Ancient/Medieval Civilizations: Civilized/Barbarian-Pastoral Balance of Power


Figure 1.--The Huns are one of the best know barbarians of history. This is French illustrator A. De Neuville's (1836-85) depiction of the Huns at the Battle of Chalons (451 AD). It is of course imaginative, but probanly does reflect how peole at the time saw the Huns.

When admiring the startling achievements of the agricultural-based great river valley civilizations, one can't help but wondering how rude, numerically inferior babarians could have threatened these great civilizations. Barbarian is not the appropriate term to use. It was Greek term and the Greeks saw all noin-Greeks as barbarians. Rather the destinction is between civilized socities based on agriculture and nomadic peoples with pastoral (hearding) socities. As pastoral socities were nomadic, there were no cities and none of the dazzling achievements of the settled civilzed world. Nomadic hearding limited their cultural achievements, but not their ability to make war. In fact nomadic hearders had advantages in war. Some factors suggest that settled civilizations should have been militarily dominant. Large populations, superior organizations, wealth, advanced technology, and other factors would seem to have aquitted the great civilizations the capability to withstand nomadic onslaught. The problem was that the river valley civilizations were not homogenious polities. The ruling class were often a narrow strata of society if not an alien group which often oppresively treated the peasant farmers who were the primary source of wealth creation. Thus rulers were often afraid to arm the peasantry and thus take advantage of their numerical superority. This was a factor in the reluctance of these societies like Egypt to make the transition from bronze to iron weaponry. The ballance of power was maintained during the Bronze Age because of the high cost of bronze weapons. The aristocratic warrior class of the civilized societies were roughly equivalent in strength to the nomadic armies. The technology of bronze metalurgy was not beyond the ability of avanced nomadic societies which often had greater access to metal ores than the river valley civilizations. Thus the Hittites, Hurrians, Kassites, and others pressed in on Babylon and Egypt with varying success over time, but none were sufficently strong to completely overcome the other. One particularly important development is the role of one particular nomadic group--the Steppe tribes set between the West and China. The fact that they did not practice agruculture, freed virtually the entire male population and some women for war. Thus they could generate large armies with smaller populations. And the social divisions were less sharp than in agricultural socities. Their armies were not composed of aristocratic warriors, but of the entire population. Here the development of iron/steel weapons was a huge advatage because it meant that their large armies could be inexpensively armed. And their was no need for an expensive standing army. The whole population was essentially a standing army constantly on the move which could be easily mobilized. And it was on the Steppe that the horse was domesticated and bread to a large enough size to be useful in war. South of Mesopotamia, the donkey nomads were also important.

River Valley Civilizations

We have collected some information on the history and clothing technology of several important early civilaztion. The first major civilizations arose along fertile river vallies which supported the first major agriculture systems. Conditions in river vallies produced extrodinary yields even with primative technology. Agriculture would take longer to develop in areas where agriculture was dependant on rainfall. Thus the first true civilizations appeared in river valleys. Actual information on boys' clothing is extremely limited, but we will add what ever information becomes available. For the first time in history we know a great deal about these people because they invented writing and left a fascinating written record of their civilitaions. Writing was developed here because records were needed to account for the wealth created by productive agriculture. The first true civilization was Mesopotamia which appears to have influenced both Egypt and abchient India. China appears to have developed independently of the other three great river valley civilizations.

Nomadic Herding; Pastoralism

One might think that nomadic hearding or pastoralism developed out of nomadic hunter-gathering. It did not. It developed onky after the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution. It is during the Neolithic Revolution that people began domesticating animals and plants for food production and cities began to develop. Nomadism generally developed in symbiosis with such settled cultures. Pastoralists could trade animal products (meat, hides, wool, cheeses and other animal products) for manufactured items anbd agricultural products not produced by the nomadads. One histoirian believes that Shepherd Neolithic industry of Lebanon may date to the mesolitic and that it may have been used by one of the first cultures of nomadic shepherds in the Beqaa valley. Donkey nomads were reported south of Mesopotamia. The pastoralists that played the greatest role in history were the Steppe Nomads north of Mesopotamia and China. It was hear that the hirse was domesticated giving them a significant military advantage over other nomadic people and settled agricultural societies. These pastoralists not only traded with settled societies, but began raiding them. Perhaps the first known battle of history is a pastoral attack on an agricultural trading city--Tell Hamoukar (c3500 BC). Eventually they transitioned from raiding to conqest. The Medes played a makor role in destroying the Assyrian Empire. And the Persians, another Steppe people conquered most of the Middle East including Mesopotamia and Egypt. Another Stepoe poeople, the Aryans cinquered India. Pastoral Steppe people would gain cintrol over the develoing Silk Road. They would play a role in the cillaose of the Roman Empire and a major role in the Medieval Era, vnquering China, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Barbarians

When admiring the startling achievements of the agricultgural-based great river valley civilizations, one can't help from wondering how rude, numerically inferior 'babarian' herding people could have threatened these great civilizations. Barbrian is not a good term to use, especially given the modern connotations of the term. Some of these so-called barbarin socities were sophisticated. Economically they relied on nomadic herding, which limited their cultural achievements. The nomadic lifestyle of these tribes prevented civilization from developing because this required urbanization. While agriculture was the primary source of wealth, agriculture inevitanly led to urbnization. And it is in the ciie that high culture developed. While barbarian herders were not capable of high culture, they were capable of making war. In fact they had some advantages over the more cultured agricultural civilizations. We are not sire what the early river valley civilizations called these people. Nomadic hersing developed after the settled agriculture. They appeared millenia befor the Greeks, but the Greeks would give them their definitive name--barbarians. The Greek word was 'βάρβαρος' (barbaros). The original Greek meaning was 'whoever is not Greek'. A reader writes, "One of my history profesors insisted that the word barbarian came from the ancient Greeks referring to the horsemen of the East who only talked in strange tongues which to the Greeks sounded like Bar Bar." We are not entirely sure this was the case as the primary barbarians that the Greeks came into contact were the Celts to the north and the Persians to the east. The Greek term of course is a far cry from the modern meaning, uncivilized, brutal, cruel, warlike, and insensitive. In fact, the Persins were in many ways more civilized and cultured and less warlike than the Greeks. And notably slavery was less important in Persian socity. Some Greek city states even leveled the charge against rival Greeks. This was how many Greeks viewed Macdonia, the northern kingdom which produced Alexander.

Military Advantages of the River Valley Civilizations

A range of factors suggest that these civilzations should have been militarily dominant. Large populations, superior organizations, wealth, advanced technology, and other factors would seem to have aquitted the great civilizations with the capability to withstand barbarian onsloughts. The problem was that the river valley civilizations were not homogenious polities. The ruling class were often a narrow strata of society if not an alien group which often oppresively treated the peasant farmers who were the primary source of wealth creation and the great bulk of the population. Thus rulers were often afraid to arm the peasantry and thus take advantage of their numerical superority.

Military Advantages of the Barbarians (Nomadic Herders)

Nomadic herderd had several inherent military advantages. First and most important, virtually the entire malle population and een some of the women were potentil warriors. This was very different than setted agriculturl societies. Here a large part of the male population was tied to the land. They might be mobilized easonally, but any prolonged absences from the fields could mean a drop in profuction with the possiblity of famine. Second, the settled civilized people were more vulnerable which is why they began builing city walls. The highly mobile Steppe people could strike at any time and knew just where the cities were. The armies of the setted societies had to search the vast Steppe in a dauntng attempt to find the encampments of the tribes. This could take months if not years. And logstics was a huge and costly proposition as these armies had to be paid and supplied. Third, the armies of the Stppe people were more reliable, following clan leaders. The arsticratic rulers of agriculural societies were commonly reluctant to arm the peasantry, unsure of their loyalty. Fourth, the supply of horses gave the Steppe people a decided advantage, first in chariot warfare and than in cavalry. Fifth, the technology of ancient and medievel warfare was within the capabilities of the Steppe people who in many cases had better access to needed metal ores than the settled agricultural societies. Sixth, nomadic herders were more likely to be homogeneous populations based on clan organization. This accorded the leadership a degree of support and loylty that was often lacking in the settled agricultural civilizations.

Bronze Age

The ballance of power was maintained during the Bronze Age because of the high cost of bronze weapons. The arristocratic warrior class of the civilized societies were roughly equivalent in strength to the barbarian armies. The technology of bronze metelurgy was not beyond the ability of avanced barbarian societies which often had greater access to metal ores than the river valley civilizations. Thus the Hittites, Hurrians, Kassites, and others pressed in on Babylon and Egypt with varying success over time, but none were sufficentlt strong to completely overcome the other.

The Steppe Crucible

The Eurasian Steppe) is a vast strip of land stretching from Ukraine to Mongolia. Vast rolling grasslands. The term 'steppe' means grasslands. It is a relatively flat or areas of low rolling hills with relatively limited rainfall. There is sufficent precipitation for hardy grasses, but insufficent for for trees). The rolling plains of the Steppe have nountaneous intrusions, most significantly in the center which divides the vast area into the western Steppe (Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan) and the eastern Steppe (Mongolia and northern China). The eastern Steppe is drier and colder than the western region. This sets in place a natural, geographic dynamic. The Steppe peoples have historically tended to migrate westward toward the richer grasslands of the western Steppe. This probably in parts exlains the ethnic shift from Indo-Europeans to Asiatics. One particularly important question in history is the role of the Steppe people set between the West and China. The lifestyle of the Steppe given the vast grasslands was nomadic herding. Grassland is ideal for herding, but the low-precipitantion levels required nomadism so to avoid overgrazing. The vastness of the Steppe allowed he various tribes to acquire and maintain as many animals as they could effectively manage. TheSteppe people herded various animals, including sheep, goats, and cattle. The most important animal for the Steppe tribes, beyond any doubt, was the horse. The horse was developed on the Steppe. It had uses for transportation, food, and warfare. It was the Steppe tribes that domesticated horse. The horse transfored warfar, although it was a millenia bedore the full potentil of the horse was realized and the uses of the horse defused throughout Eurasia.

The Horse

The horse was the animal of primary military importance. Horses appeared in Paleolithic cave art along withb other animals (about 30,000 BC). The depictions suggest that they were wild animals and at first hunted for meat like other wild animals. How and when horses were domesticated is a matter of historical debate. The general consensus is that horses were domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes (about 4000-3500 BC). The horse was not at first critical in warfare. Horses gradually became vital in warfare, especially after the rather small Steppe ponies were bred to create larger animals with greatr size and stamina. And horses bread with donkies created the mule, a more robut beast of birden than the donkey. The first use of the horse in warfare was for chariots. The chariot played a huge role in ancient battlefields. We are bot sure when the chariot was invented, but burials have been found (about 2000 BC). It was a deadly mobile weapon platform. Alexander developed a defense against massed chriot assaults--the ?????. Much later striups were invented which made for modern calvalry. The strirup made the horse itself an effective weapons platform in its own right.

China

China is the only one of the Great River Valley civilizations that developed in isolation. That isolation was not broken until the development of the Silk Road late in the ancient era. As a result, many Western histories contain little or no mention of China until the modern era. The Steppe tribes receive mor attntion, but not much and they are often considered without reference to China. It is becoming increasingly clear that China, even while still isolated from the West had a huge impact on the West, And the agency was the Steppe tribes. The mechanism is still not clear, largely because Wesrern historians have just begun to address the issue and most esrern historians are largely unfamiliar with Chinese history and that of the Steppe people. The topic is finally being addressed in the historical literature. Some historians believe that during times of strength and unity in Chian that th Steppe people were deflected west. Other historians believe that times of unity in China that the Steppe tribes were trenghened and most dangerous to the West. A military hitorian tells us, "The relationship between the steppe peoples and China has spawned a great deal of interesting literature. In Perilous Frontier, Thomas Barfield argues that the steppe peoples were most powerful when China was. The whole issue is very interesting. Genghis Khan actually fought to the west (against Khwarazmia) before he turned to China." [Roth] One important historian who has weitten about the rise of the West, and at first wrote about the West and the Steppe tribes, but gradually came to e the guge role China ws olaying. [McNeill, p. xviii.]

Sources

Barfield, Thomas. Perilous Frontier.

McNeill, William H. The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 828p.

Roth, Jonathan P. San JoseState University, E-mail message,(May 30, 2014).






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Created: 10:21 PM 5/31/2014
Last updated: 6:42 AM 10/7/2018