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From the Huns through the Mongolians, why were nomadic people from the east able to create such havoc in Europe? Was it an endless 'first mover' advantage with horse domestication? Was it a higher protein diet relative to the more farm-centric Europeans? Why weren't Celts, Ostrogoths, Teutonic knights, or Slavs pushing east? Were Europeans just wasting all their expansive energy on the Crusades?

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I think this question would be improved if you clarified the points raised by @Odysseus. I think some research to establish that nomads did in fact cause more havoc than internal wars would help. I think the question would also be better if you removed the last sentence about the crusades. I believe the best questions are questions; the last sentence sounds like a Socratic prompt. – Mark C. Wallace May 1 '13 at 12:24
While I appreciate your suggestion, I think the crusades are an important qualifier to the question. My point is that Europeans were not without any desire/ability to expand. So, lack of motivation can't be the answer. Unless, of course, you believe the Crusades were a purely religious endeavor. – dwstein May 3 '13 at 11:46

10 Answers 10

You might also ask why these people from the steppes also created so much havoc in CHINA. Because they are really two sides of the same coin. In "economic" terms, there are two reasons: 1) "comparative advantage" and 2) "incentives."

To use a model derived from Civilization II (I like to play the Russians and the Mongols on the "real world" map), there are three major items: food, trade, and resources.

By definition, the steppe people are deficient in food and trade, but are comparable to more "settled" and civilized people in resources, and ultimately, weaponry. (At least until the modern age when technology becomes a major factor in weaponry.) "Comparative advantage" suggests that steppe people will specialize in weaponry and war-making, while others with more natural resources will spend more efforts developing agriculture, trade, and, education. Also, the steppe people are more likely to use horses, because the steppe is so poor in food that they have to wander to get enough of it, giving them a further advantage in war.

The other issue is incentive. The impoversished steppe people have every incentive to raid wealthier people for food, resources, and technology. Even if they are better armed, farmers and more settled people aren't likely to uproot their lives for the dubious privilege of chasing steppe people on the plains. Even the Teutonic knights conquered Prussia over one generation, and had they succeeded with the other Baltic states, it would have been one generation at a time. It took Prussia two generations to get three "slices" of Poland. For the Mongols, each "piece" might have represented one YEAR, not one generation, of campaigning.

The danger in the Civilization II game for the Russians and the Mongols is that they will eventually fall behind in technology. That's what happened to the Mongols in "real life." If they can use their military power to stay even in technology and trade (by conquering or coercing more civilized people), while maintaining a military advantage, they can become very powerful, like the Russians.

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I do not buy this. -1 It is well known that it was Europe where the most advanced weapons of the time were developed. Starting from the times of the Roman Empire the best body armor and ballistic weapons were produced in Europe. The competition was very high with Italian and German armor considered the best, covering nearly whole body. European crossbows were the most powerful ranged weapons of the time. Wars also were quite frequent in Europe with many people being professional warriors. – Anixx Apr 8 '14 at 11:06
@Anixx: I didn't say that the Asians/Mongols had an "absolute" advantage over the Europeans. I said, that they had a "comparative" advantage. That is, they were at a slight disadvantage in arms, but at a much greater disadvantage in trade, which induced them to specialize in fighting. And while Europe had many NOBLES as professional warriors, the Mongols, who conscripted the "common man," had many more. – Tom Au Apr 8 '14 at 13:15

For Mongols specifically, it was in part their unparallelled-till-20th-century tactical flexibility.

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Enough Hype. The Mongols has good organisation and discipline. But "unparalleled" is over the top. The Mongols did nothing much that steppe horse nomad armies had done for a long time. They just generally do it so much better, better organisation, better discipline. – pugsville Apr 7 '14 at 8:53
@pugsville Well, if you do something much better than others who do it, isn't that sorta unparalleled? – Felix Goldberg Apr 8 '14 at 7:17
I don't think there was much innovation in the Mongol military tactics or organisation. The tactics were pretty much standard horse nomad tactics over the ages. Other well organised and disciplined forces had existed before. It was a unparalleled in terms of horse nomad armies, were such discipline and origination was lacking, but in general terms no. – pugsville Apr 8 '14 at 8:51

A few points help in answering your question:

The History has a Selection Bias

The first issue is: Is your question accurate? Keep in mind that we inherited most of our history from the European perspective. There were plenty of cases where Europeans went out and conquered other groups, and the Europeans were just as warlike. The difference is that it largely occurred within Europe. The reason you don't hear about those as much is because Europeans fighting other Europeans, and European armies winning battles was considered typical from a European perspective. With the Mongols and the Huns you have something completely atypical. Large, organized nomadic tribes invading and defeating European armies. These instances were still the exception, not the rule, but now we hear so much more about those events it gives us a biased perspective on history.

Europe was a better target than the Eurasian Steppes

If we assume both groups are militarily capable and warlike then why were the invasions always coming from the Eurasian Steppe into Europe. Two reasons: First, the nomadic horse tribes were more flexible, their armies could adapt to the terrain and distances in Europe, whereas the European armies didn't adapt well to warfare on the Eurasian Steppe (See next section). Also, the Eurasian Steppe was large and not particularly attractive as a territory to conquer. There was definitely wealth in other parts of Asia, but for the Europeans to achieve that they would need to travel long distances and conquer vast amounts of territory that their armies were ill suited to fight on. As Napoleon and Hitler showed, invading Asia from Europe was far more difficult than the other way around.


From the dawn of time until the invention of the railroad, the standard distance an army could move in a single day was about 15 miles. Every army that has managed to improve on that number has met with a lot of success on the battlefield. The Mongols could move 50 miles per day, a number that wouldn't be repeated again until the 20th century. In an era of bulky armies with massive supply trains, the Mongols' mobility was like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

In that sense many of the nomadic tribes shared that advantage, the ability to move fast and in fairly large numbers, so in relation to your question that was a distinct advantage over the Europeans. However, the tribes in Asia were never able to replicate the enduring authority structures you saw in Europe. The Mongols and the Huns united around highly charismatic and successful leaders that came around maybe once every fifty years. It worked at the time, but when those leaders died it inevitably began a breakup of the empires they had forged. The same nomadic traits that gave them an advantage on the battlefield and allowed them to take territory were also a disadvantage when it came to holding that territory.

To answer your question with all that in mind: Their main advantage was speed and flexibility that the European armies could not match. That being said, the Asian tribes were never really able to dominate the Europeans or vice cersa. It was a back and forth and both sides had successes. The successes of the Asians tended to be big and short lived, the successes of the Europeans were smaller but more enduring.

Also, while browsing Quora I came across a similar question. The top answer in this goes into much more detail on the military specifics:

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-1 for now. Your answer is problematic. The first paragraph is a rant and therefore irrelevant. The second paragraph is wrong. Asia was a much more monetary lucrative target than Europe at the time and an over simplification of the crusades. Your finally paragraph has good points (references would be nice) but still digress. Note that fixing the answer to be more focused would earn you a +1. – Sardathrion May 1 '13 at 9:41
With respect, I think that @Sardathrion is unduly harsh here. I think the first section is a comment, and non-responsive to the question. I completely agree with him that there is a very solid answer in here, and could be revised to an upvote. – Mark C. Wallace May 1 '13 at 12:20
The question itself contains errors. The Teutonic Knights were pushing East. The Slavs were generally coming from Asia and not into it. I didn't want to simply criticize the question so I was trying to reframe it, but the first paragraph got ranty. Also, the second paragraph refers to the Asian Steppes and not Asia whole, which I should have clarified. Obviously India, China, etc. are excellent and wealthy territories. My point was that the areas the Europeans could have invaded (eg. Mongolian Steppe) were not as attractive as just taking more land in Europe. – Odysseus May 1 '13 at 19:57
How about Rome or Alexander? The Romans pretty well matched what the Mongols did in terms of scope. They also accomplished that on both land and sea and held the territory for centuries. In the context of the original question, though, it doesn't matter. The question is about military domination on a repeated basis, not who was the "best." Also remember that in the context of Asia vs. Europe the Mongols didn't have much success, they reached Vienna, the Khan died, and they turned around and never came back. Comparing successes depends a lot on the context in which you define success. – Odysseus May 2 '13 at 17:05
@dwstein, I would agree that situations like that are exceptional, however Genghis Khan and Attila were exceptions as well. The topic is excellent, I've enjoyed the debate, I think the issue is that there was never really a period of repeated military domination by either side. The early Mongol invasions were highly destructive, but the later invasions were repelled at great cost to the Mongols themselves. I'd highly recommend reading the link I added to the bottom to my answer, because it goes into a lot of the details. – Odysseus May 4 '13 at 4:06

Note that the first such peoples from the Eurasian Steppes were the Germans (Goths in particular), so it wasn't the people themselves so much as something about the environment.

The period in which this was occurring, roughly 400AD to 1350 (or Andrianople to the popularization of Gunpowder), is what historian Charles Oman referred to as The Age of Cavalry. During this period, there was essentially no good answer to massed Cavalry from the other military arms.

The problem Europe (and China, and other settled farming societies) had here was that a good cavalry arm of the day required an immense amount of training. Pastoral societies (which the Eurasian steppe was uniquely suited to) essentially get this for free, as every adult male practically spends their life on horseback just to perform the herding functions they need to survive. At need, every adult male in this society can be drafted into the military as expert horsemen. However, a peasant farming society cannot do this, so militarily they just can't compete.

Different societies dealt with this problem in different ways. China was rich enough to buy off the pastoralists a lot of the time, and coherent enough to absorb their conquerors when they couldn't buy them off. The Byzantines (nee Eastern Roman Empire), were sitting on a rich trading route, and used a combination of buying off the pastoralists, and very strong fortifications. The poor western empire disintegrated, but eventually hit upon a kind of caste society where the lower classes, along with all remaining governmental machinery, worked entirely to support an upper class of horsemen.

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I highly doubt that there was a period when Germanic peoples lived in Asia. The proto-Germanic Urheimat was in Scandinavia and modern-day Denmark.… – Anixx May 1 '13 at 6:52
@Anixx - This is a good point on technical grounds, so I'm changing the answer's verbiage to "Eurasian Steppe". The Ostrogoths were pastoralists controlling a pasture area in the steppe north of the Black Sea (technically in Europe by most folks' reckoning.) Culturally this area at that time is more convenient to think of as an integrated part of the greater Eurasian Steppe. Throughout the age in question, it was controlled by pastoralists. Often it was the same "nation" stretching clear back to the borders of China. I think its a valid unit of study, whatever we chose to call it. – T.E.D. May 1 '13 at 12:30
The Goths are not what I'm asking about. The goths, as far as I know, were pushed west by Huns from the east. It's the Huns' ability to dominate the Goths that is part of my question. Why didn't the Goths push the Huns into China? – dwstein May 3 '13 at 11:31
@dwstein - The Ostraoths did in fact push east successfully for over a century, until they were badly beaten by the Huns. Put that down to what I'd call "The Leroy Brown principle": There's always someone out there bigger and badder than you. Eventually the German and Iranian tribes the Huns conquered rose up against them and put an end to the Hunnish empire. But here we are just talking about different tribes of steppe pastoralists, so which ones won over which others shouldn't really be fodder for the question you asked. Feel free to ask another question about that though. :-) – T.E.D. May 3 '13 at 13:09
@T.E.D., I think we're saying the same thing. I'm just curious about why the Steppe was the repeated source of military invention/creation. It sounds like you're saying pastoralism as a cultural solution lead to this long term trend. – dwstein May 3 '13 at 19:18

Communications/Logistics. Eastern Europe was pretty undeveloped with poor local infrastructure to support armies or any great wealth to attract conquerers. Pushing out from Europe across the steppes just isn't attractive and is difficult. The mongols or other horse nomads are able to cross the area more easily, moving quicker and able too graze their horses.

I dont agree that asian steppe armies "dominated". Difficult armies to fight but steppe armies never made that big a inroads, the Mongols nibbled the edges, defeating two of the smaller kingdoms in a couple of battles, the Huns get a way in but only controlled a small area of civilised Europe at the time for a short period.

Horse nomad armies are hard to 'force' to fight not having a logistical base to defend, generally can pick and chose win to fight being much more strategically mobile generally. (though they need large grasslands to support their horses, and it takes lot of hours out of the day to graze horses, so they might be very quick in the short term, but slower over a longer term) So generally they withdraw rather that be defeated.

Horse Nomad armies are a different military paradigm from civilised armies and generally the civilised armies are poorly adapted for fighting them. They can 'appear' quickly, moving quickly causing a lot of confusion, as armies used to vastly different opponents fail to adjust. A couple of battles in the crusades the turkish horse archer armies were smashed by european Knights failing to adjust themselves, it's not certainly that the nomad horse archer army just wins. The Mongols had superior élan, discipline and organisation compared to your average horse nomad army.

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I think the answer is demography. In European urban and agricultural societies the main limiting factor was the extent of available land. While Europeans had high fertility rate at the time, most children could not reach their puberty due to food shortages.

At the same time, the nomad peoples could just divide and find new pastures. And the territory of the Asian steppes is enormous.

In most cases where Mongols were faced with numerically equal enemy, they retreated. There are very little cases where Mongols successfully defeated their enemies with equal number of troops. And in most battles even when they were victorious, they suffered greater losses.

As to the question why Europeans did not expand to the steppes in the East, this is simple: there was nothing to grab in the steppes. No treasures, no cities, no profit. And the land was poor for settled agriculture. On the other side, Europeans took considerable and repeated efforts to expand to the Middle East because that region had things to take.

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Excellent question! I respectfully invite you to visit my new website "The Nomadic Horse Peoples of Central Asia" at Please note it is dot-info, not dot-com. I think the textual "Introduction" section of my website addresses your question rather well. Thanks! Stephen W. Richey

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I don't necessarily have a problem with linking to your own website, if it has good information relevant to the question. However, answers that contain no useful content other than a link aren't very useful at all. – T.E.D. Jun 30 '14 at 16:31
Good People, I had a choice between cutting and pasting about ten pages of text from my website to this location or providing a link to said website where interested people could easily read the whole text within its larger supporting context (maps, illustrations, etc.). Clicking on the link I provided takes the reader to the relevant information in seconds. It seemed to me that the option I chose would provide the most benefit for the most people in the shortest time. My sincere apologies if this procedure somehow violates the etiquette of this board. Best wishes, Stephen W. Richey – Stephen W. Richey Jun 30 '14 at 19:12
Well, if there's relevant info on your website (which from poking around I suspect there is), you should be able to make a good answer by summarizing the bits of it relevant to the question at hand, with links to sources or more detail up on your detailed website. So somewhere in between a naked web link and a verbatim dump of the website is the sweet-spot to shoot for. :-) Feel free to poke around and see what level of detail high-rated answers tend to provide. – T.E.D. Jun 30 '14 at 21:21
Okay, understood, thanks. Please see below. Stephen W. Richey – Stephen W. Richey Jun 30 '14 at 22:42
Or see above, or wherever else on this board my next attempt appears. Obviously, I have a lot to learn about the mechanics of how this board works. Apparently, answers are posted in the order of the their approval ratings, not in the chronological order in which they were posted. – Stephen W. Richey Jun 30 '14 at 23:20

Why weren't Celts, Ostrogoths, Teutonic knights, or Slavs pushing east?

At times, all of these people pushed eastwards. It just depended on relative technology and strength of population.

Celts: At maximum expansion, about 270 BC, they invaded Poland, the Balkans, and even central Anatolia and the Ukraine.

Goths: Before moving west ahead of the Huns, the Germanic Goths moved from Sweden and the Baltic to the steppes around the Black Sea by around 100 AD.

Slavs: During the expansion of the Slavs about 600 AD they expanded deep into Russia, eastward.

Teutonic Knights: An odd choice in that the group is best known for its Eastward Conquests of the Baltic.

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Here is an outline of a few sentences distilled from many long paragraphs at my previously mentioned website.

The apparent military superiority of the horse-mounted nomads of central Eurasia during ancient and medieval times was due to:

  1. The Scythian, Sarmatian, Alan, Hun, Avar, Magyar, Mongol, et al armies had a tremendous advantage in both strategic and tactical mobility. They were 100% horse-mounted. And every warrior in these cultures owned a string of several horses so he (or she!) always had a fresh horse to ride, which you could not say about the cavalry units of sedentary cultures (Romans, Chinese, Russians, etc.)

  2. This tremendous advantage in strategic and tactical mobility enabled the nomad armies to make maximum use of surprise.

  3. In a culture made up almost entirely of horse-riding livestock herders and big game hunters, almost every adult in that culture, both males and a certain percentage of females (about 20%), could be instantly transformed into a battle-ready horse-archer warrior. In settled cultures, with their farms, numerous urban trades, and merchants and bureaucrats, only a small percentage of the males could be trained and equipped as soldiers.

  4. NOTE: The favorite mode of fighting for the nomads was horse-mounted archery and a healthy, athletic, well-trained woman can shoot a bow and arrow from astride a horse as well as a man. No women that we know of stood and fought in the pure-upper-body-strength-intensive infantry phalanxes or legions of the settled cultures. Archaeological findings confirm that in some tribes, about 20% of the horse warriors were women, thus giving rise to ancient legends about “Amazons.”

  5. Tactically, in the pre-gunpowder era, the most effective and lethal fighting method while on flat, open steppe terrain was horse-mounted archery followed up by a final charge by select heavily armed shock cavalry. And the steppe nomads invented horse archery and were the best in the world at it. And—the steppe nomads therefore routinely massacred Roman, Chinese, Russian, and Germanic armies that either came out onto the steppe or were operating along the margins of the steppe.

  6. Unlike many current historians, I do not disparage the notion of “environmental determinism.” I maintain that the inherently brutal natural conditions of the steppe environment produced inherently and uniquely tough, self-reliant, omni-competent people.

  7. The farther the nomads got off the steppe, the more they found the power of their favorite tactics diluted by irrigation ditches, hedges, woodlots, steep hills, sodden rice paddies, and walled cities. Further, the cool damp weather of Western Europe caused the tremendously powerful type of compound-recurve bow used by the nomads to deteriorate.

  8. As the centuries rolled on, the horse nomads could terrorize and often dominate sedentary peoples who outnumbered the horse nomads by something like ten to one. But the horse nomads were simply too few and too poor materially to be able to make permanent conquests of settled nations (though a few nomad tribes became short-lived dynasties ruling over parts of China.) Eventually, the settled peoples, with their science, technology, and industry, learned to make guns of all types and sizes. And making guns was something that constantly moving livestock herders living in tents could never do. Such was the beginning of the end for the freedom of the horse nomads starting in the 16th Century.

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A good answer gets an upvote. One could claim it is an explanation of some of the mechanisms behind the military superiority that was at the heart of my answer, but I always like backup. :-) – T.E.D. Jul 3 '14 at 16:07

The Saxons at one point in the 8-9th centuries settled in eastern Poland, Western Belarus. After an invasion of Bulgars and Slavs in the 10th century a sundering occurred in which a group of Saxons migrated to the lower Volga region. This tribe of Germanic east Saxons formed a small empire and expanded further east into the Kirghiz regions and possible as far as Manchuria. This is as far as I know the only European tribe that reached Far East Asia. Albeit much assimilation and inter-mixing occurred along the way. They also apparently adopted Islam at some point.

Your original question does indeed provoke much intrigue. There are a billion reasons. When the Huns invaded, Rome was already in a decline from internal issues and Germanic invasions. If the Huns invaded 3 centuries earlier the Romans would have handled them. During the Mongol invasions Poland and Russia were fragmented, although I'm not sure why the Hungarians and Bulgarians were defeated so easily as they had established kingdoms and used the nearly the same tactics as the Mongols. conceptual information on the East Saxins John Chambers, The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe, Atheneum, 1979. p. 31, mentions these saxons.

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