Empires of the steppes A history of the nomadic tribes who shaped civilization

Kenneth W. Harl

Book - 2023

A narrative history of how Attila, Genghis Khan and the so-called barbarians of the steppes shaped world civilization.

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Creative nonfiction
Toronto, Ontario, Canada : Hanover Square Press [2023]
Physical Description
572 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 425-445) and index.
Main Author
Kenneth W. Harl (author)
  • Prologue: Attila on the road to Roma
  • The peopling of the Eurasian steppes
  • Surviving on the Eurasian steppes
  • Scythians and the Great King of Persia
  • Alexander the Great: walling off Gog and Magog
  • Modu Chanyu and the Great Wall of China
  • The Xiongnu and Chinese emperors at war
  • The Sons of Heaven and the Silk Road
  • The Parthians, nomadic foes of Imperial Rome
  • Heirs of the Xiongnu: the Northern Wei
  • The Hephthalites: Huns in Iran
  • Huns, allies and foes of Rome
  • Attila, the Scourge of God
  • The heirs of Attila and the New Rome
  • Turkish kaghans and Tang emperors
  • Turks and the Caliphate
  • The Seljuk Turks and their sultanate
  • The legend of Prester John and the Gurkhans of Cathay
  • From Temujin to Genghis Khan
  • Genghis Khan, the world conqueror
  • Batu and the Devil's Horsemen
  • The Mongol sack of Baghdad
  • Kublai Khan and the unification of China
  • Papal envoys, missionaries, and Marco Polo
  • Tamerlane, prince of destruction
  • Epilogue: Nomadic conquerors: achievements and legacies.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Tulane University historian Harl (The Ottoman Empire) examines in this comprehensive and accessible chronicle the substantial impact of nomadic peoples from the Eurasian Steppes on the development of modern civilization in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia from 3000 BCE to 1400 CE. Harl demonstrates how nomad invasions shaped history: the Hun invasions of the mid-400s drove Germanic tribes to seek new homes within the Roman Empire, leading to the toppling of Rome; Avar incursions into Byzantium in the 500s and 600s dramatically influenced the subsequent growth and spread of Islamic influence in the Middle East; and Genghis Khan and his descendants created a Mongol Empire that spread from Russia to Japan, drawing new borders in the Middle East and Asia that are still recognized today. While the steppe nomads could carve out an empire, it was not possible to rule from horseback, resulting in a pattern of conquest and collapse that defined Eurasian civilization for millennia; even the Age of European Discovery, Harl contends, can be attributed to the power and riches of the steppe empires that enticed travelers from the West. Marked by its meticulous detail and broad sweep, this is a major contribution to the understanding of how the modern world came to be. (Aug.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

Academic survey of the horse-based cultures of the Eurasian plains, which often rode out to conquer neighboring lands. Harl, a professor of classical and Byzantine history, took the occasion of a sabbatical canceled by the pandemic to write "a sweeping narrative covering forty-five centuries." This book is just that, and though the text is occasionally labored, the author covers an impressive amount of ground. His early pages deal with the proto--Indo-European peoples who ranged out of the steppes to settle in places as far-flung as Ireland and western China, the latter known to us through remnants of an ancient language called Tocharian as well as DNA analysis that shows a blend of European and Siberian origins. A succession of nomadic peoples--Scythian, Parthian, Mongol, Turkic, Khazar--followed over the centuries, many of them using their military advantages (including the innovations of war carriages and massed cavalry) to seize territory as distant from their epicenter as the outskirts of Paris and the whole of India. Still, as Harl writes, their successes were often short-lived. When Attila died in what is now Budapest after having "overindulged in a wedding celebration to his newest wife," the vast empire that he built fell apart. Only Genghis Khan's lasted much beyond his life, while his descendant Kublai Khan succeeded in unifying China after overthrowing the Song dynasty--though he frittered away his energies by trying to absorb the jungles of Southeast Asia, which were not conducive to Mongol cavalry tactics. For all the evanescence of the conquests by people like the Uzbek hero (and mass murderer) Tamerlane, Harl observes that the nomads had a lasting effect on the world. The Mongols, for one, brought gunpowder and the arts of papermaking and printing to Europe, and Tamerlane inadvertently shifted the seat of power to the north and west of his homeland from Kiev to Moscow. An ambitious, impressively researched study that will interest advanced students of world history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.