New Article: Mountain Passes Ancient and Modern
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

New Article: Mountain Passes Ancient and Modern

Two bay horses in a steeply sloped pasture full of wild grasses and flowers
Descendants of mighty Rhaetian war-horses? West side of the Brenner near Patsch, Tirol.

In mid-September I got lost on my return from the Goldbichl and found myself between Patsch and the Brennerautobahn. If you spend time hiking in Tirol that happens frequently, even though the mountain peaks provide good points of references and there are networks of paved or gravelled paths dotted with nice yellow signs, some of which even point within 90 degrees of the actual direction. And if you think about why that happens, you will understand the topic of my latest article for Ancient Warfare, namely why armies in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) follow the same few routes for thousands of years.

There are main roads, side roads, gravel roads, graded paths, and unofficial trails beaten by walkers and mountainbikers. One often turns into another, and its not always easy to tell the difference between a private road and a one-lane public road, or a path laid out by the forest service and one worn down by squatters. Whether you are travelling by bicycle or oxcart, once you leave the main roads it is likely that you will eventually find that you can no longer continue without dismounting. And since the general probably likes his cartloads of tents with modular mosaic floors (“barbarians, for the astonishing of”), and the cooks need their cauldrons and griddles and food warmers, tossing things away is probably not a good idea. But turning back may be easier said than done if there are troops backed up behind you on the one-lane road for 20 km, with a bank on one side and a steep drop in the other.

I tried three or four different paths forward, all of which ended in fences or highways or piles of brush or paths clogged with stinging plants. A well-organized army sent small bodies of lightly-equipped cavalry or infantry ahead to try different paths and make sure nobody was hiding in them ready to rush out at the worst possible moment. But the problem with going more than a few hours ahead of the main army was that the kind of troops willing to perform that work tended to be more interested in robbing, burning, and raping than in sending back methodical reports about road grades and water quality. A few armies- Chingis Khan’s Mongols, Napoleon’s French- made it work, and they tended to run circles around their opponents. But most armies could not create a continuous screen of horsemen say two days’ march wide two days’ march in front of the main army which would send back descriptions of all of the roads and make sure that anyone in front of them did not know exactly where the main army was.

Every so often the smaller ways are blocked with wire fences, chain-link fences, split-rail fences, or railway and highway embankments. In Tirol they like Y-shaped barriers of posts and split logs which a biped can pass sideways but a cow or a bicycle cannot. A well-organized army like a Roman one would send small bodies of troops with picks and axes to break fences and walls, widen narrow spots in roads, and strengthen bridges. In the 18th century they called these pioneers. But doing that work takes time, and if it is not done when the main army arrives that 20 kilometre long column starts to back up again.

a cartographic map of the area south of Innsbruck with land use, urban areas, peaks, and roads marked
Igls and Patsch on the plateau over the Brenner Pass courtesy of OpenStreetMap

As sun set and I finally turned on to the road from Patsch to Igls, I asked a woman walking her dog and discovered that the signs had lead me astray again and I was headed down another gravel road which would become a dirt path which would become a trail. Local knowledge is not always to be trusted either, and even if the army had not frightened the locals away, there could be language barriers: William Caxton told a story about a woman from the south of England who thought that some northern sailors were speaking French. And locals think in terms of the routes they use, not what is suitable for that long column of men and beasts with wagons full of artillery, battering rams 80 cubits long, or bridge-building equipment.

Historically there were not all those clear printed signs or smartphones with OpenStreetMap, and even in the 20th century there were not always good printed maps. I am told that one of Robert E. Lee’s many charming traits was never authorizing the creation of maps of the country between Richmond, Virginia, and the sea, let alone bothering to have useful maps prepared before his campaigns into the North, and of course the Soviet Union treated detailed maps as state secrets and happily moved cities and erased roads on the maps for public consumption. So at each fork in the road, the main army usually had limited information about the different possibilities, and most of the routes would not do. So a large army which wanted to get anything done was well advised to stick to the main routes, which merchants and local officials could describe. Ctesias collected information like that, and Plutarch (Life of Alexander 5.1-3) tells a story that Alexander collected it as a child. If the army got stuck, they could put some silver in the hands of shepherds and peddlers and charcoal-burners and learn about the mountain paths or secret fords which would let a few hundred or few thousand men come behind the enemy position. A few especially hard-working armies even built their own roads through a wood or a marsh which defenders had thought impassable. But mostly, armies followed the best roads, as defined by experienced travellers and ephemeral lists of places and distances (itineraries) not by the kind of source which is usually passed down to us. If we are patient and slowly compare evidence from different periods, we can recover a little of this lost lore and imagine ourselves on the roads from Kaneš to Melitene.

“Kaneš to Kayseri in 4,000 years – Passes of the Anti-Taurus” in Ancient Warfare XIII.2 is available in softcover and PDF from Karwansaray BV

Looking down a steep rocky cliff with young pine and fir trees
Looking down from the east side of the Goldbichl
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