The Horse Flu of 546

An idea that came to me on my way to work today. Anyone want to take it further?

The Ordos Plains, January 546

The herdsman looked out over the snow-dotted plain with mild surprise. Normally, his lead mare would come when called - was something wrong? Unhurriedly, he crested the low rise and headed for the pasture that, in the lee of the hill, had offered the sturdy steppe mounts a modicum of protection through the night. Hoarfrost on grass rustled against his legs as he quickened his steps; the small herd was huddled together at the lowest point of the valley, shivering, their heads drooping, eyes listless. Something was wrong - very wrong indeed.

The mutant strain off equine influenza that emerged in the Ordos basin in 546 remains incompletely understood to this day. Its considerable lethality coupled with its ability to 'go endemic' and re-emerge once immunities had worn off made it a historic disaster on untold proportions. How or why it eventually came to subside is as mysterioous as whether it could recur - as it has, periodically, through recorded history. What we do know is that its impact was earth-shattering.


Yangtze river, near Wuhu, 549

Li Chenyang watched the surge of attacking infantry with horror and dismay. The gates of his guard tower were shut - barred against the cowards who had run rather than face the onslaught of the men pouring from the boats as much as against the enemy - but the soldiers knew they could not hope to defend it, or be rescued. Nor, the fate of their comrades had made abundantly clear, could they hold great hopes for mercy. With the Tuoba troops broken and streaming north in confusion, the few units of loyal Chinese infantry stiffened by an ever shrinking number of remaining horsemen were lost, already given up by their emperor who had fled Luoyang. Surrender held little promise, as the charred bones scattered among the cooling ashes of captured fortresses showed. Flight would bring but a brief respite as defenses crumbled. The Tuoba homeland was a charnel house where starving ghosts fought over the last scraps of whatever food - whatever flesh - they could find. Another winter would see the entire nation gone. By all accounts, all barbarian realms were afflicted by the horrors alike, horses dying, herds run wild, men starving or begging farmers for the grain they had peremptorily taken but a few years earlier. And those farmers were little disposed to feel generous. Now the southern neighbours had grasped the opportunity and added their own brand of horrors to the witches' cauldron the glorious realm of Wei had become. Already their archers were forming behind a wall of spearmen, fathom-long bows shouldered and fearsome curved swords at their belts. Many of them sported the heads of enemies, dripping river water and fresh blood. Torches were passed from hand to hand while engineers - stolid, heavy men as strong and implacable as the machines they operated - manhandled catapults off rafts to batter down the walls of the puny obstacle that stood in their way. Da Liang was coming north, and hell followed in its wake.


Sialkot, 550

The Malwan soldiers were drunk.Well past what the mere word drunk could express, riotously, gloriously, ferociously drunk, after they had broken into the stores of the royal palace. They were still surprised they had made it here - not so much the victory as that they had won it, the humble footsoldiers of the Ganges Valley, by some unfathomable decision of the Gods now the mightiest military force in the world, for all they knew. Down in the courtyard, the mighty kettledrums and banners of the Hephthalite rulers lay scattered and broken, the great halls burning, the city thoroughly looted. One of the men had earlier found a young woman - a princess, they guessed from her dress - a Hephthalite princess ravished by half-naked Malwan infantry. The world had turned upside down indeed. Even their king had no horse to ride any more - an oxcart to travel, a palanquin in the mountains, but even he fought his battles on foot now. And so did the Hephthalites and Turks, the Persians and Rajputs - and they were no good at it. Oh, war was stioll no pleasure, hard slogs through mountains and endless steppes, half starving more often than not or eating what roots the last scrabbling horse nomads had left them, but winning! Quaffing wine in huge gulps from the silver pitchers they had liberated from the palace banqueting hall, cavorting in captured finery, smashing precious vases and furniture, slashing open bolsters with their vicious curved shortswords and singing at the top of their voices, this was their triumph. Tomorrow, they would continue north. Or maybe the day after, if there was still drink to be found somewhere in the vast palace complex. Today, they would sacrifice a kingdom on its funeral pyred to the gods of war.


Pannonia, spring assembly, 558

King Audoinus shook his head wearily as his nobles raised a defiant - ragged and unsteady - cheer. The past years had brought little but terror, first the unreasoning fear of rumours flying from the east, then refugees, then plunderers, finally the pale death itself that slew their mounts and devastated the wealth of their great men, but left men and cattle miraculously untouched. For two years, brother had fought brother and father son over the last surviving horses, war had torn his nation and almost split his own family. Audoinus had persevered, had stared down challenges, killed rebels in open fight and by poison or dagger, had stood against the tide of panic, and had won. The Lombards were diminished, but they still were one people under one king - more than could be said for the Gepids or Bulgars. But the battle had taken its toll on the man, and he felt his reserves of strength slipping. Soon, he would die. Yet before that day, he would do one last thing, one great deed that would make men remember his name long after his bones were interred in the rich black earth of his people's new home. Audoinus was too shrewd to entirely trust the honeyed words of the Roman messenger who offered gold and honours, but he understood warfare, and he understood power. The emperor wanted him away, elsewhere, not threatening his borders, and for once, the king was willing to take the deal. Rich conquests awaited not to the south, but to the east. Longer than living memory, the horsemen of the steppes had driven his people before them as they pleased, leaves before the storm. The Huns had done it, and the Bulgars, and now the Avars, last of the conquerors. But Audoinus had fought both with and against them, and he knew as certainly as anything in the world that an Avar without his horse was like a man with his legs cut off. Now, God had cut off the legs of an entire nation and left them at the mercy of his Lombards. A wolfish smile played around his lips as he surveyed the men of his fara. Unhorsed, all but a handful - no matter, they could walk. A Lombard could fight in the shield wall as well as in the saddle. And things being as they were, they might walk all the way to Persia. Oh, how they would relish the chance to be drivers rather than driven, to mete out revenge, to gain booty and glory. They would sing the praises of their king till the end of the world if he could given them this. Audoinus had few illusions about human nature. Nobody would honour him for mastering the years of crisis. If he would be recalled as a conqueror or not at all - so be it.


Near Ctesiphon, 560

Theodoros had had a proper Classical education - unlike many of the men who fought by his side. Not even officers these days were properly cultured men, often Goths, Heruls or Isaurians with heavy beards and wine-addles brains. Thus Theodoros understood what was happening. He had read his Xenophon and knew the power of the phalanx against the Mede. Certainly the Persians of his day were a different enemy - doubtlessly so were the Romans. But the underlying truth was the same. If the men under his command fell behind Xenophon's Attic comrades in the standard of their language, they were their equals in courage. Again and again they had proven over the past year that they did not need the support of theit cataphract horse to smash through the enemy, that they could roll over the finest Persian troops like a wave over the beach. Again and again, the Sassanids' fighting men, dismounted and standing shoulder to shoulder, had seen the implacable advance of the shieldbearing Romans shrug off salvoes of arrows to smash down their screens of light infantry, and had broken, or been surrounded and slaughtered. Today promised to be different, if reports of their scouts were to be believed. Today, Khorsau Anushirvan in person with his last band of horsemen would be fighting the invaders in a last desperate defense of his capital. Not that many expected it to help much. The Romans had God on their side, so obviously favoured by the Almighty in their military success, and they had the weight of history with them. Ctesiphon had burned before. Theodoros knew his books, he knew that Trajan and Severus had come this far and today, so would Justinian - if not in person, then represented by his generals. A young man came running up to the knot of officers gathered around the standard of the Felices Theodosiani, one of the messengers who had become so important to the army now that horses were not to be had for blood or money. Well-bred boys, most of them, bartely old enough to shave and all polyglot, mostly born Romans and fluent in Greek. Theodoros was glad to speak with them, much of the time. This one came to a halt before them, saluted, and turned to the brilliantly bejeweled commander before him. "Sir" he spoke, catching his ragged breath, "your unit has the honour of fighting the right wing. Do you know, Sir, what this place is? My children may one day ask me where I fought."
Rugilla, the Herul captain, barely suppressed a laugh at the word 'fought', but Theodoros relished the rhetorical flourish and approvingly smiled at the youth. "Tell them you fought at Cunaxa, young ephebe. Tell them you fought with Xenophon's men!"


Yathrib, 563

al-Harith had come all this way, at his age and sick to the bone, for one reason and one reason only - to see justice done. The men of the Hijaz had mocked his power once too often. When the horse plague had struck the Ghassanids, they had seized the oportunity to declare themselves rid of his overlordship, killed his loyal supporters and turned to the Lakhmid king and his Sassanid paymaster for protection. For two good years, they had been able to raid as far as Bostra and Baydah. Then their own mounts were taken away by the Lakhmids, and death came to their herds, too. Camels made good mounts for their raiding parties, but al-Harith had camels, too - had bred and bought more, and taken them from the Lakhmids - and he had what the men of Yathrib and Mecca lacked. He had the support of the Roman Red Sea fleet. Now his troops were marching on Yathrib and jhe was resolved to make an example of the place. Its Jewish and heathen tribes would have to go. He might allow them to move to Medcca - enough punishment for the craven faithless Meccans, to his mind - or go to hell, for all he cared, but Yathrib weould become a Christian city amid heathen tribes, a city that would never again dare rise against its rulers. As the camel-mounted forward forces moved along the trail and the long column of infantry followed, the king continued to make his plans for a future that, with some good fortune and much effort, might see all Arabs united under the Ghassanid dynasty. Subject to the Romans, to be sure - but that would be for another day.
 
Since it comes so soon after the Plague of Justinian, I would imagine a large cult of end times believers springing up in the christian world. Persia's probably done as a military power, and Rome is severely weakened. With the loss of horses though I seriously doubt Rome would have any manpower to spare for military adventures to Persia though. They were already experiencing a severe manpower shortage, and with extra manpower needed for farmwork, a smart emperor would not lead any more wars anytime soon. That's not to say that Justinian had any good ideas of his limits though.
 
Since it comes so soon after the Plague of Justinian, I would imagine a large cult of end times believers springing up in the christian world. Persia's probably done as a military power, and Rome is severely weakened. With the loss of horses though I seriously doubt Rome would have any manpower to spare for military adventures to Persia though. They were already experiencing a severe manpower shortage, and with extra manpower needed for farmwork, a smart emperor would not lead any more wars anytime soon. That's not to say that Justinian had any good ideas of his limits though.

The problem with avoiding a Roman-Persian conflict is that it's already running. They've been at it since the early 540s, and while the horse flu hit both armies hard, it hit the Persians harder. The Roman advance is mostly opportunistic at this point, and I'm pretty sure any emperor would push it.

One sad truth about humanity is that no major epidemic ever stopped any state from waging war for long.
 

Hendryk

Banned
With the threat of nomadic invasions on its northern frontier removed, China's long-term prospects look good indeed. A juggernaut has begun inching forward.

Especially interesting is your choice of dates. If the plague strikes in the 540s, with the Liang dynasty able to decisively vanquish the Wei, Emperor Wu will be able to tidy up the succession issues and ensure for himself a lasting legacy. The golden age of the Tang may come two centuries earlier, complete with Chinese control of central Asia, which, with horse-mounted warfare out of the picture, it would be able to keep pretty much indefinitely.
 
Especially interesting is your choice of dates. If the plague strikes in the 540s, with the Liang dynasty able to decisively vanquish the Wei, Emperor Wu will be able to tidy up the succession issues and ensure for himself a lasting legacy. The golden age of the Tang may come two centuries earlier, complete with Chinese control of central Asia, which, with horse-mounted warfare out of the picture, it would be able to keep pretty much indefinitely.

The logistics, though...

I wonder how far north camels can go?
 

Hendryk

Banned
I wonder how far north camels can go?
Oh, Bactrian camels can handle the rigors of the Mongolian steppe without much trouble. I don't think anyone would want to go further north until centuries later, so long as the taiga-dwellers stay where they are.
 
Would reindeer be used more in this world? How about elephants?

More likely draft oxen and donkeys in civilian applications. Anyone know how mules react to horse flu?

The Siberian hunter-gatherers and protopastoralists are likely to expand onto the steppe ATL in the long run, BTW. There's no more competition from the horse folk, but as civilisations go, they'll be pretty pathetic.

But keep in mind the POD is not that all horses die. The horse is not extinct. Its population has just been savagely reduced by a virgin-soil epizootic that will go enzootic with occasional outbreaks over the next few centuries - the plague pattern, basically. Horses have just become valuable and vulnerable, probably too valuable for anything that doesn't absolutely require them, and certainly too vulnerable to build a civilisation on.
 
With the threat of nomadic invasions on its northern frontier removed, China's long-term prospects look good indeed. A juggernaut has begun inching forward.

Especially interesting is your choice of dates. If the plague strikes in the 540s, with the Liang dynasty able to decisively vanquish the Wei, Emperor Wu will be able to tidy up the succession issues and ensure for himself a lasting legacy. The golden age of the Tang may come two centuries earlier, complete with Chinese control of central Asia, which, with horse-mounted warfare out of the picture, it would be able to keep pretty much indefinitely.

I must admit that was my first impulse. I've long been a fan of Southern China in general and the Liang in particular, and I've always held that in warfare, the oath of the German rifles was good plebeian infantry sense - no horseman leaves the field alive. So in a way, this is my ultimate underdog empowerment fantasy. Plus Byzantium - everything's better with Byzantium.
 

mojojojo

Gone Fishin'
More likely draft oxen and donkeys in civilian applications. Anyone know how mules react to horse flu?

The Siberian hunter-gatherers and protopastoralists are likely to expand onto the steppe ATL in the long run, BTW. There's no more competition from the horse folk, but as civilisations go, they'll be pretty pathetic.

But keep in mind the POD is not that all horses die. The horse is not extinct. Its population has just been savagely reduced by a virgin-soil epizootic that will go enzootic with occasional outbreaks over the next few centuries - the plague pattern, basically. Horses have just become valuable and vulnerable, probably too valuable for anything that doesn't absolutely require them, and certainly too vulnerable to build a civilisation on.
How about the use of elephants, would it expand?
 
OK, so it's Sunday, I need a way to procrastinate and I'm tired of playing Bubbels.

Nisibis, 561

Ormizd was choking back tears with visible effort, the anguish on his young face evident for all onlookers. His inheritance was dissolving under his very eyes. He had no illusions about the nature of his enemies - for all their culture and refinement, the Romans were hard, cruel men - but recent events were enough to overwhelm even the defenses of the most stoic of men. The treaty before him made painfully clear the extent of his kingdom's defeat: Armenia lost, Iberia, Albania, Lazica, Hatra, Dura surrendered, the Lakhmid kingdom to be cut loose, left to be devoured by its enemies at their leisure, the Arab coast vassals disavowed, Kushan left to the Malwan fury and his own throne secure only as long as the promised tribute kept flowiong, conditional on the toleration of the Christians in the realm. His opposite was impeccably polite and soft-spoken, a polished and accomplished diplomat, but the steel in his voice was unmistakable. Such was defeat. In a moment of childish petulance, the boy king struggled with the impulse to blame his father - his father who had gambled everything and lost, going down to glorious defeat before Ctesiphon and leaving his heir to drink the bitter cup to the dregs. Then he shrigged and hung his head. It ill became a king to be whiny. "Place my seal upon it" he ordered, keeping up the pretense that his word carried real weight among the courtiers and generals that stood around him. It would, come time. But for now, he knew, he was a pawn in the hands of greater powers, and a poor pawn at that, bereft of his army, his treasury empty, his kingdom truncated and his very life dependent on his being useful. Useful he would be. His time would come.

Eporedia, Transpadana Province, 561

Aulus Floridius was not a happy man. Bitterly he reflected how wise the man had been who first said "si Francus amicus, non vicinus". Now the armies of that ostensible friend of the Roman people, King Chramn, were coming down into Italy to loot, rape and burn and for all his protestations of injured trust and willingness to acept peaceful surrender, Aulus would not trust the word of a man who had mounted his father's head on a lance but a year ago. The Franks were a formidable enemy on foot and horseback, all the more terrible for their savage cruelty. This was not what the Spectabilis had hoped for when he had entered imperial service to administer the Transpadana. He was not a soldier, his education in classics, law and public affairs had little prepared him for these tasks and his stomach sank at the prospect of facing the howling hordes on the battlefield. Still, he was a Roman man, and for a Roman there was no excuse for failing in his duties. Already, his precautions were paying off - he had Alamann auxiliaries in the town, his troops were trained and armed adequately, a large contingent of Goths from the south had joined him, grudingly released by the prefect to placate the fears of his jumpy tax collector. And he had the hard-faced Sard infantry, mountain fighters with a reputation for cruelty to match the Franks - loyal, but utterly terrifying. He might not be happy, but he was far from desperate. Come the day of battle, King Chramn might find he had bitten off more than he could swallow. The Romans might not be much at the flashy kind of horsemanship the Goths had so excelled at, but they could hold their ground.


Chersonnesos, 564

Cniva was not given to deep thought, but the things he had seen in the last decade were enough to turn a donkey into a philosopher. God had spoken, and, being on the good side of the judgement, the Goth had little problem with the way the decision had gone. The Romans were everywhere now, of course, lords of creation as far as they were concerned, but the Avars and Bulgars and Qutrigurs were gone - gone almost like a bad dream, disappeared from the wide land over the horizon from where they had come into his lands. Cniva had been a fighter, a Roman soldier for ten years of his life, and he had felt acutely the cruel unfairness of having to stand against the fleeting, swarming hordes. What the new world would be like he did not know, but he felt sure that it held a better place for him and his kind. His plot of land on the plains of the peninsula was just part of that - a plot that a few short years ago had been subject and tributary to a Qutrigur Khan, and that now had bee granted to him and his fellow veterans by the Augustus. And for all he knew, there was more land all the way to where his people had come from in time immemorial, land for his sons and their sons, and their sons, to farm and grow strong on without fear. Land, too, to grow soldiers for the emperor. Cniva had no problem whatsoever with that.


Pyongyang, 552

King Jinheung of Silla surveyed the palace grounds with quiet detachment and no small amount of lingering wonder. His alliance with Seong had paid off more handsomely than anyone could have imagined. Far from merely yielding the Han valley, the armies of the two kingdoms had marched to take Hanseong and royal Pyongyang and Goguryo crumbled before them. The story seemeed to play out everywhere in these wondrous times - horsemen bereft of their mounts, unable to stand before the strength of infantry. Goguryo's power had lain in its cavalry, and now it was helpless before the attackers. Some outlying fortresses still held, some last defenders to make the lives of the allies miserable - but Jinheung did not lose much sleep over them. In fact, he already had greater plans. Seong of Baekche urged the vigorous prosecution of the war to gain full control of all Goguryo before the armies of Liang would turn east from their triumph against Wei to reclaim what the Han had once held. Not an unwise strategy by any stretch of the imagination but - one that lacked circumspicion. Jinheung was more than willing to allow Liang the northwestern reaches of Goguryo if he, in turn, could have the peninsula. His men at the Baekje court had made the requisite preparations - before the campaigning season was out, King Seong would meet an unfortunate end. Baekje would shortly cease to exist. Jinheung did not care who governed the forsaken wastes that, without good horses, were all but worthless. Times had changed. Those who did not understand this would have to make room for those that did. Already, his mind toyed with the visions of a greater future. Da Shila, its rule from Wa to the plains north of the Amnok. The Liang would not rule forever. Perhaps, with time, greater things were possible.


Mecca, 567

It was over. For many years the confederation of Mecca had stood against the Banu Ghassan, but the power of the northern enemy had proven too much in the end. A warrior might have the luxury to follow the call of glory, but a wise ruler understood the needs of his people and knew when the dictates of honour had been satisfied and the counsel of prudence need be heeded. Abu Sufyan ibn Harb would bow his head and accept the terms of the victor. Al-Harith had a reputation both as a ferocious warrior and a wise and moderate politician, after all, a man whose yoke had proven light enough on the men of Yathrib. Even the most galling demand had been sweetened - the men of the Banu Quraish would submit to baptism, but the cult at the Kaaba would not be interfered with. Mecca could retain its position as a sanctuary city, keep its trade network, keep its paramountcy among the Hijaz tribes - subject to the Ghassanids. But with an eye to the Axumite expansion in the south, having a powerful overlord to call on for protection might not be a bad thing at all. Formally embracing Christianity was not such a heavy price to pay.
 
How about the use of elephants, would it expand?

I don't see elephants being all that useful, to be honest. India and Southeast Asia would see more of them, but beyond that they're really mostly an expensive showpiece. They don't breed well in temperate climates, they tend to be demanding and finicky, they're way too smart to be docile, and most of the work they can do on the battlefield, disciplined infantry can do better.
 
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