I'm creating a parallel world inspired by migration period in the dark ages.

I have a tribe that has a something akin to standing army consisting of

  • infantry
  • cavalry
  • rangers

Wealthier clan leaders provide permanent leadership being like officers. Wisent clan leader or one of his brothers/sons/friend leads the warband. Some of them have experience working as mercenaries for the wealthier more civilized states in the south.

The bulk of the army is made of tribal boys who must serve few years before being recognized as man and allowed to marry.

Those who could afford horses serve in the cavalry, those who could afford ponies in the rangers, and the rest in the infantry.

There is some equipment in the tribal armory, shields, spears, recurve self-bows maybe few helmets, but most of the weapons and armor depends on the warrior themselves. Wealthiest own full suit of mail, good horse, plus lance sword, poorest have shield, spear and axe.

Is it plausible for a tribe to have a standing army?

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what you are calling a tribe. The word does not have a uniform meaning across time and space. The word tribe itself is a learned borrowing from Latin; in Latin, its original meaning was "one of the three electoral constituencies into which the Roman people were divided" (they grew to be 38). There is little in common between a Roman tribe (which was basically an electoral constituency), a Gaulish tribe (which was a proto-state), a Germanic tribe (which was basically a set of random warriors banding together), an Arab tribe (which is basically a clan), or a modern American tribe. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25 '20 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ For example, a Germanic tribe of the (very) late Antiquity (the time of migrations) did not need a standing army because it was an army. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25 '20 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ i dont see a problem though, this depend on how big your population is, but its not like you cant leave the farming and pasturing to the female or retired members or even captured slave like spartan do. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jul 26 '20 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun in that tech level you can do that if your farming population is many, many times larger than your standing army. If we look at your example of spartans, the citizens (who composed the standing army) were something like 5% of the total population; every soldier was sustained by the surplus from the work of many helot and non-citizen taxpayer families. If you're like other greek cities with only 50% or so of population being slaves, then it means that your citizen-soldiers except the richest aristocracy are working as farmers or tradesmen most of their life. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Jul 26 '20 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun in essence, the hypothesis "its not like you cant leave the farming and pasturing to the female or retired members" is utterly false in pre-modern times. The food surplus simply is not there; the society can afford perhaps 10% of people to be nonproductive (religion, aristocracy and warriors) but if most of your men don't work, then you starve unless someone else feeds you through tribute or robbery. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Jul 26 '20 at 8:41

War IS the tribe's business:

In ancient times, everyone knew how to fight if they could afford weapons. The standing army part is the hard one to swallow, as labor is wasted if you're just standing around. Unless standing around as an army is the point.

The best way to justify tribal people having a standing army is if the business of your tribe is warfare. The other questions allude to this. You tribe consists of mercenaries, and the army is at the beck and call of whoever pays them. The old men are trained professionals, and teach the young boys how to be soldiers. When your tribe isn't employed, they are bandits and raiders, usually of their former employers. This creates a strong incentive for your employers to keep you employed.

Read about the role of tribal mercenaries in the late Roman period. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varangian_Guard Varangian mercenaries, for example, were sought after by the Eastern Roman emperors because they were loyal to the emperor and didn't have a separate political goal than getting paid. Generations of men went off, earned money, and went home better equipped and trained, with money to establish themselves.

So it's not exactly a standing army, but it's justification for your tribe to have a large body of professional soldiers and skilled leaders without spending all their time fighting each other or their neighbors. I hope this is what you're looking for.

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    $\begingroup$ If general labour is viewed as a vital part of keeping the ‘army’ running then things get easier. Modern militaries have medics, planners, builders, mechanics and chefs, since all those things are required by the army. Adding blacksmith, farmer and milkmaid to the list of professions within a military isn’t that much of a stretch. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jul 26 '20 at 16:00

It's difficult, because of the math. Think of the effort it takes to feed one person--say the average tribesman spends 10 hours a day doing directly survival-related tasks like gathering food or repairing shelters. That means if you have one person who isn't working on these survival-tasks, someone else has to take up their slack. If you have a 1000 person tribe and 500 of them are in the standing army (who only train and drill), the 500 non-soldiers need to work twice as hard, ie 20 hours a day, to provide for them.

A tribal technology level simply can't support this. The primitive technology simply isn't efficient enough to generate a food (and 'survival') surplus. The little surplus that does exist goes to the children and elderly that the tribe support, since they don't directly help with survival in a concrete manner.

Because of this, to have a standing army in your tribe you could:

  • Increase the technology level so one man-hour of work yields more
  • Artificially induce consistent abundance of food
  • Give the standing army a purpose (looting, raiding, mercenary work, etc)

Maybe if your tribe has a lot of cattle that needs protecting. Even than you have to do a lot of hand-waving.

Domesticated herds were the perfect article of plunder. They could easily be captured, moved, and absorbed into the plunderer’s herd. And from the other side, once people’s herds were stolen, they themselves would die off unless they in turn raided and stole from their neighbours. In this way a cyclical sequence of population density increase, plunder of cattle, and counter-­ plunder were set in motion in a given pastoral region. These waves of warfare and counter-warfare expanded into tidal waves of total warfare, massive genocide, and frantic migration. And with ever desperate migration, new waves of total warfare and genocide precipitated further migrations ... and so it went. Under such desperate condition it is no wonder that military organization was developed to its utmost extent and that the herders were to develop into the most militarized and military minded societies that the world had ever seen. And so, not only did warfare become a constant threat and a constant obsession, but, in contrast to the situation of the horticulturalists, no defense against warfare was possible for the herders. For most herders lived on open pastureland where there were no forests to hide in. And since the herders were nomadic, they could not build permanent walled settlements. Thus, possessing no walls, they erected a military structure that could ring them as effectively as the walls of the horticulturalists. They organize the entire male society into age-graded regi- ments, which would fight locked together in phalanxes as stones were locked together in walls, and would fight to the death as they were pledged to each other in life.

R.M. Glassman, The Origins of Democracy in Tribes, City-States and Nation-States,

So make your tribe having very little land suitable for agriculture, maybe just land by the river is worth tilling since you could irrigate it, say something like 10%.

60% is a steppe where it rains 3 time a year and you could only keep cattle, camels, or giant elands take your pick.

The remaining 30% are steep mountains where you could do only forest gardening but you can't do any tilling. Terraces being unknown technology to your tribe.

Then you have a organizational problem of making egalitarian tribes into hierarchical organization. Maybe the wars with neighboring tribes wasn't going so well so they put some of their mercenaries as a war chief to reorganize their warriors in manners of whatever Romans/Parthians/Chinese were doing. Taking in account local circumstances. Tribes don't have much surplus to have much of professional warriors so semi-professionals will have to do.

How he is gonna make egalitarian tribesman to do military drills and that they should listen to their "officers" is a good story all in itself. However pending doom is a good incentive for culture to change.

Plus some kind of laws for punishing undisciplined tribesman both those who are shirking and those overeager who want personal glory. Perhaps taking their good land by the river or their cattle and redistributing it to those who served with honor & discipline.

All in all plausible but unlikely.



A standing army -- by definition full time soldiers -- requires that the culture be so wealthy that they can afford a large number of young men -- in their most productive years -- be out of the productive labor force for several years. In your structure, you are positing that ALL of them are thus in the army.

You may be able to have a culture in which all men below a certain age are considered on call for the army at all times, and in which drilling for your position in the army is done regularly, but at times when the labor is not needed, and even one in which being thus available for several years is required to be a fully adult man.

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    $\begingroup$ And the Mongols are not a counter-example to this affirmation because? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25 '20 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ Also the Maasai designate males ages about 12 to 25 as warriors. Traditionally, they killed lions that attacked humans or domestic cattle. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '20 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Herding puts much less demand on physical labor requiring strength than agriculture, which is a very labor-intensive lifestyle. Both the Mongols and the Maasai were primarily herders. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '20 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan That differs from a "standing army." Hunting is a separate, productive category. Also, they did cattle trading while in this age group. A standing army is an army of full-time soldiers. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jul 25 '20 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Because the Mongols didn't even have a standing army until Genghis Khan came along. Prior to that the Mongols were part time raiders who did really well in warfare because the skills they used in everyday life (e.g. horseback riding) were laterally applicable to warfare. Every able bodied male could be a soldier if needed, but not everyone was. Genghis Khan's big innovation was organizing the Mongols under the ordu system, and even then they didn't become professional soldiers until they started conquering a lot of land and had conquered peoples to support them. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 '20 at 0:13

Your standing army is composed entirely of men too old to work on the farm.

The young men are needed to do the work of survival. Farming is hard. Fit women are on the farm and/or pregnant, and old women are in charge of the kids.

That leaves the old men. They are bent and sore from a lifetime of hardship. But in this tribe men's minds stay sharp, and these old men have had a lifetime to develop their guile. Your knees do not need to be strong if you are astride a young horse. Your sword arm does not need to be strong if your bow can put out an eye at 50 yards.

Your standing army of grandfathers (and great grandfathers) is wily and they fight with their brains. Also, their work is done and they are dispensable.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, bows require even more strength than swords. While medieval scholars differ, they tend to argue for draw weights above, or not much under, a hundred pounds. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jul 26 '20 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary is this not dependent on type of bow? Longbows are very heavy but is the same true of cavalry shortbows? $\endgroup$
    – lijat
    Jul 26 '20 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ The damage you can do with the bow depends on its draw. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jul 29 '20 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Mary - unless you have poison arrows. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 29 '20 at 14:56

Ok, this is going to be a long one. I come from tribal culture. My tribe name is Cuce. And i am Serb, Europe, Balkan peninsula. We were under the rule of Ottoman Turks for centuries and my ancestors had a miniature free enclave in the empire (it remained mostly by being a minor nuisance than a real threat to the empire). That being said, here is about the tribal culture:

  1. Tribe is all. There is no other allegiance but to the tribe. No nation or religion comes before the tribe.
  2. Laws are cruel but fair. And no one is above the tribal law.
  3. Duty to the tribe is paramount. Every able bodied male is a warrior. Units are based on near family->extended family->tribe. Every unit has a leader who is democratically chosen among the warriors. You only obey vertically, not laterally. (you can only have 3 officers in line to command you, one is your father/uncle, second is family leader and at the end a tribe leader)
  4. Duty to the tribe is paramount. Every woman is to be a mother and bare new generation of warriors. That guarantees tribe survival. Male children are more desired because men die young. If you have one daughter she will live long enough to have children. If you have 5 sons you have a guarantee that one will live long enough to have 5 sons.
  5. Every one has a power of making a decisions in their area of duty. Men make decision regarding things outside of house, women regarding things inside the house. For instance, new bride is chosen by oldest woman in the family, since woman will have to live with her (men are mostly not inside or around the house, it is their duty to provide).
  6. Age of manhood/womanhood is 15 years. Men start practicing with weapons at the age of 7, sometimes even earlier.
  7. Tribe doesn't have multiple types of units, since it is family based. They are all same kind (horsemen, infantry).
  8. Their tech is of same level as their enemies but of lesser quality and numbers (since every family is arming themselves). So no canons or artillery.
  9. Their attacks are quick, brutal, devastating and very personal (eye to eye). If they don't win on the first attack they retreat. Never give opponent the opportunity.
  10. Catching them of guard is not possible, someone is always watching.
  11. Women are collecting the dead and wounded. Also bring food for warriors if they are defending.
  12. when defending they dig in and do not retreat. They only defend their homes not the conquered lands, those they just leave and return later.

These are some rules that you can use to build the tribal culture. Stoicism is also prevalent way of thinking about life.

This is taken from history of my people but from what i have read it is generally applicable to most tribal cultures.

If you want to learn more i can write about some aspects of daily life you may be interested in. Or tactics used by my ancestors (these may not be applicable since it involves a local geography and specific weapons and armor)

  • $\begingroup$ Did they do any drills together as a unit? $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '20 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Occasionally, but it was for the young warriors, mostly as play, to show their abilities. There was no need for drills. If defending, tactics are easy, kill every enemy you can before you die. In attack, as i mentioned before, they will attack quickly and try to break the enemy. if it fails, they retreat. The ambush is set before and every one just waits for the signal, no need to drill such things, especially since these were monthly happenings. My ancestors were robbing their neighbours a lot. $\endgroup$ Jul 31 '20 at 6:23

Tribal societies are charecterised by constant warfare among, well, the tribes. There are limited resources and there is limited production(value addition). Almost all the production(meat from the herd etc.) is spent in subsistence. Hence warfare is a natural outlet to the desire to get wealthy. You sense weakness in a neighbour, you raid them. They sense weakness in you, you have to defend your tribe from their raid. Warfare is as much a part of survival processes as say food procurement. Hence, every healthy male in a tribe naturally fights.

Once the scarcity starts to ease up as production and productivity increases, specialisation starts to develop, and the "tribe" starts to become a part of cultural identity, and less of a way of life. Eventually "tribe" becomes irrelevant and the polity becomes an early feudal state.

So yeah, it is plausible that every fit adult male of the tribe goes into battle. But it is not plausible that these people do nothing except sit and wait for battle when not on campaign. There simply isn't enough surplus to support them. (Unless they are running a protection racket, like the Mongols).

It took European settled states until the 30 Years War(1600s) to start having standing armies.


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