January 1, 2016

Wrath of the Khans - Hardcore History

Tags: Podcasts, History

Available from iTunes and from its own site, this 5-part series is a free subset of a larger set of history podcasts. Having only listened to the 5 Mongol episodes, I can’t talk to the larger sequence.

At first glance of the name and promotional images, Wrath of the Khans - Hardcore History, seems like it might be a podcast playing up the more sensationalist parts of history. Luckily this is not the case. I imagine the presentation aims to bring in as many listeners as possible to an otherwise serious history series. Written and presented by the professional broadcaster Dan Carlin, these 5 well produced episodes (totaling 8.5 hours) address the history of the early Mongol Empire in the 1200’s. Starting with the later exploits of Genghis Khan and ending with breakup of the empire at the hands of his great-grandchildren.

The podcast starts with a long introduction on how people view history differently depending on how much empathy they feel for the people at the time. In a well reasoned argument Dan suggests that the further we get from events, the more disassociated we become and the easier it is to reassess aspects of historical events without reference to the suffering people experienced at the time. Thus it is hard to talk about the Nazis without reference to their attempts at genocide. However, Romans can be discussed without mentioning the devastation visited upon the people they conquered (possibly genocidal in a few instances). The Mongols seem to fall at the boundary of this change. In the west, the Mongols seem quite distant. Although Dan recounts the story of his Chinese university history lecturer admonishing him for failing to consider the damage done to civilians in creating a Pax Mongolica. Interesting stuff, but perhaps an aside based on the author’s interests rather than something integral to the story of the Mongols. Other than the fact they killed an absolutely amazingly huge number of people. Comparable in numbers to the death toll from World War 2, despite the Mongol Empire forming in a time when the world population was much lower and the methods of killing much more primitive. The Mongols of Genghis Khan come across as quite a ruthless and expansionary people. Dan Carlin suggests they saw all non-steppe people as subhuman. He also points out that civilian atrocities in war had occurred many times before (and since). The Mongols were exceptional only in scale.

The Mongol Empire starts with Genghis Khan uniting the tribes of the eastern steppe for the first time. Previous steppe tribes had often harassed or conquered nearby lands. In the west we talk about Parthians, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Turks and others. In Asia there is a similar list of other nomadic tribes - the Great Wall of China was built to try and keep them out. The Mongols were similar to earlier tribes in that their armies were fast (consisting nearly entirely of light cavalry), could live of the the land, and well-trained (steppe people were taught to ride and fight from childhood). They differed from earlier invasions as their armies were larger (drawing from many tribes), well disciplined (the penalty for minor infractions was death, the penalty for major infractions was death for you and your entire unit), and well led. Genghis Khan is said to have a large network of spies providing intelligence on his enemies. There are also many stories of Mongol armies refusing battle until the battleground better suited them. They were able to adapt their tactics to changing circumstances. The Mongols learned siegecraft, successfully besieging many cities, and it is believed they were the first to bring gunpowder weapons to Europe, after learning of them from the Chinese.

In the 13th century the Mongols probably had the most powerful army in existence, and they used it regularly. In under a century they conquered multiple kingdoms with relative ease to create the largest empire by land area in history. They conquered two of the three Chinese kingdoms at the time (the third was defeated a few years later by Kublai Khan after the breakup of the empire). They subdued the previously expansionary Central Asian and Middle Eastern Sultanates all the way to the Mediterranean. An invasion into Europe reached as far as Hungary. Apparently the Mongols had an 18 year plan to conquer Europe all the way to the Atlantic (they already had spies in place). However just a few years into the plan, the Mongol leader Ogedei Khan (Genghis’ son) died and the army had to return to Mongolia for a new Khan’s election. It is an intriguing counterfactual to consider events if Ogedei lived another decade, so the invasion of Europe could continue. Europe was relatively weak and divided at the time. It is hard to imagine there would have been more resistance than in the east.

While the empire stayed united under a single Khan (Genghis, followed by Ogedei, then Genghis’ grandsons), they suffered no serious military setbacks. The end of the Empire came from internal divisions - the method of succession used by the Mongols seems to have been a great cause of internal friction. Although the transition from Genghis to Ogedei was smooth (as Genghis made his wishes clear in advance), all the others were contentious. Mongols used an elective monarchy - at the death of the previous Khan all the relevant nobles convened to elect a new Khan. I can imagine this worked well at the tribal level when all the possible leaders spent most of their time close together. It doesn’t work so well for a continent spanning empire. Take a look at a map - Hungary to Mongolia is a very long way! After Ogedei, it took 5 years to elect a new Khan, as one of the electors refused to attend, believing that the likely new Khan would order his death. When the expected Khan, Guyuk, finally took command he died soon after, leading to another 3 year span without a Khan. Mongke Khan stabilised the Empire for a while and even expanded a little, but at his death in 1259 the Mongol Empire split into four separate parts. Thus ending this podcast series, but not the end of the Mongols. The descendants of Genghis ruled much of Asia for centuries thereafter.

I could much more to write about this excellent podcast on an interesting part of history (and a largely unknown to me). However, this post is already long enough. Well worth a download and listen.