Week 4: Hordes of Mounted Archers and Pyramids of Skulls

14 May 2016: myth of barbarian cavalry vs. civilized army, government from saddle and throne

So often historical narrative is presented through the lens of conflict that it’s easy to forget it is only one of the many ways to approach anConan-100-1979 understanding of the past. This week, we will not only talk about important empire projects and wars, but also discuss how Central Eurasian conflicts have shaped our understanding of the region’s history. Additionally, we’ll talk about how Central Eurasian conflicts differ from what we know of those elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, we’ll discuss how war and trade are closely related in preparation for next week’s discussion. Finally, we’ll examine some of the most egregious myths about the most well-know Central Eurasian conquerors, one or two of whom you might have heard.

We’ve already encountered the Scythians in Herodotus and to this, we’ll add the Huns, the Mongols and the Timurids to give us a broad picture of war and conflict. You might note that these four groups of peoples cover a chronology of around 1000 years (Timur died in 1405) and that we’re not reading about war after this period. You might also wonder why our readings end there, since, as you probably know, war in Central Eurasia certainly didn’t end there. The answers involve fundamental changes in warfare with an interesting insistence on appeals made to pre-modern war as a source of legitimation.

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Readings for Week 4:

  1. Chapter on the Huns from Hugh Kennedy’s Mongols, Huns & Vikings: Nomads at War. As I mentioned before, sources contemporary with the Huns do not so easily lend themselves to the kind of reading we’re doing, but this chapter is informative and interesting and will help to get an idea of their story and some glimpse into the character of their leader, Attila. 
  2. Ibn Battuta on the origins of Chinggis Khan and the beginning of the Mongol expansion. Rossabi’s introduction explains ibn Battuta, but I’ll add that I find his account more interesting than Marco Polo’s as it was written with more sensitivity and his personality and humor are more accessible than Polo’s. Last week, I posted the first chapter of the Secret History of the Mongols, which gives the story of the origins of the Mongol people up to the birth of Chinggis Khan. It provides some insight into their religious beliefs and customs.
  3. “The Muslim Holocaust,” chapter 8 from John Man’s Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. Man is one of those authors that writes part history, part travel account. This chapter is mostly history and sort of involved, but it will certainly help you to understand something you may not have before: namely, what the causes might have been for Chinggis Khan’s westward expansion. Man’s argument isn’t the only one out there, but this chapter places the Mongols’ actions in a context that helps us see them as real people and not roving bands of savage hordes.
  4. An exchange of letters between Pope Innocent IV and Guyuk Khan (Chinggis Khan’s grandson and third in the line of Great Khans). The Mongols weren’t big practitioners of the delicate arts of diplomacy and the Pope wasn’t much for compromise.
  5. Ruy Gozález de Clavijo feasting and drinking with Timur. In 1403, Clavijo was sent by Henry II of Castile for what turned out to be a two-year embassy to Timur. His account is one of the most important first-hand sources on both Timur himself and on the court, culture and events surrounding Timur at the end of his life (he died in 1405, on his way to invade Ming China). This excerpt gives us a rare look into what happens when conquerors aren’t actively engaged in conquering.
  6. “Inner Asian Steppe Warriors,” an article by Denis Sinor that is a better explanation of the issues and facts explaining the unique aspects of war and warrior in Central Eurasia.
  7. How could we talk about great Central Eurasian warriors without paying homage to the greatest of them all? Here’s a short story titled, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” Robert E. Howard not only created an entirely new genre of literature (“sword and sorcery”), but also a fictional world based on very intimate knowledge of Herodotus and other sources about Central Eurasia. Conan the Cimmerian is my very favorite Central Eurasian conqueror–but don’t tell any of my professional colleagues.

Finally, this is something I made for another class that will be useful in our discussion about warfare in Central Eurasia (and helps to answer why we’re not talking about war after the fifteenth century):

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Last week: A Smorgasbord of Beliefs

Next week: This Road is Not Made of Silk

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