The Military Revolution: Structures, Soldiers and Empire. A progressive period of consistent change.

“The ordinary theme and argument of history is war,” said Sir Walter Raleigh in the seventeenth century. This was certainly the case in the period of 1400 to 1800. From J.R Hale, “there was probably no single year throughout the period in which there was neither war nor occurrences which looked and felt remarkably like it.” (Rogers, 1995) Instead there has been a heavy emphasis on social and economic structures and processes. This has overshadowed the interest for military studies.

By no means do I disregard the importance of social and economic structures and processes but would like to address the second lesser assessed portion of the full picture, the military aspect. From the steam powered European gun boats that coursed down the Yangtze in the nineteenth century, it “symbolised how economic and military developments almost inevitably go hand in hand.” (Rogers, 1995) Aristotle further stated the importance of addressing the military aspect of history as the ‘control over the means of violence’ that may be the instigator for the control of social and political systems which controlled the means of production. (Rogers, 1995)

In January 1955 Michael Roberts delivered a lecture which established the debate for the Military Revolution in early modern Europe. Roberts argued that his specific period of 1560-1660 was revolutionary in that there were four revolutions in this period which created changes that were so impactful as to have that century be classified as a revolution. These four revolutions being: a revolution in strategy, a revolution in tactics, a massive increase in the sale of warfare and impacts on societies and states. (Roberts, 1995)
However from an assessment of a dangerously defensive structures called the Trace Italienne in early modern Europe, it dissolved the initial borders of Robert’s period. The conclusive border of Robert’s was true to an extent, that by 1660 there were changes caused by his four revolutions. However at this time, the impact from these revolutions were on a much smaller scale. The dramatic impacts which resulted in the massive increase in the scale of warfare and which was the peak of the so called revolution, was after Robert’s century.

The changes had initiated before 1560 and the effects from these changes had failed to make much of an impact on society and states until after 1660 where the increased scale of warfare and numbers of troops had truly driven the revolution and early modern Europe to change and the ‘Rise of the West’ in 1800. (Howard, 1989)

The initial and one of the most impactful changes to this period was the introduction of the Trace Italienne in the fourteenth century. These defensive structures required much more man power to hold and defend, and even more to conquer. These fortresses rendered land battles to be inconsequential as the failure to capture a trace on land was a failure to conquer the land at all. (Howard, 1989) The increase of troops had begun here as opposed to Robert’s claim of an instance of change in a century.

Although the increase of troops had begun then, it was not until after Robert’s century that other revolutionary factors contributed to the qualitative and quantitative aspects of troops. These factors being the diffusion of technology, a developed logistics system to support the much larger armies and the professionalism of armies.

The diffusion of technology established a thriving market in early modern Europe that “made similar markets… (seem) underdeveloped elsewhere in the world.” (Hoffman, 2009) The market was further propelled with the Liberty of Commerce from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The market catered to both private parties and states. The market allowed “a losing country to easily imitate the winner’s tactics.” (Hoffman, 2009)

Another factor which heavily contributed to the increased scale of warfare after Robert’s period but had initiated much earlier than Robert’s proposed period were the logistic systems, specifically the Ottoman army. The Ottomans had an efficient system of irregular taxes which supported their armies throughout their campaigns. This system was called the menzilhane system, it was a system of billets which was established along the army’s route and supplied the army upon the army’s arrival. (Murphey, 1999)

Although it would have spelt defeat for the Turks when they failed to join the Combined Armed Revolution in the 1530s their logistics system ensured their survivability. However although they had the most effective and developed logistics system that ensured the “Ottoman armies would never perish from hunger,” Ottoman armies still underwent a revolution of logistics after the seventeenth century (the end of Robert’s period). (Murphey, 1999) This revolution was to better support their armies as their military technology was lacking compared to other European states.

In the eighteenth century the elites of the Ottoman Empire underwent a new political, economic and organised entrepreneurship where the Sultan’s household gave way to households of provincial governors who immersed in tax farming, which allowed a new middle class of elites called the ayans to rise and serve as battle commanders with their own armies. The ayans contributed huge amounts of military personnel to Ottoman campaigns. One such example was a colossal 254,990 soldiers raised by the ayans in 1774. (Paul, 2014)

The final factor was the issue of when professionalism was introduced to European armies. Professionalism in the army was already established in the Ottoman armies since mid-fourteenth century and firmly established in the sixteenth century as explained from ‘The Turkish Letters’ by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq from 1555 to 1562. (Busbecq, 2012) These letters not only revealed the early professionalism of the Ottoman army but also the lack of professionalism of Western European armies at the time which was the beginning of Robert’s proposed period. Not only was professionalism lacking then but it was lacking even at the end of the period as Sommerville (2014) revealed that the first sign of professionalism in the Western armies was in fact in 1675 in Louis XIV’s army. Even then the system of professional meritocracy was undermined by the continued practice of selling colonelcies (commissioned ranks).

These dramatic changes had all taken place before 1560 and their impact wasn’t felt until post 1660. Michael Robert’s theory of a Military Revolution was only true to an extent. Although the changes were revolutionary, the changes themselves were not instances of change, they were progressive changes which took effect in the space of centuries.


Busbecq, Ogier Ghislain De. 2012. Life And Letters Of Ogier Ghiselin De Busbecq. [S.l.]: Cambridge University Pres.

Fynn-Paul, Jeff. 2014. War, Entrepreneurs, And The State In Europe And The Mediterranean, Chapter 14. 1300-1800. Pp. 306-326.

Hoffman, P. (2009). Skills, Experience, and the Diffusion of Military Technology in the Early Modern World. pp.1-19.

Howard, Michael. 1989. ‘The Military Revolution: Military Innovation And The Rise Of The West, 1500–1800. By Geoffrey Parker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Pp. 251.\Pounds 15.00’. The Historical Journal 32 (01): 238-240.

Murphey, Rhoads. 1999. Ottoman Warfare, 1500-1700. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Roberts, Michael. “The Military Revolution, 1560-1660” in The Military Revolution Debate ed. Rogers, Clifford J. 1995. Boulder: Westview Press. Pp. 13-36

Rogers, Clifford J. 1995. The Military Revolution Debate. Boulder: Westview Press.

Sommerville, J. P. 2014. ‘The Early-Modern Military Revolution’. Faculty.History.Wisc.Edu. Accessed: 12.10.14


2 comments on “The Military Revolution: Structures, Soldiers and Empire. A progressive period of consistent change.

  1. I had always viewed the topic from what I suppose is a fairly “standard” point of view focussed on military leaders such as Gustavus Adolphus and those strongly tied to the ‘pike and shotte’ era of warfare (The Thirty Years War, for example); the core of Robert’s argument.

    I find this topic to be truly fascinating and I commend you on a well thought out approach. Your inclusion of the Ottoman system breathes a very refreshing air into this debate that I feel many historians seem to ignore or disregard because the Ottoman Empire was not, strictly speaking, a part of Europe. Their inclusion in this blog post and your essay brings a much needed sense of scope to Robert’s Military Revolution(s).

  2. Well done Mr Stanley! I’m sure in another life you went by the name of Sun Tzu! d: Yes the Ottoman Empire’s army was awesome! The derebeys or ayans just became so influential, especially to the sultans demise and the decentralisation of the Ottoman Empire. I’m super pleased by this.

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