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Genghis Khan's military dominance was due largely to the horse and the Mongolian composite bow.

So I was surprised to learn that Inner Asian horsemen were using composite bows more than 1,500 years before Genghis was born. In fact, Alexander the Great incorporated horse-mounted archers from the Asian steppe into his military force.

So, if Genghis Khan's military was so superior to European knights and China's military, why weren't earlier powers, like Rome, crushed by similar weapons and tactics?

One possible reason is that Genghis Khan was simply the first to unite the steppe tribes. Still, it's hard to understand why western powers (e.g. Rome) wouldn't borrow their tactics.

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    Related (tempted to vote as dup): history.stackexchange.com/questions/8557/… – SJuan76 Jan 14 '18 at 0:19
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    Just as a practical matter, riding a horse in thickly wooded or boggy country, like much of Europe, historically, is not easy. (Even in the pine forests of the western US mountains, I almost always stick to trails and old dirt roads.) Now imagine trying to coordinate a mounted invasion force in such terrain... – jamesqf Jan 14 '18 at 2:48
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    Genghis and his descendants conquered such a large territory because of the superior organization, not because of some particular weapons or technology. – Alex Jan 14 '18 at 2:54
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    Crushed as a threshold is too sweeping (and ill-defined). Not much history can do. If you mean which group/tribe attacked successfully (not necessarily crushed), have a look at Huns, Parthians, Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, Pechenegs, and Magyars and the Turks, of course. – J Asia Jan 14 '18 at 3:43
  • I don't get the "horse is unsuitable for Europe" argument. Didn't knights dominate warfare in Europe for centuries? – user69715 Jan 14 '18 at 4:32
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First the supply issue : The biggest reason for Horse archer scarcity is the training curve in becoming a mounted archer. It's not a simple task, you need to be able to ride and control your horse with only your legs while drawing a bow and accurately firing all while the horse moves...not a simple feat by any means.

Roman (and Greek) society were founded in cities...infact most 'empires' excluding the mongols were not nomads and had settled into cities. Although they made use of horses, much of the population were not active riders. When you get into medieval times, only the wealthy had the access to horses and time to train.

Mongol society is heavily different than other empires...it's people were heavily nomadic and as such, much of the population were actively riding horses on a daily basis. There is the saying that a mongol warrior was born on horseback...not quite accurate, but many were already proficient equestrians by the ages of 3 to 4. This gives the mongols an unprecedented population of riders to recruit from that already possessed horse archery skills, while other empires would have to actively train these people.

Second is the tactics

Much of Mongol success was also found in surprise. They marched incredible distances in amazingly short time frames and struck enemies before they could organize an effective resistance. However once the defenders started adapting their tactics to be 'anti-horse archer', the mongol forces began suffering some pretty heavy losses. Although the horse archers were dominant on the open field and in raid settings, they don't really add much to a siege and a fortified town often proved resistant.

So, if Genghis Khan's military was so superior to European knights

I need to challenge that line as the answer here is...they weren't. They had an extremely easy time dispatching Hungarian and Polish defenses in their first round of invasions/raids, however Hungarian and Polish forces were mainly light cavalry and not what we would call 'knights'. Knight orders actually fared decently vs Mongol horse archers. The first defeats to the Mongols taught Polish and Hungarian leaders a couple lessons, in particular that "Two elements of the Hungarian defense had proved effective, however: close combat with mass armored knights and stone fortifications"."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Mongol_invasion_of_Hungary

King Béla IV took note of this, and spent the next few decades reforming Hungary in preparation for possible future invasions. He used a variety of methods to do this. First and foremost, he amalgamated the servientes and iobagiones castri into a new class of heavily armored, well-trained knights of the western type, where previously Hungary's defenses had relied almost entirely on wooden castles and light cavalry.[10] In 1247 he concluded a feudal agreement with the Knights of St. John, giving them the southeastern borderland in exchange for their help in creating more armored cavalry and fortifications.[citation needed] In 1248, he declared the country's middle strata could enter a baron's service, on the condition that the barons lead the men on his land properly equipped (in armor) into the king's army. Documents from the time state that "the nobles of our country can enter into military service of bishops in the same way in which they can serve other nobles". After 1250, free owners of small or middle sized estates serving directly under the king were included (along with barons) in the nobility. Finally, new settlers were given "conditional" nobility in exchange for the requirement of fighting mounted and armored at the king's request.[11] In 1259, he requested that the Pope put him into contact with Venice, as he wanted to hire at least 1,000 crossbowmen (crossbows having also proven a very effective weapon against the Mongols, despite the relatively small numbers of them actually deployed by the Hungarians in 1241).[12]

To cement his new defense doctrine, the king offered grants and rewards to cities and nobles in exchange for the building of stone fortifications. The reforms ultimately paid off. By the end of his reign, Béla IV had overseen the building of nearly 100 new fortresses.[13] Of these 100, 66 stone castles built on elevated sites.[14] This was a major upgrade from 1241, when the kingdom only possessed 10 stone castles, half of which were placed along the border with the Duchy of Austria.[15]

In short...when you are facing wooden walls and lightly armored horsemen that aren't aware you are coming, horse archers do amazingly well. When you are facing an enemy with stone castles and heavy cavalry, your horse archers have little they can do. After these changes were made, engagements between Mongols and Hungarian soldiers were solid wins for the Hungarians with heavy losses to Mongol forces.

why weren't earlier powers, like Rome, crushed by similar weapons and tactics?

Rome was actually decently resilient to these tactics as anti-personnel siege weaponry was a Roman specialty. Roman Legions would posses a large number of ballista, scorpians, and other large crossbow like weapons that would wreck havoc on horse archers. The specialties and discipline of the Roman legions was somewhat lost in medieval times, what they transitioned to were much more prone to horse archer warfare.

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So, if Genghis Khan's military was so superior to European knights and China's military, why weren't earlier powers, like Rome, crushed by similar weapons and tactics?

Genghis Khan was far from the first one to use mounted archers. In the Classical Age, Persians/Parthians were famed for the use of this weapon. And they used it to inflict some painful defeats on the Romans (like the Battle of Carrhae).

That said, the Roman Empire did not fall under the Persian/Parthian domination and won lots of successful campaigns and battles against the Persians.

The mounted archer was not the definitive weapon.

If conditions were ideal they could be a nasty surprise to the enemy, but required good terrain to allow them to manouver. They overran the steppe, but they got bogged down in hilly Central Europe/Balkans. And in which continent the mounted archers were not very popular? Europe.

Also, mounted bows are always weaker than infantery bows (as they are shorter), meaning that armour is more effective, and also that the horse archer is vulnerable to foot archers with a longer reach. In the First Crusade, at the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Crusaders simply stood during hours the waves of horse archers until relief arrived.

Finally, Genghis Khan and other mongol conquerors were not just brutes with a good weapon. They were cunning generals and good strategists, and they did not just "roll over" carelessly. They learned their enemies weaknesses and divisions, used them to their advantage and developed systematic plans and policies (recruiting the people that were useful for them, using terror to get enemies to surrender without a fight in exchange of sparing them, ...) to get their goals. The mounted archer was one of their tools, but far from the only one.

  • That sounds like a good explanation. The Mongols didn't penetrate tropical Asia, either. One caveat, though: I watched a video where some people fired arrows from an English longbow and a Mongolian bow into sheets of brass an eighth of an inch thick. The arrows fired by the Mongolian bow actually penetrated deeper than the longbow's arrows. – David Blomstrom Jan 14 '18 at 0:41
  • @David Blomstrom: Yes, horse bows are not weaker because they are shorter - that's just a matter of adjusting materials &c. When they are weaker, which isn't necessarily the case, it's more likely due to the difficulty of drawing a bow while controlling a (possibly galloping) horse. – jamesqf Jan 14 '18 at 2:42
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    Also the mongolians are well known for (unintentionally) bringing with them the Bubonic Plague which was by far a much more devastating weapon. – The Great Duck Jan 14 '18 at 7:04
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Cost. It takes years of training to become a proficient foot archer, and much longer to become a mounted archer. A cavalryman is always far more expensive because of his mounts (plural; they usually had between 2 and 6 mounts per horseman).

Mounted archers is the solution to most of your military problems. Everybody knew that, but most had two huge problems: 1) where to find them? They don't grow out of thin air. You have to train them first. And 2) how to pay for them. For the Romans 2) didn't count, but 1) most certainly did.

The Mongols were an exception. As they were nomads, they learned to ride and shoot from a very early age. As nomads, most were mounted warriors to begin with. For them 1) and 2) didn't matter. For everybody else (not being nomads) it did.

  • Downvoted. Why didn't other nomads dominate the world is the question. – John Dee Jan 18 '18 at 19:01
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I am surprised to find that none of these answers include the technological marvel that put the Mongols on the map. This was the stirrup. It's creation and impact was the focus of a book not 6 years ago. Naturally I can't reach it, mentally or physically.

Compared to riding virtually bare back the stirrup provides the rider with a night and day difference with regard to stability and control, the essentials of shooting a bow while at a gallop.

I'll be back with the reference once I get back on the horse.

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    It was an important development in warfare around 600 A.D. – John Dee Jan 18 '18 at 18:56
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    Stirrup predated mongols significantly and were first seen in Europe (by Umayyad Caliphate) in 700ish AD and have a longer history (300ad?) within China. Definitely not a mongol invention – Twelfth Jan 18 '18 at 19:43
  • It was invented in Mongolia, but much earlier than the Mongols. – John Dee Jan 18 '18 at 22:48
  • The stirrup invention is a bit overrated. Heavy cavalry existed well before. Roman (and other) saddles were different from modern saddles. You sat 'in' them, so you wouldn't be de-horsed if you hit someone with your lance. – Jos Jan 25 '18 at 4:22
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Nomadic warfare constantly changed civilization. The Amorites, Aramaeans, Persians, Sarmatians, Goths*, Arabs, Hungarians, and Islamic Turks had a large impact on society before the Mongols. Nomads made Assyria, Han China, Rome, and Persia fall. Nomads had dominated the known world before. What the Mongols did is they dominated the Silk Road.

When civilizations built roads for commercial and military purposes, they provided a way for the nomadic people to infiltrate. By 1200 A.D. there was more infrastructure and interconnectedness that had been built on the revenues of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road had brought unprecedented wealth to the Central Asian states. The Mongolian conquest was the culmination of 1000 years of centripetal forces acting on the Silk Road, which was centered on these Iranian Oasis states. The first major step towards centralization was the Turkic and Islamic Empires. The Turkic Empire disintegrated, but the steppe remained Turkicized. I can’t describe all the events here, but the other important people were the Samanids, Seljuks, Qara Khanids, Qara Khitai, and Khitan Mongols. There were also centripetal forces on the Russian steppes that took place mostly under the Cuman/ Kipchack confederation. These events created larger entities that were ripe for takeover by the Mongols. It was also 1200 A.D.; political and military technologies were more advanced.

Around 1000 A.D. these conflicts became intensified and constant, and the Silk Road slowed to a trickle. Central Asia suffered economically and this facilitated the Mongolian conquests. Christendom was also eager to have someone pressuring the Turks from the East, and reached out to them on friendly terms.

The Mongols were a robust people, and the Mongolian bow was the best weapon of its day. Mongolia was a warlike place and the process of selection was intense. They were the best people for the job, but this did not guarantee their success. Having the last word in the struggle between Arabs, Iranians, and Turks in Central Asia was the key factor.** From this point, with advanced Iranian bureaucracies, they expanded outward to conquer the Silk Road. It was the culmination of Silk Road history; the element which had unified all of Asia. Before this time, there was not the infrastructure connecting all of Asia. There is an old saying; “where goods can travel, so can soldiers”. It took a millennium for these centripetal forces to play out.

*Goths adopted the lifestyle of the steppe when they conquered the Sarmatians.

**You mentioned the unification of the steppe as a reason. They didn’t complete this until 1241, and it was never fully under their control.

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I read that they invented a stirrup that allowed the rider to shoot sideways. Previously mounted archers could only shoot forwards. In addition they had better organization and discipline.

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    Ancient Scythian art depicts a rider shooting backwards. It was a major part of their strategy to shoot while retreating. – John Dee Jan 18 '18 at 19:20

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