Musings about hard shells and soft interiors

Ancient tribal warfare resembled what we know of late North American natives' warfare: Lots of raiding (more for stealing than killing), every man a warrior if need be, reliable peace being the exception to the rule.

Gaul was largely like this when Caesar conquered it, albeit with a system of developed hierarchical loyalties resembling feudalism. The threat of raids and large scale warfare was constant, though. As a consequence, almost every boy learned to fight during his upbringing and settlements were not built with purely economical concerns in mind, but also with defence in mind: Towns and villages on hills with fortifications were normal (with moats substituting for a hill's protection in flat lands).

Iron age people didn't choose and set up such real estate
for settlements because of the picturesque scenery.
A generation after Gaul's conquest the final uprisings were defeated (a common chronology for Roman expansion save for Northwest Germany). The Pax Romana allowed for settlements to ditch their defence considerations, and paying tariffs and taxes replaced the general defence preparations. The economy developed favourably, towns grew without the area constraints imposed by fortifications.

Later on, the Germanic chieftains understood that the Roman Empire had a hard shell, but a soft interior: Raiding had not only become relatively less risky, but it also paid off more. Sooner or later internal struggles were bound to tip over this unstable situation. The raids forced defence preparations on the people of Gaul again; settlements in valleys were given up, fortified settlements on hills were recreated.* The economy plunged, thus the taxes and tariff revenues for the professional troops plunged and the Romans had combined the worst of two worlds.** This situation wasn't exactly sustainable either.

Luckily, we don't face any all-warrior culture today, so we're probably not going to be punished for omitting compulsory basic military training for everyone or for neglecting civil defence efforts. Today's only populations with a high degree of warrior culture are probably the Tutsi and Israelis. The Chechens gave it a try and found it to be a faulty approach.
Still, the trade-off between defence preparations and economic optimisation is interesting (to me). The example above goes well beyond a mere military spending issue. It's about whether or not an entire society is coined by discouraging aggression and warmaking capability.
Amazingly, the entire Western World navigated through the existential perma-crisis known as the Cold War without turning into all-militarised societies. The Soviets gave it a try, with allegedly up to a quarter of the economic activity of the Soviet Union being for the military strength (its economy was heavily subsidised by unfair trade with its satellite countries, though). They lost. This time the 'hard shell, soft interior' approach prevailed over the perma-war approach.
Maybe this economy-emphasising strategy is superior. The Romans defeated the Gauls, after all. No all-warrior culture lasted as long as the Roman hard shell/soft interior culture did (The East Roman empire shrank, but it survived till about 1,600 years after Rome de facto gave up the all-warrior approach.)

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Now to another aspect (this should probably be two blog posts):
I mentioned the important differences between distributing new income and redistributing already distributed income before.
The economic growth which occurs when a society becomes unshackled from the distortions of defence preparations was easily distributed. Much of this was distributed away from defence; it did not feed the professional military establishment. A redistribution towards military efforts was hard, much harder than the initial distribution of the growth. The Romans experienced additional economic troubles because long-distance trade collapsed due to political instability and the insecurity of trade due to civil wars. It's most hard to redistribute/reallocate resources if the resource base is even shrinking. All interested parties will fight tooth and nails to keep their share of the pie, even as it's shrinking anyway.
Maybe it would have been wiser to maintain huge efforts in large construction projects, such as new roads, new Colosseums, pyramids et cetera. The resources allocated to such chronic public investment resources could have been transferred to military efforts in times of need and easily so.
The modern method to overcome the resistance to reallocation of resources / redistribution of income is different: We hand out bonds instead of increasing tax revenue extremely. The difference is probably a mere wartime illusion coupled with a very real post-war redistribution of income towards the pre-war wealthy, but it appears to be effective.


*: Some such reversions occurred only later, when tribal warfare returned in full force instead of earlier when raiding began anew.
**: A late medieval Chinese policy in face of Japanese raiders ("pirates") was even worse; the coastal regions were given up, settlements there were outlawed in order to deprive the raiders of targets.

P.S.: The errorists' success in provoking lots of defence precautions such as airport security etc. may be an analogy to raiding Germanic warbands in the late Roman empire, but I still don't think that they're going to reach a critical mass.


  1. A very far stretched thesis. First of all, the hardening of the roman interior regions occured around the middle of the 3rd century, when frontiers were exposed becaus of civil wars. This period was followed by a significant increase in border troops under the tetrarchy and the constantinian dynasty. When the roman frontier regime weakened again in the later half of the 4th c. settlement structures shifted in exactly the opposite direction. Away from the fortified cores and into the unfortified rural landscape. There was no significant resettlement of hilltop lokations either, allthough those were used as temporal refuges in times of conflict. The transformation of the gaul agriculture (away from grain and cattle) was more likely caused by the withdrawl of most of its military consumer base (and a demographic downturn), not the other way around.

    All in all the centralized production of security the romans introduced was propably an inefficent system, given the means of transport and production of the time.

    1. The decline of real towns was driven by economic decline. I was aiming more at the increased layout of rural settlements for security.

      About the resettlement of hilltop locations; I read it happened, and the fact that they were given up in the first place is interesting enough anyway.

      Generally I find your comment confusing because about half of what you wrote isn't in conflict or about what I wrote even though you made it sound as if.
      Example: The first part (hardening) sounds as if you were disputing what I wrote, when in fact you repeated it. I called it "internal struggles", you called it "civil wars".

  2. "I was aiming more at the increased layout of rural settlements for security."

    ... that did not happen on a general basis. Rural settlements were open, secured only by fences and hedges, and located in areas with favourable agricultural conditions (soil, climate). Elites resided in manors (villae if romans) that usually lacked substantial fortifications (at least in gaul and germania) and didn't change much in the course of the centuries in question, wether in layout or in location.

    "About the resettlement of hilltop locations; I read it happened, and the fact that they were given up in the first place is interesting enough anyway."

    They were given up at least partly because the celtic elites they housed were eliminated or assimilated. Those celtic oppidas were no farmig villages on crack, they were centres of domination and luxury production. "Resettlement" by using them as temporal refuges does not produce any ill effects on agricultural production.

    "Generally I find your comment confusing because about half of what you wrote isn't in conflict or about what I wrote even though you made it sound as if."

    Your point, as far as I can see, was the economic costs of "hardening" a settlement structure. I contend, that the "hardening" in the mid-3th century didn't have an ill effect on the ability to sustain a large body of troops on the frontier, as suggested by the increase of border troops towards the end of the 3rd, and maintained to the end of the 4th century.

    Furthermore, when shit hit the fan in the later 4th century, there was no sign of "hardening". Instead fortified cities were left for the more or less open countryside.

    I suggest, the signs of progress in the roman-gaul economy (market production of grain and cattle) was in fact a bad investment at the time, driven by the presence of a large body of troops subsidized by revenues from the mediterranean core regions of the empire.

    "Hardening" i.e. fortifiing a settlement does cause much less costs compared to keeping a standing army on the frontiers. Agricultural societies have huge amounts of dispensable labor on a seasonal basis.

    1. I think you're overestimating the costs of the Roman military. Its strength was about a quarter to almost half million men; less than in West Germany during the Cold War, with about the same overall population.
      Only a fraction of this approx. one-third million troops was located on the Germanic limes.

      Roman mail armour was expensive, but to focus armour on so relatively few troops also meant huge savings in comparison to many more warriors using cheaper armour (such as bronze discs).
      The food, fodder and services consumption of the military was modest as well.

      The difficulties in sustaining the military were likely more about the inefficient revenue system than the costs of the military in the context of the overall economy.
      The other problem was that the Germanic tribes evolved and kept growing because of ever more cleared woodland.

      I also think you underestimate the effect of introducing direct defence considerations as a factor into daily life, construction et cetera. The potential for inefficiencies is huge. It is also much less efficient to attempt to defend everywhere than to focus on a forward defence. A similar argument can even be made with geometry. http://tinyurl.com/nlyoqru

  3. Both of you make good points.
    Defence is a burden on economic efficiency. having the defence on riverine borders is the most economic structure for transport of goods to the frontline.
    This frontline can not prevent all penetrations, but it is highly capable of negating economic gains from penetration being brought back across the border.
    For the limitanei a possible model is part time farmer (possibly not all limitanei). This is compatible with the Germanic raiders across the border, who had a similar work circle.
    The numbers we have for Roman troops do not give us actual strength, Capability by training and equipment. Wide margins may exist corresponding to problems of central control.
    The small farming communities of the Early Middle Ages were in part a result of an economic collapse due to population collapses by several waves of plague. They did provide security by reducing the savely feedable size of armies passing through, unlike cities with massive localized stores of food.