So you want to build an empire, do you?
Here's my first post (and it's a long one):
So, you want to build an empire, do you?
Most empires in history began in self-defence. Say youíre the king of a tribe, the Cartographii, and you are worried your big strong neighbour, the Artistae, are going to attack you. Well, the smart thing to do is attack them first.
Congratulations, sire, you won.
Now you rule a larger territory, and so you can start to grow. More land means more food; more food means more kiddies; more kiddies means more warriors; more warriors means your new neighbours, the Writerians, are starting to get nervous. You know what to do: attack!
Right, well, now you rule over three tribal territories. So, more land means more food; more food meansÖyou know the rest. So it goes on, until your empire is large enough that its nearest neighbours are no longer a challenge for it.
Of course, a lot of empires die in infancy: you might lose the battle with the Artistae; you might win that battle, but lose to the Writerians; you might win both of those, but lose to whoever comes next. Other factors come into play, and these can be much more varied Ė better weapons, more organised troops, smarter strategies, sheer dumb luck.
As a general rule, though, empires start off as aggressive nations. The Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Romans, the Aztecs are perhaps the best example of this. Even empires we think are Ďgoodí because they are Ďcivilisedí follow this pattern Ė Alexander the Great shot first and asked questions later; the Islamic caliphate began by defending the faith from angry neighbours at Mídina; the growth of the British Empire was largely accidental.
The British are interesting, actually. Suppose youíre one of the decision-makers in Whitehall. Your army has been attacked in a province of India (lets say, Punjab) by an Indian king (who is doing exactly what all leaders should, attack the enemy before they attack you). You beat the Punjabi army, but you donít want them to do this again, do you? With a sigh, you realise you only have one sure option Ė occupy their capital, set up a new administration, make an agreement with the local elites, establish a garrison.
Now, it doesnít always happen exactly like this. The Phoenicians built their empire through new settlements; rather than conquering the native people, theyíd put a small tradepost on the coast, and they could then trade with the locals, without the expense of trying to conquer them. If they felt their land was threatened, however, then they are left with only one choice.
Letís go back to the beginning. Why would one tribe want to attack another in the first place? Canít they all just live in peace? I have a little theory about this, one which, as far as I know isnít backed up by any historical literature, but is what I observed from reading history books.
There are two reasons one tribe will attack another: self-defence, population pressure. Note, this is all probably simplifying these processes enormously, but go with it, it does make sense.
Self-defence: as discussed above, you want to protect your tribe so you attack first. In this instance, your goal is to eliminate the threat from an enemy, and so you need to destroy the enemy. This can be done through killing them (Mongolian solution), enslaving them (Spartan solution), or sacrificing them on a bloody altar (Aztec solution).
Population growth: when your own tribe is starting to burst at the seams, there isnít quite enough for the young fellas to do, thereís starting to be discontent because the economy is slowing down (a modern concept, but still applies to early times), you want to resolve the problem. Attack a neighbour. Depending on how it is conducted Ė i.e. as a raid or as an invasion Ė it will give either booty or land. If you raid the enemy, you get their stuff, but they remain in place and so you go back the next year (Vikings). If you invade, you want their land, which you can then give to your young fellas, they can farm it, and you have enough food and work for your population (I donít know for sure, but I think this is what happened in China). In this case, you are trying to take the enemyís land, rather than take out the enemy. You dont want to enslave them, because thatís just another burden. Instead, you push them off their land, and keep it for yourself. They then go harassing someone else as they try to find some land of their own.
One last thing. Empires acquire momentum. When you get to that point where you look around and see the charred remnants of your enemyís flags, all have fallen before you, you have no more enemies on your frontiers, then you need to decide what to do next. You canít just say, well, enoughís enough, too many people have died, letís call it quits; Iím happy with my territory, anyway. No, your troops wonít let you. Conquest makes them rich. It adds land to the empire, which you can then use to reward your allies and veterans, and besides, now you want specific things Ė I really want those shiny ore mines that you have, friend, give them to me now. Those spices look good, care to let me have some? Hence, the empire rolls on. Historically, every empire has continued to grow until it either meets a stronger opponent than it (Persians v Alexander; Aztecs v Spanish; arguably Napoleon v. Russians/British/Prussians etc) or it overreaches itself, and collapses under the strain (Romans, Ottomans, Islamic caliphates, Mongols). Every new province needs to be secured with troops, administrators, etc. And they all need to be paid.
So, when building your empire, remember, no-one sets out trying to build an empire. You get one by accident, and then you donít know what to do with it. For a while, empire-owning is profitable, but eventually, if you let it grow too big, it just becomes expensive to run.
Hope people find this useful.
So you want to build a city, do you?
Okay so, as promised, these are some thoughts about how cities start.
What gives a city its shape, how does it grow and change, and where should you put it in the first place?
The first thing you should probably know is, how is the city being founded? Is this the whim of some tyrant, a mad but possibly brilliant ruler who plans to build his own mini-utopia? Is it merely a practical response to a practical problem Ė a fort for soldiers or a workers camp near some important industry? Is it, perhaps, going to start just because a group of families say ďyou know what, I reckon weíll stay hereĒ? Or possibly it was because there was a handy road/bridge/crossroads/ford etc. and it seemed like a good idea at the time? All of these have happened historically, although a fantasy setting might offer new reasons for founding a city.
Where to put a city can be incredibly complicated or simply simple, depending on how much detail you care to go into. I think Iíll keep it simple: water, food, building materials. Without these, a city cannot exist. Water is obviously the first consideration, but remember, if your settlement is going to become a large city it needs enough water. A meagre little stream wonít satisfy a hundred thousand people, will it? Ideally, therefore, youíll be looking for a river. Rivers are better than lakes because they not only bring fresh water in, they also take used water out. If you donít fancy a river settlement you can also look for a spring (particularly handy for hilltop settlements and forts), aquifers or groundwater storage (to be honest, Iím a bit fuzzy on these; I assume theyíll be of most use in deserts, but Iím sure there are other guild members who know more than me about this). If all else fails, you can try to bring water in (i.e. aqueducts or even caravans, but now youíre getting desperate). If imported water is your only option (i.e. there are no rivers, lakes, springs, aquifers) then your city is not going to last long; building aqueducts might be something you do when the water supply gets too dirty, but by then youíll already have a large city, surely?
Donít forget dinner. Iím not going to get all technical about this. Food comes from the ground, from water, or possibly from the wilderness (i.e. hunter-gatherer). A city that depends on animals hunted nearby or gathered plants might be an interesting idea, but how big will it grow, really? Pre-modern fishing can support a small-medium population, but the best option is farming. Obviously, farming needs suitable soil. A rocky island in the middle of nowhere isnít going to grow very much, is it? Good soil is rich in nutrients, and that usually means it is full of organic (plant or animal) material. Forests are good Ė all those fallen leaves turning into mulch, what could be better? Volcanoes have also got a reputation for producing extremely fertile ash-based soil. Try googling Ďbest places for farmingí and see what you get.
When it comes to farming, also give some thought to what kind of farming. Are you farming crops or keeping livestock? Crops generally produce more food, but are actually a lot harder to keep going. You have to wait a full year for your next harvest, you need to keep the yield protected and stored (which may mean keeping it dry, keeping rats/birds out etc.), and you need to irrigate. Animals, on the other hand, are ready to go. Chickens give you food most days of the week. Think about how many people you can feed with a single cow, or sheep for that matter. And then there are the additional benefits Ė wool, leather, bones for toolmaking etc. You donít need to bring water to your animals, because you can bring them to the water, and if you have to move (eg to start a new town) you can take them along. The downsides are that they take a long time to mature, and (unless you live somewhere cold) you canít store the meat for long. In ancient times, the Germanic tribes depended on livestock much more than crops. What does this have to do with cities? Itís about how much land you have and how it is used, and how many people you can support. You might find large farms outside the city walls, or most people keeping a few chickens or a pig in their backyard (which means they need to HAVE a backyard).
So, thatís food.
I wonít worry about building materials; itís pretty self-explanatory really. Just give some thought as to where they get their building materials (incl. for different social classes), how available those materials will be in any location, and how suitable each type is (eg stone doesnít burn but is heavy and will get very cold; bricks require an industry to produce them and money to buy them; wood is convenient and warm but can also be dangerous).
Lastly, itís obviously important to think about why people live where they live. If they are worried about being attacked, theyíll choose somewhere high or easily protected; if they feel safe they will probably live somewhere they can make a living, either through farming, manufacturing, services (eg pilgrims) or trade.
So, if you want to build a city Ė and you want it to be historically realistic Ė hereís a checklist of things to know: where do they get their water/food/building materials? Who is founding the settlement? Why has a particular site been chosen? You need ALL of these things, not just some of them.
I think thatís enough for today. To be honest I was hoping for a better response, and so I wonít add any more of these essay-like posts unless people sincerely want more. Also Iíve definitely forgotten to include many important points. So please, provide your ideas, questions, comments, critiques, and happy worldbuilding.
PS: I should include a warning. Be aware, when starting down the road of uber-realistic world-building that it can be a trap. You spend so long trying to make things Ďrightí that you donít get round to anything else. Iíve grown heartily sick of trying to make every detail of my worlds make sense, and now deliberately just go with what feels right. Some people are happy to take this path, and good luck to them. But donít say I didnít warn ya.