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QUESTION

In my world there's a large empire in a semiarid plains area, that lies smack in between two areas that I would like to effectively lose contact for a long time. To that end, I'd like to make this empire dangerous to travelers for a hundred years or more (really, as long as I can stretch it).

With that in mind, what are some guidelines for creating a bitter, long-lasting, unbelievably violent civil war? I mean the kind of war where "God and his angels slept", as it's been written. The sort of war that produces rumors of mass slaughter, betrayal, trophy taking and cannibalism, the trumpeting of the apocalypse. I basically need good historical and cultural reasons to justify it being as fractious, confused, and violent as I possibly can.

NOTES

Here is some added information:

  • The empire is a classical civilization with a vaguely Byzantine aesthetic, and an elitist electoral system inspired by Rome and the Holy Roman Empire. Please take all this as loose and malleable. I've left this area undeveloped just to have elbow room for creating this war.

  • The tech level isn't a straight analogue, but hovers between the classical and medieval.

  • The cultural context, as said, is malleable. But in general the peoples of this world believe that lineage is very important, and have an intense distrust of kings (that is, open autocrats). The empire used to have religious ties with the church of one of the regions to be separated.

  • Natural events can exacerbate the war (plague, famine, earthquake, etc.), but must have reasonably limited effects on the larger world.

  • Historical analogues and real-world examples are appreciated, particularly if they give reasons why some wars are more brutal and destructive than others.

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    $\begingroup$ You'd only need justification for a war that isn't hell. The victor of basically every war in history that was won on a battlefield, made it as fractious, confused, and violent as possible for their enemy. It's in the rules... $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 29 '18 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ Looking at history I'd claim that civil wars usually are as brutal as possible. Especially (but not exclusively) if the disrupted nation was heterogeneous to begin with. (See Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, Whatever is going on wherever there happens to be kurds, Angola, Mozambique, Congo, Spain, Finland, Russia... the list goes on and "civil" is ... as the saying goes, not the word I'd choose to describe them.) If there's an excuse to take a cleaver to your neighbours head, rape his wife and children and steal his livestock... someone will jump at the chance. $\endgroup$ – Doomfrost Jan 29 '18 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Doomfrost: this. I generally no trouble reading war stories or viewing war movies (about professional soldiers). Civic brutality is on a whole other level though. Real soldiers today have strong ethics/codes limiting what they can do; private persons do not. Our bodies are so soft and squishy, and you can do so much harm with so little effort, with everyday tools, if you put your mind to it. So, to the OP. in lieu of a real answer: please just open a newspaper and read about what they do to their political enemies, maybe in some African state or in the hispanic area some decades ago... $\endgroup$ – AnoE Jan 29 '18 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ There only two types of war that satisfy your needs: ethnic and religious. Every other type of war is about claiming land, resources and subjects. Since desolated land and burned cities are not very profitable, in normal wars neither side goes of of their way to inconvenience general populace (looting happens, and pre WWI armies would steal food from people as standard means of sustenance, potentially leaving them to starve, but it's more of a collateral damage than objective in itself). Meanwhile ethnic and religious wars are about exterminating the other side. Combine for best results. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jan 29 '18 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech: You forgot ideological wars, although those do have many of the same features as religious uprisings. But yes, non-territorial goals and a highly mixed initial state (with lots of towns or even families split between different sides) seem to be the recipe for a brutal civil war. Unfortunately (for the OP, that is) such wars tend to be as quick as they are brutal; or, if they last long enough, they'll turn into territorial conflicts once each side has purged the areas they control of their opponents. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Jan 29 '18 at 18:16

13 Answers 13

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Over-run by nomads

The easiest solution to breaking a trade route is to have the area in question over run by people who are anti-agricultural. People with nomadic traditions in a land where water is scarce (your semi-arid plains seem perfect) will be in direct competition with the agriculturists for land and water resources. Herding is much less land (and water!) efficient than agriculture, so if this conflict is resolved violently in favor of the nomads, then the result will be a large drop in population and the number and size of cities.

Historical Examples

  • The north coast of the Black Sea was extensive agricultural production and export of grain during the time of the Roman Empire. The entry of the Huns into the region in the mid 4th cenutry effectively ended this trade, and depopulated the plains. The Sarmatians and Goths who had lived there before vanished; either absorbed into the Hunnic hordes or migrated west to participate in the destruction of Rome. Following the onset and dissolution of Hunnic power, the land was returned to nomadism by Avars, Bulgars and others.

  • The same region suffered again 500 years later. The Varangians (Vikings) had extensive trade contacts with Constnatinople and Persia by means of the rivers of Russia. This contact was cut off completely by the entry of the Kipchak/Cumans onto the plains in the 11th century. Populations were enslaved and sold off and agriculture ground to a halt. Due to succession by the Mongol Golden Horde and then various Tatar and Cossack tribes, population density in the area did not increase again until its annexation by Russia in the 19th century.

  • The Central Asian steppe was never really fully depopulated, but provides good examples of how trade contact can be disrupted for centuries. The Mediterranean was linked to Central Asia by Alexander's conquests in ~300 BC. By 100 BC, the Chinese had made contact on the other side. This first period of the Silk Road was disrupted in the Xionites and/or Kidarites (the identities of all these peoples are not well known and somewhat controversial; both are claimed to be Huns of some sort) in the 4th century. Another flourishing of the Silk Road under the political unification of the Mongol Empire was disrupted as the empire disintegrated into its constituent nomadic parts. For example, there are plentiful European accounts of the 13th century in Central Asia (Marco Polo being the most famous), but none again until after the Age of Discovery.

  • The history of the Sahel region follows this same pattern. Here, the region had a golden age in the 15th and early 16th century; Timbuktu, Djenne, Goa and others were prosperous trading cities. Once weakened by declining trade routes, the cities were plundered by Tuareg raiders. The final blow came in the late 18th century when the nomadic horse and cattle based Fula people invoked Jihad to conquer the region from modern Senegal to Chad. Former river-fed farming regions in these semi-arid plains reverted to pasture land, a situation that did not change until recently.

Overall, the Varangian example is the best of two civilizations (Baltic and Black Sea/Caspian) being separated by nomads and not reunited by trade for centuries. The Fulani Jihads are a good example if you are looking for some cannibalism and butchery.

Considerations

I think this situation not only has historical precedent for disrupting trade between two situations, but can easily be extended to account for the desired level of violence. This is ultimately a conflict over food supply; the losers will have to migrate out or starve to death.

This sort of wholesale population replacement will occasion massacres and wholesale selling of peoples into slavery. Also, the fight over food supply thing is an easy segue into cannibalism, if you so desire.

Finally, adding a religious dimension makes it all the better. Either have the nomadic invaders being of a different monotheistic, universal religion than the native agriculturalists, with a long history of mutual animosity; or, have the invaders of a monotheistic universal religion, while the agriculturalists are of a 'pagan' sect.

Two of the most 'barbaric' invasion episodes in history follow these two descriptions.

  • The Crusaders were of a universal religion competing with the Muslims of the Levant, with the added twist that the Christian crusaders had suffered conquest and enslavement at Muslim hands for centuries. When the First Crusade broke on the Levant, the Christians were most barbaric in their vengeance.

  • The various Turkic Muslim invaders of India, who were previously used to conquering 'peoples of the book' that were afforded some protection in Islamic law, offered little mercy to the Hindus of India. Invaders like Mahmoud of Ghazni and Muhammad of Ghor are remembered to this day as butchers and desecrators of temples in India (of course, they are heroes in Pakistan).

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    $\begingroup$ Annexation of Black Sea areas happened in 18th century, not 19th. $\endgroup$ – user58697 Jan 29 '18 at 6:21
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Just look at European religion wars around 1500-1600, with their protrusion until today.

Following the wrong shade of religion has always been a sufficient reason for slaughtering, killing and abusing people, even if they were from the same city. Even worse, people fought and died for a "grammatical" dispute, known as the "filioque", way earlier than 1500.

The Latin term Filioque describes the Holy Spirit in Christianity as proceeding from both the Father and the Son, (and not from the Father only). In the Nicene Creed it is translated by the English phrase "and [from] the Son" Whether that term Filioque is included, as well as how it is translated and understood, can have important implications for how one understands the central Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. [...] The term has been an ongoing source of conflict between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity.

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    $\begingroup$ L.Dutch, do you really think those wars were about the religious differences (as most folks doing the fighting wouldn't have a clue to the nuances) or an excuse used by economic competitors or other rivalries? I keep thinking about a story of two shoe factories in Germany across the river from each other; one became much better and driving the other out of business so the owner of that one lobbied for that town to be "liberated of its demon faith" based on something their priest said; when really he wanted to quash his competition. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Jan 28 '18 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ Your etymology for the term Dark Ages is nonsense; for the single context it might be called relevant, it's exactly wrong. It's comparative to classical ages considered to be of greater cultural enlightenment (these ages being before the assumed date of Jesus's existence) and the name particularly comes from a period of specific papal corruption, nothing to do with whether or not people could access the Bible at all. @TheMattbat999 $\endgroup$ – Nij Jan 29 '18 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Hebekiah, to fight a war you need something to burst fire into the simple minds of people. Religion is pretty effective at that. Nobody would risk his life for the sake of John Doe's profit (which is why wars are fought), but say it is for the sake of protecting your true religion and you'll get masses ready to be killed. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jan 29 '18 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ The filioque dispute is still in contention between the Orthodox and the Western confessions. There may have been a time when people died over it, but I am not aware of anything like this. If at all, this would have happened around the great Eastern schism of 1054, or potentially during the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the 13th century. Not in Central Europe, and not in the 16th/17th century. You are probably thinking of the 30 Years War 1618-1648, which was strongly driven by disputes between Catholic and Protestant German princes... $\endgroup$ – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jan 29 '18 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ ... However, the main question was not so much converting the "other", but safeguarding political rights enshrined a hundred years earlier. As such, 1618-48 is certainly not exclusively a war of religion. Note also that Catholic France supported the Protestant princes and (Protestant) Sweden, in order to countervail a perceived Hapsburg encirclement. (And of course, both Catholics and Protestants agreed on the filioque.) $\endgroup$ – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jan 29 '18 at 9:37
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A Byzantine-like empire simply cannot sustain a total war of long duration; the economies of medieval societies were just not up for the task. As an example, consider the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, which, although much less intense that what the question asks for, left the two empires exhaused; with their forces depleted they could not mount an effective opposition to the Muslim invasion, which would have posed no problem in normal times.

But you don't need a civil war

It is enough to make that middle empire hostile to foreigners and disinterested in trade. For example, once the Arabs conquered Egypt, Syria, and Persia in the 7th century the West lost direct contact with India for 7 centuries or so, until the maritime route around Africa was established; there was a small amount of luxury goods travelling on the so-called Silk Road, but politics and culture were completely disconnected. In a short time the West and India forgot almost everything about each other. That the West itself was hostile to Islam also helped a lot.

A heraldic Tyger

A heraldic Tyger, a fantastic beast with the body of a wolf, the mane of a lion and a pointed snout, said to inhabit Hyrcania (in modern eastern Iran); when chased by a Tyger the best strategy was to place a mirror in its path, causing the beast to lose interest in the pursuit. Picture from The Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, available on Wikimedia. Public domain.

In the mean time, the almost forgotten India was transposed into a land of legend. Cosmas Indicopleustes was the last explorer to write a book from personal experience, in the 6th century, and after that Persia and India began to be populated with fantastic beasts and races of men, such as the dog-headed Cynocephali, headless men, gold-digging ants, and the snake-legged Strictae.

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    $\begingroup$ Darn that real world, always stealing our ideas first... $\endgroup$ – Ghotir Jan 29 '18 at 18:37
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No need to look farther than the European Wars of Religion, the most devastating of which was the Thirty Years War. It scoured the German countryside, leaving between 3-11M dead and hundreds of villages empty. It took hundreds of years for the population to recover.

Some might say that it wasn't really about religion, but sure it was: the Holy Roman Emperor wanted to enforce Roman Catholicism on all his subjects (aka the Counter-Reformation), and the Protestants rebelled.

The fighting expanded as allies flocked to both sides. Famine raged as troops marched back and forth over fields, pillaging as they went.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War#Casualties_and_disease

The overall reduction of population in the German states was typically 25% to 40%.

Württemberg lost three-quarters of its population during the war.

In the territory of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas, an estimated two-thirds of the population died

the male population of the German states was reduced by almost half.

The population of the Czech lands declined by a third due to war, disease, famine, and the expulsion of Protestant Czechs.

The Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns.

Bottom line: people fight for ideas they care about, and religion is something that a lot of people care about.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nope, the Counter-Reform was the Catholic Church movement to fix its internal problems that had caused the Reform in the first place - not crushing Protestants per se. Also, the war was, to simplify to the extreme, between aloof, incompetent elites that were disconnected from the people they ruled and thought the world existed to serve them on one side, and corrupt, power-hungry tyrants that wanted to free themselves from a higher authorities and steal as much peasants to oppress as possible on the other. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jan 29 '18 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Eth you're half right, and half wrong. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jan 29 '18 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ The Thirty Years' War was thirty years of outsiders throwing armies into Germany. Germany alone could not have sustained the war for the desired length of time. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 29 '18 at 22:27
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Despite scifi-produced anomalies like Klingons and the Jem-Hadar, people don't actually like prolonged war. I say people, because soldier and supporter alike fight the battles — and all are actually wired (genetically) to perserve life. To create a war so bloody, so violent, so disruptive of so many lives, you need to overcome a LOT of both biology and psychology.

The reason I say this is because no matter how you wrap it up or whether or not you win, war destroys everything. War destroys lives, economies, families, culture, everything. No matter how just the cause...

  • City populations will eventually hate the war because the youth they depend on to run businesses, farms, and support the community aren't coming home. Even city services begin to fail, affecting everyone.

  • Families will eventually hate the war because parents/supporters are not coming home, brothers/sisters/aunts/uncles that could fill the void are not coming home, and yet there's still a half-dozen (e.g.) children screaming at your feet.

  • Customers will eventually hate the war because goods and services they depend on aren't being supplied due to the loss of people, materials, resources, and logistics.

  • And, of course, leaders will eventually hate the war because constituents are beginning to hate the war and staying in power (even as a dictator) often depends on the compliance or complacency of the people — who aren't either anymore.

You'll notice that I'm not going to mention things like resources or land. Those may be what you wish to acquire or achieve as a result of a war, but it's not enough to sustain the violence you're looking for. Not even insult will do that. Once these things are obtained or resolved, all the determination to get them drains away. You need something much more lasting than a goal of any kind to sustain the violence you're looking for.

So... what do you need?

You need Belief

Soldiers need to believe... I mean really believe. Believe in a way that's religious to the core even if religion isn't part of the process. They need to believe in the cause so much that they'll accept the damage they leave behind to risk damage to themselves in the hope that they'll damage their enemies. There's an old adage, "there are no athiests in foxholes." It's relatively easy to bring a religious fervor to the military (Frank Herbert's Dune depends on this concept).

But it's not at home. You see, supporters at home need belief, too. They need to believe that the world after the war will be better than the world before the war. They need to believe they can survive the conflict and its consequences. But they have the luxury of asking themselves, "is all this worth it?" Especially when the soldier is getting 2-3 meals a day but the family isn't due to rationing. They go to church each week and hear the regular rabble-rousing sermon and begin to wonder, "is this what god really wants?" It's usually much harder to cause belief in your supporters than it is in your soldiers.

You need Hate

Anger dissolves over time. You need hate. You need to be sure that you see your enemy as something deserving of the fate they receive. That they are contemptible, even a stain on your existence. The Bosnian wars are an interesting example. The people in Yugoslavia lived for generations, even intermarrying between faith and ethnic groups, but when society finally broke down into war, very old hatreds came to the surface. Hate usually takes time, lots of time, to develop. But, if you hate your enemy, it's much simpler to treat them as pond-scum in need of wiping from the earth.

Again, this is much harder among the supporters, but not as hard as belief. Oddly, it is natural for humans to hate. In fact, we need to train ourselves not to. We naturally see competitors for mates, resources, etc., as something to be overcome and that very easily becomes hate. Look at how many people today are searching for a cause. It's so bad that people will glom on to the dumbest things, just because there's this inner need wired into us from our days on the Savanah to fight against something... anything... Therefore, hate is much simpler than belief ... but it still takes time. So you need to have a backstory that explains where the hate comes from — especially for your supporters.

You need Desperation

Luxury is your enemy. Even with an intense hate, if you have luxury, hate becomes something you indulge, not something that drives you. Apartheid is a good example of hate being a luxury. White Africa wasn't driven to anything, they were not desperate, and so the violence was much more subtle and much more insidious. Take away the luxury and suddenly you have the fierceness of a cornered animal.

There are a couple of things that will help with all this...

You need to Control Information

You can't let photos of the carnage get back home. When photography finally caught up with the U.S. Civil War, the images of carnage greatly affected the supporters, who became less supportive. Just as it is natural to hate, it is also natural to feel compassion. Those bodies represent some mother's children, some child's father, some country's hope for the future. This is at war with the hate in our souls. Natural, because we have compassion for our children, which is why we're fighting for mates and resources, etc. If you don't control information, you sow the seeds of war weariness.

You need to Use Propaganda

Here's an example of where Nazi Germany really shined. It was a propaganda machine. It kept its supporters controlled by feeding them a constant stream of success stories, heros, reasons to hate, and reasons to believe. It worked so well that by the time the Nazi's were in retreat their economy was an absolute and complete shambles — something that was getting noticed, but was largly ignored due to the success of the propaganda engine.

With this combination of behaviors and activites you can, theoretically, consumate a war having the violence you describe. However, you should not undersell the fact that every rational creature's behavior (when thought of as the masses and not the individual) will naturally avoid war soon after it begins. A race that is genetically prone to the behavior you want would be quickly swept from the ecological balance as being too upsetting to the balance. Thus, your story really isn't about the violence. That's just the window dressing that underscores the real message. It's about how you corrupt natural behaviors to promote such activity. You're not the first to try to tackle this idea. You won't be the last. Just remember, it's not about the violence, it's about the message. It's about how you control your own people.

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More forbidding than chaos is organized opposition. If it is still an Empire, it will still be organized. Chaos can be opposed by smalltimers with adequate force and money, but the efforts of empire can only be opposed by another empire - or from within.

Let us consider Quanzhou. The Chinese port city of Quanzhou in its heyday was a fabulously wealthy and cosmopolitan melting pot - the start of the Silk Road and center of commerce. All the major religions of the time had bases and followers there.

Quanzhou: The Starting Point of the Maritime Silk Road

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quanzhou

Quanzhou was China's major port for foreign traders, who knew it as Zaiton,[a] during the 11th through 14th centuries. It was visited by both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta; both travelers praised it as one of the most prosperous and glorious cities in the world. It was the naval base from which the Mongol attacks on Japan and Java were primarily launched and a cosmopolitan center with Buddhist and Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, and Christian churches, including a Catholic cathedral and Franciscan monasteries.

In 1357 an army led by Chinese / Persian muslims led a revolt: the Ispah rebellion. Initially this was a success. When the forces of the Empire finally triumphed, they decided to make sure that such a problem would not happen again. The entire foreign population of Quanzhou was massacred. The Muslims were the main target but all the other foreign religions were swept up with: Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Christians. These wealthy foreigners had been the backbone of the port. Aftershocks of this event affected not only Quanzhou but the empire as a whole, which came to believe that foreigners and foreign religions within its borders posed an existential threat. A threat which could be prevented.


You could riff on these events and your world seems perfect for it. The central empire, once a hub of trade between its neighbors and points distant, has just barely averted an overthrow by rebels belonging to the aforementioned religion. This event changed their prior open-mindedness and now they are isolationist haters. Maybe there is an area (the former port?) where all the foreigners were taken along with the religious symbols of their respective temples, and this area to this day is filled with bleaching bones and broken statues.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note to historians: I may have conflated the events following the Ispah rebellion with the earlier Guangzhou massacre. But the principle is sound, I hope! $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 28 '18 at 21:10
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Start with drought, then famine, then civil war. Post apocalyptic levels of survival. You could have it so the neighbouring states refused to help for whatever reason, and have it come back to bite them in the rectum once they realize they can no longer safely traverse the territory. When they do try, the survivors who have become ruthless killers team up and attack them on sight, and have become exceptional at doing so. No peaceful solution can be negotiated, as the outsiders are painted as those who caused the situation in the first place - despite that not being technically accurate.

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Wars with yesterday's mentality and tomorrow's technology, tend to be very brutal.

Wars that happen during a major advancement in technology tend to be brutal on their own, WW1 were not particularly brutal (in terms of decisions made) compared to the wars that came before, but the brutality feels unprecedented due to scale and efficiency new technology enabled. Technology also enabling non-combatants to see the brutality in a very visceral manner unlike the detached manner it would have reached a wider audience before, photographs over written accounts, video over pictures, ect. Technology can even change how the populace feels about violence in general, increased availability of printed word for instance is believed to have made people more empathetic and less accepting of violence by inadvertently training people to see things from someone else's perspective.

Additionally wars in which the populace of both sides are committed tend to be very brutal , the crusades are a great example, wars in which both side are extremely committed leads to disorganized fighting on many levels. this mixture of poor troops and trained troops makes slaughter and confusion more easy. (the last batch were pushover why are these ones giving us so much trouble, well because the last attack was disorganized rabble and this time it is seasoned troops. Nobody can really gauge the other sides strength well so total clusterfuffles become rampant. A civil war started by the populace (as opposed to a coup) will tend towards this.

To add to this if both sides feel completely justified you get less compromise, more stand offs and on an individual level more justification of atrocities. religion can be a good example of this but any ideology will fit the bill just as well, no horror compares to those done by men of conviction doing the right thing. In the american civil war and WW1 it was freedom vs freedom, and was brutal because of it. The longer a war stretches on the worse this will get, and propaganda can easily make it worse, there is a reason the christmas truce was an early in the war event.

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Almost all wars are, in their essence, economic.

Political conquest (as opposed to a 'consenting conflict' war) is ALWAYS economic in nature. Either externally, when the other side has needed resources, or internally, when the elitist political powers need to consolidate internal political power to maintain their status and thus their wealth.

Civil wars, even more so.

One side has, the other side wants.

One side religiously protects what it has from the other side, the other side religiously demands their 'fair share'.

Usually, the wars are in a time of late economic recession with recovery on the horizon, when people who have been deprived for so long see hope and recovery, but it is kept just out of their grasp. Inclusive mutual prosperity seldom begets war.

So one side does everything it can to hold on to scarce resources, and the other side is so desperate they will do anything to get these resources.

It helps if there is some religious, tribal, family lineage, or ethnic divide between the factions, that creates an 'us-them' scenario. There needs to be a very definable reason why one side is 'justifiably' excluded from the resources, and why the other side is exclusively entitled to them.

But since all wars are basically a war of attrition, the war continues only as long as both sides can obtain resources (otherwise it just becomes a war of conquest). In a war of consenting conflict, to moderate the limitations of a high mortality rate on resources, there are two options. Either the casualty rate is minimized through inefficient killing weaponry (although it can be brutal, it can not be efficient - it can not be 'mass destrution') and/or very efficient protective technology. Alternately the lives of the combatants have minimal resource value due to extreme poverty, prolific breeding, and societal lack of investment in the population - education, health services, social services, paid wages, skilled training. If the lost life doesn't and hasn't cost society very much, it does not have a high resource value. Thus, 'life is cheap' and high casualty rates are acceptable from a resource perspective.

So no specific details, but background material to help you decide the details.

TL:DR Historic Example

Perhaps a really great example of this is the Iraq-Iran war. Essentially, it was a civil war between nations. The cost of a life was minimized through emphasizing the 'after-life' ('Fifty virgins await a martyr') and it was particularly brutal, since both sides were almost evenly matched. It didn't help that the attrition was severely moderated by America and Russia funding and arming the opposing regimes depending on which side the war was tending to favor. The war was prolonged because neither super power wanted EITHER side to dominate. It served their purpose if BOTH sides were weakened.

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Total collapse of the empire's governmental apparatus when it has a large standing army in the field would create not so much a civil war as a protracted free-for-all as individual leaders vie for control. The example that comes to mind is the mess that Alexander's children and generals made of Greece after his death. A couple of factors that could make the situation even worse would be if there was a large army of native troops in the field when it happened, an army with no leadership or lines of supply is a threat to anyone within range as well armed men, and women, well used to violence scramble to survive. Even worse if the army has a lot of foreign mercenary troops as they'll have even less restraint than locals. Armies will come apart into smaller units partly because of causalities and infighting but mainly because they have to take over and forage large areas for survival, defensive garrisons will also take over areas of the countryside to support themselves on. Now you have dozens of de facto warlords fighting for advantage from a series of strong points spread across what was once an empire.

It's not so much an empire experiencing a civil war as an all-in brawl for the necessaries of life. A generation down the line and you have entrenched positions and long standing feuds with everyone trying to do their neighbours in for any advantage in territory, trade etc... This can go on for hundreds of years if the weapons are simple enough and the sides are reasonably evenly matched, it did in Europe after the collapse of Rome.

Gunpowder weapons changed the structure of Europe for two reasons; one because they needed resources that were locally scarce, compared to the needs of an army equipped exclusively with them, such as Sulfur and Saltpetre, so they encouraged trade and cross border cooperation, and secondly because of the effect they had on existing static defenses making existing fortifications obsolete almost overnight so those who had them early were able to grab new territory and start the process of reunification. Gunpowder weapons also work better for larger states mainly because of the resource issue mentioned earlier.

I'm not sure how much sense that makes to you but hopefully it helps.

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  • $\begingroup$ But the empire was producing enough food to feed it's army as well as the standing population, and the fall of the empire would not increase the number of mouths to feed nor would it significantly reduce food production. Remember that food is mostly produced in towns and villages that are mostly self sufficient. There would be some pillaging and anarchy and warlords, but there would be no general famine. $\endgroup$ – James Hollis Jan 29 '18 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesHollis Feeding people isn't about growing food it's about distributing it effectively which would become impossible. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jan 29 '18 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ It's perfectly possible to distribute it. The majority of food will be eaten by the family that grew it, other food will be traded within the village, some will be given as tithe to the local lord, and very little will be carted a significant distance. $\endgroup$ – James Hollis Jan 29 '18 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ @James Hollis The Ukraine under Stalin. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 30 '18 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesHollis On a local scale they amount to the same thing, anarchic warlords are totalitarian dictators with limited reach. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jan 30 '18 at 17:17
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Make the enemy horrific

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In Egyptian records we are told that the Hebrews from Exodus were publicly recorded as being driven into the sea and drowned. Other reports were that they died in the desert. Nevertheless, when this civilization of 2nd generation refugees starts prowling the borders of the land bridge between Babylon and Egypt, it would appear to onlookers on all sides that the dead had come back to life to swallow the region.

It helps foster this belief if the invaders are slaughtering everyone, taking no prisoners, and taking no treasure (leaving it behind to rot) - seemingly these people are motivated only by a hunger to kill and destroy.

Give the enemy a scary supernatural patron

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And if the people are not scary enough, give them a deity that's pretty frightening to anyone digging beyond skin deep. Maybe a deity that has demanded everyone in the region die to make room for his/her people. Maybe a deity that supposedly knocked down the walls of a fortified city with music - just last week. Or, for further backstory - a deity that demolished one of the two regional superpowers. And if you don't want to take the invaders word for it - no problem - these ragtag rebels were killed a generation ago according to the official government line.

Also give the enemy no central government

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After their push into Canaan - which stopped short of full conquest because the invaders had gotten tired of killing, the new power in the region had no central government for generations. It made it impossible for the "industry standard" politics of the day - kings intermarrying with the families of kings, holding the children as hostages, and patronage through large gifts.

Having no one to do business with, government-to-government, stymied most efforts for Egypt or Babylon to influence the region for generations.

Have the enemy clearly declare two sets of laws

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It doesn't help also if the enemy has one set of laws for their own people - and jealously guard membership into the community - and a different set of laws for strangers passing through. Publishing clearly that a foreigner traveling through the land did so without protection from murder, theft, fraud, or any other form of abuse would do a good job of keeping the region isolated from the rest of the world.

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You do it pour encourager les autres.

In the mongol invasion of everywhere, and in the first islamic invasion of what's now India and Pakistan, the procedure was the same:

  • Bring your army to a city
  • Ask for surrender
    • If they surrender then take the city peacefully but spare the inhabitants
    • If they don't surrender then take the city by force (or by siege), and then kill everyone

Hopefully, word gets around: and the next city on your list is more likely to surrender, which saves you time, men, money, and trouble.

It's the same kind of reason why you might crucify everyone you capture after a slave rebellion.


I suppose the above might be too tidy, too orderly though, for your purposes.

Something else that might suit you might be en effective stand-off weapon, or area-denial weapon, a weapon of mass destruction: poison gas; smallpox; maybe the plague; poisoning the water supplies; radioactivity perhaps; man-eating predators; or even crop-destroyers, locusts.

I can't give historical references for these though (except for introducing plagues).

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that this does not suffice the requirement of a prolongued war. If the attacker is strong enough, most cities/states will yield; if it isn't, many cities/states will oppose and the tactics ceases to be effective, even more so since burnt and devastated cities can't supply a marching army or reinforcement troops (which is the main weakness of the tactics: you need most cities to surrender, or you shoot yourself in the foot). Thus this will enable a few horrifying atrocities, but not many and not over a prolongued time. $\endgroup$ – Thern Jan 30 '18 at 15:20
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The collapse of the Empire and political infighting

One way to sustain war (and disrupted travel) through your empire would be to have it collapse utterly. As the political system fails, the elites will begin jockeying for power using private military forces. Perhaps they maintain private militias that can be called up in service of the empire when necessary, to avoid the expense of an Imperial standing army. This will lead to a multi-sided conflict between the various elite entities, like a larger-scale War of the Roses. If the empire does maintain a nationalized/federalized faction of the army, they may also enter the conflict as their own side, seeking to wrest military control of the country or rebuild the previous government.

Now, if the country is prosperous and well-populated, you may be able to drag out this conflict for a good many years - you need a ready supply of bodies and motivation. Commoners will start being press-ganged into armies (or called up to serve their lords) as numbers run low. The fighting may even take a hiatus for a few years or more to allow sides to reorganize and resupply (and hatch less confrontational plans for achieving power).

What you're really going for is an all-out Game of Thrones-style war for power (inspired, in part, by the Wars of the Roses), in light of a collapse of the existing government. Perhaps a proletariat or slave revolution manages to undermine the power structure, but can't adequately fill the vacuum that remains (French and October Revolutions, e.g.)

Travel through the Empire during (and after) is interrupted

Eventually, someone will probably win, and it may be before a century has passed. But it's a long road back to prosperity after so many lives and resources have been expended. Asserting control of the borders and trade routes will be daunting after a prolonged conflict. It may well be a few more decades before anything resembling normal, protected passage through the Empire can be guaranteed (or worth the risk).

TL; DR

The war itself doesn't have to last forever to make passage (and the flow of information) through your Empire dangerous enough not to risk it. Europe during the "Dark Ages" is another good example of this.

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