Years ago, I wrote a post about long journeys in fantasy fiction. It discussed how incredibly difficult long-range travel was, and the profound economic and social effects caused by that difficulty. But I didn’t discuss very much the close relationship between ease of travel and political power.
Remember that in the premodern world, travel on land was extremely difficult compared to travel by sea. It was about as hard to transport a load of grain 100 km over land as it was to ship it from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Traveling off-road was slow, difficult, and dangerous; there was no guarantee of food, and it was easy to be injured by terrain or wild animals. Even when roads existed, travelers could easily be hampered by bad weather, bandits, or disease.
Why does this matter for politics? We who live in consolidated states sometimes forget that the government’s power is not a given. People generally comply with the government only when they are made to, through enforcement by armed men and the bureaucrats who keep them paid. Where there are no police, and communication with the government is difficult, inhabitants can ignore the law when it suits them. (Even in modern America, there are parts of Appalachia and other rural areas that are renowned for moonshine, drug cultivation, and general lawlessness.)
As James C. Scott lays out in great detail, the first requirement for the consolidation of political power is the ability to control people. That means that a state will generally only extend its rule into areas in which its soldiers can easily travel, in order to extract taxes and plunder and slaves. In Southeast Asia, the focus of his study, large cities were controlled by powerful rulers, but their ability to project their rule into the countryside was limited. During harvest season, the regime’s armies would sweep through the countryside in order to extract grain from the hapless farmers, and in some cases to take slaves. But in the monsoon season, when the roads became muddy lakes and were impassable, a regime’s effective zone of control often shrank to the borders of its capital city alone; the countryside would be beyond its reach.
Similarly, state control often did not extend up into hill country, mountains, marshlands, or other rugged terrain. State rule and so-called “civilized society” would be a feature of the lowlands, while the highlands would be seen as stateless zones of barbarism.
States that wanted to increase their power thus had a strong incentive to move population into arm’s-reach, and to keep them there. Cities were the most prominent example; walls were built not only to keep invaders out, but to keep subject populations in. Peasants were often forbidden to move away from their designated cities, and had to farm plots that were in easy traveling distance. (This was also meant to aid in creating legibility for the state.) Plus, serfs or slaves would be imported and kept under control by force.
On the flip side, Scott writes, people who wanted to escape the coercive state would often flee to inaccessible areas such as badlands, hill country, or marshes. There, they would set up “maroon communities,” or else join with the existing bands of stateless peoples who lived as nomads or foragers. Not that they would disconnect from the state entirely. Until quite recently in human history, a majority of the world’s population was outside of state control, and states depended on trade with stateless peoples to provide them with many of their luxuries (as well as slaves).
From the viewpoint of accessibility and power projection, you can see the tremendous importance that good roads played for imperial powers such as Rome and Persia; or the role that the Dutch and British fleets played in imposing their colonial rule across the seas. Nor was this only an issue in earlier ages; NATO forces in Afghanistan have suffered severe problems suppressing the Taliban specifically because of the difficulty in traveling through the mountainous terrain.
Summing up: power depends (in part) on a regime’s physical access to people. Regimes with better logistics, better traveling technology, and the ability to move their subjects into concentrated zones of control thus could intensify their own power.
(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!)