The topic of the history of the central Asian horse nomads is a dauntingly difficult one. They were almost completely unable to write about themselves and most of their contemporaries who wrote about them hated them. The ancient and medieval sources modern scholars have to work with are obscure, confusing, and contradictory. This sense of obscurity and confusion is grievously evident in the writings of present-day scholars who attempt to take on this topic.
Compared to other areas of historical inquiry, this one has a true dearth of current scholarship, especially written in English. There have been less than a dozen books in English published in the past several decades that attempt to treat this subject in its totality. The best one of these, The Empire of the Steppes, by René Grousset, was originally written in French in 1939 and translated into English in 1970. It is now badly dated because of recent archaeological discoveries and because of recent scholarly work with ancient and medieval texts. Nonetheless, it is still, more than seventy years after its first publication, the one simply indispensable book in this field. For sheer size, completeness, comprehensiveness, and clearly-explained fine-grained detail, no recent book I am aware of can top it. The more recent books that attempt to address the nomad history of the Eurasian steppes in its totality all strike me as being condensed redactions of Grousset. While being able to take advantage of recent advances in archaeology and textual analysis, these more recent books all suffer from compression and omission of pieces of the story. While conducting my research in more recent books, it happened frequently that I felt I was missing some small but important little plot twist in the narrative of who did what to whom when among the myriad named personalities in the politics and warfare of the steppe. Invariably, I found the cure for my confusion in the pages of Grousset.
Three books that were absolutely essential to me in building the basic structure of this synthesis are historical atlases. In all three of these books, every odd-numbered page is a map depicting a “snapshot” of the political-military situation in Eurasia for any given year. Every even-numbered page is succinct text explaining what is going on on the map on the facing odd-numbered page. Quickly flipping the pages of these three books creates the effect of an old-fashioned hand-cranked moving picture viewer with the boundaries of empires and the waves of tribal migrations moving back and forth before one’s eyes. These three books are The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, and The Penguin Atlas of Modern History (to 1815), all of them by that indispensable man, Colin McEvedy. The history of the Eurasian horse nomads is a chaotic, highly kinetic tangle of peoples constantly on the move and constantly bumping into each other, bouncing off each other, and trampling on each other. McEvedy’s brilliant approach of interweaving sequential maps with explanatory text is essential to preserving the sanity of anyone trying to sort it all out.
The book Attila and the Nomad Hordes by David Nicolle achieves the remarkable feat of clearly and concisely explaining who several of the horse nomad tribes were and what their relationship to each other was. This book was superbly helpful in building the middle part of my chronology, that is, between the Alan tribe on the early end and the second wave of Mongol tribes on the late end. Dr. Nicolle’s several other books are a likewise welcome part of my bibliography.
The books that have come out since Grousset which attempt to do what Grousset did, that is, present a general overview of the history of the steppe nomads in its entirety, are few and precious. Even more few and more precious are those recent books that aspire to do what Grousset did and that actually do it well. Among these are A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia, Volume I: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire by David Christian, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith, and The History of Central Asia, Volume One: The Age of the Steppe Warriors by Christoph Baumer. (The reader should note that the subsequent volumes by Baumer have not been published as of this writing. When they do come out, they will be equivalent to Grousset’s achievement.) None of these three books exceed Grousset in terms of size and seamless continuity of detail. But each of them contain substantial blocks of information on key aspects of the steppe nomads’ story employing recent scholarship and drawing on archaeological finds that Grousset did not live to see. Whether it be Christian providing superbly thorough narrative and analysis of the Khazars and the Uighurs; whether it be Beckwith clearly explaining who the Scythians really were and what they really did; or whether it be Baumer expertly tying the latest archaeological finds to the existing historical narrative, all three of these scholars were simply essential to my efforts to make my work of synthesis be worth something.
While no one author since Grousset has surpassed his achievement, there is a single recent book containing the works of no less than eleven authors that stands as a near equal with Grousset’s book. This book is The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor and published in 1990. Within the covers of this book are fifteen articles, each one authored by one of eleven current scholars of early Eurasian history. (A few authors wrote more than one article.) Most of these articles are devoted to one single Eurasian horse nomad tribe, be it Hsiung-nu, Huns, Turks, or whomever. While the fifteen articles fully equal Grousset in terms of clarity and depth of detail, the Cambridge volume inevitably suffers from the weakness common to all such anthologies: lack of contextual connective tissue between the disparate chapters. For this reason, the seamless narrative written by Grousset alone is still the king of the scholarly steppe.
I must make particular note of the numerous books and journal articles by Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball. Her works were vital to me in understanding the story of the very earliest of the horse nomad tribes, to include the likely participation of women as warriors in some of those tribes.
There are numerous recent books that treat some small aspect of the history of the Eurasian steppe in isolation, such as archaeological discoveries pertaining to one particular horse nomad tribe or current theories about the timeline of ancient horse domestication or some such issue discussed at the microcosm level. And there are numerous books that describe the history of the people of the steppe in passing while describing the history of China, Russia, or Rome as their main theme. I was able to gather and combine information from the first sort of book and scrape information from the second sort of book to further strengthen my work of synthesis.
My strategy in building the work of synthesis you hold in your hands was to construct a skeleton first and then to put meat on the skeleton. The skeleton is the basic sequential listing of horse nomad tribes by their name, ethnicity, location, and chronological order, together with the most rudimentary sense of who did what to whom. The scholars on whose work I drew most heavily to build the skeleton are Grousset, McEvedy, and Nicolle, for the reasons I described above. The meat of this work is all the detailed information that strives to make contextual sense of the skeleton. And the scholars whose work did the most to provide me with the “meat” I needed are Christian, Beckwith, and Baumer, again, for the reasons I described above. I need to add the authors whose works are collected in the Cambridge anthology to the scholars I just named.
The currently available books on the horse nomads, whether their approach is comprehensive or restricted to some small aspect, all suffer from the exact same confusion and contradiction as the ancient and medieval sources. This is especially true in trying to sort out the ethnicities of the various tribes. For example, modern books disagree on whether the Ju-juan were of Hunnic or Mongol stock. Sometimes, books seem to contradict themselves between one chapter and the next. After a while, the modern reader senses that trying to distinguish Turkic, Tartar, Hunnic, Mongol, Turko-Mongol, and so forth is an exercise in futile hairsplitting of what can never be known for certain.
All one can do is weigh each source and try to come up with the best synthesis possible. This is what I strove to do in this typology.
In writing any given entry for a tribe in the typology, I cross-referenced up to five or six different sources. I picked and chose among their contradictions and fragmentary information as best I could to come up with something that seemed internally consistent.
I have not used footnotes or endnotes for one simple reason: If I attempted to explain in footnotes how I distilled each few lines of my typology from all the fragmentary and contradictory sources, then the footnotes would run for three or four times as many pages as the typology itself.
Here follows a bibliographical listing of all the works I consulted to complete this project.