Tor.com published an article online today about diversity in Hannibal’s army written from the point of view of historical wargaming. It is a interesting article and well worth a read, but unfortunately it misses the opportunity to really address questions of racial and cultural diversity in ancient warfare. Here is a quick attempt to address some of the things that were lacking.
Race and culture
Race is a term with a lot of baggage, as we are all painfully aware, but it means different things in different contexts. In modern parlance, it describes a socially-constructed division of human beings into more or less arbitrary categories, largely on the basis of skin color and other physical features. In a fantasy context, it refers to distinct species of intelligent creatures like Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and so on.
The unaddressed problem in the Tor.com article is the conflation of race and culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, overtly racist theories of history posited that people of different genetic backgrounds naturally had different qualities. Many of these stereotypes still linger in our popular culture: the stoic Indian, the mischievous Irishman, the passionate Italian, etc. This belief in racial character was encoded in early classic works of fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which gave us the stubborn Dwarf, the ethereal Elf, the vicious Orc, etc.
Even as we struggle to root out this conflation of race and culture from our modern life, it lingers on in works of fantasy and science fiction: the logical Vulcan, the boisterous Klingon, the decadent Centauri, the proud Dothraki. As we look back at history, we have to think of the people of the past not in terms of racial qualities but in terms of cultural contexts. People of different origins often do behave differently, but those differences are explained by the cultures they lived in, not the races they represent.
What if there was a fantasy world where moose were tamed and selectively bred for cavalry? I spent some time pondering it after a couple of things found online collided in my head.
First, there’s this animated gif of a moose rushing through a deep snow-filled field:
Their size, speed, and ability to gallop through deep snowbanks make moose fearsome and pretty near unstoppable. Imagine a line of ginormous moose thundering at full tilt towards you across a field – that’s a truly frightening thought! Also bogs don’t slow them down by much, I believe, which might conceivably tip the scales in the right kind of a campaign.
Then, I saw this photo of an albino moose:
Natural snow camouflage. Hmmm.
It’s not that far-fetched an idea, apparently. The Soviet Union attempted to build a moose cavalry in the first half of the 20th century, but they were unsuccessful. In our world, the solitary habits of moose seem to be standing in the way of domestication. If we’re talking about a fantasy world, however, I don’t see why not.
Images: Rushing moose gif via Crazy Hyena. White moose by Antti Terävä via Yle
The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?
… Marcus Licinius Crassus would have been the first emperor of Rome instead of Julius Caesar.
Stick with me here.
Alfalfa is a plant in the pea family that resembles clover. It originally comes from south central Asia and was cultivated in the northern parts of the Iranian plateau as animal fodder. Compared with other fodder plants, alfalfa is very high in protein, so it is mostly fed to cattle. It can be given in small amounts to most horse breeds, but in large amounts it causes bloating as horses cannot use the excess protein.
The exception is Nisaean horses, a breed of horse that was developed in northern Persia and bred to feed on alfalfa. These horses were able to absorb the extra protein of alfalfa into their bones, giving them denser, stronger bones than other horses. These dense bones enabled the Nisaean horses to make sudden turns while galloping at high speed that would have broken other horses’ legs and to carry heavier weights than other horses of the ancient world could manage.
Gunpowder changed the world. It took a while — the earliest gunpowder arms were too unwieldy and unpredictable to have much of an effect on the ways people fought, but in time the weapons got better and armies adapted their tactics and organization in response. Before firearms, though, the battlefield operated on a basic rock-paper-scissors relationship among three different types of troops: infantry, cavalry, and missile troops.
Before getting into the types of troops, we need to lay out a few things about pre-modern warfare.