Revolution and the Iroquois

As the Revolution broke over America, the Indians were not at first directly involved in the colonists’ struggle against the mother country. When a group of Boston citizens dressed as Indians boarded British ships and threw their cargoes of tea into Boston Harbor, Guy Johnson explained the resulting crisis to the Iroquois, gathered in conference in January 1775. He called it a dispute “solely occasioned by some people, who notwithstanding a law of the King and his wise Men, would not let some Tea land, but destroyed it, on which he was angry, and sent some Troops with the General [Thomas Gage], who you have long known, to see the Laws executed and bring the people to their sences, and as he is proceeding with great wisdom, to shew them their great mistake, I expect it will soon be over.”

In this period, the Indians were not asked to take sides, and, indeed, they were reluctant to do so. The Oneidas informed Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, “We are unwilling to join on either side of such a contest, for we love you both – old England and new. Should the great King of England apply to us for our aid – we shall deny him – and should the Colonists apply – we shall refuse.” But while the powerful Iroquois were staying aloof, some of the minor tribes were being drawn into the vortex. During the winter of 1774-75, George Washington recruited soldiers from among the Stockbridge, Passamaquoddy, St. John’s, and Penobscot Indians. The Continental Congress, meeting in July 1775, organized an Indian department modeled on the British superintendencies, though creating three (northern, middle, and southern) rather than two, as in the British system. The Congress also drafted a speech that could be delivered by the commissioners to any nations in their district. The Congress asserted that the disturbances were “a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don’t wish you to take up the hatchet against the king’s troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join on either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep.”

Yet both sides began to make unofficial efforts to elicit the support of the Indians. In May 1775, Ethan Allen of Vermont urged the Iroquois to join him against the king’s troops: “I know how to shute and ambush just like Indian and want your Warriors to come and see me and help me fight Regulars You know they Stand all along close Together Rank and file and my men fight so as Indians Do and I want your Warriors to Join with me and my Warriors like Brothers and Ambush the Regulars, if you will I will Give you Money Blankets Tomehawks Knives and Paint and the Like as much as you say because they first killed our men when it was Peace time.”

By July, the British too were inviting the Iroquois to “feast on a Bostonian and drink his Blood.” As a preliminary substitute for the real thing, the British provided a roast ox and some wine. By the autumn of 1775, General Gage had instructed Guy Johnson and John Stuart (his superintendent in the southern department) to bring the Indians into the war when opportunity offered.

With British and Americans both pressing the Iroquois to join their sides, the Indians found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. In the summer of 1776, the Tory colonel John Butler, soon to be hated by the Revolutionists as the leader of the infamous Butler’s Rangers, exhorted the Iroquois to join the king’s forces against the colonists. Reiterating the argument that the French had used during the earlier conflict, Butler warned that the colonists’ “intention is to take all your Lands from you and destroy your people, for they are all mad, foolish, crazy and full of deceit – they told you last Fall at Pittsburgh that they took the Tom Hawk out of your Hands and buried it deep and transplanted the Tree of Peace over it. I, therefore, now pluck up that Tree, dig up the Tom Hawk, and replace it in your hands with the Edge toward them that you may treat them as Enemies.”

But the Iroquois rejected the British advice. Chief Cawconcaucawheteda, or Flying Crow, told them: “You say their Powder is rotten – We have found it good. You say they are all mad, foolish, wicked, and deceitful – I say you are so and they are wise for you want us to destroy ourselves in your War and they advise us to live in Peace. Their advice we intend to follow.”

As it turned out, the Iroquois were drawn into the war, but not as a unit by one side. Instead, the famous unity of the league, which had given the Iroquois such commanding strength in previous years, was broken. Four of the Six Nations – the Mohawks, Cayugas, Senecas, and Onondagas – finally entered the war on the British side, while the Oneidas and Tuscaroras joined forces with the Americans. In July 1776, Colonel Guy Johnson returned from England with Thayendanegea, the Mohawk chief known to the whites as Joseph Brant, who had accompanied him on a visit to the mother country. Brant had been lionized by London society; his portrait had been painted by George Romney, and he came home dedicated to the British cause. Arriving in New York, which was then under siege by Washington, Brant fought gallantly at the Battle of Long Island and then slipped through the American lines, returning to his homeland, where he urged his tribesmen to join the king’s cause against the rebellious colonists. The decision of four of the six formerly confederated nations in favor of the British took place at a great congress in July 1777, at which Colonel Butler supplied the Indians with rum, provisions, and arms.

The commitment and division of the Six Nations was sealed in blood shortly thereafter when, on August 6, 1777, the American general Nicholas Herkimer, with Oneida and Tuscarora support, went to the relief of beleaguered Fort Stanwix, at the head of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. At Oriskany, he faced British troops supported by Indians from the other Iroquois nations. Though the British checked Herkimer’s advance, their native allies suffered heavy casualties, and seventeen of the thirty-three Indians killed were Senecas. Among the casualties were several chiefs. Measured in terms of Indian values, where avoidance of casualties on one’s own side rather than inflicting of casualties on the other, or taking territory, was the highest accomplishment, the battle was a disaster. But even more agonizing was the fact that brother was fighting brother. The great peace of the Iroquois Confederacy had finally been dissolved.

Shortly after Oriskany, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras again proved helpful to the patriot cause by joining General Horatio Gates’s army in time to blunt British General John Burgoyne’s thrust down the Hudson Valley from Canada. During this campaign, the Indian followers of Burgoyne murdered Jane McCrea, a comely American girl. The incident, immediately seized upon by American propagandists, helped rouse the colonists to the sentiment made famous by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: that the king had “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontier the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

During 1778 and 1779, combined British-Indian sorties led by Butler and Brant evoked memories of French and Indian raids during the previous century. Striking silently out of the forest when least expected, the attackers devastated outlying communities such as that at Cherry Valley, New York. The familiar scenes of burning houses, scalped victims, and terrified prisoners were repeated again and again.

General Washington, stung by the effectiveness of the Tory-Indian raids, determined to teach the Iroquois a lesson. In a brilliant strategic and tactical move, he sent General John Sullivan into the supposedly inaccessible western reaches of the Iroquois country to destroy villages and cornfields. Rather than fighting his way through one Iroquois nation after another by the usual route of approach from the east along the Mohawk River, Sullivan went up the Susquehanna River from the south, directly into the territory of the Seneca nation, the most numerous and powerful of the Six Nations and guardian of the western gate of the confederacy. After trying the strength of the invading army, the Senecas prudently abandoned their villages and allowed Sullivan’s army to wreak a havoc that deprived many of the natives of food and shelter for the succeeding winter.

The indirect effects of the campaign were devastating. Years later, the Seneca chief Cornplanter said to Washington, “When your army entered the country of the Six Nations we called you Town Destroyer; and to this day when that name is heard our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.”

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Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire

Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire, in order to see it in its proper context, beginning in 988, a few words about the Byzantine Empire itself are needed first.

The Byzantine Empire (also known as Byzantium, as the Eastern Roman Empire, and as the medieval Roman Empire) was the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was centered on the capital of Constantinople but scholars cannot say precisely when the Roman Empire ended and when the Byzantine Empire began. If a date is needed, however, the year 395 can conveniently be used. It was then, after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, that the Roman Empire was divided for the last time and its western and eastern halves were permanently separated.

The western half came to an end in 476, when the Germanic Roman general Odocar deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus. The eastern half, however, would go on to become the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Indeed, it would endure until the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.

The Byzantine Army was the direct descendant of the Roman army and was among the most effective military forces in western Eurasia for much of the Middle Ages. One of the reasons for its great success is that every time it came up against a strong enemy, it welcomed that enemy as a potential new source of mercenary recruits. Its opponents included Goths; Huns; Vandals; Ostrogoths; Avars; Slavs; Rus, i.e., Vikings from what is now Sweden; Normans; Seljeks; Anatolian beyliks, i.e., the inhabitants of a small Turkish principality; Ottomans; and warriors from Sassanid Persia, the Muslim Caliphate, Bulgaria, and the Crusader states. The Byzantine Empire recruited mercenaries from among its own allies, too. These soldiers included Bulgars, men from the Crusader states, Anatolian beyliks, Khazars, Avars, Rus, and Magyars [Hungarians]. It will be noted that some of the above were both the Byzantine Army’s opponents and its allies, though at different times.

The mercenaries hired by the Byzantines were first known as the foederati (“allies” in Latin—by the 6th century this term came to mean units of non–Roman, as well as Roman, mercenaries brigaded together) and then as the Hetairoi (“Companionships” in Greek). They were mainly assigned to the Imperial Guard. This formidable force was structured into “Great Companionships,” “Middle Companionships,” and “Minor Companionships,” each commanded by their respective “Companionship lords.” Mercenaries may also have been recruited along religious lines, e.g., from the Christian subjects of the Byzantine Empire, from Christian foreigners, and from non–Christians. Mercenary units were organized by their place of origin: Inglinoi (Englishmen), Phragkoi (Franks), Skythikoi (Scythians), and Latinikoi (“Latins,” referring here to Germans and Normans), and Ethiopians. The Skythikoi were often used as a police force in Constantinople.

The Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in the 10th to the 14th centuries, was one of the most famous mercenary corps of history and was certainly the most famous of all the Byzantine regiments. It is thought that the term “Varangian” comes from an archaic Norse word variously translated as “confidence,” “vow of fidelity,” or “ally,” and refers to a group of warriors and traders who had sworn allegiance to their leader and fellowship to each other. Interestingly, what is now the Baltic Sea was in earlier times known as the Varangian Sea.

The first clear glimpse of them comes in 988, when the Emperor Basil II (978–1025) asked Vladimir I of Kiev for military assistance to help defend his throne. Vladimir sent 6,000 warriors, known as “Rus,” to the Emperor. The word “Rus” may have come from an Old Norse term meaning “the men who row.” They were such excellent fighters that they soon became the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

Under Basil II, the Byzantine Empire built up a largely mercenary army, generally abandoning the earlier system under which territorial forces defended the provinces and regulars from Constantinople reinforced them when needed. Because Basil II regarded mercenaries as politically more dependable than regular troops, his reliance on them would persist for a long time. The Varangian Guard greatly profited from his support and was paid very well indeed. The Icelandic Laxdale Saga, for example, gives this report on the homecoming in 1030 of the folkloric hero Bolli Bollason, who went to Byzantium as a mercenary recruit and eventually rose to become a senior officer of the Varangian Guard.

The saga says:

Bolli brought back with him much wealth and many precious things that lords abroad had given him. Bolli was so great a man for show when he came back from this journey that he would wear no clothes but those made of scarlet and fur, and all his weapons were adorned with gold: he was called Bolli the Great….

Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on guilt saddles, and were a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king [i.e., the Emperor] had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter [the name of his sword] girt on him, the hilt of which was adorned with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.

Anna Comnena wrote of the 11th century Varangian Guardsmen:

They regarded loyalty to the Emperors and the protection of their persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust and inheritance handed down from generation to generation; this allegiance they preserve inviolate and will never brook the slightest hint of betrayal.

The commander of the Varangian Guard was awarded the title of Akolouthos. Literally, this meant the “Follower” of the Emperor, but in practice it meant the man who stood closest to the Emperor on formal occasions and who served as his most important bodyguard. The tall, fierce men of the Varangian Guard were initially of Scandinavian origin but after the Norman Conquest of 1066, many displaced Anglo-Saxons joined the Varangian Guard, too.

The Varangian Guard demonstrated its worth in the battle of Beroia in 1122 in what is now Bulgaria. Led by Emperor John II Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire, the Varangian Guard won that fight against the Pechenegs. These were men from the Russian steppes who had invaded the Byzantine Empire by crossing the Danube frontier and entering Byzantine territory. The Pechenegs fought as waves of horse archers, shooting arrows continuously and using their laager [wagon fort] as an arrow-depot; as a rallying-point; and, if necessary, as a holdout for a last stand.

After a very hard fight, the Byzantines forced the Pechenegs to take refuge in their laager, but there they put up such a stiff resistance that the Byzantines could not overrun them until the Varangian Guard arrived and used their broad-axes (also known as Danish axes) with shafts up to 6 feet long to hack their way through the circle of wagons, forcing the Pechenegs to flee for their lives. Rather than massacring the surviving Pechenegs, however, the Varangian Guard simply took them prisoner and enrolled them in the Byzantine army.

In 1167 in what is now Serbia, the Byzantine Empire decisively defeated the Kingdom of Hungary at the battle of Sirmium. According to the contemporary Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the Byzantine army then consisted of one-third foreign and two-thirds native units. This battle involved regular Byzantine troops, Turks, Cumans, Imperial guard units (including the Varangian Guard), Italian mercenary lancers from Lombardy, Serbian infantry and cavalry, German mercenaries, and even some Western mercenary knights. The net result was that the Hungarians were forced to sue for peace on Byzantine terms; to recognize Byzantine control over Bosnia, Croatia, and related areas; and to pay tribute to Byzantium and to provide troops for it whenever so requested.

The Varangian Guard was also instrumental in repelling the Crusader assaults of the First Crusade (1096–1099). In 1204, however, combined Crusader armies of Franks and Venetians besieged and captured Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). Bad weather had delayed the initial Crusader attack on the city but later a strong north wind and good seamanship allowed Venetian ships to moor right alongside the city’s wall. This feat enabled the attackers to seize some of the towers along the wall. After short but sharp battle, about 70 Crusaders managed to fight their way into Constantinople itself. At the same time, other Crusaders were busy knocking holes through the wall—just big enough for a few knights at a time to scramble through them. The Venetians also managed to scale the wall from the sea, in the face of extremely bloody fighting with the Varangians.

The victorious Crusaders burned, looted, and vandalized Constantinople. Under the terms of a prearranged treaty, the Byzantine Empire was then divided between Venice and the Crusader leaders, and what was called the Latin Empire of Constantine was thus established. Much of the Byzantine aristocracy, which was exceedingly unpopular with the common people of the city, fled from the city. The contemporary Byzantine historian and eye-witness Nicetas Choniates (himself an aristocrat) says:

The peasants and common riff-raff jeered at those of us from Byzantium and were thick-headed enough to call our miserable poverty and nakedness equality…. Many were only too happy to accept this outrage, saying “Blessed be the Lord that we have grown rich,” and buying up for next to nothing the property their fellow-countrymen were forced to offer for sale….

After the loss of Constantinople, the Varangian Guard was disbanded as a permanent major fighting force and subsequently performed only secondary or ceremonial duties. Some of its men served the Nicean Empire and the Despotate of Epirus in 1205–1261. Others defended Ainos against the Bulgarians in 1265 and were bodyguards for Emperor John V in 1351. The Varangian Guard was mentioned as participating in imperial ceremonies in Byzantium in 1351. Finally, there is some evidence that English mercenaries and mixed-blood descendants of Varangians served together. For example,” axe-bearing soldiers of British race” are mentioned by Byzantine envoys in Rome in 1404.

Nader Shah I

Painting of Nader Shah, he was Shah of Iran from 1736 to 1747, he created the Afsharid dynasty which was an Iranian empire of Turkic origin.

By this time a young warlord called Nader Qoli, from the old Afshar Qezelbash tribe, had risen from obscure beginnings through the chaos and disorder of the times to become a local power in the province of Khorasan in the north-east. Contemporaries described him as tall and handsome, with intelligent dark eyes; he was ruthless with his enemies, but magnanimous to those who submitted, and capable of charming those he needed to impress, when necessary. He was energetic and always happiest in the saddle; a fine horseman who loved horses. He had a prodigiously loud voice (he was once credited with putting an army of rebels to flight by the sound of his voice alone—until the rebels heard him giving orders for the attack, they believed they were only confronting a subordinate).6 The Safavid cause regained some impetus in the autumn of 1726 when this stentorian commander joined forces with Tahmasp (the son of Shah Sultan Hosein, who been named Shah by his supporters but had been chased up and down northern Iran by the Afghans and Ottomans) and reconquered Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan. In recognition of his services, Tahmasp named Nader Tahmasp Qoli Khan, which means ‘the slave of Tahmasp’. It was an honour to be given the name of royalty in this way, but Tahmasp Qoli Khan was to prove an over-mighty servant. By contrast with Nader, Tahmasp combined the faults of his father and grandfather; he was an ineffectual, lazy, vindictive alcoholic. The usual upbringing had taken its usual effect. One of Tahmasp’s courtiers commented at this time that he would never make a success of his reign because he was always drunk and no-one was in a position to correct him.7 After consolidating his position by making a punitive campaign to cow the Abdali Afghans of Herat, and having established his dominance at Tahmasp’s court, by the autumn of 1729 Nader was finally ready to attack the Afghan forces that were occupying Isfahan. An eyewitness account from this time, from the Greek merchant and traveller Basile Vatatzes, gives a vivid impression of the daily exercises Nader had imposed on the army, to prepare them for battle. We know that he made these routine for his troops throughout his career, but no other source describes the exercises in such detail.

Vatatzes wrote that Nader would enter the exercise area on his horse, and would nod in greeting to his officers. He would halt his horse and sit silently for some time, examining the assembled troops. Finally he would turn to the officers and ask what battle formations or weapons the troops would practise with that day. Then the exercises would begin:

And they would attack from various positions, and they would do wheels and counter-wheels, and close up formation, and charges, and disperse formation, and then close up again on the same spot; and flights; and in these flights they would make counterattacks, quickly rallying together the dispersed troops… And they exercised all sorts of military manoeuvres on horseback, and they would use real weapons, but with great care so as not to wound their companions.

As well as practising movement in formation, the horsemen also showed their skill with individual weapons: lance, sword, shield and bow. As a target for their arrows a glass ball was put at the top of a pole, and the men would ride toward it at the gallop, and try to hit it. Few could, but when Nader performed the exercise he would gallop along, opening and closing his arms like wings as he handled the bow and the quiver, and hit the target two or three times in three or four attempts, looking ‘like an eagle’. The cavalry exercises lasted three hours. The infantry also exercised together:

the infantry—I mean those that carried muskets—would get together in their own units and they would shoot their guns at a target and exercise continuously. If [Nader] saw an ordinary soldier consistently on top form he would promote him to be a leader of 100 men or a leader of 50 men. He encouraged all the soldiers toward bravery, ability and experience, and in simple words he himself gave an example of strong character and military virtue.

Vatatzes’ description dwells on cavalry manoeuvres and the display of individual weapon skills because these were dramatic, but his description of infantry training and the expenditure of costly powder and ball in exercises is significant, showing Nader’s concern to maximise the firepower of his troops, which was to prove crucial. This passage also makes plain the care he took with the selection of good officers, and their promotion by merit. For the army to act quickly, intelligently and flexibly under his orders, it was essential to have good officers to transmit them. Three hours a day of manoeuvres, over time, brought Nader’s men to a high standard of control and discipline, so that on the battlefield they moved and fought almost as extensions of his own mind. Vatatzes shows the way Nader impressed on the men what they had to do by personal example: a principle he followed in battle too. Training, firepower, discipline, control and personal example were part of the key to his success in war. Nader’s transformation of the army was already well advanced.

By the end of 1729 Nader’s army had defeated the Afghans in three battles, and had retaken Isfahan. Tahmasp was reinstalled in the old capital as Shah. But before Nader agreed to pursue the defeated Afghans, he forced Tahmasp to concede the right to collect taxes to support the army. The right to levy taxes enabled Nader to establish a state within the state, based on the army.

Nader duly finished off the remnants of the Afghan occupying force. He went on to throw the Ottoman Turks out of western Persia, before turning rapidly east to conquer Herat. In all these campaigns, his modernised forces, strong in gunpowder weapons, outclassed their opponents, showing themselves able to overcome the ferocity of the Afghan cavalry charges and the attacks of the provincial Ottoman troops. But while he was in Herat, he learned that Tahmasp, in his absence, had renewed the war with the Ottomans, had allowed himself to be defeated, and had then concluded a humiliating peace with the Ottomans. Nader issued a manifesto repudiating the treaty, and marched west. It is striking that he declared himself publicly in this way and sought popular support for his action—a modern moment which argues against those who deny the existence of any but local and dynastic loyalties in this period.

Arriving at length in Isfahan in the late summer of 1732, having prepared what was to come with typical care, Nader fooled Tahmasp into a false sense of security and got him drunk. He then displayed the Safavid Shah in this disreputable state to the Shi‘a courtiers and army officers. The assembled notables, prompted by Nader, declared Tahmasp unfit to rule, and elevated his infant son Abbas to the throne instead. Nader continued as generalissimo to this infant, and announced at the coronation his intention to ‘throw reins around the necks of the rulers of Kandahar, Bokhara, Delhi and Istanbul’ on his behalf. Those present may have thought this to be vain boasting, but events were to prove them wrong.

Nader’s first priority was to attack the Ottomans again and restore the traditional frontiers of Persia in the west and north. In his first campaign in Ottoman Iraq he met a setback; a powerful army including some of the best troops held centrally by the Ottoman state marched east to relieve Baghdad under an experienced commander. This was warfare of a different order to that Nader had experienced up to that time. He was overconfident, divided his army outside Baghdad in an attempt to prevent supplies getting through to the besieged city, and suffered a serious defeat. He withdrew, but within a few months, replacing lost men and equipment with a ruthless efficiency that caused much suffering among the hapless peasants and townspeople that had to pay for it, Nader renewed the Turkish war, and defeated the Ottoman forces near Kirkuk. Moving north, he then inflicted a devastating defeat on a new Ottoman army near Yerevan in June 1735. In the negotiations that followed a truce was agreed on the basis of the old frontiers that had existed before 1722, and the Ottomans withdrew. The Russians, who had made an alliance with Nader against the Ottomans, were satisfied with the performance of their ally and had already withdrawn from the Persian lands along the Caspian coast (their regiments having lost many men to disease in the humid climate of Gilan).

With the exception of Kandahar, Nader had now restored control over all the traditional territories of Safavid Persia. He decided the time was right to make himself Shah, and did so by means of an acclamation by all the great nobles, tribal chiefs and senior clerics of Persia at an assembly on the Moghan plain. There was little dissent; but the chief mullah was overheard to have spoken privately in favour of the continuation of Safavid rule, and was strangled. The infant Abbas was deposed, and the rule of the Safavid dynasty at last came to an end. It is noteworthy that despite Nader’s later reputation for tyrannical cruelty, and with the exception of the unfortunate chief mullah (whose execution carried its own political message), he achieved his rise to power almost without the use of political violence, unlike many of those who preceded him and came after him. He brought about the deposition of Tahmasp and the coronation at the Moghan not by assassination, but by careful preparation, propaganda, cunning manouevre and the presence of overbearing military force; above all by the prestige of his military successes.

Some other significant events occurred at the Moghan. Nader made it a condition of his acceptance of the throne that the Persian people accepted the cessation of Shi‘a practices offensive to Sunni Muslims (especially the ritual cursing of the first three caliphs). Nader’s religious policy served a variety of purposes. The reorientation toward Sunnism helped to reinforce the loyalty of the large Sunni contingent in his army, which he had built up in order to avoid too great a dependence on the traditionalist Shi‘a element, who tended to be pro-Safavid. But the new policy was not aggressively dogmatic. Religious minorities were treated with greater tolerance; he was generous to the Armenians, and his reign was regarded later by the Jews as one of relief from persecution9 (though minorities suffered as much as anyone else from his violent oppression and heavy taxation, especially in later years). The religious policy made it easier for Nader to make a grab for the endowments of Shi‘a mosques and shrines, an important extra source of cash to pay his troops. Within Persia, Nader sought only to amend religious practices—not to impose Sunnism wholesale. But outside Persia he presented himself and the country as converts to Sunnism—which enabled Nader to set himself up as a potential rival to the Ottoman Sultan for supremacy over Islam as a whole, something that would have been impossible if he and his state had remained orthodox Shi‘a.

The religious policy also served to distinguish Nader’s regime and its principles from those of the Safavids. He did this in other ways too, notably with his policy toward minorities, and by giving his sons governorships rather than penning them up in the harem. He also showed moderation in the size of his harem, and issued decrees forbidding the abduction of women, which again was probably directed, at least in part, at pointing up the contrast between his rule and that of the last Safavids.

Crowned Shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastwards to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul Empires, took Kabul and marched on towards Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul Emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which proved vulnerable to firearms and liable to run wild and uncontrollable, to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated 30,000 people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

Nader Shah II

The Battle of Yeghevārd was one of Nader’s most tactically impressive triumphs in his military career.

The flank march of Nader’s army at Battle of Khyber pass has been called a “military masterpiece” by the Russian general & historian Kishmishev.

At the Battle of Karnal, Nader crushed an enormous Mughal army six times greater than his own.

The Battle of Kars (1745) was the last major field battle Nader fought in his spectacular military career

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul Emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus river. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois. This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time: close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul, has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would in some ways have been a natural thing for many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing the Persian character of earlier empires, and the all-pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious and artistic culture.

Nader’s annexation of Moghul territory west of the Indus, removing the geographical barrier of the Afghan mountains, was one indicator that, had his regime endured, it might have expanded further into India. Other pointers in the same direction include his construction of a fleet in the Persian Gulf, which would have greatly facilitated communications between the different parts of such an empire, and his adoption of a new currency, designed to be interchangeable with the rupee. If this had happened (especially if the trade route through to Basra, Baghdad and beyond had been opened up), and had been managed wisely, there could have been a release of trade and economic energy comparable to that under the Abbasids, a thousand years before. But that was not to happen.

On his return from India, Nader discovered that his son, Reza Qoli, who had been made viceroy in his absence, had executed the former Safavid Shahs Tahmasp and Abbas. Nader’s displeasure at this was increased by his dislike of the magnificent entourage Reza Qoli had built up while Nader had been in India. Nader took away his son’s viceroyship and humiliated him. From this point their relationship deteriorated, and he came to believe that Reza Qoli was plotting to supplant him.

From India Nader made a successful campaign in Turkestan, and went on to subdue the rebellious Lezges of Daghestan, but there he was unlucky. The Lezges avoided open battle and carried out a guerrilla war of ambush and attacks on supply convoys. Nader’s troops suffered from lack of food. Nader himself was troubled by illness, probably liver disease caused originally by malaria and exacerbated by heavy drinking. The sickness grew worse after his return from India, and was accompanied by great rages that became more ungovernable and insane as time went on. While he was in Daghestan in the summer of 1742 he was told that Reza Qoli had instigated an assassination attempt against him in the forests of the Savad Kuh in May 1741. Reza Qoli denied his guilt, but Nader did not believe him, and had him blinded, to prevent him ever taking the throne.

His failure in Daghestan, his illness, and above all his terrible remorse over the blinding of his son, brought about a crisis in Nader, a kind of breakdown, from which he never recovered. Perhaps because of the poverty and humiliations of his childhood, Nader’s family were of central importance to him, and loyalty within the family had up to that time been unquestioned, one of the fixed points on which he had constructed his regime. Now that foundation had given way, his actions no longer showed his former energy and drive to succeed, and he underwent a drastic mental and physical decline. He withdrew from Daghestan, in terrible weather conditions, without having subdued the Lezge tribes, and (according to plans laid months and years before) called new forces together for another campaign in Ottoman Iraq.

When they gathered his army numbered some 375,000 men—larger than the combined forces of Austria and Prussia, the main protagonists in the European theatre of the Seven Years War, when that conflict began thirteen years later. This was the most powerful single military force in the world at that time—an enormous and in the long term insupportable number for a state the size of Persia (no Iranian army would reach that size again until the Iran/Iraq war of 1980-88). It has been estimated that whereas there were around 30 million people in the Ottoman territories in the eighteenth century, and perhaps 150 million in the Moghul Empire, Persia’s population was perhaps as low as 6 million, having fallen from 9 million before the Afghan revolt. Over the same period the economy collapsed, as a result of invasion, war and exactions to pay for war.

The army, and the taxation to pay for it, are recurring themes in Nader’s story. Was this army a nomad host, or a modern military force? This points to the wider question of whether Nader’s style of rule looked backward or forward. It is an extreme mixture. Nader himself repeatedly compared himself with Timur, stressing his Turkic origin and Timurid precedents in many of his public statements. He named his grandson Shahrokh after Timur’s son and successor, and at one point removed Timur’s tombstone from Samarkand for his own mausoleum, only to return it later (unfortunately, it got broken in half in the process). On several occasions he described himself as the instrument of God’s wrath on a sinful people, after the manner of earlier Asiatic conquerors, and his brutal conduct of government, particularly after his return from India, has as much in common with that of nomad warlord as that of a modern statesman.

But he was not in any simple sense a tribal leader, and in many ways remained an outsider throughout his life, in successive milieus. He was not born into the leadership of the Afshar tribe to which he belonged, and some of his determined enemies throughout his career were fellow-Afshars. From the beginning his followers were diverse, including especially Kurds and Jalayir tribesmen. Later he repudiated his Shi‘a heritage, turned Sunni (at least for public consumption) and depended most heavily on his Afghan troops. Like other Persian leaders (and Napoleon), he was close to his immediate family and promoted them politically; but in his wider connections he was an opportunist, and the term ‘Afsharid’ that is applied to him and his dynasty is misleading. The name Nader means rarity or prodigy: it is appropriate. He was sui generis, a parvenu.

Nader used government cleverly, began an important and thorough reform of taxation, and had a strong administrative grip. His religious policy was novel and tolerant in spirit. One should not overstate it, but some contemporaries remarked upon his unusually considerate treatment of women. In military matters he was wholly modern. He established the beginnings of a navy, and it now seems plain that something very like a Military Revolution, as described in the European context by Geoffrey Parker, was brought about in Persia by Nader Shah. It was under him that the majority of troops in the army were equipped with firearms for the first time, necessitating a greater emphasis on drill and training; characteristic of developments that had taken place in Europe in the previous century. The army increased greatly in size and cost, and Nader was forced to make improvements in his capability for siege warfare. He began to reshape state administration to make structures more efficient. These are all elements that have been shown to be typical of the Military Revolution in Europe.

If Nader had reigned longer and more wisely, and had passed on his rule to a competent successor, the drive to pay for his successful army could have transformed the Persian state administration and ultimately the economy, as happened in Europe, as Parker and others have argued. It could have brought about in Iran a modernising state capable of resisting colonial intervention in the following century. If that had happened, Nader might today be remembered in the history of Iran and the Middle East as a figure comparable with Peter the Great in Russia: as a ruthless, militaristic reformer who set his country on a new path. In the early 1740s he seemed set for great things—contemporaries held their breath to see whether he could succeed in taking Ottoman Iraq and establish his supremacy through the Islamic world as a whole. He had already achieved a large part of that task. Unfortunately, Nader’s derangement in the last five years of his life meant that the expense of his military innovations turned Persia into a desert rather than developing the country. His insatiable demands for cash brought about his downfall and the downfall of his dynasty.

Nader’s troops invaded Ottoman Iraq in 1743 and rapidly overran most of the province, except the major cities. Baghdad and Basra were blockaded. Nader brought up a new array of siege cannon and mortars to bombard Kirkuk, which quickly surrendered, but the defence of Mosul was conducted more resolutely. Nader’s new siege artillery pounded the walls and devastated the interior of the city, but a lot of his men were killed in unsuccessful assaults, and he no longer had the will or patience to sustain a long siege. In October 1743 he withdrew, sending peace proposals to the Ottomans. Mosul marked the end of his ambition to subdue the Ottoman Sultan and demonstrate his pre-eminence in the Islamic world. It was another important turning-point.

The latest round of forced contributions and requisitioning, to make good the losses in Daghestan and provide for the campaign of 1743, had caused great distress and resentment across Persia. Revolts broke out in Astarabad (led by Mohammad Hasan Khan Qajar, whose son was to found the Qajar dynasty later in the century), Shiraz and elsewhere. Early in 1744 Nader withdrew to a camp near Hamadan, in order to be closer to the troubles and coordinate action against them. The insurrections were put down with great severity. Shiraz and Astarabad were devastated, and in each place two white towers were erected, studded with niches which held the heads of hundreds of executed men.

At length Nader realised that the Ottomans were not going to accept his peace proposals, and learned that new Ottoman armies were advancing toward his frontiers. His son Nasrollah defeated one of these, and Nader achieved victory over the other, near Yerevan, in the summer of 1745. This was his last great victory, and it was followed by a treaty with the Ottomans in the following year. But by this time new revolts had broken out, driven by Nader’s oppressive practices: each place he visited was ransacked by his troops and tax collectors, as if they were plundering enemies. His demands for money reached insane levels, and cruel beatings, mutilations and killings became commonplace. His illness recurred and irritated further his mental instability. By the winter of 1746-1747 his crazy demands for money extended even to his inner circle of family and close advisers, and no-one could feel safe. His nephew, Ali Qoli, joined a revolt in Sistan and refused to return to obedience. Unlike previous rebels, Ali Qoli and his companions had contacts among Nader’s closest attendants. In June 1747 Nader was assassinated by officers of his own bodyguard near Mashhad; they burst into his tent in the harem while he was sleeping. One of the assassins cut off his arm as he raised his sword to defend himself, and then another sliced off his head.

The short-lived nature of Nader’s achievements is one explanation for why he has not been better known outside Iran, but it is not a sufficient one. With a few exceptions Nader, having excited much interest and writing in Europe among his eigtheenth-century contemporaries, was largely ignored in the nineteenth.

The Evolution of the Early Roman Army

The early Romans fought as hoplites, inspired by Etruscans and Greeks.

The transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen militia was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly. To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or ‘legio’ – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the later centuries.

Weapons figure in grave-goods in west-central Italy from c. 1000 bc on, and from the eighth century graves of high-status warriors in Etruscan and Latin cemeteries are marked by combinations of iron weapons and bronze armor, much of it evidently intended for display rather than use. Grave-goods virtually disappear from Latin sites by the early sixth century. However, already by this time Greek hoplite equipment had begun to be adopted in the region, including the characteristic double-grip round shield and distinctive helmets and body armor. Hoplite equipment had appeared in the Greek world from the late eighth century, and its widespread use in Etruscan cities is attested from c. 650 on by grave finds and artistic representations. The evidence is thinner for Rome and the other Latin communities, but it seems likely that hoplite equipment came into use there about the same time or soon after its introduction in Etruria.

It has usually been thought that the introduction of hoplite equipment led rapidly to a new style of fighting, with the hoplites (heavy-armed troops) massed in close formation (the phalanx), using a thrusting spear as their main offensive weapon and also carrying a short sword. Greek city-states’ defense, it is held, now depended on middle-class hoplites, serving alongside aristocrats in the phalanx line, and this had important social and political consequences. Difficulties have sometimes been found in applying this model to Etruria: it has been doubted whether an army of citizen hoplites is compatible with Etruscan social structure, commonly supposed to have been dominated in this period by aristocratic gentes, and it is notable that Greek equipment is often found in combination with Etruscan weaponry, as on the gravestele of Aule Feluske of Vetulonia, shown armed with a hoplite shield and helmet but an Etruscan double-axe.

Established views of hoplite warfare have, however, recently been subjected to radical critiques, notably by Van Wees. He argues that close-formation fighting was not essential for the effectiveness of the new equipment, and that down to the early fifth century Greek hoplites continued to fight in a quite open formation, interspersed with light-armed troops. He also maintains that there was considerable disparity between working-class and leisured hoplites, with only the latter wearing much body armor. These conclusions fit well with the Etruscan indications, and, if they are correct, the difference between developments in Greece and Etruria may not be as great as supposed, and the adoption of Greek armor in Etruria may not have involved radical changes in fighting methods, let alone social structures. The same will also apply to Rome and Latium: here too fighting may have continued to be fluid and flexible, based on an open formation incorporating both light and more heavily armed troops, and especially at first, only the really well-to-do may have aspired to the new Greek-style shields and armor.

The Romans ascribed to King Servius Tullius the division of the citizen body into centuries based on wealth, and there is no good reason to doubt the attribution. The centuriate system in due course underwent radical modification and was to have enduring political importance as a basis for assembly voting, but, when introduced in the later sixth century, its purpose must have been primarily military. It is often supposed that in its original form the system divided the citizens simply into the “class” (classis), who served as hoplites, and the rest who served, if at all, as light-armed. However, although we know that in the second century bc the first of the(then five) classes could be referred to simply as “the class” and the rest as “below the class” (infra classem) (so Cato, cited by A. Gellius, Noctes Atticae 6.13), it does not follow that this was a relic of a much earlier one-class system. Although the details on equipment given by Livy (1.44) and Dionysius (4.16-21) are of questionable value, the tradition may be right that from its inception the centuriate system divided the infantry into multiple classes. King Servius will then have aimed to maximize the state’s military resources by imposing an obligation of military service on all but the poorest citizens and regulating how they should arm themselves according to their means, with those who could afford it equipping themselves with some or all of the hoplite panoply, while the richest served as cavalry (perhaps true cavalry, rather than mounted infantry as in most archaic Greek states). The result will have been a heterogeneously equipped army with both hoplite and diverse other elements, which fits well with Van Wees’ open-formation model of archaic warfare.

The Roman army must have changed greatly between the sixth and fourth centuries, but, although numerous attempts have been made to reconstruct its evolution, this can only be speculation. Even the best attested change remains problematic, namely the introduction of military pay. A well-established tradition (e. g. Livy 4.59-60) records its introduction, funded by direct taxation, in c. 406 at around the time of the start of the siege of Veii. It is not a difficulty that Roman coinage did not begin for another century: the payments could have been made in weighed bronze. But most warfare then still consisted of short, local campaigns, and the extended Samnite Wars of the later fourth century are a more likely context for the introduction of regular pay, although some payments may have been made to those manning the Veii siege.

By the end of the fourth century the Roman army must have reached much the form in which it was described for us by Polybius (6.19-26), a century and a half later. In this system the citizen troops were brigaded in legions of at least 4,500 men, of which the heavy infantry comprised at least 3,000. The equipment of these heavy infantry included an oval shield (scutum), heavy javelin (pilum), and short sword, and they fought in a flexible formation, deployed in three lines, each divided into ten maniples. The essential features of the system, the weaponry and the maniple as tactical unit, are often held to have been introduced only during the Samnite Wars, a doctrine supported by ancient claims that they were borrowings from the Samnites. However, this evidence is questionable and contradicted by other sources, and it seems unlikely that the Romans embarked on the struggle with the Samnites simply with a hoplite army. More probably, the manipular army was the product of a longer evolutionary process, in which a more diversely equipped force gradually became more standardized and tightly organized. Some features like the scutum may have been present much earlier, and Livy and Dionysius may perhaps be right in representing some elements in the Servian army as equipped with shields of this type. One important element of continuity from the Servian to the manipular system is likely to have been the maximizing of Roman military resources by imposing the obligation to serve on all but the poorest citizens.

Development of Early Warfare

The rage of the Pharaoh Rameses II (1304–1237 BC), after his close encounter with death at the battle of Kadesh in 1275/4, is engraved in the stone walls of no fewer than five great temples. The Pharaohs regarded Palestine and Syria as important outposts against attack on their heartland from the east and north. But the Hittite Empire of Anatolia under Muwatalli II (1295–1272), with its access to rich mineral resources, made inroads into Syria. Rameses was determined to drive them back, and in particular to seize the important frontier city of Kadesh in the Orontes valley.

The Egyptians summoned an army perhaps 20,000 strong with some 2,000 war-chariots spread across its four divisions, each named after a god. Rameses commanded the forward division of Amun, followed by his sons in charge of Ra, Ptah and Set. A reconnaissance unit went ahead of the main host to seek out the enemy. As the Egyptians turned up the Orontes valley they encountered spies planted by the Hittites who assured them that the enemy’s main force was as far away as Aleppo, leading Rameses to think that he had an opportunity to seize Kadesh; he crossed the Orontes and pressed on hastily with the division of Amun to encamp to the west of the city. When Rameses realised that he had been duped and that Muwatalli had a huge Hittite army at Kadesh, he frantically summoned all his men. As the division of Ra rushed towards him a large force of Hittite chariots burst across the Orontes and destroyed them. They then charged down upon the partially completed camp of the division of Amun. The Pharaoh rallied his chariots:

His Majesty shone like his father Montu [the god of war] when he took the adornments of war. As he seized his coat of mail he was like Baal in his honour. His Majesty charged into the foe … when his Majesty looked behind him he found two thousand five hundred chariots surrounding him.

A desperate struggle followed. But the Hittite horses were presumably tiring, and the lighter and more manoeuvrable Egyptian chariots took their advantage. The Egyptian infantry of the Amun division rallied, and the balance was tipped by the chance reappearance of the Egyptian reconnaissance force which drove back the Hittite charioteers. More Hittite chariots then arrived, but too late to recover the initiative, so the crews abandoned their vehicles and swam back across the river.

Quite why the Egyptian divisions of Ptah and Set failed to help Rameses is not clear, but the Pharaoh’s rage at this abandonment is understandable. Nor do we know why the Hittite infantry stood aloof. But the next day the armies in their entirety confronted one another, inconclusively. In his magnificent inscriptions Rameses claimed victory, despite his narrow escape from death. But in essence this was a drawn battle, and Egyptian losses were such that Rameses was forced to withdraw and was never able to reassert his power in Syria. In 1258 BC the warring parties agreed to a peace recorded on a clay tablet, a copy of which is held at the United Nations as the earliest surviving peace agreement. Kadesh presents a sudden and exciting vision of war. Chariots charge and manoeuvre while infantry flee or fight desperately. Blood, mud, dust and confusion – the Pharaoh resplendent in his chariot of gold – the face of battle is suddenly vivid.

The armies which clashed at Kadesh were sophisticated and complex organisms, and very obviously they were the products of well organised states. But long before the state, human communities were fighting one another, sometimes on a substantial scale. For most of their existence humankind depended on a way of life usually called hunter-gathering. Small nomadic groups moved around living upon what they could find, scavenge or kill. This is sometimes thought of as a gentle and environmentally friendly way of life, but in reality it was marked by savage clashes between wandering groups. Hunter-gatherers were tied to a pattern of migration between known food resources which varied with the seasons. If this was interrupted by climatic or other variations, a group had to find a new range, or seize it from others. At Jebel Sahaba in Egypt about a quarter of the bodies dating from the hunter-gatherer period 13,000 years ago show clear signs of violent death. The gentleness of modern hunter-gatherers is the gentleness of the defeated, huddling in hostile environments into which they were driven by us, the successful hunter-gatherers who have long left behind that way of life. After about 12000 BC humans began to grow food plants and to domesticate animals. This gradually enabled them to break their dependence on the vagaries of nature because they could store food to tide them over fluctuations of climate and food supply. The farming life demanded that people live close together in villages where they could help one another to clear land and to keep it cultivated, but this produced no rural idyll.

We have a glimpse of how early farming communities may have waged war. The interior of Papua New Guinea was still a Stone Age society in 1961 when anthropologists made a film, Dead Birds, about two villages in strife so continual that the border between their lands was guarded by watchtowers to prevent attacks. The highlight of this remarkable film is a battle. It was a highly ritualised event. Announced beforehand, it took place on a ridge in no-man’s-land. The warriors, many of them in finery, bullied and jeered, with individuals rushing forward to throw spears or fire arrows then retreating hastily, never closing to fight hand-to-hand. Once a death was inflicted, both sides withdrew, the killers to rejoice and the others to mourn.

War before the state: a watchtower manned by a warrior against a neighbouring village. The Grand Valley Dani people of Papua New Guinea (Irian Barat Indonesia) were studied by the Harvard-Peabody Expedition of 1961–3. Despite such vigilance savage raiding was common, sometimes resulting in the extinction of whole settlements.

This individualised style of fighting is reminiscent of the battles in Homer’s epic, the Iliad, where the heroes confront one another while the masses on each side cheer them on. The appearance is of ritualised war with just a handful of casualties. But in New Guinea there was always another and darker side to this warfare – savage raiding. Individual attacks usually killed only a few of the enemy, but their sheer frequency took its toll of men, women and children to the extent that over time whole communities were annihilated and their villages abandoned. This kind of killing produced the high proportion of violent deaths found in ancient cemeteries, and it was interspersed with massacres. At Crow Creek, South Dakota, the entire population of nearly 500, of both sexes and all ages, was slaughtered about AD 1350. All that we know of mankind before the development of the state suggests that, although there were peaceful moments, violence was continual, killing men, women and children generation after generation. It is a myth, albeit an attractive one, that before the state there was no war.

It is therefore no surprise that archaeology reveals that early agricultural settlements were fortified. Banpo village near Xian in China dates from about 4500 BC, long before the rise of any organised state in this part of the world. This was a substantial village covering some 6 hectares but the site is surrounded by a carefully cut ditch some 6 metres deep and 5–6 metres wide. This is far greater than would be needed either to keep domestic animals in or wild ones out. Moreover, it is carefully subdivided by crossing walls to prevent concerted attack. Banpo is evidence of a violent and divided society in which farmers had to be ever ready to defend themselves. Some of the earliest settlements in Britain were the ‘Causeway Camps’ dating from about 4000 BC, which were surrounded by ditches and banks. Interestingly, in many cases massive concentrations of flint arrowheads have been found around the ramparts and gates: clear evidence of siege warfare.

These settlements of agricultural peoples were much larger and more complex than the transient communities which preceded them. Amongst hunter-gatherers, women had been responsible for gathering and men for hunting. Farming, however, demanded a much higher degree of specialisation. Groups of people had to work together over sustained periods of time following schedules determined by planting and harvesting crops and caring for animals. The villages of Papua New Guinea were guided by their richest members, the ‘Big Men’, and it was probably people like them who assumed control over the early agricultural settlements, judging quarrels over land and organising people to meet the challenges of sowing and reaping. Measuring time was crucial for the agricultural year, and may have been the preserve of the priesthood. Moreover, farming generated technological innovation: food had to be stored, transported and protected from rival communities by strong buildings and walls. And in many areas the complexities of irrigation and water-sharing could only be regulated by strong authorities. As a consequence, there arose hierarchical societies dominated by ‘kings’ and their ruling elites who increasingly monopolised power and lived on the labour of farmers. In these new and more complex societies war was the most important task of the rulers. Defending the land was a moral justification for their privileges, and controlling weapons and men of violence was essential to maintaining their dominance over the mass of the population.

In Mesopotamia, complex societies developed most rapidly. The fertile plains produced rich crops, which resulted in increased populations. Over time, the rulers and their retinues separated themselves from the farming communities, whose people actually produced food, by establishing centres of control, in the form of palaces or cities, of which the earliest known to us is Uruk in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) which dates from 5500 BC. At its height, this was a city of 50,000 centred on its great temples and palaces and ziggurat, defended by a huge mud-brick wall and governed by royal dynasties, one of whose rulers provided the inspiration for the Epic of Gilgamesh which dates from about 2700 BC. Kings usually controlled the cult of the city’s gods, so defending the city became a sacred task led by the royal personage who was, in a sense, the mediator between his people and the divine world. These rulers, and the elites around them, lived on the backs of the farmers, and the need to record the wealth they extracted from the mass of the population and the way in which it was spent produced the earliest written records: clay tablets recording taxes and the way in which they were spent. In effect account-books are the earliest known form of writing.

The same pattern of development appeared contemporaneously in the other fertile areas of the Middle East and Asia. In Egypt the Nile watered and enriched the land, providing a great highway along which a common culture developed in relative isolation because of the desert through which it flows. The Old Kingdom (2650–2134 BC), which created the Great Pyramids, united Upper (around modern Luxor) and Lower (the Nile delta) Egypt, and its Pharaohs, like Mesopotamian rulers, claimed to mediate between their subjects and the gods. In north-western India the remarkable Harappan civilisation (3000–1700 BC) built cities with huge populations, such as the 30,000–50,000 of Mohenjo-Daro.

In China the Shang state (1766–1122 BC) developed in the Yellow River valley in the northern part of what is now Henan province. Here on the central plains arose many of the characteristics of Han culture, notably its ideographic style of writing, the fondness for written record together with a tendency to bureaucratic government. The Shang state was built around important cities like Ao, near modern Zhengzhou, and Luoyang. The Shang emperor enjoyed a quasi-priestly authority, but presided over groups of officials, one responsible for royal ritual, another for administration and a third for military matters. These jobs were monopolised by aristocrats who were rewarded with land, while the rest of the population were virtually slaves, tied to the soil. As in the Mesopotamian cities, the royal household controlled virtually all economic activity. The cities of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China evolved their own distinctive civilisations, yet shared a common pattern of war.

The large populations of these city-states, supported by agriculture, provided fit young males to fight. Because farming is labour intensive only at certain times of the year, notably the sowing and harvesting seasons, in between large numbers of men are under-employed; and in any case much of the work on the land was undertaken by women. Rulers could employ surplus manpower to build the walls, towers and strong gates with which they defended their centres of power: cities and fortresses. Such strong fortified bases could be attacked only by numerous, well-organised and well-equipped infantry soldiers. At the core of the armies were the kings, supported by their aristocratic followers with armed retinues from amongst whom the commanders were drawn. The elite troops with their splendid armour and weapons were supported by lightly armed conscripts drawn from the ordinary population. Bureaucrats in the cities collected food and oversaw the purchase of weapons and equipment for the army. The city societies were innovative: in India the Harappan civilisation invented the spinning and weaving of cotton and the ox-drawn wagon. Such technological progress fed into military effectiveness.

The Satsuma Rebellion Begins


A more “romantic’ end…

In March 1876 (Meiji 9) the government issued a decree banning the carrying of swords by anyone but members of the armed forces and uniformed police. Then in August, the government, realizing it could no longer afford to subsidize the former samurai, issued another decree ordering the commutation of all shizoku stipends. All former samurai were thus required to transform their annual incomes into low-interest yielding government bonds, in essence reducing the assets of the shizoku class to fifty percent of their original value. Both decrees were designed to destroy the last vestiges of feudalism in Japan.

The former samurai had had enough. Three rebellions broke out in October. The first one erupted in Kumamoto on the twenty-fourth, among some two hundred men. The Kumamoto revolt incited four hundred men in Akizuki (formerly a branch han of Fukuoka) to rise up on the twenty-seventh. The third rebellion broke out in Hagi on the twenty-eighth. All three rebellions were crushed by government forces within a matter of days. The last and greatest samurai rebellion, led by Saigō, was yet to come.

When Saigō returned to Kagoshima in November 1873 (Meiji 6), he seemed to have settled down to a quiet life, hunting in the mountains with his dogs, relaxing at the hot springs, writing poetry, and even farming. But that life would not continue for long. Each and every one of the officials in Kagoshima Prefecture, including the governor, Ōyama Tsunayoshi, and the police officers, were former Satsuma samurai dissatisfied with the central government. While outwardly abiding by the laws imposed by Tōkyō, the prefecture paid hardly any taxes, the old social hierarchy remained in place, the former samurai continued to receive feudal stipends, and universal conscription was completely ignored. In short, though the han had been abolished and the rest of Japan moved forward to adopt the industrial capitalism of the West, Kagoshima Prefecture became an autonomous political entity under the absolute rule not of the Shimazu family but of the former samurai class, with no substantial difference from the samurai-ruled Satsuma Han of old. And Saigō Takamori, either by design or circumstances (or both), was the undisputed leader.

Saigō’s control of Kagoshima Prefecture was bolstered by a network of so-called “Private Schools” he had established in June 1874 (Meiji 7). The two main schools were in the city of Kagoshima, with branches set up elsewhere in the city and throughout the prefecture. One of the main schools, headed by Army Major General Shinohara Kunimoto, was known as the “Rifle Corps School” (and also as the “Imperial Household Guard School” because Shinohara had served in the Household Guard infantry). The other main school, headed by Murata Shinpachi, a former artillery corps commander in Saigō’s standing army, was known as the “Artillery Corps School.” Besides military training, Saigō’s schools focused on nurturing samurai values through the study of the Chinese classics, particularly those pertaining to the art of war, among former samurai throughout the prefecture.6 Within one year Saigō’s schools had an estimated enrollment of some thirty thousand, ranging in age from the very young to former samurai in their forties.

In January 1877 (Meiji 10), a Mitsubishi-owned steam transport was requisitioned by the government to remove arms and munitions stored at the arsenal in Kagoshima. The government action provoked the Private School students, who broke into a powder magazine on the nights of January 29 and 30, and on the following night looted a naval shipyard, capturing large quantities of weapons and other materials of war. Saigō at the time was hunting in the mountains. On February 1, his youngest brother, Kohé, rushed to notify him of the event. Reportedly, Saigō’s immediate reaction was to utter a curse, then ask his brother just what they had expected to achieve by looting weapons. The Satsuma Rebellion had begun.

There is no conclusive evidence that Saigō planned or instigated the rebellion—and even as he led his army to Kumamoto, where the heaviest fighting would take place, he lacked a clear purpose or strategy of war. He had been absent when his men took the government weapons. He had refused Etō Shinpei’s earlier supplications to support the Saga Rebellion. And his loyalty to the Emperor, as he had demonstrated time and again, was unquestionable, even after he had quit the Imperial government. But it is a fact of history that Saigō led the Satsuma Rebellion. Was his antagonism toward the Ōkubo-led progressives so great that he would rise up against the Imperial government? Or perhaps he was motivated by other reasons, too—such as an Ōkubo-led plot to assassinate him.

On February 10, Ernest Satow, in Kagoshima at the time, heard allegations that one Kawaji Toshiyoshi, formerly a Satsuma samurai and now chief commissioner of police in Tōkyō, in cahoots with Ōkubo, had sent a hit squad to Kagoshima to assassinate Saigō. Whether or not Ōkubo actually planned Saigō’s assassination is unclear. The leader of the alleged hit squad, Nakahara Hisao, was captured by Private School students on February 5. According to some sources, he confessed under torture that he and his men had been sent by Kawaji to kill Saigō. According to other sources, a government spy in Kagoshima, Tanaka Naoya, wired a message to Tōkyō proposing that three powder magazines in that city be torched, and that during the ensuing uproar Saigō and forty of his officers be cut down. The same sources assert that Tanaka’s message, intercepted by Private School students, incited the rebellion.

Saigō returned to Kagoshima on February 3, upon hearing that his men had taken the government weapons. On February 5 and 6, councils were held at one of the main Private Schools in Kagoshima to discuss a plan of action. Some opposed mobilizing troops, and one man proposed that Saigō, Kirino, and Shinohara go to Tōkyō to censure the government for ordering Saigō’s assassination. But Kirino and Shinohara, with two other of Saigō’s closest aides—Beppu Shinsuké and Henmi Jūrōta—urged Saigō to lead their army to Tōkyō. Saigō knew that at this point his men would not stand down, asserts Inoue, and so he followed the consensus for war because he was not about to let them die while he himself would live. And as we shall see, all of the leaders would die in the coming war. For unlike revolutions throughout history, including the Meiji Restoration, theirs was not a rebellion to eliminate the old and create a new government—it was, rather, a battle to the death with the relentless and powerful tide of history which had rendered their way of life, and indeed most of their most cherished values, obsolete.

On February 12, Saigō, Kirino, and Shinohara signed a brief statement which they presented to Governor Ōyama, notifying the central government that they, with former soldiers of the Japanese Army, would proceed to Tōkyō to “question” the government, presumably to highlight the numerous grievances of the shizoku class and the alleged plot to assassinate Saigō. There was no mention at all of rebellion. Rather than a threat to the Imperial government, then, the statement might be construed as a plea.

War in the Southwest

On February 12, Yamagata Aritomo sent a message to Sanjō Sanétomi, warning that the situation in Kagoshima was so tense that once the Satsuma rebels moved into action, former samurai in other prefectures were likely to join them.3 Just a few days prior, Sanjō, Kido, and Itō had expressed similar concern that the rebellion might spread to other hot-beds of samurai unrest, including Kumamoto, Saga, Fukuoka, Kōchi, Okayama, Tottori, Hikoné, Shōnai, Kuwana, and Aizu—and it is not without some irony that Satsuma’s most bitter enemies, Aizu and Kuwana, were included on the list of Saigō’s prospective allies. Keene incisively remarks that the Satsuma Rebellion “pitt[ed] heroes of the Restoration against one another.” It threatened the very survival of the Meiji government, and at its start it was by no means certain that it would fail. Had the rebellion succeeded, “the entire political configuration of Japan would undoubtedly have changed.”

Saigō’s army of some thirty thousand former samurai was comprised of thirteen thousand from his private schools, an additional ten thousand from Kagoshima Prefecture, and men from other prefectures (i.e., former han) around Kyūshū. The government forces, exceeding fifty thousand, consisted mostly of conscripts, and included more than 2,200 naval personnel. The supreme commander was Prince Arisugawa-no-Miya Taruhito Shinnō, under whom Saigō had served as a staff officer during the Boshin War. In command of the army was Yamagata Aritomo. Heading the naval forces was Kawamura Sumiyoshi of Satsuma, Saigō’s cousin and Katsu Kaishū’s successor in the Navy Ministry. Both Yamagata and Kawamura had served under Saigō, and many of their officers were former Satsuma samurai with close personal ties to the rebel leader. If, as biographer Tanaka Sōgorō asserts, Saigō’s rebels had that undaunted samurai spirit by which they would never give up, the government forces had the clear advantage in both arms and number of men.

On February 15 the rebel army headed northward from Kagoshima for Kumamoto amid heavy snowfall, the first in fifty years to hit the temperate region of southern Kyūshū. Four days later the government declared war on the rebels. On February 22, fifteen thousand rebel troops attacked Kumamoto Castle, a government garrison. The subsequent siege of Kumamoto Castle was long and bitter, lasting fifty days. The defenders lost communication with the outside, while awaiting the arrival of relief forces. If the castle fell, the rebels would rule all of Kyūshū. But if the Kumamoto garrison could hold off the rebels until relief arrived, they foresaw victory. On March 15, government forces launched an attack on the rebels’ stronghold at Tabaruzaka, just north of Kumamoto. It was the scene of the bitterest fighting of the war, with high casualties on both sides. But the government was victorious at Tabaruzaka, the turning point of the war. The siege continued for another three weeks until the arrival of the full force of the government army under Kuroda’s command. Saigō’s army began to retreat on April 15.

Katsu Kaishū first heard of the outbreak of the Seinan Sensō (literally the “War in the Southwest”), as the Satsuma Rebellion is called in Japanese, on February 10. He clearly sympathized with Saigō; and he harbored ill feelings toward Ōkubo Toshimichi, who had been the cause of his exclusion from the government. He almost certainly blamed Ōkubo for the unfolding tragedy in the southwest, and on March 31 noted that he had discussed his feelings with Satow. Satow wrote in his diary that Kaishū believed all that “was required to prevent this civil war was the retirement of Ôkubo and Kuroda,” and “that Kawaji did send down men to assassinate Saigô, and that Ôkubo was a party to the project, not perhaps explicitly…. He wished that Sir Harry cld. find an opportunity of interposing with friendly advice to prevent further bloodshed …” When Satow informed Kaishū that Iwakura had told Parkes “that the Satsuma men were in no disposition to surrender … Katsu laughed, [and said] ‘No! truly the government is more likely to do that…. If the government were to win, all its prominent members would be assassinated.’” Kaishū also told Satow that the “chief Satsuma officers in the army are nowhere to be heard of, and it is principally led by the Chôshiu men”—i.e., the rebellion was a fight between the Saigō-led samurai party on the one side, and the Ōkubo party backed by Chōshū on the other.

The government was mindful of Kaishū’s friendship with Saigō. On March 20, Kaishū noted a request by Iwakura communicated through Genrōin member Sano Tsunétami of Saga, that he personally see to it that the uprising in the southwest would not spread to Tōkyō—i.e., that Kaishū “pacify” anti-government sentiment among former Tokugawa vassals in Tōkyō and nearby Shizuoka who might take advantage of the Satsuma Rebellion to stage an uprising in the capital. Kaishū accepted Iwakura’s request, which he vaguely noted in his journal, and more specifically in a financial ledger that he kept. During the Satsuma Rebellion he noted a number of times in his journal and ledger that he gave money to numerous former Tokugawa samurai in need. Why he did this is unclear, though it might have been part of a plan to “pacify” them. It is also unclear what Kaishū did, if anything, to honor Iwakura’s request.

Kaishū had met with Sano Tsunétami at least three times between January 21 and March 1. Based on an interview at Hikawa twenty-one years later, it seems that during at least one of those meetings Sano asked Kaishū to travel to Kagoshima to persuade Saigō to stand down. If he were to go to Kagoshima, Kaishū replied, he would need “plenary powers.” Asked what he meant by that, Kaishū told Sano that Ōkubo and Kido must be forced to resign. Iwakura refused, and so Kaishū did not go to Kagoshima. Kaishū obviously believed that Ōkubo’s clash with Saigō was the cause of the Satsuma Rebellion.

The British, too, were aware of Kaishū’s special relationship with Saigō. On the afternoon of July 13, Satow called on Kaishū to urge him to intervene with Saigō. Again Kaishū refused to involve himself. “Katsu was entirely opposed to any such undertaking,” Satow wrote. Kaishū’s reason was twofold: “detestation of Ôkubo and fear lest any manifestation of sympathy for Saigô should endanger his own liberty. He had long ago vowed not to serve the government under Ôkubo, whom he had not seen since Ôkubo’s mission to Peking. Overtures had been made to him several times on behalf of the govt. before the uprising of Satsuma, to go down to Kagoshima, and offer such promises as would avert trouble, but he had refused to be used as a coolie to carry Ôkubo’s messages. So that scheme failed.”

Around this time, in Heartrending Narrative, Kaishū elaborated on the reasons for his antagonism toward the government under Ōkubo, though both Ōkubo and Saigō would be dead by the time the book was published in the following year:

It has already been ten years since the Restoration, everything has changed, and [you] head, by degree, toward luxury. Officials of the government, take heed! I have something to say. When the Bakufu was rotten and ready to fall, it was easy for you to bring it down. But without so much as considering that fact, you are arrogant enough to think you are brave and wise, and you insult neighboring countries, trifle with the military … live in beautiful houses and wear fine clothes, and impose heavy taxes—but you will gain nothing from any of this. Your most urgent task now is to learn from the past, repeatedly, and be mindful of what’s to come….

It seems certain that Katsu Kaishū sympathized with his friend Saigō when writing the above.

Saigō’s Death

While the rebels were fighting in Kumamoto, Kagoshima had been captured by the Imperial navy. Saigō, meanwhile, who was over-weight, was suffering from a swelling of the testicles caused by filariasis, a parasitic infection probably contracted during his exile on Amami Ōshima. Unable to ride a horse or even walk, he had to be carried by sedan. It is said that during the war Saigō kept two of his dogs by his side. Then on the night of July 7, before a planned attack on the government forces at Nagaimura in Nobéoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, Saigō, his eyes filled with tears, petted his dogs and commanded them to “go home.” One of the dogs made it back to Saigō’s house in Kagoshima. The other one disappeared. The rebel attacks on the government forces failed, and Saigō was forced to retreat to Kagoshima with just a fraction of his army remaining. When Saigō and his men reached Kagoshima on September 1, over ten thousand government troops occupied the city.

The exact circumstances of Saigō’s final days and the manner of his death are uncertain. Tanaka Sōgorō reports that only five hundred rebels made it back to Kagoshima alive. They entrenched themselves among the caves on the rocky summit of Shiroyama (literally “Castle Mountain”), behind Kagoshima Castle, overlooking the city. In his last known recorded communication, dated September 22, 1877 (Meiji 10), Saigō urged his men to die bravely in their imminent last battle.

At around 4 A.M. on September 24, Yamagata launched a general attack on the remnants of Saigō’s army. As Yamagata’s forces approached, Saigō, with only some forty men left, including Kirino, Murata, Beppu, and Henmi (Shinohara had died at Kumamoto), lined up in formation in front of the caves to march downhill to meet the enemy. According to Tanaka’s account, as they marched many were mowed down by gunfire. Finally, two of those still standing, Beppu and Henmi, urged Saigō to end it right then and there. But still Saigō would not give up—rather he ordered his men to carry on and die pursuing the enemy.

Soon after that, at around 7 A.M., Saigō was hit. “Saigō was shot through both legs by a bullet,” Ernest Satow wrote in his diary entry of October 3, “and being unable to move, his head was taken off by [ ]… All the other leaders were killed. Some four hundred were taken prisoners or surrendered, a few escaped.” According to most sources, Saigō, having been shot, turned to Beppu and asked him to perform the duties of a second. Kneeling down, Saigō drew his short sword, and as he brought the blade to his abdomen, Beppu honored Saigō’s last request. Augustus H. Mounsey, secretary of the British Legation at the time, offers the following graphic depiction of the tragic scene:

Saigô was amongst the first to fall, wounded by a bullet in the thigh. Thereupon Hemmi Jiurôda,9 one of his lieutenants, performed what Samurai consider a friendly office. With one blow of his keen heavy sword he severed his chief’s head from his shoulders, in order to spare him the disgrace of falling alive into his enemy’s hands. This done, Hemmi handed the head to one of Saigô’s servants for concealment and committed suicide. Saigô’s head was buried, but so hurriedly that some of the hair remained exposed, and it was subsequently discovered by a coolie. Around Saigô fell Kirino, Murata, Beppu, Ikegami Shiro, and one hundred of the principal Samurai of the Satsuma clan, who had sought to protect their chief to the last, and refused to survive him.

On the next day, Mounsey reports, corpses were retrieved from the battlefield for identification and burial in the cemetery of a small temple in the city. The bodies of Kirino, Beppu, Henmi, Murata, and others were laid side by side. “Close to the body of Kirino lay the headless trunk of a tall well-formed powerful man, with a bullet wound in the thigh and a stab in the stomach,” indicating that Saigō had, symbolically at least, attempted seppuku. While the Imperial Army officers discussed whether or not the body was Saigō’s, “a head was brought in by some soldiers. It fitted the trunk and was recognised as Saigô’s head. It was disfigured and ghastly, clotted with blood and earth. Admiral Kawamura, the senior officer present, reverently washed the head with his own hands, as a mark of respect for his former friend and companion in arms during the war of the Restoration.”

One can’t help but wonder, had Katsu Kaishū not resigned from the government, if he might have been present in Kagoshima—not as a military commander but rather again as a peacemaker in a kind of reenactment of his historical meeting with Saigō nine-and-a-half years earlier, in a last-ditch effort to save his cherished friend from a tragic end.