Steppe Confederations Research Paper

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Steppe confederations are large and militarily powerful state-like structures that emerged many times in the steppes of Eurasia (the vast regions that were populated by pastoral nomads) from the first millennium BCE to the eighteenth century CE. Perhaps the most famous was the Mongol Empire created by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan in the thirteenth century.

Steppe confederations appeared from the first millennium BCE to the eighteenth century CE in regions dominated by pastoral nomads, and for this reason they were very different from the states of the agrarian world. To understand them fully, it is important to be clear about these differences, but regardless of those differences, steppe confederations could be so powerful and so influential that it seems foolish not to regard them as states. This research paper treats steppe confederations as a distinctive type of state and uses the phrase “steppe confederations” interchangeably with the phrase “pastoralist states.”

Nomadic pastoralists may have lived in the steppes of Eurasia from as early as the fourth millennium BCE. As the archaeologist Andrew Sherratt has shown, their distinctive way of life was made possible by technological changes that enabled pastoralists to exploit domesticated livestock more efficiently by using not just their meat and hides but also their “secondary products”—their traction power, wool, milk, and manure. These could be used while the animals were still alive, so the “secondary-products revolution” greatly increased the amount and variety of resources available to livestock herders, making it possible for entire communities to live almost exclusively from their livestock. By making it possible for communities to exploit the arid steppes, which were too dry to be farmed, pastoralism permitted the settlement of the huge belt of arid grasslands that extends from Manchuria to Mesopotamia and across North Africa and into East Africa. The most powerful steppe confederations have appeared in the steppes between Manchuria and eastern Europe. Here, the animal of prestige was the horse, though sheep, camels, cattle, goats, and yaks were important components of herds in different regions.

Building Steppe Confederations

The appearance of steppe confederations is curious because pastoralists appear to lack the crucial preconditions for state formation. Pastoralism is far less productive than most forms of farming, so it usually supports smaller and more scattered populations. Because most pastoralists are mobile, they also have little reason or opportunity to accumulate large stores of wealth. Finally, pastoralists live most of the time in relatively self-sufficient small groups so that, except in times of war, they need few of the organizational services that states provide. Small populations, limited wealth, and a high level of self-sufficiency make the appearance of pastoralist states something of a puzzle. How was it possible to build powerful states under such conditions?

The first answer is that pastoralists had military advantages that partly compensated for their demographic and economic weakness. Pastoralist life-ways naturally inculcated military skills, for pastoralists had to learn how to hunt—which required mastery of weapons—how to navigate over large distances, and, particularly in the arid lands of Eurasia, southwest Asia, and northern Africa, how to ride. The physical demands of dealing with large animals and the harshness of steppe and desert climates inured pastoralists to physical hardships, an advantage in warfare, while frequent raiding provided regular military practice. Though associated mainly with males, military skills were also widespread among women in pastoralist societies. Many accounts, including the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’s tales of “Amazons,” show that pastoralist women could be formidable fighters, and many steppe burials of women contain large stocks of weapons and armor. The military prowess of pastoralist communities is evident as early as the fourth millennium BCE, for steppe tombs (kurgany) from that period contain weapons as well as goods produced in neighboring agrarian communities. Doubtless some of these goods were acquired through trade, but there can be little doubt that even the earliest pastoralists, like their descendants, often used the threat of force to exact tribute. The earliest written accounts of pastoralist life-ways all stress the significance of military skills among pastoralists. In his famous account of the Scythians, written in the fifth century BCE, Herodotus reported that Scythian leaders organized annual meetings at which those who had not killed an enemy in the previous year were shamed. In the first century BCE, the Han historian Sima Qian (1961, 2: 155) wrote of the Xiongnu, who lived in modern Mongolia, “The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions.” Unlike peasants, pastoralists needed little training before going to war.

The role of kinship in pastoralist societies explains why pastoralist communities could rapidly form large military alliances. Nomadic pastoralists normally lived in small groups of related individuals linked to neighboring groups by ties of kinship or fealty. Family or clan leaders would take important decisions about migration routes or handle conflicts with neighboring families and clans. But violent conflict was common, partly because of the extreme volatility of pastoralist life-ways. Entire herds could be lost in spring frosts or because of epidemic diseases, and those affected by such disasters often had little choice but to steal livestock from other pastoralists. Such conflicts could prompt the rapid formation of local military alliances as local leaders sent riders to seek the support of other pastoralist leaders to whom they were linked by kinship, friendship, allegiance, or past obligations. Where the threat was on a large enough scale, the same mechanisms could bring together huge armies, linking pastoralist tribes over large areas. Herodotus (1987, 4: 119) records that in 513 BCE, when the Persian ruler Darius invaded the Black Sea steppes through modern Romania and Moldova, “The Scythians reasoned that they were not able to resist Darius’ army in a straight fight on their own, and so they sent messengers to their neighbors.” Though not all communities joined the alliance against Darius I, a large number did, and Darius eventually had to retreat in the face of sustained and highly effective guerilla attacks.

Alliances also formed to conduct booty raids. As the supporters of the future Chinggis Khan made clear when they elected him their khan in about 1190 CE, they expected to become rich under his leadership: “When you are made qan, we, galloping as a vanguard after many enemies, will bring in girls and qatuns (i.e., ladies) of good complexion, palace tents, . . . geldings with fine rumps at a trot, and give them to you” (Christian 1998, 391–392).

Forming effective armies in response to external threats or the prospect of booty was one thing; creating a permanent alliance powerful enough to conquer neighboring states and stable enough to be regarded as a state was quite another matter. As the political theorist Ellman Service has argued, states are distinguished from weaker political systems because they have mechanisms to prevent splitting along tribal lines. “The state,” argues Service, “is a system specifically designed to restrain such tendencies” (Cohen and Service 1978, 4).

In the agrarian world, large and productive populations generated flows of wealth that could be used to weld regional leaders into a single political system, or to buy the services of armies. However, pastoralist communities generated little in the way of surplus wealth. So, to create a stable tribal alliance, pastoralist leaders had to institutionalize the lure of the booty raid. To bind different tribes into a durable political and military system, pastoralist leaders had to secure a steady flow of wealth from neighboring agrarian regions. It was the creation of such stable mechanisms of tribute taking that turned temporary military alliances into the pastoralist equivalents of states. Though normally exacted from “outsiders,” these flows were the functional equivalent of the taxes that sustained agrarian states. The anthropologist Thomas Barfield has analyzed how such stable flows of tribute were established for the first time late in the first millennium BCE, across the northern Chinese borders. In what was really a systematic form of extortion, the Xiongnu, based in modern Mongolia, threatened to launch devastating raids into China’s agrarian regions unless they were bought off with annual tributes in foodstuffs, silks, and other valued goods. “Just make sure,” a Xiongnu official once explained to Chinese envoys, “that the silks and grainstuffs you bring the Hsiung-nu [Xiongnu] are the right measure and quality, that’s all . . . If the goods you deliver are up to measure and good quality, all right. But if there is any deficiency or the quality is no good, then when the autumn harvest comes we will take our horses and trample all over your crops” (Christian 1998, 192). As long as Chinese states continued to pay tribute, Xiongnu leaders could lavish gifts on their followers and maintain their loyalty. The key to success lay in the plausibility of the threat, and only a pastoralist leader who had achieved unquestioned authority over large contingents of steppe soldiers could make such threats with credibility. So in the steppes, state-building normally began with a skillful and charismatic leader creating an exceptionally disciplined following.

Establishing stable flows of tribute from large agrarian states was extremely difficult, which is why pastoralist states appeared much later than the first agrarian states and were also less common, more fragile, and more ephemeral: few lasted more than a generation or two, as they depended so much on the charisma and skill of their founders. However, once a state had been created, there was much that farsighted leaders could do to stabilize them. The most natural step was to launch new wars of conquest that could supply more booty and remind existing tribute payers of the dangers of nonpayment. Eventually, however, all successful pastoralist leaders found they had to build durable bureaucratic and political structures, similar to those of the agrarian world. Even before they became supreme leaders, the most farsighted steppe leaders often built up elite military units or bodyguards that were organized bureaucratically, bound closely to the overall leader, and kept apart from the traditional structures of kinship. The starkest example of such a strategy can be found in Sima Qian’s description of how Maodun, the founder of the Xiongnu confederation, built up a highly disciplined personal following. Maodun ordered his followers to shoot at any object towards which he aimed his arrows, and executed those who refused to obey. He aimed, first, at one of his favorite horses, killing all those too fearful to follow his example; then aimed an arrow at his favorite wife, once again executing those who failed to shoot; then he aimed at his father’s horse. Finally, he aimed an arrow at his own father. After replacing his murdered father, Maodun deliberately broke up kinship structures amongst his followers, organizing them in units of ten that owed allegiance to each other rather than to kinship units.

At the very top of any successful steppe confederation, the key to stability lay within the ruling family. It was vital to secure the succession and it was vital that the successor be an able leader. This was perhaps the most difficult task to achieve; we can be sure that all steppe leaders thought hard about it, and some, including Chinggis Khan and Maodun, succeeded in handing power over to sons who were competent enough to hold their empires together. Below the ruling family, structures were created to bind regional leaders to the state. All the most powerful steppe leaders, beginning with Maodun, organized regular meetings of regional leaders. These pastoralist “parliaments” offered the chance to keep an eye on potential rivals, to take rudimentary censuses, to consult about policy, to share worship, and even to hold competitions in a pastoralist equivalent of the Olympic games (of which the modern Mongolian Naadam festival is a survivor). Successful steppe leaders also built palaces or capital cities, with the help of artisans from the agrarian world, in order to demonstrate their wealth and display their prestige. The Mongols, the most successful of all pastoralist leaders, used advisers from conquered regions to help them construct elaborate fiscal systems, rapid communications systems using post-horses, and written laws. As they became more reliant on the resources and the commercial and bureaucratic skills of the agrarian world, some steppe leaders, such as the Seljuks, the Ottomans, and the Mongol rulers of China, eventually moved their capitals into the agrarian world, turning pastoralist states into conventional agrarian states that retained little but a symbolic memory of their pastoralist origins.

Major Steppe Confederations

Powerful alliances of pastoralist leaders may have appeared as soon as pastoralism itself emerged, from the fourth millennium BCE. Certainly, the archaeological evidence suggests that even this early, there were militaristic migrations of pastoralist peoples over large areas. By the first millennium BCE, written evidence appears of large-scale pastoralist attacks, such as the Cimmerian and Scythian invasions of northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia through modern Azerbaijan. By this time, some steppe leaders were being buried in very large, elaborate tombs with slaves, horses, and huge hoards of wealth, which indicates their wealth and power. And it is clear that Scythian leaders north of the Black Sea exacted tribute from farming communities in modern Ukraine and the Crimea. But none of this evidence suggests the existence of steppe confederations or true pastoralist states, that is, of stable systems of rule capable of sustained tribute taking from neighboring agrarian states.

The first steppe confederation that really fits this definition was the Xiongnu confederation created by Maodun in Mongolia early in the second century BCE. Knowing his father favored a younger brother, Maodun built up the disciplined following of soldiers described earlier, and used it to overthrow his father and remove his father’s closest allies. Having established his unquestioned supremacy among the Xiongnu, he then turned on two large neighboring confederations, looting them and enriching his followers. Finally, just as the Han dynasty was establishing itself in northern China, he led devastating booty raids into the region, eventually defeating the first Han emperor, Gaozu (reigned 206–195 BCE). In 198 BCE Gaozu negotiated the first of a series of treaties under which he recognized Maodun as an equal, promised him a royal bride, and agreed to send him annual “gifts” of silk, wine, grain, and other goods. Meanwhile, the Xiongnu had also established tributary relationships with other tribes of pastoralists, and with the many small towns and communities of modern Xinjiang and the Tarim Basin, as well as with some of the cities of Central Africa. Their authority soon reached from Manchuria to Central Africa, making the Xiongnu state one of the largest of all pre-modern states. The relationship with the Han was the key to Xiongnu power simply because of the huge wealth and prestige that the relationship brought them. It was maintained for almost sixty years until a more powerful Han ruler, Wudi (reigned 141–87 BCE) decided that the price demanded by the Xiongnu was too high, and launched a decades-long war on the Xiongnu. Though weakened and never again the diplomatic equals of the Han, regional Xiongnu leaders retained significant power for the best part of three centuries.

The history of the Xiongnu was to be repeated several times during the next two thousand years. In 552, a dynasty known as the Ashina created the first Turkic Empire. Like the Xiongnu state, the first Turkic Empire was created from a base in Mongolia. It also owed much to the charisma and skills of its founders, the brothers Bumin and Ishtemi. Within fifteen years of its creation, it reached from Manchuria to the Volga river, negotiating on equal terms with all Eurasia’s superpowers: China, Persia, and Byzantium. However, the empire fell apart within two generations of its founding, partly because of conflicts within the ruling family. A second Turkic Empire was established in 683 and lasted until 734, though it never reached as far west as its predecessor. It was overthrown by a Uygur dynasty that lasted for almost a century, until 840.

A Mongol ruler, Temujin (c. 1160–1227), created the greatest of all the steppe empires in the early thirteenth century. Like Maodun, Temujin made his way in a hostile environment of vicious tribal and personal conflict. He built up a loyal and disciplined following, and in 1206, at a gathering of regional leaders he was elected overall khan, or Chinggis Qan (from which derives the popular Anglicized version of the name, Genghis Khan). Chinggis Khan led Mongol armies in wars of conquest in northern China and Central Asia. After his death, his successors conquered the rest of China, Russia, and Persia. In the 1260s his grandson Khubilai Khan briefly claimed sovereignty over Mongolia, China, Central Asia, Russia, and Persia—the largest land empire ever created.

Other pastoralist states were created in Mongolia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Jungar Empire, created in western Mongolia in the late seventeenth century and crushed by China’s Qing dynasty in 1758, probably counts as the last great steppe confederation.

The largest and most influential of steppe confederations emerged in the steppes north and west of China, probably because from there they could extort wealth from the largest and wealthiest power on earth. But other steppe confederations appeared further west. At the western end of the steppes, the most powerful pastoralist confederations appeared in Hungary, from where they could extort the wealth of the Roman and Byzantine empires. The best known of these states are those of the Huns (in the fifth century) and Avars (sixth century), though earlier pastoralists too had briefly extorted wealth from their agrarian neighbors in eastern Europe. Both the Hun and Avar states extracted large amounts of wealth from their neighbors, but neither survived as a major power for more than a generation, perhaps because the steppes of Hungary offered too small a base for really large pastoralist armies. In eentral Asia there appeared many powerful pastoralist alliances, some of which endured for several generations. The geography of Central Africa denied them the possibility of extorting wealth on the scale of the Mongols or even the Huns; their wealth came from the many small oasis city-states of the region. The most powerful of the Central African steppe confederations, the Kushan Empire (c. 45–c. 230), based its power primarily on agrarian communities, and, despite its pastoralist origins, should really be counted as a pastoralist dynasty ruling agrarian states. The same could be said of the Seljuks, who conquered much of Central Africa in 1040 and went on to conquer much of Persia, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia within a generation.

North and west of the Caspian Sea, the peasant migrations that were to lay the foundations for the emerging states of Russia created new opportunities for pastoralist leaders to exact tribute. The Khazar Empire was established along the western shores of the Caspian sea in the early seventh century by rulers from the Turkic Ashina dynasty. It lasted for more than three hundred years and was eventually destroyed in 965 by an army from Kievan Rus’ (a principality with its capital at Kiev). Its heartland remained in the lands just north and west of the Caspian, and its rulers always retained a sense of their pastoral origins. It exacted tribute from neighboring pastoralists and from agricultural communities in the lands of modern Russia and Ukraine; it also became a major international power, negotiating on equal terms with both Baghdad and Constantinople. Its wealth came from a wide variety of sources, from local tributes, from taxes levied on trade, and from taxes levied on agrarian populations in the Caucasus and Rus’. After the Mongol conquest of Rus’ in 1237–1241, the heirs of Chinggis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi, established a state often known as the Golden Horde or the Kipchak khanate. For more than a century this state successfully exacted tribute from the Caucasus and from Rus’ before fragmenting into smaller regional states, none of which managed to establish such stable flows of tribute.

Steppe Confederations in World History

Though it makes sense to regard them as states, steppe confederations were very different from the agrarian states that give us our conventional images of statehood. Built with limited resources, steppe confederations had to rely mainly on external sources of revenue, taken by force from agrarian communities very different from their own. The military skills inculcated by pastoralist life-ways made pastoralists formidable in warfare, but establishing stable systems of tribute was possible only under the most powerful and skillful of steppe leaders. Maintaining durable flows of tribute was much more difficult than mounting periodic booty raids, which explains why so few pastoralist leaders succeeded in creating true pastoralist states, and why pastoralist states rarely survived for more than two or three generations. But when pastoralist states did emerge, they could prove extremely powerful and extremely influential. They were some of the largest states that have ever existed, and their impact on Eurasian history was at times revolutionary.


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