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Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000

Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000

by William H. McNeill

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In this magnificent synthesis of military, technological, and social history, William H. McNeill explores a whole millennium of human upheaval and traces the path by which we have arrived at the frightening dilemmas that now confront us. McNeill moves with equal mastery from the crossbow—banned by the Church in 1139 as too lethal for Christians to use against


In this magnificent synthesis of military, technological, and social history, William H. McNeill explores a whole millennium of human upheaval and traces the path by which we have arrived at the frightening dilemmas that now confront us. McNeill moves with equal mastery from the crossbow—banned by the Church in 1139 as too lethal for Christians to use against one another—to the nuclear missile, from the sociological consequences of drill in the seventeenth century to the emergence of the military-industrial complex in the twentieth. His central argument is that a commercial transformation of world society in the eleventh century caused military activity to respond increasingly to market forces as well as to the commands of rulers. Only in our own time, suggests McNeill, are command economies replacing the market control of large-scale human effort. The Pursuit of Power does not solve the problems of the present, but its discoveries, hypotheses, and sheer breadth of learning do offer a perspective on our current fears and, as McNeill hopes, "a ground for wiser action."

"No summary can do justice to McNeill's intricate, encyclopedic treatment. . . . McNeill's erudition is stunning, as he moves easily from European to Chinese and Islamic cultures and from military and technological to socio-economic and political developments. The result is a grand synthesis of sweeping proportions and interdisciplinary character that tells us almost as much about the history of butter as the history of guns. . . . McNeill's larger accomplishment is to remind us that all humankind has a shared past and, particularly with regard to its choice of weapons and warfare, a shared stake in the future."—Stuart Rochester, Washington Post Book World

"Mr. McNeill's comprehensiveness and sensitivity do for the reader what Henry James said that Turgenev's conversation did for him: they suggest 'all sorts of valuable things.' This narrative of rationality applied to irrational purposes and of ingenuity cannibalizing itself is a work of clarity, which delineates mysteries. The greatest of them, to my mind, is why human beings have never learned to cherish their own species."—Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker

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The Pursuit of Power

Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000

By William H. McNeill

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1982 William H. McNeill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-56158-5


Arms and Society in Antiquity

In a limited sense, the industrialization of war is almost as old as civilization, for the introduction of bronze metallurgy made specially skilled artisans indispensable for the manufacture of weapons and armor. Moreover, bronze was rare and expensive. Only a few privileged fighting men could possess a full panoply. It followed that warrior specialists emerged alongside metallurgical specialists, one class enjoying near monopoly of the other's product, at least to begin with.

But the phrase "industrialization of war" does not really fit the ancient river valley civilizations, whether of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, or China. In the first place, priests and temples competed with warriors and army commanders as consumers of bronze and other artisan products; and the earliest rulers probably based their power more on their religious than on their military roles. In the second place, in society at large the great majority of the population remained in the fields, toiling to produce food for their own support. Surpluses were small; and the number of rulers—whether priestly or military or both—and of artisans remained proportionately modest. Moreover, within that small number, the industrial element was inconspicuous. Arms and armor, once molded into shape, lasted indefinitely, and even if blunted or dented in battle could be restored to usefulness with a little sharpening or hammering. Armorers therefore remained relatively few, even in proportion to warriors.

Since tin and copper ores did not usually occur in the same places, and since tin was relatively scarce and often had to be sought at great distances, the really critical limit upon ancient metallurgy and war-making capacity was more often the availability of suitable metal ingots or ores than manufacturing skill. Traders and transport personnel, in other words, mattered more than artisans. Public policy had to take into account relations with potential metal suppliers who lived beyond the range of direct administrative control. Safeguarding trade routes from rivals and marauders was also important and sometimes difficult. On the other hand, availability of skilled metal workers could usually be taken for granted once the appropriate artisan tradition had become established in the community.

Wars were normally fought with existing stocks of arms and armor, modified only by gains or losses through capture in the course of operations. What an army needed along the way was food and forage. Hence the availability of food constituted the principal limit upon military action and the size of armies. Occasionally and by exception, an outbreak of epidemic disease intervened to alter military balances abruptly—miraculously, indeed, as the biblical account of the Assyrian failure before Jerusalem in 701 B.C. attests.

Guarding against disease and other evidences of divine displeasure was the province of priests with their knowledge of religious rituals and prayers. Doing something to increase local supplies of food and forage for the support of an itinerant army was the province of rulers and administrators. It was always easiest to rely on direct exercise of force, i.e., to plunder local food producers by seizing their stocks of grain or animals in order to consume them on the spot or at very short remove. Such an army had to overwhelm opposition quickly and then move on, for it rapidly exhausted local supplies, leaving devastation in its rear. Peasants deprived of their stocks were likely to starve and were sure to have the greatest difficulty in finding seed for their fields in the following year. Several years, even decades, had to pass before the ravages of such a campaign could be remedied.

The career of Sargon of Akkad, who plundered all the lands of Mesopotamia around his capital city of Kish about 2250 B.C., illustrates the potentialities and limits of this sort of organized robbery. As one of his inscriptions declares:

Sargon, king of Kish, thirty-four campaigns won, the walls he destroyed as far as the shore of the sea.... To Sargon, the king, the hand of Enlil [chief of the gods] a rival did not permit. Fifty-four hundred men daily in his presence eat food.

A perpetual following of 5,400 men no doubt gave the great conqueror an assured superiority over any local rival; hence his thirty-four victorious campaigns. But to keep such a force in being also required annual campaigning, devastating one fertile landscape after another in order to keep the soldiers in victuals. Costs to the population at large were obviously very great. Indeed Sargon's armies can well be compared to the ravages of an epidemic disease that kills off a significant proportion of the host population yet by its very passage confers an immunity lasting for several years. Sargon's armies did the same, since the diminished productivity of the land that resulted from such plundering made it impractical for an army of similar size to pass that way again until such time as population and the area under cultivation had been restored.

But just as an epidemic disease will become endemic whenever interaction between the infectious organism and the host population becomes sufficiently massive and intimate, so also in war. Hence if we shift attention from the time of Sargon to the time of the Achaemenid Empire (539–332 B.C.), we see that war had become less destructive to a great king's subjects during that long interval of time. When Xerxes determined on his famous invasion of Greece (480–479 B.C.), for example, he issued commands from his palace at Persepolis, instructing his agents to gather food supplies from territories under their control, and deliver them to stations along the intended route of march. As a result, Xerxes was able to march into Greece with an army more than ten times larger than Sargon's without devastating the landscapes through which he passed. To be sure, he could not maintain such a force for more than a few weeks in a land as poor in local food supplies as Greece. So, when a handful of Greek cities in the extreme south refused to submit, the Great King had to withdraw a substantial part of his invading force, because there was no way he could feed the entire army in the field over the winter.

As far as we can tell, the passage of Xerxes' army did not interrupt the flow of tax and rent payments in the regions through which it marched. Quite the contrary: it was the regular flow of such income, concentrated into storage magazines along the army's route of march, that immunized the local populations against destructive exposure to plunder. The mutual benefit of such a system of regulated exactions as compared to Sargon's system of predation is obvious. The king and his army secured a surer supply of food and could march farther and arrive at the scene of battle in better condition than if they had stopped to plunder along the way. The peasant populations, likewise, by handing over a more or less fixed portion of their harvest to tax and rent collectors, escaped sporadic destitution and risk of starvation. However difficult it may have been to make such payments—and the condition of the peasantry in ancient empires can be assumed to have approached the minimum required for biological survival—the superior predictability and regularity of taxes and rents made Xerxes' imperial system preferable to Sargon's unrestrained pillage, even though pillage could occur only at intervals of several years, whereas taxes and rents were exacted annually. Hence, even though levying taxes and rents pitted the interests of rulers and landlords against those of the peasant producers, both parties had a real interest in substituting such regulated exactions for plundering.

The development of tax and rent systems in other ancient empires is less vividly attested in surviving documents than is the case in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is clear that similar imperial, bureaucratic systems arose in ancient China, in India, and presently also in the Mediterranean world with the rise of Rome. Amerindian civilizations, too, though at a remove in time, developed comparable administrative systems for transferring agricultural surplus into the hands of the agents of a distant ruler, who used the food and other goods that thus came under his control for warfare or for worship, as he and his close advisers determined.

It is worth pointing out that warfare was not always preeminent. Rulers sometimes preferred to organize elaborate religious ceremonies and grandiose construction enterprises instead of devoting their resources to the maintenance of armies. In ancient Egypt, where geographic conditions made the task of border defense relatively simple, pharoahs of the Fifth Dynasty mobilized the manpower of the country to build pyramids—one per reign—whose remarkable size attests the vast number of workers they were able to summon to the task. Even in war-torn Mesopotamia, temple-building competed with military operations as a consumer of tax income. And in other ages and places, division of resources between warfare and welfare varied indefinitely in antiquity as in more recent times.

Yet it seems correct to say that, regardless of the ends to which resources were put, large-scale public action in antiquity was always achieved by means of command. The ruler or his agent and subordinate issued an order and others obeyed. Human beings are probably fundamentally attuned to this mode of public management by childhood experience, since parents routinely issue commands and instructions which children are expected (and often compelled) to obey. Parents know more and are physically stronger than children; ancient kings also knew more because of superior access to information relayed up and down the administrative hierarchy; and with the help of professionalized soldiery they were also stronger than their subjects. Sometimes they were also living gods, with access to still another form of power.

The awkward element in the entire structure was long-distance trade and the people who conducted it. Yet some imports from afar were essential. For example, the tin needed to make bronze was usually unobtainable close by. Commands were incapable of compelling populations to dig the ore, smelt it into ingots, and then carry it across the sea and land to the place where kings and high priests wanted it. Other scarce products were similarly recalcitrant to the straightforward methods of command mobilization. Rulers and men of power had to learn to deal with possessors of such commodities more or less as equals, substituting the manners and methods of diplomacy for those of command.

The transition was, no doubt, slow and difficult. In very early times, kings organized military expeditions to secure needed commodities from afar. This, for example, is how Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (ca. 3000 B.C.?) prepared for a trip to get timber from distant cedar forests:

"But I will put my hand to it
And will cut down the cedar.
An everlasting name I will establish for myself!
Orders, my friend, to the armorers I will give;
Weapons they shall cast in our presence."
Orders to the armorers they gave.
The craftsmen sat down and held a conference.
Great weapons they cast.
Axes of three talents each they cast.
Great swords they cast ...

But raiding in search of scarce commodities was a high-risk enterprise. Gilgamesh, the tale informs us, lost his friend and companion, Enkidu, after their return from the cedar forest—a kind of poetic justice for Enkidu's refusal to make a deal, as the following passage indicates:

So Huwawa [lord of the cedar forest] gave up.
Then Huwawa said to Gilgamesh:
"Let me go Gilgamesh; thou shalt be my master,
And I will be thy servant. And the trees
That I have grown on my mountains,
I will cut down, and build thee houses."
But Enkidu said to Gilgamesh:
"Do not hearken to the word which Huwawa has spoken;
Huwawa must not remain alive."

Whereupon, the two heroes killed Huwawa, and returned triumphantly to Uruk, presumably bringing the cedar logs with them.

The decision to kill Huwawa reflected a highly unstable constellation of power. Gilgamesh could not long remain in the cedar forest: only momentarily could he bring superior force to bear, and that with difficulty. As soon as the expeditionary force withdrew, Huwawa's power to defy the wishes of strangers would have been restored had Enkidu and Gilgamesh not killed him. Obviously, an adequate timber supply for Uruk was hard to assure by such methods, regardless of whether Gilgamesh accepted or refused Huwawa's proffered submission.

A more reliable way to get scarce resources from regions too far away to be folded into the ordinary command structure was to offer some tangible commodity in exchange, i.e., to substitute trading for raiding. What civilized societies could offer, characteristically, were products of specialized artisan skills, developed initially for the delectation of gods and rulers.

Such luxury objects, of course, were rare; only a few could ever possess them. For many centuries, therefore, trade was largely confined to exchanges of scarce commodities between rulers and administrators of civilized lands and local potentates of distant parts. Civilized rulers and officials were the only people who had access to luxury products made on command by specially skilled artisans. Moreover, civilized rulers and officials were only interested in offering such goods to those distant power-wielders who could organize the necessary labor for digging ore, cutting timber or performing whatever other tasks were necessary to prepare and then start the commodity in question on its way to civilized consumers. Such trade, therefore, tended to replicate civilized command structures in surrounding human communities (sometimes in miniature to begin with) in much the same way that DNA and RNA replicate their complex molecular structures in favorable environments.

Bargaining over terms of trade could and did respond partly to market forces of supply and demand and partly to considerations of power, prestige, and ritual. Dependence on distant suppliers who were not firmly subject to imperial words of command constituted a limit upon the management of ancient empires. But it was rarely encountered, since most of the commodities really important for maintenance of armies and administrative bureaucracies—the twin pillars of Xerxes' and every other great king's power—were available from within the boundaries of the state, and could be effectively mobilized by command. Of these, food was by far the most important. Everything else was dwarfed by the simple fact that men (and transport animals) could not remain active for more than a few days without eating.

The contrast between trade relations with outsiders and administration within the bounds of the state was not as great as the above remarks might suggest. Local governors and other administrators who served the king as his agents in the localities had to be rewarded for their services by an appropriate mix of perquisites, praise, and punishment. Command mobilization worked only when men obeyed; and obedience had often to be purchased at a price which differed only in degree from the price paid to more distant and more fully independent local potentates.

Early civilizations existed by virtue of transfer of food from its producers to rulers and men of power who supported themselves, along with a following of military and artisan specialists, on the food so secured. Sometimes, too, the labor power of the food-producing majority was conscripted for some sort of public works: digging a canal, fortifying a city, or erecting a temple. This basic transfer of resources from the many to a few was supplemented by a circulation of luxury goods among members of the ruling elites—partly gift-giving from the great to followers and subordinates, partly tribute from subordinates to the great. Trade across political frontiers was really a variation within this larger pattern of exchanges among men of power. It differed from such exchanges in being more easily interrupted, and less strongly colored by patterns of deference and condescension of the kind that prevailed within the ruling elites of civilized states.

Another feature of ancient empires deserves emphasis, to wit, the fact that there was an optimal size for such polities. The smooth functioning of a tax-collecting administration required the king to reside for at least part of each year in a capital city. Information needed for meting out reward and punishment to key servants of the crown could best be concentrated in a single locality. Such matters had to be attended to promptly, or else the administrative machine would quickly run down and cease to be capable of concentrating resources at anything like maximal capacity. It was equally vital to maintain a bodyguard around the person of the ruler, sufficient to overawe or defeat any likely rival who might meditate revolt. This, too, was best achieved by residing much of the time in some central location where natural routes of transport, especially waterways, made it feasible to gather necessary stores of food year in and year out from the surrounding countryside.


Excerpted from The Pursuit of Power by William H. McNeill. Copyright © 1982 William H. McNeill. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William H. McNeill is the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of History and the College at the University of Chicago. His many books include The Pursuit of Power, The Rise of the West, and Mythistory and Other Essays, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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