Predatory or prey – the rise of nomadic empires

In 1227 Genghis Khan died leaving behind a legacy of conquest and the largest land empire in history, only fully realized by his Grandson Kubhlai Khan with the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty in 1267 (Chaliand 2004).

While the Mongolian empire has been argued to be the odd duck in relation to the establishment of nomadic empires in Central Asia[1], it has left behind a notion of barbaric nomadic tribes slaughtering their more peaceful sedentary neigbours for conquest and booty.

Gabriel writes in the book Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant (p. 49) for example:

To Genghis and his generals war was a way of life, and the states that lay on Mongolia’s borders were tempting targets for raids and plunder, splendid opportunities for Mongol warriors to do what they had always done, make war, carry off booty, and get drunk in their tents!

Currently, two contradictory views on the rise nomadic empires prevail, namely that of nomads as

  • predatorsextorting tribute from agricultural societies and
  • preydefending against expansionist agricultural societies.

Nomads as predators – extorting sedentary societies

Barfield argues quite compellingly in the book The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China and in the book chapter The shadow of empires: imperial state formation along the Chinese-Nomad frontier that nomadic pastoralists in Inner Asia developed hierarchical states or empires in response to the possibility of receiving tributes from China.

The nomadic state maintained itself by exploiting China’s economy, and not by exploiting the nomadic pastoral production. Rather herders were organized in such a fashion as to make the extortion of the sedentary neighbouring states possible.

‘Centralised empires on the steppe were economically dependent on exploiting a prosperous and united China. Nomadic empires came into existence simultaneously with the unification of China and disappeared when China’s political and economic organization collapsed. In other words, there was a close correlation between unification of China under native Chinese dynasties [in contrast to native dynasties, non-native dynasties practiced a policy of political and military disruption as well as actively campaigned against nomadic unification] and the rise of imperial confederacies in Mongolia’ (Barfield 2001:22).

In short, nomads extorted their sedentary neighbours in China to gain trade rights and subsidies. In effect China was paying the nomads off because it was cheaper than going to war on a population that could simply move away (Barfield 1989:9).

In general, the relationship with the outside world determined the size and complexity of political organisation (Barfield 1993, Barfield 1989). Thus the development of hierarchical political organisation among nomadic pastoralists was not a response to internal needs, rather it was developed when they were forced to deal with more highly organized sedentary state societies on a regularly basis (Barfield 1989:7).

More specifically, the political organization of nomadic pastoralists’ mirrored in sophistication the organization of the neighbouring sedentary peoples with whom they interacted (Barfield 1989, Barfield 1993).

The most complex and centralised emerged as a response to powerful states such as China (Barfield 1993).[2]

Nomads as prey

In the book ‘Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present’ Beckwith (2009) provides a compelling argument against the previous point of view.

Instead he argues that the main concern of Central/Inner Eurasian nomads was trade.

He links this to especially one essential feature: the ‘Central Eurasian Culture Complex’, namely the political necessity for lords to support their comitatus warriors (a war band of friends sworn to defend the lord to the death)[3] by providing them with luxury items and a high standard of living.

For Beckwith (2009:320) this created a powerful economic need that could only be satisfied through trade.

For Beckwith (2009:32) the idea of nomads as predators stems from stereotypical and biased thinking, i.e. the idea of nomads as barbarians and natural warriors.

While nomads grew up on horseback and learned from early childhood to use the compound bow to hunt and protect their herds – skills that have apparent uses in war, Beckwith (2009:32) argues that the concept of nomads as natural warriors is steeped in outdated environmentalist thinking.

The core of nomads as natural warriors can be summarized in the following way: because of living in harsh steppe climate, they were not only skilled at riding and shooting but they were also tough, courageous, ruthless, warlike, aggressive, cruel, loved violence (in other words, barbarians) and thus much better at war than their sedentary counterparts (Beckwith 2009:322).

Beckwith (2009:323) notes the somewhat puzzling fact that while almost all historical empires were founded in the same way, i.e. after long, bloody and treacherous civil wars,

[…] the bloody victories of Attila, Chinggis, or Tamerlane are still deplored, [but] the equally bloody victories of the Graeco-Roman, Persian, and Chinese emperors are related with enthusiasm by historians past and present.

He goes on to argue:

Non-central Eurasian historians from antiquity to the present have been blind to the savagery and unrelenting aggression of their own ancestors. The most famous, or infamous examples, the Romans are chastised not because they were so cruel to their slaves and tortured or killed so many people for public entertainment in such vicious ways, but because some of those tortured and killed were Christians (Beckwith 2009:323).


Certainly there are plenty of instances of Central Eurasians’ inhumanity to each other or to peripheral peoples, but they cannot begin to be compared, for sheer cruelty and relentless aggression, to the Romans, the Persians, the Chinese and their successors right down to modern times (Beckwith 2009:323).

While the traditional view of nomadic peoples in relation to acquisition of wealth is that they did so through warfare and raiding, Beckwith (2009:324) argues in contrast that the primary source of wealth acquisition stemmed from trade and taxation.

In effect, nomads insisted on free trade and viewed any attempt by sedentary states to restrict it as provocation for war (Beckwith 2009:344).

In fact, during conquests Central Eurasians usually attempted to avoid conflict and tried to make cities submit peacefully. It was only when cities resisted or rebelled that retribution was called for (not unlike e.g. Alexander the Great during his campaigns).

Supporting the position that trade was the main concern is the fact that they usually spared merchants, artisans and other productive men (while enslaving women and children, Beckwith 2009:328-9).

Similarly, securing conquered territory was primary motivated by taxation. Beckwith (2009:329) writes “[i]f all this sounds exactly like what sedentary peripheral states were doing, that is because it was indeed the same”.

Pertinently, Beckwith (2009) turns the table around on a prevailing view: rather than China defending against expansionist nomads it was nomads—who were primarily concerned with trade—that defended themselves against an expansionist China.

Historical sources indicate that peasants often defected to the steppe; the reason being that while most nomads were poor, peasants were even poorer[4].

Beckwith (2009:329) argues that the only way to avoid losing people, power and wealth in this manner was to build walls, limiting trade with nomads and attack them as often as possible.

In other words, walls never served a defensive purpose but rather an offensive purpose. Basically, it was put in place to protect conquering land and keeping the populace under control. The argument is compelling since the walls erected by the Chinese did not work as a defensive measure at all, nomads just rode around it when invading.

The myth of the “needy” nomad

The core of the idea of needy or predatory nomad is that the people of the steppe-zone in central Eurasia did not by themselves provide enough of life necessities and depended on agricultural products, textstiles etc. produced by their sedentary neigbours. Moreover, when they could not obtain what they needed or desired through trading with the more advanced peripheral empires the Central Eurasian nomads invaded and took it by force (Beckwith 2009:324).

According to Beckwith (2009:325) it is now ell established that Central Eurasians practiced agriculture and either taxed or traded peacefully with peoples who produced what they needed or wanted but did not themselves produce.

Pertinently, when nomads did attack they usually took livestock and people, not agricultural produce (Beckwith 2009:325). Central Eurasians also produced their own clothes, jewelry, tools, wagons, housing, horse gear, weapons and were skilled metalsmiths.

For Beckwith (2009:325) the idea that Central Eurasian empires or states developed as a response to, or because of the possibility for extorting sedentary states is partly typological in nature, i.e. equating a mode of production of one group of people with that state as a whole.

In other words, while the ruling elite might have been nomadic pastoralists, Central Eurasian empires consisted also of people who were not.

Beckwith (2009:32) uses the Scythians as an example:

The Scythians practiced not only very many different modes of production but the very same modes the peripheral peoples practiced, because the states of both regions regularly expanded by force into each other’s territories and peoples who practiced agriculture and herding were found in both kinds of state.

Concluding remarks

In the end, this is a simplification of the positions and I have no preference for either of them. Most likely they’re both correct and wrong at the same time.

I however think that Beckwith’s point of view entails a much needed shift of perspective in how we view the history of nomadism in general and specifically for Inner Asia.

A case in point is how we view the Mongol conquest and Genghis Khan specifically. Don’t get me wrong, as all conquests it was brutal, but Genghis Khan was not only a mass murderer set on world domination. He was so much more, and in many respects he was ahead of his time.

In the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Weatherford notes that Genghis Khan and his successors instigated:

  • Meritocracy – kinship no longer decided how far you could rise, only individual merit, loyalty and achievement
  • Universal religious freedom – the Mongols didn’t care what faith you had as long as you payed taxes and followed rules
  • No one was exempted from the law – not even the ruling elite and Genghis himself were considered above the law
  • Abolished stealing and selling women
  • Diplomatic immunity – Genghis refused to hold hostages and granted diplomatic immunity for all ambassadors and envoys, including the ones he was currently at war with
  • Established a free trade zone – organised the towns along the Silk Route in the largest free trade zone
  • Lowered taxes for everyone -abolished it for doctors, teachers, priests and educational institutions
  • Established the first international postal system
  • Abolished torture – but he mounted campaigns to destroy bandits and terrorist assassins.
  • Created an alphabet
  • Introduced paper currency – intended to be used everywhere (Khubilai Khan)
  • Attempted to create primary schools for basic education – for children so that all could become literate (Khubilai Khan)

As Weatherford (2004:xxiii) notes

In nearly every country touched by the Mongols, the initial destruction and shock of conquest by an unknown and barbaric tribe yielded quickly to an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and improved civilization.


[1] I use the terms Central Asia, Inner Asia, Central Eurasia interchangeably throughout.

[2] An argument could be made that the significant factor determining the possibility of the development of conquering nomadic empires was the domestication of the horse and not necessarily the relationship to neighboring states. Since horses are predominantly important among Asian pastoralists and not in e.g. Africa, Middle-East and Fennoscandia, it was therefore no wonder that empires did not arise to the same degree in these areas. While partly true, horses provided only military mobility. The important thing to remember is that for nomadic pastoralists in general, the economic system is also mobile. As Barfield (1993:138) writes “[f]or although there are no great sheep epics, they are the foundation of the steppe economy, with horse rising only an important adjunct to this more essential task”.

[3] According to Beckwith (2009:12-3) the comitatus and its oath are known to have existed as early as the Scythians and is similar to the oath of blood brotherhood to the death known to have existed from the Scythians through mediaval times, e.g. Secret History of the Mongols. The core consisted of a small number of friends, Genghis Khan is said to have had four: Khubilai, Jelme, Jebe and Subotai often called ‘the four wolves of Genghis’ by enemies. The core group often committed ritual suicide to accompany the lord in death and was buried with a large number of weapons so as to be prepared for battle in the next world. Subotai, for example, apparently pledged himself to Genghis by saying “I’ll be like a rat and gather up others I’ll be like a black crow and gather great flocks. Like the felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind, I’ll assemble great armies to shelter your tent” (The Secret History, cited in Gabriel 2004:8). The comitatus warriors took their oath freely and thus broke their connections to clan or nation. The comitatus warrior became as close or closer than family to their lord, they lived with him and were given great rewards and honors throughout their lives in return for their oath (Beckwith 2009:13-4). According to Beckwith (2009:15-6), the comitatus is found both directly and indirectly in historical sources dealing with: the Hittites, the Achaemenid Persians, the Scythians, the Khwarizmians, the Hsiung-nu, the ancient and mediaval Germanic peoples, the Sasanid Persian, the Huns, the Hephthalites, the Koguryo, the early dynastic Japanese, the Turks (e.g. Uighurs), the Sogdians, the Tibetans, the Slavs, the Khitans, the Mongols etc.

[4] Note that not only peasants defected but also high level officials.


Barfield, T. J. (1989). The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Studies in social discontinuity, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Barfield, T. J. (1993). The Nomadic Alternative, N.J., Prentice Hall, Engelwood Cliffs.

—. (2001). The shadow of empires: imperial state formation along the Chinese-Nomad frontier. In S. E. Alcock, T. N. D’Altroy, K. D. Morrison, and C. M. Sinopoli (eds.), Empires: perspectives from archaeology and history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 10-41.

Beckwith, C. I. (2009). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Chaliand, G. (2004). Nomadic empires: from Mongolia to the Danube. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J.

Gabriel, R. A. (2004). Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Weatherford, J. M. (2004). Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world, Crown, New York.

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