Tag Archives: war

Plagues and peoples


Every day on Logarithmic History we cover an interval 5.46% shorter than the preceding day. From covering the first 754 million years after the Big Bang on January 1, we’re down to just under one century worth of history today.

And it’s a bad century for both Rome and China. Rome goes through an economic crisis, with a huge currency devaluation. Political life goes to hell too. From 235-284 there are 20 Emperors; 18 of them die violently. The Roman Empire experiences multiple, destructive invasions by barbarians. It recovers toward the end of the century, but in a heavily militarized and authoritarian form. And in China the Han dynasty disappears entirely after 220, to be replaced by three kingdoms of barbarian origin.

This coincidence of catastrophes may be more than just bad luck. Put it this way: If we look at the Big Picture, going way back on our calendar, and turning for a moment from human history to the evolution of life, we can summarize biological evolution since the Cambrian as:

but …

  • Now and then, a physical catastrophe punctuates the history of life, causing mass extinctions, from which living things slowly recover.

Returning to human history, we can summarize social evolution since the adoption of agriculture as:

  • A process of escalation, in which conflicts between rival groups (matrilineal and patrilineal kin groups, empires, and – we will see – major religions) are drivers of increasing social complexity …


  • Now and then, a biological catastrophe – in the form of an epidemic of some new disease – punctuates human history, causing major population losses, and often political and social collapse as well (i.e. the “germs” in Guns, Germs and Steel).

One such catastrophe contributed to the collapse of New World societies in the face of Old World diseases after 1492. But the Old World too must have had its own earlier catastrophes as the great killer diseases – the diseases of civilization that need a minimum population to keep going – established themselves.

Epidemic disease may have made a major contribution to the fall of Rome and of Han China. Rome suffered two massive epidemics, one from 165-180, another from 251-266. It’s plausible (and some day geneticsts will tell us whether it’s true or not) that these epidemics represent the arrival of smallpox and measles in the West. And we’ll run into bubonic plague in a few days time (Friday, October 13). There may be a similar story to tell about China, also stricken by epidemics at this time. The opening of the Silk Road and of trade across the Indian Ocean allowed precious goods and new ideas to travel between civilizations. It also opened the way for lethal microorganisms. (In addition to “Guns, Germs and Steel,” a classic book here is William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples.)


Asabiya and metaethnic frontiers

In 390 BCE an army of Gauls, 30 thousand strong, marched out of northern Italy into Latium, an area that included Rome. They defeated a Roman army, sacked and burned Rome, and left only after being paid a large tribute. This marked a turning point for Rome, which resolved never again to allow such a disaster. Over the next century, Romans used a mixture of coercion and consent to bind their Italian allies more closely to them. Attempted secession was punished. But those who accepted their position as allies were not simply crushed and plundered (as in many other empires) but granted some or all of the privileges of Roman citizenship in return for military contributions. Membership in the Roman confederation was attractive enough that many Italian states sought it voluntarily.

The history of Greece during this period is different. Greek city-states never united. In the aftermath of the bloody Peloponnesian war, different city-states went on fighting for supremacy, until they were finally conquered by an outside power, Macedonia.

Peter Turchin is an ecologist-turned-social scientist who thinks that the contrast between Rome and Greece illustrates some general laws of history. According to Turchin, the rise and fall of empires is partly conditioned on the strength of “asabiya,” or social solidarity. (He borrows the term from the medieval Arab historian ibn Khaldun.) The strength of states depends not just on material factors like population size and wealth, but also on morale – on the willingness of citizens to work together for the common good (which includes punishing free-riders). Asabiya was high in early Rome; in Greece, by contrast, while individual city-states might evoke strong group feeling, there was little willingness to cooperate for the good of Greece as a whole.

metaethnicAsabiya in turn (according to Turchin) develops especially along “metaethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures meet and clash. The illustration (by me, not Turchin) shows the general idea. When culture changes little, or changes gradually, with distance (a), there is little basis for uniting independent polities (stars) into enduring larger units, and alliances (dotted lines) shift constantly. Along the metaethnic frontier (b), the opposite is true (solid lines). Think Game of Thrones versus Lord of the Rings: it’s easier to get men and elves and dwarves to work together when they are fighting an army of orcs serving the Dark Lord.

Sometimes a metaethnic frontier develops where major religions or ideologies clash. But in the Roman case, the metaethnic frontier ran along the line dividing civilized Italians from barbarian Celts. Greece, by contrast, experienced a surge in fellow-feeling when Athens and Sparta fought together to defeat Persia, but this was too short lived to lead to a unified state.

Also worth reading is Empires of Trust, tracing parallels between the expansion of early Rome and of the United States – two immense states on the western frontier of civilization. (The book is better than most comparing America and Rome.)

The fall of Troy

1360-1176 BCE

Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, belonged only to the past, have been able to see in the Iliad a historical document; those who know how to see force, today as yesterday, at the center of all human history, can find there the most beautiful, the purest of mirrors.

Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” 1940-1941

Some things we know (probably) about Late Bronze Age Trojans and Greeks.

  • Troy is represented by the archeological site of Hisarlik, in Turkey near the Dardanelles. It covered over fifty acres and probably had a population in the high thousands. The kingdom of Troy was a client state of the Hittites, known to them as Wilusa (Greek Ilion).
  • Troy was devastated around 1300 BCE, probably by an earthquake, and again, just after 1200 BCE, by fire. There are earlier episodes of destruction as well.
  • The Hittites knew a kingdom to their west called Ahhiyawa. The Ahhiyawans were the people known to Homer as the “Achaians,” i.e. the Greeks. The Egyptians knew a kingdom to their north, beyond Kefta (= Crete = Biblical Kaphthor), called Danaja, whose chief cities match those of Mycenaean Greece. The Danajans probably correspond to the “Danaans,” an alternative Homeric name for the Achaians. Ahhiyawa/Danaja may have been a single state, with vassals under the rule of a “King of Kings,” capitol Mycenae.
  • Homer probably composed the Iliad in the eighth century BCE (762 BCE, give or take 50 years, according to recent research applying evolutionary models to the text). But he relied on sources – presumably earlier oral poems – that went back centuries earlier. The names he gives for the Greeks were not current in his own time. Many lines of his epics only scan if he was drawing on poetic formulas from a Bronze Age dialect of Greek. The cities he lists among those who contributed to the war effort match the Bronze Age better than his own time. And he is familiar with Bronze Age helmets and shields that had long since gone out of use.

So the story of the Trojan war dates back to the Bronze Age, and incorporates real geography and material culture. Just how true the story itself is less certain. It has had an enormous influence of course. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that England’s first king was a descendant of refugees from fallen Troy. Sultan Mehmet II claimed to be avenging the Trojans when he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

There a many books on the Trojan War (apart from the ones by Homer). Here are some good ones.

And a remark on war in the lives of ants and men.

Uruk and the empires before history

3592-3286 BCE

The story of the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia used to go like this. As people settled the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the late fifth millennium BCE on they organized themselves around temples that controlled irrigation and distributed rations. From the late fourth millennium, when the written historical record begins, temples were consolidated into city states that warred with one another, until eventually they were united by Sargon of Akkad (in northern Mesopotamia), who founded the first empire in the region around 2300.

But lately it’s been looking like there might have been a whole cycle of empire formation before the invention of writing. The archeological evidence shows that one city, Uruk (home of the legendary Gilgamesh, and probably the same as the Biblical Erech) in southern Mesopotamia had grown to dwarf others in the region by the mid fourth millennium. We find Uruk artifacts over a wide area, from western Iran to northern Syria and southeast Anatolia. These might reflect trade, and probably also settlement, with the establishment of Uruk trading colonies. But at one site at least, something else was going on. Homoukar, in northern Syria, is the site of a city contemporaneous with early Uruk. In 3500 the city was destroyed by hostile forces armed with slings and clay bullets. (The attackers also wiped out what looks like an Uruk trading settlement at Hamoukar, who maybe picked the wrong side to fight on.) The evidence points to Hamoukar having been subsequently occupied by forces from Uruk. We don’t know what kind of administrative control Uruk established, if any, but this does look like long-distance imperialism. Hamoukar is more than 400 miles north of Uruk.

The advent of writing (coming up tomorrow on Logarithmic History) marks a watershed in our knowledge of the past, but we might get a distorted view of social evolution if we assume that the only empires are the ones we know about because people wrote about them. Here are other possible Empires-Before-History, supported by varying levels of evidence or speculation, that we may consider as we continue:

First farmers

8.8-8.3 thousand years ago

Farming is now spreading out of the Fertile Crescent. Farmers have crossed the Aegean, and appear in the Balkans and Greece. (They got to Cyprus more than a thousand years earlier.) Farmers have also begun spreading out of the Yellow River and Yangzi River valleys in China.

There’s an argument among philosophers of a utilitarian bent, started by Derek Parfit, over which is better: a world with just a few very happy people (more happiness per capita), or a world crowded with a multitude of people for whom life is just barely worth living (more total happiness)? (The choice of the latter has been dubbed the “Repugnant Conclusion.”) Whatever the philosophical merits of one possible world or another, there’s little doubt about which direction social evolution usually takes. “God favors the side with the largest battalions” (a saying often attributed to Napoleon, but actually predating him), and agricultural populations have mostly managed to replace hunter-gatherers, even though they are probably worse fed and sicker on average. The DNA evidence shows that in Europe it’s mostly replacement we’re talking about, not just the spread of new technologies. Migrants originally from Anatolia pushed aside indigenous hunter-gatherers without much interbreeding. In Western Europe the replacement wasn’t entirely peaceful: farmers from the intrusive Linear Pottery culture built fortified settlements, and there was an unpopulated no-man’s land between farmer and hunter-gatherer territory.

For a while, a decade ago, it looked as if the spread of agriculture might also explain much of the distribution the world’s major language families. Peter Bellwood’s book First Farmers made this case. According to this theory, the first farmers in Europe were speakers of an early Indo-European language that eventually gave rise to most of the languages of Europe, as well as Iran and northern India. We’ll see in days to come on Logarithmic History that the story turns out to be more complicated.

Your Cuisinart, a prehistory

A famous movie cut, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, transitions from a bone club, hurled aloft by an australopithecine 2.5 million years ago, to a spacecraft in the year 2001.


Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, coming up with the plot for the movie/book, were influenced by the popular author Robert Ardrey. In his book African Genesis, Ardrey casts human evolution as a version of the story of Cain and Abel, except in his version the peaceful vegetarians (robust australopithecines) get clobbered by the club-wielding meat-eaters (gracile australopithecines).

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?

Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris, was much in vogue in the 1960s: Sam Peckinpah was another movie director influenced by him. Unfortunately his speculations on evolution and human behavior are probably not of enduring value: he had the misfortune to take up the topic too early to take on board the sociobiological revolution pioneered by William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and George Williams, and popularized by E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

Ardrey may not have been off-base in thinking that weaponry and warfare have been an important motive force in human biological and social evolution. But where early stone tools are concerned, a different segue, from Oldowan chopper to Cuisnart may be more appropriate.


Recent research argues that early hominins could have dramatically increased available food energy by pounding vegetables and chopping up meat into more digestible pieces. Tool use may have been an early step in our ancestors’ move to high energy diets. Meat-eating began to be important in human evolution around 2.6 million years ago. Somewhat later we see evidence that some hominins have lighter jaws and aren’t chewing as much. So to celebrate this early dietary revolution, here’s a recipe:

Steak Tartare

Place in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade:

1 ½ pounds lean beef (tenderloin, top round, or sirloin) cut into ½ inch cubes

Pulse until meat is coarsely ground, 7-10 seconds. Do not over-process. Remove meat to a chilled platter or individual plates and gently form into 6 individual mounds.

[Optional: Make a spoon shaped indentation on top of each mound and crack into each

1 egg yolk.]

Divide and arrange in small piles around each serving:

½ cup minced onions
½ cup minced shallots
½ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced drained capers
8-12 anchovies (optional)

Serve immediately and pass separately:

Fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce
Dijon mustard
Hot pepper sauce
Freshly ground black pepper

From The Joy of Cooking 1997

Consider her ways

104-98.6 million years ago

There are some pieces of paleontology that really stand out in the popular imagination. Dinosaurs are so cool that even if they hadn’t existed we would have invented them. (Maybe we did, in the form of dragons. And tune in early April for the dinosaur-griffin connection.) Also, as I suggested in the preceding post, transitions from one form of locomotion to another – flightless dinosaurs to birds, fish to tetrapods, land mammals to whales – really grab the imagination (and annoy creationists) because the largest and most distinctive named folk categories of animals (snakes, fish, birds) are built around modes of locomotion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to see things differently. Turning fins into legs, legs into wings, and legs back into flippers is pretty impressive. But the really major evolutionary transitions involve the evolution of whole new levels of organization: the origin of the eukaryotic cell, for example, and the origin of multicellular life. From this perspective, the really huge change in the Mesozoic – sometimes called the Age of Dinosaurs – is the origin of eusociality among insects like ants and bees. An ant nest or a bee hive is something like a single superorganism. with most of its members sterile workers striving – even committing suicide — for the colony’s reproduction, not their own. (100 million years ago – corresponding to March 29 in Logarithmic History — is when we find the first bee and ant fossils, but the transition must have been underway before that time.)

Certainly the statistics on social insects today are impressive.

The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment. As humans are to vertebrate animals, the eusocial insects are to the far vaster world of invertebrate animals. … In one Amazon site, two German researchers … found that ants and termites together compose almost two-thirds of the weight of all the insects. Eusocial bees and wasps added another tenth. Ants alone weighed four times more than all the terrestrial vertebrates – that is, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined. E. O. Wilson pp 110-113

E. O. Wilson, world’s foremost authority on ants, and one of the founders of sociobiology, thinks that the origin of insect eusociality might have lessons for another major evolutionary transition, the origin of humans (and of human language, technology, culture, and complex social organization). In his book The Social Conquest of Earth he argues that a key step in both sets of transitions was the development of a valuable and defensible home – in the case of humans, a hearth site.

One trait found in both ants and humans is large-scale warfare. Wilson gives an idea of the nature of ant warfare in fictional form in his novel Anthill. It’s an interesting experiment, but also disorienting. Because individual recognition is not important for ants, his story of the destruction of an ant colony reads like the Iliad with all the personal names taken out. But Homer’s heroes fought for “aphthiton kleos,” undying fame (and got some measure of it in Homer’s poem). The moral economy of reputation puts human cooperation in war and peace on a very different footing from insect eusociality.

Consider her ways” is the title of a short story by John Wyndham, about a woman from the present trapped in a future ant-like all-female dystopia. It was made into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The title is from Proverbs 6:6, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.”