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Thinking Sideways About Wooden Walls

Thinking Sideways About Wooden Walls

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by Robert Meegan

While thinking sideways is a great tool for working around an obstacle in your worldbuilding, it can also be useful in other situations. One of these is differentiating your world from everyone else’s. Irrespective of your genre, it’s almost certain that you’re going to come face-to-face with the same needs and constraints that others have faced. What separates out the great worldbuilders, those whose creations we remember and cherish, from the mediocre masses is the ability to make something that is new and bold, while still remaining believable and internally consistent.

Let’s look at an example that commonly occurs in fantasy worlds. For any number of reasons, it’s useful to have one or more powerful nation-states. Even if you aren’t planning to make politics a driving factor for your characters, having epic events play out in the background can be used to drive the plot and show that the world is larger than just the handful of individuals that are the center of your story.

Many settings use one of two approaches to create their political landscape. One option is to have several nations that are of roughly equal size and with similar resources and play them off against each other. The other choice is to have a huge empire that dominates the other countries. This empire can either be on the edge of the map where it poses a constant threat, but isn’t central to the action, or to center it on the map with the other nations taking on fringe roles. A few settings will pit two great empires against each other, but this is less common in both roleplaying and character-driven literature, because the principal theme of this scenario tends to be a clash of cultures, so individuals aren’t in the front and center.

While all of these can and have been used successfully, let’s think sideways about how we could create something different. What about a nation that was powerful not because of the size of its armies or its vast territory, but because it could economically outperform its neighbors? To crank it up even before we begin, what if the country was small and not particularly rich in resources? You might be wondering if such a thing is even remotely plausible. Tiny economic powerhouses have appeared on our Earth many times in the past. As an example, the per capita gross national product of the Netherlands was roughly equal to that of the French in 1500 CE. Two centuries later, near the peak of the Dutch East India Company, the Netherlands was earning nearly 2.5 times as much per capita.

Come Sail Away

The difference between a majority of fantasy settings and our reality is that the created worlds only use somewhere between thirty to forty percent of the available space. More specifically, they generally focus upon the land and ignore the seas. That’s great if you want enormous bands of nomadic warriors thundering across endless steppes to pillage and loot your precious civilizations or if you anticipate great clashes of armies as warring kingdoms hurl themselves at each other. The problem is that it ignores one of the great alternatives that civilizations have used to conquer new territories and develop wealth far beyond anything of which the horsebound hordes could ever dream. Until a mechanized age arises to make land transportation fast and efficient, the lifeblood of nations is water. Those confined by terrain or neighbors take this with a grain of salt and turn to the sea.

Nations that relied upon nautical prowess appeared around the globe. Extreme examples include the Tongan Empire in Polynesia and the North Sea Empire. The Tongans enjoyed the generally benign waters (at least when a typhoon wasn’t roaring through) of the Pacific Ocean, but their islands were small and widely scattered. Surrounded completely by ocean, the empire lasted around four hundred years with the primary threats for most of that time being internal conflicts. On the other hand, the Norse and Danes had huge tracts of land that abutted other nations, but the core of the empire was the North Sea, with its well-deserved reputation for being anything but pacific. With the corners of their empire anchored in Norway, Denmark, and England, the North Sea was in large part an internal body of water. Both of these examples are interesting and have potential, but they’re not exactly what we’re looking for.

While the ancient Greeks certainly weren’t the first to come up with the idea of rule by sea power, they were the first to put a name to the practice: thalassocracy. Greek interest in the concept makes perfect sense because the Mediterranean was an entirely different type of sea. It possesses several key elements that made it perfect for sea-going nations. The weather is both consistent and favorable for navigation from late March through early November. This long period of steady winds and few storms made it possible to conduct military campaigns by sea, as well as being able to send ships on multiple voyages each year, maximizing the utility of each vessel. Even the winter period was not so severe as to entirely shut down travel.

Another characteristic of the Mediterranean is that along the shore are broad, flat beaches where ships could pull ashore. This was a matter of great importance for the oared galleys that served the region for nearly 2,500 years. As a rule, these ships did not spend their nights afloat, but pulled up onto beaches where the crew could cook, replenish water, and sleep. From a military perspective, it was particularly important that many beaches were large enough to allow anywhere from dozens to a couple of hundred ships to come ashore together. This made command and control much more effective and prevented an enemy from slowly destroying isolated elements without ever having to face the entire fleet.

The Mediterranean also offered a plethora of other nations to trade with. Economic theory has demonstrated that having external trading partners greatly benefits a country. Inevitably, there are products that you can produce in surplus quantities, while there are others that are either very costly or impossible to create. The ability to exchange these goods allows your economy to operate most efficiently.

Just as inevitably, success breeds enemies, and enemies mean conflict. Having a navy serves as a force multiplier for an army, since a smaller number of soldiers can still be effective if they are able to move more quickly to critical locations. While the Romans were legendary for their ability to conduct long forced-marches, there is a clear benefit to using naval transports to avoid expending the soldiers’ energy and morale. A fleet can also be used to attack the enemy’s ships, potentially sending their army to a watery demise before they can even line up for battle. An additional strategic role for a navy is blockading the opponent’s harbors, keeping reinforcements, food, and other supplies from arriving.

Art credit: Adam Bassett

The Times They Are a-Changin’

In 508 BCE, the Greek city-state of Athens began one of the great political experiments by instituting a democratic government. This was made possible in part by Athens being a relatively small city, with little history or tradition, and in part by the Luarium, a vast silver deposit located near the city. Much like oil-rich governments today, the Athenians voted each year to give themselves an annual dividend from the wealth dug out of these mines. In 483 BCE, Themistocles, one of Athens’s archons—the title given to the city administrators—was able to convince the Assembly (literally all of the free, adult, male citizens of the city) to spend the entire allotment, worth the equivalent of months of income for most average people, on the construction of a new navy of roughly two hundred ships. What’s more, he was able to do this with a single speech delivered without a Teleprompter or PowerPoint slides, setting an oratory standard that few politicians in the next twenty-five centuries have met.

Athens needed this navy because their army was small in comparison to the other Greek city-states. Making matters worse, just off the map lay the Persian Empire, which stretched from what is now India, across Asia Minor, and as far west as Egypt. As might be expected, Persian king Darius had decided that Greece would be a nice addition to the empire. While the Athenians had managed to hold off one Persian attack at Marathon in 490 BCE, there was a sense that it had been the result of good fortune, and even pious Athenians had to question if the gods would always favor them so strongly.

They got their answer in 480 BCE, when Darius’s son Xerxes marched again. The Greeks went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked what would happen. The Spartans were told that their city would survive, but a king would die. From the Oracle, this was about as clear and concise as augury went. They departed, if not gladdened, at least with confidence. When the Athenians went before the Oracle, the response was considerably less satisfactory. Apollo informed them that their city would be torn down and the streets would run with blood and that the only salvation for the people was to scatter as far and wide as possible.

Perhaps recognizing that returning to Athens with this message wasn’t going to make them popular, they asked again and this time received a more typically cryptic response that said, in part, “Far-sighted Zeus shall grant unto Athena a wooden wall. It alone shall come through uncaptured—good fortune for you and your children.” After deciding that building a fence wasn’t going to deter a quarter-million-man army, the Athenians put their trust in Themistocles and his wooden ships. He repaid them with two decisive naval victories that broke the Persian navy and which eventually drove Xerxes out of Europe.

This was the start of a period of about 160 years of Athenian prosperity. Two factors played an outsized role in maintaining democracy and naval superiority in Athens. The first were the requirements that all who served on board ships were citizens and that all citizens were required to serve. Despite being a nation dependent upon slaves, Athenians held the strong belief that only free men should fight in the defence of the city. As such, in the instance when they were desperately short of crews to man the ships, they passed a law granting freedom and citizenship to any slave who would serve. Since all citizens served in times of crisis, regardless of status, this also meant that the wealthy and powerful found themselves sitting on benches pulling on oars alongside lowly laborers and farmers, and then eating together on lonely beaches. This forced mixing worked to unite the society by exposing members of various social classes to each other in circumstances that couldn’t help but inspire comradery.

The other aspect of Athenian law and culture that allowed continued control of the sea was the expectation that wealthy members of the community would fund the construction and outfitting of triremes—their war galleys. Furthermore, these individuals commanded those vessels in battle and great personal glory was afforded to those whose ships were most successful. The high stakes of death and prestige encouraged the construction of the best possible ships and the expenditure of time and money to ensure that the crew was well trained and ready. The most obvious equivalent in our times might be the rise of private rocket companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, funded by billionaires competing with each other for bragging rights. Their efforts have completely changed the nature of access to space by shaking up the established companies and technologies.

While you may be thinking that oared galleys might be too backwards for a normal fantasy setting, remember that the last major engagement fought by two fleets of rowed vessels was the Battle of Lepanto when roughly two hundred galleys of the Holy League clashed with about the same number from the Ottoman Empire in 1571 CE. As proof that history echoes, the battle took place not all that far from where the Athenians had beaten the Persians 2,050 years before and the results were almost the same, with the Europeans crushing the Ottomans.

Setting an Athens-like nation into a swords and sorcery campaign, surrounded by barbarian lands and despotic kingdoms, might be particularly interesting. Perhaps the characters could begin as slaves captured in some barbarian raid or a skirmish with one of the great kingdoms. In a moment of crisis, they are offered their freedom in exchange for pulling an oar. Their contributions to the ramming and glorious capture of an enemy flagship in mortal combat could raise their status and establish them as heroes, with all that entails.

Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money

While the idea of a small, progressive nation of philosopher-scientists definitely has potential, it’s certainly possible that people might want something with a little more zest, a little more staying power, and (let’s be honest here) a lot more nastiness. After all, while 160 years is nothing to sneeze at, it is pretty pathetic compared to, say, 1,100 years. A place like that has staying power that would allow plenty of rich history.

It would be nice to have a nation that mattered on the world stage. Athens remains the birthplace of democratic government, but they weren’t very good at selling it. Even their closest neighbors weren’t that impressed. We want someplace that has genuine authority, at least over their corner of the world. A real player at the Great Game.

As worldbuilders, places that have a lot of moral ambiguity provide more room for developing stories. Yes, the Athenians had slaves, but they wouldn’t even make them row the galleys. While that’s a rather narrow distinction to draw, it doesn’t really add up to moral ambiguity. At that time, everybody had slaves. When you captured an enemy ship, you either enslaved the crew or you slaughtered them. At least slavery offered the option of being ransomed or traded for captives taken by your side. What we’re looking for are people who don’t particularly distinguish between good and evil, if profit is involved.

Fortunately, just such a nation existed to serve as a template. What’s more, we only need to move one sea to the west to find it. At the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, there is a protected lagoon nestled on the coast. This natural harbor was soon recognized for its value by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who raised fortifications. By 200 CE, it had a hundred thousand residents and within two centuries after that was considered the ninth-greatest city in the Roman Empire with an imperial palace as a centerpiece. Alas, the Visigoths besieged the city in 401 and 408 CE and Attila the Hun showed up and on 18 July 452, his army razed it to the ground. The residents were resilient and rebuilt the city, albeit not to its former greatness, just in time for the Lombards to sack it in 468 and again in 490.

At this point, the remaining residents of Aquileia decided that perhaps their city had become too popular with visitors and moved roughly ninety kilometers to the southwest, where they met up with Italians also fleeing from the Lombards. The new site was also a lagoon and offered numerous islands that could be built upon, making them harder to besiege. The settlers named this new city after a tribe that had dwelt in the region for at least a millennium: the Veneti.

Although the precise details vary depending upon the source, legend has it that in 697 CE, the local nobles, with the not too gentle encouragement of Emperor Leo III in Constantinople, got together to elect a duke (doge in the Venetian language) to organize the region of the lagoon into a single government, in the hope of holding off the Lombards. This marks the founding of the Republic of Venice, although the next sixty years or so had a couple of interregnums. By the latter half of the eighth century, the Republic began to develop into the form that would see it through the next thousand years, with only occasional assassinations, feuds, and the like.

Skipping forward in history nearly four hundred years, to the time of the Fourth Crusade, Venice was poised precisely between a succession of western empires and Constantinople, which put it in a position to profit handsomely. When the knights arrived in Venice in 1201 to negotiate passage, the Venetians agreed to transport 4,500 knights and 9,000 squires, along with 20,000 foot soldiers and the horses for the mounted men. Their price was 84,000 silver marks. Venice would also provide fifty war galleys and crews at her own expense and all that was requested was one-half of all territories conquered. Of course, at the same time as they were working out a deal with the Christian knights of Europe, Venice was also negotiating a trade deal with the Muslims in Egypt.

Politics and economics being what they are, the crusaders found themselves short on cash when the time came to pay for the passage. Fortunately for them, a usurper had taken the throne in Constantinople and the rightful heir was in Germany and offered to pay the remainder of the passage, along with supplying additional troops for the crusade, if they would first restore him. Faced with such a worthy cause and knowing that they had been commissioned to provide ships to Constantinople (a contract that was running rather late), the Venetians leapt at the opportunity.

Constantinople had managed to hold off every attacker who had ever faced its walls, but they had never been challenged by anything like the Venetian fleet. Just as significantly, they had never run into the Venetian leader, Doge Enrico Dandolo. Despite being ninety-seven years old and completely blind, the Doge had his flagship lead the charge against the sea wall, and was one of the first to set foot on the beach. The usurper slipped away that night with nothing but 10,000 pounds of gold and the shirt on his back. The new emperor found the treasury empty and proceeded to renege on his agreements. Within months, he suffered a severe bout of death as a new usurper grabbed the throne. This even newer emperor pointed out that any deals had died along with those who made them.

The Venetians and knights discussed this matter and decided on an equitable solution. They would together select a new emperor. That individual would receive a quarter of the city and the empire while the crusaders and Venetians would split the remainder equally. When this army and fleet attacked the city again, it held out for several days before falling. With the treasury being rather depleted, this time the emperor was only able to bring a pair of women with him as he made a hasty departure. The city of Venice, which had perhaps 70,000 citizens, now found itself with a network of colonies all across the eastern Mediterranian, including such strategic sites as Crete, Corfu, Negroponte, and Rhodes, as well as more than a third of one of the greatest cities in the world.

Art credit: deïficat

Take the Money and Run

Perhaps more importantly, the Venetians began to reorganize themselves into something new: a nation of traders. Unlike the other Italian city-states, such as Padua and Genoa, and completely opposed to any traditional nation like France or England, the Venetians had the unique advantage of intimacy—the citizens of the Republic were no more than a short walk from each other. This proximity meant that merchants knew each other and could quickly assemble an expedition to trade with a distant location. What’s more, and perhaps for the first time ever, a system was developed and codified that allowed almost anyone to contribute even small sums of money to fund such a venture and then to reap the rewards.

What made this system work was something unique for a nation so large and prosperous. Since no system of extradition existed and the framework of international law was almost minimal, there was almost nothing that could be done about a merchant who took his investors’ money and simply ran away. Instead, the structure of Venice as a commercial state made such an act economically unprofitable. No other nation could offer protection for convoys of ships or the exclusive rights for foreign trade in many of the richest ports. Even the threat of sanctions against those who traded with outlaw merchants would be enough to eliminate many markets for them. In essence, Venice’s domination of trade in the eastern Mediterranean served to enforce social and financial contracts in a way that mere laws could not.

Cheating the investors was equally ruinous. Venice posted agents in foriegn cities who monitored prices, and manifests were scrupulously checked by customs agents. Merchants were required to provide investors with precise accounts within a month after each voyage. Those who were caught cheating quickly found the pool of investors had dried up. The reputation of the merchants were common knowledge and, simply put, any gain from fraud was overwhelmed by the potential loss of future business opportunities.

This self-policing mercantile system shouldn’t be confused with morality. At best, it was enlightened self-interest. As seen by the simultaneous negotiations with the Christian knights and the Islamic sultan, Venetians were not particularly scrupulous about what they traded and with whom. In particular, there was a steady trade of slaves between the Black Sea ports and Italy. Slavery was legal in Italy until into the sixteenth century, as long as the enslaved party wasn’t a “Latin” Christian male, defined essentially as being of Italian, French, or Spanish heritiage. While in the medieval period the Mediterranean slave trade was dominated in west by the Catalan and Portuguese, the Italians often scooped up Greeks, Turks, Malmuks, and Arabs. By the second half of the fourteenth century, Genoa and Venice had formed a monopoly on the trade in the eastern Mediterranean, with each importing roughly a thousand slaves over the next century. It is likely that the numbers traded on to other destinations was as much as ten times greater.

The source of slaves had also shifted from the Levant and Greece to the Black Sea. Both the Genoese and Venetians traded heavily in ports such as Kaffa and Tana. While the primary cargos were products from the rich agricultural regions of Ukraine and the Caucasus, a steady stream of slaves was brought back. These were a mix of native Russians, Circassians, and especially Tatars. These were not captured by the Italian traders, but were either brought in by neighboring communities or sold by their own families.

The nature of the slaves brought back to Venice is interesting. Eighty-two percent of them were women. The average age of the women hovered around twenty years old, while the men tended to be in their early teens. While slaves made up only a very small portion of the population, they were owned by a broad cross section of social classes and occupations. Some indication of precisely what factors entered into the ratio of male to female slaves in Venice might be found in laws that started appearing regarding the illegitimate sons of Venetian fathers and slave mothers. These started with granting them manumission and continued through citizenship, inheritance rights, and eventually the transfer of noble titles. Needless to say, female offspring were not covered by these laws.

Takin’ Care of Business

So, now it’s time to look at how we might use a thalassocracy in a fantasy setting. We’ve had the opportunity of seeing how they worked from the bronze age up to the age of discovery, so it should be possible to fit one into almost any world. For our purposes, we’re going to pick a location more like Genoa, so that our city is backed by almost impassable mountains, rather than a swampy lagoon. We can have one easily defended river valley providing access to the interior, to allow for trade in that way, but for the most part, our city will live and die by the sea.

What would characters do in such a place? Perhaps one is the second child of a noble house (we’ll ditch the rampant sexism of real history), being groomed for a role leading future trade missions. Another is their bodyguard, fast with a rapier and large enough to engender respect from those in places where the laws are what you make them. A third belongs to the guild of wizards and is seeking rare ingredients that might have been brought by caravans from even more distant lands. The last is, to all appearances, a minor bureaucrat, tasked with accounting for goods bought and sold, for both financial and taxation reasons. In reality, they are a spy, working for the senior nobility and tasked with gathering information about the city’s competitors.

Together they board one of the merchant cogs, its holds laden with luxuries like wine and fine fabrics that will be traded for exotic furs, priceless spices, and even mundane grains. As the convoy moves out, the twenty slow, tubby sailing ships are soon joined by their escorts, seven sleek war galleys. As they move into formation, each merchant captain raises the banner of their house to the mast top. The galleys respond by raising the flag of the city and across the water a roaring cheer can be heard from the sailors of each ship.

What adventures lie ahead for the travellers? Will they be forced to fight off pirates or the ships of a hostile city? How will they deal with the strange traders at their destination? And are any of them prepared for what awaits them in faraway lands, where they will find themselves embroiled in epic adventures that will drag them to the ends of the world?


Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. You can visit their website and read full issues here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on twitter for the latest news, or to talk with the team that creates it. Smunchy Games is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.

Art credit: Ahmed Elgharabawy
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