sentenced to death. Hidetora flees to Saburo’s castle, which was left empty when Saburo went into exile. [Act III] Hidetora and his samurais are attacked by Taro’s and Jiro’s forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all of Hidetora’s men are killed and the Third Castle is set on fire. Hidetora, alone and losing his mind, leaves the castle as it is consumed by flames. During the siege on the castle, Taro is killed by a bullet from Jiro’s general, Shuri Kurogane’s (Hisashi Igawa) gun. Meanwhile, Hidetora wanders the wilderness and is found by Tango, who tries to assist him. The pair take shelter in a peasant’s home, but realize that the peasant is Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), the brother of Lady Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife. Tsurumaru was a victim of Hidetora’s regime: he was blinded and left for dead after Hidetora murdered his father and conquered their land. [Act IV] After Taro’s death, Jiro takes on the title of the Great Lord, moving into the First Castle and commanding the Ichimonji clan. Jiro returns to the castle to find Lady Kaede, unbothered by Taro’s death, waiting to blackmail Jiro into an affair. Lady Kaede uses her influence with Jiro to call for Lady Sué’s death. Jiro orders Kurogane to carry out the task, but he declines, stating that Kaede will be the ruin of both Jiro and the clan. Kurogane runs to tell Sué and Tsurumaru to leave. Meanwhile, two ronin are captured by Tango, who coerces them to reveal plans for assassinating Hidetora. Tango leaves to share the news with Saburo. Hidetora is overtaken by madness and runs off into a volcanic plain while Kyoami (Pîtâ) runs after him. Saburo and Jiro meet on the battlefield and agree on a truce, and Saburo becomes concerned by the report of his father’s onset of madness. While Saburo meets with Kyoami and takes 10 warriors along to rescue Hidetora, Jiro takes advantage of the situation and sends gunners to ambush his brother and father. Jiro also attacks Saburo’s army, which falls back into the woods as the soldiers go on the defensive. As the family is warring, a messenger shares news that Ayabe, a rival lord, is headed towards the First Castle. At the same time, Saburo locates Hidetora, and the father experiences a reprieve from his insanity and begins to heal his relationship with his son. However, in the midst of the reconciliation, one of Jiro’s snipers kills Saburo. Hidetora dies out of sadness. Fujimaki arrives with his troops to see Tango and Kyoami grieving. [Act V] In the meantime, Tsurumaru and Sué get to the ruined castle, but realize that they forgot a flute at Tsurumaru’s home, one that Sué had gifted to Tsurumaru at the time of his banishment. She goes back for the flute, but is discovered and murdered by one of Jiro’s assassins. Simultaneously, Ayabe’s army attacks the First Castle. When Kurogane hears that Lady Sué has been killed by Jiro’s assassin, he corners Kaede and pushes her for information. She comes clean about her plot to obliterate Hidetora and his clan to avenge the deaths of her family members. Kurogane decapitates Kaede for her treachery. As Ayabe’s army overtakes the First Castle, Jiro, Kurogane, and all of Jiro’s men are killed. Tsurumaru is left amidst the rubble, alone.
Ran had its world premiere in Tokyo on 25 May 1985. It was subsequently screened at a number of film festivals before going into staggered general release in about two dozen countries. Ran did not do very well at the box office, initially making only enough to break even. It did, however, receive Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design (which it won), among many other international nominations and awards. Reviews were, for the most part, adulatory. Vincent Canby wrote, “Though big in physical scope and of a beauty that suggests a kind of drunken, barbaric lyricism, Ran has the terrible logic and clarity of a morality tale seen in tight close-up, of a myth that, while being utterly specific and particular in its time and place, remains ageless, infinitely adaptable … Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion” (Canby, 1985). Roger Ebert called the film “visually magnificent” and said he realized on seeing it again in 2000 that “the action doesn’t center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil” (Ebert, 2000). Decades after its release, most film critics and scholars view Ran as Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
Reel History Versus Real History
The story that Ran tells is, of course, entirely fictional. One can only judge its historical accuracy in terms of its depictions of medieval Japanese castles; the look, dress, and demeanor of the Ichimonji clan; the conduct in battle of the samurai; etc. On these counts, Ran has extraordinary verisimilitude.
Early Germanic warriors either first century BC or AD. The Germans east of the Rhine had a fearsome reputation and constantly waged war on their Gallic neighbours. The Gauls who lived close to the German border were considered to be the most hardened of the Gallic peoples as a result.
What we know of the Germanic warrior comes mainly from Greek- and Latin-speaking Roman authors. At this time, the Germans wrote nothing down. Some evidence survives in the archaeological record to give us a material picture of his arms and armour. Yet his reputation has survived the ages: fierce to the point of being savage, fearless bordering on the reckless, cunning like the fox. Unlike his Roman opponent, the Germanic war fighter was remarkably underequipped. In large part this was due to the paucity of basic materials. “Even iron is by no means abundant with them”, Tacitus noted, “as we may gather from the character of their weapons”. About one in ten warriors had a single-edged knife (measuring 7–12 centimetres, 2.8–4.7 inches long). Others carried a sword for cutting and thrusting; or a machete-like sax (measuring about 46 centimetres – 18.1 inches – long) for slashing and chopping. Some might bear a double-edged sword similar to the Celtic long sword of the Raeti and Norici or Roman spatha. However, Germanic weapons were made of a form of iron called ‘steely iron’ which has a much lower content of carbon, typically 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of its weight, making it softer and more likely to bend when struck with force. To compensate for this weakness, Germanic swordsmiths made the sax with a thicker upper edge, but notwithstanding this measure, against the harder steel weapons used by the Romans, Germanic swordsmen were at a material disadvantage.
Axes were wielded by those with means, while others with fewer means used wooden clubs hewn from logs which had been fire-hardened or made more deadly with iron spikes.35 Both weapons were used with devastating effect: even the rough edge of a club can cause considerable blunt trauma and crush bones. They also used bows of fir and yew and arrows, slings and slingshot that were devastating when used en masse. When the ammunition ran out, they threw rocks and stones.
Their preferred weapon was a slender but versatile spear. “They carry lances”, wrote Tacitus, “frameae as they call them, with the iron point narrow and short, but so sharp and so easy to handle that they employ them either for stabbing or throwing on occasions”. They also carried darts – missilia the Romans called them. Ranging from 90–275 centimetres (35.3–108.3 inches) in length with a tip 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 inches) long, in an expert’s hand these were terrible weapons, especially to men wearing chain mail armour, the links of which the sharp, narrow point could pierce and rip apart. Each man carried several into battle and “they can hurl them to an immense distance”.
The regular Germanic fighter wore little or no body armour, unless stripped from an opponent or made by a local craftsman, “and only a man or two here and there a helmet or head piece”. Though there were likely national or clan differences in dress, he typically wore a short- or long-sleeved tunic, baggy or close-fitting long trousers belted at the waist, and a cloak fastened with a brooch. German woollen cloth was somewhat rough to the touch but nevertheless dyed in solid colours, or woven with stripes or geometric patterns. A shield was the primary mode of defence. Sculptures and coins show Germanic shields to be flat and long, and in shape oval, rectangular or hexagonal. Tacitus comments that their shields were not supported by metal or leather but were simply wicker or painted boards, however, metal edging strips have been found in eastern Germany contesting his generalisation. He also mentions the care with which they painted the coloured devices on the front of them. Surviving first century BCE examples from Denmark, one measuring 88 centimetres (34.6 inches) by 60 centimetres (23.6 inches) and the other 66 centimetres (25.9 inches) by 30 centimetres (11.8 inches), are made of wooden planks. In these specimens a central ‘barleycorn’ shaped shield boss protects the handgrip, but iron domed and pointed circular shield bosses have also survived.
Germanic warriors fought both on foot and horseback. Each was similarly equipped with spear or darts and shield. Lightly armed infantry made up the largest part of a Germanic tribal army but their cavalry, even in smaller numbers, were very effective. Germanic cavalry would often dismount and fight on foot and Caesar observed that they even trained their horses to remain standing in the same spot so they could leap up on to them and ride to another part of the battlefield or escape. “Their horses are not remarkable”, writes Tacitus snootily,
for beauty or speed, neither are they trained to complex evolutions like ours; the riders charge straight forward, or wheel in a single turn to the right, the formation of the troop being such that there is no rear flank.
The right turn meant that the rider’s shield side was presented to their enemy so he could launch his weapon with his right side fully protected.
Young men able to run fast formed the vanguard of the attack as they were able to keep up with the cavalry charge. It was actually part of their ritual of attaining manhood. When deemed ready, a young man was formally presented with a lance and shield in the presence of his tribal assembly in what was regarded as the youth’s admission to the public life of his community. In times of war, one hundred of the ablest young men were selected from their villages to accompany the cavalry on foot. Some, having proved their courage and skill, might then become retainers or bodyguards of the clan or war chief,
and there is an eager rivalry between the retainers for the post of honour next to their chief, as well as between different chiefs for the honour of having the most numerous and most valiant bodyguard. Here lie dignity and strength. To be perpetually surrounded by a large train of picked young warriors is a distinction in peace and a protection in war.
The relationship between the retainer and retained was complex, based on a code of honour, reward and recognition:
Upon the field of battle the chief is bound in honour not to let himself be surpassed in valour, and his retainers are equally bound to rival the valour of their chief. Furthermore, for one of the retainers to come back alive from the field where his chief had fallen is from that day forward an infamy and a reproach during all the rest of his life. To defend him, to guard him, nay, to give him the glory of their own feats of valour, is the perfection of their loyalty. The chiefs fight for victory; the bodyguard for their chief.
The Germanic nations were admired by Roman authors for their free spirit and democratic form of self-rule. Chiefs were elected by a tribal assembly to administer the law in their communities and each leader had a council of one hundred free men to consult for advice and to enforce his decisions. For campaigns they elected a war leader. Caesar had observed “when a state either repels war waged against it or wages it against another, magistrates are chosen to preside over that war with such authority, that they have power of life and death”. After the war, they relinquished that power. “They choose their kings for their noble birth”, observes Tacitus,
their generals for their prowess: the king’s power is neither unlimited nor arbitrary, and the generals owe their authority less to their military rank than to their example and the admiration they excite by it, if they are dashing, if they are conspicuous, if they charge ahead of the line.
These were characteristics Drusus would have admired as they were the very same principles by which he led his own men.
Raiding was common practice among Germanic nations. In part this arose from the need to keep retainers fed and usefully employed as “forays and plunderings supply the means of keeping a free table”.62 Not for them tilling the land, but yet they could stand bloody wounds if it meant their status would rise on account of them.63 Germanic tribes tried to avoid a pitched battle. ‘Hit-and-run’ was the preferred tactic in battle, using ambushes to strike their enemy when they were least expecting and prepared for an attack. Only as a last resort, did they meet in a set piece battle, and having first carefully picked the ground, preferring wet or wooded or stony ground. The Germanic army on the battlefield is often portrayed as a rabble, a mêlée, but this is inaccurate. They assembled in columns and took up wedge formations, familiar to the Romans as the cuneus, a tactic they themselves used. Like the Romans, the men in the wedge formation interlocked or overlapped their shields to form a shield wall or ‘shield castle’. In 58 BCE, the Germanic king, Ariovistus, arrayed his men against Julius Caesar by assembling the seven tribes under his command in columns of 300 men strong with spaces between them. The Romans attacked from the front and sides, and the Germanic left flank – their unprotected side – collapsed, but on their right flank – the side protected by their shields – Ariovistus’ men were able to deflect the Roman attack by pushing aggressively forward into Caesar’s ranks.68 They were only defeated when Roman reinforcements arrived.
Just as the warriors of Raetia, Vindelicia and Noricum did, Germanic warriors fired up their spirits by singing and chanting. The Germanic war fighters sang to Hercules according to Tacitus (who may have equated him to Thor or Irmin, son of Wuotan), and
they raise a hymn in his praise, as the pattern of all valiant men, as they approach the field of battle. They have also a kind of song which they chant to fire their courage – they call it barding (barritus) – and from this chant they draw an augury of the issue of the coming day. For they inspire terror in the foe, or become flurried themselves according to the sound that goes up from the host. It is not so much any articulate expression of words as a war-like chorus. Their great aim is to produce a hoarse and tempestuous roar, every man holding his shield before his mouth to increase the volume and depth of tone by reverberation.
1. EARLY VILLANOVAN CULTURE, 9th–8th CENTURIES BC. (1) Leader with war-chariot, Tarchuna area. The early example of a war-chariot is from grave 15 at Castel di Decima, and the warrior is reconstructed partly from grave Monterozzi 3 in the Arcatelle necropolis, Tarquinia. This contained, among other objects, a crested helmet, an antennae sword, a spearhead and a fibula. His bilobate shield, of Aegean origin, is reconstructed after the fragmentary specimen from Brolio and the miniatures from grave XXI at Pratica di Mare; it lacks the typical ornamentation of the later Orientalizing Period. Chest-protecting bronze kardiophylakes are well attested. Note also the red ‘war paint’ used on the face and limbs by some Etruscans and Latins. (2) Villanovan-Tarquinian axeman. The axeman is protected by the ‘bell-helmet’ from the Pozzo grave, Monterozzi necropolis; pairs of holes along the rim suggest the attachment of an organic-material lining, chinstrap and/or neck-guard. The oval shield is made of wood with leather covering, and has a raised wooden reinforcing rib with a central ‘boss’. The use of necklaces and bracelets was widespread, but we do not know to what degree these were associated with military or civil fashions. (3) Sardinian mercenary, Pupluna area. This mercenary, copied from the ‘Teti archer’ statuette, wears a low-profile horned leather helmet, a bronze breastplate and greaves. His main weapon is the long composite bow, made of wood, horn and sinew. Note the leather protector worn on the left forearm.
2. VILLANOVAN ARISTOCRATIC WARS, 8th–7th CENTURIES BC. 1) Villanovan aristocratic cavalryman, Felzna area, 8th century This cavalryman – partly reconstructed from grave 525, Askos Benacci, near Bologna – is protected by a crested helmet (from an example in Hamburg Museum), and has slung on his back a decorated bronze shield (example from Verucchio). His offensive weapons are a spear and the curved antennae ‘sabre’ from Bologna. Graves around Bologna have yielded a bronze prod for a horse, and a snaffle bit with chained and mobile elements with circular sections. The original terracotta horse showed a blue mane and tail, and red markings suggested tattoos or brands, perhaps with magical significance. These features are also found in other graves, e.g. the Tomba di Tori at Tarquinia. (2) Proto-Etruscan leader, Narce area, 730 BC Mainly obscured here by his cloak, the bronze armour of this senior leader, extensively decorated with repoussé work, is shaped like a ‘poncho’; it is composed of one-piece front and back plates joined by straps under the arms. According to Cowan, it was shaped for an individual with very broad shoulders and a heavily muscled chest. His helmet, of crested type over a rounded bowl, is 43cm (16.9in) high, made of two sheets of bronze fastened partly along the crest by folding one sheet over the other. (3) Villanovan leader, Tarchuna area, second half of 8th century Reconstruction of the ‘Corneto warrior’ in his full panoply, to which we have added from another grave a calotte or cap-helmet, with decoration perhaps suggesting a human face. The Corneto skeleton possibly had an early example of linen corselet (linothorax), fastened with bronze buttons and hooks. It was reinforced with a bronze shoulder piece, and a rectangular breastplate decorated with gold foil and ornamented with stamped patterns of swimming ducks, stylized lotus flowers and other details. The shoulder guard worn on the right (the side not covered by the shield), recalls one from an Achaean grave at Dendra in Argolis; it retains traces of padding, confirming that parts of metal armour were lined with organic materials for comfort. The earlier Etruscan warrior custom of painting the face red would be retained by the Romans for some special ceremonies, in reference to the red-painted statue of Jupiter Capitolinus in the statuarum praetextae ritual.
3. C ‘ORIENTALIZING PERIOD’, NORTHERN ETRURIA, 7th CENTURY BC (1) Late Villanovan leader from Verucchio area The presence of crested helmets in the Verucchio graves has led some scholars to suggest that this area was strongly colonized by Tarquinia or Veii, where such helmets were produced. The crest of this example is of painted horsehair mixed with gold threads, as attested by necropolis finds (e.g. grave Lippi 89). At this time the lords of Verucchio were armed with short iron swords in richly decorated scabbards, and ornamented axes. Leaning on his grounded spear is a shield with beautiful embossed decoration; his embossed armour is copied from the Basle Museum specimen. (2) Rachu Kakanas, Vetulonian leader, with war-chariot The grave of this named Rasenna-Etruscan dux of Vetulonia was one of the richest in military finds, including the remains of his two-horse chariot, reinforced with bronze disk phalerae of Orientalizing style. Leaning against the wheel, we show the interior of his circular bronze shield 84cm (33in) in diameter, probably manufactured in Tarquinia. His helmet has an extended hemispherical dome and a flared rim. His weapons included a richly ornamented dagger in an ivory scabbard, a spear, knives, and a trapezoidal axe. The plated belt is from examples such as those in drawings on page 27, and we have added a pair of greaves from a neighbouring grave. Note the sceptre, a symbol of command. (3) Lictor, Vetulonia The man in the lictor’s grave was probably a soldier armed with a simple sword, axe and two knifes, but bearing on his shoulder the important symbol of the fasces, so was probably a royal guard. He wears a typical padded tunic of the period, and proudly brandishes his fasces, which has a total length of 60cm (23.6in). When different armies formed war alliances, it is believed that lictors were sent to the overall commander by other leaders as a sign of their temporary subordination.
4. D ETRUSCAN EXPANSION. 6th CENTURY BC (1) Lars Porsenna, Lucumo of Clevsin, with chariot This is a reconstruction of the Etruscan king immortalized for generations of British schoolboys by Macaulay’s poem Horatius at the Bridge. While there would have been some variations in their equipment, it is likely that the heavily-armoured dynatotatoi would have had a complete panoply: here, a full Corinthian helmet with high lophos, a painted ‘bell-shaped’ cuirass, protections for the thighs, and greaves decorated with embossed lion-masks. His cloak and helmet-crest are in purple and gold, symbolizing his royal power. The chariot is based on a splendid example from Monteleone da Spoleto, decorated with bronze panels representing the myth of Achilles. (2) Rasenna hoplite of the first class, Clevsin First-class hoplites wore defences similar to the Greeks, although produced by their own armourers. This high-status warrior, copied from the Tomba della Scimmia (480 BC), has a Chalcidian helmet with Italic-style feather plumes flanking the crest. His early muscled cuirass shows red-lacquered shoulder-guards. He is otherwise protected by greaves, and by a hoplon shield decorated with a possible city blazon. His weapons are a spear and (obscured here) a curved, single-edged kopis sword. (3) Etruscan horn-player The simply-dressed hornist plays the precious specimen of a cornu now preserved in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Villa Giulia, Rome. This bronze horn is smaller than the later specimens of the Roman Imperial period; derived from prehistoric ox-horn instruments, it is almost circular in shape (ex aere ricurvo). The cross-brace in the middle, to help the hornist hold it steady, was not always present.
5. ETRUSCAN WARS WITH ROME, 5th CENTURY BC (1) Roman tribunus Aulus Cossus, 437 BC This officer is based on accounts by Livy and on the bone plaques from Praeneste showing Latin hoplites. He is armed with a spear and a two-edged xiphos sword, and carries a round clipeum shield. The crest and diadem of his Attic-type helmet are (hypothetically) shown here in the same colour. His leather muscled armour is copied from the Roman warrior depicted in the so-called ‘François Tomb’; it was probably moulded and hardened by the cuir-bouilli technique that would be used until the Middle Ages. (2) Tolumnius, Lucumo of Veii Livy (IV, 17-19) and Plutarch (Romulus, XVI) give us important attestations to the employment of the linothorax by an Etruscan king. Following the single combat between King Tolumnius of Veii and Aulus Cornelius Cossus in 437 BC, the former’s linen armour was dedicated at the temple of Jupiter Feretrius: ‘… Then he [Aulus] despoiled the lifeless body, and cutting off the head stuck it on his spear, and, carrying it in triumph, routed the enemy… He solemnly dedicated the spoils to Jupiter Feretrius, and hung them in his temple… Augustus Caesar …read that inscription on the linen cuirass with his own eyes.’ (3) Rasenna archer The use of the composite recurved bow (arcus sinuosus) is attested on painted plaques of the Tarquinii period; constructed of bonded wood and horn, it would have required great strength to draw. Vergil quotes the Etruscan archers using the quiver or leves gorytus (X, 168).
6. THE LAST WARS, 4th CENTURY BC. (1) Aristocratic Rasenna woman This Etruscan lady is copied from the Tomba dell’Orco frescoes, and is dressed in the common fashion of ‘Magna Graecia’: a garlanded headdress, discoid earrings, a long cloak over a pleated linen tunic, and calcei repandi on her feet. (2) Rasenna hoplite from Velzna Reconstruction of the warrior from the Settecamini tomb near Orvieto, which yielded a Montefortino-style helmet, a shield and a muscled cuirass. Archaeological fragments of Etruscan shields from graves in Perugia and Settecamini give us clear evidence for the heavy phalanx style of fighting in the 5th–4th centuries. The central position of the porpax arm-loop shows that it passed around the arm just below the elbow (see G1), with a handgrip near the rim; this was useful only in the linear ‘shield wall’ formation typical of the hoplite phalanx. (3) Rasenna hoplite from Tutere One of the most spectacular statues of warriors, the nearly life-size ‘Mars of Todi’ dated to about 350 BC, shows the employment of lamellar armour. The lamellae could be in bronze or – as suggested by their white colour in many artistic representations – of white metal, or even of an organic material such as bone.
7. THE LATE ETRUSCANS, 3rd CENTURY (1) Rasenna mercenary, Tarchuna An inscription from Tarquinia attests to the mercenary service of one of its townsmen at Capua during the Second Punic War. This warrior is copied from the so-called ‘Amazons Sarcophagus’ from Tarquinia, on which the decoration of each corselet is individualized, reflecting real-life practice. One of the major differences between Greek and Etruscan linen corselets in the monuments is that the latter are much more often decorated with painted floral and vegetal patterns. (2) Rasenna marine, Roman fleet, Punic Wars Etruscan marines served in the Roman fleet during the Punic Wars. The urns from Volterra which represent sailors or marines of the 3rd–1st centuries show the use of conical felt caps (piloi) and padded or quilted garments, probably made of felt and wool (coactiles and centones). The sea-fighters often employed axes (secures) and long, complex polearms (drepana) to cut the rigging of enemy ships when they came together for boarding actions. (3) Aristocratic eques Marcnal Tetina; Clevsin, 225–200 BC The last period of Etruscan armour-making shows the employment of composite armours with linen, padded and scale elements. Richly elaborated ‘Hellenistic’ helmets seem to be represented, worn by warriors on Etruscan urns from Volterra dated around 200 BC. These are often of the Phrygian shape, with a forward-curling extension of the dome, decorated cheek-guards, and two feather side-plumes.
8. ETRUSCANS IN THE ROMAN ARMY, 2nd–1st CENTURIES BC 1) Lictor Painted urns from Volterra show cornicines and lictores attending victors or magistrates; this lictor is copied from the Tomba del Convegno (Monterozzi necropolis, Tarquinia). He is wearing the toga gabina and carries an iron double-axe (bipennis). (2) Eques An unusual urn from Volterra, representing the myth of Eteocles and Polynices, shows the brothers dressed like Roman cavalrymen of the period, with Boeotian helmets fitted with the geminae pinnae of Mars, shields of popanum typology, leather armour (spolas), greaves, and short swords. (3) Centurio This Roman centurion, copied from an urn in Florence Museum, wears a pseudo-Corinthian helmet fitted with a crista transversa. His composite armour is made of leather (shoulder-guards), padded material (main corselet), and on the chest bronze scales (squamae). Note his calcei boots, and the richly varied colours of his panoply. (4) Guardsman Reconstructed from the Sarteana urn, this Roman miles wears a late Montefortino helmet found in Forum Novum. His body armour combines a bronze kardiophylax breastplate and a linothorax corselet. We have added a single left greave and the curved oblong legionary scutum of his time; his weapons are the hasta and the deadly gladius hispaniensis. (5) Magistrate The absorption of Etruria into Rome saw leading Etruscan families climbing the government hierarchy. This official, copied from the famous statue of Aule Metele, wears the toga exigua over a tunica; the latter’s purple angusticlavi, and the gold ring on his left hand, identify him as a member of the equestrian order. Hidden here, he would also be wearing high calcei boots with lingula, and fastened by corrigiae.
Unlike later Roman conflicts for which we have more sources, the Etruscan Wars do not survive well in the ancient sources, numerous difficulties arise in assembling their course. These wars occurred so early in Roman history that extensive elements of the early narratives are shrouded in mythology and should be heavily discounted. Livy is our best surviving source for this early period, but he wrote four centuries after the events and drew on sources that were recorded at least two centuries after the events they described. Also, his account does not become more detailed until the last phase of the Etruscan conflict, and then it breaks off abruptly with events in 293. The problems in all of our sources are such that no continuous narrative of the Etruscan Wars can be reconstructed. It is, however, possible to discern at places the general course of the wars.
The Etruscan Wars began with Rome’s three wars against the city of Veii, beginning in 483 BCE. Veii was a successful Etruscan city nine miles north of Rome. Both cities were of similar size and strength and had been in competition for years. It is not clear from our sources which side struck first, but the warfare was annual, and the raiding by both sides continued alongside regular campaigns. There was a Roman battle victory in 480, but the Veiians were still able to invade and set up a camp in Roman territory on the Janiculum Hill. In response, the Fabian clan of Romans set up a fort in Veiian territory on the Cremera River. Veii destroyed this fort in 477. Finally in 474, the two sides signed a 40-year truce.
As it happened, the truce coincided with the Battle of Cumae off central Italy. The Greek tyrant Hiero I of Syracuse, allied with Aristodemus of Cumae, defeated a large Etruscan fleet in the bay of Naples. Rome played no role in the engagement, but the naval battle resulted in the end of Etruscan hegemony in central Italy and left a power vacuum into which Rome would eventually turn its energies.
The second war with Veii began in 437 when the Veiian leader Lars Tolumnius had Roman ambassadors murdered. In the ensuing warfare, Tolumnius died in single combat. In 436 or 435, Rome attacked and began to siege the Veiian city of Fidenae. Roman soldiers tunneled into the city’s citadel, capturing it. Remarkably, no other Etruscan city sent aid to Fidenae or Veii, so they had to sign a 30-year truce in 435. The final conflict with Veii began when Rome attacked it directly after the Veiians refused to pay an indemnity for the prior conflict. Rome laid siege to Veii. Livy’s report that the siege lasted 10 years and ended the same way as the siege of Fidenae are too poetic to be true. There may have been a siege, and the city did fall in circa 396 and was absorbed into Roman territory. The end of this conflict was merely the end of the first phase in the Etruscan Wars.
There was a brief war (358-351) between Rome and the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, which was later supported by the Etruscan communities of Falerii and Caere. Tarquinii soldiers raided Roman territory, and when they refused to pay reparations, the war began. As with so many Roman wars in this period, the quality of the leadership and combat was erratic, so the war dragged on. Rome won a major victory in 353, forcing Caere to sign a truce, and two years later after much pillaging, Tarquinii and Falerii signed truces also, ending the war. As with the prior conflict, most of the Etruscan communities did not send aid, though this pattern is not surprising given that the Etruscans did not maintain a federal or imperial system.
The final phase of the Etruscan Wars began in 311 when Etruscan cities, probably Volsinii, Perusia, Cortona, Arretium, and Clusium, banded together and attacked the Roman colony at Sutrium, in formerly Etruscan territory. What triggered the attack is not recorded, but it may have been connected with Roman warfare with the Samnites and Gauls. Rome responded aggressively, forcing Perusia, Cortona, and Arretium to sign treaties in 311 and forcing Volsinii to sign a treaty in 308. Even after bringing these cities to make peace, the Romans continued fighting in Etruria annually as the Samnites tried to forge a broader alliance to distract or crush Rome. This phase of the war turned more aggressive after the Battle of Sentinum against a Samnite coalition in 295. Roman commanders moved against the Etruscan cities that had allied with the Samnites, and more vigorous annual, or nearly so, campaigns into Etruria continued.
After 293 Livy’s narrative is lost for most of the third century, so there are only occasional notices. In 284 a Roman army was defeated by Gauls with Etruscan allies near Arretium, but in 283 Rome defeated a similar force at Lake Vadimon. By 280, the Etruscan communities of Vulci, Volsinii, Rusellae, Vetulonia, Populonia, Volaterrae, and Tarquinii had been forced to become allies of Rome. Caere’s conquest in 273 was the effective end of the Etruscan Wars. A last gasp occurred when Falerii revolted in 241, but the city was was razed and its population relocated as an example to other allies. Rome finally had unchallenged dominance of Etruria.
The Etruscan Wars read as if the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but it is important to recall that Rome lost numerous battles, and for a time early in the wars, part of its territory was occupied. During the later phase of the wars, Rome was distracted with wars in central Italy but still managed to bring this series of conflicts to a conclusion.
Rome benefited immensely in the long term from the war. Starting with the elimination of Veii and the seizure of its territory in 396, Rome added a great deal of territory to its public holdings. Rome also established a number of colonies that had the economic benefit of removing some of the poor from the city by giving them land elsewhere but also spreading Roman commercial interests and control over resources. Rome also gained control over Etruria, thus freeing up resources for employment to the south and adding to Rome’s pool of allied manpower reserves. This was the first war in which Rome fielded an army that included as many or more allied troops as legionaries. Rome applied the military, commercial, and colonial practices that evolved to win the Etruscan Wars to later conflicts in central and southern Italy. These wars contributed immensely to Rome’s later success.
Another consequence of these wars was internal political change in Rome. In his narrative, Livy connects the wars with a number of points in Rome’s political conflict called the Struggle of the Orders. During the wars, the Plebeians used crises to assert their demands. Thus, tribunes of the Plebeians were able to assert independent authority, the first Plebeian consul was elected, and the first Plebeian dictator was named. The Etruscan Wars were not internal conflicts in Rome, but they contributed to internal political change.
While the wars spread destruction and turmoil, over the long term they were an immense boon to Rome. They laid much of the groundwork for later Roman military and economic success. The Etruscan allies were sufficiently satisfied with the arrangement that when Hannibal invaded Italy in 218, they contributed men to Rome’s armies and remained loyal. When the Social War erupted, Rome’s allies participated but accepted the offers of citizenship and peace early. Shrouded in legend and lost sources, the Etruscan Wars were an important episode in Roman military history.
Only in the loosest sense, was the
pre-conquest Aztec nation a nation in the European meaning of the word. The
very concept of nation would have been virtually inconceivable to the average
Aztec. He was a Texcocan or a Tlaxcalan. The Aztec nation was, in fact, a
patchwork of city states with varying degrees of independence and mutual
animosity. An individual’s allegiance was to his clan and tribe. (Most cities
were inhabited by one tribe which was determined by customs and deities
worshipped more often than common ancestry.)
The Aztec “empire” was in fact a
conglomeration of city states that formed rather fluid coalitions which were
normally centered on the most powerful cities found in the area of present day
Mexico City. In these coalitions there were normally one or two major powers
who, by their size and military strength, were able to compel the lesser cities
to join in their efforts. When a city was ‘conquered’ the result was the
imposition of tribute and economic sanctions rather than social or political
absorption, as occurred in Europe or China. This tribute was reluctantly paid
to the victorious city only until some way to avoid it was found (such as an
alliance to an even more powerful city). Any political or military alliance was
then ruled entirely by expedience, and quickly and easily dissolved.
This constant shifting was demonstrated by
the actions of Texcoco when Tenochtitlan, then the chief power, was attacked by
Cortes. Texcoca joined with several other cities in aiding the Spanish. Just a
few years earlier Texcoco had been the reluctant ally of Tenochtitlan in her
unsuccessful war with Tlaxcalans. (During which the Tenochtitlans arranged to
have the Tlaccalans ambush a part of the Texcocans involved. Such treacheries
were not uncommon.) Later the Spanish were able to play these former allies
against each other.
The citizen of an Aztec city was imbued
from birth with the concept that the city and tribe were important and the
individual should act only in ways that benefited the whole. The concept of
individualism we value would have been considered anti-social and obscene to
the Aztecs. Though they amassed individual wealth and possessions most of the
land was considered to either belong to the tribe outright or to be held in
trust for the city by the individual. Anyone dying without an heir (male, son)
automatically left his land and possessions to the city or clan for
redistribution. Material wealth was considered less important than value to the
tribe, as reflected by the positions held and honors received. If you do not
realize how deeply this selfless spirit was ingrained in every citizen, it will
be difficult to accept the attitudes demonstrated by captured warriors.
War itself was viewed by the Aztecs as a
part of the natural rhythms. These rhythms were felt to permeate every level of
existence and only by keeping in step to them could an individual and (more
importantly) a tribe or city survive and prosper. Each day was seen as a battle
between the sun and the earth. The sun losing every sunset and gladly sacrificing
himself to the earth, so that men could prosper. Many of the workings of nature
were viewed as being reflections of the rhythm of the war between the opposing
natural and spiritual forces. War then took on a religious and ritual nature
that both limited it in extent and made it part of the spiritual life of the
community with strong metaphysical overtones. Rituals arose around the
conducting of wars and to vary from them would have caused the war to lose its
very reason for existing. On the more mundane level wars were fought for
Revenge, Defense, or Economic reasons. A common cause for the formal
declaration of war was that a city’s merchants were being discriminated against
or attacked. (These merchants normally doubled as each city’s intelligence
force and so were often harassed in times of high tensions.) Behind all
political and economic justifications was always the strong force of the
religious nature of war, and a never ending need for captives to sacrifice.
A common proximate cause for war was the
failure of a vassal state to pay the tribute demanded. It is surprising to
discover, but true, that in a system where tribute was one of the key
ingredients, no system (such as hostages) was ever devised to guarantee the
payment of tribute from a previously conquered area. If tribute was refused the
only alternative was to go to war again.
The process of declaring war was long and
elaborate. Followed in most cases, it left no room for the deviousness common
in Aztec wars. The procedure to be followed was set in a series of real, but
ritually required, actions. The actual declaration of war involved three State
visits, often by three allied cities planning to attack. The first delegation
called on the chief and nobles of the city. They boasted of their strength and
warned that they would demand some of the nobles as sacrifices if the war
ensued. The group would then retire outside the city gate and camp for one
Aztec month (20 days) awaiting a reply. This was normally given on the last day
and if the city or coalition did not accept their terms, token weapons were
distributed to the nobles. (This was so that no one could say they defeated an
The second delegation would then approach
the city’s leading merchants. This second delegation would describe the
economic “horrors” of a defeat, comparing them badly to the terms
offered, and generally trying to persuade the merchants to get the chiefs to
surrender. This delegation then also retired for a month to await a reply.
Should this also be negative a third and final delegation would arrive. This
group was to talk to the warriors themselves. They would harangue a mass
meeting with reasons why they should not fight and tales of the horrors of
battle. Once more they would ask for the city to meet their terms (normally a
virtual surrender or the loss of some territory) and then retire to a camp for
the ritual one month wait. Finally, after all of this, the armies (having had
plenty of time to assemble) would meet in a battle. Here any deception was
acceptable and a cunning general as valuable as a courageous one.
The leadership of the Aztecs was the same
in times of peace and war. Between wars the officers served as the
administration, judiciary, and civil service of the city. Heading this organization
was the Supreme War chief or Tlacatecuhtli. This was the position held by the
unfortunate Montezuma in Tenochtitlan when Cortes arrived. Each clan was
assigned to one of four phratries each having its own leader called a Tlaxcola
who served as their divisional commander in wartime, and on a council with the
other three that ran the actual administration of the city in times of peace.
The head of each clan served as a regimental commander and was known as a
Tlochcautin. In peace he would serve in a role similar to the English Sheriff.
Below the clan level was a unit of approximately 200 to 400 men. This was the
equivalent of our company and was really the largest unit over which any
tactical control could be held once a battle began. The smallest regular unit
was the platoon of 20 men. This organization was rigidly observed by the major
cities and was such an integral part of Aztec culture that the symbol for ’20’
was a flag such as each platoon had.
The military techniques of the Aztecs were
inferior to those of Europe or China at that time. This is probably due
primarily to the fact that while ritually involved and religiously important,
war was less developed as a social solution in pre-conquest Mexico. This was
caused by several factors, the major one being that the population density of
the area was much less than in other parts of the world. In the period
immediately preceding the Spanish only one area had really felt the pinch of
overpopulation. This was the area around Lake Titicocca occupied today by
Mexico city. Here is where the powerful and most warlike cities developed. Even
then their tradition of war (as opposed to individual combat) was only a few
hundred years old as opposed to thousands in other lands. The result was that
while having a warrior attitude and with war deeply ritually ingrained in their
culture, the techniques of battle were still quite unsophisticated and basic.
One reflection, of the undeveloped nature
of Aztec wars was the absence of any sort of drills. Units acted as a group
only during civil duties, or during the several religious ceremonies that they
assembled for each year. The tactics of a battle then most often resembled the
mass or swarm tactics of biblical times.
Another factor mitigated in favor of only
limited military activities. This was the fact that it was extremely difficult
for an army to engage in an extended campaign. Since the army was also the work
force, a campaign during the planting and harvest seasons was prohibited. This
is especially true since the agriculture was not so efficient as to be able to
support the massive priests hierarchy and a standing army of any size. Nor
could an army live off of the country, since it was likely that the area they
would travel through would be inhabited by several city states that were not
involved in the war and were independent of those involved. This meant that it
was necessary not only to set up supply depots along any proposed route, but
also to negotiate permission to trespass on other cities’ lands.
The marginal nature of the agriculture was
also such, that sieges that lasted any length of time were virtually
impossible. The besieging army would as likely starve as the besiegers. The
result of this was that formal walls and other fortifications were rare. In
their place canals (useful in trade also) were often used with portable
bridges. Many cities were also located in easily defensible terrain such as on
a mountainside or on the end of a narrow isthmus. There has also been no
evidence that siege weapons of any sort were developed or used to any extent.
Despite all of the problems listed the Aztecs were able to wage campaigns over
a wide area of Mexico. Most often these were fought with armies made up chiefly
of local allies with a contingent of Aztecs to stiffen them. In some cases it
is recorded that the Aztecs were forced to engage in the laborious technique of
having to subdue each of the towns and cities on their route.
The weapons and tools of the Aztecs were
basic and simple in nature. Rather than developing new variations of weapons
the efforts of the Aztecs went into elaborate decorations on them. There were
four main weapons used by the Aztec warrior. A wooden club with sharp obsidian
blades was used. Javelins were common and often used with a throwing stick
called an atl-atl. The bow and arrow was also found in most armies as was a
heavy javelin or lance for in-fighting. Occasionally a clan would have a
tradition that caused some of them to employ the sling or spears. Axes were
used as tools, but do not seem to have been a regularly used weapon.
The bulk of the weapons in a city was kept
in an arsenal called the Tlacochcalco or roughly the “house of
darts.” One of these was found in each quarter of a city and held the
weapons for five clans (one phratrie). These arsenals were always located near
the chief temples and were designed with sloping walls that enabled them to
serve as a fort. The Tlacochcalcos served as the headquarters, assembly points
and rallying points for the defenders of a city. Religious ceremonies were also
held there by the military leaders and “Knights.”
The shields of the Aztecs were wickerwork
covered with hide. Most were circular and elaborately painted and decorated.
Skins and feathers were also often attached to augment their beauty. The
warriors who used the clubs carried shields, but those using the large javelin
or lance were unable to as they needed both hands to employ their weapon. Body
armor was made of quilted cotton hardened in brine. This was quite successful
against the weapons used by other Aztecs, (and useless against crossbows and
steel swords). This cotton armor was in fact quickly adopted by the
conquistedores as being effective enough and much cooler than their own metal
armor. The quilted armor was often dyed bright colors, brocaded and embroidered
with intricate designs and symbols.
Wooden helmets were worn by some warriors
and the chiefs, (who rose to chief by being outstanding warriors). These
quickly became elaborate and bulky. It was often necessary for them to be
supported by shoulder harnesses. Most headdresses or helmets were stylized
animals or protecting deities. The more elaborate the helmet the more renown
the warrior in battle. There is mention of copper helmets in a few codexs, but
none have been found and in any case would have been extremely rare. Metal
working for tools and weapons was not advanced and obsidian was the basic (and
As during comparable periods on other
continents the Aztecs wore no uniforms. Each side would identify itself with a
prominently worn badge or insignia. This often would be elaborated to show also
the rank of the wearer. With the myriad of colors in the cotton armor and the
elaborate helmets an Aztec battle was a kaleidoscope of swirling colors. A
young warrior was taught the use of weapons as part of his schooling. (All males
were soldiers.) All boys were required to either be tutored or to attend the
Telpuchcalli or public school. Later, in lieu of unit training and drills, a
new warrior was attached to veteran for his first battles. This program was
actually quite similar to the apprenticeship or squire systems developed for
the same purpose in medieval Europe.
The tactics and weapons of the Aztecs were
greatly influenced by the goal of their wars, captives and whatever tribute or
land demanded. It was the ultimate sign of ability in a warrior to bring back
from a battle a live enemy suitable for sacrifice. Warriors then often strived
not to kill their enemy, but to knock him out or deliver a non-fatal, but
disabling wound. A victory was valued then by the number of enemies captured,
not killed. To this end warriors were trained rigorously in individual combat,
with little emphasis on formations or teamwork. The best warriors were admitted
to select societies of “knights.” Only the most skillful
(as judged purely by the number of captives
taken) were allowed to enter. These were known as the Knights of the Eagle, the
Knights of the Ocelot (Tiger), and a less common group the Knights of the
Arrow. Helmets depicting their namesakes were often worn and ceremonial
costumes that copied their coloration were worn in ceremonies and into battle.
These orders performed dances and participated in rituals at the Tlacochcalco.
They also participated in the mock battles of sacrifice. These Knights received
large shares of land when conquered territories were divided between the
warriors. (This practice gave an occupation force a way to support itself.)
A warrior who was slain in battle or
sacrificed after a defeat was guaranteed entry into a special warriors heaven.
This was to be found in the East and a special heaven for women who died in
childbirth was in the West (they were felt to have sacrificed themselves for a
potential new warrior). To die in these ways was the greatest honor a defeated
warrior could receive. (Non-warriors and cowards were sold into slavery.) To
some it was the culmination rather than the ruin of the lives. There is
recorded the story of Tlahuicol who was a Tlaxclan chief. Having been captured
in battle he was given the honor of the mockgladitorial sacrificial combat.
This meant that he was chained to a large round stone representing the sun and
given wooden weapons, (no obsidian points or edges), and attacked one at a time
by members of the Knights of the Eagle. In single combat he managed to kill a
few and wound several more. The combat was stopped and Tlahuicol was offered
the choice of the generalship of the Tlaxclan army or to be the sacrifice in
their highest ritual. He choose to be the sacrifice, viewing it probably as the
These sacrifices were viewed then not as a
punishment (criminals were killed or enslaved, but never sacrificed), but as an
opportunity to give their final great contribution to their communities. It was
believed that the sacrifices were needed to prevent the wrath of the gods and
bring anything needed such as the rain or spring. Perhaps the only close honor
was to obtain a prisoner in battle.
A typical Aztec battle consisted of both
sides coming upon each other, quickly forming up to charge and then rushing at
each other amid fierce cries. Quickly this would break down into many combats
between individuals and small groups. Both sides would contend, until one
seemed to be gaining an advantage. The other would then break and run, avoiding
capture to minimize their enemy’s victory. Often the defeat and capture of a
major chief was enough to cause the morale of one side to break.
Many stratagems were used. Feints and
deception were common, especially in the battles between the major cities. It
was a common maneuver for one side to fake a route and then lead their pursuers
past a second force in hiding. This force would then fall on the rear of their
pursuers while the routing force rallied. A cunning war chief was considered as
valuable as a courageous one. Whoever won, sacrifices were assured and the gods
If there was no war occurring, then an
artificial war was instituted to assure sacrifices and give the warriors an
opportunity to prove their skills. This was incongruously named the “War
of Flowers.” Though it was an artificial war those participating in it
fought a very real battle. Many died and many more were captured for sacrifice
before one group would concede defeat.
Invited to participate were the best
Knights and warriors of two or more rival states. The best warriors contended
to be able to participate. If he won, a warrior would gain in renown throughout
the cities. If he was killed, the warrior was given the honor of cremation.
Reserved only for warriors, cremation guaranteed entrance to the special
warriors’ heaven. Finally, if defeated and captured a warrior was given the
supreme honor of being sacrificed. So popular were these Wars of Flowers that
some were repeated annually for years.
The institution of war among the Aztecs
evolved into something quite different from that which we perceive. It was
foremost a means by which an individual could serve the all important tribe or
city. It was an inherently ritualized and mystic event of deep-meaning and
necessity. It was the only means by which captives needed to appease their
bloodthirsty gods (actually it was the hearts they tore out and offered still
throbbing). In a truly collective, military society it was the one area where
an individual could gain renown and prestige.
A reasonable attempt at
illustrating the larger sized English ships and therefore their crew’s
advantage in battle. Alfred responded to the threat by constructing a fleet of
large longboats, each of which could carry a hundred men, to meet and fight off
the invaders before they landed. This navy’s first battle was against four
Danish ships in the Stour Estuary in 882, but it was his victory over the
invading forces in the Thames estuary and off the coast of Essex in 897 that
won Alfred the epithet ‘the Great’. King Alfred is now considered to be, in a
way, the founder of the Royal Navy.
A storm was brewing in the east. In 889 one of the
Scandinavian armies, which had enjoyed rich pickings among the fractured
Frankish kingdoms in the previous decade, came out of the Seine and, sailing up
the River Vire to St Lô, was heavily defeated the following year by a Breton
army. The Host now moved north and east, penetrating the River Scheldt, and
encamped at Louvain on the River Dijle, a tributary of the Scheldt, 10 miles
(16 km) or so east of what is now Brussels. Here it was met by an army of East
Franks, Saxons and Bavarians under King Arnulf, son of the late Carloman. The
Host was put to flight, its camp overrun. The gloating annalist of the monastery
at Fulda recorded that the river was blocked by the bodies of dead pagans.
That winter a severe famine struck the region, ravaging
Christian and pagan communities alike. The Scandinavian armies, perhaps sensing
that the fates were against them, now decided that their Frankish game was no
longer worth the candle. Odo, de facto king of the West Franks since 888, saw
an opportunity to be rid of their menace, and gave them sufficient ships to
leave. The annalist of St Vaast wrote that ‘seeing the whole realm worn down by
hunger they left Francia in the autumn, and crossed the sea’. En masse, and
perhaps in collusion with Northumbrian and East Anglian allies, they determined
to mount a decisive assault on the Angelcynn.
A highly detailed series of entries in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle for the next three years, at precisely the time when it was first
being compiled, reads like an almost continuous war narrative, fought for the
highest stakes. They crossed the Channel as two fleets: warriors, dependents, animals,
the lot. Two hundred and fifty ships entered the mouth of the River Lympne on
the south coast of Kent. Lympne, once a Roman port, is landlocked now, its
ancient hythe lying high and dry at the foot of the chalk scarp that overlooks
the flat expanse of Romney marsh; the Royal Military canal, a relic of more
recent invasion fears, is its only access to the sea. During the ninth century
the river was sufficiently deep to enable the Viking Host to row as far up as
Appledore, now some 8 miles (13 km) from the sea and lying at the east end of
the Isle of Oxney whence the River Rother once issued.
At or close by Appledore the Host captured ‘a fort of
primitive structure, because there was [only] a small band of rustics in it’
and made of it a winter camp. Thirty miles (48 km) to the north, across the
Downs of Kent, a smaller but no less menacing fleet of about eighty ships
sailed up the Thames to the Isle of Sheppey; from there they rowed along the
muddy channel of the River Swale and a mile or so up Milton Creek to make their
winter camp uncomfortably close to the fortress at Rochester.
Canterbury offered rich pickings, as did trading settlements at Sarre and Fordwich and minsters on Thanet and Sheppey. Kent east of the Medway had not been fortified under Ælfred’s burghal plans of the 880s and we do not know what, if any, provision the Kentish administration had made for its defences. Ealdorman Sigehelm seems to have been a loyal ally of Wessex: his daughter became the third wife of Eadweard, Ælfred’s son and presumptive heir. Archbishop Plegmund was a member of Ælfred’s ‘renaissance’ court; a close political and military relationship is implied.
Without the defensive and offensive advantages of garrisoned
fortifications, Ælfred could not hope to expel such large forces; nor could he
concentrate his attack on one for fear of allowing the other to penetrate west
into Wessex with impunity. He had not yet, it seems, installed Eadweard, who
makes his first stage entrance in the year of the invasion, as sub-king in Kent.
That Eadweard was being groomed to succeed him is in no doubt. He was provided
with substantial estates in his father’s will, including all Ælfred’s booklands
in Kent and, judging by the frequency with which he witnessed royal charters,
he spent much time with the king on his itineraries through the shires.
Ælfred’s response to the arrival of the Continental fleets,
early in 893, was to bring his own army to a point more or less equidistant
between the two, unsure of their ultimate intentions. He had by this time
instituted radical changes in the way his forces were able to respond to
external threats. His field army, the was now divided into two, so that one
force was always in the field, with a contingency for those permanently on standby
to garrison the burhs. The system was now to be tested to its limits.
According to the Chronicle, the Host at Appledore disdained
to take the field against Ælfred’s army. Instead its scouts, mounted warriors
and foraging parties probed the edges of the vast dense woodland of the Weald:
Andredesweald, the haunt of wild beasts, charcoal burners and an ancient
iron-working industry stretching across the Downs as far as Hampshire. It was a
form of guerrilla warfare: testing, teasing. They moved ‘through the woods in
gangs and bands, wherever the margin was left unguarded; and almost every day
other troops, both from the levies and also from the forts, went to attack them
either by day or by night’.
Only after Easter did they abandon their redoubt and their
fleet at Appledore and march west; they kept to ‘the thickets of a huge wood
called Andred by the common people, spread as far as Wessex [Occidentales
Anglos’. and gradually wasted the adjacent provinces, that is Hamtunscire and
Bearrucscire’ and After this campaign of plundering with no attempt, it seems,
at conquest, during which they were apparently shadowed but not engaged in open
battle, they ‘seized much plunder, and wished to carry that north across the
Thames into Essex to meet the ships’.
Sometime during the early summer of 893 they were brought to
battle at Farnham ( Fearnhamme: ‘River meadow where ferns grow’) on the River
Wey in Surrey. The Chronicle is silent regarding the names of the commanders,
but Æðelweard, writing a hundred years later and drawing on material from a
lost version of the Chronicle, names the West Saxon leader as Eadweard, the
king’s son. Eadweard’s forces inflicted a heavy defeat on the Host, injuring
its leader and retrieving all the booty that had been taken during the rampage
across Sussex. The mycel here was driven north over the Thames somewhere near
Staines, apparently in such disarray that they did not even manage to find a
ford. One imagines the pell mell chaos of a rout: baggage, weapons, loot and
even armour cast aside; panic, slaughter on the river banks and bodies floating
The survivors followed the course of the River Colne as far
upstream as the island called Thorney (on the north-west periphery of the
Heathrow Airport complex, now swallowed by a motorway interchange) and, their
commander too ill to flee further, found themselves besieged by Eadweard.
At the point of victory the momentum was lost: according to
the Chronicle the levies, coming to the end of their deployment, ran out of
provisions and left for home. Æðelweard says that the ‘barbarians’ asked for
peace and that the West Saxons negotiated their withdrawal with an exchange of
hostages; the Host retired not to Kent, but to East Anglia. But these accounts
pose more questions than they answer. After Eadweard’s brief appearance at
Farnham and Thorney his role in the war of 893-894 is obscure. Was he written
out of the official Ælfredan narrative to ensure that the king stood alone as
hero? Or was his inability to keep his levies in the field regarded as a
failure of leadership or loyalty? Who were these levies: his own retinue,
certainly, and also those of the shires which had been ravaged by the Host,
perhaps: Hampshire and Berkshire? But it is an intriguing possibility that, in
preparation for his installation as sub-king of Kent, which may have happened
in about 898, Eadweard was already in command of the Kentish levies; that they
regarded themselves as having gone far beyond the traditional call of duty in
chasing the Appledore Host across the southern shires and then beyond the
Thames. And then, Æðelweard says that while Eadweard was still at Thorney, his
brother-in-law Æðelred, ealdorman and sub-king of Mercia, came from London to
his aid. If so, why lift the siege? Despite the contemporaneity of the
Chronicle and the value of Æðelweard’s insider information at court, it seems
that either the complexities of the 893 campaign were such that no coherent
account could be constructed; or, if one wants to detect political
undercurrents, the West Saxon spin doctors were already at work to contrive an
official account that would cover unsightly stains and keep the narrative
focused on Ælfred.
Ælfred’s policy had always been to bargain straight and
trust the enemy’s sense of decency: it seems extraordinarily naive. Time and
again the Scandinavian armies accepted Ælfred’s terms and defaulted, as they
had so often in Francia. Given the otherwise sophisticated strategies displayed
during the Viking wars, one must surmise that the underlying rationale of the
Angelcynn leadership was always to buy time and limit its own casualties. There
is a fine line between appeasement and low cunning.
The West Saxon and Mercian leadership now anticipated
fighting wars on multiple fronts. Their principal fear was probably not either
Host in isolation but that the two forces should combine and that the
slumbering giants of East Anglia, Danish East Mercia and Northumbria might join
in. While Eadweard had expelled the Appledore Host from Wessex, Ælfred seems to
have concentrated diplomatic efforts on persuading the force under Hæsten, in
the Thames estuary, to cross the Thames to Essex. If this war band leader is to
be identified with the Viking raider whose name appears periodically like a
rash in Continental sources spanning half a century, then the Angelcynn had
good reason to fear him. He is implicated in a notorious series of raids deep
into the Mediterranean in the years 859-862, with campaigns along the Loire at
the end of that decade and into the 870s. Later tradition has embellished his
feats and cruelties; even so, he seems to have been an unusually successful and
energetic warlord over several decades. Whatever the truth, his career took him
to the mouth of the Thames in 893.
In the uncertain political aftermath of Guðrum’s death,
Ælfred and Æðelred may have hoped that Hæsten would compete for the East
Anglian kingship, killing two birds with one stone. We gather, from events
later in 893, that while the Host lay at Milton Regis, Hæsten and his family
received baptism. At least, the Chronicle records that his two sons were
godchildren of, respectively, Ælfred and Æðelred. No such ceremony is likely to
have been conducted without a peace deal ensuring that the Deniscan would leave
Wessex alone; they had, it seems, been paid off. Given that Æðelred is recorded
as co-sponsor, we might reasonably argue that the venue for both negotiation
and ceremony was London, the timeshare capital for Mercia and Wessex and symbol
of their alliance.
Hæsten’s fleet duly crossed the estuary and built a fortress
in Essex, at Benfleet (Beamfleote: ‘Tree creek’) overlooking the edge of the
marshes to the north of Canvey Island, even as their comrades were fighting
their way out of trouble across the Upper Thames. Here the remnants of the
Appledore Host also arrived that summer and the two forces now combined. The
Angelcynn had bought time in exchange for future trouble; and they are unlikely
to have anticipated the grim news coming from the West Country. A Northumbrian
fleet had sailed south from a port somewhere on the Irish Sea†† and landed on
the north Devonshire coast, while an East Anglian fleet, sailing along the
south coast, now besieged Exeter.
This turn of events in the west looks like a co-ordinated
plan to draw West Saxon forces away from the east and open up a second front.
Hæsten, it appears, had successfully enrolled both the East Anglians (Guðrum’s
veterans of the campaign of 877-878, perhaps) and those of Guðroðr, the
nominally Christian king of Scandinavian York, in his plan to finish what the
mycel here had begun in the 860s. If the community of St Cuthbert recorded
their reaction to their adopted king’s involvement, it has not survived.
Ælfred’s reaction was to march westwards with the bulk of
the West Saxon levies, leaving Eadweard and Æðelred‡‡ behind to confront Hæsten
and the, by now, combined forces from Milton and Appledore at Benfleet. They
marched east through London, picking up extra forces as they went. When they
arrived at Benfleet they found a part of the combined Host in residence; but
Hæsten was away on a raiding expedition in Mercia. In a stunning coup, the
English put the Host to flight, stormed the fort and took possession of
everything inside, including Hæsten’s wife and children. The ships of their
considerable fleet were burned, sunk or otherwise taken to Rochester or London.
For good or ill the Host could not now retire to the Continent whence they had
The Chronicle makes much of the victory at Benfleet and of
Ælfred’s magnanimous treatment of Hæsten’s family, restoring them to the
warlord in a one-sided gesture of good faith; but Æðelweard ignores the
Benfleet episode entirely and, given that the Host was able to take to the
field again very shortly, and in dangerous numbers, we may judge that the bulk
of its fighting force had been absent with their commander, leaving behind only
a small garrison and the baggage train in his new fort. The victory at Benfleet
had not, perhaps, been all that glorious.
Far to the west, the East Anglian and Northumbrian forces retired
to their ships on Ælfred’s arrival, precisely achieving their broader purpose
to draw the main West Saxon fyrð from the east. Hæsten’s combined army,
dispossessed of its fort at Benfleet, now took up station in a new stronghold
at Shoeburyness ( Sceobyrig on Eastseaxum: ‘the fort on the shoe-shaped spit’)
nearly 10 miles (16 km) to the east.
In that whirlwind year of punch and counterpunch, a new
phase now opened. With the apparent knowledge that the fyrð was otherwise
occupied, the Deniscan once again left their fortress and with extraordinary
boldness marched along the entire length of the Thames into Gloucestershire,
making a rendezvous with forces from Northumbria and East Anglia that seeped
(or swept) through the Mercian border.
Their intention must now have been to wage a final war of
conquest, staking everything on a swift victory; but the geography of southern
Britain had changed since the campaigns of the 870s. The forts of the Burghal
Hidage, with their well-provisioned and trained garrisons, severely compromised
the Host’s ability to live off the land, to steal or buy horses and force the
submission of shire ealdormen. The old river route, which had enabled deep and
swift penetration into the heartlands of the Angelcynn, was closed to them.
At Sashes, Wallingford, Oxford and Cricklade, along the full
length of the Thames, they faced opposition secure behind new walls; opposition
with the benefit of intelligence forewarning them of the advancing Host. The
portable wealth of the countryside, its livestock, was corralled behind
ramparts. The formerly overflowing cupboard of the Anglo-Saxon landscape was
bare; and, for once, the Host was unsupported by its fleet, having lost the
bulk of its ships at Benfleet. Moreover, the West Saxon-Mercian alliance was
solid: Æðelred’s loyalty, sealed by his marriage to Ælfred’s daughter,
Æðelflæd, was unimpeachable. There is no hint that even disaffected ealdormen
would throw in their lot with the invaders.
These were epic campaigns: battle-weary veterans on forced
route marches through enemy territory, denied the means to live off the land
and at all times watched, pursued and hunted by an exhausted but determined
fyrð under active, committed commanders. If Francia had, finally, proved too
hot to handle, then Wessex and Mercia were now also too well guarded, too
Avoiding the burhs, then, and no longer tied to the river,
the most direct route for the Host would have been to take Akemen-nestraete
from London, heading north-west through St Albans and Bicester towards the
Fosse Way, which would lead them directly towards Gloucester, avoiding the
Thames burhs. Here, perhaps, a gathering of warriors and their jarls from the
north and east, even from potential allies among the Welsh and Irish, might have
been arranged. The combined army, reaching the River Severn, now traced a route
north along the ancient marcher lands of Hwicce (surely avoiding Worcester,
already fortified with a burh; but how?), Magonsaete and Wrocansaete, beneath
the ramparts of ancient hillforts and past the ruins of Roman towns; and then,
as the river turned west and south, into Powys.
Even here the Angelcynn now had allies among those Welsh
kings who had submitted to Ælfred after 880. All the time the Host was pursued
by Æðelred, supported by the shire levies of Wiltshire and Somerset under
Ealdormen Æðelhelm and Æðelnoth, who had long ago stood with Ælfred at Athelney
and fought with him at Edington. The stores of the burhs, and their knowledge
of the movements of the Host, allowed the pursuing levies to maintain pace and
At Worcester, perhaps, the levies paused to regroup and
resupply, to gather intelligence and take counsel. At Buttingtune on Sæferne
staðe, a ford just north of Welshpool where the Severn meets Offa’s Dyke
beneath the naturally imposing ramparts of the Long Mountain, the Host ran out
of steam and built a fortress, as they had so often before. On their long march
they had been unable to capture a single major settlement although they had, in
all probability, wasted many smaller estates and vills. With Ælfred still
occupied on his watching brief in Devon, the combined levies laid siege to the
Host on the banks of the river and waited: waited until those inside were
half-starved and had slaughtered all their horses for meat.
At last, in desperation, they broke out and, after a fierce
engagement, with much slaughter on both sides, marched overland all the way
back to Essex. This time, at least, they might retreat north-east into
friendlier territory, through the lands of the Five Boroughs, tracking across
Danish East Mercia and through East Anglia; Æðelred’s forces were probably able
to trace their progress but unable to engage them beyond the line of Watling
It is an old axiom of military strategy that a powerful
enemy should be afforded the means of escape. The destruction of the Host’s
ships at Benfleet closed its back door to the Continent. Another plan seems now
to have occurred to Hæsten. For the third time in twelve months, and with
winter’s dark days approaching, he led his forces overland again and this time,
according to the Chronicle, they marched day and night, right along the Mercian
frontier. At this speed, perhaps, they might use the metalled road of Watling
Street and outrun the fyrd. They reached a ‘deserted fortress in Wirral [
Wirhealum: ‘the hollows where the bog myrtle grows’], called Chester’ (þæt hie
gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten).
If Hæsten hoped to buy himself time, to refortify and
provision Chester, to make contact, perhaps, with friends in Gwynedd and across
the Irish Sea in Dublin, he had again underestimated the capabilities of his
enemy. Shortly after the Host’s arrival at Chester, Æðelred’s Mercian levies
surrounded the old Roman fort and set about implementing an aggressive
scorched-earth policy, stripping its hinterland of cattle, grain and horses and
sweeping up unsuspecting foraging parties so that the Host should have no
provisions for winter. By now, with corn reaped and threshed and trees losing
their leaves it must have been difficult to keep any army in the field. It
seems that the fyrð now withdrew; Hæsten, his options diminishing, marched his
army into Wales, hoping to scavenge sufficient provisions for the winter. Here
again he was denied, the land having been emptied of cattle and grain; instead,
he plundered booty: bullion, jewellery, coin—anything to make this disastrous
campaign seem worthwhile and satisfy his veterans.
The Welsh raid, diminished by a dismissive account in the
Chronicle, was serious: the Annales Cambriae record its progress all through
Brycheiniog and Gwent. Hæsten led the Host on a final, dispiriting march all
the way across Northumbria and East Anglia out of the reach of the levies, to
Mersea on the Essex coast, and relative safety, some time in the New Year of
894. Here they were joined by the remnants of the East Anglian fleet which had
invested Exeter and which, raiding along the south coast on its way home, had
been put to flight by the burh garrison at Chichester.
Now, at least, the Host had ships again, perhaps even
sufficient to carry its forces back to the Continent. But its commanders were
not done yet. Once more probing the edges of Wessex and Mercia, testing the
mettle of the alliance, the Host left its baggage and camp followers, took to
its ships and, during the summer of 894, sailed up the Thames estuary to the
mouth of the River Lea opposite what is now Greenwich. The fleet rowed north
past Stratford and its tidal corn mills, tracing the western edge of the great
forest of Epping; past King Offa’s minster at Waltham (one wonders if it had
been pillaged by earlier raiders) as far perhaps as Ware, whose name, literally
‘Weirs’, suggests the highest navigable point, close to Hertford. In 895 they built
a new fortress at an unidentified spot, this time with access to their fleet:
their escape route. In the late summer of that year the fyrð was sent to
dislodge them; it was repulsed with serious casualties including, the Chronicle
says, the loss of four of the king’s thegns. The Host’s intention was evidently
to threaten London’s rich hinterland.
Ælfred, finally released from his long watching brief in the
south-west, now brought his army across the Thames and camped somewhere on the
south-west side of the Lea, ‘while the corn was being reaped’. This small
detail evokes a vision of labourers in the fields, harvesting wheat with their
saw-edged sickles; of oxen grazing on the stubble, stooks drying in hot August
sun; of weary soldiers watching, leaning on their spears under shady trees; of
barns filling with winter’s grain—like a bucolic passage from John Stewart
Collis’s wartime reminiscences of the 1940s, perhaps.
Nothing more perfectly captures Ælfred’s own vision of the
duties owed by a king to his people: of the idea of economic security
guaranteed by the king’s peace in return for duty and render. Content that the
harvest was protected, Ælfred set his mind to a military solution. Inspired, it
seems, by the example of Charles the Bald in Francia, Ælfred now sought to
block the fleet’s escape. He and his engineers found a suitable spot on the
Lea, downriver from the enemy’s camp, and set the fyrð to constructing a bridge
that would connect forts built on both banks.
The threat was sufficient; even before the bridge and forts
were complete the Host abandoned their new fortress and once again marched
west, this time as far as æt Cwatbrycge be Sæfern: Bridgnorth, a key crossing
of the Severn in what is now Shropshire, some 13 miles (21 km) south of Watling
Street, their likely route. Here they constructed a new fort, most likely on
the west bank, and overwintered. Ælfred seems to have used the breathing space
to bolster diplomatic efforts to isolate the Host. He sent Æðelnoth, his loyal
Somerset ealdorman, to York to broker a treaty with Guðroðr. A year earlier the
British chronicler of the Annales Cambriae had noted that Anarawd of Gwynedd
‘came with Englishmen to lay waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi’; with Mercia and
Gwynedd in collusion against the weaker Welsh kingdoms the Host’s last hope for
a northern and Welsh alliance evaporated.
In this year, the Host dispersed, some to East Anglia, some
to Northumbria, and those without stock got themselves ships there, and sailed
south oversea to the Seine. The Host, by the mercy of God, had not altogether
utterly crushed the English people, but they were much more severely crushed
during those years by murrain and plague, most of all by the fact that many of
the best of the king’s servants in the land passed away during those three
It is a salutary lesson for the historian, whose window on
the remote past offers mostly the narrow view of great events, to learn that
more damage was wreaked by the everyday woes of illness, poor harvests and
diseased livestock—by the fates—than by the depredations of the Host. It is
little wonder that while the Angelcynn reposed considerable and justifiable
faith in their king, they also prayed to their God; and also, perhaps, to those
capricious deities who had seemed for so long to favour their enemy: Oðin,
Thor, Frey and the rest. Those same gods had run out of patience with the
warriors whose apocalyptic thirst for battle, plunder and conquest had not, in
the end, brought about Ragnarök, the last battle, and the dawning of a new
The states of Wessex and Mercia, who had entered the lists
against their Scandinavian antagonists so seemingly ill-prepared, had paid a
heavy price for their education in modern warfare. They had been forced by
extreme circumstances to adapt and to learn. Above all, perhaps, their
appreciation of economic, military and political geography had undergone a
decisive shift: by the end of the conflict they were more than a match for
their enemies. They had mastered their own landscape. Ælfred had won his final
victory at the age of forty-seven. He had successfully exploited the rules of
lordship to embark on a most ambitious programme of military reform,
maintaining the support of most of his nobility and attracting the loyalty of
Mercians, Welsh and many others including, according to Asser, an assortment of
Vikings, Gauls, Franks and Bretons. Now Ælfred was able to enjoy a few last
years of peace in which to set the political and cultural seal on his brilliant
The origins of ninjutsu, placed approximately between 500
and 300 B.C., are commonly linked (as are most Oriental arts of combat) to
Chinese sources. Mention is often made of the interesting section on methods of
espionage which is embodied in the ancient treatise The Art of War, written by
the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu. There is no single English term that can
be used to define with precision this art or science, nor to accurately
describe its practitioners, the notorious ninja. One translation of ninjutsu
might be “the art of stealth,” which is a term commonly employed in the
doctrine of bujutsu. This definition, however, identifies only one of the many
characteristics and functions of ninjutsu—concealment, or the creating and
perpetuating of an aura of mystery. The functions of the ninja may be
represented in general as having been those of infiltration into hostile
environments, performance of various acts of sabotage or assassination, and
management of a successful escape once a mission had been accomplished.
Infiltration of enemy centers and castles, in fact, gave rise to a particular
subspecialization of ninjutsu which was known as toiri-no-jutsu, while slipping
through enemy lines in time of open warfare or military alert became a
specialty referred to as chikairi-no-jutsu. The various deeds to be performed
once infiltration had been successfully accomplished were as varied as the
military or strategic circumstances themselves. We can divide these deeds or
acts into three main categories: first, the gathering of intelligence by
espionage, and all of its correlated activities; second, assassination,
subversion, destruction of enemy defenses; and third, action on the
battlefield, including combat operations in almost every form, ranging from an
open encounter to an ambush (whether against a defenseless victim or a
Ninja, then, were often raiders who hired themselves out as
spies, assassins, arsonists, terrorists, to the great and small lords of the
Japanese feudal age. When certain “disreputable” tasks had to be undertaken,
the honor-bound warrior (who was expected to fight openly against his foe in
accordance with the rules of his profession) was not usually the one asked to
perform them. Large organizations of ninja families, specializing in such
tasks, were generally available to the highest bidder.
As spies, the ninja reportedly made their first notable
appearance in the sixth century, with an employer of royal blood, Prince Regent
Shotoku (A.D. 574–622). They were frequently hired by the fighting monks of the
mountains, the redoubtable yama-bushi, who battled against both the imperial
forces at the end of the Heian period and those of the rising military class
(buke). Strong ninja guilds became firmly entrenched in Kyoto (which was
virtually ruled by them at night), and their schools proliferated until there
were at least twenty-five major centers during the Kamakura period. Most of
these centers were located in the Iga and Koga provinces, and the concentration
of these dangerous fighters had to be smashed time and time again by various
leaders seeking to gain control of the central government. Oda Nobunaga is
reported to have employed forty-six thousand troops against Sandayu at Ueno,
destroying four thousand ninja in the process. The last impressive employment
of these fighters on the battlefield seems to have been in the Shimabara war
(1637), against forty thousand rebellious Christians on the island of Kyushu.
With the ascendancy of the Tokugawa and their heavily
policed state, smaller groups of ninja were employed by practically every class
against members of other classes, and even within a class by certain
individuals against any clansmen who opposed them. Ninja were also used in the
espionage network constructed by the shogun to control the imperial court and
the powerful provincial lords. The ninja of Koga province, for example, were
notorious throughout Japan as secret agents of the Tokugawa; and roaming bands
of ninja are said to have engaged groups of warriors in local battles, either
to suppress attempted sedition or to enlarge the ninja’s own territorial
control. Individual lords and powerful members of other classes such as the
merchants, for example, also employed the ninja, who left behind them an
unbroken record of more than five hundred years of intrigues, disruptions,
assassinations, and other assorted forms of disorder.
By the beginning of their teenage years, young ninja boys in
the ninja villages of Iga and Koga will have internalized the basics of
Ninja kid learning the principles of balance,
supervised by his dad, his primary instructor throughout his life.
Young ninja learning underwater breathing
techniques utilizing a bamboo tube. Later in life he might have to hide for
hours under the surface of a lake or river to avoid detection by enemies.
Vital swordsmanship training. Ninja kid taking his
first lesson in how to deal with a ring of attackers. He has to anticipate how
each bamboo rods will swing back and forth in order to avoid contact with them.
Ninja boy in extensive missile practice,
learning how to spin the shuriken and hit the target accurately.
Young ninja learning survival skills traveling
into the mountains and catering for himself. He is cooking a bag of rice buried
under a campfire, with the rice wrapped in a cloth and soaked in water.
Ninja child interviewed by the shonin, or head
of the ninja settlement. He is assessing the child’s progress.
2-, 3- and 4-man techniques for jumping over
tall obstacles like walls:
Ninja teamwork with excellent acrobatic skills.
On the other side of the wall the vigilant observer might conclude that the
ninja has the ability of flying. In this technique one ninja runs forward
carrying his mate on his shoulders, who then leaps from this lifted position.
Two ninja assisting a third to maneuver over a
wall by giving him a powerful ‘leg up’.
Four men forming a human pyramid.
Ninja utilizing an ashigaru’s yari, or long
spear, to pole-vault over a ditch.
Reconnaissance became a primary concern during the Warring
States period (Sengoku jidai, 1467– 1568) and centered on the famed spies known
as ninja, whose activities were called ninjutsu (ninja arts and training). The
widespread internecine warfare of the mid- to late-Muromachi period made
infiltration and information-gathering a focus of military operations. Training
in ninja techniques like those described below in “Dagger Throwing” and “Needle
Spitting” have relatively recent origins in Japan, despite having developed out
of espionage tactics that were fairly common in the medieval era. As with
legends praising brave and virtuous samurai, modern (and medieval)
misconceptions about ninja traditions have enhanced the ninja mystique. Clothed
in notorious secrecy and black garments, and endowed with famed accuracy,
acrobatic skills, and awe-inspiring weapons, these figures have played
prominent roles in film and literature concerning the martial arts. Most ninja
missions supplied little such drama, although concealing the identity of
successful ninja was considered paramount.
Famed ninja bands, such as the Iga school (originating in
present-day Mie Prefecture) and the Koga school (part of Shiga Prefecture
today), were identified with the regions in which they began. Villages in these
areas were entirely devoted to instruction and mastery of ninja techniques.
Ninja who trained in such regional bands served as scouts, penetrating enemy
territory to gather information, conduct assassinations, or simply to distract
and confuse the enemy at nighttime. Daimyo relied upon legions of these figures
beginning in the 15th century as domains competed for dwindling land and other
Ninja techniques, known as shinobu in Japanese, included
strategies of artifice, camouflage, and deception, as well as an array of
weapons and tools designed especially for espionage and covert use. In the
Warring States period, clandestine missions were critical to military tactics,
and thus ninja practices were transmitted orally to maintain secrecy. While
medieval samurai enjoyed a somewhat undeserved reputation for noble intentions
and valor, ninja temperament was compared to that of a trickster who eschewed
the forthright bravery of military retainers, preferring the advantages offered
by ambush and sleight of hand. Opportunistic ninja offered themselves as
assassins for hire and pirates during the nearly continuous unrest of the 15th
to 16th centuries. They became a significant threat in the 16th century. For
example, Oda Nobunaga sent 46,000 troops to Iga province in 1581, although
tales recount that 4,000 were killed by the Iga ninja.
In the Edo period, threatened with extinction under the
enforced Tokugawa peace, ninjutsu became a formal martial art which may have
attracted followers simply because of the general fascination with these
mysterious, elusive, seemingly magical figures. As ninjutsu became one of the
most alluring of the standard 18 military arts (bugeijuhappan), samurai
enthusiasts organized ninja teachers, classes, skill requirements, tools,
weapons, and techniques systematically in manuals designed for instruction. One
of the primary ninja manuals, the Mansen shukai, was compiled in 1676 by
Fujibayashi Samuji. This important text detailed the traditions and techniques of
the Iga and Koga schools of ninjutsu.
The ninja families were tightly-knit microcosms well
integrated into larger groups (in accordance with the ancient clan pattern).
There were leaders (jonin) who formulated plans, negotiated alliances,
stipulated contracts, and so forth, which subleaders (chunin) and agents
(genin) then carried out faithfully. These groups formed larger guilds with
individual territories and specialized duties—all jealously guarded. A man
seldom joined a group in order to become a ninja; he usually had to be born
into the profession. The arts, techniques, and weapons of each family, of each
group, were kept strictly secret, being transmitted usually only from father to
son and even then with the utmost circumspection. Disclosure of ninjutsu
secrets to unauthorized persons meant death at the hands of other ninja of the
same group. Death usually also followed capture, either at one’s own hand or
that of another ninja, who would leave behind only a corpse for the captor to
Books and documents (torimaki) related to the heritage,
arts, and techniques of ninjutsu, therefore, were considered secret family
treasures which it was the responsibility of each generation to preserve and
transmit to the next. They contained instructions concerning those techniques
of combat with which the ninja had to familiarize himself and which he had to
master (including the traditional martial arts of the country: archery,
spearmanship, and swordsmanship). In turn, the ninja cleverly adapted the use
of these arts to suit his own devious purposes. He used an easily assembled
short bow, for example, instead of the warrior’s long bow, and he also devised
methods of telescopically reducing a spear—with astonishing results when it
suddenly sprang into full extension. Members of the Kyushin ryu, a school of
ninjutsu, became noted for their unorthodox methods of using a spear (bisento).
Swords and other assorted blades, finally, were also used on the ends of
various collapsible poles to which chains were attached for quick retrieval;
often blades were projected by hidden springs, or they were simply thrown by
hand according to the techniques of shurikenjutsu. The ninja were also masters
of the techniques of iaijutsu, which enabled them to draw swords or daggers
with blinding speed. The Fudo ryu, another school of ninjutsu in feudal Japan,
was considered vastly superior in the development of this particular kind of
dexterity with blades.
The ninja, however, also had a full array of specialized
weapons for his exclusive use, each with its particular and fully developed
method of employment. Blow-guns, roped knives and hooks, garrotes, various
spikes (toniki), brass knuckles (shuko), an extensive assortment of small
blades (shuriken), including dirks, darts, star-shaped discs, and so forth,
were all included in his arsenal. The shuriken or “needles” were usually kept
in a band containing up to five deadly missiles, and they could be thrown in
rapid succession from any position, in any light, and from varying distances.
The ways of throwing the shuriken seem to have been grouped together, attaining
the status of a full-fledged art (shurikenjutsu). Even members of the warrior
class reportedly studied its techniques in order to be able to use their short
swords (wakizashi), daggers (tanto), and knives (such as the ko-gatana and
kozuka) with greater accuracy and effectiveness at long distances. Shuriken
could also be forged into a star-shaped disc with many sharp points radiating
from a solid center. Sometimes called shaken, these sharp stars were usually
thrown with a whipping movement of the wrist which sent them spinning toward
their target—often unnoticed until it was too late. Especially famous were the
chains or cords with a whirling weight on one end and a double-edged blade on
the other (kyotetsu-shoge), which the ninja knew how to use with merciless
precision; there was also the innocent-looking bamboo staff carried by an
apparently unarmed pilgrim—the staff concealing, however, a chain with a weight
at one end and a lead block at the other.
The ninja’s skill in penetrating enemy strongholds (houses,
castles, military camps, individual rooms, etc.) was based upon his knowledge
of practical psychology, as well as upon his mastery of a most impressive array
of climbing devices (roped hooks, flexible ladders, special shoes, hand spikes,
etc.), which he could also use as weapons. In addition, he usually carried
breathing tubes and inflatable skins so that he could stay underwater for long
periods of time or cross castle moats, lakes, or swamps with comparative ease.
A skilled chemist (yogen) in his own right, the ninja often used poisoned
darts, acid-spurting tubes, flash-powder grenades, smoke bombs, and so forth,
cleverly adapting ancient Chinese discoveries in chemistry and inventions in
explosives to his particular requirements. After the arrival of the Portuguese,
he even used firearms. These weapons, in addition to the spiky caltrops which
he dropped behind him as he made his escape, all contributed to his skill in
evading capture by slowing down, blinding, killing, crippling, or merely
surprising his pursuers.
Among the unarmed methods of combat which he mastered,
jujutsu, in its most utilitarian and practical form, predominated. Schools of
ninjutsu, however, also specialized in particular systems of violence seldom
found elsewhere. The ninja of the Gyokku ryu, for example, were expert in the
deadly use of the thumb and ringers against vital centers in the human body.
This method became known as yubijutsu. The students of the Koto ryu were
particularly proficient in breaking bones (koppo).
From the above, it appears obvious that a ninja was a truly
dangerous foe, skilled and prepared to cope efficiently and ruthlessly with
almost all the possible dimensions of armed and unarmed combat. His overall
bodily control and range of muscular possibilities was often astounding. In
addition to training in the various arts mentioned above, he is said to have
been able to climb sheer walls and cliffs (with the help of certain equipment),
control his breathing under water and his heartbeat under enemy scrutiny, leap
from great heights (walls, etc.), disengage himself from knots and chains, walk
or run for long distances, remain still for hours (even days, some authors
claim), blend with shadows, trees, statues, and so forth, as well as
impersonate people of every class, thus being able to move about freely even in
areas which were under strict surveillance. In this context, his knowledge and
command of practical psychology, as indicated earlier, appears to have been
highly developed and is said to have included sleight of hand and hypnosis
(saiminjutsu)—skills which may have formed the basis for a number of the
ninja’s more startling exploits.
The kingdoms and peoples of Europe and North Africa
just before the East Roman Emperor Justinian began his reconquest of the West.
On Foot or Horse?
It is generally accepted that (unlike the eastern Germanic
tribes such as the Goths and Vandals), the Franks, Alamanni, Burgundians and
other western Germans fought primarily on foot rather than on horseback. Although
there is some truth to this, it is an oversimplification.
Many of the eastern Germans who lived for a while on the
steppes of modern Ukraine would have had the space and pasture needed to raise
and maintain good horse herds. These factors remained when some, such as the
Ostrogoths, followed the Huns into the Hungarian Plain in the early fifth
century. The open spaces where they lived would also have made horse-mounted
mobility very important – almost essential. The western tribes who lived in
relatively contained spaces in the forested and hilly lands on the east bank of
the Rhine would have had less motivation or ability to develop cavalry armies.
That some Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians fought on
horseback when they had suitable opportunities is indisputable. Various
Frankish graves contain horse furniture and spurs while in some cases horses
were interred nearby. Gregory of Tours’ account of Clovis’ son Theuderic
fighting the Thuringians includes the detail that the Thuringians dug pits to
disrupt the Frankish horsemen. The Franks of the sixth century – with the
wealth of their conquests and the varied terrain of most of France at their
disposal – would have had the opportunity to raise and maintain a substantial
number of good cavalry mounts.
If an increasing number of Frankish, Alamanni and Burgundian
warriors may have had the means to mount up in the first decades of the sixth
century, they were still perfectly happy to fight on foot just as their
ancestors had done. It may still have been their preferred way of fighting.
Against the Thuringians a significant mounted force may have given the Franks
an edge. Against the Ostrogoths and Romans in Italy – where every good solider
was primarily a cavalryman – this would not have been the case.
In the centuries that followed, the Frankish warriors
evolved into the finest cavalry of Western Europe – becoming the chivalry of
medieval France. Most evidence suggests that this transition did not really
start to take hold until the eighth century – well beyond the scope of this
book. The evolution from tribal warriors on the Rhine to the rulers of France
did, however, naturally transform the way the Franks fought. As they absorbed
the last elements of the Roman army in northern Gaul along with the Alan and
Sarmatian laeti, they would have found recruits who were more familiar with
mounted warfare than their tribal ancestors. With all of Gaul at their
disposal, along with the captured treasures of the Alamanni, Burgundians and
Visigoths, the Franks of the sixth century would have had the wealth and land
to equip their warriors with good weapons, armour and horses.
Frankish Weapons and Tactics
The Romans had no equivalent to the aggressive infantry
tactics of the Franks. Sixth century Roman infantry were second-rate troops,
more suitable for garrison duties rather than standing firm in line of battle. When
they were deployed in battle, the Roman infantry usually had to be stiffened by
dismounted cavalry as they were at Casilinum and in several other battles
against the Goths. In such circumstances it would have made sense for the
Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians to fight on foot to capitalize on the one
advantage they had over the Romans rather than meeting them on terms in which
the Romans had come to excel.
The modern historian Bernard Bachrach has postulated that
the descriptions of Frankish tactics by Roman historians were distorted by the
lenses through which they observed the events of their day. The offensive use
of infantry would have been so surprising to them that they ignored everything
else and concentrated their descriptions on the Frankish foot warriors. He has
a point but probably overstates it. This is what the contemporary writers
Procopius and Agathias have to say of the Frankish fighting methods:
Under the leadership of Theudibert [the Franks] marched
into Italy. They had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were
the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot-soldiers having
neither bows nor spears. Each man carried a sword, a shield and an axe. Now the
iron head of this weapon [the axe] was thick and exceedingly sharp on both
sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always
to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the
shields of the enemy and kill the men. (Procopius)
A great throng of Germans came up and opened an attack by hurling their axes they slew many. (Procopius)
The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is
very simple. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting
on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this.
At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached.
They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapon except the double-edged
axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are
neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing
like a javelin and also in hand to hand combat, the greater part of the angon
is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. Above, at the socket of
the spear. some points are turned back, bent like hooks and turned toward the
In battle the Frank throws the angon. If it hits an enemy
the spear is caught in the man and neither can the wounded man nor anyone else
draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh causing great pain and in this way
a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot dies. If the angon hits a shield
it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot
be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield. Nor can it be cut
off by a sword because the wood of the shaft is covered with iron. When the
Frank sees this situation he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear,
pulling down so [his enemy] falls, his head and chest left unprotected. The
unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust
with another spear. (Agathias)
Although Procopius says that the Franks did not carry
spears, Agathias says that angons (javelins with long iron heads) were their
primary weapons. The accounts are not entirely inconsistent. A charge by men on
foot was proceeded with a volley of heavy throwing weapons – axes and/or
javelins. This disrupted the enemy formation and the ability of the individual
enemy warrior to defend himself. Then the Franks closed in for the kill. Such
weapons and tactics would have been familiar to the ancient Romans if not their
sixth century descendants.
These descriptions are perfectly consistent with the weapons
and equipment found by archaeologists in Frankish graves. Many examples of
relatively small, curved axe heads have been found, as have a number of long
javelin shafts with conical armour-piercing heads which have small barbs at the
base. The prominent iron shield bosses found in many Frankish graves would have
been perfect for the warrior to punch into his opponent as he followed up the
missile volley to finish his enemy off with a handheld weapon such as a short
sword or a conventional spear.
A number of relatively conventional spearheads have also
been found in Frankish graves which support Agathias’ statement that the Frank
might finish off his opponent with a spear, contradicting Procopius who said
that the Franks did not carry them. Archaeological evidence shows that a
throwing axe (francisca) along with a short sword with a single edge (scramasax),
were almost universal amongst Frankish warriors. Graves containing angon heads
and long double-edged swords are almost always high-status warriors. A
reasonable conclusion is that the best warriors, fighting in the front ranks,
carried angons, franciscae and good swords, while lesser men may only have been
armed with franciscae and short swords. This assumption helps to reconcile the
apparently contradictory descriptions of Procopius and Agathias.
The sixth century descriptions of Frankish fighting methods
are consistent with what Sidonius Apollinaris’ had to say of them in the
previous century. Volleys of axes and spears preceded a charge into close
combat with fast-running young men whirling their shields, anxious to be the
first to reach the enemy.
Both Procopius and Agathias say that the Franks did not use
bows, slings, or other longer-range missile weapons. When seen through the eyes
of sixth century Romans whose mounted troopers were bow-armed and a substantial
proportion of their infantry were too, this may well have seemed the case.
Arrowheads and light javelin heads have been found in Frankish graves and an
analysis of Alamannic graves shows that poorer men may have been archers while
richer men tended to fight hand-tohand. It may be that such men would have
fought to defend their home territory but were left behind on a major external
expedition. In previous times the Franks and Alamanni were not averse to using
missile weapons when it suited the terrain or their situation. At any time a
number of men may have used bows in battle. Against the masses of bow-armed
Romans in sixth century Italy it would have been even more pointless to bother
with light missile weapons than attempting to meet the well-trained Roman
cavalry on horseback.
So, what can we conclude from this?
The likelihood is that, after their conquest of Gaul, the
Franks had a high proportion of good warriors who owned horses and could fight
on horseback if the situation demanded it. Most, or all of them, could also
fight effectively on foot in hand-to-hand combat and may even have preferred to
do so – especially against enemies who had better cavalry. The Goths and Romans
often dismounted to form a defensive line but the Franks also took the
offensive when on foot. Indeed they seemed to prefer offensive tactics. Their
throwing weapons and shields with prominent bosses seem most suited to a
relatively loose attack formation which left enough room for each man to throw
his axe or spear and punch forward with his shield as he charged into combat.
When needed they could also call on men with bows to support them.
The Battle of Casilinum [Capua], AD 554.
At the Battle of Vouillé Gregory of Tours characterized the
Visigoths `fighting at a distance’, while the Franks `tried to come to close
combat’. This may be nothing more than a disparaging comment to contrast
Visigothic cowardice with Frankish bravery. On the other hand, `fighting at a
distance’ could describe hit-and-run tactics appropriate for men on horseback
armed with javelins as well as spears. The Franks, armed and equipped with
hand-to-hand weapons and very short-range missiles, would naturally have
preferred `to come to close combat’ without bothering with preliminaries which
would place them at a disadvantage. At Casilinum the Alamanni and Franks decided
that their best option was to make a headlong charge on foot. They succeeded in
piercing the Roman line but against an enemy with combined arms – foot, horse
and archers – they were surrounded and cut to pieces. At Vouillé this tactic
worked although we do not know how or why.
The headlong charge of the Franks came to be seen by the
Romans as a characteristic of their way of warfare for centuries. A later sixth
century Roman military manual (the Strategikon) has this to say of them:
The fair-haired races place great value on freedom. They
are bold and undaunted in battle. Daring and impetuous as they are, they
consider any timidity and even a short retreat as a disgrace. They calmly
despise death as they fight violently in hand to hand combat. They are undisciplined
in charging, as if they were the only people in the world who are not cowards.
Describing how Roman troopers were trained to use lances in
a charge, learning from the Germans but maintaining better discipline, the
Strategikon has this to say:
They (the front ranks) lean forward, cover their heads
with their shields, hold their lances high as their shoulders in the manner of
the fair-haired races. Protected by their shields they ride in good order, not
too fast but at a trot, to avoid having the impetus of the charge breaking up
their ranks before coming to blows with the enemy, which is a real risk.
Of course, these are generic descriptions of Germanic
tactics and are not specific to the Franks. The Germanic Vandals, for example,
fought exclusively on horseback by the sixth century and apparently had no
tactic other than to charge into close combat. By the time the Strategikon was
written, the Vandals were no more and the Ostrogoths had been defeated. The
most important Germanic peoples, with whom the East Romans still had to deal
with, were the Lombards and, of course, the Franks. The Lombards certainly had
a sizeable force of mounted lancers. Many of them had fought for the Romans
against the Ostrogoths and Franks. As the Strategikon was written at about the
same time the Lombards were moving into Italy, it is more than possible that
the description of the `fairhaired race’s’ tactical methods would have been
influenced more by the Lombards than by the Franks.
In the years that followed, the East Romans came to call all
Germans `Franks’, regardless of their origin. They were still renowned for
their ferocious charge and increasingly it was on horseback. In the later
medieval period, French armies were noted for the prowess of their mounted men
at arms which often swept all before them.
Agathias wrote that the Franks did not wear armour and went
into battle half-naked. This can be nothing more than a Greco-Roman stereotype
of savage barbarians. From the time of Childeric in the mid fifth century, the
Franks had access to Roman armouries and they also had talented smiths. Even if
every man might not have been fully kitted out with helmet and body armour, the
majority of a war leader’s comitatus of full-time retainers surely would have
been. Graves of many high-status warriors contain helmets and some also have
body armour. That lesser men were not buried with them does not necessarily
mean they did not have access to armour. For a relatively poorer man such
valuable items of equipment would likely have been passed on to his sons rather
than being interred with him.
The Battle of Kawanakajima was an annual event fought
between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both daimyo would ensure the battle
ended in a draw.
Depiction of the legendary personal conflict between
Kenshin and Shingen at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima.
Two of the early Sengoku Jidai’s most colourful daimyo were
Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. They represented the last of the gentlemen
warriors, who conducted their warfare according to the honourable traditions of
old. Every year for five years in a row the armies of Kenshin and Shingen met
in the same place on the plain of Kawanakajima to do battle. Sometimes, when
one army had gained the upper hand it would withdraw as a sign of respect for
the opposition. When Shingen’s salt supply was cut off by Kenshin’s ally, the
Hojo clan, Kenshin sent Shingen a supply of salt from his own stock, commenting
that he `fought with swords, not salt.’
The first half of the fifteenth century in Japan saw
sporadic rebellions taking place, all of which were quelled successfully until
1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and
political disaster. The resulting Onin War was fought largely around the
capital and even in the streets of Kyoto itself, which was soon reduced to a
smoking wasteland. The shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu’s
grandson, who was totally unable to prevent a slide into anarchy. Instead
Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was one of the early
devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in
an attempt to emulate his illustrious ancestor. His cultural achievements were
many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.
With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many
samurai took the opportunity to develop their own local autonomy in a way that
had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful landowners of the
Nara period had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for
territory. Some ancient families disappeared altogether to be replaced by men
who had once fought for them and achieved local power through war, intrigue,
marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered, and found themselves having
to share Japan with upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru
(foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which
they defended using wooden castles and loyal followers. These lords called
themselves daimyo (great names), and led lives that were constantly being
challenged by neighbors. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the
century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (the
period of Warring States), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in
A good example of the trend was to be found in north-central
Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located.
They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen
and Uesugi Kenshin, were princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of
fanatically loyal samurai. Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being
the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan. At Uedahara in 1548 and
at Mikata ga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry
missile units. But for cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of
singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait
until the enemy line was broken, so group operations became the norm.
The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a
place called Kawanakajima (“the island within the river”), a
battlefield that marked the border between their territories. Not only were the
armies the same, the same two commanders led them at each battle. In addition
to this intriguing notion of five battles on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has
also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash
of samurai arms.
In its more extreme form, this view even denies the
possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which
are seen only as a series of “friendly fixtures” characterized by
posturing and pomp. In this scenario the Kawanakajima conflicts may be
dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two
armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death,
but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of
Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.