WARFARE – 600 C. E. to 1450


During 600–1450, military technology throughout Eurasia retained the principal characteristics of earlier times. Iron and steel weapons had long since replaced those made of bronze. In large empires such as those of China and the Byzantine, Persian, and Islamic Empires, large-scale industrial production of weapons became commonplace. Japan, Damascus in present-day Syria, and Toledo in Spain were famous centers for the production of swords. Refinements and improvements were continuously made to older inventions, such as poison gas and smoke bombs. The crossbow was first manufactured in China in the fourth century b. c. e. and possibly in Greece about the same time and then disappeared in Europe. It reappeared in western Europe in the 10th century (some scholars suggest, reintroduced through Central Asia by the Khazar people), and was reputedly used by the forces of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Its effects were so lethal that its use was condemned at the Second Lateran Council of the Catholic Church in 1139 for use against Christians. Its use was, however, accepted by the Catholic Church against the infidels (Muslims). It was one of the main weapons used by Hernán Cortés to subjugate Mexico in 1521.

China revitalized the ancient means of defense of wall building in the early 15th century. The Romans had built Hadrian’s Wall in Britain in the second century c. e., and the Chinese had built a longer Great Wall during the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty and Han dynasty before the Common Era. The Great Wall had fallen into disuse between the 10th and 14th centuries because nomads controlled northern, and later all of China. Even though the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) had ousted the Mongols, they remained a threat, hence the rebuilding and reinforcing of the Great Wall along China’s northern frontiers. The survival of large sections of the Ming Great Wall is a testimony to the technical excellence and engineering skills applied in its construction.

Several significant inventions and advances in military technology and weaponry made warfare more destructive. One formidable weapon was called “Greek fire,” a petroleum-based incendiary substance that combined sulfur and saltpeter and could be shot from tubes and could not be extinguished by water. It was invented in India in the 600s, refined and used in China as a continuous flame-thrower on land in the 10th century, and used by the Byzantine Empire in naval warfare that allowed it to maintain naval supremacy. Gunpowder was invented in China. It was given military application in the 10th century in response to attacks by its formidable nomadic neighbors, most notably the Mongols. In the 11th through 13th centuries, the Chinese invented rockets, and a proto-gun called a “fire-lance,” which worked as a flame-thrower. From these evolved guns and cannons made from cast iron, which became ever bigger and more sophisticated.

A Chinese manual dating to 1412 described a cannon that weighed 60 pounds called the “long- range awe-inspiring cannon.” By the mid-15th century, a “great general gun” had been made with a barrel six feet long that weighed 330 pounds and could be placed on a wheeled carriage. It fired an eight-pound “grandfather shell” that traveled 800 paces. Unfortunately for China, the advantage gained by its inventions were short-lived because skilled prisoners of the Mongols quickly replicated the new weapons. In short order, gunpowder, cannons, and guns became available throughout the Middle East and Europe, revolutionizing warfare and castle building. Soon so-called gunpowder empires emerged, including the Ottoman Empire. Wars among Chinese and between Chinese and their neighbors involved hundreds of thousands of men on both sides and inflicted huge casualties that made contemporary European campaigns fought seasonally by a few thousand combatants seem puny by comparison. Although the European knights wore formidable chain-mail armor in battle, it proved too cumbersome against the light armor worn by Mongol horsemen.

Armies of great empires consisted mainly of infantry soldiers, supported by cavalry, and in India, by elephant corps. Soldiers were either conscripts, professional long-term recruits, or came from hereditary military families. In India kshatriya clans called Rajputs (which means “sons of kings”) proudly bore arms as elite soldiers fighting among themselves and unsuccessfully against Muslim raiders and invaders from Afghanistan. In Japan, hereditary elite fighting men called samurai or bushi enjoyed a position in society similar to that of knights in medieval Europe. They lived by their own severe code of conduct and were distinguished from commoners by their right to bear arms. As Japan was an island nation, only the Mongols threatened invasions in late 12th century; thus it never needed to develop large infantry armies.


Western Asian and African Warfare. Among nomadic and seminomadic tribal peoples that included Mongols, Afghans, and Turks, every able-bodied adult male was a soldier, and society was highly militarized. Their mobility and elusiveness made nomads especially difficult for sedentary peoples to defend against. Thus nomads could conquer and control large numbers of sedentary peoples. The Mongols under Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered the largest land empire in history, their realm at its maximum stretched from Korea on the eastern rim of Asia, across China, Afghanistan, Persia, Central Asia, Russia, and eastern Europe to Hungary. Mongols discovered no new weapons or technology. Their phenomenal success was because of leadership, planning, intelligence gathering, strategy, speed, and above all ruthlessness. Mongols struck like lightning and were willing to exterminate all inhabitants in any area that had opposed them. Their military campaigns inflicted unprecedented destruction throughout Eurasia. On the other hand, victorious nomadic rulers, Mongols included, quickly lost their martial spirit, corrupted by the soft lifestyle they enjoyed as rulers. Thus they were soon overthrown by their subject peoples or by other hardier nomadic tribes. Then they were either assimilated into the majority population or reverted to nomadism in the steppes.

Arabs, inspired by religious fervor, conquered a huge empire in the seventh–eighth centuries. Even some Arab women went to war during the initial campaigns of conquest. The swift expansion of Islam, the limited human resources among the Arabs, and the luxurious lifestyle adopted by the conquerors made finding new sources of soldiers an urgent necessity by the ninth century. The rem- edy came in the form of the Mamluk (the word means “slave” in Arabic) system, whereby young boys from non-Muslim tribes in the Eurasian steppes, many Turkish, were purchased and brought to Muslim lands. They were given a rigorous military training and Islamic education, converted to Islam, and then freed. Faithful to their masters and comrades, Mamluks became elite soldiers to Muslim rulers; later they became the rulers. Mamluks were a one-generation aristocracy because their sons, who were born free and Muslim, could not become Mamluks. In other words, new batches of boys were continuously bought from the Eurasian steppes to be trained to be the next generation Mamluks. The institution survived for 1,000 years, mainly in Egypt and Syria.

Similarly, in northern India former Turkic slaves to Muslim rulers turned the tables on their mas- ters and established slave dynasties. Likewise, the Ottoman Empire instituted a Janissary Corps (from Turkish words meaning “new soldiers”) with boys taken from Christian lands that it conquered. The boys were given military training, converted to Islam, and became elite loyal soldiers to the rulers; they played a key role in the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Sundiata, the first king of Mali in West Africa, maintained a standing army clad in padded cloth suits of armor or chain mail as well as cavalry with horses and camels. In Africa, some tribes or ethnic groups, such as the Tauregs and Zulus, dominated their weaker neighbors because of their military prowess.


Maritime Warfare. Most major empires during this era relied primarily on land power, but sea power also played a role. The Vikings were expert seafarers who traded and raided throughout the coastal waters and several inland waterways of Europe, traveling in their long boats. One group of Vikings first raided the English coast and later invaded England from their new stronghold in Normandy, France. Another crossed the Baltic Sea to Russia and then sailed southward along the rivers to the Black Sea to Constantinople and to the Mediterranean to conquer ports in Sicily and other areas. Muslims also developed formidable naval forces and merchant fleets, but all of India’s Muslim invaders came overland across the mountains from the northwest; China’s enemies also came overland during this period.

However, as the Mongols pressed southward across the Yangzi (Yangtze) River and encountered Chinese resistance along the coastal waterways, they, too, ordered their Chinese prisoners to construct a fleet. The last Song (Sung) emperor drowned at sea after suffering final defeat at the hands of the Mongol navy. In 1274 and 1281, Mongol ruler Kubilai Khan launched two invasions of Japan with a huge armada of Korean and Chinese built ships that carried 140,000 soldiers during the second expedition. The ships were no match against typhoons, and both invasions failed. Between 1405 and 1433, Chinese naval power dominated the Asian waters, as six huge armadas fought pirates, intervened in local civil wars, and conducted trade and diplomacy from Java to India, Sri Lanka, to the east coast of Africa. The magnetic compass, discovered centuries earlier, had been used by Chinese sailors in navigation since the ninth century and was passed on to sailors of other lands. China’s government abandoned its interest in naval affairs after the last great voyage of Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in 1433.


The Americas. Isolated from Europe and Asia, the civilizations in the Americas did not develop iron and steel technology, nor did they possess the horse. Across Mesoamerica there was intensified warfare, militarization, and the glorification of the warrior class during this era. Warfare became endemic; hence this period is called a “Times of Trouble.” In both Mesoamerica and among the Mayan city-states, the principal goal of warfare was the creation of subordinate tributary states among the defeated to obtain tribute, although the Maya sometimes occupied the lands of the defeated city- states. Thus the defeated states were often left intact to collect the required tribute. Another goal of warfare was to take captives for prestige and to provide labor for the victor. Artwork depicted warfare and glorified the warrior.

As a result, warfare was often endemic in the regions and contributed to the depletion of resources and, combined with ecological degradation and burgeoning population, led to the decline and fall of Classic Maya in the ninth century. Scholarly debate prevails concerning the nature of warfare in the Andes region. While one school of thought contends that warfare was more ritualized and ceremonial than destructive, another argues that the wars waged in this region was extremely destructive, with the winner achieving domination and rule over the vanquished. Throughout the world, most successful states relied on formidable military forces to conquer and defend their empires. They also devoted considerable resources and effort to developing successful strategies, tactics, and advanced weaponry to maintain their rule and defeat their competitors and enemies.