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The Geography of Victory and of Defeat

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #81, 2008.

How geography can affect history.
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Michael Maloney

Sometimes people fail to recognize the effects of geography on the development and maintenance of civilizations. They study the rise and fall of empires, the wars of conquest and trade, the economic booms and busts, the colonization and empire building, and a host of other topics without really taking notice of the degree to which geography impacts these aspects of history.

A Quick Visual Check

If you were to take a tour of Europe, for example, you might note that most of the older towns are built on the top of the highest hill in the region. Elevation makes it easier to protect the town from invaders. If the town is not on a high hill, certainly the castle that protects the town is on a hill.

Towns and cities also sprouted up along rivers and on seacoasts. Rivers and oceans historically provided the easiest modes of travel and trade before the advent of roads. Towns, most of which would later grow into cities, gained economic advantage by being close to the water where traders and travelers would congregate. The disadvantage, as demonstrated by the Vikings, was that these same rivers could carry warriors bent on pillage and plunder. From their bases in Scandinavia, these Norse raiders traveled all of the major rivers of Europe all the way to the Baltic Sea creating panic, death, and destruction wherever they landed.

Geography and Productivity

Geographic features also dictated the kinds of economic activity that a region could have. Different landforms led to different types of soil and different amounts of precipitation. As a result, different types of crops and animals could be produced there. Areas that were highly productive and generally quite rich also became the areas most invaders would target. A significant share of the wealth of these regions had to be used to raise and maintain armies to defend themselves against predatory attacks by marauding armies.

The low-lying lands along major rivers were also in many cases, the most productive land for farming. The mouths of the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates Rivers are good examples of cradles of civilizations based on rich fertile land that produced as many as three crops a year. The wealth that flowed from these commodities allowed the rulers and the upper classes to become collectors of riches. Such wealth also attracted a wide variety of plunderers over the centuries.

Geography and Battles

Geography has also played a role in determining the conduct and outcomes of war. Up until the development of airplanes, large mountain ranges were an effective barrier to travel and invasion. Narrow passes could be easily defended, as the Ottoman Turks found when they attempted to cross through the Iron Gap in the Carpathian Mountains to attack cities like Vienna. A few hundred well-placed men could hold off multitudes. As recently as the American Civil War, examples of the impact of geography can be seen on the conduct of hostilities. Sherman's famed March to the Sea with the aim of burning Atlanta, seizing its railhead, and crippling the economy of the Confederate states was hampered by the Kennesaw Mountains and the stalwart defense of the mountain passes by retreating Confederate armies. There are dozens of similar examples, ranging from the Khyber Pass in northern India to the pass at Marathon which was held so tenaciously by the Spartans.

Geography and Trade

Geography often dictated the routes that travelers and traders would use. The fabled Silk Route overland from the Far East to Europe was a fairly well defined path. Like all routes it attempted to cross rivers, deserts, and forests by the quickest and easiest way. Services and safe places sprang up along the route so that, as much as possible, a traveler could reach a safe haven by the end of each day. The type of terrain was a major factor in determining the placement of rest stops. Such predictability was also a boon to the robbers and thieves who preyed upon the caravans. They could more easily find intended victims in a narrower corridor and focus their attacks on in places which gave them the greatest advantage.

Geography and Distance

Kingdoms and entire civilizations have fallen as a result of their inability to defend themselves. Sometimes this was due to their civilization being less aggressive than that of their neighbors. Sometimes it was due to their lack of skill as warriors, or to the fact that they did not have the same advantages as their enemies. For example, tribes who first domesticated the horse and used them in battle had a significant advantage over any enemy that did not have mounted warriors. In many cases, these tribes lived on wide grassy plains and could cover long distances quickly and easily. Groups like the Cossacks of the Russian Steppes, the Sioux and Mandan nations of the Great Plains of North America, or the Arabs who dwelt on wide expanses of Arabia survived because they adapted to their geographical space by taming and riding horses.

Sometimes relatively unsophisticated tribes survived because they used space as a barrier to contact with others. The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, the Aboriginals in the Outback of Australia, and the southern Pacific tribes that inhabited the isolated islands of the South Pacific had peace and tranquility because of their use of another geographic feature - distance.

A Suggested Exercise

As the world becomes smaller and more accessible because of our current levels of travel technology, it is easy to forget how important a tall hill, a wide deep river, a tiny island in a huge sea, or a mountain pass was to the development of some ancient city or kingdom. As these technologies increased in number and complexity, the role of physical geography in world affairs became increasingly reduced. The role of resources became relatively more important.

To get a better idea of the significance of landforms in affecting earlier societies, take a map that portrays only the physical features of an area. Study it carefully and try to decide where you would locate your town so as to be as safe as possible. Look for the features that would make it easier for you to defend yourself from unwanted intrusions. Is there a set of tall hills upon which you could build a fortification that commands the valley below? Are there a string of mountains at your back that would disallow enemies from approaching from that direction? Can you locate the widest, deepest point in a rushing river that would slow down an intruder and permit you time to reach your fortifications?

Now turn the exercise inside out and see if you can determine how to best defeat the king who lives in such a safe place. What features of the landscape should you take into account and how should you use them? The physical geography might be the difference between victory and defeat.

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