Hybrid military systems

By Lorenzo

In my previous post, I analysed medieval societies as being marked by the bundling together of military service and income extraction in some sort of fief-warrior system, though the forms of fiefs varied considerably across different medieval societies. There were also various hybrid systems developed from the C6th to the C11th. 

Late Sassanid and Thematic Roman hybrid systems

Celebrating Khosrau the Just in a modern Teheran courthouse

Celebrating Khosrau the Just in a modern Teheran courthouse

Late in the history of the Sassanid Empire, Shahanshah Khosrau I (r.531-579), extending actions by his father (Kavadh I, r.488-531), took advantage of the Mazdakite religious upheavals to assert direct royal control over land tax, in doing so more efficiently taxing land (basing taxes on set amounts according to water rights or number of producing date or olive trees; greatly increasing the level and predictability of revenue, a tax system later adopted by the Abbasid Caliphate and became standard structure for taxation in the region) and extended service as armoured lancers to the deghan lesser nobility, with far fewer local horse archers, recruiting foreign warriors for that purpose.

Khosrau’s reforms made the Sassanid Empire more centralised while expanding its lancers. The later thematic reforms of the Eastern Roman Empire—particularly after the loss of half the Empire to the Arab conquest—abolished the division between military and civilian governorships and created locally-recruited soldier-farmer units. This hybrid system was successful up until the death of basileus Basil II (r.976-1025), though the increased emphasis on the central Imperial units during the imperial re-conquests of the C10th and early C11th (they grew from c.18,000 in 745 to c.42,000 by 1025), did undermine the thematic forces somewhat. The system then decayed rapidly under the stress of tension between the civilian central government and land-holding military elites, collapsing almost completely after the disaster at Manzikert in 1071.

Chinese militias

Playing Tang for the tourists.

Playing Tang for the tourists.

The fubing system of Sui (518-616) and Tang (618-907) China was also something of a hybrid in that it relied on conscripted peasant militia who were farmer-soldiers. It was, however, rather more like the farmer-citizen soldiers of Classical Greece and Republican Rome than a genuinely medieval system. It was subject to a similar evolution as the Roman Army in that peasant-militia were found to be inadequate to more active imperial needs and replaced by professionally paid soldiers whose loyalty was increasingly to their commanders rather than the Imperial Government. Where the Roman pattern with increasingly professional forces had been for imperial expansion and eventual centralisation under the Princeps, the Tang experience was power increasingly going to the fanzhen, the local military commanders, ending in the deposition of the last Tang emperor and the break-up into separate kingdoms (so rather similar to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, without the Germanic invasions).

Tax-paid soldiers

The later Song dynasty (960-1279) responded to the problems of the Tang dynasty by making official appointment only by civil service examination–thereby phasing out the landowning aristocracy–and going for a paid military force with a divided but not localised command structure. The dynasty successfully avoided the military revolts and elite conspiracies that had plagued the Tang dynasty but at the cost of lowered military efficiency. Much lowered military efficiency. One estimate is that, of 81 major military encounters with one of their nomad enemies, the Khitans, the Song won precisely one.

Hunting, chatting, waiting for the Song payments: hard life of a nomad.

Hunting, chatting, waiting for the Song payments: the hard life of a nomad.

Faced with the cost of enormous tribute payments to its nomad neighbours/enemies and lacking direct access to the Silk Road, the Song dynasty put a great deal of effort (pdf) into fostering maritime trade and commercial activity. Very successfully. Economic historian Eric Jones wrote that they came “within a hair’s breadth” of industrialising.

So, it turns out that, like so much else in Chinese history, the mercantile efforts of the Song were also, ultimately, driven by interactions with the nomads.

Adapting the Naito Hypothesis that Song dynasty China–with its paper money, meritocratic bureaucratised autocracy, tax-paid soldiers, public rituals but private religion and scholar-gentry replacing vanishing landed aristocracy, even in the offering of prizes for better crossbow designs, effective promotion of economic development and incipient industrialisation–was the first modern society, the period before it was not “medieval” but Late Antiquity. Yes, there was a landowning aristocracy and manorialism but the aristocracy was never enfeoffed; the transition to a full medieval system was never made, because administrative capacity remained eminently able to cope with the mainly infantry armies that were China’s military response to nomad pressure.

States attempt to adapt to their social orders and to adapt their social orders to them. So, unsurprisingly, states explore quite a range of options in order to find what works. It is a dynamic process, where there is no guarantee of success.

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