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The Nomadic Influence

Jack R. Parnell

Spring, 2023


So much of our historical perspective is, in one way or another, the product of a broadly agrarian disposition. And yet, in the plains that stretch out in between sedentary civilities, there arose in counterpoint peoples who were defined more by the domestication of the horse, than of grain.  As early as we can remember there was violence between pastoral and agrarian peoples; a tidal wax and wane of warriors stampeding out of the steppe characterizes the history of Europe and Asia; empires which were before unassailable, taken to pieces and devastated by peoples who then disappeared into the ethnography. As a result, there exist countless legends of plains peoples; peerless warriors and conquerors—which, while earned, also provides a curious lens through which to view the more granular differences, that separate nomadic cultures from their agrarian counterparts.


The rider crests the rise, fur-clad and bow in hand; a silhouette that inspired fear for a millennium. Sycthians, Huns, Parthians, Magyars, Göktürks, Mongols, Timurids and Mughals are all iterations of the essential pastoral horse culture, which stormed down out of the Eurasian steppe again and again. This manner of living appears innate to the domesticated horse—cultural facsimiles arose in the New World in short order after the introduction of horses into the great plains of North and South America, in the form of tribes such as the Mapuche, and the Cheyenne. The primary feature, and essential virtue of the pastoral horse-culture, contrasted with agrarian cultures, is mobility. Mobility is a reflexive principle for such a way of life, it allows the horses to thrive, and in-turn allows the nomad to thrive himself in an otherwise inhospitable environment. The fall of the Roman west, and later Byzantium at Constantinople, the end of the Jin dynasty, the razing of Khwarezm  and the subjugation of Kievan Rus, are all works of pastoral peoples.


Horse-culture emerges in history among nomadic peoples, likely for the simple reason that the care and maintenance of the horse is rendered prohibitively resource intensive otherwise. Agrarian societies must grow enough crops to support not just themselves, but any livestock they keep as well—and not only through the growing season but also through barren winter months. Livestock that provides a steadier return on these investments is often prioritized, as with dairy goats, or cattle for milk and cheese, or poultry for eggs. The surplus required to maintain a horse, especially one not dedicated to plow-pulling but rather bred and trained for war, is a luxury reserved for noble classes. Indeed, the keeping of horses is frequently the bar by which nobility is measured—the terms Equite and Chevalier literally refer societal rank to the ability to serve as cavalrymen.


Alternatively, in the sprawling grasses of the steppe, the absence of a horse is more taxing to a man’s survival than the presence of one. So long as he is able to move with the seasons, the plains will provide a man all the fodder he needs to sustain a herd of horses. However, a man with no horse could find himself stranded without water, in a storm far from cover or at the mercy of wolves. Amid the wide expanses of the steppes, with few landmarks and fewer villages, moving between seasons as he must, a man without a horse is a cripple. A Mongol warrior outfitted for war would have at least five steeds. Maintaining them was simply matter of traveling with the herd to fresh stretches of grass, rather than needing to spend time growing hay, or building and maintaining barns and stables.


The individual bricks which comprise the edifice we call civilization are defined by the local clay, so to speak. Take any given man out of a hundred in a sedentary, pre-industrial culture, and he will be a farmer by betting odds. It’s a given then that the most common soldier from sedentary cultures will be a farmer with a spear. Compare him to any freedman of the steppe, who was a horseman before he could be anything else. Even those unhorsed men in the lowest station of life have no crops to harvest in the fall, and a home that rolls on a wagon—a life always on campaign. War is a seasonal pastime for the settled, not only due to inclement weather that could mire a march, but more centrally because the nation’s food supply needed to be brought in from the fields. A professional army mitigates this problem but itself demands a much more intricate infrastructure; one which has the man-power and resources to spare in order to defend and maintain supply lines. The ability to cover decent milage in a day, and to set up a disciplined camp at the end of it, defines a competent soldiery as much as being able to fight in formation.


It goes with out saying that a mounted man will cover more distance in a day than one marching. We can see, perhaps now, how persistent legends about the “scourge of God” begin to take shape. Such an army is, by its innate composition, able to move faster and further than other, more-familiar enemies. It’s a force which is unbound by supply lines, or harvest seasons because its supply of food follows in herds, or is taken physically by far-foraging raiding parties, and for whom a life in tents is hardly different from being at home. Again, mobility is the essential virtue, and it is essentially foreign to agrarian society. The Gauls, the Romans, the Carthaginians and the Goths all fought wars on similar terms, when compared with Atilla.


Another curious aspect of the horse-nomad cultures is their ability to suddenly present in enormous numbers—if every man on the plains is ripe for conscription, an empire-toppling army can be conjured out of the dust. Or so it may seem to any sedentary society bordering the apparent wastes of the steppe. All they need is to be given common cause, be it by some environmental pressure in drought or harsh winter, or unified by a successful warlord. The opportunity for a domino effect exists where one tribe uses the strength of subsuming another to conquer a third, until the whole of the steppe is united under one banner. So the sudden appearance of a horde where before there was only an expanse of grass—on account of an Atilla, a Temudgin or a Tamerlane. The problems implicit in consolidation and occupation; the idiosyncrasies and religious abstention, cultural quirks, and foreign tongues all conspire to make similar exponential conquests implausible for agrarian peoples. Because the pastoral tribes’ ways of life are so interwoven and wide-traveled a rider in Scythia and one from Manchuria could have more in common than than two settled men living across a river border. An added facet of this effect is a familiarity with rolling local command-structures into an existing army. Any who submit can be spared and their chain of command can remain intact, for your own use. The tendency to allow local rule so long as tribute demands were met, and subservience assured, are deals of a sort which agrarian kings were much less willing to make, and much less able to enforce with fewer mobile soldiers.     


The image of the nomadic horseman goes beyond a general unfamiliarity with their logistical capabilities, however. The only thing faster on the steppe than the rider is his arrow. The sprawling distances between any two noteworthy things on the steppe means hunting on foot is a practice of limited utility. Protecting flock and herd from a pack of wolves or pride of lions demands the reach to be able to engage several enemies from one position. The pressures exist then even before war, to create a bow that is powerful while still being able to be drawn and fired from horseback. There is a companion pressure as well, for the cultivation of riders skilled enough to wield such a weapon. Again, the demands of daily life for a pastoral nomad make for a much more ready transition to useful soldiery, than do the typical rigors of agricultural toil, or, more urban fancies. It’s a type of soldiery that is not easily replicated in sedentary society—many of which opted instead to hire nomadic horsemen as mercenaries rather than try to train them up domestically. While it is assuredly of use to be able to ride down a fleeing enemy and strike him in range of the bow, or to launch a volley in a charge, the most telling advantage of mounted archery is its ability to recede ever-away from any opponent, even as you pepper him with arrows. That particular feat of archery and horsemanship; a warrior leveling fire backward while using only his knees to drive his horse forward is called the Parthian Shot, in reference to the pastoral Parthians who first acquainted the Romans with it.


As a result, they don’t fit neatly into the plans of a general who previously had only  encountered the light javelin-throwing riders of settled lands, or later, the heavily armored lance bearers. Horse archers could harass and harry more aggressively and more continuously than other types of light cavalry. It’s rare that nomadic horsemen would be equipped with the sort of armor, and with horses well-suited to a heavy cavalry shock charge, but they were more than capable of lance and saber work after softening a target. The particular tactic of receding away from a charge can often lead to the mistaken impression of a rout, by the uninitiated. Formations can be undone by ill-fated attempts to pursue, creating in turn an opportunity for encirclement—famously, for example at the battle of Carrhae 53 BCE.


According to these forces was the largest contiguous empire in history formed. In-line with a manner of society uniquely suited to an eccentric soldiery, which defies conventional tactics; whose mobility, supply and adaptable command structures thwarted not just European empires, but imperial powers in the Middle East and Asia as well, time-and-again. It's evident then, how horse archers came to be considered the most ideal soldiers or warriors, especially by Moderns, and grew to be coveted above all others in some circles.


Let us consider then why so often the tide seems to recede, either into the sedentary population they have come to rule or fading back into the steppe from whence they came. The massive size of pastoral empires frequently goes hand in hand with their short lives, as they either develop into sedentary nations or break apart into the many disparate tribes and rulers the conquering forces was originally composed of.


We ought to consider again the nomadic horseman as an individual—we have a substantive count of whats in his favor, but what is it that he lacks? The fruits of the steppe are but little. There is game, and fodder for livestock whose skins can be made in leather for yurts and clothing; their bones and sinews into bows. Mares’ milk can be drank, and a lame horse can be eaten and so it goes for sheep, camels, and cattle. That is more-or-less the end of the list, of conveniently acquired resources out in the grasslands. Trade then, is an critically important feature of life on the steppe—giving what can be had for what cannot, or else taking a cut for allowing merchant caravans to pass unmolested. There are numberless luxuries and accoutrements available to settled societies that can’t be manufactured on the steppe, particularly as any manufacturing capacity must be able to be packed away on a wagon and moved. It becomes difficult then to justify keeping anything which doesn’t see daily use, when one moves so frequently.


Mobility on this scale can relegate things like the development of a written language, for example, to a matter of trifling importance. As well, it can understandably render pursuits like blacksmithing far more difficult. The struggle of metalworking in the grasslands and the absence of ore is  why for the pastoral horse archer; the production of his armor or other weapons, and things like craftsmans’ tools all commonly required an outside source of supply —which could easily be cut off by a savvy neighbor, when the tribes became restive. It also meant that the man of the steppe lacked recourse to viable alternatives. They do not have the means to alter their tactics toward heavily armored charges or infantry formations even if the situation calls for it. He is a horse archer because he can be nothing else. The specialization of skill and breadth of resources available to a settled society allows the pursuit of any wartime vocation, though horse archers are comparatively more expensive to train and equip if they are not available as mercenaries.


So, even as the horse archer is an inevitable conclusion of life on the steppe, he is maladapted to environments beyond it. Some of the cataclysms brought-on by pastoral raiders has as much to do with sedentary populations pushed out of their homes, into areas the nomads themselves would avoid. The hearty steeds of the steppe are as vulnerable to uneven or obstructed terrain as any other, and so mountainous, forested or boggy terrain can all be impassable to a horde of horsemen. Taking and holding any particular location is counterproductive in a grassland, as local grazing will be quickly exhausted. A horse archer’s most devastating tactic also precludes holding any swathe of land not large enough to allow them to gallop away as a matter of common tactic. While the particular mobility of the nomads can allow them to appear unlooked for, and their methods and tactics can be foreign, they can also be subverted or circumvented. Massed volley fire by infantry archers can out-shoot mounted archers due to the difficulty of the skill on horseback. Horsemen are as vulnerable to over extension and encirclement as any army, as proven at Ain Jalut. A well supplied fortress or walled city can resist riders alone indefinitely. Still more efficient however, would be to avoid the fight entirely.


“The supreme art of warfare is to subdue your enemy without fighting”


Words written by a man doubtlessly familiar with nomadic combatants, Sun Tzu. Manipulation of tribal rivalries and the careful management of tribute payments and trade, were the best tactics for agrarian peoples to ensure that no force on the steppe reached a critical mass, and charged out of it.


As a final point it’s worth clarifying that ruling over a settled civilization often requires a settled court to maintain it. The convoluted bureaucracies that manage agricultural society need an axle to turn about, in a manner of speaking. Scribes and record keepers and tax collectors serve their purpose. A palace requires a quarry, and a mason just as much as a king. So the conqueror must either adapt to sedentary life or else take as much as he can carry back out into the steppe. Adaptation to agrarian pressures is a feat which provided mixed success, best preformed in areas which neighbor the plains so that both ways of life can be preserved. Succession crises are common, however, because it is far easier to split a herd than a kingdom, and so the customs of inheritance are often not robust enough to keep a young empire born of nomadic conquest intact.


Adaptation goes both ways however, and so, even as nomadic peoples might buffer their vulnerabilities with the service of settled peoples or by adopting their customs, opposed kingdoms train and evolve to exploit them. History is replete with examples of the lines between what amounts to a pastoral society, and an agrarian one, becoming blurred, until there remains some new kingdom with its back turned to the grassland. Then, of course, the riders re-emerge. One may be left to wonder, since industrialization finally outmoded horses and bows, what we might have lost by forging of a Modern world in which there are no alternative ways to live.  



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