Importance of Nomads in Eurasian History

Historian Thomas Barfield on the Xiongnu empire, Genghis Khan, and the Mongolian tax policy

videos | June 20, 2014

Did the nomad empires influence feudal European governments? How did nomads with low population density manage to build empires of such a big scale? Professor of Anthropology at Boston University Thomas Barfield speaks on the lessons that the Mongols taught the feudal Europe about state administration.

When I began looking into this problem one of the things that I saw was that the nomads, particularly of Mongolia and other parts of the steppe, have become specialist in horse-riding and mounted archery, so they became military specialists. And the usual explanation of that is they used that power to conquer other places. But the striking thing was that for the most part the nomads, particularly on China’s border, did not attempt to conquer, they attempted to extort. They would attack, burn places down, steal stuff and then run away before they could be retaliated against. And that was their great advantage.

The essence of nomad administration is -let somebody else do the work and send you the revenue. Over time this has created very powerful empires, but ones that to their sedentary neighbors are very strange, because they seem to lack all the cultural attributes that you would need to be rulers and yet they’ve been so successful at it. If we look at the variety of nomad empires one of the things that we find is – they tend to be most centralized on the Chinese side and most decentralized on the Russian side, the Western side of the steppe.

And while people loathe, I believe, to trace their own histories back to a group like the Mongols we can actually see that the Mongols provided a lot of the lessons if you’re going to talk about state formation and imperial expansion on a large scale. That many of the lessons and techniques that were used to do that by later states had their origins in the success of the Mongols in ruling over very large parts of the Eurasian landmass.

Professor of Anthropology, Boston University, Director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization, President of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies.
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