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 you’re 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 means…you 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 – 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 ‘good’ because they are ‘civilised’ follow this pattern – Alexander the Great shot first and asked questions later; the Islamic caliphate began by defending the faith from angry neighbours at M’dina; the growth of the British Empire was largely accidental.
The British are interesting, actually. Suppose you’re 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 don’t want them to do this again, do you? With a sigh, you realise you only have one sure option – occupy their capital, set up a new administration, make an agreement with the local elites, establish a garrison.
Now, it doesn’t always happen exactly like this. The Phoenicians built their empire through new settlements; rather than conquering the native people, they’d 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.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Why would one tribe want to attack another in the first place? Can’t they all just live in peace? I have a little theory about this, one which, as far as I know isn’t 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 isn’t quite enough for the young fellas to do, there’s 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 – i.e. as a raid or as an invasion – 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 don’t know for sure, but I think this is what happened in China). In this case, you are trying to take the enemy’s land, rather than take out the enemy. You dont want to enslave them, because that’s 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 enemy’s flags, all have fallen before you, you have no more enemies on your frontiers, then you need to decide what to do next. You can’t just say, well, enough’s enough, too many people have died, let’s call it quits; I’m happy with my territory, anyway. No, your troops won’t 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 – 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 don’t 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.