39. The Mongols Were the Most Significant in a Long Line of Terrifying Steppe Nomads
The violence and fury of Genghis Khan’s Mongols was not the first nomadic eruption from the Steppe. For millennia, the region’s nomads had frequently ridden out of the vastness of their homelands, to raid, plunder, pillage, and otherwise terrorize the more civilized and prosperous lands on their periphery. If the nomads were unified under powerful warlords, there was always a potential for things to escalate from mere raids – bad enough as those were – and into devastating invasions that could extinguish empires.
38. Steppe Nomads Had the Advantage of Strategic Mobility
As with other Steppe nomads, the Mongols had some advantages that gave them an edge against their settled neighbors. Chief among those was their mobility: nomads grew up with, and often on, horses. Accustomed to a life on the move, the nomads were seldom tied to a specific location whose defense obligated them to stand up and fight. After raiding into the settled lands, the nomads were often able to depart with their booty before the civilized authorities had mobilized a response. If their victims pursued them into the Steppe, the nomads often had the luxury of choosing when, where, and whether to fight.
37. The Mongols’ Horses Gave them Battlefield Mobility
In addition to strategic mobility, the Mongols had some tactical advantages that gave them an edge over the armies of their civilized neighbors. First and foremost among those was that the nomad forces were entirely cavalry. Mounted on horseback, the nomads’ steeds gave them a battlefield mobility that made it difficult to force them to fight to the death. If a battle started going against them, the nomads could often ride away and retreat, to lick their wounds, and live to fight another day.
Another advantage enjoyed by Mongols and other Steppe nomads was their preferred weapon, the recurved composite bow. The Steppe bow was an ingenious marvel that combined animal horn on one side for compression, and elastic sinew on the other for tension, allowing it to store a to store a significant amount of energy in a relatively compact weapon that could be used from horseback. It could pack a greater punch and shoot further than simpler wooden stave bows. That created tactical mismatches that often gave Steppe warriors a standoff distance from which to kill in relative safety. Steppe nomads could thus attrit less mobile armies with arrows until they were weakened and demoralized, before swooping in to finish them off.
35. Life on the Steppe Produced A Deep Pool of Tough Warriors
Another advantage enjoyed by Mongols and their Steppe kin arose from the disadvantage of living in the Steppe: a harsh existence, much of it spent on horseback, that created a deep pool of hardy warriors. In the settled lands, only a minority could be mobilized as fighters because the majority were needed in the fields and workshops. The Steppe nomads had no fields and little manufacture, while their food source, their animal flocks and herds, could be cared for by children and women. That left nearly the entire adult male population of fighting age available as warriors.
34. Genghis Khan Was Preceded by Other Terrifying Steppe Warlords
Genghis Khan and his Mongols were not the first Steppe tribesmen to terrify the civilized world. In the 7th century BC, the Scythians – Iranian speaking nomads who inhabited the Steppe between China and the Carpathians – began raiding into the settled lands of the Middle East. In 612 BC, the Scythians played a key role in destroying the Assyrian Empire, forever extinguishing a nation that had existed for over a millennium, and that had dominated the Middle East for centuries.
The Assyrians were eventually replaced by the Persians as the Middle East’s dominant power. In 513 BC, Persian king Darius I sought to end Scythian raids on his empire by conquering them. So he assembled a huge army, and launched an invasion of Scythia along the western Black Sea coast, and into today’s southern Ukraine and Russia. The nomads simply retreated into the vastness of the Steppe, taking their families and herds with them, and avoiding the decisive pitched battle that Darius sought. Instead, they pulled back, laying waste the countryside in the Persians’ path, blocking wells and destroying pastures, while attriting the invaders with skirmishes and hit and run attacks.
Darius challenged the Scythians to stand up and fight, or admit their weakness and submit. The Scythian leader’s response, as recorded by Herodutus, highlights the difficulty the forces of civilization had in forcing Steppe nomads to fight if they did not want to: “This is my way, O Persian. I have never fled in fear from any man and I do not flee from you now … We have neither cities nor cultivated land for which we might be willing to fight with you, fearing that they might be taken or ravaged … As for lords, I recognize only my ancestors Zeus and Hestia … As to you calling yourself my lord, I tell thee to ‘Go weep’“. Darius was forced to give up and retreat, while the Scythians continued raiding for centuries.
In 200 BC, China’s emperor Gaozu, founder of the Han dynasty, was plagued by Xiongnu tribesmen raiding his realm, so he invaded their territory. The Xiongnu led the Chinese army on a merry chase through the Steppe, while harrying its supply lines and fraying its nerves with frequent skirmishes. When the Chinese were exhausted, the Xiongnu ambushed and trapped them in a disadvantageous locale, cutting them off from resupply and reinforcement. Emperor Gaozu bought his life with an appeasement treaty that recognized the Xiongnu as equals, sent their leaders Chinese princesses as brides, and sought to buy them off with tribute payments, face-savingly referred to as “gifts”.
Perhaps the closest analog to the medieval Mongol eruption was that of the Huns in the dying days of the Roman Empire. By the 5th century AD, the Huns ruled a Steppe empire that reached into Eastern and Central Europe. Scary to begin with, the Huns became outright terrifying under the leadership of Attila (reigned 434 – 453), who earned the moniker “The Scourge of God”. He terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, extorted tons of gold from Constantinople, invaded Gaul, and struck into Italy, before drinking himself to death on his wedding night.
29. The Mongols Were an Insignificant Tribe Before Genghis
Before Genghis, the Mongols were an obscure tribe, roaming the Steppe north of China. When not fighting neighboring tribes, Mongol clans and factions fought against each other, just as they had done for centuries. Then they were united under a charismatic and capable leader named Temujin. Having united the Mongols, Temujin went about conquering and absorbing neighboring tribes, and forming them into a Mongol nation. He then adopted the title Genghis Khan, or Universal Ruler, and set out to conquer the world.
28. Genghis Khan Survived a Horrifically Impoverished Childhood
Genghis Khan was born Temujin, the son of a minor Mongol chieftain. When Temujin was nine, his father was murdered, and tribal rivals then banished his widow and her family of five children to fend for themselves on the harsh Steppe. It was a veritable death sentence, but Temujin’s mother managed to keep her children alive. Or at least managed to keep most of them alive: the family endured such dire want and poverty, and things got so bad, that Temujin killed an older brother for refusing to share a fish.
27. Genghis Khan Grew Into a Tough but Charismatic Leader
Temujin’s grew into a tough but charismatic man, and as a youth, he began amassing a small and devoted following. He had an instinct for tribal politics, and he parlayed his steadily growing band of followers into bringing the disparate Mongol clans under his sway, one after another, until he had unified the entire tribe under his leadership. Temujin then implemented sweeping reforms, aimed at erasing intra-tribal distinctions. He accomplished that by the extreme but effective expedient of exterminating the Mongols’ fractious tribal aristocracy. He then combined the commoners into a unified tribe, bound by their personal allegiance to Temujin.
26. After Unifying the Mongols, Genghis Conquered Neighboring Tribes
After unifying the Mongols, Temujin set his sight on neighboring tribes. He began by taking on the formidable rival Tatars. After defeating them, he executed all Tatar males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, Temujin had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and the formerly squabbling tribes had been united into a Mongol nation. So a grand assembly was held that year, where he revealed a vision, endorsed by shamans, in which he claimed that the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky. The Mongols supported that vision, and proclaimed Temujin “Genghis Khan”, meaning Universal Ruler.
25. Genghis Khan Turned the Mongols Into a War Machine
To fulfill his heavenly mandate of ruling all under the sky, Genghis Khan set about transforming the Mongols into a war machine capable of conquering all under the sky. Genghis was a good judge of men and a great talent spotter, who created a military meritocracy, in which advancement was open to all who proved themselves capable, regardless of their origins. He subjected the hitherto fractious nomadic warriors to strict military discipline that was hard, but not overly harsh or unreasonable. And he drilled and trained them constantly.
24. Genghis Conquered With Numerically Inferior Forces
When people think of Mongol “hordes”, they often picture vast swarms of disorganized barbarians, who attacked in a wild charge, and overwhelmed their enemy with numbers and reckless savagery. In reality, however, Genghis’ Mongols seldom had numerical superiority over their foes. Instead, they swept across Eurasia and conquered a vast empire despite being severely outnumbered by their enemies. Indeed, Genghis and his warriors won their empire by routinely annihilating opposing forces that outnumbered them by factors of two to one, three to one, and four to one or more. Genghis’ men won despite their numerical inferiority because they were professionals, who were extremely good at warfare.
The Mongols and other Steppe nomads absorbed by Genghis Khan had been riding horses since they were toddlers, and had been taught how to master the bow and arrow since early childhood. That made them prime cavalry material when they joined Genghis’ army, where they underwent extensive training that transformed them into a mounted elite. Genghis saw to it that his men practiced the individual skills of archery and horsemanship almost daily, and had them train constantly to master unit tactics. He drilled them in maneuvers, formation changes, rotations, advances, retreats, and massed archery, until they became second nature.
Genghis Khan further revolutionized Steppe warfare by placing his warriors in a well organized hierarchical structure, with an effective chain of command. In place of the traditional ad hoc tribal units, based on kinship groups, he created a military organization based on decimals, with a hierarchy of ranks. At the base were squads of 10 men, known as an Arbans. 10 Arbans were combined into a company of 100, known as a Zuun. 10 Zuuns made a regiment of 1000, known as a Minghan. 10 Minghans were formed into a division of 10,000, known as a Tuman. Two or more Tumans were formed into armies. A separate imperial guard of 10,000 men protected Genghis and leading Mongol figures.
Sixty percent of Genghis’ Mongols were trained as light cavalry archers, and the rest were trained as armored heavy cavalry, wielding lances as their main weapon. One of Genghis’ favorite tactics, for which he incessantly trained his men, was to attrit the enemy from a distance with arrows. Once the enemy was judged sufficiently weakened, a signal would be given for a charge by the heavy cavalry, which skewered the enemy with their lances before setting about them with sabers. Another favored tactic in which he drilled his men was a feigned retreat, to lure the enemy into pursuing them. Then, at the right time and place, the pursued Mongols would suddenly turn and countercharge or surround their pursuers.
20. Genghis Created a Modern Military During the Medieval Era
Genghis’ military machine was centuries ahead of its time, with features that would not be seen again until the modern era. One Mongol military trait that seems remarkably modern was the wide flexibility and leeway afforded soldiers and officers in carrying out their orders. Genghis’ chain of command effectively communicated his overall objectives and the commander’s vision and aim. Mongol subordinates were not micromanaged, and initiative was encouraged, so long as they carried out orders promptly and effectively served the overall plan. After the Mongols’ collapse, that trait would vanish for centuries, and not reemerge until Helmuth von Moltke reintroduced it in the 19th century, and made it a hallmark of the Prussian and German military.
Genghis Khan’s military innovations also included the equivalent of modern army corps operations. His Tumans of 10,000 warriors, which were powerful enough to take on significantly larger enemy formations, usually operated independently, marching separately to sweep across and devastate wide swathes of enemy territory. They were kept in contact with each other and with army commanders in charge of two or more Tumans by a steady stream of message bearing couriers. If a Tuman made contact with an enemy force too big to handle on its own, the other Tumans could quickly be called in and concentrated into an army.
18. Napoleon’s Corps Innovations Were Remarkably Similar to Genghis Khan’s
Centuries later, Napoleon Bonaparte adopted a similar methodology of advancing on a broad front, with separate army corps, each of them strong enough to operate independently and handle any opposition short of a sizeable army. Making their own way, Napoleon’s corps advanced like the outstretched fingers of a hand. If and when one of them made contact with the main enemy force, it would engage in order to fix it in place, or otherwise maintain contact. In the meanwhile, the remaining corps would rush in and concentrate upon their sister corps in contact with the enemy, and what had been a widespread advance resembling outstretched fingers would transform into a clenched fist.
Genghis Khan and the lieutenants he trained were not conservative when it came to warfare. Having already revolutionized Steppe warfare and discarded many of the olden tribal ways of fighting, Genghis was not particularly wedded to any traditions. He and his subordinates were instead open minded and receptive to adopting the military techniques of others, provided they were effective. For example, the Steppe had no tradition of siege warfare, yet the Mongols successfully besieged and captured numerous cities by employing Chinese, Persian, Arab, and European specialists. Within a generation, the Mongols became the greatest practitioners of siege warfare since the ancient Romans.
16. Genghis Transformed Nomadic Warriors Into a Professional Army
Genghis Khan transformed the Steppe nomads from tribal warrior bands, into a disciplined professional army. He built on the inherent strengths of the nomads – toughness, excellent horsemanship, and martial skills such as archery. When those strengths were combined with professionalism and discipline, the Steppe nomads became a fearsome war machine that had no equal anywhere in the world during Genghis’ lifetime. Indeed, his military’s discipline and professionalism rivaled that of the Roman legions, and would not be matched until the modern era.
Genghis kicked off his quest to conquer the world by invading China, which was fragmented at the time into various dynasties. His first victims were the Western Xia Dynasty, whom he defeated and reduced to vassals by 1210. Next on his menu were the more powerful Jin Dynasty, whom he attacked in 1211. After a decisive Mongol victory in which hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were massacred, Genghis captured and sacked the Jin capital in 1215. The Jin emperor fled, and abandoned northern China to Genghis Khan.
14. Genghis Initially Planned to Massacre Tens of Millions Conquered Chinese
Genghis Khan’s victories left him in charge of conquered territories that included tens of millions of Chinese peasants. He did not know what to do with them, so he decided to kill them all, and let their farmlands revert to grasslands that could serve as pasturage for the Mongols’ herds. The Chinese were spared that genocide after Genghis’ advisors explained the concept of taxation to him, and he came to realize that many live peasants working the fields and paying regular taxes would produce great wealth for him.
13. Genghis Wiped Out an Empire to Avenge an Insult
Genghis’ campaigning in China was interrupted by a diplomatic incident that led to far reaching consequences. It was triggered when a governor in the powerful Khwarezmian Empire to the west executed Mongol envoys sent by Genghis to its emir. The emir then committed one of history’s greatest mistakes, when he scornfully refused to hand over the offending governor. So Genghis launched an invasion of Khwarezim in 1218, that overran and extinguished it by 1221. Its fleeing emir was relentlessly chased across his steadily dwindling domain, until he died, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as Genghis’ men closed in.
12. Genghis’ Reputation For Savagery Was Earned in the Khwarezmian Campaign
Genghis’ conduct during the Khwarezmian campaign cemented his reputation for savagery. Thousands of captives were marched ahead of Mongol armies as human shields. Millions died, as Genghis had entire cities massacred for offering the least resistance. After the capture of an enemy city, the cry “feed the horses!” signaled the Mongols to fall upon and rape, murder, and plunder. When operating deep in enemy territory, Genghis preferred to leave no enemies or potential enemies behind, and making few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, frequently ordered the killing of all who were encountered.
Genghis was chillingly methodical in his atrocities. He did not torture or unnecessarily abuse his victims, but had them killed quickly. Specific units were given the task of butchery, soldiers were assigned quotas of victims to kill, and the massacres were carried out swiftly. In short order, Genghis reduced Khwarezm from a prosperous empire to a depopulated wasteland. At the central mosque in the once thriving but now smoldering Khwarezmian city of Bukhara, he told the survivors that he was the Flail of God, and that: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have inflicted a punishment like me upon you“.
10. Genghis Committed His Greatest Atrocities Against the Western Xia
Genghis had reduced the Western Xia in China to vassalage in 1210, and for nearly a decade, they served him, assisting against the Jin and other enemies. However, when war broke out between Genghis and the Khwarezmians, the Western Xia took the opportunity to renounce their vassalage and ally with the other Chinese. Genghis responded to the betrayal by invading the Western Xia again in 1225, this time with the aim of exterminating them. He conducted a genocidal campaign, in which he systematically reduced and destroyed their cities, while massacring both the urban and rural populations.
9. Somewhat Aptly, Genghis Died In the Midst of a Genocidal Campaign
After two years’ of campaigning in Western Xia, during which his men carried out a series of massive massacres, each with victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Genghis’ quest to conquer the world ended when he fell off a horse in 1227, and died of his injuries. His death did not save the Western Xia: the Mongols continued the campaign, with redoubled ferocity in honor of their deceased leader. Today, the Western Xia are almost unknown beyond a small circle of academics, precisely because Genghis’ campaign to annihilate them was so successful.
8. The Mongol Conquests Continued After Genghis’ Death
By the time he died, Genghis had conquered an empire stretching from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and from the Siberian forests in the north down to Persia and Afghanistan in the south. The Mongol expansion did not stop with his death, however, as Genghis had left behind a formidable army, and capable military commanders whom he trained into getting the most out of the Mongol forces. The military machine forged by Genghis kept on conquering for decades after its creator’s demise.
Genghis was succeeded by his son, Ogedei, who was not his father’s military equal, but who was wise enough to know that he was not. From his capital in Mongolia, Ogedei directed simultaneous campaigns on multiple fronts that were separated by thousands of miles. He entrusted their execution to his father’s capable generals, whom he authorized to act independently within their theaters, subject to Ogedei’s orders, which were relayed via a swift horse relay communications network. By the time Ogedei died in 1241, the empire had reached its furthest southward extent, into southeast Asia, and westward all the way to the outskirts of Vienna.
6. The Mongol Empire Reached Its Zenith Under Genghis’ Grandson, Kublai Khan
Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294) completed the conquest of China, and founded the Yuan Dynasty, which unified China under a single ruler for the first time in centuries. By then, the Mongol conquests had been divided amongst Genghis’ descendants into separate khanates, all of which owed allegiance to Kublai Khan. His writ thus extended across history’s greatest contiguous land empire, stretching from the Pacific in the east to the Carpathian Mountains in the west.
5. The Fragmentation and Collapse of Genghis’ Empire
Although the various Mongol khanates owed nominal allegiance to Kublai Khan, they increasingly acted as independent entities, and took to warring amongst themselves. Kublai Khan, who was more focused on ruling his own realm in China – which was wealthier than all the other Mongol khanates put together – did little to interfere. He had come to appreciate the benefits of civilization, and decided to leave his roughneck relatives to deal with each other in their roughneck ways, so long as they did so far away.
By historical standards, Genghis Khan’s empire did not last long. Within two generations of his death, his descendants had fallen amongst themselves, and fragmented the great conqueror’s realm into rival khanates. By 1368, the greatest of those khanates, the Yuan Dynasty of China, had fallen, and Genghis’ empire had largely vanished. However, the world was due to experience a final great violent spasm from the Steppe, when Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), claiming descent from Genghis, sought to revive his empire. His rampage was, if anything, even bloodier than the Great Khan’s.
Tamerlane, a Muslim Turko-Mongol, was born in today’s Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the region’s ruling Khan. However, the Khan was murdered, triggering a power struggle. It ended with Tamerlane as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled. While his claimed descent from Genghis is dubious, Tamerlane justified his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire and re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers.
Tamerlane then spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery, while bringing fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean. Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize and edify.
Tamerlane is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. Extrapolated to current global population of 7.7 billion, Tamerlane’s rampage would be the equivalent of killing 385 million people today. His decades-long warpath finally came to an end in 1405 as he was preparing to invade China, but he took ill while encamped, and died before launching the campaign. He would prove to be history’s last major Steppe conqueror.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading