Napoleon Bonaparte

“I found the crown of France in the gutter, and I picked it up.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

The word revolution literally means a full 360-degree turn, but when talking of revolutions in a historical context, the definition of revolution dramatically changes; a stark departure from the political scene that was, to the messy, and often violent, embrace of a new world.

The French Revolution was, in different ways, both kinds of revolution. In the end, an absolutist government replaced an absolutist government, but the change that sprung from the revolution was genuine and enduring. It helped usher in a world where people saw themselves as citizens of a wider community rather than subjects of a king. Eventually, a rising military man of unfathomable drive and ambition would prove that being the son of the king of France was not the only way to become ruler of France.

Rising Star

In the Spring of 1769, the tiny nation island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, was under siege from the French military. A tiny band of Corsican patriots were determined to repel the invaders, but they never stood a chance and were defeated after a year of fighting. One opponent of the French occupation was a trainee attorney, Carlo Buonaparte, whose wife, Letizia, gave birth to the couple’s second surviving child, Napoleon, on 15 August 1769. Carlo would soon come to realise and appreciate the benefit of French rule.

Napoleon grew up on the island and loved reading and his father was able to secure him a scholarship to the Royal Military College at Brienne. The young Napoleon first set foot on the French mainland in the winter 1778. As a child he had spoken Italian and Corsican and did not begin learning French until he was 10 years old (his mother never even bothered to learn the language). Whilst at Brienne, Napoleon was ridiculed for his accent; but contrary to popular belief he was not bullied for his shortness, as the man grew up to be around 5’ 7” which was around average height for an eighteenth century man.

At the age of 16 Napoleon served as a second lieutenant with one of the country’s most elite artillery units and he began to gradually rise through the ranks of the army through the early years of the tumultuous French Revolution, which erupted in 1789 in Paris. At the age of just 24 in 1793 Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, after proving himself against the British at Toulon, working under the Committee for Public Safety which ironically ended up killing a lot of people in the name of public safety.

In the spring of 1795 Napoleon visited Paris, his ambitions burning brighter than ever. Whilst there he was charged with subjugating the Parisian mobs by any means necessary. Gathering cannon and muskets to equip his poorly armed forces, Napoleon set his guns up in the Tuileries Palace in positions that made it pretty much impregnable. When the attack came, Napoleon ordered his mean to hold their fire until the whites of the aggressors’ eyes could be seen before unleashing a hail of merciless fire upon them. The artillerymen’s grapeshot decimated the attacking mob. Napoleon wrote to his brother, “The enemy attacked us. We killed a great many of them. Now, all is quiet. I could not be happier.” After this action, the triumphant Napoleon Bonaparte was elevated to the rank of full general and at the age of 26 was made the Commander of the Army of the Interior. Soon, he was given command of French armies in Italy and was tasked with defeating the Austrians along with their Italian allies.

Meanwhile, other European powers had become increasingly worried about the political situation in France. The execution of their king and queen led to fears that the French experiment in democracy would spill over into their territories and threaten their own kingdoms. They moved against the new French government which led to a series of wars between Revolutionary France and most of the European major powers.

Young General Bonaparte had built his army into the most efficient conquering force on the European mainland, and over the next three years he brought stunning victory after stunning victory; not just in Italy but also in Austria and as far as North Africa and the Middle-East. His 1798 North African campaign was a calculated move against the British, who used Egypt as a trading route. In addition to an army, Napoleon also brought many scientists, linguists, and other scholars to advance knowledge as well as carry off Egyptian riches. The Egyptians were impressed by the openness of these scholars, but generally the French completely appalled the local populace with their crude ways and drunkenness. Even as Napoleon flattered Egyptians by declaring himself as a worshipper of Islam, he ultimately stole and desecrated many Egyptian artefacts.

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Seizing Power

Napoleon was forced to return to France in 1799 as his army and navy were defeated by British and Egyptian forces and disease. This timing turned out to be perfect: The Directory, which was a five-person committee governing France after the collapse of Maximilien Robespierre’s Committee for Public Safety, was overseeing a still-floundering economy, and fighting wars on multiple fronts. Napoleon assisted in overthrowing The Directory and helped establish a three-person Consulship; himself being one of the Consuls. He quickly became the “First Consul”, and then mended relations with the Catholic Church as one of his first tasks.

He agreed to the Concordant of 1801, which recognised Catholicism as the primary French religion (religion had been frowned upon during the revolutionary governments). It also validated the sale of Church lands and the state’s payment of clergymen’s salaries if they agreed to uphold the French government. This was important to Napoleon as it ensured him the support of one of France’s most important institutions. However, it is also worth noting that Napoleon would eventually be excommunicated by the Catholic Church for annexing Papal lands for France.

Napoleon also proved to be extremely popular with the people. After all, he offered a solution to years of political upheaval and economic decline. He won majorities when he had his candidacy for office and other decisions approved by plebiscite cast by men over the age of 21.

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In 1802, he had himself declared Consul for life. Soon after, on 2 December 1804 Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of the French at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In all but name and place, it was just like the coronations of the kings of old, with one key difference. Napoleon, the controller of his own destiny, placed the crown upon his own head. At 35 years of age, Napoleon Bonaparte had risen from his humble Corsican background to become the most powerful man in all of Europe.

The leaders of the French Revolution had promoted the ancient Roman idea of virtus: the sacrifice of personal interest for the good of the republic. Napoleon continued the Roman imagery but switched from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. This can be seen in his journey from Consul to Emperor; he is portrayed in paintings wearing lavish costumes and crowned with the laurel leaves of a conquering hero.

Napoleon also viewed himself as a modern Justinian, the famed lawgiver of the Eastern Roman Empire. He employed the most celebrated jurists, under his guidance, to produce a rational code of laws. Completed in 1804, the Napoleonic Code standardised the laws of citizenship, family, and property. The Code also set the rules for financial transfers, mortgages and for other legal transactions concerning property standards across France instead of differing from province to province. And legal standardisation facilitated modern economic development. But the other two sections, on family and citizenship, proved rather regressive for women and curtailed many of their rights. Under the Napoleonic Code, women had no right to own their own property once they were married; not even any wages that they earned themselves. They were barred from serving as witnesses in court and did not even have control over the guardianship of their own children. If they committed adultery, they were to be jailed, but men, in contrast, would only be charged of the crime if they brought a sexual partner into their family home.

The regressive nature of Napoleonic family law aside, by creating laws that specifically targeted the economy, the empire was paving the way for modernisation. Other institutions followed suit: individual schools were founded for higher education in engineering, science, and technology. Napoleon also sponsored the creation of lycées, or high schools, and countries across Europe and across the globe imitated the French legal and educational systems as they strove to modernise too. This brought many new opportunities in France, but it is worth remembering that half of the population – women – were not only being denied these opportunities but had also lost many of the rights that they had previously enjoyed.

Europe’s Dictator

Napoleon had initially succeeded in France because he quelled the political chaos by making himself an emblem of authority and order (just like any other opportunistic dictator worth their salt). He also created a sort of police state with strict censorship and spies operating in everyday life. The monarchical system of aristocratic titles was also restored, even giving back the pre-revolution titles to some of the old aristocracy who Napoleon believed could help revive the appearance of ceremonial grandeur. In all these ways, Napoleon was reverting to the absolutism power, previously held by the Bourbons. The French Revolution had turned all the way around, ending where it had started.

Whilst members of Napoleon’s family and his friends often became fantastically wealthy and titled, including monarchs of conquered countries, his enemies were frequently exiled from France. One of his most famous political enemies was Germaine de Stael, one of the wealthiest and most accomplished women in all of Europe at the time. De Stael never stopped criticising the dictator and was one of the first to uncover his brutish nature. Her constant criticism of him, forced Napoleon to drive her from France; Napoleon preferred people to like him and Germain de Stael made it clear that she neither liked nor respected him. When de Stael’s son, Auguste, asked Napoleon to allow his mother back into Paris, Napoleon replied, “Paris is… where I live. I don’t want anyone there who doesn’t like me.”

Napoleon did not just have designs on France, he wanted to conquer the whole of Europe and the British Isles. He amassed a huge army by drafting men between the ages of 20 and 24, then he earned their complete devotion by fighting alongside them in over sixty battles. As he conquered German and Austrian territory, he drafted men from those areas into his armies too. By 1806, he had ended the 1,000-year-old Holy Roman Empire after defeating the Austrians in several battles, most thoroughly at Austerlitz in 1805. On the first anniversary of his imperial coronation, 2 December 1805, Napoleon’s 68,000 strong army crushed the combined forces of Austria and Russia, killing, wounding, or capturing around 36,000 of the enemy and taking over 180 artillery pieces. He then went on to defeat the Prussians in 1806 and Russia in 1807 after they declared war on France in succession.

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Napoleon then forced or inspired reforms such as the end of serfdom, legislating religious tolerance and creating schools to advance scientific and technological study within the subjugated territories. He unified the German territories, excluding Austria, into the Confederation of the Rhine, and he imposed the Napoleonic Code, the metric system, and other foundations of standardisation that helped to unify Europe and solidify French authority.

One unintended consequence of Napoleon’s European ambitions was that it inspired nationalism among his new subjects, who mostly opposed his dictatorial regime. Most of these newly conquered lands were being run by one of Napoleon’s brothers serving as a surrogate monarch, and this is important as some people began to think of themselves as, for example Italian or German for the first time because they did not want to think of themselves as French. This would play a massive role in European and world history later in the nineteenth century with the creation of both Italy and Germany as one nation rather than many principalities and city-states.

Napoleon’s goal had been to conquer the entire continent, and he largely succeeded, but Spain and Portugal remained unconquered and thwarting his plans of a Continental System (Napoleon’s foreign policy for denying European trade with the United Kingdom). In 1807 Napoleon crossed the Pyrenees with 100,000 men, and both the Spanish and Portuguese royal families fled their capitals and headed for their colonial territories. Napoleon installed his older brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain and resistance for this usurper swelled. With help from British and Portuguese soldiers led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, the Spanish Guerreros terrorised the occupying French forces, forcing Napoleon to commit tens of thousands of troops to occupy the conquered kingdom.

Downfall

Despite ongoing problems, Napoleon became determined to conquer and absorb Russia into his sphere of influence, particularly as it had decided to opt out of his Continental System. He built a massive army of some 685,000 men from across his empire and began the invasion in June 1812.

Having marched for hundreds of miles, the soldiers were exhausted and overwhelmed by the heat, and the Russians refused to engage in battle. Instead they continued to retreat, practising “scorched-earth tactics”, so called because they burned and destroyed all resources that could have been of use to the advancing French army, including food and livestock.

Finally, near Borodino, less than 130 kilometres from Moscow, the two sides engaged in the bloodiest single day of combat in military history until the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. The Battle of Borodino ultimately proved to be a costly victory for the French, who lost around 30,000 men compared to Russia’s roughly 45,000 casualties. The French were thousands of miles from home territory along difficult resupply lines and non-French soldiers, who were not as loyal to Napoleon, began to melt away as winter approached and conditions within Napoleon’s Grande Armee worsened. The massively depleted army marched to Moscow, but upon reaching their destination found the city in flames, and once again shelter and supplies proved scarce.

Napoleon waited for Tsar Alexander I to surrender and come to terms now that he had captured the Russian capital. However, the Tsar failed to acknowledge defeat, and Napoleon was forced to lead his depleted, starving, demoralised and freezing army westward to friendly Poland. Many had died and many more had deserted, and the retreating French force was harassed all the way to Poland by Russian cavalry.

Smelling blood in the water, the European powers formed a coalition that included Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Sweden and in 1813 their armies, backed by British financing, defeated the French forces at the Battle of Leipzig. This battle was waged because Napoleon refused to accept the allies’ terms which, initially, would have allowed Napoleon to continue ruling a much-weakened France. Simultaneously, as the allies were advancing from the east, the British, Portuguese and Spanish pushed the French in the Iberian Peninsula back over the Pyrenees.

In early 1814, Napoleon abdicated and headed for exile on the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. However, a year later on 26 February 1815, Napoleon somehow managed to sneak past his guards and set sail for France in a small boat with loyal supporters, avoiding Britain’s Royal Navy who patrolled the area. After six days, he and his small company of supporters were halted by an infantry regiment under strict orders to detain him. Napoleon stood in their midst and declared, “Soldiers, if there is one among you who wants to kill your general and emperor, here I am.” Once again, his charisma shown through and instead of taking him prisoner, the infantry broke out into rapturous applause and joined him. As he zeroed in on Paris, he drew more support as troops defected to the rebel army and the restored Bourbon king Louis XVIII fled his capital. Bonaparte was welcomed into Paris as a redeemed hero.

Across Europe the allies were in shock and disbelief and forced to unite once again to stop this upstart general. This time, however, they knew they would have to destroy the French Emperor utterly. On 18 June 1815, a French army of 72,000 soldiers faced a 68,000 strong allied force under the now Duke of Wellington. Napoleon made several uncharacteristic tactical errors, including waiting until midday to order the attack. This provided Prussian forces, under Marshal Gebhard von Blucher, enough time to arrive and smash into Napoleon’s right flank and the battle was lost.

Four days later, Napoleon, once again, abdicated and this time he was sent into exile on the remote British colony of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic under close guard. At 46, Napoleon was simply a man with no future. The man of unstoppable ambition and action was reduced to reading the newspapers and gardening.

OIP

On 5 May 1821, exactly 32 years to the day since the meeting of the Estates General that set the French Revolution into motion, Napoleon died at 51 years of age, most likely from stomach cancer. When you consider all that had happened in those short 32 years, you will understand why this period of French history is so important to world history.

The Rest is History

The Human Story – Rise of the Bear: Early Russia

Russia is the largest country on earth, spanning an incredible 17 million square kilometres. It not only takes the title of largest and most populous country in Europe but extends over the Ural mountain range and into Asia.

How did the story of this massive country with its complex and rich history begin?

The Kievan Rus and the Foundations of Russia

The principle history of eastern Europe began with people that the Greek writers called the “Slavs” and the first Russian state was founded when Oleg of Novgorod seized power of the Viking state in the Dnieper River basin in 882. In doing this, he united the northern and southern lands of the Eastern Slavs under one authority and lay the foundation of the powerful state of the Kievan Rus.

We know that trade was hugely important to the Kievan Rus and almost of their wars ended with trade concessions and trade treaties. In fact, their law codes were unusually devoted to the subject of commerce. The Rus traded raw materials like wax, fur and slaves. They also relied heavily upon agriculture and a person’s relationship to the land determined both their social status and tax burden. If someone ever fell into tax debt, which a lot of peasants did, then that person would become bonded to the land that they farmed for the rest of their life, essentially becoming a slave to the master of the land.

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There was no higher master in the Kievan Rus than the Grand Prince who ruled the state and became the model for future Russian kings and emperors. The early Grand Princes made a fateful decision and decided to convert to Byzantine Christianity, following the example of their Bulgarian neighbours. The Patriarch of the Church, being prudent, decided to send a bishop from Constantinople north to guide the Rus in their flirtation with Christianity. However, it was not until the year 988 that the definitive Christianisation of the Kievan Rus occurred when Vladimir the Great was baptised and proceeded to baptise his family and the people of Kiev. The legend goes that he elected to convert the Rus to Byzantine Christianity over Islam because of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol.

Mongol Russia and Vassalage

In 1240 the Mongols, or the Tatars as the Russians called them, conquered the Kievan Rus, beginning a new chapter of Russian history known as Appanage Russia (an appendage was a princedom). This period is best remembered for the many Russian princes vying for control over territory, which is not usually a recipe for solid political stability or economic growth.

So, just how important were the Tatars to Russia? Well, they did set up the delightfully named Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia, but this did not leave any lasting imprint on the institutions of the region, which had already been set up by the Kievan Rus. However, the establishment of the Golden Horde did bring about a massive population shift, away from the south, where the city of Kiev was located, and toward the north-east. This was, in part, to escape from the marauding Tatars and their initial massacring. However, once the dust had settled the Tatars proved to be comparatively light rulers who were content to live in their yurts and collect tributes from the ever-bickering Russian princes. All that these feuding princes had to do in exchange for their relative freedom was recognise the Mongol Khans as their overlords and allow the Tatars to select the Grand Prince from amongst them.

For the next century or so, little seems to have happened in Russia. In fact, given the tribute that was demanded by the Tatars, there was not much money available for building, military campaigns or anything else. With the Mongols off to the southwest, the northeastern cities began to gain more influence, first Tver and then, around the turn of the 14th century, Moscow. As a sign of the city’s importance, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church moved to Moscow, transforming it into the spiritual capital of Russia.

On top of this holy pivot towards Moscow the Mongols would often elect Muscovite princes to the position of Grand Prince. One of the privileges of the Grand Prince was to collect tribute on behalf of the Khan from the other princes. This proved to be an easy income source as the Grand Prince could easily skim a little off the top before forwarding it to their Tatar overlords. This little trick of redistribution was exactly how the Muscovite princes enriched themselves and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. By the latter part of the century, Moscow felt strong enough to challenge the Tatars directly, and in 1380 a Muscovite prince named Dmitri Donskoy attacked the Mongols and inflicted the first major defeat on them in Russia. His decisive victory at the Battle of Kulikovo Field proved that the Golden Horde were not invincible and immediately made Donskoy a popular hero (even though the Mongols maintained their rule over the city and captured and burned it two years later). Proving that an imperial force has vulnerabilities rarely has good outcomes for that force and Donskoy’s victory helped to strengthen the idea of a unified Russia. However, it was not until a full century had passed, in 1480, that Moscow was strong enough to throw off the weakened Tatar yoke for good. Moscow’s ruler at the time was Grand Duke Ivan III, better known as Ivan the Great.

A Tale of Two Ivans

Ivan the Great massively expanded Moscow’s power, first by subjugating most of Moscow’s city rivals and then by asserting Russia’s independence from the Tatars. By the time that he stopped paying tribute to the Mongols in 1476 and famously tore up the charter binding Moscow to them he was effectively in control of the entire country. Then he went further; he purchased, negotiated for or downright conquered further appanages, thus expanding Muscovite power even further and tripled the size of its territory, laying the foundations of what later became the Russian state.

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Ivan later declared himself sovereign over all Russians and married the niece, Zoe Palaeogina, of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, giving his claim more legitimacy. He also took the title of Czar, which means Caesar. Ivan then invited top architects from southeastern Europe to turn Moscow into an imperial capital, reconstructing the Moscow Kremlin, the Dormition Cathedral, and the Annunciation Cathedral. With his Eastern Roman wife, Eastern Romanised imperial capital and new title, Ivan formulated the idea that Moscow was the Third Rome. The idea of a Third Rome is the concept of a hypothetical successor of the Roman Empire via either the Byzantine Empire or through the Holy Roman Empire. Many cities and states have claimed to be the Third Rome, including late Medieval Russia. Ivan and his Grand Duchy of Moscow argued that there could be traced three interrelated fields of ideas:

• A linked religion through the unity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
• The social politics that derived from the feeling of unity in East Slavic territories being historically tied through the Church and Slavic culture.
• A state doctrine which suggested that the Moscow Prince should act as the supreme sovereign of Christian Orthodox nations and become a defender of the Church.

Basically, Ivan the Great created the first centralised Russian state and fabricated a tale of its being the heir to the Roman Empire in an effort to legitimise his efforts. And for these efforts he probably does deserve the title “The Great”.

While Ivan III consolidated Muscovite power, the undeniable brutal streak that has run through Russian governance comes not from the Mongols but from Ivan III’s grandson, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible.

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Ivan the Terrible succeeded his father Vasili III as Grand Duke of Moscow in 1533 at the tender age of three. His mother served as regent until she too died when Ivan was just eight. For the next eight years, the young Grand Duke endured a series of regents chosen from amongst the boyars (the nobility). Finally, at the age of sixteen, in 1547 he adopted the title of Czar and his ascension to the throne represented the end of princely power and the beginning of autocracy that Russia has since became famed for.

In the beginning of the young Czar’s reign, however, Ivan proved to be an innovative leader and worked with a group of advisors collectively known as the Chosen Council. He also called the first meeting of the Zemsky Sobor, the first Russian parliament of the Feudal Estates (which proved to be like the Estates General that would become important to France two hundred years later). Ivan also introduced local self-governance to rural regions, mainly in the northeast of Russia which was heavily populated by the state peasantry. In addition to this he also revised the law codes and founded a permanent standing army, emphasising the new technology of the time: musketry. Basically, the early part of Ivan the Terrible’s reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernisation. Not all that terrible, really.

In 1552 he conquered and sacked Kazan, and in 1556 Astrakhan, destroying any lingering power that the Golden Horde possessed in the area. Ivan’s Tatar campaigns opened vast new areas for Russian expansion, and it was during Ivan IV’s reign that the conquest and colonisation of Siberia began. In 1580, Russia began its campaign to conquer the Khanates of Siber, marking the first time that Russia had expanded its borders east of the Ural Mountains and into Asia.

After all these modernising reforms, securing Russia’s borders and then expanding frontiers, why is it that Ivan IV is remembered as being so “Terrible”? Well, as he grew older his temper worsened and he set out to break the power of the boyars, carrying out a particularly brutal campaign, confiscating their land and executing or exiling those who displeased him. The boyars were the last connection to the earlier days of princely rule and with them out of the way Ivan the Terrible had Russia fully under the fist. To aid him in his ruthless rule, Ivan established the Oprichniki which were sort of like a personal bodyguard who dressed in black and rode black horses with severed dog’s heads attached to their saddles: an homage to their task of sniffing out treason and enemies of the Czar. The group was known to terrorize civilian populations and in one particularly brutal attack upon the city of Novgorod in 1570 it is estimated that the Oprichniki killed around 1,500 boyars with thousands more slain.

Ivan’s campaigns of terror were effectively the first of Russia’s purges that have been a hallmark of Russia’s history and existence ever since. During the latter half of Ivan’s reign, whole towns were destroyed and the whole period was, in effect, a civil war without any resistance: a civil massacre, if you will.

Ivan the Terrible’s temper grew so monstrous that he even killed his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, by striking him with his sceptre in a fit of rage. The Czar is reported to have thrown himself upon his son’s body in an attempt to stop the bleeding, whilst repeatedly crying, “May I be dammed! I’ve killed my son! I’ve killed my son!”

In the end, Ivan IV established the absolute control of the Czar over all of the Russian people, but he also set the precedent of accomplishing this through terror, suspension of law and the Oprichniki (a forerunner of Russia’s secret police). This absolute control of the population through terror would echo through the ages of Russian history until today. Hence, the stereotypes of Russian brutality and barbarism, but here is the truth; western Europe knew a lot about brutality too. However, for centuries, Russia was viewed by western Europe as being both European and simultaneously not European; an “Other” that was both doubly feared because it was not fully “Other”.

When we think of all these historical stereotypes about Russia, it is worth remembering that what one person sees as barbaric about others is often what the others see as barbaric about the viewee.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade
  22. The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship

The Human Story – The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship

This instalment will discuss a relationship between a city, Venice at the north-eastern tip of the Italian peninsula, and an empire, the Islamic Ottomans.

This mutually beneficial relationship between two unlikely “frenemies” led directly to several significant changes but the two most monumentally massive deals for world history being the European Renaissance and Christopher Columbus “discovering” the New World.

The City

Now would be a good point to delve a little into the history of the city of Venice. In the middle of the fifth century, nearly all northern Italy had fallen to the Huns as they continued their march towards the eternal city of Rome during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Adriatic coast became a refuge for many Italians fleeing from the onslaught of Atilla and his Hun hordes. However, due to the lack of fertile soil these refugees learned to live off the sea and entire communities of fisherman and salt miners began to spring up and dot the coastline. These lagoon dwellers bounded together for mutual protection against the Huns, the Goths and later the Lombard peoples. Essentially, Europe has Atilla to thank for one of its most glorious possessions: the city of Venice.

Around 300 years after the death of Atilla when the political situation in Italy had calmed down, the Venetians convened and chose a leader, known as the Doge. Soon after, the Franks, led by Charlemagne, conquered the Kingdom of the Lombards in 774 and later recognised Venice as a sort of self-governing commonwealth under Byzantine’s sphere of influence. However, Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, launched an invasion of Venice, prompting the people to relocate to the Rialto island which proved impregnable and the Franks soon withdrew as many succumbed to disease. A new capital was ordered for construction upon this island, which soon expanded to the surrounding islands of the swampy region and the Franks and the Byzantines signed an agreement which recognised Venetian independence.

The city of Venice effectively became almost like a collection of floating buildings tied together by an intricate canal system. If ever there was a city where geography was tied closely to destiny, it was Venice. The city was literally built for sea-going trade. The city did not have much in the way of natural resources so if they wanted to grow then they had to rely upon trade.

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First, the Venetian people became experts in shipbuilding. Remember that when the crusaders of the crazy Fourth Crusade required ships, it was the port city of Venice that they headed for because the Venetians were famous for their ships. Not only could they masterfully build ships, they could also sail them to places like Constantinople and the Levant, so the Venetians formed trade treaties with the Byzantine Empire and when the city of Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottomans, the shrewd Venetians were quick to make trade agreements with their new neighbours.

Even before the Ottomans, the Venetians had experience in trading with the Islamic world and initially established itself as the biggest European trading power in the Mediterranean thanks, in large part, due to its commerce with Egypt in the spice trade. Due to the antics of the crusaders, Egyptian merchants were, understandably, not very welcoming of Europeans but they had all of the spice as they imported it from India and controlled both the overland and oversea access to the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst other nations and city-states cited moral and religious opposition to trading with the heathen Egyptians the Venetians found a way which opened to the door to unfathomable wealth.

St Mark's facade mosaic: Stealing St Mark's body

The Venetians employed a handy story. Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the place with the bronze horses pillaged from Constantinople during teh Fourth Crusade) contains the body of Saint Mark, author of the Gospel according to Saint Mark, who had been the Bishop of Alexandria… which is in Egypt. Naturally, he was buried in the Egyptian city when he died. However, in 828 two Venetian merchants, with the help of two Greek monks, stole the bones of Saint Mark and hid them in a shipment of pork. Since Muslims are not permitted to eat pork, the guards did not inspect the shipment too closely. A mosaic in Saint Mark’s Basilica, which can still be seen today and includes the guards’ revulsion, depicts this outlandish tale. Afterwards the Venetians agreed that they had to trade with the Egyptians as they could use it as a secret way to ferry holy relics out of Egypt.

What exactly did Venice import? Well, lots of things but most notable is that they imported a lot of grain because the area is not very fertile, and it is difficult to farm. The Ottomans on the other hand had abundant grain, even before they conquered Egypt with its fertile Nile River valley basin in 1517. Whilst trade was certainly the cornerstone of Venice’s economic success, they did have a diverse economy which produced things such as textiles, famous for their silk makers, and glass. Venice is still known for its glassware, but it could not produce such fine works without a certain type of ash which they used to make different colours. This ash came from the Ottomans.

One final thing to note about Venice and which made it special, at least for its time, was that it was a republic in a feudal world which was dominated by nobles and royal dynasties. Its leaders were elected and had to answer to the populace, or at least the property-owning male populace.

The Empire

The Ottoman Empire lasted from around 1300 to 1919, making it one of the longest lasting, as well as wealthiest, empires in world history. The Ottomans succeeded in blending their nomadic pastoral roots with some very un-nomadic empire building and some incredibly impressive architecture, making them very different from that other nomadic people who built an impressive empire, the Mongols.

The empire, or least the dynasty, was founded by Osman Gazi who was the leader of a small Anatolian tribe that was left in the post-Mongol power vacuum. Ottoman being a Latinised version of Osmanli which means House of Osman.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the House of Osman’s 600-year long history was that their empire only once descended into civil war (1402 -1413) following the death of Sultan Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara. Five of his sons each claimed the throne for himself and they fought it out in what is known as the Ottoman Interregnum for eleven years before Mehmed Çelebi emerged as victor, crowned himself Sultan Mehmed I, and restored the empire.

The question though is why was there only ever one succession crisis in the empire’s long history? Well, the reason is particularly brutal. The official practice, until the late sixteenth century, for avoiding any future civil wars was basically state-sanctioned fratricide – “survival of the fittest, not eldest, son” as the historian Donald Quataert described it. During their father’s lifetime, all adult sons of the reigning sultan obtained provincial governorships and would gather support and upon the death of the sultan, the brothers would fight amongst themselves until one emerged triumphant to claim the throne: similar to the Interregnum but approved by the state.

Two particularly celebrated sultans emerged to take the throne and rule over the empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The first was Mehmet the Conqueror who ruled from 1451 to 1481 and expanded Ottoman control to the Balkans (which is why today there are Bosnian Muslims living in the area). However, Ottoman expansion reached its greatest extent under Sulieman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566. Sulieman was deserving of the honorific “Magnificent”. He codified the secular and religious laws of his land to make the justice system fairer and more efficient. Sulieman also embarked on thirteen lightening campaigns in every direction, taking valuable territory in Mesopotamia, north Africa (thus securing control of the western parts of the Asian trade networks, both overland and oversea) and he defeated the King of Hungary and laid siege to the city of Vienna. Under his control, the Ottomans became a major naval power of the time. To top this off, Sulieman also sorted trade deals with another major trading power at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea: Portugal, whose own empire was in its infancy.

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The Ottomans controlled around half of what the Romans did but it was far more valuable due to all the Indian Ocean Trade. All this land and trade brought a lot of wealth, but it needed to be managed. The Ottomans could have followed the Roman model of sending generals and nobles to rule over conquered territories or demanded the allegiance of client kings like the Persians had done. They could have developed a civil service like the Chinese, but instead they innovatively created an entirely new model of administration; a new ruling class system that some historians have dubbed the Slave Aristocracy.

One of the main problems for kings of this time was their landed hereditary noblemen, because they were always looking to gain more power and replace the king as top dog. One of the best solutions to bypass this situation is to pull them into the fold of government and make them feel included and even more important. Another solution is to simply kill them. However, the Ottomans circumvented the problem of hereditary nobles altogether by creating both an army and bureaucracy from scratch, whose only loyalties lay with the sultan. The devshirme (translated as “child levy” or “blood tax”) was the practice of recruiting soldiers and bureaucrats from among the children of the Ottoman’s Balkan Christian subjects. Soldiers would take the boys, from as young as eight years old, from their parents and force-convert them to Islam with the primary objective of selecting and training the best children for either the military or civil service of the empire. The boys selected for the military were enlisted into an elite fighting force known as the Janissaries. The Ottoman ruling class came to be ruled exclusively by the devshirme, creating a separate social class which was begrudged by ordinary Ottomans and the practice eventually died out at the beginning of the 18th century.

The Partnership

Without a doubt, Venice was the greatest threat to the Ottomans in the Mediterranean arena due to their massive navy but when the two states were not squabbling over island territories, they proved to be one another’s biggest trading partners. This fruitful, if tense, relationship made both polities fabulously wealthy. After the Ottomans captured Egypt, they pretty much exclusively controlled the flow of trade through the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. However, by this point the Venetians had centuries worth of experience, as well as lots of ships and so the Ottomans were content to allow the Venetians to continue carrying the goods and conduct in the lion’s share of trading whilst they made money from taxing this trade. This system worked so well because the city of Venice and the Ottoman Empire added value to one another.

Venice became immensely wealthy and being immensely wealthy was one of the prerequisites for the European Renaissance. All the art and learning that sprung up from the Renaissance required funding, which is why Venice was a leading city at the beginning before being eclipsed by the likes of Florence, Rome, and several northern European cities.

Additionally, this mutually beneficial arrangement that the Ottomans had with the Venetians established firm connections between the Islamic world and Christian Europe. This allowed once forgotten ideas to flow again, especially Greek ideas that had been preserved and built upon by Islamic scholars.

However, perhaps the most critical offshoot of the business duopoly held by these behemoths of trade was that it forced other European powers to look for alternative paths to the riches of the east. This desire to unlock other routes to the far east was fuelled by huge investments in exploration and helped kickstart the “Age of Discovery”. The Portuguese sailed south and east around the southern tip of Africa whilst the Spanish hoped to carve a more direct route. They instead sailed west, under the command of the Genoese born Christopher Columbus, believing that China and the Indies were much closer than they turned out to be.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade

The Human Story – Black Death & Disease

We left this series off last time by laying a large portion of blame for the Black Death at the doorstep of the Mongol Empire and their opening of trade routes. It only seems natural to have a look at disease and how it has impacted the human story.

Fortunately for us, we live in the 21st century, a time when communicable disease does not play such a massive role on society, unless you are speaking about cases of SARS and its various offshoots, including the coronavirus, HIV/Aids, bird flu, swine flu or any other recent anti-biotic resistant bacteria.

Traditionally, the study of history has not focused much on disease, partly because they are mysterious and terrifying and partly because they do not fit in with our narrative that history has been made as the result of some people doing good things, or some people doing bad things, or at the very least some people doing some kind of things. However, the reality is that history often happens due to factors that are out with human control such as lots of people contracting smallpox or bubonic plague. Also, very often diseases are seen as a result of some divine judgement. Perhaps the most likely reason that people tend to not focus so much on disease as being a major contributor to the human story is down to the fact that people did not understand or know very much about them. If they did not understand it, they were less likely to write about it and when they did, which some chroniclers did, they would often write rather vaguely about them.

A New Dawn for Bacterial Evolution

Given that, we are going to have to engage in a little speculation here. So, diseases have been with humans for as long as there have been humans, this much we do know. Humans, you will recall from the first article of this series, first appeared in the tropical regions of Africa, in which live a wide and varying range of micro parasitic bacteria so it is probably a safe bet that these parasites played some role in keeping the human population extremely low for a very long time. It is only after we see the migration out of Africa and into regions that are less agreeable to diseases, around 64,000 years or so ago, that we really start to see the growth of human populations necessary to create what we would call civilisations.

Humans migrated into these river valleys that over time became the cradles of civilisation with their agriculture and surpluses. This allowed these early migrants to escape the population limiting tropical diseases, but it created all kinds of new disease problems. The communities that sprang up in these river valleys had more people which led to population density that, in turn, allowed for epidemics. One of the great things about hunting and gathering is that diseases cannot wipe out cities if there are no cities to wipe out.

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Also, river valleys can often be breeding grounds for diseases, especially in the valleys where cultures developed irrigation which often relied on slow moving or standing water. Still water is the perfect incubator for disease carrying and nasty micro-organisms that are often associated with disease. For example, schistosomiasis, the symptoms of which include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloody stool and blood in the urine, was recorded as early as 1200 BCE in ancient Egypt. Additionally, lots of diseases originate in domestic animals who were living in close proximity to these new agriculturists; but you cannot have ham and bacon without having a little swine flu.

From a macro historical point of view, it is not like these diseases always came only with downsides. It is a matter of historical fact that certain diseases have helped certain populations throughout history shield themselves against would-be conquerors. For example, large swathes of Africa were protected as late as the nineteenth century; early modern-era European attempts to colonise the continent were thwarted by diseases such as malaria which sickened the humans and nagana which the European’s horses contracted.

We like to say that one of the hallmarks of civilisation is the written word and surely pandemics were exactly the type of events that people would tend to write about in early civilisation because they were such a big deal. Pestilence appears in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and early Chinese historians recorded an alarming decrease in populations as diseases and their migrant hosts spread from the northern Yellow River region down to the more tropical Yangtze River basin.

Ancient Greece was relatively disease free thanks to its climate and the isolationist nature of city-states. However, as these city-states began to trade more with one another they became more susceptible to endemics. The most well-known example of this was the plague that struck the city of Athens in 430-429 BCE during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and her allies. This conveniently leads us to a very important point: there is a decent correlation between war and disease. Armies tended to carry disease along with them and this combined with food shortages and displacement meant that civilian populations were more likely to get sick. This is still very much the case.

However, nothing spreads disease quite like trade.

Trade is so good for economies and yet so bad for keeping individual people healthy and alive. Ancient Rome’s integration into the transcontinental trade routes, like the Silk Road, may explain why the Roman historian, Titus Livius, more commonly known today as Livy, recorded as many as eleven separate pestilential disasters and it is very likely that these diseases and the accompanying decline in Rome’s population contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Black Death

Of course, we cannot talk about disease throughout history without touching upon the most infamous pandemic of them all: The Black Death which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1353.

In October 1347, twelve Genoese ships dropped anchor at the Sicilian port of Messina. Those that eagerly approached the vessels were met with a grisly sight. Almost all onboard the vessels were either dead or dying, their skin erupting with blackened boils that oozed pus and blood. The Sicilian authorities quickly moved these cargo ships on, but the damage had already been done.

Europe may have been hit hard by the plague, but it was not hit first. Those Genoese ships were travelling from somewhere, after all and the reason that they were quickly moved away from the port was because the rumours about the disease spread westward before the disease itself. There were stories of a terrifying and mysterious sickness devastating the populations of first China, then India, Egypt, Persia and Syria, getting ever closer to Europe.

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The death rate of this plague was incredibly high. It is estimated that anywhere from 30% to 60% of the population of people living in Europe died from the Black Death.

We are not 100% sure that the disease that caused the Black Death was the bubonic plague as its virulence in some regions suggest that it may have been pneumonic, but we do have descriptions of it that match bubonic plague symptoms. The Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani said:

“It was a plague which touched people of every condition, age and sex. They began to spit blood and then they died – some immediately, some in two or three days, and some in a longer time… most had swellings in the groin, and many had them in the left and right armpits and in other places, one could almost always find an unusual swelling somewhere on the victim’s body.”

Well, that sounds utterly horrifying!

People fleeing the cities for the countryside were no safer there either as plague infected and killed livestock too. Countless pigs, chickens, goats, sheep and cows fell to the disease that was caused by Yersinia Pestis. This was such a problem that it led to shortage of wool throughout Europe. The disease was so bad in Florence that an estimated 90% of the city’s population lost their lives. The European death toll is generally estimated to be between 50 and 75 million, whilst the worldwide death toll is placed between 155 and 200 million. To put into perspective just how devastatingly high this number is the world population at the time was approximately 500 million.

The plague obviously affected a lot of individual’s lives but it also affected world history. For example, the plague probably contributed massively to the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China. The Yuan Dynasty’s collapse did not follow the typical dynastic loops that historians have observed throughout the history of China. There were virtually no records of serious corruptions, power struggles, internal conflicts within the royal court, external invasions or even large-scale famines during most of the Yuan’s reign. Yet the Dynasty fell so quickly and inevitably that many believe the Black Death may have been the underlying reason, in a roundabout way. The first wave of the plague struck China in 1344, three years before Europe and the epicentre appears to have been in the Huai River Basin, hometown of the later Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The story goes that he became homeless as all of his family had perished in the plague and as a result, he was forced to flee the disease by begging as a travelling monk, during which time he fell into the company of a resistance army against the Mongol Yuan. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a leading figure of the rebellion group and eventually captured the entire country, founding the Ming Dynasty.

Aside from being beneficial to the fortunes of the Ming Dynasty, there is substantial debate as to whether the Black Death kick-started Europe’s economy and ended the Middle Ages, propelling Western Europe onto a trajectory that would lead to the gunpowder empires and the modern era. Undoubtedly, the shortage of skilled workers did create opportunities, for example, Guilds being forced to admit new members in order to replace the many workers who had died and persistent European inflation until the end of the fourteenth century suggests both a shortage of products and higher wages. Again, we can look to Matteo Villani to provide some evidence to the effect of the plague on Italy’s economy:

“Nurses and minor artisans working with their hands want three times or nearly the usual pay, and labourers on the land all want oxen and all seed, and want to work the best lands, and to abandon all others.”

So, the Black Death may have been good for the standard of living for the workers who survived the pestilence.

Another probable impact that the plague had on world history is that it changed Europe’s views on Christianity. When people were faced with seemingly random and widespread deaths, it was inevitable that some people would completely abandon piety for decadence and debauchery and the ineffectiveness of the priesthood in dealing with the crisis may have led to an increase in anti-clericalism which later transpired into a greater and more readily acceptance of the Protestant Reformation when it came around.

Attempts to combat the pestilence sweeping across the land, which left thousands of European villages without one single living soul, changed the way that the people lived. For example, construction techniques changed, and people began building out of brick rather than wood and many places saw the mass introduction of tiled roofing which replaced thatched rooftops which were a haven for rats. These new shelters created more barriers between humans and the disease carrying, flea infested rodents.

The Fightback: Medicine – Leading the Charge

So, the Black Death looms larger in our Eurocentric imaging of history, but in terms of devastation and human suffering it pales in comparison to the Great Dying that accompanied the Columbian Exchange (which we will look at later). It is estimated that somewhere between 80% and 95% of Native Americans died within the first 150 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the New World. That truly is an astonishing and horrifying number, and much of it was down to the Old World diseases that the European invaders brought with them that the Americans had little or no immunity to.

Thankfully, the world has not seen anything remotely like the devastation brought by the Columbian Exchange since. Some of this is down to our shared immunological profiles, but much of the credit is due to massive improvements in science and medicine.

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The most significant medical advance in the battle against infectious disease and viral epidemics like smallpox was the invention of inoculation. The first recordings of this form of fighting disease come from tenth century China but it came under widespread use in England in the eighteenth century and was soon followed by the rest of Europe. The development of antibiotics in the twentieth century proved to be extremely effective against bacterial diseases, like bubonic plague and tuberculosis. Some of these advances have had a tremendous results: smallpox was officially declared as the first disease to be completely eradicated from the human population in 1980 by the World Health Organisation.

However, infectious diseases continue to be a leading killer of human beings and we still see deadly outbreaks of diseases like Ebola and cholera around the world. And even though antibiotics have only been in wide use for less than a century, we are already beginning to see the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria and diseases such as tuberculosis making a bit of a comeback in recent years. Then there are the more modern diseases like HIV/Aids and the prospect of lurking epidemics like the various flus that we often hear about.

All of this demonstrates that diseases are still shaping the human story. Just look at the current flu pandemic that is sweeping its way across the earth, COVID-19, or better known by its virial name, the coronavirus, which has investors running for the hills and entire countries on lockdown.

The Rest will be History

The Rest is History

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols

The Human Story – The Mongols

It is time to discuss the Mongols!

Now, you probably have a picture in your head of the Mongols as being brutal, blood-thirsty warriors, clad in furs and riding the Eurasian plains on horseback. In short, we imagine the Mongol Empire as stereotypically barbarous – and we are not entirely wrong to think this. The amazing speed and success of their ruthless conquests was truly breath-taking. They conquered more land territory in 25 shorts than the Romans did in 400 years! They controlled 11 million contiguous square miles of land and created nations like Russia and Korea. It has even been suggested that the Mongols smashed the feudal system and created an early form of international law.

Renowned for their religious tolerance of conquered peoples, the Mongols in this new and modern viewpoint created the first great trade zone, similar in many ways to a medieval Eurasian European Economic Area and that is not entirely wrong either.

The Great Khan

Do you remember the herders that we looked at earlier? We briefly discussed them as an alternative to agricultural societies or hunting and gathering. There are four key points to remember:

1) Nomads do not just go out on random road trips. They migrate according to Climate Conditions in order to feed their flocks.

2) Generally, they do not produce manufactured goods and for this reason they tend to live fairly nearby established settlements in order to trade.

3) Because they live close to nature and sometimes in harsh conditions, they have a tendency to be a rather hardy and tough bunch.

4) Pastoral people are also usually more egalitarian, especially where women are concerned. Paradoxically, when there is less to go around, humans tend to share more and both men and women must work for the social order to survive. More often than nought this leads to less patriarchal control over women. (although it is worth mentioning that Mongol women rarely went to war).

If you had to choose one pastoral, nomadic group to come out of central Asia to dominate medieval Eurasia it is unlikely that you would have chosen the Mongol people. For most of their history they had been living in the foothills which border the Siberian forests, mixing, herding and hunting. However, another way to look at it is that they were quietly getting expert at horse riding and archery. The Mongols were also much smaller than other Asiatic nomadic pastoral groups such as the Tatars or Uighurs.

The reason that the Mongols rose to a position of dominance is down to one man: Genghis Khan. It is time to delve into another episode of “Great Man History”.

The story goes that Genghis, or Chingis, Khan was born around 1162 to a lowly clan and named Temujin. His father was poisoned to death, leaving the young Temujin under the control of his older brothers, one of whom, Behter, he soon killed during a heated argument, over a fish that he had brought back and had snatched from him, whilst only 14 years old.

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By the age of 19, Temujin was married to his first and most important wife, Börte, who was kidnapped (this was common practice amongst the Mongol people; Temujin’s own mother had, herself, also been kidnaped). In rescuing his bride, Temujin proved his military mettle and soon became a leader of his tribe. However, uniting the Mongol confederation would require a civil war which he won largely down to two innovations. Firstly, Temujin enacted a system of meritocracy, promoting people on merit as opposed to the traditional method of familial position. Secondly, he brought lower classes of conquered people into his own tribe whilst dispossessing the leaders of these conquered clans. Thus, the peasants loved him whilst the rich hated him but that did not really matter as they were no longer rich.

With these two building block policies, Temujin was able to win the loyalty of a growing number of people and in 1206 he was declared as the Great Khan: leader of all the Mongol people. This was done during a council called the Kurultai which was called by a prospective leader. During the Kurultai, anyone who supported the prospective leader’s candidacy for leadership would show up on their horses; and boy did Temujin, now styled as Genghis Khan, have a lot of men and horses show up to his Kurultai.

Once Genghis Khan had united the Mongol people he went on to conquer a vast swathe of territory. By the time that the Great Khan died in his sleep in 1227 his empire stretched from the Mongolian homeland all the way west to the Caspian Sea and east to the northern parts of the Korean peninsula.

The Massive (Fragmented) Empire

So, the Mongols had a fantastic looking empire, sure much of it was pastureland, mountains and desert but the Mongol armies did conquer a lot of people too. With the death of Genghis Khan the empire was really only getting started and his son Ogedei Khan expanded the Empire even further and Genghis’ grandson, Möngke was the Great Khan in 1258 when Baghdad, the fabulous capital city of the Abbasid Empire fell to the Mongol hordes. Another of Genghis’ grandsons, Kublai Khan, conquered the Song Dynasty in China in 1279, establishing the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China until it was ousted by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. If Mamluks had not stopped another of Genghis’ grandsons, Hulagu Khan, at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 in southern Galilee then the Mongols probably would have taken the whole of North Africa too.

Unfortunately for the Mongol Empire its leaders were not always working in unison and although he may have been an incredible general Genghis Khan was not a great statesman and he failed to create one single political unit out of his vast empire. Instead, after his death the Mongols were left with four smaller empires called Khanates:

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• Yuan Dynasty in China
• Ilkhanate in Persia
• Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia
• Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia and Eastern Europe

If this seems a little familiar it is because this is what happened to the empire of another of history’s “Great Men”: Alexander the Great. Another great general who was not much for administration.

The Mongols were so successful primarily because of their military skills and Genghis Khan’s army, which never numbered more than 130,000, was built upon speed and archery. Compared to the foot soldiers and knights that they were up against, the Mongols were more like superfast modern mobile fighting vehicles, sniping their enemies from afar. So, the question begs: why did people not just hole up in castles and behind city walls when they knew the Mongols were approaching? Well, they did. However, the Mongols were incredibly adaptable and even though these nomadic peoples had never laid eyes upon a castle before they began invading foreign lands they soon became experts at siege warfare by interrogating prisoners and adapting gunpowder; most likely introducing it to the Europeans.

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As testament to their flexibility, the Mongols, those warriors famed for their horseback blitzkrieg tactics, even built ships with which to attack the Japanese. It may have worked too if it had not been for typhoons, or the “Divine Winds” (Kamikaze). These Divine Winds, incredibly, saved Japan not once, but twice. The First Mongol invasion attempt of Japan was in 1274 and they made a second attempt in 1281. Both spectacular failures which eroded further Mongol naval ambitions.

The blood thirsty reputation of the Mongol armies preceded them, and it must have been a truly terrifying experience to learn that a Mongol army was bearing down on your city. Often, cities would surrender the moment that the Mongols arrived in an effort to avoid the slaughter that usually accompanied them. It is estimated that the Mongol invasions directly killed anywhere between 20 and 60 million people. The vast majority of these deaths were not of enemy warriors, but rather stem from the wholesale elimination of civilian populations. Hundreds of thousands would be executed in a single day and the Mongols did not stop at killing the people, but all the living creatures of a town or city that put up resistance, right down to the cats, dogs and livestock.

The Mongols: A Force for Good?

With this grisly background, let us return to the question of Mongol “excellence”. There are five reasonable arguments to suggest that the Mongols were a force for good in medieval Eaurasia:

1) The Mongols really did reinvigorate cross-Eurasian trade and the Silk Road trading routes that had existed for over 1,000 years by this point had fallen into disuse. The Mongols, however, really valued trade because they could tax it and they did a fantastic job of keeping their empire safe. It was said that a man could walk from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other with a gold plate upon his head without fear of being robbed.

2) The Mongols did a great job of increasing communication through Eurasia by developing a pony express-like system of way stations with horses and riders that could quickly relay information. They called this the Yam system and it also included bronze passports which helped facilitate travel.

3) It was not just goods that travelled along the Mongol trading routes, but also cuisine. For example, it was because of the Mongols that rice became a staple food of the Persian diet.

4) The Mongols forcibly relocated people that were useful to them, like artisans, musicians and administrators. The Mongols were not especially good at administrative tasks like keeping records, so they found people who were good at it and dispersed them throughout their empire. Although this one does not necessarily paint the Mongols in a great light, it had an interesting result: it led to cross-culture pollenisation that modern world historians love to talk and write about.

5) Finally, the Mongols were almost unprecedently tolerant of all religions. They themselves were Shamanistic, believing in nature spirits but since their religion was tied to the lands of their homelands they did not expect others to adopt it and they did not force them to. So, within the Mongol Empire, one could expect to find Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and people of any other religion prospering. It was this kind if openness that has led many historians to go back and re-evaluate the Mongols and view them as a pre-cursor to modernity.

Of course, there is another side to the story of the Mongol Empire too that we really should not forget. So, here are five reasons that the Mongols were not all that excellent:

1) Genghis Khan defined happiness in the following way: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” I am not so sure that you would find too many people nowadays that would find this level of brutality as pleasurable.

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2) As an extension to the first point, Genghis Khan’s definition of happiness, the Mongols were seriously brutal conquerors who often destroyed entire cities and the estimated number of people that they killed is in the tens of millions.

3) Their Empire did not last long. Within only 80 years of conquering China they left and were replaced by the rival Ming Dynasty and in Persia they blended in so thoroughly that by the fifteenth century they were completely assimilated and unrecognisable from the local populace.

4) The Mongols were not particularly interested in artistic patronage and architecture and under their rule, the once great cities of Eurasia fell into ruin.

5) Although we viewed their opening of the trade routes as a positive earlier, it also most likely led to the Black Death. By opening up these trading routes they also opened up avenues for the disease to travel in the form of fleas that were infected with Yersinia Pestis and according to one story the Mongols even intentionally spread the plague by catapulting their plague-ridden cadavers over the walls of Kaffa in the Crimean peninsula. Whilst this primitive form of biological warfare may have happened, it is unlikely that it would have caused the spread of the disease. It is more likely that it was the fleas on the rats on the holds of ships that traded with Europeans… but that trade only existed because of the Mongols!

So the Mongols promoted trade, meritocracy, diversity and tolerance but they also promoted wholesale slaughter and senseless destruction. So, all in all, the Mongols probably were not that great after all!

The Rest is History

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam