Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The History of the Mongol Conquests

Book Cover

Book Title

The History of the Mongol Conquests. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1971


Saunders, J.J.


This book discusses the first theories of the origins of the Mongol people, before moving onto the various rulers and their conquests over their neighbors, particularly China. The structure of administration of the gradually developing Mongol empire was regarded as equally important as the formation of military in the numerous conquests that spilled from Germany to Korea. The latter had destroyed other kingdoms and empires wholesale, leaving the greater part of the Old World shaken and transformed. It is this form of interaction and the process of spreading influence that becomes the main focus of the book.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

As a history of the Mongol conquests, Saunders begins the study by writing about the Turkish rehearsal for the Mongol conquests, from Turk to Mongol in the period 750-1200. The scope encompasses the rise of Chingis Khan to power, the subsequent Mongol drive into Europe, the features of nomad imperialism concerning Mongol rule in China and Persia, as well as the anti-Mongol reaction. The Mongol Age is discussed in retrospect: in the history of war and relations between sedentary and nomadic societies the Mongol conquests were seen as the end of the epoch and this belief was unfortunately reinforced by the success of the military techniques of the Mongols. In this way, Saunders writes about how barbarian conquerors rarely placate their subjects and how their method of rule may differ or be similar to that of subsequent empire-builders.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Saunders asserts that Chingis was able to understand the value of the medieval equivalent of mechanized warfare and elevate it to the highest pitch of skill. In addition, under his orders, his officers classified those conquered as artisans, skilled prisoners or anyone with a pretence to technical knowledge, in order to draft them into the engineering corps of the army. He also made sure that sufficient attention was paid into maintaining the communications of his expanding empire and his excellent intelligence service. He never embarked on a campaign until he had collected every morsel of intelligence that he could, concerning the size, strength, resources and morale of the enemy. The author also argues that Chingis was more than a talented warrior chief but he was also an outstanding civil administrator.

Before the close of the year 1237 the invaders had crossed the Volga into Europe. Chingis was able to benefit from the belief of the Mongols as the masters of the art of war such as the world has not seen before. From this encounter, Chingis had made the following observations: 1) the reaction of Europe to the Mongol invasion illustrates the point that even the most alarming danger of a Mongol invasion was incapable of compelling bitter rivals to sink their differences and unite if each party is persuaded that it can benefit from another rival's fall, and 2) the stop of a powerful attack is often due less to the valor and unity of those attacked than to the dissensions within the camp of the aggressors.

Saunders extracted from the exploration of the nomadic imperialism of Mongols in China and Persia, vital information regarding the changes in the nature of Mongol empire rule and its ways. He argued that because of the gigantic scale of their conquests, the Mongols were the first and only nomadic people to face in its acutest form the problem of ruling, with no previous experience.

Comparing this to Turkish conquests of the sixth century, which though vast scarcely extended beyond the limits of the stepppe, and the inroads of the Seljuk Turks into the Persian and Arab lands of the eleventh century which were softened by the common religion professed by the conquered and the conquerors. The Mongols were people who were seen as pagans and uncultured, but they conquered territories far beyond the Eurasian regions dominated by the mountain stockmen, breaking also into the civilized realms of China and Persia, the half-civilized plains of Russia, and the commercial oases of Central Asia.

Finally, Saunders attributed the success of the policy of consolidation in the two urbanized societies of China and Persia to the talents and skills of the sovereigns; Kubilai in China and Ghazan in Persia. They were seen as having won acceptance rather than popularity from their subjects. Unfortunately, a despotic government depends on the will and ability of the despot, making the smooth succession of princes difficult to ensure. Hence, the deaths of Kubilai in China in 1294 and of Ghazan in Persia in 1304 marked the end of the era of Mongol imperialism.

Annotated by Michelle Djong