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Book Review:
Attila the Hun stars in history of steppes conflict

Empires of the Steppes: A History of the Nomadic Tribes Who Shaped Civilization

Kenneth Harl (2023)

Kenneth Harl's history of nomadic warriors covers more than 4000 years of the history of multiple nomadic warring tribes and empires in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Harl's history has so wide a range and such detailed accounts of wars, diplomacy, the rise and fall of empires, social mores and spiritual beliefs of multiple peoples, it is was often difficult to assimilate.

Nevertheless, it is well worth reading (at least in parts) for the following stories:

The never-ending conflict between Chinese dynasties and nomadic tribes at the northern and western boundaries of China. Chinese emperors often underestimated and misjudged nomadic warriors whom they tended to view as little more than brigands interested in raiding and looting Chinese cities close to China's borders. Parts of Northern China were periodically conquered by powerful nomadic groups (more than tribes) and the Mongols eventually conquered all of China during the late 1200s, which they ruled for about a hundred years. At the time the Mongols conquered China, Mongolia' s population was no more than one million and possibly much less, while China's population was at least 50 million, or possibly greater, and 

The story of Attila the Hun, who defeated Roman emperors, and his successors (chapters 12-13). Harl quotes the sole surviving contemporary description of Attila: 

 "He was a man born to shake the races of the world, a terror to all lands, who in some way or other frightened everyone by the dread reports noised abroad about him, for he was haughty in his carriage ... so that the proud man's power was to be seen in every movement of his body. A lover of war, he was personally restrained in action, most impressive in council, gracious to supplicants, and generous to those to whom he had given his trust. He was short of stature with a broad chest, massive head, and small eyes. His beard was thin, and sprinkled with gray, his nose flat and his complexion swarthy, showing the signs of his origin."  (p. 184) Attila "despised ostentation and 

never mistook ceremony for the reality of power." "He was modest in his dress and abstemious in his habits ... He shared the hardship of his men."  Harl asserts that Attila had a "strategic genius of the first order."   


During the spring of 451, Attila's armies devastated Roman Gaul, sacking multiple cities. In the following year, he invaded Italy but halted pressing on to Rome. Attila died that winter. His name became synonymous with barbaric cruelty and destruction. In a pattern common in Harl's history, Attila's sons fought over the succession. Harl writes: "Attila's empire did not so much collapse as fragment, as was the case of so many steppe empires."     

The strongest part of Harl's book is his enthralling account of the rise and triumph of Genghis Kahn (named Temujin as a boy), whose Mongol empire came as close as any has of conquering the world. Every part of this story is unlikely to the point of fantastic, from Temujin's escape from captivity in adolescence, where he had been placed in stocks after killing his half-brother, to his consolidation of Mongol tribes that had been fractious and undisciplined for many decades, to his ten year struggle with Jamuka, his great friend from his early years, for absolute power, a struggle Jamuka appeared to have won at one point, to his many conquests (including Northern China), and the seemingly unstoppable spread of the Mongol empire across the world. One of Genghis Khan's main leadership strengths was to promote military leaders on the basis of competence. His armies were expertly led which was often in contrast to his enemies.   

According to Harl, the Mongols are the only empire that ever conquered Russia, and they did so initially by attacking Russia in winter. The Mongols were great horsemen, without mercy, capable of massacring the citizens of any large city that did not surrender without a fight. In some instances (e.g. the fall of Baghdad), Harl asserts, the Mongols massacred hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Mongol expansion into Europe halted in Hungary in 1241 only because the Mongol emperor thousands of miles away died, which led to a succession crisis.  The Mongols were eventually checked in Southeast Asia because of its terrain and in Egypt and Japan because the Mongols (for all their adaptability in war) never were able to develop a strong navy. 


However, what ultimately defeated the Mongols was internal fragmentation, i.e., the struggle for power among sons and grandsons of Genghis Kahn and his descendants. 

Every empire struggles with the tendency to fragmentation, and eventually all succumb to internal power struggles. Interestingly, the Mongols whose cruelty strains to the imagination even after the horrors of 20th and 21st century, are often praised by historians for their religious tolerance. The Mongols were monotheists who worshipped Tengri, the God of the great blue sky. Some Mongol emperors enjoyed pitting various religious apologists for Christianity, the Moslem faith and Buddhists against any other in open debates. However, they were never converted in large numbers by any of the great world religions.    


Harl's history may convince most readers that the proper name for human societies is "Strife." The history of nomads for thousands of years was the story of war, endless violence, alliances, betrayals, the appetite for power and love of martial virtues. Regarding how nomad societies conducted themselves in war, Harl asserts: 


 "Nomadic warriors, to the horror of their civilized neighbors, waged war violently. They were reared in the brutal conditions of the Eurasian steppes, and in tribal warfare, there were no prisoners. Ritual torturing of prisoners and head taking were lessons to the victors not to be defeated. Women often rode into battle with their men. Victory alone counted and defeat meant death for all because victors could ill afford to feed large numbers of captives. Therefore, when nomadic armies bust into the civilized lands, they massacred on a colossal scale any populations that dared to resist. In part, they hoped to terrorize other foes into surrender, but they were also practicing the harsh rules of warfare on the steppes. Yet these warriors when organized and inspired by a commander of genius, could win empires and decide the fate of civilization." 


The Mongols were rarely defeated in battle, but one exception was the army of the Muslim "Sword of Islam," Tamerlane (1336-1405). Harl asserts that Tamerlane "slaughtered many more Muslims than victims of other faiths." Tamerlane had a physical deformity, powerful intellect and charismatic manner, according to Harl. He was brave to the point of reckless on the battlefield. Tamerlane's armies were as cruel as the Mongols; the commission of atrocities was not just permitted; it was policy intended to strike fear into the hearts and minds of enemies. Like the Mongols, his army (90,000-100,000 strong) could campaign for months, travel great distances to take enemies by surprise and endure severe hardships. Harl states: "he was ever in need of slaves and booty to reward his warriors, so he was a consummate practitioner of the principle "war sustains itself." He "broke the power of the Golden Horde (the Mongols) but failed to leave any imperial administration."


Empires are difficult to acquire but even harder to maintain, a feat that cannot be achieved by military force. To sustain an empire, bureaucrats must follow warriors. Tamerlane and his successors were not able to transform India into a Moslem territory, in part because the terrain could not sustain many thousands of horses and also because Hinduism could not be defeated by force, and was not overcome by Islamic beliefs.                                  

-- Dee Wilson

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