Through military genius and a well organised army, the medieval Kingdom of Toren has subjugated most of its neighbours and now rules a vast empire with no one left to oppose them. But the wise men of Toren have foreseen that the military prowess will diminish in future generations out of the lack of war experience. Then the subjugated neighbours may take up arms again and overthrow the weakened oppressor.

To combat this, they introduce competitive battles, where each province fields an army (size and equipment limited by rules) led by a general to fight for this province. These armies fight each other regularly in arena battlefields and victory brings great honour (and maybe a price) to the province.

To keep it realistic, the battles are fought like real battles, and many soldiers can be expected to die, but this is seen as an honourable death. Prisoners are of course never executed. Military service is voluntarily, but many young men, especially from upper classes, see it as obligation or a way to prove their worth.

Is this an effective way to retain a well experienced military? Would the veterans from these battles be a good army, even after centuries of external peace?

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    $\begingroup$ Why do the soldiers have to die? Why don't they just use blunt training weapons rather than real weapons and run the risk of killing hundreds of your own men for no reason? $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2017 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ @DevourerOfStars Because I imagine non-lethal training might not prepare well enough for any serious combat. The goal is not to kill enemies, but to do whatever necessary to win the battle, including killing. $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Aug 7, 2017 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ The counter to that argument is to question whether lethal training actually offers any benefits. I find its best to remember that the goal is not to win a battle. Nobody wins battles. The trick is to not lose. Then, eventually your opponent will lose. Phrased another way, "The trick is to let the other guy die for his country." $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 8, 2017 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ How does Toren maintain peace? Why aren't there bandits and pirates? A peaceful kingdom means trading and that brings people attacking the merchants to get rich without working too much. Doesn't Toren need garrisons to protect its borders? To patrol provinces that could rebel? $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ Basically the whole point of the question is that I can't imagine how to prepare soldiers for the clash of armies on the battlefield. You can train them to march in formation or to beat an opponent in a duel, but does that really help in battle? $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Aug 29, 2017 at 20:24

4 Answers 4


No, this will not work, for several reasons.

  1. Few citizens will volunteer to die in 'glorious' battles merely for the honor of their local ruler with no actual threat. So these armies will be based on draftees and will probably be a burden on the province, leading to unrest (like the 'Hunger Games').

  2. The cost of fielding large armies on a continuous basis will bankrupt the empire. War is the most expensive operation an empire can do, if there are no external resources to acquire (land, minerals, slaves, etc) then how can they afford it? In times of peace empires typically shrink the army and spend on domestic programs for this very reason.

  3. What the wise men of Toren are doing is enabling a coup. Letting local leaders raise what are essentially private armies and compete in battle will just select for a charismatic general who will now have a great army to take over the empire. Preventing this is one of the main reasons Rome had strict rules on where and when generals could move their armies around the empire (hence the violation when Ceasar brought his legion "across the Rubicon").

  4. Even if these competition battles occurred, they would not guarantee success against a new threat because tactics and weapons would presumably be static and not matched against the new enemy. Fighting yourself is great but no substitute for conflict with an enemy that has novel weapons and tactics. Medieval warfare was not terribly complex in the grand sense, it relied more on individual skills (cavalry, man-at-arms, archery, etc) and very basic "follow me!" tactics. So constant practice of large unit maneuvers wasn't really necessary.

So in theory your premise would work in retaining skills between conflicts. But in reality without continuous expansion an empire can not afford or even justify a large army. Internal suppression is usually the main requirement for a large force, but even then skillsets are on the decline because there are usually significant force imbalances between the standing army and areas in revolt (if the forces are comparable, then there really isn't an empire except on paper).

What may work is a small cadre of experienced soldiers who can quickly bring in raw recruits, give them some basic manual of arms and drill training, and then lead them into war. This small cadre could hone their skills in realistic training and small skirmishes with barbarians at the edge of the empire. This would limit their cost, give the empire the ability to raise large levies in a time of need, and maintain an adequate control capability of leaders familiar with each other and that share a common command structure. An established war college and codified military doctrine would also help transmit information from generation to generation, something few pre-industrial civilizations could do.

Basic warfighting skills can be incorporated into local games, athletic events, and competitions. The longbowmen of South Wales were like this. They made the weapon a part of their daily culture so when needed, there were trained archers available. The citizen-soldiers of Greece were the same way. They would gather on occasion and practice small unit drills so each village could produce a unit of hoplites. There was often a short period of compulsory military training in adolescence that was part indoctrination into military culture and part labor force for whatever construction/garrison projects the region needed doing.

So you can have a small cadre of trained leaders with a large pool of mostly capable citizens to form instant armies at a fraction of the cost of maintaining standing armies just for practice.

Maintaining this for centuries of peace will also be problematic, if only that it is very difficult to keep anything going for that long, even without external invasion. Resources run dry, natural disasters happen, technological development overturns the established order, folks try to take power, etc.

If you DO go this route, look at feudal Japan under the shogunate for an idea of how military forces might transform in an insulated society of very curtailed warfare. It also wouldn't surprise me to see a society such as this being ruled under a religious theocracy since it would need a very secure system of transmission of rulership to maintain centuries of continuous rule.

The generals in these battles would have to be carefully selected (which works against the military meritocracy you want in order to have the best warriors) or they would have to be tightly controlled. Again, in Japan, the local lords were forced to keep family in the capital as insurance against revolt. This way your ruling class, whatever they may be, can have some measure of protection against a famous successful general staging a coup.

  • $\begingroup$ These forces wouldn't be expensive standing forces, but rather a well trained militia, that is only mustered every few years for the war games. But you made good points about the lack of novelty and the risk of coup. $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Aug 29, 2017 at 20:22

Is this an effective way to retain a well experienced military?


[...] many soldiers can be expected to die [...]


It makes no sense that the subjugated neighbours suddenly become stronger than your close-to-all-mighty kingdom out of nowhere in the first place. Not only are they already defeated and probably have less, if any, soldiers, they were weaker to begin with. It would be rather hard to assemble an army strong enough to defeat Toren, without them noticing it. I mean, they rule the whole place, so they should have their informers everywhere, right?

And I fail to understand, why a death in a training battle

is seen as an honourable death.

What did they die for? Did they show braveness for entering a battle, where they have nothing to gain but their life to lose? All you end up with is a far smaller army and a kingdom, where (a lot? of) young men die in vain.


And with masses of dead people, conflicts will erupt. Sure, the province that achieve victory gains honour, but how does honour feed them in the winter? What do the defeated provinces gain for participating? They lost valueable men and got nothing in exchange.

Do this long enough, and your kingdom will start to crumble from within.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think there will be masses of dead people. Historically, most soldiers died from poor medical conditions or executed as prisoners instead of from weapons. The primary objective is to rout the enemy, and since the stakes are lower and all soldiers receive good medical care, the overall casualty ratio should be a lot lower. $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Aug 7, 2017 at 10:23

A nation which believes this is a good policy is soon to fall. All its opponents need do is wait a little.

What you describe is a "war game," and no nation that I know of has ever held war games where many soldiers are expected to die. It's simply foolish to be that wasteful. Any nation that thinks that way is too wasteful to survive, and will collapse under it's own folly.

Not even the Roman gladiators fought this way:

Hollywood portrays Roman gladiatorial contests as brutal, unruly duels that ended when one of the combatants killed the other. But in reality, gladiators didn’t always fight to the death. These ancient Roman athletes were highly trained professionals who made their living fighting, not dying. And since gladiators were expensive to prepare and maintain, killing off mass numbers of them would have been a bad business decision for the lanistae who owned and trained them. Occasionally, sponsors would pay extra to stage a fight to the death, compensating the lanista for any lost gladiators. But more commonly, gladiatorial bouts simply had to have a decisive outcome, meaning that one of the contestants was wounded or his endurance gave out.

It costs a lot of money to train a soldier. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to train a US soldier (\$70k is a popular number thrown around), and another \$20k to outfit them for war. A nation which is willing to waste many of these soldiers for the games is in poor shape. And that's just a monetary argument. Let's not forget the cultural effect that such massive "honorable" killings will have outside of the games. You never want a nation to forget the value of a human life.

Universally, all militaries have found that you don't need to kill each other to train to kill the enemy. Large scale strategy games like mock battles are always mocked. The ability for the soldiers to kill each other is not needed to demonstrate the capabilities of the strategists. Likewise, tactical games don't actually require lethal force in almost all cases.

If your nation is one of the rare ones who feel their soldiers must taste blood, you would sacrifice slaves in very uneven fights, but for the most part, nations have realized that you can prepare for war without bloodshed using tools like training exercises and martial arts.

  • $\begingroup$ // the U.S. Office of Management and Budget puts the value of a human life in the range of 7 to 9 million dollars. $\endgroup$
    – Vashu
    Aug 6, 2017 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ In medieval ages, the price of human lives as well as the cost to train a normal infantry soldier was much lower. Modern warfare required much better training but less numbers. $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Aug 7, 2017 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Sinthorion Very true, but the price of a human life would also be comparable to the price of a human life in any other aspect of society. If you're willing to sacrifice large numbers of soldiers for a tiny advantage in a battle that may never come, imagine what sorts of sacrifices of human life would be acceptable in day-to-day life where the benefits are actually tangible. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 7, 2017 at 15:01

Hmm ... there's got to be another way. I can see bad blood developing between the provinces if, say, Province X does too well a couple years running.

Let's get back to what the (admittedly ruthless) leaders of Toren really want to accomplish. Seems to me, it's actually two things which we're conflating into one. They want their soldiers to "see the elephant" -- that is, know what it's like to be in real combat, for real, with an enemy trying to kill you. Second, they want to get the men and generals to be practiced in large-scale maneuver.


Let's keep the war-games, but use blunted arrows/swords etc. We try not to get anyone killed, but every year a few guys do die and are buried with honors. Winning province gets a tax break, or gets to host the Olympics, or something they'll appreciate. This way our tacticians stay sharp.

Also, we decline to conquer that last small enemy kingdom. But we keep up a low intensity border war with them, rotating in elements from all across the empire. So we have a good supply of veterans who have actually seen combat. Only the highest levels in the Empire's government know why we just can't win that last darn war...

  • $\begingroup$ We've always been at war with Oceania. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Aug 28, 2017 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, I see where you're going there, but don't think the Torenites' motivations are quite that malevolent... ;D They're not trying to waste resources, as are the Eurasians/Eastasians, but they are rather cold-bloodedly using little wars to generate veterans with little risk to the homeland. If handled correctly, that last enemy could be a nice buffer state between Toren and the distant Enemyites, who could consider themselves a true peer of Toren. $\endgroup$
    – akaioi
    Aug 28, 2017 at 17:33

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