The horse-mounted nomads of central Asia created one of the most exciting and energetic cultures to ever exist. Their tribes mysteriously arose, one after another, in the heartland of Asia during the long centuries of ancient and medieval times. There were dozens of these tribes and the names of some of them—the Huns of Attila, the Mongols of Genghis Khan, the Tartars of Tamerlane—live on as legends of adventure and brutal conquest. Their homeland was the flat, endless, virtually treeless sea of grass that formed the Eurasian steppe—a staggeringly vast realm that stretched from what is now the Ukraine to Mongolia. To the people in the settled cultures and empires that bordered central Eurasia—Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, and others—the steppe (or “prairie”) frontier was a barrier beyond which civilization could not sustain itself. For the nomads, the steppe was the shaper of their existence and their highway to the ends of the earth. For centuries, the thundering of their horses’ hooves, pounding down out of the steppe, brought terror to settled civilizations from China to Rome.
For all practical purposes, the horse nomads of central Asia could not read or write. Only very late in the history of their cultural development did tiny numbers of nomads who were members of specifically the Kushan, Uighur, Gök Turk (and Gök Turk-derivative) and Mongol tribes acquire the ability to read and write their own languages. The horse nomads were thus incapable of recording their own histories beyond the paucity of outdoor rock inscriptions and scribe-written documents that have come down to us from the few tribes just named. Virtually all the written descriptions and narratives from their own time that we have about the nomads were the work of scholars of the settled civilizations who had contact with the nomads and who wrote about them as outside observers. Since the settled civilizations were frequently the victims of nomad depredations, many of these accounts are not very flattering. Only in those few cases where a specific tribe of nomads was able to conquer and form a ruling dynasty over a civilized culture did they acquire a more generalized ability to write and, thereby, acquire the ability to record their own story.
For centuries, treasure-hunting grave robbers traveled out onto the endless steppe to destructively plunder the earthen tomb mounds that the nomads left behind. But only in the last century have archaeologists examined these tomb mounds with scholarly care. The artifacts recovered and analyzed by the archaeologists are the only means we have to confirm or deny the written accounts of the ancient and medieval chroniclers.
The culture of the central Asian nomads is summed up in one word: HORSE. They were the first people in the world to climb on the back of a horse and learn to ride. Estimates of when they achieved this feat range from 4200 BC to 900 BC. From that moment, there was no looking back. They lived in the saddle. They had no buildings, no houses, no farms, no towns—they had no home and they did not want one. They were nomads. They spent their lives on their horses, roaming wild and free over the endless steppe. They put their children astride horses when they could barely even walk to start learning to ride. They put little bows and arrows in their children’s hands as soon as they could grip something. Writers in the civilized cultures who observed the nomads stressed that these people did everything on horseback, to include performing bodily functions.
The nomads obtained their food by hunting and from their livestock. They had great herds of cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and, of course, extra horses. They subsisted on meat and dairy products and had the physiques to prove it. At times of crisis, which were frequent on the unforgiving steppe, they would make a small incision in a vein in their horse’s neck and slurp a little of its blood while it obediently stood there. The favorite alcoholic beverage of these people was “koumiss,” which is fermented mare’s milk. One can still get it today in Mongolia. The people of the Scythian horse nomad tribe loved mad drunken binges on wine they obtained by trade with the Greeks. They also liked to “get high” on hemp they burned in metal containers in their tents.
The typical nomad day was: Wake up in the tent. Take down the tent and put it on a pack horse, pack camel, or in a wheeled wagon. Groom and saddle the horses. Get on the horses and herd the livestock in search of new, un-used-up pastures to graze the animals on. Cover a dozen or so miles of steppe in the course of the day. Break up the time with a horse-mounted hunt for wild animals. Stop for the night, get off the horse (darn!), set up the tent, and fix supper. Enjoy an evening of partying, story-telling (about that day’s hunt, probably) and general merriment. Go to sleep on animal skins.
The tents of the nomads were low, broad, and cylindrical in shape with conical roofs. They were generally made of felt. Today, this type of tent is called a “yurt” in the Turkic languages and a “ger” in Mongolian. The chiefs of the tribes often had large tents that were permanently set up on huge flat-bed wagons pulled by a couple dozen oxen.
All the artwork the nomads created had to be portable. A life on horseback left no room for paintings or for statues other than grave markers. Therefore, horse nomad royalty lavished magnificent ornamentation, full of precious metals and gems, on their weapons, saddles, horse harness, and on jewelry for their own persons. Their cooking and eating utensils, and their rugs for their tents, could reach the pinnacle of extravagance.
The religion of many horse nomads included the worship of the God of the Great Blue Sky, whom the Mongols called Tengri. Many tribes worshipped their own local pantheons of gods; some worshipped before a sword thrust into the ground. Shamanism was an essential element of religion in many horse nomad tribes. They buried their dead in tombs built of logs and covered by large earthen mounds. The more important the person, the bigger was his (or her!) tomb. The dead were buried with what they would need in the next world, including weapons, horse riding equipment, jewelry, food containers, and favorite horses who were ritually sacrificed for the funeral. Eventually, the great majority of the horse nomads converted to Islam, though a very few became Buddhist, Christian, or even Jewish.
In the Scythian tribes, warriors who were best friends swore oaths of blood-brotherhood. The two friends would cut themselves and mix their blood into a large goblet of wine. They would then drink from the goblet simultaneously.
The horse nomads were violent. Their tribes and clans fought amongst each other constantly—especially when a summer drought or a winter blizzard ruined the pastures or killed many of the livestock, thus making a food raid on a neighboring tribe necessary. It is a truism of history and anthropology that when agriculture enabled the creation of the first ancient settled cultures—with their towns and cities—people suddenly had wealth that was worth fighting over and the institution of formalized warfare was created. But the vast livestock herds of the horse nomads, together with the enormous pasture lands that sustained those herds, were likewise a form of conspicuous wealth worth fighting wars over. Military leaders who were defeated in battle by horse nomad armies, were, in a few famous documented cases, subject to having the tops of their skulls made into drinking cups by their victorious steppe-land enemies. The ancient Greek writer Herodotus wrote that it was common procedure for Scythian horse nomad warriors, who lived in what is now the Ukraine, to make gold-lined drinking cups from the skull tops of slain enemies, sawed off along the line of the brow. Ancient Chinese authors claimed the same practice existed among the Hsiung-nu tribe that lived in what is now Mongolia.
Modern readers are on their own to decide if such stories told by the Greeks, Chinese, and other settled cultures about the violent nature of the horse nomads are true or are merely malicious rumor. The problem confronting the modern historian of the horse nomads is how much of the generally hostile depictions of the nomads written by the ancient authors of settled cultures should be believed or disbelieved. The mostly illiterate nomads were at a severe disadvantage when it came to writing historical narratives in their own defense. But if we discount everything written about the nomads by the scribes of contemporary settled cultures, then, we will, in effect, “know” nothing about the nomads. Even the most productive archeological digs need an established textual narrative to place the dug-up artifacts in context.
Around the edges of the Eurasian steppe were settled, stationary, “civilized” cultures with houses, temples, farms, towns, and cities. At various periods in history, these included the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Russians to the west, the Persians in what is now Iran to the south, various Mesopotamian cultures to the southwest, and the Chinese to the southeast.
The horse nomads were contemptuous of the settled people as a race of dull, stay-at-home nothings who were slaves of the dirt they farmed and the houses they lived in. There was nothing in the psyche of the nomads to inhibit their enjoyment in terrorizing the settled people if that was the nomad inclination on any given day. But the nomads still envied what they perceived as the wealth and sheltered living of the settled cultures, even if the truth was that life was hard for a sedentary peasant farmer. Much of the time, the nomads carried on peaceful trade with the settled cultures. Sometimes they extorted wealth from the settled cultures with threats of violence if they didn’t get the treasure they demanded. Sometimes—and this is what always got the most attention from “civilized” writers—the nomads conducted rampaging raids into the territory of the settled cultures, snatching up all the loot they could carry, and vanishing back into the steppes again. And sometimes the nomads tried to completely conquer and subjugate the settled cultures, often (but not always) with success. As proud as the nomads were of their independent lifestyle, some part of their minds was always enticed by the prospect of being able to come out of the cold and wind and snow and rain and blazing summer heat to seek comfort under real roofs. It was when they succumbed to this temptation that they undertook the outright conquest of settled cultures.
At this point, I must digress to defend what I wrote in the preceding paragraphs against recent scholarship that asserts the contrary. Dr. Christopher I. Beckwith, whose book Empires of the Silk Road I made heavy use of in my research, argues against the traditional view of the horse nomads that I have adopted as my own in writing this work. Dr. Beckwith’s thesis is that the traditional view of the horse nomads as being particularly tough, particularly violent, particularly warlike people is a mistaken stereotype. I respectfully disagree. My reading of the literature, taking full note of the biases of the authors, tells me that the “stereotype” is fundamentally true. Quite obviously, the settled, sedentary, so-called “civilized” cultures of ancient and medieval Rome, Persia, Byzantium, and China built and used military organizations of tremendous power and destructiveness. And these “civilized” cultures provide plenty of gruesome stories about how disputes over succession to the throne were resolved with daggers in the dark. But—I still maintain that the horse nomads were an order of magnitude above their settled contemporaries in their individual and collective sheer hardness of character; in their individual and collective sheer quickness to employ violence to resolve disputes ranging from the ownership of a single deer carcass to the boundaries of an empire.
The horse-mounted, cattle-herding cowboy culture of the American Old West was not noted for its delicate sense of patience and forgiveness either. Various scholars have noted that livestock herding cultures tend to embrace a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality—whether they do their shooting with ancient bows and arrows or modern Colt revolvers. This tendency is probably due to the fact that the property most precious to herding people—their livestock—is so easily stolen (“rustled”). It is property that literally walks away in the company of thieves (“rustlers”). Whether on sparsely populated Eurasian steppe or American prairie, the relative absence of formal law enforcement encouraged people who were herders to enforce their personal interpretation of “law” with their own weapons that they held in their own hands. This cultural attitude toward resolving local personal disputes naturally morphed into a corresponding attitude toward resolving disputes between tribes and empires.
As Dr. Beckwith correctly points out, the nomads acquired the vast majority of their luxury goods through peaceful trade with the settled cultures. But even so, the fact remains that the nomads maintained an instantaneous readiness to revert to raids and warfare if the settled people did anything that impinged on trade.
Scholars such as Dr. Beckwith may disparage environmental determinism. But I assert that the harsh natural environment of the steppe—and the culture the nomads created to cope with that environment—were uniquely suited to producing people like Motun of the Hsiung-nu, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. These individuals embodied a combination of astounding personal warrior prowess plus the organizational savvy to build empires. And the individuals just named are merely the most famous of many such personalities the horse nomads produced. Non-steppe-based so-called “barbarian” cultures such as the Vikings produced similar “hero”-type figures. But from the “civilized” cultures, only Alexander the Great is able to rival them in all aspects. Time after time, Motun, Attila, Genghis, and Tamerlane showed themselves easily and casually capable of committing the most horrific atrocities of plunder and massacre. Only Adolph Hitler tops Genghis and his successors in destruction wrought and people killed—but while Hitler was a genius at making others carry out his evil for him, in his own person he was a weakling. Charging into battle astride a horse brandishing a sword or spear was something Hitler never did. It was something Motun, Attila, Genghis, Tamerlane, and the many horse nomad leaders who were like them did routinely.
The relative nature of numbers must be taken into account. Yes, throughout history, the armies of “civilized” cultures have killed staggering numbers of people, committing massacres and genocides along the way. But—these “civilized” armies had huge numbers of soldiers to do the killing. What is remarkable about the horse nomad warriors is how so few of them did so much killing relative to their numbers. Whereas the military aggression that built the so-called civilized empires of Rome and China was gradual, incremental, steady, and cumulative, the military aggression that built the nomad empires was wildly spasmodic. Therefore, the atrocities attendant on building the nomad empires were more frightfully concentrated in time.
Finally, it seems as if the horse nomads never produced anyone like Buddha or Francis of Assisi. It took settled village cultures that enjoyed some measure of peace and tranquility as the norm to produce those two.
All the foregoing causes me to doubt the revisionist thesis that the horse nomads were no more tough or aggressive than their settled contemporaries. I return to what made the horse nomads so exceptional.
The style of fighting of the Eurasian horse nomads was to shoot bows and arrows from horseback, just like the plains Indians of North America. They were incredibly skillful at this fighting mode. They could shoot arrows while galloping straight at their enemies, do a pivot turn, and then keep shooting arrows back over their horses’ tails as they galloped away. The modern phrase “parting shot” comes from “Parthian shot”—the Parthians being a horse archer tribe descended from the Scythians who once ruled what is now Iran. Nomad horse archers were so skilled they could have several arrows in the air at the same moment, all in a line, point to tail feathers, flying to strike the enemy. Also, the Huns in particular used lassos as weapons to snare and drag their enemies to death.
The unique type of bow employed by the Eurasian horse nomads made a decisive contribution to their military dominance over their foes. It was a type of bow that was a tour-de-force of ancient technology. It was the “composite recurve” bow. Once it was invented and then perfected by the first of the Eurasian horse peoples, its basic form remained unchanged for centuries aside from minor variations peculiar to the various tribes. It was a “composite” bow in that it was made from a number of different materials that were laminated to each other, that is, glued together in layers. Visualize a bow as forming the shape of an arc. The outer surface of the arc of the bow faces away from the archer. The inner surface of the arc of the bow faces toward the archer. The standard nomad composite bow was made with three layers. The middle or core layer was wood. The outer layer, that is, the layer away from the archer, was animal sinew. The inner layer, that is, the layer toward the archer, was made of animal horn. When the archer set the arrow to the bow string and pulled back on the string to bend the bow, the sinew on the outer layer of the arced bow resisted being stretched while the horn on the inner layer of the arced bow resisted being compressed. This double resistance of the bow’s material to being bent thus imparted tremendous forward impulsion to the arrow at the instant the archer released the string. But there was more. The horse nomad bow was a “recurve” bow in that the top and bottom tips of the bow were constructed so as to curve back slightly in the opposite direction to the overall curve of the entire bow. This device thus imparted an additional mechanical advantage of increased leverage to even further speed the arrow at its target. It is important to stress the truly blistering speed and impact power of arrows launched from horse nomad composite recurve bows. The foot soldiers of sedentary cultures typically carried large, thick, heavy shields on their left arms for protection from enemy blows. But horse nomad arrows frequently penetrated those shields to “staple” the shields into the arms of the soldiers carrying them. The psychological damage thus inflicted on the foes of horse nomads matched the physical damage.
Another critical advantage of the horse nomad composite recurve bow was how short it was from tip to tip, something on the order of three feet. Therefore, an archer on horseback could quickly and easily move his or her bow back and forth, left and right, over the back of the horse’s neck. The nomad horse archer could thus launch arrows in all directions with equal ease. The famous longbow of medieval Wales and England, which was made from a single, uniform piece of yew wood, equaled the nomad bows in the range and penetrating power of its arrows. But at six feet from tip to tip, it would have been ludicrous to attempt to shoot a longbow from astride a galloping horse. (The Japanese Samurai used bows that were extremely long from tip to tip from horseback. But their bows were unusually asymmetrical in shape. The distance from the handgrip to the top tip was much greater than the distance from the handgrip to the bottom tip, the bottom tip being the part that must be maneuvered back and forth over the horse’s neck. In western European wars, there were occasional units of horse-mounted longbow men. But they only used their horses for transportation. They dismounted to shoot or employed long-range shooting from astride horses that were standing as still as statues.)
It is telling that when the horse nomads invaded the forested lands of central Europe, the cool, damp weather of that part of the world caused the natural substance-based glues holding their laminated bows together to deteriorate. The mono-material Welsh/English longbow was immune to this problem.
Horse nomad sophistication in archery extended to the design of arrowheads. They had a plethora of different shapes of arrowheads, each optimized for a specific purpose, such as piercing an enemy warrior’s armor or stunning a bird in midflight.
Scholars of equestrian science assert that the one piece of horse gear most essential for effective horse riding is a sturdy, well-fitted bit to place inside the horse’s mouth, between its teeth, and which is connected to the reins. Without a well-designed and made bit, getting the horse to go where the rider wants it to go is nigh impossible. With a proper bit, the horse suddenly becomes as responsive as a top-class sports car to the commands of a skilled and experienced human rider. The great technical achievement of the very first Eurasian horse nomads was to invent the first effective bits to place in their horses’ mouths. It is striking to realize how superbly the early horse nomads controlled their steeds without the benefit of stirrups. Stirrups did not start to come into common use on the Eurasian steppe until sometime around 500 AD, which was quite late in the history of the horse nomads.
The horses the central Asian nomads rode, the horses that were so utterly precious to them and which were the foundation of their existence—well—those horses were small, scruffy looking, and not very pretty by modern standards of equine beauty. But those horses were tough. They were essentially abuse proof and would willingly carry on under conditions that would kill a beautiful modern Thoroughbred horse. Among the nomad horses, only those few horses of the rare Akhal-Teke breed were—and still are—famous for their beauty. This unique breed of horse was raised by and ridden by a small number of Turkic tribesmen. The Chinese referred to the Akhal-Tekes as the “Heavenly Horses” and were active in obtaining these horses for their own use. It is probable that the emotional attitude of the nomads toward their horses was practical and utilitarian, somewhat like the attitude of a modern American “Redneck” toward his battered, muddy pickup truck. The gushy sentimentality which modern recreational horse owners tend to feel toward their steeds probably would have seemed silly to the horse nomads of ancient and medieval times.
The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Chinese, and Russians all originally preferred to fight on foot, hacking their enemies at face-to-face distance with swords or thrusting spears. Most of their soldiers always fought on foot. However, these cultures all had to have part of their forces learn to fight on horseback to contend with the nomads. They never became as good at it as the nomads, though. After encroaching on the southern edge of the nomads’ steppe realm, the Chinese built the Great Wall in an often futile attempt to prevent the nomads from reclaiming the slivers of steppe the Chinese had taken.
The nomads’ mastery of horse-mounted archery gave them a nearly invincible combination of high mobility and missile power. That is, they could gallop circles around foes who were either on foot or ineptly attempting to ride—and, with their arrows, they could kill from a distance that was safe for themselves. Never coming within the reach of the clumsy masses of enemy foot soldiers, the galloping nomads would smother their foes with a hail of arrows. Only when the enemy army had been reduced to a bloody, arrow-riddled, panic-stricken shambles would the nomad horse archers sling their bows, draw their own swords and lances, and gallop in for the final face-to-face kill.
A favorite and standard horse nomad battle tactic was the feigned retreat. After making an initial attack on an enemy army, the nomad warriors would pretend to flee the battlefield in panic. Their wrongfully elated enemies would tend to chase after them with a false sense of triumph, forfeiting the cohesion of their organizational structure as a result. When the horse nomads judged the moment to be right, they would suddenly spin their horses about and launch a lightning-quick repeat attack with usually devastating effect.
The wild and free nature of horse nomad society did not translate into undisciplined, sloppy performance on the battlefield. To the contrary, well-disciplined organization was an important trait of horse nomad armies. The more militarily sophisticated horse nomad tribes differentiated in their organization between groups of horse-mounted archers wearing little or no protective body armor and groups of heavily armored horse warriors wielding swords and/or lances. The Mongols of Genghis Khan and his successors brought this mode of organization to its apogee.
The caveat must be entered that horse nomad military superiority was not absolute. The horse nomad style of war was most effective against sedentary culture armies when those armies came out onto the steppe—onto the nomads’ home turf—in order to attempt aggression against, and conquest of, the nomads. It was a Roman army attempting to achieve this purpose that was annihilated by Parthian horse archers at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. A certain number of Chinese armies suffered a similar fate at the eastern end of the Eurasian steppe. And nomad horse archers were always the ideal military force to conduct lightning-quick hit-and-run raids into the territory of settled cultures. The purpose and mode of operation of these raids was to employ surprise and mobility to inflict a lot of damage, snatch up a lot of loot, and then vanish back into the steppes again. It was never the purpose of a raid to linger on settled culture ground and take on settled culture armies in a head-on fight. But when the nomads came off the steppe and into the home territories of settled cultures for the purpose of permanent conquest they found the power of their style of war diluted. Swift, free-ranging maneuvers by masses of horse warriors are easy on the flat, treeless, wide open, hard ground of the steppe. But such maneuvers are restricted on ground that is cut up by irrigation ditches, villages, woodlots, forested hills and mountains, and sodden rice paddies. Whether at the Korean eastern end or the European western end of the steppe, nomad warriors encountered terrain that compelled them to fight in ways to which they were unaccustomed. A significant logistical problem that became more aggravated for nomad armies the farther they got off the steppe was lack of wide open pasturage on which to graze their thousands of horses. A consistently intractable problem for nomad would-be conquerors of settled cultures was large cities. Such cities were invariably protected by high defensive walls going all the way around. Horses can’t charge up tall vertical masonry. Usually, the only nomad recourse when confronted by a walled city was to surround it, cut off food supplies to it, set up camp, and wait for the defenders of the city to starve. Among the horse nomads, only the Mongols of Genghis Khan and his successors fully mastered the military problem of walled cities as described below.
The Mongols were two or three orders of magnitude of organization and sophistication above the previous waves of horse peoples in the art and science of war. Their excellent sense of military organization is seen in their system of employing multiples of ten. Ten horse-mounted warriors formed the smallest standardized military unit, ten such units formed the next larger level of standardized unit, and so on up to the total Mongol army. To be specific, ten warriors made an “arban”; ten arbans made a “jaghun”; ten jaghuns made a “minqan”; and ten minqans made a ten-thousand warrior-strong “tümen.” Several tümens comprised the total Mongol army.
Mongol military superiority manifested itself in a variety of ways. The efficiency and sophistication with which the Mongols employed scouts and spies to gather intelligence on the size, location, and activity of enemy forces would be the envy of any present day army equipped with spy satellites. When invading a foreign country, they had an uncanny ability to have several different large units of troops—that were separated from each other by hundreds of miles—move in perfect coordination with each other without the benefit of radio communications. Because every Mongol warrior had several horses, one of which he would ride while the others rested by walking along unburdened, the Mongols were able to keep all their warriors moving at high speed indefinitely. Once the Mongols brought their forces onto a localized battlefield, they efficiently coordinated the movements of their military units with a sophisticated signal system employing flags and drums. The Mongols made a practice of conducting mass wild game hunts as large-scale military unit training exercises. The imperviousness of the Mongols to brutally harsh weather enabled them to employ gambits such as launching invasions of foreign countries during the dead of winter when frozen solid major rivers would be no impediment to the movement of thousands of horse warriors.
As described above, horse nomad armies prior to the Mongols always had problems attacking the large cities of their sedentary, urbanized foes. The Mongols were different in that they did possess a large and state-of-the-art force of stone-throwing siege engines such as catapults and trebuchets, along with battering rams, to demolish the protective walls of enemy cities. But—and this is the critical point—every single one of the siege engineers serving in the Mongol army was a non-Mongol recruited from a previously conquered sedentary culture. While the Mongols conquered astoundingly vast areas of steppe and desert lands quickly and with apparent ease, their conquest of urbanized China was slow and difficult.
In the year 1235 AD, a Mongol war council planned simultaneous invasions of Korea and Poland. Korea and Poland are approximately five thousand miles apart. And in 1235, the fastest means of communication was a messenger on a horse. This anecdote is perhaps the best proof there is of the truly staggering awesomeness of Mongol military super-competence.
Many of the nomad tribes had sexually egalitarian societies. Some of these tribes had women who rode, hunted, and fought in war as equals of their men. It seems certain that these real-life women gave rise to the ancient Greek legends of the Amazons as recorded by Herodotus and other authors living at that time. Modern archeologists have dug up numerous graves across Eurasia in which a female skeleton had bowed leg bones, attesting to a life on horseback. Archaeologists working in the Ukraine have excavated the graves of large numbers of horse nomad warriors dating to the 4th and 5th Centuries BC. As of this writing, archaeologists have dug up well over a hundred such graves in which a woman was buried with weapons of various kinds and horse riding gear at her side. This number of female graves containing weapons and horse gear works out to be about twenty percent of all graves containing weapons and horse gear. Another statistic from a recent archaeological campaign is that about fifteen percent of all female graves examined contained weapons and horse gear. Scientific analysis of these women’s remains shows that a number of them died as young adults, that is, at the appropriate age for military service. To complete the picture, several skeletons of apparent women warriors show obvious evidence of combat wounds such as arrowheads embedded in bones or blows to the skull. It made sense that select women would become warriors in the nomad tribes. The nomads’ favorite style of fighting was shooting arrows from the back of a galloping horse—and a healthy, athletic, well-trained woman can shoot a swift arrow from a swift horse every bit as well as a man. No Greek, Roman, or Chinese woman could serve as an equal in an army that preferred to fight on foot, hacking away with a heavy sword or spear and pure brawn. The modern-day remnants of the ancient horse nomad cultures have a few women who ride and bear arms in their local militias.
It would be intellectually responsible to add the caveat that we should not claim too much from the apparent female warrior graves dug up by archaeologists. Interested readers of today are apt to want to conclude that women rode and fought as equals with their men in exotic, easily romanticized cultures of centuries ago. In our era of the wildly successful pop culture icon Xena the Warrior Princess, there is a strong popular need to find the “real” Xena in an ancient Ukrainian tomb mound. Confirmation bias is a problem in an issue such as this. Still—when peer-reviewed archaeologists dig up the graves of women who were buried with horse gear and weapons in precisely that region of the world where the ancient Greek author Herodotus claimed the Amazons lived, a certain amount of credulity is justified. The fact that women in the modern “stan” countries have low social status may perhaps be due to the pernicious influence of Islam, which was a late-arriving outside influence in central Asia.
Sometimes, even pop culture at its most “pop” can fulfil a worthy scholarly purpose, including the aforementioned “Xena” phenomenon. The Xena TV episode titled “The Debt, Part I,” from Season Three, provides a fun, campy—but essentially accurate—primer in the culture, politics, and warfare of the Eurasian horse nomads on the ancient Chinese frontier. Other Hollywood products providing worthy views of the horse nomads are cited below in the appropriate places.
As the centuries of ancient and medieval times rolled on, a repeating pattern emerged in the relationship between the horse nomads and the settled cultures. Every few generations, a new wave of nomads would suddenly erupt out of the steppe to attack and terrorize the settled cultures, whether Roman, Russian, Arab, Chinese, or whatever. It is impossible at the remove of several centuries to ascertain with certainty what exactly caused any given nomad eruption. The best speculation is that the eruptions were caused in varying proportions by population growth spurts stressing the resource base, droughts drying up the pasture lands, the emergence of a particularly aggressive and charismatic leader, and perhaps the confluence of simple greed and boredom.
Sometimes, the settled cultures were successful in defending themselves against nomad aggression, though at great cost. Sometimes, the nomads agreed to become mercenaries fighting in the defense of the settled culture they bumped into. This meant they would soon find themselves fighting against the next wave of their kindred nomads to come rolling out of the steppe behind them. It was always risky for a settled culture to hire a nomad tribe as mercenaries. This was because it was always possible the nomad mercenaries could turn on their employers. Sometimes this did happen. Other times, when a settled culture was having a civil war or revolution, one settled faction would invite a tribe of nomads in to help fight the other settled faction. When this happened, the nomads were invariably happy to accept the invitation, enter the territory of the settled culture, and participate in the settled culture’s fight. Obviously, they expected fat rewards from the side they were helping. And—the nomads could always exercise the option to attack both sides of the settled culture’s civil war. Finally, sometimes the nomads would succeed in completely conquering a settled culture and then ruling over it as dominant nobility and royalty. For example, a few horse nomad-derived dynasties established stable, long-lasting regimes that ruled over large tracts of northern China or sometimes all of China. Of these, the single outstanding example is the Mongol-derived Yuan dynasty, established by Kublai Khan (who was a grandson of Genghis Khan) and which provided all of China with sound government from 1279 to 1368.
The key point was that the number of nomads was always tiny compared to the number of people in the settled culture. An economy of herding livestock across the harsh steppe in a constant search for new pastures can support only a very few people. An economy of settled farming can support millions of rural peasants, townspeople, government bureaucrats, and so on. The nomads were frequently outnumbered ten to one by the same settled people they were terrorizing or ruling over. When the settled people referred to huge numbers of nomads attacking them in vast “hordes” it was a misnomer. The settled people probably got the impression of great numbers of nomads due to the way the high speed and mobility of the nomads enabled the same small group of horse warriors to appear in several different scattered locations seemingly at the same time. Even if the word “horde” is derived from the Mongol word “ordu,” which denotes a type of military unit, the sense of the word “horde” as an enormous disorganized mob has simply no application whatsoever to horse nomad armies.
The nomads had the military advantage of their complete mastery of the almost invincible fighting style of horse archery. Also, everyone in their culture knew how to fight in this way. As nomads, everyone in their tribe could be a horse-mounted herdsman or wild game hunter one moment—and in the next moment everyone in the whole tribe could be instantly transformed into a battle-ready warrior horse archer. In the settled cultures, with all their dozens of different skills and trades, only a small percentage of the males could be trained and paid to be full time soldiers. Also, the frequently brutal harshness of trying to make a day-to-day living on the steppe forged a people who were fundamentally tough, resilient, and self-reliant—precisely the traits of the successful warrior. These factors enabled the nomads to dominate up to ten times their number of settled people.
The problem for the nomads started after they completed their conquest of the settled people. The illiterate nomads had no idea how to operate irrigation systems for the farms, maintain roads, build buildings, manufacture commercial goods, or do anything that had to be done in a settled culture to keep things functioning. The conquering nomads were completely dependent on the settled people whom they had just subjugated to do all these things for them. The nomad rulers had to rely on technical advisers from among the settled people for advice on what to tell all the millions of peasants and tradesmen to do. More positively, the first one or two generations of new nomad rulers—once they became somewhat tamed—brought new energy and progressiveness to the settled cultures they ruled.
Finally, given the huge disparity in numbers between the nomads and the settled people, it was inevitable that the nomads would be assimilated into the people they had conquered. Within a few generations of their conquest, the nomads would always become as soft and decadent as the huge mass of people they had conquered—and indistinguishable from them. They were now vulnerable to the next wave of ambitious nomads to come raging out of the steppe. Genghis Khan started the huge Mongol Empire that within three generations conquered most of Asia and a large part of Europe. The Mongol Empire grew to include all of China. Genghis Khan’s great-grandson ruled China as a Mongol emperor. Genghis Khan was born on the dirt floor of a tent with the wind howling outside. His great-grandson was born on silk pillow cushions inside a Chinese palace. After another few generations, the Chinese people rebelled and drove their now soft and weak Mongol masters out of the country. And centuries after this event, another nomad tribe, the Manchus, conquered China to repeat the process.
This situation lasted for centuries. The culture of the nomads never changed. They never improved their technology. Their bows and arrows stayed the same for over a thousand years. Meanwhile, the people in the settled cultures developed modern technology with modern workshops and factories that could make guns. The guns changed everything. The guns were the first weapons in history that could over-master the compound recurve bow on battlefields on the nomads’ home turf. And the nomads were simply incapable of developing the modern industrial technology needed to make guns. Starting in the 16th Century, Russian and Chinese armies with guns and modern military organization started to attack and conquer the nomads on the steppes. The end came in the 19th Century. At the exact same time that the U.S. Army destroyed the freedom of the horse-mounted plains Indians, the Russian Army subdued the last of the Turko-Mongols in central Asia. And yet . . . today, the numerous Turkic “stan” countries have achieved independence from the former Soviet Union; albeit the formerly Soviet Russians were probably happy to see them go their own way, as evidenced by Boris Yeltsin’s policies. Perhaps most significantly, the people of post-communist Mongolia are leaving the towns to return to their ancestral ways on the steppe. Fortunately perhaps, today’s Mongol horse nomads are more interested in hosting lucrative adventure tourist groups than they are in world conquest. And the typical modern Mongol nomad ger tent has a satellite dish affixed to it with a TV inside.
But to drop back in time again and reconsider part of the discussion: Even in ancient, pre-gunpowder times there were things a particularly robust, well-governed settled culture could do to hold the nomads at arm’s length. The ancient Chinese came up with a counter-strategy against the horse nomads that was sometimes successful against the nomad empires that came before the Mongols. It was a strategy that was not military but economic, cultural, and psychological. It was a strategy that became military only in its final consummation phase. The Chinese sought to weaken the physical and moral character of nomad regimes by gradually corrupting them with a steady flow of luxury goods. At the same time, they would attempt to sow internal dissension and conflict within a nomad nation with sophisticated deceitful rumor campaigns. The Chinese sought to capitalize on succession disputes in nomad royal dynasties by backing different candidates for a nomad throne at different times, thus encouraging nomad civil wars that could only benefit the Chinese. Nomad states that had thus been weakened by Chinese intrigues could then be attacked militarily by Chinese armies with some prospect of success. Astute Chinese generals knew that the best time to attack the nomads was at the end of winter when the nomads’ horses—and the nomads themselves—were at their weakest from hunger and disease. Those Chinese dynasties which were most effective at fighting the nomads were often those dynasties which had only recently been nomads themselves, such as the Turkic Toba who had successfully set themselves up as emperors ruling over northern China. When an indigenous Chinese dynasty was in power, such as the Han, it took exceptionally strong leadership such as that provided by Wu-ti, the famous “Martial Emperor,” to wage victorious war on the nomads. The sedentary Chinese could, and sometimes did, conduct successful aggression against the horse nomads but only when a whole cluster of circumstances were working in Chinese favor. A similar paradigm played out at the European end of the steppe when the settled cultures enjoyed the strong—but rare—leadership of a Marcus Aurelius, a Flavius Aetius, or a Charlemagne. Generally in the West, the only thing that could be consistently relied upon to stop the nomads was the high, massive, multi-tiered, essentially impregnable city walls of Constantinople.
But—as long as any given horse nomad nation could maintain its unity, discipline and sense of purpose—as long as it had the strong personal leadership to uphold these qualities—then that nomad nation held the advantage throughout the pre-gunpowder era.
The importance of strong personal leadership among the horse nomad tribes cannot be overemphasized. The sedentary empires of the Romans, Byzantines, and the successive Chinese dynasties were organization-based empires. They lasted for centuries. They were kept functioning by successive generations of bureaucrats who were usually able to hold things together through the reigns of the occasional weak or incompetent or insane emperor. Over the centuries out on the steppe, there was a succession of horse nomad empires. These were pure nomad empires that were something totally different from the occasional nomad dynasty ruling over a settled culture as described above. In stark contrast to the sedentary empires, these nomad empires were personality-based. They were created—and they were maintained over time—by nothing but the charisma, skill, and personal brute force of the tough guy at the top. The instant heroic leadership at the top became lacking, a horse nomad empire was prone to rapidly disintegrate. Any horse nomad empire that lasted longer than three generations of a ruling dynasty should be considered remarkable for its longevity. The overwhelming impression one gets of the horse nomad empires is their ephemeral, here today, gone tomorrow quality. Time-phased maps of old Eurasia show steady-state situations at the Roman-Byzantine western end and the Chinese eastern end. But they show a churning whirlpool in the steppes between. It seems the nomad empires that survived the longest were the ones that became semi-settled down and semi-“civilized” such as the Khazars and the Uighurs. But having lost their warrior’s hard edge, they became vulnerable to aggression by others.
A recurring theme in the history of the horse nomads of Eurasia is the chain reaction effect. Suppose, for example, that a certain tribe receives a severe defeat at the hands of the Chinese at the far eastern end of the steppe. That tribe becomes refugees fleeing west across the steppe, seeking new pastures. In so doing, they violently displace the next tribe to the west, who in turn violently displace the next tribe to the west, who do the same to the next tribe—and so on for thousands of miles and a few generations until some tribe or settled kingdom at the west end is comprehensively wiped out. Variations on this theme played out several times on the steppe as the centuries went by. Sometimes the displacement chain was relatively short in both distance and time and sometimes it was enormous. But the mechanics of its operation were remarkably consistent.
The influence of the ancient and medieval Eurasian horse nomads on modern popular culture has been significant. The fictional “Riders of Rohan,” also called “the Rohirrim,” from the fantasy epic books and movies The Lord of the Rings, and the fictional “Dothraki” people from the Game of Thrones fantasy books and TV series, are obviously modeled on the Eurasian nomad cultures of factual history, and quite closely so. The fair-skinned, blond-haired Rohirrim, with their fictional, author-invented language based on ancient Anglo-Saxon, are a close match for the actual Germanic Ostrogoth horse warrior tribe of ancient times. At the same time, their use of heavy protective armor, conical helmets, and long spears when riding into their fictional battles call to mind the real world ancient Sarmatian tribes. The swarthy and violently uncouth imaginary Dothraki, with their lack of sophisticated body armor, are a clear echo of the factual ancient Huns. And—the iconic pop culture figure Conan the Barbarian is described in modern pulp fiction as being a member of the Cimmerian tribe; the Cimmerians being one of the earliest named tribes known to have lived in the Ukraine in factual history.
There were dozens of distinct horse nomad tribes, representing numerous different ethnicities, that emerged from central Asia during the ancient and medieval eras. Given their own illiteracy and the hostility of their literate neighbors, the history of the horse nomads is obscure, fragmentary, and confused. It is rife with contradictions about this or that tribe’s actual ethnic identity and relationship to other tribes. A useful tool for trying to sort out the chaotic history of these people is a typology, a “scorecard,” that attempts to tabulate who did what to whom in what sequence where and when.
In this typology of the central Asian horse tribes, the five major ethnic groupings of them (Iranians, Huns, Magyars, Turks, and Mongols) are listed with Roman numerals. In the case of those major ethnic groupings that came on the scene in successive “waves” spaced out over time, those groupings are listed with as many Roman numerals as they have waves. The major tribal groups or nations within each ethnic group are denoted with solid black circle-style bullets. Further tribal and clan subdivisions are indicated with outline black circle bullets, then with solid black square bullets, and so forth. All groups who are denoted with any type of bullet in the home-page outline are also denoted with bold font in their full-text entry. A very few selected groups who do not have a listing of their own, but who have some unique importance to the story, are denoted with bold font within the body of the text.
However, the reader should be warned that the whole idea of sorting the nomad tribes according to ethnicity is made difficult by the fact that many tribes were extremely loose confederations. People of any number of different ethnicities could, and did, attach themselves to the core group of a tribe as the survival needs of the moment dictated. The original ethnic identity of the Huns is especially problematic. The Hsiung-nu tribe was probably the root stock of what became the Huns. The Hsiung-nu were probably of either Turkic or Mongol ethnicity, but the sources are so contradictory that it makes the most sense to call them “Turko-Mongol.” In any event, the Hsiung-nu and their Hun descendants carved out a destiny for themselves that made them distinct from the other Turkic and Mongol peoples. For this reason, and not from any clear difference in ethnicity, the Huns form their own major category in this typology.
Of the five major ethnic groups, the Iranians were (and are) round-eyed Indo-European white people. The Magyars, rather remarkably, were an offshoot of the same ethnic group that today comprises the population of Finland. The originally fair-skinned Magyars would have become darker as they intermingled with other ethnic groups during their migration, that lasted several generations, to what is now Hungary. The Huns, Turks, and Mongols began as almond-eyed Oriental people. The Huns apparently became a mixed race group that grew progressively more “white” as they migrated west and intermingled with numerous different tribes. The term “Hun” came to denote a multi-ethnic confederation rather than a specific ethnicity. The practice during World War I of referring to the Germans as “Huns” was a gross inversion of historical truth given that the ancient Germanic peoples suffered terribly at the hands of the originally Asiatic Huns. At the beginning of their respective histories, the difference between the Turks and Mongols was one of language more than physical appearance. The Mongols of today retain the east-Asian features of their ancestors. The various modern Turkic peoples living in the central Asian “stan” countries display a mixture of east Asian and European features in varying degrees. After centuries of assimilation, the people of the modern country of Turkey have mostly European-like features.
I must emphasize that this work contains no original research on my part, though the wording on the pages is my own. This work is merely my attempt to bring together at one place, at one time, in a quickly digestible format, hundreds of bits of information that I have gleaned from dozens of different books and journal articles written by dozens of different authors. This work is merely a “one-stop-shopping” synthesis of the scholarly labors of others and it is nothing but a synthesis. I invite readers to obtain a more specific idea of my debt to numerous scholars by consulting my “Bibliographical Essay” and “Acknowledgements” sections below.
Where the source books I consulted disagree on the year in which an event took place, and where I have no reason to consider one book more accurate than another, I state both years connected by the word “or.”