English Specialist archers originating in Wales in medieval times

An old Scottish saying dictates that, “Every English archer carries on his belt 24 Scots.” From the thirteenth until the sixteenth century, there was no question why the longbow held the Scots’ respect, as it became the national weapon of the English military. It transformed the English army into one of the most powerful military forces in the medieval world, surpassing even the might of its rival the French and their impetuous knights. In a relatively short period of some 300 years, the long bow conquered Wales and Scotland, and reached the pinnacle of efficiency when it was the deadly weapon of choice employed by Edward III and the Black Prince in their victories over the French during the Hundred Years’ War.

The rise of the longbow begins in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales in the twelfth century, where Welsh archers using a unique type of bow exacted huge losses on the invaders. After the successful, but costly, campaign was over, the English were quick to realize the potential of such a devastating weapon. By the end of the century, Welsh archers were already being conscripted in large numbers as a supplementary force within the English army. The army, bolstered by the new mercenaries, proceeded to achieve decisive victories over the Scots and the French. A force that could not be ignored, the English stopped using mercenaries and mandated the creation and practice of the longbow among their non-noble regular troops. Royal decrees were issued concerning days of practice, conditions, even ranges: Henry VIII declared that no archer could practice at a distance under 220 yards, in order to increase his effectiveness.

The accessibility of the longbow among even the poor would prove the deciding factor in a number of battles, the two most significant being the Battle of Crécy and later, the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century. Even at home, the English nobility was careful not to push the yeomen too far out of fear of the possible destructive results, as witnessed in the Peasants’ Revolt of the late fourteenth century. The longbow single-handedly gave the peasant class of England a check on the gentry’s power not seen on the mainland of Europe. Cheap and simple enough for even a peasant to own and master, the longbow possessed advantages apparent in its construction. A selfbow, that is, a bow made from one single piece of wood, the longbow involved relatively little labor and could be produced rapidly. Welsh yew was the wood of choice because of its high compressive strength, light weight, and resilience. It is said that at the height of production of longbows during the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century, an expert bowyer could shape a longbow out of a piece of yew in only about two hours. The “D” shape of the bow was the maximum threshold to which the elastic nature of the wood could stretch and still return to its natural straightness after an arrow was loosed. As tall as an average yeoman, the longbow stood anywhere from five to six feet upon its completion, and had a supreme draw weight of between 80 and 90 pounds. Arrows were drawn back to the ear, as opposed to the breast with a normal bow, thus increasing range and striking power. Skeletal remains of archers from this period still bear the obvious signs of wear produced by the repetition of the weight of the drawstring, as shoulder muscles became disproportionately stronger, dramatically reshaping the bones and creating bone spurs in the joints of the arm. Such strength allowed English archers to achieve an average effective range of over 200 yards, an astonishing (and condemned by the French as decidedly unchivalrous) distance.

To protect the bows from moisture and the weather, a mixture of wax, resin, and tallow would be applied to them, and they would be stored in cases made of canvas or wool. Bow strings were made of hemp, fine flax, or even silk. Strings were attached to nocks on the end of the bow made of bone or horn. The typical English longbow arrow was known as the clothyard shaft; from 27 to perhaps even 36 inches in length. It was cheap and easy to mass produce, made from either ash or birch. It is estimated that greater numbers of long bow shafts were produced than any other type of arrow in history.

Though longbows were accurate and could shoot the farthest of any bow in the Middle Ages, they could not usually do both effectively at the same time. Reports indicate that diminishing returns on targets kicked in when the target was about 80 yards away. However, when taking into account the fact that an expert archer could shoot up to 10-12 arrows per minute, a group of archers could create a virtual storm of arrows and still hit something (it is difficult to miss an army). With the development of arrows with massive bod kin points (a point with an elongated pyramid shape and a sharpened point), even plate armor could be pierced with a direct impact. No longer was it the rule that infantry could not stand up to a heavily armored cavalry unit. In order to increase the reload speed, archers would stick these bodkin tips point down into the ground in front of them; another more grisly result of this practice was to increase the chance of infection in the victim’s wounds. The only way to remove such an arrow cleanly would be to tie a piece of cloth, soaked in boiling water or another sterilizing substance, to the end of it and push it through the victim’s wound and out the other side. If bone was hit or broken, only specialist tools could extract the points in order to minimize the risk that the marrow would seep into the bloodstream.

Commanders developed their tactics to fully utilize the chaos the longbow could create. Starting in a line in front of the main body of the English army, a group of longbow men would shoot an opening skirmish volley, disrupting the enemy and forcing them to advance before they were ready. The main body of archers usually would take up positions on both flanks of the battle line in enfilade positions, then proceed to loose successive volleys at the closing enemy army. The ability of the English to take a defensive posture and force the enemy to expend their energy and much of their manpower just crossing the field of battle became their favorite and most effective tactic for three centuries. At the battle of Crécy, almost a third of the French nobility (fighting as mounted knights) were destroyed by infantry equipped with longbows before even coming into contact with the main body of the English army. The French force of some 30,000 men was decisively defeated by a relatively immobile army of 12,000 English consisting of little cavalry. During the 400- year period when it was employed widely, the longbow rewrote the rules of engagement, and crippled the utility of once dominant cavalry forces. As a result, English longbow units were sought-after mercenaries in European conflicts, fighting at various times with the Swiss, the Teutonic Knights, the Portuguese, and with the famous mercenary White Company of Sir John Hawkwood in Italy.

Longbows continued in effective use until about the sixteenth century, when the development and weaponization of gun powder became more common, and units such as arquebusers, musketeers, and grenadiers began appearing. Even though the longbow had faded out of military use by the seventeenth century, it left an indelible mark on English society. For four centuries, the peasant class had a weapon of their own, and stories like the legend of Robin Hood grew out of this consciousness and empowerment. The longbow allowed for the blossoming of English military power and the development of its place as a dominant world entity.

References: Hardy, Robert, Longbow (Cambridge: Patrick Stevens, 1976); Kaiser, Robert E., The Medieval English Longbow, Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980; Norman, A. V. B. and Don Pottinger, English Weapons & Warfare (449-1660) (New York: Prentice Hall, 1982).


Agesilaus and the Spartan Army III

If this solution is correct, then Spartans reorganized their army at some point after the battle of Plataea and before 418. A solid if not absolutely conclusive argument can be made that this reform took place before 425 B.C.E. because of certain features in Thucydides’ account of the Spartans’ reaction to the threat posed by Demosthenes’ capture of Pylos. Thucydides tells us that the Spartans sent contingents of 420 hoplites in rotation onto the island of Sphacteria drawn by lot from all the lochoi (4.8.9), by which he is understood to mean that the lots were drawn among each enômotia in the lochoi rather than among individual soldiers. If, as is very probable, the Spartans at this time mobilized 35 out of the 40 available age classes from 20 to 59 years of age, the number 420 is best explained as the result of one enômotia of 35 men being drawn from each of 12 lochoi, implying an army of 6 morai, each made up of 2 lochoi. That perioeci were already brigaded with Spartiates in the same morai can be deduced from Thucydides’ statement that of the 292 survivors from the last detatchment only 120 were full Spartan citizens (4.38.5).

After Thucydides, various references in Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, Anabasis, and Hellenica give us a relatively detailed idea of the shape of the army. Despite some difficulties, the picture that emerges is sufficiently clear. The largest unit was the mora, of which there were six (Hell. 6.1.1), each commanded by a pole-marchos (Hell. 4.4.7). Each mora contained two lochoi (Hell. 7.4.20), each under a lochagos (Lac. 11.4, see above), which in turn comprised four pentekostyes (Anab. 3.4.22), whose officers were called either pentekostêres (Hell. 3.5.22, 4.5.7) or pentekonterês (Anab. 3.4.21). In each pentakostys were four enômotiai (Hell. 6.4.12) under the direction of four enômotiarchai (Anab. 3.4.21). This last calculation involves preferring Thucydides’ clear statement that there were four enômotiai in each pentekostys (5.68.3) over Xenophon’s equally bald assertion that there were sixteen enômotiai in each mora, implying only two per pentekostys (Lac. 11.4).

The Spartans had acquired military capabilities of other kinds as well. Their first true cavalry force came into being in 425 as a response to the threat posed by Athenian raiding after their capture of Cythera and the promontory near Pylos (Thuc. 4.55.2). Apparently organized in parallel with the hoplites into six morai (Xen. Lac. 11.4) under hip-parmostai (Xen. Hell. 4.5.12), the total number of cavalry troopers is unknown but was probably somewhat more than 600, the approximate number present in five cavalry morai at the Nemea River in 394 (Xen. Hell. 4.2.16). The cavalry was the junior service, as the commander of a cavalry mora was subordinate to his infantry equivalent, the polemarch (Xen. Hell. 6.5.12). Surprisingly, the pro-Spartan Xenophon, though a horseman himself, had little time for the Spartan cavalry (Hell. 6.4.11).

The Spartan navy that is attested as early as the sixth century (Hdt. 3.54.1) and essentially won the long war against Athens was just barely part of the military establishment. The city’s concentration on infantry, with all the social and institutional biases attending that choice, meant that the maritime service was undervalued. Moreover, apart from captains and marines, the crews were all helots or mercenaries and thus unlikely to have gained much credit in the eyes of Spartiates, despite their evident success (Xen. Hell. 7.1.12). We know of only two Spartan naval ranks, and those only because Lysander held them – nauarchos or navarch, the supreme naval commander, and epistoleus or secretary (Xen. Hell. 2.1.7; Plut. Lys. 7.2–3). The annual post of navarch could only be held once in a lifetime, which may have been intended to thwart the overly ambitious but, as we have seen, potentially deprived Sparta of much-needed military expertise. That only a small handful of Spartan royals ever deigned to command the fleet is a sign of the low esteem in which naval operations were held.

Sparta’s reputation depended upon the hoplites, renowned for their discipline in formation combined with the ability to execute flawlessly what seemed to other Greeks to be complicated maneuvers. The orderliness of the Spartan ranks was result of two factors – the inculcation of obedience that began with entry into the system of citizen training and never really ended, and the depth of rank in the army itself. The Spartan army hierarchy was quite remarkable. The Athenian army, for instance, after the reforms following Marathon, had only three officer ranks: the generals, taxiarchs, and the commanders of lochoi within each taxis. An Athenian lochos may have consisted of 100 men, it has been estimated, over double the size of the enômotia at its maximum capacity. And the Spartan enomotarch was not actually the most junior officer, for under him the file leaders themselves were in charge of the men lined up behind them (Xen. Lac. 11.5), numbering from five to fourteen. Thucydides had a point when he wrote that almost all the Spartan army consisted of officers commanding officers (5.66.4). Orders passed swiftly down this chain of command, enabling the army to shift from marching to battle formation with impressive speed – a maneuver Xenophon assures us the professional arms trainers claimed was extremely difficult – and to face attacks from the sides and rear (Lac. 11.8–10).

Marching in step, while perhaps known to other Greeks, was particularly associated with the Spartan army. Famously, their troops at Mantinea advanced towards the Argive army with a slow rhythmic pace to the sound of many flutes, not for a religious reason, as Thucydides explains to his readers, but in order to maintain a steady pace and to prevent the ranks from breaking up, which tended to occur in large armies (5.70). Plutarch also referred to the awe inspired by a Spartan advance (Lyc. 22.4–5). Greeks had long regarded dancing, either solo or in a choral group, as an eminently effective way of learning both evasive movements to escape from harm on the battlefield and coordinated motion as a unit (Pl. Leg. 796c, 803e, 813e; Athen. 14.25 [628F]). Spartan dances, such as the Pyrrhiche – a lively dance with shield and spear – and the choruses of the Gymnopaediae, Hyacinthia, and others were widely known.

Xenophon thought the choruses and gymnastic competitions of the young men at Sparta worth hearing and seeing (Lac. 4.1–7); they were manifestly an important part of the city’s training of its future citizens. The military advantages gained from a practical knowledge of music and dance are apparent in incidents such as at Amphipolis in 422, when Brasidas’ practiced eye noticed, from the uncoordinated movement of their heads and spears, that the Athenians outside the walls could not withstand a direct assault (Thuc. 5.10.5).

During the fifth century, the Spartan army appears to have become more and more standardized in dress and armament. Like all other Greek armies of the time, Spartan weaponry would have included at a minimum a sword and a short thrusting spear. From early on, all Spartan warriors were famous for growing their hair long – the mark of a free man, as Aristotle (Rhet. 1367a) would have it. But evidence for the other elements in the ancient, and modern, image of the Spartan soldier as an almost faceless unit in a massive killing machine comes from later in the century. The large circular shield that gave the hoplite his name was the characteristic armament of the Greek heavy infantry in the Classical period. Like their counterparts in other cities, Spartans in the later sixth and early fifth centuries most likely carried individual emblems on their shields as a means of personal display. The famous lambda insignia is first mentioned only at the time of the Peloponnesian War (Eupolis Fr. 359 Kock). Spartans were not alone in branding their army in this way; they lulled the Argives into complacency before the Long Walls of Corinth in 392 by carrying shields emblazoned with sigmas taken from a Sicyonian unit they had just defeated (Xen. Hell. 4.4.10).

The earliest mention of the phoinikis, the crimson garment that served as the Spartan military uniform, is in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1136–40), produced in 411, though referring to the aftermath of the earthquake of 465/4 B.C.E. That it was actually a cloak, as some ancient and most modern authors have thought is confirmed by archaeological evidence, namely the remains of prominent Spartiates buried in the Kerameikos after the clash between King Pausanias and the democratic insurgents in 403 B.C.E. (Xen. Hell. 2.4.33).

The skeletons show signs of having been wrapped tightly from head to toe in a long garment which was fastened by pins at the shoulders. This, combined with the near-total absence of grave goods (one body was buried with a single alabastron), fits so nicely with Plutarch’s statement (Lyc. 27.2) that Spartan war dead were customarily buried without any grave goods, crowned with olive, and wrapped in the phoinikis that it seems almost certain that a cloak formed at least part of the military dress known as “the crimson.”

Head coverings were also standardized. Artifacts from the early fifth century, small lead figurines found in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, and the so-called “Bust of Leonidas” depict hoplites wearing helmets of different shapes and designs. By the end of the century, these had been replaced by conical felt hats (piloi) that were indistinguishably uniform. In addition, Spartan hoplites wore light chest protection of quilted linen or leather instead of bronze cuirasses. The evidence for standardization raises the question of procurement. How did individual Spartans acquire their weapons and armor? Historians incline towards a central distribution agency, especially since we know that the state replaced and repaired the equipment of soldiers on campaign (Xen. Lac. 11.2). In such a system, the perioeci would logically have provided the craftsmen to manufacture the articles to Spartan specifications.

Spartan military efficiency was also evident in the swift mobiliztion of troops. The overnight call-up of 5,000 Spartiates along with 35,000 helots before Plataea may strain credulity (Hdt. 9.10.1), but the Spartans clearly had a streamlined system of conscription that made the Athenian practice of the general and taxiarchs selecting troops individually for each campaign look very clumsy indeed. Rather, the Spartans called up hoplites by age in eight blocks of five years each from twenty to fifty-nine. When the ephors “showed the guard,” they designated which units were to be sent out and which age groups would man them (Xen. Lac. 11.2; Hell. 6.4.17). Each Spartiate would have been permanently assigned to a lochos, making mustering simple. Theoretically, each Spartan hoplite would have been the only representative of his year class in every enômotia, so that the number of men in each would have corresponded exactly to the number of year classes mobilized. Such a system would have been unworkably rigid, however, so historians have concluded that each group of five men did not necessarily contain one man from each of the block’s five year classes. Only in the first two blocks, representing the year classes from twenty to twenty-nine, can there have been a realistic chance of filling the one-man, one-year-class requirement, because of the high mortality rate among Spartiate warriors. And, as the first ten year classes (ta deka aph’ hêbês) were commonly sent out as shock troops at the beginning of a battle (Xen. Hell. 2.4.32, 3.4.23, 4.5.14, 5.4.40; Ages. 1.31.6), they were not immune from heavy losses themselves.

These young men were also eligible for distinction as members of the 300-strong crack unit called the hippeis or “knights,” who actually fought as hoplites, not on horseback. Their most prestigious duty was to act as bodyguards for each king while he was on campaign, with the task usually assigned to one-third of their number (Hdt. 6.56). While the rest of the hêbontes were brigaded throughout the lochoi, the hippeis had the extraordinary privilege of forming a separate corps outside the military chain of command. At Mantinea, Leuctra, and other occasions when the Spartan state ordered full mobilization, the entire corps would have been present, with catastrophic results at Leuctra (Xen. Hell. 6.4.15). The hippeis also acted as the domestic security service, as in the Cinadon crisis (Xen. Hell. 3.3.9). The hippeis’ loyalty and discretion in carrying out such sensitive assignments was due to their special status in the Spartan military hierarchy. On campaign the hippeis and hippagretai answered directly to the kings, at home to the ephors. The ephors chose their three commanders, called hippagretai, directly every year from among men over thirty. Each hippagretes then chose one hundred of the best hêbontes to form a contingent of hippeis, publicly announcing his reasons for accepting some and rejecting most (Xen. Lac. 4.3–4). Sparta’s culture of praise and blame would have been on full display on these occasions. The story of Pedaritus (Plut. Lyc. 25.4), who went away smiling after being rejected for the hippeis because, as he said, it meant that the city had three hundred men better than he, is the exception proving the rule. The rejected were encouraged to keep a close watch over the behavior of the chosen in hopes of catching them acting improperly, and the two sets of hêbontes frequently came to blows whenever they happened to meet (Xen. Lac. 4.6).

The army was the Spartans’ pride and joy. Unsurprisingly, they credited Lycurgus with its foundation. Herodotus (1.65.5) reports that Lycurgus was responsible for the military institutions of his own time, in particular, the enômotiai, the sussitia (the common messes, which had some as yet unclear connection with the army), and the mysterious triakades (“thirds”). Curiously, over a hundred years later and after at least one major structural reform, Xenophon also considers Lycurgus the founder of the military institutions of his day (Lac. 11.1–4), including the morai, which most historians regard as the cornerstone of the later fifth century new-style army.

Unlike the Athenians, Spartans buried their warrior dead in the lands where they fell. It was a matter of pride, for Spartiate graves served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project its power. At Sparta, families commemorated their dead relatives with simple memorials bearing their names followed by the famous, suitably laconic, inscription “in war.” As a consequence, one of the most familiar apophthegms, that attributed to a Spartan mother saying, as she bids her warrior son farewell, “(Come back) with it or on it,” meaning his hoplite shield, cannot have been from a Spartan source, since dead warriors were not brought home (Plut. Mor. 241f).

Throwing away one’s shield was an offense commonly punished throughout Greece, but Sparta has always been notorious for severely penalizing soldiers considered to be cowards, or “tremblers” (tresantes). Writers ancient and modern have catalogued the punishments inflicted upon any Spartiate falling short of the city’s demanding code of honor. However, many of the penalties listed in our earliest source, Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (Lac. 9.4–6), were socially, not legally rooted. For example, people were ashamed to eat or exercise in the company of a coward; cowards were left out of the ball teams and assigned the most demeaning positions in dances; young men did not give way to them in the streets nor accord them seats at public events. Moreover, the term “trembler” itself was applied only to one man, Aristodemus, the sole survivor of Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.231–2), who redeemed himself by dying bravely at Plataea (Hdt. 9.71.2). The legal penalty imposed was evidently a form of atimia (loss of citizen rights) that varied according to circumstances and was of a specific duration, as in the case of the 120 ex-POWs from Sphacteria, who were stripped of the right to hold office and carry out financial transactions for a period of time until being restored to full Spartiate status (Thuc. 5.34.2). In the other notable instance of Spartan atimia, Plutarch reports that king Agesilaus called for the laws to sleep for a day during the crisis over how to treat the survivors of the Leuctra disaster (Plut. Ages. 30.5–6). Taking all the evidence together, the harsh treatment of “tremblers” could well have been more notorious to outsiders as a concept than to Spartans as a commonly inflicted punishment.


Some 1,200 women-at-arms accompanied the duke of Alva in Flanders in the late 1500s. They are described by Varillas in Histoire de Henry III, volume III, as “fair and gallant as princesses and very well appointed,” eight hundred afoot and four hundred “mounted courtesans.” There also survives a portrait by an anonymous Italian artist of a courtesan of somewhat Chinese countenance and exceedingly serious demeanor, clad in full armor and girt with swords. An edict published in 1516 attempted to outlaw the warrior-courtesan by prohibiting women in men’s clothing to follow after men-at-arms; the edict did not otherwise prohibit camp following.

The warrior-courtesan grew partly out of the tradition of camp followers, but grew as well from the aggressive choices made by independently wealthy city courtesans, singers, and actresses who may already have gained fame in such stage roles as Dido and Minerva before setting off to the Crusades or defending their own cities. Théroigne de Mericourt, La Maillard, Margheritona, and Malatesta are typical of a type of actress/courtesan whose fame, wealth, and personal aggression led them, in time of war, to rise as leaders in the forefront of peasant revolution.

camp followers

Behind every army the world has sent marching over land, and with a good many of the naval forces as well, there were always camp followers, who might be the wives of soldiers following from the start, or women who joined the “baggage” along the way. They cooked, carried the baggage, served as nurses and as sanitation officers who buried the dead, served as scouts and spies, and suffered the same rigors as the soldiers. In antiquity, such women were apt to worship Venus Victrix. Camp followers followed in the wake of the Roman armies everywhere in the empire.

Not only were there camp followers in the American Revolution, but the wives of soldiers, such as the famous Molly Pitcher, were semiofficial conscripts who stayed close to their husbands and were habitually on the field of battle, rather than traveling with the baggage. Some were afterward granted soldiers’ pensions. Camp followers of the Napoleonic era often entered the campaigns already seasoned veterans, having gained warring experience in the streets of Paris during the early days of the revolution, despite that the Napoleonic Code attempted to suppress women’s soldierliness. Consuelo Dubois was a sutler who accompanied her husband for twenty years in the Napoleonic wars, “sharing victory and defeat,” and was finally murdered in a famous sea disaster. The women in the armies of Attila the Hun were notoriously warlike and were integrated into the main ranks rather than relegated to the rear guard, as was true in the armies of Genghis Khan.

Virtually all of history’s conquerors, whether Napoleon, the Khans, the Romans, or the Spanish conquistadors, sustained a large population of camp followers, many of whom were as a matter of course provided with uniforms (or who presumptuously designed their own) and held imitative officer ranks. Exceptions are noteworthy: Alexander the Great was said to despise camp followers, mainly because he encouraged homosexuality in his armies’ ranks. By and large, without camp followers, the day-to-day needs and business of camp life simply would not have functioned. Often, one or another camp follower of especially warlike temperament would edge her way by degrees into the main ranks, slowly accepted as a regular combatant.

Samurai and Ethics

As the country entered an enduring phase of stability and peace, without even any real foreign threat, warriors became superfluous. There were a number of peasant uprisings to put down, their lords’ honour to uphold, and a bit of policing, but little work for real warriors. Instead, they became bureaucrats and administrators. Their battles became mere paper wars.

These men who occupied the top class in the social order were acutely embarrassed by their almost parasitic life. They seized the least chance for real action to prove their valour, and they went to almost absurd lengths to justify their existence. As a rather ironic result, it was during this age of the redundant samurai that some of the clearest expressions of the samurai ideal, bushid (‘way of the warrior’), were to emerge.

Every Japanese knows the story of the Forty-Seven Rnin. A rnin (wanderer) was a samurai made masterless either by dismissal or by the execution or demotion of his lord. There were quite a few of them in Tokugawa Japan who roamed the countryside causing trouble for villagers and disquiet for the authorities. The forty-seven in question, however, are seen as the embodiment of samurai virtue.

In 1701 their lord, Asano Naganori (1665–1701) of Ak in Harima (Hygo Prefecture) had been insulted by Kira Yoshinaka (1641–1703), the shgun’s chief of protocol. Asano had drawn his sword in the shgun’s castle – a capital offence. He was made to commit seppuku, and his domain was confiscated from his family. Forty-seven of his now masterless samurai retainers vowed to avenge his death by killing Kira. They hid their intent for two years, pretending to lead a life of dissipation, then attacked and killed Kira in an unguarded moment, placing his severed head on their lord’s grave.

Though their behaviour was considered exemplary bushid they were nonetheless ordered to kill themselves for having taken the law into their own hands. Amidst scholarly discussion and public controversy they killed themselves in a mass seppuku. Their graves at Sengakuji Temple in Tky are now a major tourist attraction.

Descriptions of bushid from this period that are still popular today include Hagakure (In the Shadow of Leaves) of 1716 and Gorin no Sho (The Five Rings) of around 1643. However, one of the most interesting was written by Yamaga Sok (1622–85), who was himself a rnin. He had also been a teacher of one of the Forty-Seven Rnin.

Yamaga was perhaps the first to see bushid as a comprehensive philosophy.26 In his various writings he stressed aspects of it such as loyalty and self-discipline, as well as the importance of learning and cultivation of the arts and the rounded development of the whole man. Knowing one’s role in life, and knowing how to properly conduct relations with others, are particularly stressed. But he also struck a defensive note in his justification of the samurai’s apparent lack of functional usefulness to the society of the day. Yamaga argued that the samurai’s freedom from occupation proper allowed him to concentrate on perfecting his moral virtue and thus to serve as a model for the rest of society, disciplining the imperfect if necessary:27

The samurai dispenses with the business of the farmer, artisan, and merchant, and confines himself to practising this Way; should there be someone in the three classes of the common people who transgresses against these moral principles, the samurai summarily punishes him and thus upholds proper moral principles in the land.

There is here a reference to morality, but it is a different morality from the western concept. It is still not a question of good and evil, but of doing the expected thing in the context of social relations and orderliness. Step out of line, and one is summarily punished.

Yamaga’s account also has a heavy Confucian tone. Confucianists were very much concerned with knowing one’s place, honouring relationships, respecting order, and doing one’s duty. Because of these values, Confucianism was revived and promoted by the Tokugawa shgunate. In some aspects, however, it was modified to suit Japan. For example, Chinese Confucianism allowed for showing loyalty to conscience, but in Japan this became narrowed to loyalty to one’s superior. A Confucian adviser to the shgun was appointed, and a Confucian college was founded in Edo with shgunal support. The period produced many noted Confucian scholars, such as Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), Yamazaki Ansai (1618–82), Arai Hakuseki (1657–1725), and Ogy Sorai (1666–1728).

One major influence of Confucianism was on gender perceptions and by extension sexual relations. Texts such as Onna Daigaku (Great Learning for Women) of 1716 preached the ‘five infirmities’ of women – indocility, discontent, slander, jealousy, and silliness – and placed them in a greatly inferior position to men. Onna Daigaku observed that:28 ‘Without any doubt, these five infirmities are found in seven or eight out of every ten women, and it is from these that arises the inferiority of women to men.’ This lowly view of women was one reason why so many – if not most – samurai preferred homosexual relationships.29 Moreover, according to the sometimes-followed Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, too much association with the female yin could seriously weaken the male yang.

Confucianists and the shgunate did not really approve of homosexuality, but turned a blind eye to it. The shgunate was particularly prepared to be tolerant because in Japan’s case physical male homosexuality invariably reflected social rank, with the active partner always the senior.30

Confucianism was not always good for the shgunate. One of its ironies was that it encouraged ideas of merit and learning. This was allowed for in concepts of hierarchy and rank in China, which permitted some mobility on the basis of learning and meritorious achievement, and in later centuries this was also to some extent to be allowed for in Japan. However, encouragement of merit and learning did not necessarily work in the best interests of the Tokugawa shgunate and its policy of unquestioning orthodoxy and stability. Over time rather more critical and questioning attitudes emerged in some quarters than the shgunate wanted – though this should not be overstated, for obedience was still the norm.

The children of samurai and nobles were educated at home or at special domain schools, and wealthy merchants also set up private schools. Increasingly the children of other classes had the opportunity to study at small schools known as terakoya (literally ‘temple-child building’). These were originally set up under the auspices of village temples but soon spread to the towns. Tuition was usually very cheap or free, since the teacher was often a priest who taught as an act of benevolence or a samurai who taught for a sense of self-worth. As a result of this widespread education the literacy rate in the later part of the period is estimated to have been 45 per cent for males and 15 per cent for females, giving an overall rate of 30 per cent. This was arguably the highest in the world at the time. It set an enduring trend, for Japan still has the highest literacy rate in the world at 99 per cent.

Another point of Confucianist irony was that its encouragement of obedience to the ruler inevitably raised the question of who exactly the ruler was. It did not escape the notice of an increasingly educated population that in China the ruler was the emperor. This effectively meant the shgun could be seen as a usurper.

Doubts about the shgunate intensified from the 1700s with the revival of Shint, and early texts associated with it such as the Kojiki. Shintand the Kojiki were seen as something purely Japanese, and became part of kokugaku (‘national learning’). In some ways this was a continuation of the emergence of national consciousness, prodded by the occasional reminder of the outside world in the form of castaways, or foreign ships seeking reprovisioning rights or similar. It was also an expression of a feeling that Japan was a little too Chinese. Kokugaku scholars included such figures as Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) and Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843). Motoori produced an annotated version of the Kojiki and was openly critical of things Chinese. Hirata argued the superiority of Shintand Japan and was to be part-inspiration for later Japanese nationalism and imperialism.

The idealisation of the way of the samurai, the revival of Confucianism, the spread of education, and the emergence of nationalism were all to play a part in the formation of modern Japan. So too, of course, did the conformism and orthodoxy that formed their setting.

Samurai: The warrior class of feudal Japan

The Samurai, the warrior class of ancient Japan, dominated that country’s political and social structure for centuries. The Samurai came into existence in the early thirteenth century with the establishment of a feudal society in Japan. As in medieval Europe, the large landowners dominated the economy in an agricultural society and therefore had sufficient monetary resources to pay for the best in military supplies. Thus, as in Europe, the ability to own armor, horses, and superior weaponry brought one an exalted social status to be carefully maintained. Thus, the Samurai were dedicated to perfecting their martial skills and living by a strict code of honor that supported the feudal system. At the height of the Samurai’s pre-eminence, loyalty to one’s overlord and the ability to defend his property and status, even to the detriment of one’s own property and status, became the pinnacle of honor.

The original soldiers of Japan were called bushi (“warrior”), from the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese character signifying a man of letters and/or arms. The rise of these warriors to the status of a special class began with an interclan struggle in the late 1100s. The Genji and Heike clans were maneuvering for influence in the imperial court, and the Heike managed to obtain the upper hand. In the fighting that ensued, the Genji clan was almost completely destroyed, but two sons managed to escape northward from the area of the capital city, Kyoto. When the elder son, Yoritomo, reached his majority, he rallied his remaining supporters and allied with the clans of northern Honshu that looked down on the imperial clans, which they considered weak and effete. Yoritomo’s return renewed the fighting, and in the second struggle it was the Heike that were defeated.

In 1192 Yoritomo was named shogun (roughly “barbarian-defeating generalissimo”), the supreme military position as personal protector of the emperor. How- ever, as the emperor had more figurative than literal power, the position of shogun came to wield real authority in Japan. What national unity Japan had ever attained, though, came through the population’s belief in the emperor as the descendent of the gods that created the world. Therefore, the shogun could not seize the throne without alienating the people. The emperor could not rule, however, without the military power of the shogun to protect him and enforce the government’s will. Thus, the shogun became the power behind the throne in a mutually dependent relationship.

Yoritomo and his descendants enjoyed a relatively brief ascendancy, but by the middle 1300s factional struggles broke out. For a time there were two rival emperors, each with his warrior supporters. In the latter half of the 1400s, the Ashikaga clan went through an internal power struggle before it took control of the country, though that control was often merely nominal during the century that they ruled. As the emperor and the central government exercised less control over time, the local landed gentry, or daimyo, came to prominence and wielded power in the country- side. By alliances and conquests, these feudal lords enhanced their economic, political, and military positions, until by the late 1500s, there was serious fighting among these leaders, and the emperor had no shogun to protect him or display his authority. It was in the 1500s that the Samurai came to be a true warrior class of professional, full-time soldiers, sworn to their daimyo overlords.

The Samurai tended to dominate the command positions as heavy cavalry, while the mass of soldiers became pikemen. All soldiers, no matter their status or function, carried a sword. For the Samurai warrior, the sword became a symbol of his position, and the Samurai were the only soldiers allowed by law to carry two swords. Anyone not of the Samurai class who carried two swords was liable to be executed. The two swords were the katana, or long sword (averaging about a three-foot blade), and the wakizashi, or short sword (with the blade normally 16–20 inches long). The finest swords became the property of the richest warriors, and being a swordsmith was the most highly respected craft. Both swords were slightly curved with one sharpened edge and a point; they were mainly slashing weapons, although they could be used for stabbing. The short sword in particular was a close-quarters stabbing weapon and also used in seppuku, the Samurai’s ritual suicide. The blades were both strong and flexible, being crafted by hammering the steel thin, folding it over, and rehammering it, sometimes thousands of times. The sword and its expert use attained spiritual importance in the Samurai’s life. The other main weapon in Japanese armies of the time was the naginata, a long-handled halberd used by the infantrymen. It consisted of a wide, curved blade sharpened on one edge and mounted on a long pole. By 1600 this had been largely replaced by the yari, more of a spear. Occasionally, unusual weapons were developed, such as folding fans with razor- sharp edges.

The Samurai wore elaborate suits of armor, made of strips of metal laced with leather. The finished product was lacquered and decorated to such an extent that it not only was weatherproof and resistant to cutting weapons, but it became almost as much a work of art as was a fine sword. Armor proved unable to stop musket balls, however, and became mainly ceremonial after 1600.

Japanese armies also had bowmen, although most archery was practiced from horseback and therefore in the province of the Samurai. By the end of the sixteenth century, however,  Oda  Nobunaga (1534–1582) became the first of the daimyo to effectively adopt firearms. European harquebuses had been introduced to Japan in the 1540s by shipwrecked Portuguese, and Japanese artisans began to copy the design. Nobunaga fielded 3,000 musketeers in a battle in 1575 with such positive effect that the other daimyo rushed to acquire as many of the weapons as possible. The technology advanced little in the following generations, however, owing to Japan’s self-imposed exile from the rest of the world.

Nobunaga, starting with a relatively small landholding in central Japan, schemed and fought his way to become the strongest of the lords. In this time, the daimyo built huge castle/fortresses, equal to or better than anything built in Europe at the time. Nobunaga defeated many of the military religious sects on his way to dominance, but not surprisingly created a number of enemies, which allied and at- tacked his palace in 1582, burning it to the ground with him inside. Nobunaga was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), one of his commanders, who almost succeeded in accomplishing Nobunaga’s dream of unifying Japan under his rule. At his death in 1598 one of his vassals, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took control of half of Hideyoshi’s forces and won the battle of Sekigahara. He was named shogun in 1603—the first to hold that position in years—and finished consolidating his power in 1615 with the capture of Osaka castle, where the last remnants of the defeated Hideyoshi faction held out.

The Tokugawa shogunate lasted until the middle 1800s, when it was dismantled during the Meiji Restoration. This movement returned real power to the emperor and abandoned the traditional feudal state that had kept Japan isolated and technologically backward for more than two and a half centuries. During the Tokugawa period, however, the Samurai both experienced their golden age and sowed the seeds of their own downfall. The Samurai came to hold the ruling administrative positions as well as exercising military functions. The Samurai warrior, who had over time blended the hardiness of the country warrior with the polish of the court, was the pinnacle of culture, learning, and power. The problem was that Tokugawa had succeeded too well, establishing a peace that lasted 250 years. Without the almost constant warfare that had preceded the Tokugawa era, the Samurai warrior had fewer and fewer chances to exercise his profession of arms. He became more of a bureaucrat, and therefore he could not be rewarded in combat or expand his holdings through warfare. The Samurai class in- creased in numbers, but not through “natural selection” in combat, and their larger numbers in a more and more bloated bureaucracy brought about their economic slide. The merchant class grew increasingly wealthy, while the Samurai upper class became impoverished. The tax burden required to operate the government fell on the peasants, who turned to shop keeping rather than follow an unprofitable agricultural life. By the time the American Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1854 and “opened” Japan to the outside world, the artisans and merchants were the only ones in a position to deal with the new reality, and the Samurai’s status in society quickly dropped.

In spite of this setback, the martial attitude engendered by centuries of military rule never completely left the Japanese national psyche. The military became modernized with European weaponry, but the dedication to a martial spirit and professionalism remained strong in the new warrior class. In the 1920s and 1930s, the military came back into power and dominated the government, laying the ground- work for national expansionism to obtain the raw materials necessary to maintain and enlarge their military and industrial base. The cult of the Samurai, bushido (the “Way of the Warrior”), enjoyed a resurgence in the Japanese military. It showed itself in the brutal actions of the Japanese in their dealings with defeated enemies in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, and in their dedication to death before dishonor in serving their emperor. The world saw first-hand the twentieth-century version of the Samurai in the extremely difficult fighting against Japanese soldiers during World War II and in the Japanese use of suicide tactics late in the war in an attempt to save their country from invasion and defeat. Japanese texts on Samurai philosophy and lifestyle, such as Hagakure and The Five Rings, still influence the views of the modern Japanese in their business practices.

References: King, Winston, Zen and the Way of the Sword (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Turnbull, Stephen, Samurai Warriors (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1991); Turnbull, Stephen, The Samurai: A Military History (New York: Macmillan, 1977).

Viking Warrior Women

A number of women warriors show up during the Viking age. There is not a wealth of information available about each one, but the very fact that the literature is peppered with so many of them sends a message. Unfortunately, the tales have been taken from their Norse roots and rewritten through a Christian lens, which spins many of them as cautionary tales to be heeded by good Christian women. Jo Stanley, in an essay about Viking women in her book Bold in Her Breeches, claims that “society was being persuaded that lethal, wild, vengeful, and free-roving ways of living should be given up and that women should accept a meek and home-based role, and a Christian one at that.”

The Norse and Icelandic sagas, passed down orally but eventually written down, offer another option to explore the Nordic view of women, although the stories were almost certainly meddled with by Christian scholars, whose work reflected contemporary worldviews rather than true accounts of the Viking age. They do not for the most part cover pirate women, instead relating the tales of Aud the Deep-Minded, who was known as a settler; Freydis, the sister of Leif Erikson; and other women. Viking women wove tapestries, which have newly been the subject of research: textile as text. Stories told in cloth, although they do not always feature women, are presented from a woman’s perspective and are a compelling window into the mind of the storyteller. The stories that exist about these women may have been put down with a clear agenda in mind, but the reader is free to imagine what the authors left out and to attempt to construct another version of these tales, one free of religious or political motive.

In book 3 of the Gesta Danorum, the reader is presented with Sela, who we are told is a “skilled warrior with experience in roving.” Her brother, Koll (sometimes called Koller or Kolles), king of Norway, is jealous of the pirate Horwendil’s (or Orvendil) success and wants to eclipse him in popularity. (It is telling that a king could feel envy for the life of a pirate.) Koll sets off with his fleet to find Horwendil, and eventually the two run into each other. Rather than decimate their fleets in battle, the two men decide to settle their difference in single hand-to-hand combat. They promise to fight with honor and bury the loser as befits his station. When Horwendil bests Koll, he decides (for reasons not given in the narrative) to chop off another limb of their family tree and fight Sela, too, who is called in some translations “a warring Amazon and an accomplished pirate.”

Why was Sela in close proximity to the fight? Was she sailing in Koll’s fleet at the time? Did Koll choose her as a sort of second in the duel with Horwendil? Saxo’s account leaves out all these details. Some versions of the story claim that Sela and Koll were bitter rivals, one on each side of the law. Whether or not they disliked each other, it is generally agreed that both siblings were slain by the pirate Horwendil, although the lavish funeral rites bestowed on Koll are not mentioned in Sela’s case.

Book 8 offers another case of sibling rivalry—this time between Tesondus (also known as Thrond) and his sister Rusla. In some translations, Rusla is called Rusila, although Rusila appears to be a different maiden who, along with her sister Stikla, fought King Olaf for his kingdom. Rusla is also sometimes linked to the mythological figure Ingean Ruadh (the Red Maiden). Tesondus had lost the crown of Norway to the Danish king Omund, which galled Rusla to no end. She could not bear to see her beloved country taken over by Danish rule, and she was annoyed that her brother seemed content to let it happen. So she decided that if her brother was not going to take any action, she would have to do it herself. Rusla declared war on her people who had declared allegiance to the Danes. Omund was not pleased with this dissension and sent a unit of his best soldiers to put an end to her rebellion. Rusla destroyed the Danish contingent, and that gave her a brilliant idea. Why not aim a bit higher than independence from the Danish? Why not take over Denmark and rule both nations herself instead?

Fortune turned her back on Rusla, whose invasion of Denmark did not go well, forcing her to turn tail and run to save herself and her troops. As she retreated from the Danes, she ran into her brother, whom she overpowered in short order, stripping him of all his ships and troops but refusing to kill Tesondus himself; that decision would prove to be her fatal mistake. King Omund sent his fleet to Norway to attack Rusla’s fleet, and again she was defeated by the Danish forces. As she retreated for a second time, her brother Tesondus attacked and killed her. Some stories claim that he beat her to death with oars. For taking care of Rusla for him, Omund gave former rival Tesondus a governorship.

This story has more meat to it than Sela’s story, but there are not enough details to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. What was Rusla’s life like before she took to the sea? Did she regard the repulsion of Danish forces as her patriotic duty or a splendid adventure? When Omund’s forces followed her back home to Norway for a second battle, did she realize that she would not beat them? Did surrender ever cross her mind? And why did she spare Tesondus’s life? Could she have believed that, when their places were reversed, he would do the same for her?

Book 8 also tells of three women longship captains, who, although they had the bodies of women, had been blessed with “the souls of men.” Wisna, Webiorg, and Hetha were all fighters by land as well as sea. Each woman receives only a few lines of text devoted to her. Wisna is said to have been made a standard-bearer in battle and then to have lost her right hand in combat. Webiorg felled a champion before being killed in battle, and Hetha was appointed the ruler of Zealand (part of modern-day Denmark). Although there is almost no information about these women, the scanty tidbits are juicy enough to pique the reader’s interest.

While it may be initially surprising that this warrior culture, packed to the hilt with testosterone-laden images and heroes, had so many women warriors, a look at the religious structure at the time reveals that women were always, at least symbolically, part of battle. Yggdrasil, the tree of life, was the center of the Norse world. At the tree’s roots lived the Norns, mythical women who shaped the destinies of humans and even gods. These women were similar to the Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The powerful male gods, such as Thor and Odin, were subject to the whims of the Norns. In their hands they held life, death, and everything in between. It seems that, in Norse mythology, women ran the world.

Besides the Norns, Norse mythology also includes the Valkyries. These attendants of Odin moved among the Viking battlefields, selecting who would live to fight another day and whose battle was permanently ended. Among the slain, they also chose who would go on to glorious Valhalla, the big dining hall in the sky where warriors prepared to help Odin during Ragnarök, which is the Viking end of the world. The unselected dead were escorted to Fólkvangr, a field of the afterlife ruled over by goddess Freyja. The Valkyries are portrayed as beautiful and noble, helping weary warriors to their final destination, but they are also sinister—some early tales show them gleefully cackling while weaving a tapestry of fate made of human entrails and severed heads. They exist in various permutations across many pre-Christian traditions but have remained in Western popular culture almost exclusively as Viking Valkyries. These women, existing alongside men and performing a vital part of the battle rituals, demonstrate an acceptance by the Old Norse that women did have a part to play in war.

Modern research suggests that Valkyries were neither male or female but a third unnamed gender, which had masculine attributes while being physically female. Original depictions of Valkyries support this assertion and are a far cry from the sexy, undeniably female bodies shown in art today. Mortal Viking women seem to share this mix of masculine traits and feminine bodies, much more so than originally thought. Marianne Moen’s study of grave sites suggests that the positioning of grave sites and grave goods suggests a smaller difference between men and women than originally believed. She cites Cedrenus, an author from 970 BCE, who witnessed a battle between the Rus and the Byzantines and claimed that the Byzantines were surprised by the number of women they found among the dead on the battlefield. Even the traditional roles held by women, keeper of the keys or lady of the house, may have been more public (male) than private (female) than previously thought due to the role of houses in trade; a Viking woman would have been more like a store or factory manager than a housekeeper, since houses were used as trade centers by the Vikings. Moen’s research presents some new possibilities for understanding Viking life that are worthy of continued study.


A major pirate woman from this era was Ladgerda (also called Lagertha). Book 9 of the Gesta Danorum tells her story, which starts inauspiciously. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Swedish king Frey kills a Norwegian king and, in an especially cruel move, puts the dead king’s womenfolk into a brothel so that they might be publicly humiliated. Ragnar of Denmark is moved by the women’s plight and goes to Norway to break them out—and cause some havoc for the Swedish king Frey. When the news of Ragnar’s coming reaches the brothel, many of the women dress as men, sneak out, and join his army. One of them is Ladgerda, who “fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.”

Ragnar must have been shocked upon arriving at the brothel. He expects to be hailed as a strong and handsome hero by the bound and nearly nude women, who would weep in gratitude for his selfless rescue plan. Instead, he finds an armed team of warriors already in place, ready to aid him. Even if he weathered that change of plans, he would have been really surprised to discover that his fierce new comrades were actually the very women he was meant to be saving. It was enough to knock any man down a few pegs, but it appears Ragnar did not worry too much about it; he was too busy engaging in a furious battle—with the women’s help, of course.

Ragnar and the women win the skirmish. Afterward, taking a leaf from the fairy-tale playbook, he goes on a hunt, asking everyone he can find who the mystery woman was: the one who had caused him to “gain the victory by the might of just one woman.” When he discovers that she is Ladgerda, who is not only brave and gorgeous but also of noble birth, he resolves to woo her. She is unimpressed with him but seems to know that rejecting him outright is not particularly safe, so she allows him to woo her as she installs a vicious dog and a bear in front of her dwelling to protect herself from any unwanted visitors (namely, suitors). Ragnar, apparently unable to take a hint, goes to her, kills the bear, chokes the dog, and grabs Ladgerda in his arms. The two marry and have three children.

Lest the reader worry that Ladgerda suffered an ignoble fate, be assured that the story is not over. Her husband leaves her for another woman, apparently realizing at last that a wife who puts out wild beasts to keep men away might not be that into him. However, when Ragnar gets embroiled in a civil war back home in Denmark, he sends to Norway for help. Guess who rides in and saves the day? Ragnar’s ex-wife, Ladgerda, who turns the tide of the battle with her 120 ships, ensuring a victory for Ragnar. However, the reunion of the old lovers is not a sweet one—after the battle, Ladgerda stabs her former husband with a spearhead she has concealed in her dress. She then wipes the blood off herself and claims the Danish throne, for, as Saxo Grammaticus tells us, “this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”

Ladgerda’s story includes many more details than do the accounts of most of the other women who are featured in the Gesta Danorum, but it still does not feel like enough. Her actions demonstrate clearly just how she felt about being forcibly married, abandoned, and then summoned to help her ex-husband. But what happened in between all these episodes? What became of this remarkably gutsy woman? Some scholars have pointed out the similarity of her tale with the story of the goddess Thorgerd, the subject of several myths. If Ladgerda is in fact a goddess and not a mortal woman, her story makes a bit more sense. She alone among the warrior maidens is able to get the better of a man who desires her and rule a kingdom. She is the only one who gets a happy ending. A little pagan divine intervention might have been the only way for a Viking woman to come out on top in this collection of stories about bringing wild women in line with Christian values. Goddess or mortal, Ladgerda’s pluck, skill, and ambition make her an irresistible heroine.

The Roman War Machine – Fifth Century BC

Roman infantry are described by Livy as organised into centuries by class, performing manoeuvres on the battlefield and frequently pressing their officers to provide more aggressive orders rather than charging disobediently. They are therefore classed as regular and the 1st class, equipped as armoured hoplites, as superior. The 2nd and 3rd class had the oval Scutum as their shield instead of the round hoplon or aspis and had only minimal armour. The 4th class are described by Livy as having spear and javelins but no shield, but by Dionyssos as also having shields. Livy describes the 5th class as slingers, Dionysios as slingers and javelinmen.

At the end of the fifth century BC, Rome was still, like the towns around her, emerging from an agricultural society driven by an agrarian economy. Rome was different because she became increasingly larger than her enemies and she was extraordinarily receptive to outside influences – melding the best facets and successful practices from friend and foe alike. Militarily, Rome had a facility for adapting tactically and developing weaponry and armour based on extensive combat experience. Every battle fought, even those she lost, was a lesson in military science for the Romans.

In early summer each year, the army was summoned and trooped out to the latest theatre of war. Every autumn, the army, or what was left of it, was discharged until the call to arms the following year. The armies were usually led by two consuls, or by consular tribunes, or by dictators in times of tumultus, times of dire crisis. These consuls usually operated in concert with each other, not always harmoniously. They often brought no experience in leading an army or prosecuting a campaign. Time spent in the army or navy was simply another rung on the ladder of the cursus honorum, the political career path of the elite Roman. The army, and war, came with the career, and the successful execution of the military element went some way to contributing to longterm glory and success. This, in turn, fostered a belligerent attitude amongst Roman politicians-cum-commanders. Victory in war meant success in politics; success in politics was often dependent on victory on the battlefield.

The lower ranks of the army, the heavily armed infantrymen known as classis, were self-financing and recruited from farmers. Below the classis was the infra classem, skirmishers with less and lighter armour which required a smaller financial outlay. Above the classes were the equites, patricians with some wealth who made up the majority of the cavalry, officers and staff. Their money often came from land ownership. Soldiers were unpaid in the early days, providing their own rations, arms and armour.

War was not kind to the classes. It usually meant that they were away from their lands, forced to neglect their very livelihood for increasingly long stretches of military service. Moreover, they suffered virtual ruin when their farms were depradated by enemy action. The longer they served, the greater the chance of being killed or badly wounded and disabled, rendering them unfit to work on their lands. A ready supply of slaves to work on the lands of the wealthy was fuelled by prisoners of war, reducing the Roman or Italian agricultural worker’s value in the job market to little better than slaves themselves. Military duty plunged some classes into debt and led to virtual bondage to patricians – an ignominious semi-servile arrangement, nexum, which forced a farmer or farm worker to provide labour on the security of his person. Defaulting led to enslavement. Richer landowners could bear losses better as they were the beneficiaries of this bond-debt process, which allowed them to procure yet more land and cheap labour at the expense of the classes and infra classes. In short, the rich just got richer, a process helped also by their favourable share of increasing amounts of booty. Once Rome had conquered the Italian peninsula, the poorer workers could not even be helped out by land distribution; after 170 BC, land distribution stopped altogether. This, of course, led to resentment, which was only assuaged by personal allocations from tribunes and generals. Land allocations overseas were not considered an option until the time of Julius Caesar.

Oakley has tabulated the number of prisoners of war captured and subsequently enslaved by Rome in the nineteen battles between 297 and 293 BC, and recorded in Livy: approximately 70,000. Even allowing for some exaggeration, this clearly illustrates the impact conquest had on the careers and employment prospects of many agricultural workers. It did not stop there, of course: when Agrigentum was captured in 262 BC, no less than 25,000 prisoners were reportedly taken, all swelling the already competitive job market.

Roman warfare was then inseparable from Roman politics and from Roman economics; land questions and the Conflict of the Orders provided a constant soundtrack to the early wars.

The soldier depended on the value of and income from his land for financial clout, the ability to qualify for service and pay for his armour and weapons. The Conflict of the Orders ran from 494 BC to 287 BC and was a 200-year battle fought by the plebeians to win political equality. The secessio plebis was the powerful bargaining tool with which the plebeians effectively brought Rome grinding to a halt and left the patricians and aristocrats to get on with running the city and the economy themselves – the Roman equivalent to a general strike. The first secessio, in 494 BC, saw the plebeians down weapons and withdraw military support during the wars with the Aequi, Sabines and Volsci. That year marked the first real breakthrough between the people and the patricians, when some plebeian debts were cancelled. The patricians yielded more power when the office of Tribune of the Plebeians was created. This was the first government position to be held by the plebeians, and plebeian tribunes were sacrosanct during their time in office.

Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king, may have gone some way to militarizing Rome when he divided the population into wealth groups – their rank in the army determined by what weapons and armour they could afford to buy, with the wealthiest serving in the cavalry due in part to the cost of horses. Servius was certainly responsible for changes in the organization of the Roman army: he shifted the emphasis from cavalry to infantry and with it the inevitable modification in battlefield tactics. Before Servius, the army comprised 600 or so horse reinforced by heavily-armed infantry and lightly-armed skirmishers; it was little more than a militia of landowning infantry wielding pilum, shield and sword (gladius), operating like Greek hoplites in phalanx formation. The rest were composed of eighteen centuries of equites and thirty-two centuries of slingers. (A century was made up of ten conturbenia, amounting to eighty or so men.) The Etruscans, and then the Romans, absorbed Greek influences when they adopted full body armour, the hoplite shield and a thrusting spear – essential for phalanx-style close combat warfare.

Men without property, assessed by headcount, capite censi, were not welcome in the army, in much the same way that debtors, convicted criminals, women and slaves were excluded. However, slaves were recruited in exceptional circumstances, notably after the calamitous battle of Cannae and the manpower shortage it caused. Servius also reorganized the army into centuries and formed the parallel political assemblies, reinforcing the inextricable connection between Roman politics and Roman military. His ground-breaking census established who was fit – physically and financially – to serve in the Roman army. Recruitment extended from between age 17 and 46 (iuniores), and between 47 and 60 (seniores), the more elderly constituting a kind of home guard. The lower classes were not required to report with full body armour; this led to the use of the long body shield, the scutum, for protection, instead of the circular hoplite shield.