Geography, Weather, and Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Warfare takes place within natural contexts that humans can do little to affect.

Some Geographic Considerations

Warfare takes place within natural contexts that humans can do little to affect. Whether in military action, gathering to fight, campaigning, or fighting in pitched battle, geographical factors such as terrain, food resources, water, weather, and climate have all played major roles in shaping the nature and conduct of organized human conflict. Natural features such as swamps or marshes, ore fields, natural harbors, and mountain passes, or human-made features such as roadways, cultivated fields, and cities have provided both the means for waging war and the targets of territorial aggressors.Geography;impact on warfare[warfare]Weather and warfareGeography;impact on warfare[warfare]Terrain and warfareWeather and warfare

Natural Natural resources and warfareresources dictate the availability of military matériel: wood for ships; plentiful grass for herds of horses; and iron, copper, or tin for weapons. Geographic access is necessary for Trade and warfaretrade that can enhance natural resource deficiencies, and natural trade routes themselves can become military targets, for either control or plunder. In the premodern world, climate tended to dictate where people congregated, and Weather and warfareweather tended to restrict military campaigning to the summer months between spring planting and fall harvest.

Human interaction with the landscape shaped the course of warfare in China, the West, and other rather limited regions in the premodern world. Organized cultivation of the land provided rich stocks of food that attracted hungry nomadic peoples who took what they wanted and were able to take. Walled Walled citiescities, in which people, wealth, and industry concentrated, developed both defensive and offensive capacities that revolutionized military thinking and action. Developed ports became wealthy points of trade and colonial expansion, as well as cradles of naval development and warfare, especially around the Mediterranean basin. Chinese, Persian, Roman, and Incan roads channeled armies quickly within their empires, enabled rapid communication, and consolidated expansion into neighboring areas. Bridges afforded the easy crossing of natural obstacles such as rivers and gorges. Fortification of natural strongpoints along frontiers, coastlines, and travel routes defended political boundaries and economic interests. Finally, great walls such as those of China and Rome’s frontier in Britain clearly marked territory and limited depredation by invaders.

Military technology and the changes in thinking and fighting that both drive its development and are in turn affected by it seem to have evolved most rapidly and thoroughly in regions of the world where geographical access encourages contact among varied human groups. Natural obstacles such as heavy forests, jungles, deserts, and mountains tend to insulate peoples from one another and place limitations on effective interactions among even neighboring groups. Where mobility is limited, advances in military technology (and, arguably, in all phases of technology) are likewise limited. Even far-ranging contact by sea, such as that of the Athenians, Vikings, or Polynesians, revolutionized neither the native peoples nor the colonizers. Across the face of the great Eurasian landmass, however, the use of metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, cavalry, and gunpowder technology spread and found ready acceptance along the way. Perhaps because the Western peoples–from Persia to Britain and from Scandinavia to the Sahel–remained in some form of sustained contact from the mid-first millennium b.c.e. through the Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Celtic, and Islamic empires, major technological innovations developed, took hold, and spread rapidly. Aside from the lack of major geographic obstacles to invasion–the Alps are passable in summer and the Mediterranean is as much a highway as a barrier–early urbanization and intense rivalries both within and among regions account for much of this dynamism.

A range of shifting political and even religious foundations for warring societies may also have played a part in military development. In Mesopotamia, Akkadian EmpireAkkadian king Sargon the Sargon the GreatSargon the Great (Akkadian king)Great (c. 2334-2279 b.c.e.) melded the independent, feuding city-states into an empire and created the core of a limited imperial army drawn from throughout the region. In their movement from kingship to functional democracies to imperial subjection, the ancient Greece;geographic advantagesGreeks shifted from an organization of heroic warriors to a phalanx of citizen shock troops, a force of multiethnic mixed arms with a heavy reliance on cavalry. The Greeks’ proximity to and contact with their many neighbors, such as the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Etruscans, and Carthaginians, resulted in trade, competition, and conflict that necessitated unprecedented innovations. Not least among these areas of development were naval technology and strategy. Rarely outside the West was sustained land and naval competition so fierce and so regular.

Religious Religion and warfareconsiderations drove the Hebrew people to conquer and dominate much of the Levant;HebrewsLevant, and the terrific successes of Islam stemmed far more from aggressive religious fervor than from military innovation or organization. The conflicting desires to create a territorial Hebrew Promised landspromised land, to spread the Dar-al-Islam[Dar al Islam]Dar al-Islam, and to reconquer the same promised land for Christian purposes from the Dar al-Islam all speak to the geographic expressions and impulses upon which Western religions as well as political entities have relied. The same religious zeal also applied to the Crusaders who were fighting in terrain that was generally unfamiliar, and in far hotter weather than they were used to in Western Europe.

Geographic Resources and Warfare

Humans have certain needs for food and shelter that nature must supply. Historically humans largely have occupied a zone of the globe in which Climate and warfareclimate is conducive to food crops and extremes in temperature and weather are minimal. Some communities shifted from hunting and gathering to herding or domesticating animals and cultivating the soil. After settling in one place, people began to create and store food surpluses and to build permanent shelters. People who remained wanderers (nomadic Nomadspeoples) or who were perhaps displaced from their own settlements preyed upon these centers of primitive wealth, necessitating the construction of defensive walls and the earliest cities.

Although cattle raids among the Irish, described in the Irish Táin bó Cúailnge (Irish epic)[Tain bo cuailnge]epic Táin bó Cúailnge (late eleventh or early twelfth century; the driving off of the cows of Cooley) exemplify the precivilized expression of tribal Tribal rivalries rivalry, struggles over cultivated lands and the cities they sustained typified warfare in the ancient world. Surplus in Food;supplies in warfare food led to the creation of other forms of valuables through specialization of labor. In some of these settings, warriors stood apart from cultivators, protecting them and living off their labor. In others, the cultivators themselves served as soldiers, denying a basic class distinction. In either case, the initial impulse was defensive, although in the former, the urge to display one’s virtues as a warrior or leader may have fueled rivalries or conquests of neighboring lands. In many cultures that practiced primitive warfare, conflicts were strictly limited, highly ritualized, and sometimes relatively bloodless. Resources might have been exchanged but not destroyed or plundered outright. Because of the traditional nature and functions of these battles, little change took place over time. The likeliest events to upset rituals and shape new forms and meanings for organized conflict were major environmental changes (such as disease or sustained weather problems), inmigration, or conquest.

Warrior Warrior societiessocieties were generally poor materially and relied upon predation for their own wealth. They evolved among cultivators of poor soil, as in the case of the Vikings, or from herdsmen, as did the Central Asian peoples of the steppe. In both of these cases the warriors gained tremendous mobility from clinker-built longships and mounted horses, respectively. In both Vikings;as warrior society[warrior]Viking and steppe Steppe nomadsnomad societies, trade was as important as plunder, but their native territories provided little of value to others. These warrior groups ranged widely and sought to despoil where defenses were weak; they shared no ritual niceties with their enemies and terrified the people who did. With limited resource bases of their own and without any clear sense of territoriality, these groups could not take and hold power for any sustained period without adapting to the material and social cultures of the conquered, as did the Mongols;as warrior society[warrior]Mongols in China and the Vikings in Normandy. They also chose areas particularly vulnerable to their method of fighting. For the Vikings, the villages near the coast or in river estuaries were regularly attacked, and for the Huns and the Mongols, the open plains of southern Russia had little to inhibit their cavalry.

Geography and Empire Building

Long-term Naval power;and empire building[empire]Empires;buildingmilitary success lay, in ancient times, with those who controlled resources and the means of transforming some of them into weapons. Those societies with this power were able to consolidate and control territory that contained raw materials and to defend it from invaders. Indeed, territorial lordship seems to have evolved out of these needs in the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, China, and parts of the Indus Valley. Land-based empires tended to expand into contiguous areas until forced by geography to halt or to vault barriers. The deliberate expansion of Rome in Italy, of Alexander in the Persian territories, of the Franks in Western Europe, and of Islamic warriors along the Mediterranean littoral and into Persia all followed this pattern.

Lands with valuable resources or connections to other such territories were brought under political and military control. This was one of the reasons for the Carthaginians holding onto Spain and its silver mines, and the Romans keen on attacking England to take control of tin. With trade and ultimately colonization, a society could transcend both its own home territory and its direct neighbors to draw upon far-flung resource centers. Early examples of such societies are the Polynesians, Greeks, Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians. Seaborne Arabs sailed the Indian Ocean. In more modern times, the Spanish, Dutch, and English all expanded their territory to acquire resources. In each of these cases, expansion into immediately neighboring territories was unfeasible, undesirable, or thwarted, and maritime and naval technology opened distant doors.

The expansion of land-based empires relied upon superior technologies and skillful uses of them, and military organization that could allow operation at a distance from home Empires;administrationbases. It also could require adaptation of tactical and sometimes strategic assumptions and factors. Assyrian and Hyksos warriors created and ruled their empires from horse-drawn chariots. Alexander the Great’s (356-323 b.c.e.) combination of sarissa-wielding phalanxes and superb cavalry spelled the end for the Persian charioteers and lightly armored infantry. Frankish heavy cavalry bested the lighter Arab horsemen on open fields in central Gaul, and the articulated Roman maniples maneuvered skillfully through rough Italian mountain terrain in ways no massed phalanxes could have. Roman soldiers were also road-builders and connected their conquests directly with urban supply bases and ultimately with Rome itself.

The AssyriansAssyrians were apparently the first people systematically to utilize protected lines of communication, supply depots, and baggage trains. Alexander’s widely ranging army often relied upon supply from both coastal ships and stocked depots, and they suffered tremendously when these failed them. Persian king Xerxes (c. 519-465 b.c.e.) lost his bid for control of southern Greece when his supply ships and their escorts were destroyed at Salamis in 480 b.c.e. In his fourth-century b.c.e. Art of War, The (Sunzi) Bingfa (c. 510 b.c.e. ; The Art of War, 1910) the Chinese military theorist SunziSunzi Sunzi (Sun Tzu) recommended that the armies of invading commanders carry their own equipment from the homeland but rely on enemy lands for provisions.

Seaborne empires require unobstructed sailing channels that connect the home ports to those of the colonies. Ships and shipbuildingShips had to be adaptable for either trade or battle and ideally could carry on both simultaneously. Ships sought either friendly or directly controlled ports as safe havens along the routes, and those that harbored hostile ships were given a wide berth. Open sea could not be controlled effectively, and individual ships were very vulnerable to predators either alone or in groups. Control of surrounding land could be a factor protecting shipping, but, as Venice discovered in its own Adriatic Sea, it was no guarantee of insulation from bold, swiftly moving enemy fleets.

Ports, Port citiesas interfaces between land and sea, enjoyed the strengths and weaknesses of both elements. A stout wall, such as that of Constantinople, could hold enemy armies at bay indefinitely, while supplies could flow in from the sea. A Blockadesblockading fleet could bottle up the harbor, but unless an army controlled the land approaches to the city, its hinterland could provide for its needs. By its very nature a port city was likely to be well stocked in needed provisions and thus likely to withstand any but the most determined siege. Constantinople, Siege of (1453)[Constantinople, Siege of 1453]Constantinople fell only when the Turks brought to bear cannons that were capable of breaching its land-side wall in 1453. Ports were, however, vulnerable to raids by fleets that were naturally invisible in the vastness of the open sea or that lay in wait in nearby friendly waters. Before telescopes and artillery, there was little time between spotting raiders and setting out a naval defense, and no way of striking back beyond a bow shot.

U.S. and coalition aircraft fly over the southwest Asian desert in 2003.

(U.S. Air Force)

Throughout history, invading groups have been drawn to the rich ports of Mediterranean mercantile nations: Iberian pirates in the first century b.c.e., Vandals in the sixth century c.e., Arabs in the ninth, Vikings in the tenth, and feuding Genoese and Venetians in the fourteenth. As trade and conquest extended out of the Mediterranean, ship technology evolved to accommodate oceanic conditions and eventually transoceanic voyages, by which time shipboard cannons and small arms had begun to replace crossbows and javelins. There is an interesting parallel between the development of weapons for use on land and those for sea Naval warfarewarfare: Most weapons used at sea were first developed for land fighting. Even the ramming prow began as the battering ram; the Roman Corvus (grappling hook)corvus as a siege tower bridge; Greek fire as a weapon against wooden gates. These modifications make sense if one views a ship as a small, mobile castle at sea.

Although the creation and maintenance of seaborne empires required resources and techniques of attack and defense rather different from those of land-based ones, the fundamental human needs for movement, provisions, and effective weapons remained the same. When peoples such as the Persians, Romans, Arabs, or Byzantines could manage the resources to afford both formidable armies and fleets over the long run, the power of their empires was awesome. For some, such as the fifteenth century Chinese, the matériel was there, but the will to project power and awe was not. For others, such as the Phoenicians and later Carthaginians, vulnerability of the home base spelled doom, while Athens and its empire suffered defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431-404b.c.e.) when the superb Spartan army allied itself with the Persian fleet.

Geography and Mobility

The Sea (role in empire building)Waterways;role in empire buildingTransport of armiesability to build and manage ships enormously enhanced people’s ability to treat water as a pathway rather than an obstacle. Wide rivers provided easy downstream movement and ready, if difficult, upstream travel and shipping. When an army in motion needed to cross a river, its width and depth determined the means. When fording proved impossible, bridging on pontoons, usually small boats lashed together, did the trick. The Assyrians;bridgesAssyrians were apparently the first to use regular Bridgesbridge Engineers;Assyrianengineers, and the Carthaginians used makeshift bridges during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. However, the Engineers;RomanRome;bridgesRomans developed efficient bridging on the march into an art form. Permanent bridges, though, provided ready access for enemy armies coming from the opposite direction and had to be fortified or guarded with care. Armies could also be ferried across broad expanses of river, but boats brought to or created on the scene were necessarily quite small and light.

Armies that could not use ships to attain their goals were forced to use land routes to maneuver, within both their own and enemy territory. When in motion, the premodern army relied predominantly on human feet and legs, which could traverse a wide variety of terrain and cover great distances when provisions were at hand. Pack Pack animalsanimals that could cover the same ground carried supplies but required fodder, which was either carried or found along the way. The Macedonian armies used servants as carriers, but the Roman legions employed about eight hundred pack animals for each legion. Part of the reason for these differing choices may stem from the Macedonians’ heavy reliance on cavalry: limited fodder went to Alexander’s war horses instead of pack animals. Sledges provided platforms on which provisions and supplies could be carried, dragged by either human or limited animal power.

After armies began using WheelsRoadswheeled conveyances, the need arose for fairly smooth and consistent pathways unrestricted by obstacles such as strewn rocks, swamps, or overly steep or narrow passages. Unpaved roads, as found in the Persian Empire, proved perfectly passable in good weather but turned into muddy morasses when heavy rains came. Romans and Chinese created artificial surfaces that retained the road’s integrity in all but the worst weather. Carts might be drawn by people or draft animals, such as oxen. The use of Horses and horse ridinghorses did not become widespread until after breeders had developed animals of suitable size and strength, and carters had created appropriate harnesses. Progress at human and draft animal speed was steady but slow on easily traversed terrain without steep grades and somewhat faster on paved roadways.

Before horses were ridden, they were harnessed to light Chariotschariots. Developed earliest on the Iranian Plateau, horses provided warriors and soldiers much greater speed and range, both prior to and during battle. Organized aggression on a large and mobile scale began with the charioteers. Flat, hard terrain was a necessity, however, and chariots triumphed only where this was in abundance: in Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, and parts of Celtic Western Europe. Before battle, Persian soldiers swept and leveled the field to aid the maneuver of their wheeled warriors. Aryans initially invaded the Indus Valley in chariots, and Mycenean Greeks and Etruscans also used war chariots, but the rocky geography of Italy and Greece limited their usefulness in large formations. Chariots provided platforms from which to shoot arrows or hurl missiles and could easily run down broken formations of lightly armed infantry. Although the fielding and maintenance of a corps of chariots was an expensive proposition, chariot warfare became a standard part of empire building in both China and western Asia. Horses needed large amounts of grass or grain, however, and when dessication set in, as in Mesopotamia, their days were numbered.

Where the availability of grasses allowed, horses were eventually bred, raised, and used for cavalry, first perhaps on the Iranian Plateau around 1400 b.c.e. By around the eighth century b.c.e. horses with backs strong enough to be ridden forward, rather than on the haunches, provided people of the Eurasian steppe between the subarctic northern forest and the great Asian deserts with devastating power and mobility. These horse people had the run of their own vast areas of grass, but were drawn to the civilization and wealth of India, China, and the West. Scythians, Cimmerians, Huns, Mongols, and Turks each in turn terrorized civilized peoples and forced them to adapt to the horseman’s threat. However, these were culturally nomadic peoples, and only those Mongols settling in China and those Turks remaining in Asia Minor were transformed into a stable populace. The mobility of the steppe Steppe nomadsnomads provided their freedom and defined their military tactics: bow-, sword-, and spear-wielding hordes aligned in a great crescent that thundered across the open plain. They were quick to fire their missiles and disperse, reforming and charging again as needed. They could bleed or milk their mounts for food, and as long as the grass was plentiful, they could maintain their control. Beyond the steppe, however, they could not long survive without adapting or retreating.

Arabs and Europeans adopted Cavalrycavalry as an arm of mixed-force armies, and Western armies gained clear, if limited, mobility from the use of cavalry. Islam;spread ofIslam was spread as quickly as it was by fervent horsemen who established both the religion and its rulers from southern Gaul to India. These Islamic warriors arrived in desert areas by camel and fought on horseback. Their goal was not territorial conquest per se, but the diffusion of the truth of Islam and worship of Allah. Yet their tremendous mobility spurred the post-Roman West to create its own cavalry, with enormous repercussions for medieval European society and politics. Western cavalry units were quite small relative both to those of the steppe hordes and to the size of their own societies because local Western economies were settled and agricultural rather than nomadic. The warrior class was supported by the agricultural and trading classes, and the European idea of the chivalry of the mounted knight dominated in Europe as part of a larger social, political, and economic reality.

When horsemen introduced themselves into areas previously lacking in horses, such as South Africa, the Americas, and Australia, the enhanced range and speed, as well as accompanying firepower, gave these invaders a huge advantage over local warriors. Nonetheless, areas of extreme heat or cold and mountainous, heavily forested, jungle, and swampy regions have all proven inhospitable as theaters of operation to bodies of cavalry.

In general, the same routes that provided the most direct pathways for merchants, pilgrims, diplomats, and migrating peoples also served the needs of campaigning armies. The paths of least geographical resistance have been trod for centuries, if not millennia. Just as cities are rebuilt time and again upon the ruins of their predecessors for reasons of geography, so battles will repeatedly occur on the same spots as armies vie to enter or defend territory that retains its importance. If the province of Edirne (Adrianople)Edirne, formerly Adrianople, is the most contested spot on the globe, however, it is not because of its natural resources, but rather because of its position along the southern bridge between Europe and Asia. Similarly, the southern region of Israel has seen conflict from the ancient Egyptians attacking northward, their enemies the Hyksos peopleHyksos and later the HittitesHittites moving south to attack Egypt, the Macedonians under Alexander the Great, the Selucids in the Diadochi Wars, the Romans, the Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks, as well as, many years later, the French under Napoleon I, the Allies in World War I, and the Arab-Israeli wars of the second half of the twentieth century.

Similarly, in northern France, conflict in that region in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) was only a harbinger of future wars: the Wars of Religion (c. 1517-1618), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), and World War I (1914-1918), which have all involved fighting in a relatively small area of land. Nature has provided the obstacles to human movement as well as the highways along which the armies of the world have campaigned.

Terrain and Warfare

In Terrain and warfareArt of War, The (Sunzi) The Art of War, Sunzi stated, “Those who do not know the conditions of mountains and forests, hazardous defiles, marshes and swamps, cannot conduct the march of an army.” Of Sunzi’s five fundamental factors of war, two are geographical: climate and terrain. The fifth century Roman military historian Vegetius Renatus, FlaviusVegetius Renatus, Flavius Vegetius posited that each of Rome’s major military arms had its own terrain-specific role: the cavalry had the plains; the navy had seas and rivers; and the infantry had hills, cities, and flat country. The peoples of the great riverine civilizations of China, India, and the West created the great armies of conquest and consolidation. The peoples of the littoral regions of the Aegean, the northern fjords, Oceania, and the Indian coast sent out their seaborne forces for trade, plunder, and colonization. The steppes bred and unleashed on the world the nomadic hordes of charioteers and horsemen. The open terrains of plain, sea, and steppe fostered types of warfare that pitted relatively mobile forces against fixed targets, such as towns, ports, castles, and walls; highly mobile forces, such as fleets and cavalries, against one another; or relatively static armies against each other on the battlefield. Less open terrains, such as mountains, swamps, heavy forests, or jungles, called for conflicts in which neither the massing of troops nor the nimble maneuvering typical of other settings was desired, or even at times possible. Poorer terrain tended to be economically poorer as well, and war tended to flow out of these areas into the wealthier and literally more attractive regions. Territorial defense by the world’s early civilizations often meant pacifying the surrounding hills and forests occupied by these outsiders.

Warriors who developed their skills in these less accessible areas had often acquired tactics and weapons that complemented those of the larger armies they joined, as either allies or willing captives. In general, fighting men from these marginal regions were considered Irregulars“irregular,” whether fighting or joining highly organized armies. Mountain and forest terrain lent itself to relatively small, highly mobile, independent parties who would strike and retreat quickly. Such fighters often proved resistant to both authority structures and the discipline necessary to phalanx warfare. Their fluidity and their tendency to raid and ambush, major parts of their strength, have frustrated regular troops from ancient Persia to twentieth century Vietnam. Tu Tu MuMu, a ninth century commentator on Sunzi, suggested avoiding or at least scouting areas of danger to chariots and armies: mountain passes, river crossings, and the places where vegetation is luxuriant.

The use of javelins, bows, and slings enabled irregular fighters to engage at a distance, ensuring a buffer that allowed for escape when necessary. The Chinese, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans all incorporated irregulars into their service, adding a needed dimension to their infantry and cavalry arms. The wilderness areas from which irregulars came also provided places of resistance and refuge in times of upheaval or invasion. The difficulty of operating either deterred incursion by regular armies, hampered it effectively, or led to disaster, as in Teutoburg Forest, Battle of (9 c.e.)the Teutoburg Forest in 9 c.e., when Germanic warriors annihilated a Roman army that had pursued it too far. In that instance it is thought that the Germans allowed the Romans to enter a narrow defile where the numbers of their attackers would lead to a German victory. Similarly, at Agincourt, Battle of (1415)Agincourt in 1415, a much smaller English force was able to defeat a larger French one.

By Barbarians;invasions of Romethe time of the first Sack Rome, Sack of (410 c.e.)of Rome (410 c.e.), the Roman soldier had become increasingly barbarized and was expected to wield the sling, bow, and even darts. Vegetius Renatus, FlaviusFlavius Vegetius Renatus recognized the barbarian origins of the Slings;barbarian originssling in the Balearics and suggested its use derived from the waging of war in stony places. He cited the need for mounted Archers and archeryarchers to count the same among their enemies and mentioned the origin of the “lead-weighted darts” among the Illyrians. Vegetius also recognized the untrained and undisciplined nature of the auxilia Auxilia (Roman contingent) soldiers drawn from diverse barbarian peoples. Roman adaptation to the strengths and weaknesses of their enemies had evolved by Vegetius’s time, so that the use of concealment and ambush played major roles in his thinking. He believed that good generals would not attack in open battle where the danger is mutual, but rather from a hidden position. Similarly, when the Welsh nationalist leader Glendower, OwainGlendower, Owain Owain Glendower faced the English army near Worcester in 1405, neither was prepared to move from a defensive position, and hence no battle was fought. The nature of the battlefield is also of major consideration to the commander and should be studied with regard to its appropriateness to either the cavalry or the infantry.

The difficulties of forcing large groups of foot soldiers to cross desert environments meant that battles in truly Desert warfaredesert terrain generally occurred between bodies of men on camels or horses. The heat and lack of water allowed for armies of only limited size, and generally lightly armed and armored characters took part in desert warfare. On the fringes of these areas fought the Byzantine Cataphracts (cavalry)cataphracts and crusading knights, relatively heavy shock troops whose enemies generally wielded the bow and maneuvered agilely into the desert wasteland itself when retreat was warranted. Fluidity and expectations of minimal gains influenced their tactics and strategies, as they did peoples of the mountains and forests. From horseback slings, bolos, and even lassoes could be used by light cavalry to hamper heavy formations in open fields.

Climate, Weather, and Warfare

In Climate and warfareSeasons and warfareWeather and warfaretemperate zones early military campaigning was generally a Summertime and warfaresummertime activity, conducted by civilized peoples between the spring planting and the fall harvest. For professional armies, the Wintertime and warfarewinter season presented conditions of cold, wind, and precipitation that were best avoided. In Springtime and warfarespring, flooding rivers often proved impassible, and spring and fall rains turned marching routes into morasses. Chinese, Incan, and Roman roads alleviated some of the last inconvenience, but seasonal campaigning remained the norm. Vegetius recommended conducting naval maneuvers only between late May and mid-September. Foul-weather attacks presented both risks and the opportunity for surprise. Long-term sieges of cities or fortresses had necessarily to last beyond the campaigning season, and while the inhabitants often suffered from lack of food and other supplies, those blockading, relegated to second-class field quarters, often endured worse. Sunzi, who always argued against protracted warfare, advised against sieges of cities under even the best of conditions.

In hotter zones periodic monsoons made military maneuvers all but impossible, and desert conditions affected the size, movement, and armament of military bodies. The CrusadesCrusaders quickly found that their heavy armor was a deadly encumbrance rather than an aid in the Levant;climateLevant. Lighter clothing and lighter armor characterize warm-climate warriors and soldiers. As such, lighter weapons could kill them. Native allies often became very important when an empire struck too far north or south from its homeland, and adaptations to local conditions became mandatory. Deaths from dehydration, heat stroke, and unfamiliar diseases had to have been plentiful when men from the temperate zones marched south. One explanation for AttilaAttila (king of the Huns)Attila’s (c. 406-453) refusal to march south into Italy is his fear of the area’s summertime heat and disease.

Ships at sea are far more vulnerable than land armies to occasional Storms and sea battlestorms, and occurrences of storms breaking up large fleets are not rare in ancient chronicles. Perhaps the most famous is the Kamikaze (divine wind) kamikaze, or “divine wind,” that destroyed the Mongol invasion fleets that threatened Japan in 1274 and 1281.

It is similar, in some ways, to the divine wind that brought, according to legend, William the ConquerorWilliam the Conqueror (king of England)William of Normandy’s fleet to England in September, 1066, although modern historians have suggested that his reasons for delaying the attack were not solely dictated by the weather. In spite of these recent reservations about William’s actions, conditions on the English Channel were sufficiently variable for the Allied Command for the D-day operation to consult weather forecasters on a daily basis to work out the best time to launch the invasion of France in June, 1944. Prior to the use of professional weather forecasters, soothsayers and fortune-tellers were consulted.

The Human Landscape

The development of Cities;and warfare development[warfare]cities, more than any other human activity, focused military aggression and provided the means for increasing the scope and deadliness of warfare. Cities became targets of predatory nomadic peoples and of each other. Banded together under a single leader, the combined surpluses of a city provided the wherewithal to carry on protracted campaigns of conquest. Between cities stretched roads along which merchants and armies traveled, and urban wealth grew with the trade that followed. The oldest known urban place, Jericho (city)Jericho, sported walls in its earliest form: Walled citieswalls clearly meant to keep out challengers. The desire to defend and defeat these human landmarks led to an entire branch of military science. Like cities, Fortifications;and geography[geography]fortified outposts within which soldiers huddled to defend frontiers and approaches developed defenses appropriate to current siege technologies. At the extreme, these developed into curtain walls.

More than 100,000 American and British soldiers landed on the Normandy coast of France during the D-day invasion of June, 1944, overcoming the challenges of an amphibious assault.

(U.S. Coast Guard)

For Sunzi and his commentators, cities were, like other geographic obstacles, to be avoided by the campaigning army. When cities or large fortifications were not the objective, careful consideration had to be made in deciding whether to attack. Unlike mountains, forests, or marshes, cities and Fortificationsfortifications certainly held people, and probably armed men who could cut supply and retreat lines. The Chinese seem to have assumed rather quick and shallow offensive sallies, on which their supply lines and escape routes would be minimally vulnerable. Alexander was willing to bypass strongholds, the major exception being Tyre, Siege of (332 b.c.e.)Tyre, which he besieged at a great cost in time and energy from January to July 332 b.c.e. Empires and kingdoms tended to fortify along their frontiers, leaving the interior relatively unprotected. The decision of the Roman emperor AurelianAurelian (Roman emperor)Aurelian (c. 275-215 b.c.e.) around 270 b.c.e. to build up the city of Rome’s walls speaks to the Romans’ very real fear of the Germanic tribesmen, as distant as they were. After all, fortified cities were needed along the imperial boundaries, not deep within. Where and when the political geography was fragmented–as in classical Greece, China during the Warring States period, feudal Europe, and Renaissance Italian city-states–every center was vulnerable and had to be defended.

Few premodern city walls were spared the experience of Siege warfaresiege, and great innovations accompanied the evolving practice of siegecraft. It has been suggested that the first true Professional militaries;origin ofprofessional soldiers evolved from the need for protracted and well-organized sieges. Professional soldiers were neither elite warriors nor citizen soldiers. They brought the patience and skill necessary to invest a fortified area successfully. Weapons and techniques for gaining forced entry developed as simple Blockadesblockades of city gates proved of little practical use. Egyptians may have used battering Battering ramsrams as early as 1900 b.c.e.; siege Siege towerstowers were depicted from the eighth century b.c.e.; and catapult-like Catapults;Egyptmachines for hurling Projectiles;for catapults[catapults]projectiles against the walls or into the protected areas emerged in the fourth century b.c.e. The use of scaling ropes and ladders and the practice of undermining walls are probably of even greater antiquity: The earliest levels of Jericho show signs of a dry Moatsmoat. Other methods of defense included Bastionsbastions that jutted out from the walls to provide flanking fire by archers and others; Towerstowers that protected vulnerable corners and gates; crenellations; machiocolations; battering (sloping out) of wall bases; and, at least during the high Middle Ages, increasingly ingenious ways of defending gateways. Like other types of military technology, siege engines and defensive forms migrated: The round towers and curtain walls of Edward I’s (1239-1307) Welsh Castles;Welshcastles have their origins in the Islamic Near East.

Geography above all other considerations determined the locations of Cities;locations ofcities and Fortifications;locations offortifications. When defense was a major factor, location on hills or along ridges provided the best position from which to resist and repel attackers. After laying siege to Celtic and Etruscan strongpoints, the Romans either destroyed them or forced the inhabitants to move to the valley below, as, for example, at Gubbio in Umbria. Here the medieval citizens relocated to the side of the hill, where the main civic structures remain. Human needs also dictated sufficient living and storage space, a source of fresh water, and easy access in time of peace. When garrisons were consistently small, as in the Roman forts along the Saxon shore or along the frontier of the Sienese Chianti, the needs were small and there was little need for growth. As fortified cities expanded, however, the urban geography changed as the location of the site became less important than the human alterations to it.

Strings of forts marked the Incan and Roman frontiers, but the greatest expressions of the siege mentality were the great walls of the Roman emperors Hadrian’s Wall[Hadrians Wall]Hadrian (76-138) and Antonine WallAntoninus (188-217) in Britain, and the crowning achievement of Chinese Engineers;Chineseengineering, the Great Wall. The Great Great Wall of ChinaWall stretches for some 4,000 miles and initially linked a series of hilltop fortifications along a border of steppe and mountain, wilderness, and civilized terrain during the Qin DynastyQin (Ch’in) Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.). Climatic shifts in the region to and from desertification made its reinforcement of a natural physiological boundary irrelevant, and the Great Wall’s failure to hold back the Mongol advance is legendary.Geography;impact on warfare[warfare]Terrain and warfareWeather and warfare

Books and Articles
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  • Fields, Nic. Ancient Greek Fortifications. New York: Osprey, 2006.
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  • Lavelle, Ryan. Fortifications in Wessex, c. 800-1066. New York: Osprey, 2003.
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  • McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Nossov, Konstantin. Hittite Fortifications, c. 1650-700 B.C. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • O’Sullivan, Patrick. Terrain and Tactics. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
  • Preston, Richard A., Sydney F. Wise, and Alex Roland. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. 5th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1991.
  • Rose, E. P. F., and C. P. Nathanail, eds. Geology and Warfare: Examples of the Influence of Terrain and Geologists on Military Operations. Bath, England: Geological Society, 2000.
  • Stephenson, Michael. Battlegrounds: Geography and the Art of Warfare. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003.
  • Woodward, Rachel. Military Geographies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.


City-States and Empires Through Old Babylon

The Assyrians

The Hebrews

Ancient Fortifications

Medieval Fortifications

Sieges and Siegecraft: Ancient and Medieval

Armies and Infantry: Ancient and Medieval

Cavalry: Ancient and Medieval

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