Few armies in history have a reputation as fearsome as those of the Mongol Empire.
During the height of the empire, the Mongol Horde carried a well-earned reputation for
invincibility, inflicting devastation upon enemy armies and cities.
So thorough was this carnage that many writers who experienced it first hand could only describe
it as a punishment sent by Heaven: for how else could one explain how so many cities
and armies fell so quickly?
In our next series of videos, we will attempt to do just that, explaining various aspects
of the medieval Mongol military, and providing insight as to what made the horsemen of the
Great Khan so successful.
By the way, did you know that we have a whole podcast dedicated to the History of the Mongols?
Because we do!
And you can find the link to it in the description and the pinned comment!
Our first episode will provide an overview of the evolution of the thirteenth century
Mongolian military, offering a brief comparison to earlier and later steppe armies.
The Mongols are of course most well known for their horse archers, the byproduct of
In the great grass seas of the Eurasian steppe, the Mongols and other nomads spent their entire
lives on horseback, learning to ride before they could walk in order to manage their great
herds of sheep, goat, oxen, camels, and horses.
A lifetime in the saddle in the often harsh conditions of Inner Asia left the nomads excellent
riders with incredible endurance, able to endure hardships beyond that of sedentary
Each Mongol learned to shoot and construct their bows and arrows from a young age, beginning
with a child’s bow to hunt marmots and small mammals, gradually increasing the strength
of the bow until able to master the powerful, composite recurve war bow.
Highly mobile, deadly at range, and strategically swift compared to infantry armies, the horse
archer, when used properly, could be the master of the medieval battlefield.
Many aspects of the above description of nomadic life and warfare as mounted archers, are easily
recognizable to a scholar of earlier nomadic steppe peoples like the Xiongnu and Scythians.
This Chinese description of the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC is just as applicable to
the Mongols well over a thousand years later:
“The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a
bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are
used for food.
Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war.
It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting,
but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions.
This seems to be their inborn nature.
For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range.
If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat,
for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away.
Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness.”
For these earlier peoples, many of the same basic tenets of mounted warfare were utilized
by both them and the Mongols, such as hit and run tactics, envelopment, and the infamous
Contemporaries to these earlier peoples remark on their endurance and hardiness, their skill
as horsemen, and the danger of their arrows.
There are however, several aspects in which the Mongol warrior found himself better equipped
than his forebears, in the form of several technological advancements to their tack and
The Scythians, for instance, had only soft padded saddles for their mounts.
Essentially two leather pads held to the horse with a girth strap, it provided minimal shock
absorption for the rider and little for him to maintain his place beyond his thighs.
The Xiongnu and Huns were better supplied with the development of the treed saddle,
a sturdy wooden frame cushioned for the rider.
It was a more secure base for the archer to shoot from, which also made it more difficult
to unhorse him.
Leaning into the front of these saddles lifted them, allowing the hips to absorb more of
the shocks from riding and reduce jostling from the horse’s movement.
What these early riders lacked, from the Xiongnu and Huns to the Parthians and the Romans,
was the paired stirrup.
When the stirrup emerged is a matter of controversy- the earliest stirrups were made of materials
like wood which do not preserve well archaeologically.
But it seems likely the stirrup, in a form easily recognizable today, was developed around
the third century AD in northern China or Mongolia, spreading west via Turkic tribes,
arriving in Europe with the Avars by the sixth century.
Stirrups provided several advantages: they provided a much more secure platform, allowing
the rider to raise himself in the saddle for extra leverage and reach in close combat,
or for the horse archer to stand and use his leg and core muscles to help draw heavier
Further, the knees could better absorb the jolts from the horse’s movement and guide
the horse in the heat of battle.
Outside of combat the benefits were more significant, particularly for the nomad.
Needing to be on horseback all day while tending their herds, the stirrup helps take pressure
off of the horse’s back.
A skilled rider on a strong horse could now travel further and longer.
When coupled with multiple remounts, the distance horsemen could march rose dramatically.
The famed weapon of the horse archer was their composite bows.
Rather than a self bow, such as the Welsh longbow, which is made from a single piece
of wood, the composite bow was made from layers of wood, horn and sinew.
The horn and sinew increased the strength of the bow, transferring more energy to the
Most composite bows of the steppe world were also recurved, the “ears” of the bows
storing yet more energy while providing leverage to aid the archer.
Whereas a self bows strength can only be increased by making the bow larger or the archer stronger,
the recurve composite bow remains relatively short without sacrificing power.
The shorter bow made it more maneuverable on horseback, allowing Mongol warriors to
even travel with heavier and lighter bows on them as the situation required.
The composite bow was however in danger of warping from prolonged exposure to humidity;
not an issue in the generally dry steppes of Central Asia, but in wetter climates dangerous
to the bow’s health.
To offset this, bows of the Xiongnu and Huns had the ends of their limbs strengthened with
bone plates to reduce warping, but this made the bow heavier and decreased arrow velocity.
In contrast, Mongol bows of the conquest era lacked bone plates, transferring more energy
to the arrows and granting them greater penetrative power and range, but making them more susceptible
to climate changes, perhaps accounting in part for reduced Mongol military effectiveness
in South East Asia and Europe.
Despite some modern claims, the Mongol conquests were not a result of a technological innovation
in horse archery, as the technology itself had changed little once these above mentioned
developments were completed by the 4-5th centuries AD.
For that, we must look to the military leadership of the Mongols and their innovations upon
existing steppe traditions.
Many aspects of this we will explore in the next videos in this series.
Beyond these technological changes, the Mongol army of the 13th century shared many traits
with steppe armies of the preceding centuries.
The method of organizing armies using the decimal system was present among the Xiongnu:
the highest commanders led divisions nominally of 10,000, while the smallest were squads
of just 10 men who operated together.
Traditionally this system was based within the tribe, but it was the innovation of Chinggis
Khan to largely break down the tribes of Mongolia and almost entirely replace them with the
decimal system, removing minor chiefs and Khans from power to ensure no alternatives
to his rule.
Earlier steppe confederations like the Xiongnu generally had an important imperial bodyguard
and retinue which often provided a number of the major leaders and generals of the empire.
For the Mongols, this was originally the nököd of Temujin, the basis for the famed keshig,
which he expanded upon when he took the title of Chinggis Khan in 1206.
The keshig under the Mongols evolved beyond just bodyguards, but into a general staff,
where top officers learned the ropes of command.
From there they were appointed not only to lead armies, but to conquer and govern regions
as the Mongol Empire expanded, and acted as important administrators.
Sons of the royal families of subject kingdoms were taken into the keshig as hostages, to
help secure the loyalty of their dynasty, but also to be essentially indoctrinated in
Mongol imperial destiny.
Going through trials alongside the Mongols and amply rewarded, when they returned to
their homelands they were loyal servants of the Khan who helped to uphold his rule.
While the following video will detail the matter of Mongolian military tactics more
fully, the following example should prove illustrative of how Chinggis Khan innovated
upon and evolved, rather than invented, traditional nomadic lifestyle and tactics.
All nomadic horsemen learned to hunt from a young age; a means to protect their herds
from predators and provide extra sustenance for their families.
It also proved an excellent means to practice for war.
For the Khitans of the Liao Dynasty and the Mongols, large scale hunting expeditions served
as training for unit operations.
In an operation called nerge [e more like eh than uh] by the Mongols, an army of horsemen
would form a rough circle, at times several days journey in diameter, gradually tightening
and driving all game before them into an arena, where the nobility would take their pick of
the hunt before leaving the rest to the men.
While simple on paper, organizing this properly took considerable skill.
Given the size of the operation, a time table was set for each group, operating in their
military units, to reach their destination and begin to push the game forward.
To prevent animals from escaping, the various units had to be in contact and be coordinating
to prevent holes in the line which would allow herds to slip through their grasp; allowing
animals to escape resulted in punishments.
Following orders, meeting time tables, unit tactics, and discipline were the basic building
blocks of Mongol successes, and what allowed their armies to outmaneuver their foes.
While large scale hunting expeditions were practiced across the Eurasian steppe, and
its rules applied to warfare and battles, under the Mongols the nerge itself became
a military strategy.
Time and time again a nerge was set over an entire region, designating a major city to
be the meeting point.
Mongol units would spread across the region, attacking small towns and villages, driving
the rural populations towards the major city as the nerge tightened.
Refugees fled into the city, not just overwhelming its resources and thus reducing the length
of the siege it could withstand, but also sewing chaos and confusion, for the terrified
population brought stories of Mongol atrocities and spread fear, increasing the chance the
city would submit rather than face Mongol wrath.
Mongol army structure will also be explored in an upcoming video, but to detail its evolution
over the 13th century we will give it a brief overview.
At the founding of the Mongol Empire in 1206, perhaps the entirety of the Mongol army was
lightly armoured horse archers, made up of the Mongolian and Turkic tribes who had submitted
or been conquered up to that point.
The keshig may have had heavier armour, but were still armed with their powerful bows,
closing with the enemy only once they had been weakened by arrows.
Chinggis Khan understood well the effectiveness of this force in the open field, but upon
his first campaign against a sedentary society, that being the Tangut Kingdom of Xi Xia in
1209, he found that unless he could draw the enemy from their walls through a feigned retreat
or starve them out, that fortifications could prove impassable.
With his invasion of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in 1211, a solution presented itself in the
mass defections of Jin forces to his army.
Not just Khitans, a Mongolic people who loathed the Jin and were themselves skilled horse
archers, but also numerous Han Chinese, who provided the Mongols with infantry, crossbowmen,
More significant was the defection of Chinese catapult specialists and engineers; one of
whom, Xue Talahai, defected to the Mongols early in the invasion, and was rewarded handsomely
for sharing his knowledge, teams, and experience.
Further capture of Chinese engineers, stonemasons, and carpenters brought further knowledge of
how to attack cities and build siege equipment.
This adoption of warriors and knowledge of defectors, vassals, and captives proved perhaps
the greatest deviation from earlier nomadic empires.
In order to conquer not just the fringes of sedentary states, as per earlier nomadic empires,
but the sedentary state itself, the Mongols required the manpower and knowledge of those
Each culture the Mongols encountered, and conquered, provided them new resources and
tools for their arsenal.
With the Mongols themselves remaining primarily light horse archers, they used Northern Chinese
and Iranian infantry and siege engineers, Southern Chinese and Korean naval knowledge,
Khitan, Jurchen and Turkic horse archers, Armenian and Georgian heavy cavalry, and more.
Within a few years of the start of the Mongol conquests, the Mongol leadership and Mongol-Turkic
army core of horse archers was supported by a large, heterogeneous army.
Able to pick the most effective tactics, weapons, armours, and warriors from the cultures of
Eurasia, the Mongolian army was thus able to adapt to a variety of situations, well
beyond what earlier nomadic empires could accomplish.
It was the job of subject peoples to fill the military roles the Mongols themselves
either could not fill, or had no interest in filling themselves.
The poor Khwarezmian defense in 1220 can be explained in part as the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad
anticipating pillaging horse archers, not a large, disciplined army, ably utilizing
siege weapons and technology.
The Mongols also showed themselves willing to use gunpowder weapons in their wars in
China, a subject we will explore in a future video as well.
The Mongol Empire fractured in the second half of the 13th century.
Debate rages as to how the Mongolian military in each independent Khanate continued to develop,
and to what extent they were influenced by local military tradition.
Generally, the debate steers towards questioning if the Mongols converted to heavier forms
The presence of true Mongolian heavy cavalry in the early years of the empire is not universally
accepted, with it often said that the small Mongolian horse lacked the strength to carry
In the Ilkhanate, scholars like A.P. Martinez have suggested the Mongols adopted medium
or heavy cavalry to better contend with Mamluk forces, and artwork from the Ilkhanate shows
a preponderance of heavily armoured Mongolian forces.
An aspect of this argument is that the Mongols even began to sedentarize in the Ilkhanate,
abandoning nomadism altogether, while their horses mixed with larger Persian breeds in
order to carry the greater weight of armour, but making them less suited to the open steppe.
Other scholars such as Reuven Amitai have found the argument unconvincing, suggesting
that it remained the job of oft-mentioned Armenian and Georgian vassals to act as heavy
cavalry while the Mongols themselves continued as light horse archers.
Similar arguments have been put forth for the Mongols within the Yuan Dynasty, where
it has been suggested that Mongol troops adorned heavier armour taken from stores of the fallen
In the territories of the Golden Horde and Chagatai Khanate, where Turkic influence and
access to the steppes was greatest, there can be no doubt in the continued predominance
of light horse archers.
By the latter half of the 14th century, it was lightly armoured Chagatayid horse archers
which Temur led to begin his conquests.
Much like Chinggis Khan, Temur incorporated outsiders into his army to utilize their skills
and knowledge, overcoming the deficiencies that came from an army entirely of horse archers.
Despite a growth in the percentage of heavy cavalry in Central Asia, in the steppe, heavy
armour remained difficult and expensive to manufacture and maintain, especially for the
The vast majority of post-Mongol successor states, from the Northern Yuan, the Timurids,
the Kazakhs, to the Crimean Khanate, saw their warriors continue to fight in a fashion recognizable
not just to the Mongols of the 13th century, but to the Gokturks of the 7th century, the
Huns of the 4th century, to the Xiongnu and even the Scythians.
The Mongol conquests were not a result of a sudden transformation in the technology
and lifestyle of nomadism, but of skilled leadership innovating upon existing customs
and taking advantage of the tools of both nomadic and sedentary cultures.
This is what allowed the Mongols to expand far beyond the scope of earlier nomadic empires,
and what we will explore in our coming videos in this series, so make sure you are subscribed
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