The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: The Mongols

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

The Mongols

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album; now located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. The original version was in black and white; produced by the Mongol painter Ho-li-hosun in 1278 under the commission of Kublai Khan.

The first thing to note is that there is a huge amount of myth about the Mongol army, to the extent that it can make it difficult to tease out fact from fiction and from pure fantasy. There are also great screeds of information about the battles and the military organisation, and comparatively small amounts on the societal structure.

That said, it is possible, if one looks, to find out about the Mongol society. The very first thing to note is that Mongol society and culture is not uniform. It varies. In just the Eastern third of the Eurasian Steppe, the Mongol empire included the Mongols, Tatars, Keraites, Naimans, Merkits, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Khitans, and Jurchen. As a consequence, it was only as they became unified that the societies grew similar, and even then, retained differences.

For the rest of this article, when I talk about the Mongols, I am referring to both the Mongols and other steppe nomads within their empire.

Mongol Social Structure

They were broadly organised into tribes based around a leader (khan or chieftain). These tribes were part of a larger ethnic or linguistic grouping, and may or may not be united at any given time.

In theory, these were kinship groups, but in practice, the incorporation of defeated clans and shifting allegiances blurred this. There were also freemen who could enter and leave the service of a khan.

The steppe nomads generally shared an inheritance system in which each male heir has an equally valid claim on the property and position of the deceased. When the main property is sheep, and horses, that’s easily accomplished. Divide a herd of 100 sheep between four people, and each has 25 sheep. A few years later, each of them has 100 sheep.

However, this was a fundamental weakness of the steppe empires. It promoted fragmentation of the empire between the sons of the dynastic founder on his death. The empire can be broken up in this way, but the question of leadership of the empire can’t. In theory, it went to the most capable surviving male leader. In practice, there was a struggle to determine which was the most capable.

In Practice

Atilla’s three sons turned on each other almost the moment he died, making themselves vulnerable to what was left of the Roman Empire. Chinggis’ heirs did better. Chinggis died in 1227, and his sons ruled regions as part of a family business for a couple of decades before turning on each other.

The Ottoman Empire solved the problem in a simple manner. To keep the Empire secure as a single entity, the new Emperor would have his brothers killed.

Of course, since the steppe nomads had the system of the empire passing to the most capable son, this meant that there might not be a clear and swift transfer of power. Typically, this involved a meeting of a council of chiefs and khans (kurutai) to decide which of the valid claimants should take overall control. The council may or may not come to a decision, and that decision may or may not be accepted by the unsuccessful claimants.

This has been a fairly extensive brief look at the structure of the society of the steppe nomads. It’s important to get into context, because various factors flow from this.

All On One Leader

Firstly, the natural state of the steppe nomads is not an empire. Unless it is held together by a very strong leader, like an Attila or a Chinggis, it tends to fragment. Which means that when you do have a steppe nomad empire, it will be led by a strong figure, one used to success and expansion.

The loyalty in the tribal group belonged to the tribal leader. That is to be expected, and applied to all steppe nomads. Except one. Early in his rise to power, Chinggis attempted immediately to break down the tribal groups that joined him. He wanted to eliminate any feeling of tribal loyalty and convert it to a Mongol identity, and to personal loyalty to him.

In most cases, that would have been disastrous. Deliberately breaking down the bonds that were there is to break down the cohesion that the force has. He did this in order to recreate new bonds of loyalty and new bonds of cohesion.

When a tribe joined his forces, he quickly dispersed its members through the various units he controlled to eliminate tribal loyalties.

Don’t try this yourself unless you have extraordinary powers of leadership.

Military Structure

Under normal circumstances, the military structure of steppe nomads is formed of warbands created from tribal units. Chinggis Khan organised his units based on the principle of ten. The Mongol army was divided into units of 10-man squads (arvan), 100-man companies (zuun), 1000-man battalions, and 10,000-man divisions (tumen). There was also an imperial guard of 10,000 called a kheshig. This also provided a training ground for young officers.

Officers were given wide leeway by their superiors in carrying out their orders, so long as the larger objectives of the plan were met and orders promptly obeyed. This was essential in a time when communication beyond the range of a loud shout was limited to the speed of a rider on a horse.

It does require unconditional loyalty both between the unit and to the superiors. History is replete with examples of units who sat out a battle or switched sides because they were not sufficiently loyal to the leadership. Giving a large degree of autonomy to a unit requires trust that the unit will use it wisely.

Consequently, as well as loyalty, it needs a high degree of competence in the officers commanding the units.

With these, it’s a very flexible system, and one that can adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. Being entirely horse borne, it’s also a very mobile system.

And it was all dependent upon one person.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.