This is a brief conceptual model of “Long Wars” as socio-economic phase-transitions. I’ll draw an analogy with sandpiles. The wars are the avalanches on the slopes of the sandpile.
Wars like the Peloponnesian War and World War I elude easy explanation. Thucydides tried to explain it, but the local causes seem insignificant to the scale of the multi-decade long wars.
Instead, the wars are caused by a large number of small events because of changing economies and political ideas.
Without going into too much historical detail (for a speculative blog post at least), I think this model can help explain a number of catastrophic periods of war and upheaval. The Rise of Rome … and the Fall of Rome. The Protestant Reformation up until the 30-Years War and the Peace of Westphalia. The Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The Long War of the 20th Century (WWI, WWII, Cold War).
In each case, there is a major economic and political change which causes the old structures to collapse. New structures formed and reshaped around the new reality. There are temporary punctuated equilibrium between each phase transition. This could be a result of economic shifts – from agricultural societies to Industrial societies; communications changes – like the printing press which decentralized information flow; or political revolutions – like the transition from monarchism to democracy in the 20th century.
The 20th Century Long War, for instance, obliterated Monarchism as the dominant form of government. For all of recorded history, monarchies were the most efficient governments to rule over agricultural and pastoral economies. Even by 1900, monarchies ruled over more than half the world population. By the 1990s, monarchies ruled over around 5% of the world population.
Here’s a specific case: The Peloponnesian War … which I now believe was just one component of a much longer war (which never occured to me until I wrote this).
This is just an outline of a phase transition in Greece.
6th century Greece was organized into independent city-states ruled by aristocracies and the economy was centered on local farmlands controlled by landlords. Combat was also centered around the agricultural upper class fighting as hoplite infantry. Starting in the 5th century, there was social and economic upheaval and the Greece faced repeated wars until the Macedonians conquered and unified Greece.
Greece in 5th century BC and Europe in 20th century AD were like sandpiles that reached a critical point and there were a century-long avalanches to restructure the entire socio-economic system.
There were major changes in Greek life at this time.
-The Persian Empire unified Asia and challenged the politically weak city-states.
-The economic center of gravity shifted from aristocratic landowners to urban merchants and traders. Sea trade became the great source of wealth.
-There was a population boom. The Greek city-states could no longer feed themselves and became dependant on foreign food imports from the Black Sea, Sicily, and Italy.
-Democracy expanded and overthrow the previous aristocratic rulers.
-There was a new intellectual class of philosophers, mathematicians, engineers and other specialists.
-The independent city-state model of politics failed. Only confederations or empires could secure the economy of scale needed to support modern life
-The way of warfare changed. Greeks abandoned traditional hoplite combat, the phalanx evolved, and they adopted combined arms tactics. The Greek navies became the most important instrument of war.
The Greek city-state system became antiquated around 480BC as Persia invaded.
The Persian invasion of Greece in 480 failed to conquer and unify Greece. The southern city-states formed Leagues to oppose Persia and rallied behind Athens and Sparta. The Persian naval and land forces were defeated by 479.
This did not end the war – Macedonia rebelled against Persian rule. Then Athens went on the offensive. Over the next decade, the Athenians retook Byzantium and Thrace. The Athenians allied with Greek colonies and islands on and around Asia Minor who were subjects of Persia.
The Athenian triremes dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and controlled many of the sea trade routes. Navies were the new source of military power – but they were too expensive for any single city-state to maintain. So Athens led the Delian League to combine their capital to maintain these fleets.
The 150 city-states of the Delian League became the greatest rival to Persia in Europe. Between 460-448, the Greeks executed an amphibious strategy to capture lands and islands from Persia and even contested Persian control over Egypt.
The Second Persian-Greek war did not end with Spartan victory over the Persian at Plataea. It ended 30 years later in 448, when the Delian League defeated Persia. Athenians even got the idea in their head that the Greeks could conquer all of Persia.
A few years later – the Peloponnesian War.
There’s more of course, but the original political structure of Greece no longer recognized the new reality. The city-state model was abandoned in favor of combining economic and military resources in Leagues or Empires. The participation of lower-class in naval combat on triremes encouraged the rise of democracy. Previously, the upper-class dominated warfare as hoplites. The landlords also lost influence as economic power shifted to the sea.
So something had to change to reflect the new social-economic reality. There was no conceivable way to resolve the growing conflicts of interest between asymmetrical powers in Greece. The Persians maintained a balance of power in Greece to prevent any power from dominating.
A decade after the Athenian victory over Persia, the Delian League began to fragment. Individual city-states started to separate from Athens, but this weakened trade. Greece needed unity for a modern economy, but few wanted Athenian rule, much less democracy.
In 432, Sparta went to war with Athens. These wars continued until 404 when Athens finally submitted. The war concluded when Sparta allied with Persia and Persian fleets defeated the weakened Athenians.
This did not resolve the political crisis in Greece however. A decade later, another democratic revolution ousted the oligarchy in Athens. Between 395-387, Athens allied with Persia to defeat Sparta. Persia cut off its support to prevent a decisive Athenian victory. Again – stalemate.
Thebes grew to be a powerful city-state in Boeotia so there was a three-way balance of power: Thebes, Sparta, Athens. The Spartans repeatedly warred with Thebes to stop it from growing, but the Thebans led by Epaminondas defeated the Spartan army twice at Leuctra and Mantinea. The Thebans liberated the enslaved helots of Sparta and shattered the Spartan agricultural economy.
The political-economic crisis continued to be a stalemate until King Philip of Macedonia conquered Greece. Then Alexander the Great then went off and conquered Persia.
The Kingdom of Macedon finally solved the political crisis. It provided:
- a unified government
- a unified body of laws and institutions
- a unified economic zone with free trade and security
- it pooled Greek capital to create a large professional army and navy
- stopped a 140 year period of incessant warfare and power struggles
The end result was stable. The Macedonian Kingdom ruled over Greece, the Ptolemy Dynasty ruled over Egypt, and the Seleucid Dynasty over Persia and Syria. These three super-powers fought on occasion – especially in the Syrian Wars – but their objectives were local and limited. They did not fight total wars of annihilation like the Peloponnesian War or Alexanders’ Conquest of Persia.
Merchants and Kings organized the Silk Road to connect the Greek Empires with China and India. The Alexandrian World was wealthier and more peaceful than the previous century. A massive economy of scale allowed a high degree of specialization as well as a massive population boom. This created the conditions for an intellectual and technological boom. The Alexandrian era produce Euclidean Geometry, for instance.
This could be considered the Greek Golden Age. Then the damned Romans and Steppe Nomads stirred up trouble. But that’s a different avalanche.