I have a world where an ancient empire has conquered neighboring kingdoms to expand its borders and political influence. I understand, historically, military forces such as the Romans and Vikings have funded many of their conquests by plundering cities and villages for their gold and other treasures. However, in the fantasy world I am developing, it is against the moral and legal code of this empire, to plunder or pillage any native populations. I have a few ideas of how they could finance their militaristic expansion but I'd like to hear some other ideas.

Some helpful information:

  • Ancient technology (spears, shields, etc.)
  • The empire does not have a technological advantage over its opponent, but uses superior strategy and tactics to suppress the enemy.
  • Roads and agriculture have been established, so there is potential for trade.
  • While the neighboring kingdoms resist the empire's rule, the empire has a religion that is considered desirable by many people.
  • Any warfare is land-based. No naval conflict.

My question stands: How could an ancient empire financially support a long-term conquest without plundering?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My question back would be if they find plundering (in any form) morally reprehensible then how can they be a conquering nation? What pushes them to 'conquer' if for all that death they just get some bigger lines on a map? Do they demand tribute? Otherwise they might as well just negotiate trade agreements and be done with it. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Feb 25, 2015 at 13:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Taxation. Like Plundering, but slower. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Jul 20, 2015 at 23:38

6 Answers 6


Yes. With taxes. But there are some preconditions and infrastructure required, which is why historically plunder was a superior alternative. On a positive side the preconditions probably fit the image you have for your empire.

Stable and manageable cost of military

This is actually a pretty big issue here. If you have a small peacetime army and waging a war requires large increase in military spending you will almost certainly end up gathering large debt at very high interest rates. This requires having the war pay itself back very fast. Which requires plunder. So you need to get rid of this. Some suggestions follow.

Professional standing army. Increases the costs at peacetime, but means that much of the needed military resources for the war are already ready and available. If wars are fairly regular this saves money since you can buy many supplies at stable prices not at the inflated wartime prices. Also reduces the distruptions of switching to wartime footing to the rest of the economy. Ideally the empire would only start small wars the professional standing army can manage on its ready resources and then rebuild the resources after the war is over. Not letting the army plunder would require paying higher wages, but would improve discipline, which would improve chances of actually winning wars. Probably significantly.

Positive cash flow. Seems obvious, but if you have cash at the treasury, you have less need to borrow money to pay for wars, the costs of warfare will be lower and you have less need for plunder to pay for them. This will also give you a rather decisive advantage when you need credit or supplies, leading to secondary cost benefits. And better supply situation. Which generally is a big help in winning wars.

Short wars. Shorter wars are cheaper, period. Have a clear achievable objective, wage war until it is clear whether you will succeed or not, and then win (or not lose)the peace at the negotiating table. You can't really win a war, victory comes from the treaty that ends the war, so the faster you move to the profitable part of the negotiations the better. This probably fits the "no plunder" empire anyway. You can actually make profit from a war you "lose", if you cut your costs fast enough and your opponent trusts you enough to be willing to pay for you to go away. The "trust" here means they do not suspect you are simply extorting them and will be back next year. And "pay" would include addressing the original reasons for the war.

Efficient economy

Efficient is relative here, but if being annexed by your empire causes an economic collapse of the new area, you might as well plunder them. I'd guess free trade within the empire, free movement of people and investment, and some level of a banking system. These would help being in the Empire be an advantage and conserve the value of annexed areas. The empire should also have generally good trade relations with its major neigbours, to prevent annexation from causing a major shift in trade routes.

Efficient taxation

Taxes should be predictable and collected efficiently. Corrupt tax collectors extorting arbitrary sums of money is not really better than plunder and will cause severe damage to the economy. You want civil servants operating within the law and with oversight, not private actors who bought or inherited the tax collection right. Historically major tax reforms resulted in large budget surpluses - and were started due to major budget deficits - so efficient tax system does give large benefits. In addition to gathering more money, it also causes less damage to the economy. And if you annex a new region, you should get all the tax system upgrade benefits for that region.

Think small

Apart from making the wars shorter annexing small regions at a time also decreases the cost of integrating the region to your empire. Annexing only small areas at a time cost less money and gives better results. Asking less than you could also helps in the negotiating table. It makes the opponent more willing to settle fast, lowering the cost of war, and more willing to make other concessions. Such as give you money that will offset your costs. And of course paying your demands will force the enemy to gather the money from its remaining areas on short schedule, which in turn in the future makes him less able to fight you and the people more likely to prefer annexation to the empire. A win-win.

Remember economy in strategy

Trade concessions and trade rights help pay for wars and prepare new regions for annexation. And disagreements about them supply reasons for short, limited wars optimal for low cost expansion.

Civil Service

SJuan76s answer reminded me of this. (The answer started inflating to the point where I just stopped writing and sent it.) In addition to permanent standing army and tax collection by civil servants, you almost certainly need a permanent bureaucracy to run the system. In addition to what is needed to directly support the military and tax collection, the logistics and administration would need to be handled. And the legal system and civil engineering would follow.

So the permanent army needs permanent administration. That administration needs permanent logistics support. The logistics in turn needs roads, harbors, canals and other transportation infrastructure. Which needs separate bureaucracy to handle it. And then you need a separate bureaucracy to do oversight on all that. Maybe they'd even have separate administration for improving administrative efficiency. And another for training bureaucrats. And one for handling promotions. And so on. Bureacracy has a natural tendency to accumulate.

So the empire would probably have quite a lot of bureaucracy.

  • $\begingroup$ "The logistics in turn needs roads, harbors, canals and other transportation infrastructure" this a knock on effect of making your economy more efficient and helps with military readiness and redeployments. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Aug 7, 2015 at 2:44

Taxes: Tax your population at home with an efficient and ideally fair tax system. If the system is efficient enough you can get more money per capital than with bad fiscal system. You don't want a parasitic rich class to avoid their duties of paying taxes. The rich have the most money, so if they don't pay their share, your maximum revenues are much lower.

  • Historical example: France and England had been in competition for a long time from the end of the middle ages but also during the Renaissance. Before the French revolution, both states had about the same fiscal capacities although France had 3 times the population of the United Kingdom. Most of that difference can be explained in the unfairness of the French fiscal system where the poor paid all the taxes compared with the British system where the rich also paid their taxes.

Tax people you don't like. In modern politics, taxes can be used as a way to encourage or to discourage certain behaviours. Taxes on cigarettes are meant to discourage people from smoking, in theory but also encourage the creation of a black market. Another example, many Muslim states such as the caliphate of Cordoba had special taxes for non Muslim. They offered a relative freedom of religion but minorities had to pay.

Although it seems inspiring, overtaxing people form a newly annexed territory is not really a good idea. They just suffered a war: the loss of lives and the destruction. Their fiscal capacities are lowered. Also, overtaxing them is likely to end badly once the bulk of the army is gone.

Trade: Favour trade, maritime is ideal but land based is also important when there are no large river or canal for navigation. Trade will boost the economic output and you can get a lot of money with import duties and again, taxes. The Tang conquered inner Asia because it opened the lucrative trade with Persia, India and beyond. On the long term, such expedition will boost revenues and might allow the state to repay the cost of the war.

Spread you armies: Armies are a large concentration of people (mostly male) and they put a lot of pressure on their surroundings. The idea is to split the army into smaller units, travelling in parallel. This makes it easier to assure the survival of the army while lessening the devastation. It does create a huge logistic problem and makes the army weaker if they encounter an enemy.

Gather allies: You should try to ally those that share common enemies with you. Search in other states but also inside your enemies. Try to disrupt them form the interior. Make promises, grant land or titles for those that will help you. Not only this will make the conquests easier but allies might help you in financing the expeditions by granting you resources or manpower.

Other funny idea to play with or not: These are all historical examples

  • Seize the assets of rich families and merchant. Ideally form foreign people first because you don't want to scare the local nobility.
  • Convince rich investors, nobles, banks to lend you money and kill them. So you don't have to repay.
  • Get an incredibly high dept by borrowing money for your war. Also, mint money in order to pay for your war. This will; create huge inflation. Problem? No, the inflation reduce the value of money, thus also reducing the relative size of you dept. It ruins the economy for common people though. It works well if you have paper money. Otherwise with metallic money, you need a lot of precious metals to do that.
  • Take some of the metallic coins out of circulation. Melt them with only half of the percentage of precious metal filling the rest with something less valuable. Like replacing the missing silver half with iron? That's just another way to mint money. Just hope nobody will notice the trick.
  • Sell offices in the bureaucracy. You want that ministry? it's yours for 100 000 silver coins! Renewable for 5 years.
  • Contract the services of mercenaries but manage not to pay them. Or, make sure you won't need to pay them by making sure they will all die during the war. You know what a cannon fodder is? You should put them on the front line with your own army behind. Not only the mercenaries will die first but your army can keep them in check if they try to flee. Also, your army can be ordered to finish off the mercenaries when the fight is over.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Err... Could you please explain exactly what the difference is between taxing and plundering? Other than of course the practical difference between shearing a sheep every year, and ripping off the skin all in one go? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 25, 2015 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ Spreading your armies into smaller groups is not just a logistics problem, but also a morale problem. Many of the small groups will go AWOL while traveling, either intentionally because mutiny is a lot easier when no high-ranking officers backed by more loyal troops are around or accidentally because they just got lost. Both are much less likely when traveling as an army. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Feb 25, 2015 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp AWOL : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AWOL_%28disambiguation%29 ? You should have more than one officer so this is not really a problem. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Feb 25, 2015 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf taxing is less aggressive and more sustainable. Taxing could be like: give me 10% of your grains each year. Plundering is more like: give me 100% of your grains now. They might also take other things than the food. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Feb 25, 2015 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Vincent AWOL = absent without leave = soldiers disappear without a trace. You don't just need any officers, you need an officer for every group who is a strong and loyal enough leader to prevent their group from mutiny. The smaller the groups, the easier for them to organize a mutiny before the leader is able to notice and suppress it. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Feb 25, 2015 at 15:43

Political & Social Stability

One issue with states is that they not only defend the people inside against the people outside, but they also defend the people in power in the state against those who are not in power. Historically, in the case of empires usually that internal struggle is what soaks most of the resources and affects more to the economy; also it forces to increase military forces beyond its maintainability levels.

These threats from the ruling people come from two sources:

  • from those people in the ruling class that wish more power (v.g., a general rebelling against the Emperor); rebellions

  • from those in the lower classes attempting to improve their conditions of life (revolution). That would include attempts from other ethnicities to get self-government.

Rule of Law

The adherence of a society to a comprehensive set of codified laws that define which individuals hold which power, and how that power is transfered, helps a lot. Imagine that the Roman Empire had had such a law to decide how to chose Emperor; if a general that did not qualify tried to rebel then his soldiers would simply not follow him. Face with the prospect of a guaranteed defeat, far fewer usurpers would have risen and lots of resources would not have been wasted.

Also, rule of law could be used to govern relationship with lower/dominated classes/peoples, protecting those from the worst of abuses and providing some kind of safety1, making revolts less attractive.

Religion could play a part in supporting the adherence to the rule of law, by promising the paradise to those who were "good citizens".

Of course, the caveat is that often laws do not recognize the changes of reality. In the Roman Empire, the patricians and the Senate held the legal fiction of a civil Republic, and that undermined the possibility of stablishing new laws to stabilize an Empire progressively more and more in the hands of generals and landowners.

Independent Administration

To allow for the previous point, a trained administrative corps is needed to prevent abuses. The main issue of this is that it requires a significant literate population, and that is handling was a very complex issue at a time of slow communication. At the practical level, administration of a province was entirely at the hands of a governor, without any real legal check if he did abuse the law.

Preventing individuals or groups to becoming too powerful

Enough said. No matter how good your legal system is, if you find that some group is too powerful to force them to obey the law, you are in trouble. Of course, the issue is those powerful individuals often rose because they were needed (v.g., the governors of provinces).


As stablished before, firmly controlled by the civilian government. Moving officers between units and regions often would help break chains of loyalty to a general, but also might affect the fighting effectivenes of the Army.

Additionally, you want a highly mobile army that can be concentrated against the enemy of turn easily, instead of big masses of stationary soldiers reparted through the frontiers. But those also have disavantages:

  • Require a very efficient logistic system, to move the troops where you want them and feed them there

  • Allows the enemy to launch small scale raids safely because, no matter how fast those troops move, at best they will need a week to arrive. This implies a cost, not only economical (which may be small), but political (your allies seeing that you cannot defend them, other nations realizing they can use the same practices).

1In The Crusades from the Arab Viewpoint, from A. Maalouf, an Arab chronist of the era was cited decrying that some Muslims chose to migrate to the Crusader kingdoms. There they were second class citizens, but at least there were some rules protecting them and those rules were usually followed, while in their homelands their ruler could do as he pleased.

  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes his soldiers wouldn't follow him, Caesar anyone? $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Feb 25, 2015 at 8:49

You're going to have difficulty, since even cities were plunder-based in all but the most recent of times. Cities, much less empires didn't provide return on the value of resources they soaked up. Except for military might, and the ability to not be taken over (as easily as villages and hamlets). Moving things, especially with the absence of water-craft (and if you've got water-craft you're going to have naval warfare - which you've said doesn't exist) is going to be spectacularly tough.

About the only thing I could see you doing is digging a lot of canals to move bulk goods. But each place you conquer is going to need something in bulk that would make this worthwhile. And canals cost a ton in time and labor, usually you prefer to run them along already existing water-ways, and link up waterways.

But if you've got rivers, then you've got river pirates and naval warfare.

Plunder is often disguised as taxes.

You're also going to have to spend a lot more on your Army's pay, if you don't allow them to plunder. Are you willing to confiscate land? You might be able to reward your soldiers for conquering with land-grants. But that's apt to make your conquests unhappy.

OTOH, you can put all of their nobles to death and take their assets in forfeiture.

How're you feeding your armies during campaign? Forage (the standard way for most of history) is basically plunder.

  • $\begingroup$ I've heard the word tribute get thrown around. Do you think demanding an annual sum of money from each state could be feasible? $\endgroup$
    – Sedna
    Feb 25, 2015 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ Please define feasible. Almost anything is possible. Making your bills? Well, dunno about that. Tribute is just a fancy way of saying, we can't handle the administrative burden of figuring a more equitable tax bill. $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Feb 25, 2015 at 7:55

It seems an Empire against plundering wouldn't last long. The purpose of pretty much every war ever fought boils down to some sort of economic gain. This can be land, gold, oil, trade rights, slaves, etc...

The only way would be if the acquired/conquered nation agreed to be absorbed into the empire. Best example I can think of would be Texas joining the USA. Of course Texas had already fought a bloody conflict with mexico, but thats beside the point.

Wars are fought for economic gain despite whatever the politicians and leaders claim they are for.


They have supply squads to continuously carry foods, armors and arms to the front lines. they go back to where the supplies will come from, then bring them again to front lines. back and forth.


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