I want an empire that is simultaneously enlightened and barbaric. So the idea is to split the territory in two: the meritocracy in my previous question, a mostly peaceful realm, has a vast periphery that is basically an eternal warzone.

So how does that work? Well, the country in the core functions much like pre-modern China: government is bureaucratic and more or less merit-based, and while social mobility is not perfect there's also no structured class system. This is the middle ages (whatever that may mean for the countries I'm using as a reference), no need for the guys on top to concern themselves with human rights and all that. But even the best countries have tensions, and this empire has an ingenious solution: the outer reaches function less like China and more like the Aztec empire. The little governance there is tribute-based rather than administrative: really it's a myriad of pseudo-independent little states and tribes, which are frequently raided: for wealth, and for captives to sacrifice to the Rain God back in the capital.

The frontier also serves as an outlet for tensions. Young men who want to prove themselves in battle have a fine opportunity to do so. And internal strife can be alleviated with these wars too: just let them sort it out over there. Make a competition out of bringing back as many captives as possible, or just let troublemakers lead undersized legions to a certain doom, as a honourable way of disposing of them.

I think that so far this is quasi realistic: I'm basically smacking together two existing countries from history. But here's the kicker: this country must have been doing this for far longer than the Aztecs ever lived. Say, five hundred years. That takes it out of real history and straight into Orwellian territory: is it even possible to have such a long war, without:

  • People moving out of the war territory, or just going extinct
  • Everything being permanently conquered

So the issue is mostly the eternal war. It does not need to be a total war that is going on everywhere along the border at all times, but the capital always needs human sacrifices (say twenty thousand a year), and the generals need to have wars, battle and skirmishes. The frontier does expand over time, as bordering states turn from tributary states into incorporated provinces, but this cannot happen too rapidly or the empire will become too big to manage.

So, reality check this for me. My goals are:

  • A relatively stable inner empire, about the size and population of core China
  • Frequent wars along the borders to bring back captives for sacrifices
  • For this to last up to five hundred years
  • There's not a single equally large nation along their borders - I have to rule out this answer because the empire must not have met their equal (it's part of the story when they do)

Can I make this work; how does one make such a vastly unequal war last forever?

Appendix: the empire's borders are roughly 5000 km long. An important factor is the possible depth of the raids; assuming they can maintain a military presence for up to 200 km into enemy territory, then we've got about a million square kilometres of raidable lands; or about twice the size of France. If raids happen every ten years, then 100000 km² of area is available for a given year, and with a population density of 0.4 person/km² (about that of pre-Columbian agricultural tribes), to take twenty thousand captives a year, we need to take about half the population every ten years. That's probably not going to cut it.

The twenty thousand could be supplemented with those given the death penalty in the core empire, and perhaps halved. Still, losing a quarter of your populace every ten years does not seem sustainable - so some more data on the possible reasonable depth of the raiding territory would be helpful. Even then, it must be light enough not to reasonably cause tribes to want to move out - and I must prevent the large-scale establishment of stable tributary relationships and alliances where they peacefully give up their people; there must be wars, after all.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 2, 2020 at 16:41

9 Answers 9


how does one make such a vastly unequal war last forever?

You are pretty much describing the frontier along the Rhine and Danube for the Roman Empire.
Restless neighbors were on the other side and they wanted a share of the wealth they knew was within their reach. On the other side the Empire never set on a long term strategy of conquering the trans limes lands and occupy them indefinitely. The cost outweighed the benefits.
Some thrusts were indeed done actually beyond the rivers but always in a limited way and never with the prospect of an ever growing expansion. In this context the Battle of Teutoburg Forest was supposed to quench a rebellion which had been fabricated by Arminius, not to conquer new lands.

In your context it's completely believable war could go on for centuries in an area. It will have its lulls and hot moments, of course. Populations may also change as migrations occur. The result of prolonged war is not necessarily utter destruction. Undoubtedly your Empire would assign only limited forces to these wars; they're not perceived to be profitable.
Just like the Romans, your Empire - usually in response to a raid - would strike the tribes thought to be the culprits. The enemy will scatter. Some prisoners are going to be taken. Some villages are going to be burnt. And then they will retreat because there is no reason to permanently occupy the land by setting up a colony. To raise what? Mosquitoes? And so life will go on as usual.

Notice that when the Romans had reasons to stay they did conquer the land and kept it after a hard fought campaign. See Dacia for instance.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks; that does sound like a good precedent. The only difference is that the Romans never sought out these wars, while my empire wants people to sacrifice. The wars are not profitable, but they are religiously motivated. But if raiding goes in both directions then the bordering tribes would actually have a reason to stay in the violent territory - it could be a matter of pride and profit on their part as well. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Aug 1, 2020 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ Do they need huge numbers of captives? Or just a few thousands will suffice? That would be in character witha short term expedition outside the fortified border. Also some of the neighbors may provide their own prisoners (from other tribes) to avoid hostilities or for economic gain. $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2020 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ A few thousand yearly is the order of magnitude, yeah. It should not be rare for the capital to sacrifice a hundred people in a day, and ten people a day should be the minimum. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Aug 1, 2020 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ Should be reasonable if the border area is long, as you stated in your question. Let's say at least as long as the Rhine-Danube limes, right? With a moltitude of tribes on the other side. So the Empire would not strike always the same people. After the last battle of the civil war Sulla had 8000 war prisoners killed in Rome in one day. Your Empire is quite tame ^.^ $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2020 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm The Romans actually were very big on dragging captives back to Rome. Lines of prisoners was how a general showed he'd had a successful campaign. It's one of the big reasons we know the Romans never killed or captured Boudicca, because if they had then she (or her remains) would have been exhibit A for the victory parade. And once captured, slaves were generally killed one way or another in the arena. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 2, 2020 at 21:30

The regions out there should not be "pseudo-independent" but independent. Furthermore, they should be tribes, not states. This hinterland needs to be hard to conquer in the sense of hold. Therefore, like the lands on the border of China, it needs to be bad land to farm. The tribes should be nomadic hunters or herdsmen.

This land is hard to maintain fortresses on, and the fortresses do little good because the inhabitants can always go around them. Their tribal structure makes treaties hard because the next tribe that comes along will not be bound by what you agreed to with the last guys.

Furthermore, their occupations have the side-effect of making them good at raiding. Also, it gives them a motive to raid. Besides the pride based effects, they will need to either raid or trade in order to obtain goods made by civilization or products of agriculture.

To keep the borderlands settled on the empire's side would require pressure that makes leaving the shelter of safety reasonable. Population pressure might do it in itself; the prospect of your own farm has led to a lot of spreading. Also, people might be sentenced to settlement as punishment.

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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm "why did the many various Mongolian tribes not move away from the grass plains to get away from interfering bureaucrats of pre-Yuan dynasty?"...there are many reasons that can be incorporated by the OP. Also, be aware of these various border tribes finding a strong capable leader to unify them in fighting back! $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2020 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm: Both the Han and Tang dynasties had major wars north of the Great Wall. I imagine that dynasties like Liao, Xi-xia, Jin had lots of conflicts in the north, as well es the means to act proactively. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Aug 2, 2020 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm. (Whoops. Didn't notice that). While the Late Song might not have been actively reaping captives, my understanding is that they were actively playing political shenagins and causing tribal conflicts etc and as Jan mentioned, there has been plenty of conflict along that border. The reasons why the tribes didn't move away can still be considered valid, if maybe needing a little reworking to fit your case: "It's their homeland, it's where the ponies are, why should we move, where would we even go, don't other people live in those other areas..." $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2020 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention, "Those wimps got wiped out? Good, they won't take up pasture. We're up to facing down those armies." $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Aug 2, 2020 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ "fortresses do little good because the inhabitants can always go around them." - that's not how fortresses work. They command control of an area not because they physically block your way, but because when you go around them, a force in the fortress can ambush you, sever your supply lines, or attack your now less defended homes. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2020 at 21:00

In the modern USA, some politicians have declared a metaphorical war on crime. The US federal and state governments have far more military power than all the criminals in the USA put together, let alone any one criminal organization.

It is certainly possible for governments to adopt policies which will greatly reduce the crime rate in the future. But any "war on crime", or any other approach to reducing crime rates, is doomed to gone on forever without total success. Because the root cause of crime in the "evil that lurks in the hearts of men" (and in the hearts of women and children too). Government policies can greatly reduce the evil impulses lurking in the hearts of humans, and/or the rate at which humans follow those evil impulses, but it seems very improbable that any policies can totally eliminate crime.

So a metaphorical war on crime can drag on forever, despite victory after victory after victory over individual criminals and criminal groups, since the only two ways to end a metaphorical war on crime are: One) to give up, abolish all laws, and make all actions, no matter how evil, legal, or else Two) to lie and declare victory over crime, despite crimes still happening and criminals still being punished for those crimes.

In your case the wars are not exactly metaphorical wars on crime, but more like real wars or like civil wars, since I am not certain about the exact political relationship between the central government and the local governments in the outer regions. Are the outer states more like largely autonomous provinces or tributary states or vassal kingdoms, or are the outer states more like foreign countries, or are they somewhere in between? Somewhere in between being a dependent state and an independent state was a very common political condition for most of recorded history.

Anyway, it seems like the conflicts in the outer regions are a bit too large to be a metaphorical war on crime in the other regions, and more like foreign wars or civil wars.

However, the public justifications, though not necessarily the reasons, for various attacks on various outer regions could be various crimes and sins committed by their rulers. One of the functions of the central government could be to guarantee moral and ethical behavior standards by the rulers of states in the outer regions. So whenever the central imperial government, or an ambitious governor of a province, wants to attack one of the outer states, they can use the list of misdeeds of the ruler of that state which have not yet been punished as justification for the attack.

So the conflicts in the outer regions seem a lot more like wars than like crime.

But wars vary a lot in severity. On one extreme there is World War Two and the long feared but as yet not happened World War Three, causing horror and suffering, death and destruction, on a vast and unimaginable scale.

And on the other extreme of the scale is endemic low intensity warfare where each small tribe or band of people is in a perpetual state of war with all their neighbors, but acts of war are few and tiny in scope.

For example, before Europeans arrived there was no central government in the vast area of the trans Mississippi west in the USA. There were hundreds of independent nations, tribes, bands, and other groups of people, each with the ability to make war on other groups. Some of those groups had warlike cultures where young men were expected to make their reputations and gain wealth by killing and stealing from members of other groups. So each of those warlike groups was in a constant state of war with all their neighbors, except for any groups which might be allied to them.

So if you assume that the average total population in the trans Mississippi west was between 100,000 and 500,000 and assume that the average fatality rate in that low level endemic warfare was between a tenth of a percent and one percent, about 100 to 5,000 men, women, and children would die in that warfare in the average year.

The USA kept at least a few troops stationed in various forts in the trans Mississippi west to maintain peace with various Indian groups there for over a century. And there were occasional conflicts with various Indian groups there over most of that period. But the period of really intense warfare with various hostile groups there only lasted about 50 years from 1850 to 1900, or only 30 years from 1850 to 1880, or only 20 years from about 1857 to 1877, or various other relatively short lengths of time depending on when it was defined as beginning and ending. It only took about a generation to pacify the most hostile groups in the west, so that is not a good example of warfare lasting a long time.

But the USA did have various Indian wars with various groups in the eastern USA on and off from the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to the end of the Third Seminole War in 1858, somewhat overlapping with the western Indian Wars. And the USA fought various major wars with foreign powers such as the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War One, World War Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc.

And the USA has had many other small conflicts such as Barbary Pirates Wars, the Mormon War, the Korean Expedition in 1871, intervention in various Latin American countries, etc., so it has become a great and successful nation despite, and sometimes because, of being in an almost constant state of at least low intensity War.

Similarly the United Kingdom flourished in the 19th century despite fighting such major wars as the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, The Indian Rebellion, and the Boer War, as well as being constantly involved in at least one small scale colonial war somewhere in the world.

So if you imagine that the central power in your story resembles in someways the 19th century USA or the 19th century UK, the wars in the outer region should not drain its power or weaken it and it could go on fighting wars at that level of intensity forever.

But what about the outer groups that the central power keeps fighting? How long can they keep on fighting occasional wars against it before they are destroyed or pacified? In the US west it was very hard to find an Indian tribe that would fight repeated wars against the USA over a long period of time.

The Chiricahua Apaches were mostly at peace with Americans from the Mexican War in 1846-48 to 1861, then at war until 1872, then at peace until about 1876, then alternately at war and peace on and off until 1886. So basically the Chiricahuas were at war on and off over a period about 25 years. The First Sioux War was in 1854-56 and the Ghost Dance Troubles were in 1890-91, so various plains Sioux were only hostile on and off for 37 years.

As a rule Indian tribes didn't keep repeating the mistake of fighting the USA over and over again.

The United Kingdom mostly defeated its colonial enemies in its wars and added them to the British Empire. The longest lasting colonial enemy of Britain might have been Afghanistan, which fought the first, Second, and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars in 1839-42, 1878-80, and 1919, and remained an independent country at the end of them, after a period of 80 years.

On the other hand, the Spanish government claimed to rule what is now the Southwestern USA for about 200 years, and during that period there were repeated conflicts, on and off, with various groups of Navajos, Apaches, and Comanches, as well as other conflicts with other Indian groups. There were times when the Spanish settlers were suffering greatly from hostile raids, and other times when the Spanish authorities succeeded in achieving almost total peace with almost all groups. As far as I can tell the pattern of repeated on and off warfare could have gone on forever without destroying or permanently pacifying the Indians.

In ancient and medieval history there are examples of conditions of endemic low intensity on and off warfare seeming to go on for decades and centuries without any resolution.

For centuries there were dozens of small city states in ancient Greece, for example, which sometimes went to war with other city states. At any moment someone could face an invasion from a neighboring city state which might be only a single day's march away. But even in such uncertain conditions many of the Greek city states were prosperous for 500 or 1,000 years.

In medieval western Europe for centuries the feudal system enabled even the lowest ranking lords to fight private wars against other low ranking lords. But even under those conditions western Europe gradually became more prosperous, more populated, and more civilized.

So it seems that a society can exist in a state of endemic on and off warfare, when that warfare is not severe enough or frequent enough to reach a level of causing it to decline. The more severe the conflicts, the rarer they must be for the society to survive without major damage. The more frequent the conflicts, the less severe they must be for the society not to be fatally damaged by them.


Protect your roads.

Silk Road


Your state does not have a borderland of 200 km to raid. It has trade routes of many thousands of kilometers to protect. Your Empire guarantees the safety of merchants conducting commerce along these roads. If a merchant party is attacked or lost, or not accounted for, or any other excuse, your army will track down where they were last accounted for and search them out.

Persons who live along the road benefit greatly from the trade and the protection by your army. They are unlikely to attack merchants on the route.

Persons based at some distance from the route will be those most likely to try something. Really though, such attacks are a plausible excuse to conduct the desired raids into far flung areas outside your immediate control adjacent to your road. Having the road(s) to protect greatly expands your catchment area and so avoids exhausting your borderlands.

Sometimes fortified cities situated on the road but well outside your domain might provide some excuse for you to besiege and plunder them. You might then run afoul of other distant powers who are actually in a position to oppose you. If your needs of the moment run more towards the actual war and conquest and less towards the rounding up of hapless slaves, this would be the approach.


By not calling it war: it's tribute. Or faithfulness. But really, it's slavery.

Bureaucracy is not so much about raids and plunder as it is at making things run efficiently. I think your neighbors have a lot to gain by being your neighbors, but you have an insatiable need for blood & death. So demand your neighbors provide the offerings. You could even assign them parts of the calendar they need to cover. They can raid their other neighbors, raise slaves, or thin their population of the poor & undesirable. That's up to them. But you let them know that the royal families of their lands will be the first under the knife if your empire actually needs to cover the offerings on their own.

This can operate like the slave system in Africa did. Whites didn't do much slaving, instead it was Africans who often captured others. States that breed slaves have an easier time than in the old South - you don't need a well-nourished healthy slave, only a living one. Children frequently make better offerings to gods anyway, so they don't even need to be mature. Males can be offered up en masse, and females kept behind as breeding stock.

You can demand as much or as little as you want. The neighbors are bled dry (pun intended) and you can demand more if they start getting too strong. I'd maintain a body of slaves in your empire for the occasional shortfall, but mostly the whole thing should be kept as effortless as possible. Burning and looting isn't going to be the most efficient way of getting offerings. Slavery and tribute are.


That is why the Empire has the Imperial Intelligence Corps.
The IIC's primary function is to foment local wars over succession and religious matters, civil unrest and rebellion against the local rulers, banditry/border raiding and any other mayhem among the neighbors they can come up with.

That gives the Empire plenty of plausible reasons to intervene:
Back our ally (never mind the IIC funded his opponent).
Restore peace (both warring factions are in fact created/funded/trained by the IIC).
To protect the people we will take over and dispose the evil tyrant (who we put on the throne in the first place).
And the list goes on.

If things get too quiet along the borders the IIC will stir something up.

Officially the IIC doesn't even exist. (Which gives the Empire plausible deniability.)
They masquerade as an obscure sub-department within the Department of Foreign Affairs. As the Empire is thoroughly corrupt with a lot of nepotism going around every Department has a couple of these obscure sub-departments were the Heads of Department park their various family members and friends that are on the payroll but don't (can't) do any real work. It is the perfect hiding spot for the IIC.

The Corps is very small, which helps to keep it secret. They work behind the scenes. Usually employing mercenaries, assassins and merchants as proxies that have no idea who they are really working for. Many of the IIC operations are in the form of distributing (mis-)information and money (bribes and military funding) in order to influence various parties.

The IIC is a very powerful organization. Rumor has it they don't only control whats going on at the borders, but that they control the Empire itself as well.
Of course, discussing that isn't a good idea. People that are too curious about the IIC have a tendency to suffer nasty accidents...


Become the World Police

Don't fight your own wars. Fight the wars of others. Whenever there is a conflict in the world, decide whose victory would further your geopolitical and economic interest more, and then send your troops to intervene on their behalf. When there aren't any suitable conflicts going on right now, use diplomacy and spycraft to create them.

It might be a bit more expensive than fighting your close neighbors. But the plus side is that it's a lot safer because you never risk fighting on your own territory and you can withdraw at any time and let the original belligerents continue. And when you do it right, you make more friends than you make enemies.

The United States follows this policy, and it kept them in perpetual war armed conflict for the past 80 years.


Ancient Sparta had yearly "wars" against the Messenes, according to some sources, see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crypteia:

"Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of punishment. At night, the chosen kryptai (κρύπται, members of the Krypteia) were sent out into the countryside armed with knives with the instructions to kill any helot they encountered and to take any food they needed. They were specifically told to kill the strongest and best of the helots. This practice was instigated to prevent the threat of a rebellion by the helots and to keep their population in check."


War is good for the economy. Whether true or not, many complained that USA deliberately used poor tactics to prolong the Vietnam conflict.

Your empire might be doing something similar.


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