The Heartland (Stuart Legg)

"The Heartland" gives the grand sweep of European and Asian history in terms of the continual conflict between the great coastal civilizations (China, India, Persia, the Middle East, Europe) and the barbarian horsemen from the central Asian steppes (Huns, Turks, Mongols, and others).

Stuart Legg follows the repeated unfoldings of conquest and assimilation, spicing the big picture with the often ghastly details of the barbarian kings and their methods of conquest.

The basic episode, repeated many times, consists of four stages:
(1) A heartland tribe with a strong leader conquers its neighbors. In search of more plunder, it probes the nearest coastal civilizations.
(2) When it finds weak ones, it attacks and pillages them, making them provinces of the barbarian leader's empire.
(3) The empire falls apart, with different barbarian rulers taking over the various conquered areas.
(4) The descendants of the barbarian kings become assimilated into the culture of their subjects. The coastal civilization recovers.

1700-1500 BC: Hyksos invade Egypt, Hittites invade Asia Minor. [chariot, compound bow]
800-600 BC: Scythians, Sarmatians destroy Assyrian empire. [mounted archers]
300 AD: Hiung-Nu conquer China. Sack of Loyang.
400-500 AD: Huns under Attila push Goths into Roman Empire, then attack Europe.
500-1000 AD: Turks, repulsed by China, batter Europe. [stirrup]
1200-1300 AD: Mongols under Chingis Khan and his successors conquer the Eurasian land mass, from Vienna to Canton.

It was only the development of firearms in the fourteenth century that finally nullified the mobility of the steppe horse-archers, and led to the subduing of central Asia by the Russian Empire. Until then, the settled civilizations had little defence against the periodic onslaughts from the loot-hungry but highly mobile and disciplined armies of nomadic barbarians from the heartland. But, Legg theorizes, in spite of their brutality and destructiveness, the steppe horsemen continually invigorated the coastal civilizations, imparting their own qualities of individualism and competitiveness.

It is hard for me to agree. The various littoral civilizations of Eurasia show widely differing levels of individualism, in spite of all having been influenced by invasions from the heartland. The thing that most impresses me in reading this book is how fortunate the citizens of the wealthier nations of the modern world are, that we no longer have to worry about the arrival of the barbarian horde at our gates:

At Nissa, 70,000 captives were forced to tie themselves together and were then cut down with axes, sabres, and arrows. At Merv [the Mongols] slaughtered upwards of 1,000,000 citizens. They rode away from Herat having killed, as they thought, the entire population, but on returning to the town found 3000 still alive...
[description of part of the Mongol campaign against Persia in 1220-1221]

Copyright © Mark Alford (1999)
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I have heard that Rene Grousset's "The Empire of the Steppes : A History of Central Asia" is another very good treatment.