The Mongols: How Barbaric Really Were the “Barbarians”?

by Nate Kang December 2020

Prior to the 1200s, the historical trend for centuries had dictated that nomadic groups of the Central Asian steppes were chiefly known as peaceful, wandering peoples. However, this trend was completely flipped upside-down with the ascent of Genghis Khan and the subsequent expansion of the Mongol Empire; in total, the Mongols’ conquests stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the edges of Eastern Europe, and comprised a large portion of the entire known world at the time. The Mongols were unprecedented in both the sheer amount of land they conquered, as well as the impressive way they did it— completely tearing through opponent after opponent at will, leaving a warpath of brutal destruction in their wake as they became feared all across Eurasia. But were they really absolute “barbarians” as they’ve been frequently viewed and portrayed? Though often tremendously brutal in their conquests, to exclusively label them “barbarians” would be completely ignorant of the fact that they were only able to achieve their meteoric rise because they had an extremely organized, efficient approach to warfare and civilization. Without their defining characteristics— their unique military tactics, willingness to use brutality, and staunch discipline— the Mongols never would have been able to build up such a massive empire.

The Mongols used their unorthodox military tactics to their advantage in conquering neighboring civilizations, helping them to form their large empire. This is best exemplified by their implementation of swift attacks by highly-skilled archers on horseback, as well as their novel use of feints and false retreats. Moreover, however, the Mongols’ brutality is what truly earned them a fierce reputation across Eurasia, and this reputation further helped the Mongols in their quest to take over as much land as possible. When the Tartars, another nomadic pastoralist group of the steppes, became incorporated into the Mongol horde, they joined the effort to conquer settled societies, focusing their particular efforts on Russia. At Novgorod, the Tartars entered and destroyed the town, killing many in the process and committing horrible atrocities. By displaying such ferocity, these nomadic invaders furthered their fearsome reputation, lessening the likelihood that others would dare resist them. With less opposition, the path to domination had fewer obstacles as the Mongols conquered territory and established their empire. The authors of this document, monks, likely created this document to show the sheer brutality of the Tartar-Mongolian conquest of Russia, and how this savagery helped these invaders to establish control of nearby societies. Clearly, actions such as these further support the Mongols’ reputation and discouraged many nations from even attempting to resist against them.

In addition to this, the Mongols were successful in conquering a massive empire largely because of their discipline. The Italian traveler Marco Polo, who visited the Yuan court in China and was personally employed by Kublai Khan to document his experiences across the Khanate of the Great Khan, took notice of their bravery and dedication in battle, as well as their hardiness while on their horses. Traits such as these strongly indicate that the Mongols were trained from a young age to be strong and dedicated, which helped them launch successful invasions as they built their empire. Marco Polo was likely motivated to write accounts of the Mongols’ traits that aided their success since he was a foreigner in China, and wanted to bring the stories of what he noticed back to Europe with him. This discipline of the Mongols also translated into their military, as they were organized in a very efficient way, with commanders overseeing groups of warriors, all of whom reported to the Khan. This efficient organization further supports the idea of the Mongols as a disciplined group, dedicated to ensuring that their military efforts will be a success. Finally, the Mongols demonstrated their discipline in terms of the division of labor they employed. Every citizen, man and woman, had certain tasks to perform. By working together, all of the Mongol citizens showed their dedication and personal discipline, as well as support for the larger cause of further expanding the Mongols’ empire.

In summary, despite the trail of destruction and death they left in their wake, the Mongols of the 13th century certainly were not uncivilized or “barbarians”, but rather, a highly developed, organized war machine of a civilization, capable of both moral civility and extreme ruthlessness. Far from the savage brutes they have been often viewed as, these nomadic warriors were able to efficiently build the largest land empire the world has ever seen because of their defining qualities as a military force: their unique military tactics, willingness to be tremendously brutal at times, and impressive discipline, both as a military force and as a society as a whole.

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