Anthony Sattin

How the barbarians of the steppes shaped civilisation

The nomadic tribes of Central Asia eventually created vast empires that changed not only their own world but western history, says Kenneth W. Harl

Mounted archery was a defining characteristic of steppe warfare, with the Ferghana Valley supplying the best horses. [Getty Images]

It’s boom time for nomad history. It started some eight years ago, when Bloomsbury published a study of central Asia from an Oxford academic. This might have been a fringe book, but the author’s breadth of knowledge and analysis was exceptional, the narrative was gripping, the cover was beautiful and the publisher had high hopes, in spite of my quibbling review. Their punt paid off. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads has sold more than two million copies and counting. It has also helped renew interest in central Asia, which had mostly been the preserve of travel writers and niche historians, including the great René Grousset.

At the siege of Zhongdu, some 60,000 virgins jumped to their deaths to escape the barbarians

Interest has been further stoked by politics, first China’s Belt and Road Initiative and now the Russia-Ukraine war. Since 2017, a series of books has included Warwick Ball’s dry but insightful The Eurasian Steppe, Nicholas Morton’s The Mongol Storm and my own Nomads. Bloomsbury now offers us another beautifully wrapped work, Empires of the Steppes.

The author, Kenneth W. Harl, is a professor of classical and Byzantine history in New Orleans. An expert on Roman coins, his plan is to present the steppe people from their own perspective, show how their empires came together and how, in the process, they changed their world and shaped ours. The narrative covers some 4,500 years, ending with the death of Timur, or Tamerlaine, in the early 1400s.

This is rich terrain that has been covered in some way or another by historical narratives since before Edward Gibbon put pen to paper. What has changed in recent years – and this was something that Frankopan recognised – is our understanding of the early steppe nomads and their empires, in part because the internet has made Russian, Chinese and other sources more accessible and, perhaps more important, because of ongoing archaeological work.

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