Why Medieval Warfare was Expensive Business

By John France

War is expensive, but especially so in the early medieval period when Europe was poor. Let’s examine the business of warfare from the Roman Empire to the Early Middle Ages.

We have no statistics, but we can have some idea of what war cost the Roman Empire in the immediately preceding centuries. The complex administration of the Roman state collected taxes from the whole population, mainly in cash but with elements of payment in kind, and then paid it to the armies. Total imperial income around 400AD probably amounted to the equivalent of 120,000 pounds of gold. The army swallowed about 62% of this, roughly 75,000 pounds of gold, which in the late 4th century paid for an army of 450,000 men; 450,000 men who produced nothing, and lived at the expense of the rest of society. Even for Rome this was an enormous effort.


How was this paid for?

The state-owned vast lands – the fisc-farmed by slave labour, and exploited mineral and other resources. Taxation was based on a land tax though there were also taxes on trade. The high Roman aristocracy owned vast estates and huge numbers of slaves, and invested in businesses like the mass manufacture of fine pottery and maritime trade. Great ships brought African grain to Rome to feed the population: Europe would not build any as big until the 17th century. This wealth, guaranteed by the peace imposed by the Roman army, generated the taxes which paid the soldiers. But the wealthy classes avoided heavy taxation through political influence. And the state had to support a whole range of activities, not least the maintenance of a network of roads and harbours and public buildings.

We think of Rome’s glories – its vast empire, roads, great cities with splendid buildings, culture and luxurious life-styles. But beneath this superstructure most people lived in little hamlets on what they could produce. Peasant families had to produce a surplus over their own needs to pay rents to landlords and taxes to the state. This was difficult because farming is inelastic, you can’t just increase production at will. The amount of grain in summer is largely dictated by what was sown in winter and its yield varied. And bad weather, above all drought, made prediction difficult. Some tax was paid in kind, but for the rest peasants had to sell their products on the market.


Given that they had most to sell at harvest times when prices were at the lowest, we can appreciate that this was a massive burden. Taxes had often to be collected at sword point by the army whose men were not too scrupulous about limiting what they took to what was right. Moreover, after the year 395 the eastern and western parts of the empire separated, and Western Europe was the much poorer of the two. And from the early 5th-century barbarian raids and conquests impoverished its government. It is no wonder a late 4th-century commentator remarked of the cost of the army that:

Because of this expenditure the whole mechanism of tax collecting is collapsing.

What was the money spent on?

These huge expenses supported a standing army. The soldiers were paid a regular salary and provided with equipment which was manufactured in state-run factories. Transport across a vast empire was costly and to make movement possible fleets had to be maintained.

Roman troops depicted on Trajan’s Column – photo by CristianChirita / Flickr

What happened after the Fall of Rome?

The barbarians living outside the frontiers perceived the wealth of Rome and wanted a share of the action. This was what lay behind their invasions, made possible by civil strife within the empire. Quite often they were “allies”, permitted to enter the empire, who later became very independent. And barbarians fought barbarians in successive waves across Europe, disrupting the administration and the economy which supported it, so that by the mid-6th century trade was limited, towns were decaying and the money economy was declining.

The barbarian kingdoms were not tribes. Kings presided over a mix of peoples, including many peasants and slaves from Roman lands, the bacudae, who joined the invaders. They and their followers had to be rewarded. But the complex Roman government which collected taxes and paid the army dissolved and it was much simpler to give the soldiers land, allowing them to collect its surplus. This meant the end of standing armies and their replacement by men who had also to look after their land. And, of course, some were given a lot and others relatively little. But trade and industry were disrupted, and increasingly the peasant surplus was the most important source of wealth.


These soldier administrators acquired all the key jobs, and presided over a militarized society. Roman landowners joined them for a share of power. Very quickly the newcomers married into existing society so military service ceased to be a function of ethnicity and it became associated with landowning. So a new elite of great men supported by military retinues gathered around the barbarian kings and the labour of the mass of the population on small holdings was channelled into their hands in the form of rents and taxes, but the economic disruption meant that armies became small. The Laws of Ine (694AD) describe an army (here) in his small kingdom of Kent as 35 men.

But what to spend it on?

However, the small elite was relatively wealthy. Investment in trade and manufacturing was limited. There were no banks! What better than to decorate the very means by which status was achieved and upheld – weapons. In 2009 the Staffordshire Hoard, over 5 kilos of gold and 1.4 of silver, much of it decorated with garnets, was discovered in a field in the English midlands. Nearly a third were pieces of a golden helmet, and most of the rest were decorations torn from sword hilts. The pieces were probably buried in the mid-7th century, though some dated from a hundred years earlier.

We know nothing of how or why it was buried, but in a violent world such splendidly decorated weapons were a safeguard for your wealth and at the same time proclaimed your status, as a soldier and a decision-maker in a militarised society.


John France is Professor Emeritus of Swansea University and has been a Visiting Professor at West Point. He is the author of the upcoming book Medieval France at War: A Military History of the French Monarchy, 885-1305.