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In my book series, the Aurean Empire is a vast entity spanning an entire planet. I'm kind of wondering what parts of my empire would the Aureans draw their best soldiers from (for example, the Roman Empire generally got their best recruits from the Balkans, the Byzantines got their best soldiers from Anatolia, many of the British Empire's best troops were from Scotland, etc). Which types of physical geography produce the best soldiers?

For some context, the tech level we're talking about is Late medieval/very early renaissance (cannons but no arquebuses yet). Here is each relevant region of Aurea and what areas of the real world their physical geography and climate best compares to:

Calissylvania: Brazilian Cerrado

Gregoras: Southern Appalachia

Sparteia: South Florida in the north, San Gabriel Mountains in the south and interior, Yucatan in the northeast

Monsaltu: Mexican Riviera along the coast, San Gabriel Mountains in the interior

Taurope: Southern California without the desert

Cularo: West coast of Turkey

Lycian Desert: Arabian Desert

Pagomenos: Colorado Plateau, specifically the wetter parts near Flagstaff, Arizona

Argentolian Desert: Sonoran Desert with the Floodplains of Mesopotamia

Pheron Valley: Mojave Desert with the Floodplains of Mesopotamia and a huge freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario

Nikos: Outer Banks of North Carolina along the coast, Cascadia in the mountains, Great Basin Desert in the far north

Imbreus: French Riviera along the coast, Sierra Nevada in the mountains

Nypros: Northern and Central France

Lurias: Northern and Central France along the coast, Gobi Desert in the interior

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    $\begingroup$ What is the tech level? Are there cavalry? Bowmen? Cannon? Artillery? Missiles? Drones? $\endgroup$
    – DrMcCleod
    Mar 26 '21 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod Oops I was an idiot and forgot to include that lol. See my latest edits for tech level. $\endgroup$ Mar 26 '21 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ Geographical determinism went out of fashion some two hundred years ago... (Counterexamples are many. Just one: the USA is a pretty large empire, very diverse geographically; which state produces the best soldiers? The hills of West Virginia, the plains of Texas and Louisiana, or the mountains of Washington? Or, consider Germany, a country which has challenged the world twice: were the Bavarian soldiers better or worse than the Prussian soldiers?) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26 '21 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ How big is the world? Sounds hard to hold something as big as say all of Eurasia without some pretty advanced communication/travel technology. Although the Mongols did get pretty close, so at the very least, it sounds interesting. $\endgroup$ Mar 26 '21 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Worse! (SCNR) $\endgroup$ Mar 28 '21 at 17:32

11 Answers 11

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Do you need warriors or soldiers?

The key ingredient of a warrior is bravery. The key ingredient of a soldier is discipline. One against one, the warrior might win. One thousand against one thousand, things look better for the soldier. The kind of discipline varied over the ages. Holding a pike as part of an unflinching phalanx is different from getting out of the nice comfy shell hole and storming the enemy trench. And a warrior who breaks ranks to charge the enemy can be just as disruptive to discipline as one who slinks away.

Some of your climates might be conductice to producing warriors, but it isn't the climate that makes a soldier. It is the ability to call them up for lengthy training, and not just on the eve of battle.

So: Gregoras and Nypros sound good because they support a good economy.


The comment by Nosajimiki makes the point that empires can recruit in poor areas, where military service looks better relative to the economic prospects. There is some of that, but it implies an integrated economy where surplus in one area can hire troops in another. Just pouring gold into an area of low food production doesn't do it, you have to import food ...

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    $\begingroup$ "And a warrior who breaks ranks to charge the enemy can be just as disruptive to discipline as one who slinks away." <- or more so... "Leeroy Jenkins!" $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 26 '21 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Which type is conducive to each category, then? $\endgroup$ Mar 28 '21 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ @The_Sympathizer, that's in the second half of my answer. You get soldiers by training them, which requires an economic surplus, which fits with Gregoras and Nypros. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Mar 28 '21 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ Why would regional economy matter? If the empire wants a soldier, wouldn't the empire pay for it, regardless of what region the soldier is from? $\endgroup$ Mar 29 '21 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ This answer has it backwards. Empires typically draw from their poorest regions for soldiers. The rich regions pay for the army, but high unemployment makes military service more appealing to people in poorer regions. You see this a lot in the United States for example where the highest enlistment rates per capita are found in poorer states like Mississippi, whereas states like New York with strong economies have very low enlistment rates. This leads to the rise of warrior cultures developing in the poorer regions (see my answer for more details on how that works.) $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 29 '21 at 14:42
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It isn't Based On Geography... Usually

The idea that a particular country/region (always somewhere inhospitable to most people so as to breed "hard men") is pretty much a lie. The best fighters conquer the best territory, and the peoples on the margins stay there Because They Can't Fight Their Way Onto Better Land. Here is a fantastic set of essays on the subject, backed with all sorts of data. The one possible exception is the confluence of things which led to the Steppe Nomad/horse archer. But even there, the "harsh land" of the steppe was even WORSE on steppe-adjacent forests, and those people were at the mercy of mounted tribes and instantly left for the "better" territory of the Steppe the instant they got horses themselves.

For a contra example, the Roman Legions were raised from "softer" men (city boys, farmers for whom famine was comparatively rare and invasion even rarer etc), than almost all of the hardscrabble Spanish/German/British tribes they faced. Yet almost without fail the Legionaries were better troops. Or even your Scots of the British Empire. English regiments had a lot of underfed-as-children, undersized "city boys" in them and were from a culture where the Army was Very Much Not a worthy profession. Meanwhile the Scots had a higher percentage of "got fed enough as children" types, as well as a more favorable view of joining the army overall. You could make an argument that Scotsmen were actually "softer" than many Englishmen at the time! (A 1700s/1800s city was very much a nastier place to be than in a farming village.)

What you can do is have a bit of specialization. In the tech period you're talking about there are things that take a Long Time to learn. Archery and Cavalry skills are both things that really need to be started on in childhood to be as good as you possibly can be. So your regions with lots of horse-land (steppes, grasslands, etc) are likely to produce better cavalry units than mountainous regions. In places where game-hunting is a way of life you're likely to get better archers. While cities/populous regions may have a higher number of foundries and scholars, which would make artillery and the math to make the best use of them more common.

TL/DR: Hard times don't make hard men. Each region may have a thing it's "best" at based on the civilian activities of the population.

Another thing to think about when it comes to "best" troops based on how they live as civilians is organization. Western-style drill and discipline is more needed for troops that don't have social bonds outside of the military (city people, units made from many small villages, etc) to maintain their cohesion in combat. Whereas a unit raised wholly from people who are all friends/family in civilian life needs less of that discipline to maintain cohesion in battle.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd just posted an answer on almost the same subject, with the same link to Devereaux's work... but you got there first, so I'll delete mine and you can have a +1. $\endgroup$ Mar 26 '21 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ You're a gentleman and a scholar Starfish! $\endgroup$ Mar 26 '21 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ To continue with your theme -- a coastal area dependent on fishing is where you'd expect to find your sailors $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Mar 28 '21 at 0:37
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Geography has nothing to do with how good a soldier is. Harsh life conditions instead seems to do.

If you grow up in a poor land, with few perspectives beside starvation and breaking your neck farming poor fields, fighting in an army can look like a good opportunity, and nobody will complain for your lack of good manners.

For a reference around the period you are picturing, you can look at the Landsknecht.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoted. The major motivator in making a career in the army is lack of other prospects in life. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26 '21 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ It being a sensible economic decision to join a professional army doesn't necessarily have any bearing on whether you'd make a good soldier, of course. Non-professional soldiers have been known to be quite effective, after all. $\endgroup$ Mar 26 '21 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime it doesn't have to make any given individual a better soldier, instead it gives the recruiter chose a wider pool to choose the best from - selecting the best 320 of 10,000 candidates (e.g. Gurkhas) is more likely to produce better results than selecting the best 320 of 1,000. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 '21 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @PeteKirkham you've missed my point: non-professional armies exist, and have done for thousands of years, even in some quite expansive cultures. Consider the Mongols, for example, or in a somewhat less imperial style, the vikings. Good non-professional soldiers did not become such because of their personal financial situation. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 '21 at 8:40
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The answer depends on the social conditions of the population

As an example, during the Boer War the British Army had great difficulty in recruiting healthy troops, particularly from towns and cities with high levels of industrial pollution. The same problems were generally not seen from rural recruits - but of course that was a smaller pool from which to draw. When you are building your empire, you will need to consider:

  • What level of fitness do your troops require?
  • Is disease, pollution or malnutrition sufficiently bad in some areas to significantly effect the health of the young, male population?
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Look for pre-training

The historical antecedents can probably be argued many ways, some of which (coincidentally) may match what is here, but let's just think this through. Every soldier can be trained to be perfect, but will they be? That's where your regional differences come in.

Survival

Desert populations should be conscientious in rationing water, with good sense of how to reduce or treat sun exposure, overheating, sunstroke etc. Even the officers should have an idea of what clothing is workable in the desert when designing uniforms (perhaps).

Given a global empire at low technology, I suspect there are few biogeographical barriers. Jungles all over your planet may have the same rich mix of species. That means that any one region's indigenous knowledge of jungle plants (for medicine, or at least for not resting under the blinding tree) would be considerably more useful than on Earth.

Ash already mentioned a biological factor for mountains; but experience with mountaineering, sheltering in tree holes during a blizzard, and hunting sheep and goats in the wild might also pay off.

Cultural attitudes

There may be some regions where people are peaceful, and it is thought that walking half way around the world to spend a few minutes being cut up with a sword for the sake of a hearsaid Emperor isn't tremendously appealing. You want your troops from the others, where generations of pride in their mercenary prowess or blind loyalty has given them a military culture, where every song reminds boys that their fate is to go forth proudly in the service of their mighty empire.

Fighting

I assume a medieval empire has some local conflicts between lords striving for their unfair share of the money wracked from the peasants. Those soldiers should come with useful skills that are hard to teach safely - and come pre-selected as survivors. Skills with specific weapons and tactics, chosen for the local environment, will come in useful in specific environments within the Empire more than others. I think you will accumulate many groups prized for different aptitudes, if you are able to bring them to the war zone.

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If anything - the mountains, as they make "EPAS1 super-athletes".

You've mentioned a few different mountain ranges. I'll suggest that those who have trained with lower oxygen concentrations their entire lives will have a subtle edge over those who grew up at sea level. This is known as altitude training and we do it for sport events:

Depending on the protocols used, the body may acclimate to the relative lack of oxygen in one or more ways such as increasing the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin, or altering muscle metabolism. Proponents claim that when such athletes travel to competitions at lower altitudes they will still have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10–14 days, and this gives them a competitive advantage.

See also the Sherpa People, who have varied genetics as a result of living at high altitude:

A 2010 study identified more than 30 genetic factors that make Tibetans' bodies well-suited for high altitudes, including EPAS1, referred to as the "super-athlete gene" that regulates the body's production of hemoglobin, allowing for greater efficiency in the use of oxygen.

Generally I'd suggest to look at culture rather than geography - you want someone who will fight for their buddy and their family back home, can detach from what they're doing, they can get in a "zone" and just work, and who is fit and healthy and fed just the right amount, but isn't rich enough to avoid the recruiter.

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    $\begingroup$ That's why the Helvetii and the Rhaeti beat the Roman army. Oh wait. (Major problem: the mountains are always much less densely populated than the plains. Relying on mountain people will make for a small army.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26 '21 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP. Hopefully smaller armies means less violent conflicts. Everyone wins. :-) Density is really specified now that I think of it. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Mar 26 '21 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP but see Swiss mercenaries in the middle ages and Gurkhas today $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Mar 27 '21 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Jan: Before the invention of cuckoo clocks, purple cows and numbered accounts the Swiss were very poor. (I don't know much about Gurkhas; I don't even know where Gurkhaland is.) The Swiss, poor as they were, enrolled in various armies, true; not so much in the Middle Ages as in the Renaissance and Early Modern times. But (1) there were never all that many of them -- in many pre-modern wars, German and Scottish mercenaries outnumbered the Swiss mercenaries; (2) do you know of any famous Swiss or Gurkha mercenary commander, comparable to Francesco Sforza or Albrecht von Wallenstein? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 27 '21 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ What’s EPAS1 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPAS1 $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Mar 29 '21 at 8:53
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War Begets a Warrior Culture

The best soldiers in any given society are generally the children of war veterans; so, the best soldiers will come from the regions of your empire that have historically seen the most war in previous generations. To predict what region your best soldiers will come from, you do not need to know their geography, you need to know their history.

Why the Children of Veterans Make the Best Soldiers:

1 - You are naturally selecting for a population of people who can go to war and survive. Especially in a pre-modern war, the most common cause of death was breaking formation and trying to run away. So, those men who came back from war were most often those who refused to run. This means that people who can overcome their natural flight response and just fight are more likely to pass on their genes; so, the children of veterans are themselves less likely to panic on a battlefield even when all other factors are the same due to natural selection.

2 - Veterans bring the discipline and values they learn from war into the way they run their households. So not only are these children genetically more prepared for war, they will be conditioned from birth to hold warrior values in high regard such as loyalty, bravery, and honor while also having diminished values that might prevent them from being good soldiers like ideals of self-worth and mercy. So the children of Veterans have the advantages of both Nature and Nurture making sure that they we be more disciplined as soldiers before you even begin to train them in the actual trade of being soldiers.

3 - Being raised in a warrior culture also means that your society has more general knowledge of warfare. A society with lots of children who grow up studying all the battles in their history books or oral traditions will know a lot more about how war is done. This will raise more potential officers to help organize and co-ordinate the army. A large veteran body also means that you will have more qualified instructors to help properly train your next generation of troops in what actually works instead of what might work.

So yes, it is history and not geography that will inform where your best soldiers will come from... but that said, there are certain geographical features that can encourage a history of warfare more than others. Generally speaking, the two biggest factors are how many other nations share borders with you to be a threat, and how stable is the food/economy of your region. Places like Ancient Egypt saw very little warfare because you had one nation with very predictable agriculture surrounded by deserts and seas which made invading it very difficult. In contrast, places like Mesopotamia and Greece saw a lot of warfare because you had a lot of smaller city-states clustered close together with unpredictable agriculture. So, you would frequently see several years of strong growth followed by famine and high unemployment which would force everyone to invade one another and try to take each other's resources.

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Geographic area is not really relevant, other than determining the style of combatant.

What matter is political and economic area.
You want someone from a frontier/troubled/warzone region, not too poor (they must have access to equipment) but not too rich(they must not get comfortable and lazy)

This all assumes that you use militia from the region, and give them minimal further training. The whole concept of region affecting soldier quality is completely negated if you put some real effort and resources into selecting, recruiting, training and equipping a real professional military force. Then only the skill and facilities and ethics of the training matter, not the soldiers' origins.

For example:
In Roman legions, the birth region of the legionaries mattered not at all. They were so trained and indoctrinated and equipped, that any one soldier was the same as any other soldier.
But for the much lesser-trained auxilia, it did matter a great deal. Those soldiers only brought the skills, and often only the equipment, that they acquired in their native lands.

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The best soldiers come from places where a career spent going off to strange lands, meeting interesting people, and killing them is a better deal than staying where you come from. Places such as A) impoverished agricultural regions with bad weather and worse soil, or B) the slummish hearts of major cities. Consider:

Wung struggled mightily as his father urged the gnongrut-beast ahead, and with a mighty sucking sound the plow pulled free from the quick-mud into which it had become stuck. Wung lost his balance and fell face-first into the muck while the gnungrut, happy to be able to able to move freely, lumbered off across the field with his father in curse-perfumed pursuit. Wung stood up, spat out a mouthful of something which might charitably be called "mud", and said out loud, "There has got to be something better than this!". "Funny you should say that, kid", said a voice behind him. He turned around and saw a soldier with some stripes on his shoulder and a bunch of young men, clad in rags much like those Wung wore, who were laughing at him. He looked down at himself, saw the mud covering him from feet to face, and grinned ruefully. "So, you want a better life?", said the soldier. "Yeah", said Wung, "Anything's better than this". "C'mere", said the solder. He pulled out a piece of parchment, unrolled it, and asked, "What's your name?". He scrawled something on the parchment with a bit of charcoal, said "Make your mark", and pointed to a spot next to the scrawl he'd made. Wung put an "X" where indicated as he'd seen his father do in town at the store. "Congratulations, recruit Wung - you are now part of the imperial army. Fall in with these louts back here, and follow me".

Or:

Eltz sprinted down the alley, vaulted to the top of the fence at the end, swung his legs over, dropped straight down, and burrowed into the garbage pile he knew was there. Behind him he heard the sound of pursuit follow him up the alley, shouts of "Boost me over!", and then..."WHOA! HOLD IT! STOP PUSHIN'! He musta gone that way, towards Cheapwhore Street!" - and with that the guild enforcers went running back up the alley and off to the west.

Eltz sat up and started brushing half-rotten vegetables, coffee grounds, and egg-shells off himself. All he'd done was make off with an apple from a stall in Fruitfarm Alley. How was he to know that the seller was paid up with the Thieves Guild, and that their enforcers just happened to be around the corner in a tavern? Now he was scared and hungry, having lost the apple in the confusion. "There has got to be something better than this!", he said out loud to himself. "Funny you should say that, kid", said a voice behind him. He turned around and saw a soldier with some stripes on his shoulder who'd come out the back door of a tavern to offload some beer. He looked down at himself, saw the garbage covering him from feet to face, and grinned ruefully. "So, you want a better life?", said the soldier. "Yeah", said Eltz, "Anything's better than this". "C'mere", said the solder. He pulled out a piece of parchment, unrolled it, and asked, "What's your name?". He scrawled something on the parchment with a bit of charcoal, said "Make your mark", and pointed to a spot next to the scrawl he'd made. Eltz put an "X" where the soldier had pointed. "Congratulations, recruit Eltz - you are now part of the imperial army. Follow me...".

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It takes a village to raise a child

This seems to apply here. In history, the cultures have more to do with the quality of the solider than the geography.

Basically, as long as you have an economy that can sustain a standing military, you have the elements for possibly great soldiers. Those that train, meaning money to train, will have great soldiers.

So, look at your geography again. What are the industries there? Are there high lands? Primitive fighting generally favors those who use the terrain better. That often means those on the higher ground. Some cultures have historically overcome other cultures through the early adoption of technology (Vikings had long ships, Egyptians had chariots).

If you want a realistic setting, decide the principal elements of each geography's economies, who has the money, people, and need, and those with all three will have the strongest armies (and the most trained soldiers).

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Two other things two consider, offence and defence.

Your offensive army will succeed better if it is acclimatized to the area of invasion, disease, temperature, humidity. Also culture, either having the army as far unlike the foe means they are less likely to humanize or pity the foe. (Soviet Union pulled European troops out of Hungary in '56 and brought in far eastern troops six weeks later) Conversely very close culture, with one key difference to polarize, can help make an army more viscous (reformation wars, some areas lost 50% population).

Defence is often better to have local troops (though that can lead to stability problems if locals troops support local rebels). They know the area and are motivated to defend. Many castles fell in the past because the garrison didn't want to fight because they had little stake in it. Or see how well the Fins did against the Soviet Union in WW2.

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