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Building a Fantasy Army Part 5: Recruitment

Soldiers may be recruited in several ways:

  1. tribal militia
  2. rural militia
  3. urban militia
  4. part-time professionals
  5. full-time professionals
  6. mercenaries

None of these systems is, in and by itself, better or worse than the others. Which system is the best choice depends on the underlying social structures, political and strategic situation, and the goals being sought.

Militia can be highly effective in pitched battles due to the communal cohesive principle. Essentially, while they may not be highly trained (though this was not a rule), they were highly motivated: fleeing or disobeying orders carried major social stigma and was harshly punished. Swiss executed anyone wavering, and American militias during the Revolutionary war burned down houses of people who were not loyal enough. They also had a habit of scalping redcoats. Even without threat of execution, fleeing the battle was impossible to conceal and stigmatized one as a coward – and militiamen were fighting alongside their friends, neighbours and family members. Greek poleis had laws punishing those who discarded their shields, as fleeing the battle required a hoplite to throw away his heavy shield. This is important because battles were won by breaking enemy’s morale rather than by wholesale slaughter; this is true even today. Because of this socially-imbued cohesion, militia forces were often much more effective than their non-professional nature would have suggested, and could often – though not always – stand up to the stresses of shock combat.

“With your shield or on it”. Despite a popular image associating it with Sparta, this sentiment was hardly a uniquely Spartan thing – just like anything else Spartans are commonly associated with was actually a Greece-wide phenomenon, with possible exception of the agogae.

Tribal militia was the earliest form of such a military, and possibly the earliest form of army at all. Much like other militia forces, it translated peacetime structures of the society into wartime military organization. Tribal militias could be highly effective, as nomadic and even semi-settled tribes fought all the time, and thus had both personal and organizational experience required for formation of the army. Basic tribal levy is not very different from citizen militia, with only difference being that it is raised in rural as opposed to urban environment. This means that they are more likely to be relatively lightly equipped and fight as raiders. Tribal military organization depended on cheap and easy to use weapons with simple tactics. This gave rise to phalanx and, later, to Swiss and Scottish pike formations. Weapons had to be both cheap and simple to use. If either requirement was not fulfilled, their use gave rise to a warrior class sufficiently well-off to economically to afford weapons and/or take time off for training. As a result, weapons used by tribal societies were usually the same as those used for hunting and sport. As weapons grew more technologically sophisticated, they gave rise to a soldier class.

Peasant levy is a type of militia which appeared through history. In Middle Ages, such levies were typically solely defensive, and often religiously motivated – as was the case with John Capistrano’s crusaders who helped save Belgrade from the Ottomans. Even then, however, they were merely an auxilliary force, while the main force was always comprised of (semi)professional soldiers. In general, peasants were very lightly armed and armoured, and used only in harrassment role – oftentimes using weapons modified from agricultural implements. They were not comparable to the urban militias or even more regularlized rural militias (which, however, only really appeared after the Middle Ages). In open battle, peasant levy could be easily destroyed by a professional force a fraction of its size: something like a knightly conroi or Byzantine tagmatic troops would cut it to tiny pieces in a fairly short order. Only in frontier areas, where life was nothing but war anyway, could somewhat reliable levy troops be raised (example being Armenians in Byzantine Empire and Croatian frontiersmen during Ottoman wars). And if professional troops for some reason were not available, such groups could quickly conquer large swathes of territory: barbarian migrations, early Arab expansion and Viking raids are a good example of such cases.

Main disadvantage of a militia army is that it cannot be deployed over long distances or for long periods of time, which means that long campaigns forced professionalization. Militiamen are amateurs: they have day-to-day jobs which they cannot afford to abandon. Because of this, militia is an almost exclusively defensive force. Effectiveness of the militia also varies depending on the social structures supporting it as well as the predominant way of fighting and the strategic goals. Its main limitation is that it is typically a predominantly infantry force, which limits its mobility and also potentially offensive capability. Consequently, a state relying on militia may well be conquered by a defeat in detail – while it might be able to call upon massive forces on paper, enemy may still be able to achieve local superiority. This, perhaps, is the reason why militia armies were found primarily (and almost exclusively) in city-states, such as Greek poleis and Italian republics, as well as similar political units such as Swiss cantons.

Later tribal and more primitive feudal armies come from a society which is organized in wartime much in the same way as it was in the peacetime. Peacetime leaders became wartime leaders, and hierarchy didn’t really change much – if at all. King or other ruler maintains household guard, equipped at his expense and thus farily standardized, but majority of the army will consist of levies. Personal guard, or retinue, are supported by the king (and nobles) and they follow him around, acting essentially as a standing army, full-time professional guards.

Militia, however, is only as effective as the value placed in it. Society where peasants are held in no regard and told to have no value – such as Westeros – would never be able to field an effective peasant militia, simply because peasants would have no stake in the society, nothing to fight for. In fact, it would not even try to field such a militia because militia in question would be much more likely to turn against their social superiors (who had been abusing them for a long time) than to fight for them in the field. And if it did, militia would immediately break apart because of the lack of motivation. In order to harness the power of militia, leaders also have to perform the roles expected of them – a king has to act as a king, and a noble likewise has to perform his duties. Any leader who would want to neglect his duties thus has to replace militia (or part-time professionals) with a force of mercenaries or full-time professional soldiers.

It should be noted however that in some cases militias achieved character similar to that of part-time professional troops (discussed below), to the point that the two are often confused. Such was the case with Hungarian Militia Portalis. Instead of simply pulling up peasantry in arms, Sigismund’s law of 1397. (which remained in effect until 1526.) required all nobles to equip one mounted archer from each group of 20 peasant plots. Exact nature of these troops is debated; they could have been peasants or noble retainers. If they were latter, then they would have been similar to Byzantine themata and thus part-time professionals. But if they were former, then Militia Portalis is indeed what we would consider, and what I define here as, a militia (note: name militia portalis does not mean it was a “militia” in modern sense; Latin militia meant “defensive service”, but in Middle Ages it meant simply “army service”).

Part-time professional soldiers often also have similar cohesive principle. Units such as Byzantine themata or today’s US National Guard were drawn from people who have daytime job, live in society – and typically live in society alongside other members of their unit. At the same time however they also had cohesive unit principle of the full-time professionals, and these two principles reinforced each other, though it is almost certain that individually neither one was as strong as it was for tribal/militia forces on one side or full-time professionals on the other. For knightly conroi (who were also part-time or even full-time professionals, but in a different social structure), cohesive principle derived from the vertical and horizontal aristocratic bonds and also aristocratic values of bravery and glory – this in turn often resulted in outright suicidal bravery of knightly forces which, while praised in songs, often left them vulnerable to destruction by tactically sophisticated enemies who knew how to exploit knightly mentality (e.g. Byzantines and Ottomans). Another advantage of part-time armies such as feudal and Byzantine thematic forces was that their presence stiffened resistence among civilians. Soldiers were part of the local society and community, and often were its representatives. As a result, their presence helped motivate local resistance.

While inferior in equipment and training to full-time professionals of Imperial Tagmata, provincial thematic troops compensated for this with greater motivation, numbers and knowledge of local terrain.

Between motivated populace which had something to fight for and large numbers, armies comprised of militia or part-time professionals could rebound from massive defeats. Both militia legions of early Roman Republic and thematic armies of Middle Byzantine Empire are good examples of this. During wars with Carthage, Romans rebuilt army after army, fleet after fleet, from their class of small landowners, despite losing hundreds of thousands of people in first and second war. Similarly, Byzantine Empire suffered many military disasters, but as long as the thematic system remained intact it did not suffer any major losses to its core territory of Anatolia. By comparison, ancient Roman Empire and both pre-thematic and post-thematic Byzantine Empire both lost massive territories after relatively moderate defeats (Adrianople, Yarmouk, Manzikert). Reason was simple: they could neither replace the soldiers quickly, nor convince the overtaxed, dispossessed peasantry to care, while rich class in Constantinople felt safe behind city’s massive walls.

For full-time professional soldiers, there is no such inherent cohesive principle. They are uprooted from their local society, and come from varying parts of state and society. Professional army also deploys units far away, on borders or even beyond them. Rather, cohesion is developed through training – their unit becomes their society, and to that they owe cohesion. This was especially true for slave soldiers such as Ottoman Janissaries, but was also true in all professional armies. Soldiers live as a unit, train as a unit, and generally stick together, thus turning tactical unit into a social unit and gaining cohesive principle from that. As a result, professional army requires a significant investment of time and money both. Gaius Marius spent two years training his newly-created professional army – and many of his soldiers will have been veterans of the old militia army. A poorly trained professional force will perform far worse than similarly trained militia, as training is far more important in this context: it matters not just for technical ability to fulfill the task, but it also provides the cohesive force that holds the army together.

Army of full-time professionals can appear impressive indeed yet be a paper tiger, as has happened to Saruman’s Uruk-hai

Part-time and full-time professional soldiers both appeared in situations where weapons were expensive and/or difficult to use enough to warrant maintenance of a separate military class. Development of metal armour and introduction of cavalry both served this role, especially when they happened together, as did introduction of chariots. This in turn often led to appearance of feudalism (as in Homeric Greece, Japan or Medieval Europe) or urban democracy – though latter typically depended on the presence of a massive slave workforce which would enable free men to concentrate on the military and political pursuits, as was the case in ancient Athens. Full-time professional armies became a rule as firearms spread. Heavy gunpowder artillery meant that fortresses (for some time at least) became nearly useless, thus necessitating that armies be opposed in the field. Expense of the artillery train meant that very few lords could afford effective armies, thus reinforcing the centralizing tendencies. Artillery itself meant professionalization of the army, as gunpowder artillery is highly technical and requires educated personnel, who were often full-time professionals. With time, as art of war became more technical, so did military training – first modern military schools were established in 16th century Spain, which also fielded first fully professional national army. Still, for a long time militaries failed to appoint officers solely on merit – the ideal of an “officer and a gentleman” is simply an expression of the fact that most officers were aristocrats. Even today, appointments often go to those who are most politically desireable to those in power – with the result that any serious war leads to a quick purge among the upper echelons of military. Drive towards professionalization was reversed thanks to spread of the musket and massed fire by ranks, which led to French levee en masse easily dominating much better trained professional soldiers of European monarchies. This lasted until World War II., but today’s mobile warfare has turned the clock back towards dominance of professional soldiers (albeit with the ever present exception of guerilla fighters).


Mercenaries were very common, as their nature meant that they could have sophisticated organization and very high levels of skill. Unlike professional soldiers, they were not a permanent expense, but could be recruited and dismissed as needed. So while mercenaries were more expensive than native professional troops when paid, they were overall much less so. But while they were highly skilled and capable, mercenary units were also a danger to their own employers. Some rulers, such as Matthias Corvinus, were able to keep mercenaries in check through strict discipline, regular wages, and extremely harsh reprisals for disobedience. In many cases however, unscrupulous mercenary commanders would switch sides if the other side offered higher wages, and mercenary soldiers which did not receive payment could sack cities to cover arrears – in 1576., Spanish mercenaries sacked Antwerp, the regional seat of Spanish government. Still, mercenary and other full-time professional soldiers were very common even in Western Europe during Middle Ages. With the Treaty of Dover in 1101., Henry V of England hired 1 000 knights from Count Robert of Flanders, at a time when the feudal levy of England did not produce more than 5 000 knights.

Most mercenaries hired in feudal states were usually not foreign. A feudal state typically lacked a standing professional army, but it did have professional soldiers from various sources. Knights and men-at-arms were obviously professional, but they were not the only professional soldiers available. Professional infantry – pikemen and crossbowmen – could be recruited from the cities. This was regularly done: a royal act from France in 1181. stipulated that Tournai had to provide 300 heavy infantry (predites bene armatos) when summoned by Philip II. This infantry was clealry effective – at Gisors in 1188. Henry II’s spearmen saw off French cavalry. In 15th century Hungary, Saxon towns of Transylvania provided professional heavy cavalry, spearmen and crossbowmen. Many of the mercenaries making up professional core of the Hungarian armies were likewise recruited from Hungary itself.

Social structures also determine who exactly is commanding the army. As noted, in tribal and feudal armies, the peacetime leaders are also wartime commanders, as their authority is based largely on personal loyalty. In a professional army, which has structures separate from the society, leadership can be more varied. It was not a rare case for a commission to be purchased. Other times, a rich person would raise his own unit of mercenaries and command them himself, in a manner not that dissimilar to the feudal army. Both of these cases should make it obvious that even in terms of command and control, an army of full-time professionals is not always superior to a part-time or militia-based one. However, such a structure does make it easier for talent to be promoted: in Roman and Byzantine Empires, which had professional army, it was not unknown (or even that rare) for a common soldier to rise through the ranks and become a general – or, in some cases, an Emperor.

When it comes to elven armies, they would almost certainly be militias. Fact that elves live for millenia means that even an average Joe can be much better trained than any human. It also means that their militias could utilize combined-arms tactics that would, in human societies, be reserved for professionals. And elves would need it: long lives (or even immortality) would mean few children, which would require them to minimize losses while maximizing number of troops fielded relative to the population as a whole.

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