Introducing: The Mongol Project

The world before the Mongols.

Map Created by Thomass Lessman for Wikimedia

I will now tell you all about the Tartars and how they acquired their empire and spread throughout the world.”

Marco Polo, The Travels [1]

I suspect the Mongol Empire needs no introduction to the readers of The Stage. No conquests so expansive (and few so destructive) can be found in the annals of human history. The creation of the Mongol Empire is rightly seen and depicted as a pivot upon which the history of human civilization turned. These events deserve serious study and reflection.  

While the Mongol conquests are not as well known [2] as their exceptional role in world history  warrants, they are not ignored or forgotten by those who speak, write, and think about history, great power politics, or military affairs. References to the Mongol experience can be found in both scholarly tomes and common conversations on a variety of topics. As I study and think about these things I have noticed a curious impulse that afflicts historians, military writers, and intelligent people of all stripes: a habit of equating the Mongol empire and its conquests with all of the nomadic empires and peoples to emerge from the steppe.

This tendency is easy to understand. The Mongols were the most successful empire-builders the Eurasian steppes and deserts have ever produced; in the present day they remain the best remembered–often the only remembered–people of their type. If one wishes to understand the two thousand year struggle between ‘sown and steppe’ then the Mongols are the natural place to begin the analysis. Given the Mongol’s unparalleled accomplishments,  it seems right to recognize them as the culmination of the Inner Asian tradition and the epitome of all nomadic hordes.

There is a flaw in this approach. If the accomplishments of the Mongol conquest were truly unparalleled (and they were) then it makes little sense to seek their parallels with other nomadic empires! The Mongols are a poor window into the world of nomadic warfare because their wars differed so dramatically from those waged by every other nomadic polity. Not a Scythian, Xiongnu, Cimmerian, Sarmatian, Xianbei, Hun, Yuezhi, Avar, Rouran, Magyar, Khazar, Göktürk, Uighur, Seljuk, Khitan, Tangut, Kipchak, Jurchen, or Khara-Khitai that preceded Chingis Khan nor a Crimean, Kazan, Uzbek, Zunghar, Timurid, Borjigin, Manchu, or Ottoman that followed him was able to achieve what Chingis and his three successors did. Most of them never wanted to.

The truly interesting question, therefore, is not “what can the Mongols teach us about the way nomadic empires worked?” Better to ask: “what made the Mongols different from every other nomadic empire?

The question is harder to answer that it sounds. To even attempt to do so demands a detailed knowledge of the empire’s early history, familiarity with other nomad peoples and their history, and the patience to wade through a fractious and often very technical debate waged between historians, anthropologists, and archeologists over why and how pastoral nomads created empires in the first place. 

If the task sounds a bit unpleasant or even asinine – well, it has been. But I have found myself so intrigued with the question that I cannot let it go, and as a result have spent the last few months diving into libraries attempting to read everything that I can [3] on the subject. 

I am not sure I have a definitive answer to this question. I do not think I will for some time yet. But as I was working on some notes related to this project it occurred to me that the material I have learned, summarized, and organized may be of interest to those who visit The Stage.

 This blog attracts an odd medley of readers; nomad studies may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it is my hope both those readers who come for the discussions of history and those who come for the discussions of military strategy that are hosted here will find this project engaging as I have.

To restate this preface in a simpler way: prepare for a lot posts on the Mongols. 


[1] Chapter XLVI. Trans. Ronald Latham (New York: Penguin Classics). 1958.  

[2] Contrary to my usual complaint, this can be said of both those in the West and East. The popular historical memory of the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, whose societies fell under Mongol assaults or fought vigorously to repel them, give little room to the Mongol Empire. Only the Russians, it seems, have retained those conflicts as an honored part of their national identity.

[3]  On this account, Bryn Hammond‘s GoodReads reviews and John J Emerson‘s Master Bibliography on the Mongols were indispensable resources whose reading suggestions were integral to my entire course of research. 

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Very much looking forward to this – the first serious history book I read was on the Mongols and their experience has framed a lot of my viewpoints on history.


Wow. As a keen amateur in Mongol history — who nevertheless can lament the state of that history often enough — I see fantastic times ahead for me here. Thanks T. Greer. I think it's the right question to start with. They were different: how and why were they different? As for a definitive answer, I'm still in search myself, and I'll have a huge interest in your journey towards one. Lastly, I'm happy to know my shelf on Goodreads has been of use.


An interesting reading indeed. I can never walk away from a chance to examine a civilization's energetic foundations….

This Summer I blogged about the PAGES 2,000 year global temperature record based on cumulative tree ring recordings like this one; it is exciting to hear that Hessl, et. al has data 150 years older than the oldest date previously available for NE Asia. I hope it will be included in any future work PAGES does.

As for a relationship with the Mongols rise— I dunno. It is hard to tell without actually getting a close look at what they have found, but the general impression you get from reading the primary sources is that per-unification Mongolia was a time of scarcity, not abundance. (If you are interested I can pull some of the quotes and place them here.)

But by the wounds of it, they have a historian on hand to do just that. I have not met Nicola Di Cosmo, but I have read a ton of his stuff at this point and can confirm he is the right man for the job. It is good to see him on board the project as well.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of it all when their research has been completed.


No, I should be the one thanking you! Your Goodreads book shelf has been a life saver – I have not found an annotated bibliography in any academic work that surpasses yours. You manage to find some critical sources I do not think I ever would have encountered otherwise. Phillip Salzman, for example, is not found on any of the standard reading lists, yet his work is critical to how I understand nomadic societies.

Looking forwards to your Mongol series T. Greer.

Here's a couple of interesting angles/tidbits that you may or may not find interesting and relevant:

(1) Are you familiar with Lev Gumilev and his theories of passionarity? (It is a concept similar to asabiya which he developed independently in the USSR, and used it to try to explain the interactions between the steppe and sown among other things. Unfortunately few of his works have English translations).

(2) The paleo connection. 😉

"The Chinese noted with surprise and disgust the ability of the Mongol warriors to survive on little food and water for long periods; according to one, the entire army could camp without a single puff of smoke since they needed no fires to cook. Compared to the Jurched soldiers, the Mongols were much healthier and stronger. The Mongols consumed a steady diet of meat, milk, yogurt, and other diary products, and they fought men who lived on gruel made from various grains. The grain diet of the peasant warriors stunted their bones, rotted their teeth, and left them weak and prone to disease. In contrast, the poorest Mongol soldier ate mostly protein, thereby giving him strong teeth and bones. Unlike the Jurched soldiers, who were dependent on a heavy carbohydrate diet, the Mongols could more easily go a day or two without food."

I wonder to what extent impressive nomadic military performance can be attributed to the fact that the armies of the Sown, though drawn from much larger populations, were also weaker and sicklier.

PS. I'm going to imminently resume regular blogging at my site. Would you be interested in an exchange of links?

concerning mentioned in previous comment "passionarity" by Gumilev,

Just in case this obscure author is really not known to you, then concept of 'passionarity'
is not only about solidarity, but about weird concept of genetic mutation. So how 'passionarity' appears due to Gumilev? That is easy to him – due to one way directed mutations in many people.

It is not a coincidence that 'mutants' in popular culture are creatures with deficiencies. In fact mutations have no directions, and most probably are harmful. And to expect that useful mutations occur in many people ( and at the same time no poor mutants ) – is very strange idea. Still somehow proponents of Gumilev tend to ignore this absurdity.

For my eyes – anyone who dares to mention Gumilev in positive way – just signals that there is something peculiar with his views. Maybe Gumilev wrote his fun-history just to catch those strange believers

@kurdakov and AK-

Unfortunately (unlike either of you gentleman!) I do not speak Russian. Gumilev and his theories have thus remained a bit removed from my readings.

Anatoly Khazanov cites him a few times in his book Nomads and the Outside World but beyond that my exposure to his ideas has been limited.

As for the paleo-diet connection – This topic has actually been an area of some research for folks in the field. One of the leading theories suggests that much of the warfare along the Sino-nomadic border was related to the nomads need to import grain (usually millet) and the Chinese tendency to cut trade off when ever they felt powerful enough to do so. Khazanov quotes ethnographic account of Bedouin and Najd Arabs who get sick when they stay in the desert too long and eat nothing but camel meat and milk products. Apparently the sickness went away once they were able to return to civilization and eat some vegetables and grains.

It cannot be denied, however, that nomads consumed vastly larger amounts of meat and dairy products than sedentary peasants. I have not looked up biometric data to see if they were healthier than agriculturalists, but the idea seems plausible enough. (But this migh be unrelated to diet; I suspect that milking and shearing sheep is less taxing than seeding rice paddies anyways).

In any case, if the steppe diet gave its peoples an advantage over agrarian peasants then this should be an enduring advantage. It can help explain why the nomads were hard to destroy, but it does not explain why the Mongols conquered the world and while other nomadic groups did not.

What about lactose tolerance? Does that play a role? Someone suggested — Greg Cochran I think — that the evolution of lactose tolerance meant that a given pastoral area could henceforth support a much larger human population, which led to demographic pressure, larger armies, and thus to demographic expansion.

But then I suppose that was a development which anti-dated Genghis Kahn (and his brother Don) by several thousand years.

Your write that the creation of the Mongol Empire was "a pivot upon which the history of human civilization turned". There were other pivots too, of course, such as the conquests of Alexander the Great, of Mohammad and his followers, and most recently the conquests of the western European powers.

I would argue that this last constitutes the only truly global hinge upon which the whole history of civilization has turned, since those earlier conquests had little or no influence on the course of civilization in North and South America, Australia, Africa, and India. That's four out of the five major land masses, not counting the sub-continent of India, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, and all the other Islands of the Pacific.

I am also struck by the fact that the Mongols left few architectural remains behind. They seem to have built almost entirely out of wood and other perishables, even in China.

Nevertheless I am looking forward to how you plan to distinguish the Mongols from all the other expansions out of central Asia — the Huns and Turks in particular. Other than in the speed and extent of their conquests they don't strike me as being particularly unique — and certainly not uniquely important for the subsequent development of civilization on the western end of the Eurasian landmass (Russia apart). I'd say the Huns and the Turks both beat them out.

Both the mongol and the Manchu invasions of china happened during cold spells, ag in the north of china would have been in retreat.
It took decades for the mongols to subdue south china and Sichuan, probably because of malaria, never got into Vietnam. Also the mongols were not good at riverine operations , reliant on Korean sailors.

One more thing:

(3) Many nomad peoples existed in a symbiosis with sedentary populations. They traded them stuff like dairy products and trade goods, the sedentary peoples gave them grains, jewelry for the elites, etc.

The Mongols were relatively unusual in that their homeland was a world apart, an autarky in economic terms; there were no settled peoples within maybe a thousand miles of Mongolia. So when they went out to conquer they did so with a far more "supremacist" ideology, viewing the sedentary peoples as subhuman, to be either exploited as labor or exterminated to make way for horse pasture. (Fortunately for China, they decided on the former).

This factor and these arguments were made by one scholar I read in college, thought I can't recall his name or further details unfortunately.