Ass-kicking is stochastic

By Razib Khan | November 24, 2006 12:27 pm

Via Kambiz I found this post which argues that the high-protein diet of the Mongols was important in allowing them to defeat their enemies, who were relatively nutritionally deficient. Perhaps. But history isn’t that simple, after all, if “more meat = more ass-kicking,” you wouldn’t have predicated that the grain-fed Roman soldiers would be able to cut a scythe through meat & milk gorging Celts and Germans, would you? How did those ancient Italians defeat the northerners? If you read about the suppression of the rebellion of Boudicca and how outnumbered Roman infantry formed a testudo simply turned into a Celtic meat grinder you’ll see that man can fight and win by bread and water alone!
Judges 9:45 And Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and slew the people that was therein, and beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History
  • Roman Werpachowski

    For a short time, yes. In the long term, “an army marches on its stomach”.

  • Richard Sharpe

    Well of course an army marches on its stomach, and to be successful any commander has to be a master of logistics (or have minions who can manage that all important task.
    As to the Mongols, IMO, their success was dependent on two things: 1) The technological improvement inherent in their compound bows, and 2) vastly superior mobility due to the large number of remounts they had available.
    However, when it came to conquering Europe, logistics was their downfall. Feeding half a million horses in the more wooded areas of Europe was not possible.

  • keil

    Did not the Mongols have highly qualified Chinese advisers? The mind and body are both important.

  • Ikram

    Now that old-testament names are back in fashion, why aren’t more kids named Abimelek?
    However, when it came to conquering Europe, logistics was their downfall. Feeding half a million horses in the more wooded areas of Europe was not possible.
    Which explains why Mongols did so poorly in Russia.

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    The Mongols did well in South China, where horses were mostly useless. The just had to learn new ways of warfare. They even made credible threats to Java and Japan, which the Chinese had never done on their own.
    These questions have been argued at length, and my opinion is that the primary cause is that after a certain point the Mongols in the Middle East and the Mongols in Russia were at war. The Chinese Mongols kept expanding pretty steadily, but after a certain point the geography became too difficult, and I think that the Chinese dynasty also had fiscal or leadership problems. Even so, with a little luck they might have conquered Japan, and might have controlled Burma or Java longer.
    None of the defeats (in Poland, Palestine, Burma, and Japan) which defined the scope of Mongol rule was a crushing defeat of a full army, with the possible exception of the second Japan invasion.
    1260

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    However, when it came to conquering Europe, logistics was their downfall.
    this seems a common opinion, but it just isn’t true. dynastic politics (the succession after the death of ogedei), and the relative poverty of europe vis-a-vis other regions of the world island explains their lack of interest in pushing into europe. they swept the field in poland or hungary. and as john alluded too, they adapted to seige warfare with aplomb in the far east.
    (this idea that european fortifications and mounted knights were going to stop the mongols before the turned around seems a common conceit which i’ve encountered multiple times)

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    “How nice of them to go into their little castles for us, like pigs waiting to be slaughtered” is what the Mongols had to say about Europe.

  • dougjnn

    Rather than the heavy amounts of meat in their diet being a key ingredient of Mongol success, it seems to me it was the free or virtually free grass feed for their huge herds of horses on the endless Eurasian step that was key.
    In China and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the highly developed and civilized world of settled agriculture, people were numerous and relatively cheap. Their labor could be heavily taxed and elites could live off that and create elaborate civilizations, in between and around “protecting” their peasants, slaves and lowly artisans from competing warlords. Horses on the other hand were expensive. They needed pasture land that could otherwise support revenue generating people in the fertile agricultural states. Horses were accoutrements of the upper classes, and an expensive engine of war that only supplemented the relatively cheaper (for settled states) infantry.
    In the step it was said the Mongols were born in the saddle. Expert horsemanship was necessary for every male to earn a herding living. Endless step shirmishing against rival clans lead to advanced light horse fighting skills. When the compound bow was perfected a world leading military technology was born. Further, it was very difficult for settle civilizations to copy this new military advance. It was hard or anyway really, really expensive for civilized states to muster either really large numbers of expensive and tax eating horse or life long horse riding and fighting skills. It might cut seriously into luxurious living, unlike mustering infantry.
    This made the horse nomads of the vast Eurasian steppe – running from Manchuria to Hungary – fearsome predators of the much richer civilizations to their south. The thing is usually the raids were episodic and not in vast numbers. A great weakness of the Mongols and other horse nomads before them was their great difficulty in forming durable social institutions beyond the clan or tribal level. It tended to take a truly charismatic, brilliant, and highly successful (with good fortune in early campaigns perhaps a key necessary ingredient) leader to coalesce really huge numbers of Mongols from rival clans and tribes into an enormous fighting coalition. Genghis Khan was exactly such a man. Skipping a generation while decline and squabbling among less impressive sons set in (and the Mongols for example failed to press the easy conquest of Western Europe from Hungary and Poland, which would have been fairly simple), Gengis’ grandson Kublai Khan conquered China. There he and his circle essentially supplanted the top ruling class, but kept many of the highly educated bureaucrats and technicians. They and the peasant surplus producers below them supplied what the Mongols sorely lacked.
    The Mongols wisely had great respect for Chinese (and other) engineers and tradespeople. They certainly spared Chinese siege machine engineers and tacticians, and used them to sack well fortified Chinese and Middle Eastern cities. It was the upper class that they liquidated (together with sufficiently resisting cities sometimes in literal absolutely complete toto, which had a highly effective demonstration effect – contrary to conventional current wisdom, genocide in the absence of an unmolested free press works wonders. Unfortunate but true.)
    So anyway, it was all the free grass for their vast herds of horses, not their own meat diet, which was the gastronomic key to the Mongol’s success, seems to me.
    (John Emerson, I’d be most interested in your reaction to this short hypothesis. I know you are expert on the Mongols and have read everything you’ve written on the steppe nomads and their place in Eurasian history that I could find, with pleasure and appreciation.)

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    There’s a lot to say and I’m just starting to work on this stuff again. A few points.
    Agriculture was possible on parts of the steppe, but not productive enough to pay for protection from nomad raiders, so civilization couldn’t penetrate the steppe and agriculture was rare. Near civilization, nomads were better off raiding and accepting tribute anyway (comparative advantage). The Ukraine steppe is now highly productive agricultural land and was once during classical times too. Nomads hated the idea of farming.
    The disorder of the steppe was in large part because of the impossibility of defensive warfare, and because unhappy nomads could always flee. Peasants were trapped on the land by their crop in the ground, so with a few castles you could control and tax a considerable area, and with stored grain you could hold out in a castle for awhile. Nomads didn’t have grain to store and depended on horses for warfare, so after a few days penned in a castle they’d be finished. Steppe warfare and politics were constant movement. There were no permanent geographical, architectural (castles) or institutional factors leading to stability. Any political unit could disintegrate in a single afternoon (after a losing battle, for example.)
    The disunity of the steppe peoples has been exaggerated. Forming the initial coalition was difficult, but steppe-founded states were more or less as stable as any other. The Mongol Empire disintegrated, but each of the parts was huge, and the area of Russia was mmore untied under the Mongols than it ever had been. Charlemagnes and Alexander’s empires didn’t last either. (There were probably size limits t how big an empire could be, and the Mongols increased those limits.)

  • dougjnn

    John Emerson said–
    Nomads hated the idea of farming.
    As did American Plains Indians, at least by the time they’d had a number of generations of cultural immersion in the horse nomad life, courtesy of Spanish origin mustangs.
    I’ve thought for a while that unlike many other Amerindian tribes, such as the Wampanoag of first extended Pilgrim contact, the Iroquois, the Cherokee or the Hopi and Navaho, that the horse culture North American Pains Indians simply could not be co-existed with by a settled agricultural state before they were crushed (not all killed, militarily/culturally crushed). Like the Mongols and the Taters who scourged the Russians for so long, and so on in Eurasia. They simply liked their horse based culture of hunting and raiding other tribes, and when the richer whites arrived them, too much to accept anything else that most of them could readily learn. Like farming. Or being a trades employee, as a step up from there.
    In other words Kumbaya was even less feasible than usual in that situation.

  • Richard Sharpe


    and the Mongols for example failed to press the easy conquest of Western Europe from Hungary and Poland, which would have been fairly simple

    When I see statements like that, I see someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. It’s like asking “how do you kill a tiger?” and getting the answer, “well, first, you create a trap.”
    At this great distance from those times the general person has no idea how easy or difficult it would have been to subdue Western Europe, and in China, since they had subdued the Northern Chinese, they had access to troops and materiel to use in subduing the south of China.

  • Richard Sharpe

    Chet Snickers that:

    and the relative poverty of europe vis-a-vis other regions of the world island explains their lack of interest in pushing into europe

    You conclude that from your current vantage point. I do not think that Subetai and his generals were in any position to make the same assessment that you have.
    People seem very willing to assume that the position of the mongols in control of Northern China and wanting to conquer the southern part of China was the same as that of Subetai’s army vis-a-vis tactics and access to resources (logistically) when he was contemplating the conquest of Western Europe. Frankly, they were not.

  • dougjnn

    “At this great distance from those times the general person has no idea how easy or difficult it would have been to subdue Western Europe, and in China,”
    Without feeling like looking it up right now I’ll relate from memory.
    What happened was that the local Mongol commanders in Europe at that fateful momnent stopped dead in their tracks because their was a fateful dynastic death back at the center, either Genghis or actually I think one of his progeny, and they felt the need to high tail it back to secure their place in the aftermath, since the system was so inherantly unstable.
    Now like I said, I didn’t look it back up to answer, but I think you’ll find that’s basically it.
    And I think you’ll have to agree that suggests I did know what I was talking about, at the broad sweep level I was discussing.

  • dougjnn

    Well, let me correct myself.
    It wasn’t PROVEN that the Mongol could have easily and simply conqured Western Europe.
    What the historical record DOES dhow is that it wasn’t the European military resistance, or European terrain, that kept them from pressing on.
    It was other, Mongol political, things.
    However, I see little other than Mongol internal political reasons to think they couldn’t have.

  • dougjnn

    Richard Sharpe–
    I concerned though. Might I be discussing with someone who’se less than the REAL Mr. S?
    Could this be a Sybil?

  • http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=IssueURL&_tockey=%23TOC%234908%239999%23999999999%2399999%23FLA%23&_auth=y&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid chet snicker


    You conclude that from your current vantage point. I do not think that Subetai and his generals were in any position to make the same assessment that you have.

    you do not think? irrelevant. i haven’t seen great evidence that you have dug into the scholarship on this topic, so what value does your opinion have? you don’t even bother to engage the standard reason offered above: the mongol generals turned back to intervene in a dynastic succession, and the one general who did favor invasion of europe was recalled. europeans couldn’t even keep outremer, i doubt that the mongol army which conquered most of eurasia in one generation would have had great difficulties with european fortifications. the monarchies of hungary and poland were certainly battle hardened and tested. i see no evidence that the german principalities or france would offer any greater threat.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    “the monarchies of hungary and poland were certainly battle hardened and tested.”
    In the second half of the XIIth century and throughout XIIIth century there was no “Polish monarchy”. Poland was divided into duchies then.

  • John Emerson

    The Mongols fought Western armies at least twice. A rather small Mongol army totally destroyed a Western Army in Hungary, and then much later (the last Mongol incursion to the West) another smallish Mongol army was stalemated or defeated by another mostly-German army in what is now western Poland (I think. They also repeatedly defeated Russian armies). It’s been reasonably concluded based on this evidence that a full-scale Mongol attack probably couldn’t have been successfully resisted.
    One difficulty I don’t think has been mentioined is that the further the Mongols went, the more people they had to leave behind to occupt conquered territory, and the longer communication lines to the center were.

  • John Emerson

    The disunity of E Europe was greater than that of W Europe, but W Europe probably was also incapable of a coordinated defense.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    “A rather small Mongol army totally destroyed a Western Army in Hungary, and then much later (the last Mongol incursion to the West) another smallish Mongol army was stalemated or defeated by another mostly-German army in what is now western Poland (I think. They also repeatedly defeated Russian armies).”
    What battle are you referring to? I know about the battle of Legnica in 1241, but then it was Mongols vs mostly Polish army, in what was then Poland (Silesia), after that — for a long time — Germany, and now is Poland again (in the XIIIth century, what was considered Germany was further to the West then, say, in the XIXth century).

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    Leignitz is the name I’ve heard. My information was not terribly accurate. I was as vague as I could be for that reason (I didn’t want to look stuff up), but I should have been even vaguer.
    In terms of my argument, what makes a difference is that a fairly important European force failed to defeat a smallish Mongol force. there’s no reason to believe that any western force would have done well against the Mongols; it’s not a purely conjectural argument because there were a few face-to-face matchups.
    What I just saw says that the Mongols actually won, but retreated immediately for internal Mongol reasons, and never returned again, so the battle has come to be thought of as a Western victory.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    Interestingly, in Polish historiography the battle of Legnica is considered to be a Mongol victory (the Polish knights ran away from the battlefield and the Polish commander was slain during the battle). It is also considered by some to be one of the first events in European warfare were chemical weapons have been used (for psychological effect).

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John

    The Poles did OK once the Lithuanians took over.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    “The Poles did OK once the Lithuanians took over.”
    What do you mean? In 1241 Lithuania was a pagan country and there was no Polish-Lithuanian alliance. Or do you mean the times of Władysław Jagiełło? That began in the end of the XIVth century, much later than the battle of Legnica.

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    Yes, I meant Jogaila.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    Well then I couldn’t say that “the Lithuanians took over” then. A more apt description would be “the Lithuanian elites became Polish”.
    You must remember that in the beginning of his rule, Jagiełło was married to Jadwiga, who was not you average shy and non-interfering royal spouse. Think of her as some Medieval Princess Di, only with a strict sense of morals ;-) Jadwiga must have counterbalanced the influence of Lithuania in Cracow.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    PS. Poles often managed to do OK in battle also *before* the Lithuanians took over. Even with such mean bastards like the Germans (battle of Cedynia, battle of Psie Pole or battle of Płowce, 1331). Not to mention the conquest of Kiev in the XIst century.
    Let it be said, before 1939, Poland often kicked ass.

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    You see, if the Lithuanians had remained pagan Poland would still have an empire reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and Russia would scarcely exist. You guys should have supported Jan Hus too, in which case the Reformation would have happened decades earlier in E. Europe.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    “You see, if the Lithuanians had remained pagan Poland would still have an empire reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and Russia would scarcely exist.”
    I disagree. The Commonwealth of Two Nations realms in the east were simply former Lithuanian conquests. It were the Lithuanian aristocrats who pushed for the drive east (this and the fact that the west became to crowded).
    Russia would exist regardless of what Poland would do, there is simply so much space in the east.
    “You guys should have supported Jan Hus too, in which case the Reformation would have happened decades earlier in E. Europe.”
    Maybe. Poland had its own Reformation movement (the Polish brethren) later on.
    I think that Reformation had little chances in Poland because the secular power had little incentive to support it: Polish Catholic church didn’t try to wrestle power from the hand of the King, at least not until the XVIIth century. On the contrary, the priests acted as loyal servants of the monarchy. Hence, Polish kings didn’t have to use the Reformation movement as a weapon against the Catholic Church.

  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    Russia would have existed as a rump state of Poland. And in Poland the Hussite battlewagons, given the chance, would have changed a few minds. Unfortunately Jogaila chose to become Catholic and oppose Hus, thus preventing the formation of a pagan-Protestant empire which would have changed world history.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    I think that Reformation had little chances in Poland because the secular power had little incentive to support it
    in the early 1600s protestantism was prevalent among polish aristocrats. seem the reformation by macculloch.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    John: you’re way too optimistic. Russia is unconquerable by definition.
    chet: it wasn’t enough. Poland, before the Counter-reformation started, had a relatively tolerant religious environment. This meant that the popular resentment against Catholicism was relatively small. The masses would have to be pushed toward Protestantism by the authority. However, the authority (King) did not have the incentive to do it.

  • John Emerson

    I’m basically kidding, Roman. Counterfactual history is a pleasant game. The idea of a pagan/Hussite east European empire is just fun.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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