Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Review: Empires of the Steppes by Kenneth W. Harl

Kenneth W Harl’s Empires of the Steppes is a new and up to date look at the nomadic tribes ranging from the Huns and Mongols to less familiar names, who helped shape Eurasian civilization

You've heard of the Mongols, at least vaguely, I am sure. Attila the Hun is still a byword for destruction and malevolence. These are high points of the Steppe Nomads, nomadic tribes that roamed from Hungary to China, influencing all the civilizations they contacted. But they were far more than the narrow vision you probably have. And there are many more beyond these two names. Diverse and dynamic migratory cultures. Who were these nomadic tribes, the Huns, the Mongols, and others you may not have heard of before picking up this book? And what was their importance to history? 

Kenneth W. Harl’s Empires of the Steppes explores the history of these nomadic tribes and how they shaped Eurasian civilization. Further, it engages with the whole idea of labelling the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian Steppe as solely being warriors in the first place. Certainly, the Huns, Avars, and the Mongols caused much destruction in their conflicts with settled civilizations. But the whole history and relationship of these nomads with settled civilizations is far, far more complicated and diverse. Harl's book looks at a much broader picture of what the steppe nomads were and who they were.

The book is a narrative history, running in a mostly chronologically linear format (although the prologue, showing Attila on the road to Rome, is a flashforward in terms of this linear chronology). The lack of a lot of archaeological evidence means the first couple of chapters may put off a reader, since there is much we just don’t know, and piecing together things from changes in dialects of PIE (Proto Indo-European) is somewhat obscure and arcane. It is with the Scythians that we start to get true interactions between the nomadic tribes and civilizations, and the narrative can take off. The zig-zag forward of the narrative in time means that our location and our focus, in Eurasia, shifts as different nomadic tribes and their impact on civilization are seen: Scythians in the west Steppes, Alexander the Great in Central Asia, China and their first dealings with the steppe nomads, and a couple of chapters in the East before swinging back to the Parthians, the Huns and more.

There is a lot of detail and, although I consider myself relatively well-read in history, a wealth of new information about these nomadic tribes came to light in the reading of the book. I knew a bit about the Huns, more about the Mongols, but in this book I was introduced to the Seljuks, the Scythians, the Hepthalites, and others. The complex web of relationships these people had with the more settled neighbors is a fascinating story that Harl explores. Is there a lot of back and forth raiding, attempts at conquest, submission, booty? Absolutely. But these peoples also provided mounts, transmitted ideas, and stimulated trade, commerce and technological development. Time and again, the nomadic tribes on the borders of more settled societies are shown to be agents of change. Even as they often are absorbed or disappear into the mix of the peoples they raid and conquer, their very existence, even as it is destructive and often catastrophic for peoples, cities and cultures, is also shown to have the effect of a wildfire upon a forest.

Still, contrary to the conception that the nomadic peoples just wanted to “destroy” civilization, Harl shows time and again how raiders wound up getting co-opted by their settled neighbors, either in conquering them and becoming settled themselves, or getting attracted to the goods and comforts of their neighbors. They didn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, but they did want to gain control of it. But the nomadic tribes as a whole, and we see it over and over, never were able to cohere for long. The potency of a single ruler usually held fast for a generation, but the nomadic crests of power never lasted longer than a couple of generations. Protip: when designing your nomadic tribal warrior character, don’t skimp on Charisma. Charisma and personality, as much as tactical brilliance and skill, is what made Attila, Genghis, Kublai, and Tamerlane so powerful. That’s what got people to follow them and lead them to conquest and glory. Genghis’s story, which I already knew, is very much a rags-to-riches one in this regard, starting with nothing but his family half-starved and ending with an empire. But the endless changes and developments of the Steppe meant a succession of new and different challenges to settled civilization. The Avars nearly conquering Constantinople is far less well known to most people as opposed to the Huns, Vandals and Goths smashing Rome.

The book ends with Tamerlane, the last high point of the Steppe nomads. The ambitious Timur the Lame was the scourge of Central Asia, and as bad as Genghis Khan actually was, some of the things that people attribute to him, some of the worst atrocities, can be actually laid more correctly at Tamerlane’s feet. He was much more the “pyramids of skulls” type of conqueror than Genghis ever was. After Tamerlane, the nomads ceased to be an important force in Eurasian civilization. The rise of oceanic trade, the European contact with the Americas, the rise of technology making horse archers and cavalry less effective in the face of pikemen and firearms meant that the Steppe nomads ceased to be the once pivotal factor they were for two millennia. They ceased to matter much in the same way the Silk Road itself that they sat across mattered so much.

Karl doesn’t speculate or talk about it at all, since his focus is Eurasia, but a Jonbar point comes to me as a reader of SFF. Would Indigenous cultures in North America have reached higher technological levels if they had had nomadic nomads to deal with on a regular basis because horses survived in North America and some enterprising tribes (as they did once they were introduced in our TL) decided a nomadic, raiding way of life on horseback was a path to success? The Great Plains from Alberta to Iowa and Kansas could have been the equivalent of the Steppe in Asia, providing pools of warring tribes pushing out against the mound builders of Cahokia, or the Iroquois of the East, or the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, or the Ancestral Puebloans of the South. Would this constant pressure force technological development in a way that the Native Americans didn’t do in our timeline?

Overall, in Empires of the Steppes, Harl makes a strong case for the importance of nomadic tribes in pre-1500 Europe and Asia, and provides a lot of evidence and correlative information to back up his thesis. Were Attila, Genghis and Tamerlane figures who caused much destruction and devastation from France to China? Absolutely. But were they also instrumental in making the modern Eurasian world what it was? That is Harl’s thesis, and I think he strongly argues it.

One final point. Read the book with Google Maps or an atlas at your elbow. The book lacks maps, and could surely use them, especially to get a better sense of the scale of the Eurasian steppes. Genghis’s conquests are all the more impressive given the distances he was covering. While Harl does paint good word-pictures, I think the book sorely could have used some maps.


Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


  • Extensively footnoted and annotated thesis
  • Strong narrative historical style makes for good reading
  • Book frankly could have used maps, and in plenty

Reference: Harl, Kenneth W., Empires of the Steppes [Hannover Square Press, 2023].

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin