Nomadic Warriors of the Steppe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The most significant of the steppe warrior societies included the Scythian, Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), Yuezhi (Yüeh-chih), Śaka, Sarmatian, Avar, Hun, and White Hun.

Military Achievement

The most significant of the steppe warrior societies included the Scythian, Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), Yuezhi (Yüeh-chih), Śaka, Sarmatian, Avar, Hun, and White Hun. Some, such as the Yuezhi, were Indo-European peoples, and others, such as the Huns, were Turko-Mongolian Turko-Mongolian peoples[Turko Mongolian]peoples. Population growth was marked by competition for pasture lands in the north and by irrigation networks to the south. Nomadic societies looked to towns for trade but at other times were tempted to raid their accumulated produce and crafts. Until the emergence of cannons and muskets, the settled communities were easy prey for the mounted nomad warriors.Steppe nomadsNomadsSteppe nomadsNomads

Scyths Scyths (nomads)spread their nomadic influences across the Eurasian continent from Mongolia in the east to the Russian grasslands in the west. Believed to be Iranians from Turkistan who had refused to succumb to the settled existence of the Persian state to the south, some of the Scyths moved into the plains north of the Black Sea, displacing the CimmeriansCimmerians in the Russian steppes after 750 b.c.e. From that base they attacked the fleeing Cimmerians, who penetrated the Assyrian lands to the south. Under a leader named Madyas, the Scyths subjugated the MedesMedesMedes about 628 b.c.e. Although the Medes rebelled and turned the Scyths northward, the Scyths were the first of the mounted nomad warriors to threaten the classical cultures south of the Black Sea. With iron implements forged by craftsmen from the Urals, the Scyths created the first recognized northern Eurasian empire, with territory extending from the Danube to Mongolia. Although divisions within their ranks were common, their federations remained threats to all the nearby communities for centuries. Although the Scyths who remained in Turkestan when the others moved across the Volga were called Śakas by the Persians, they were of the same Iranian nomad stock.

Steppe nomads were not always on the offensive. In the sixth century b.c.e. Cyrus the Cyrus the GreatCyrus the Great (king of Persia)Great (c. 601 to 590-c. 530 b.c.e.) of Persia;ancientPersia invaded Scythian ParthiansParthia, in the area of present southern Turkmenistan, before leading an army through the deserts of Gedrosia, in present Baluchistan, to defeat the Amyrgian Śakas of the mountains. Later his armies overran the Uzbek steppes between the Amu Dar’ya and the Syr Dar’ya Rivers. Along the latter Cyrus constructed a town named Cyropolis, later known as Khudzhand and Leninabad. To protect his territories he constructed seven forts to guard against the aggressive Śakas. In September, 529 b.c.e., the Massagetae Scyths defeated Cyrus even though other Scythian mercenaries had been recruited against these Śaka tribes east of Khiva. In 512 b.c.e. Darius the Darius I the GreatDarius I the Great (king of Persia)[Darius 01]Great (550-486 b.c.e.) attacked and defeated the Tigrakhanda Śakas, also called the “Pointed Hat Śakas,” of the Aral Sea region, capturing their chieftain. Other Śakas to the north and east were out of the range of Darius’s conquests. Hence, Darius established twenty satrapys, or provinces, in his lands, including Bactria, Śaka, and Khorezm-Sogdia.

Farther west, Scythian rulerAteasAteas (Scythian ruler)Ateas (died 339b.c.e.) led his forces to challenge the Macedonian forces of Philip Philip II of MacedonPhilip II of Macedon[Philip 02 of Macedon]II (382-336 b.c.e.) in 340 b.c.e. but was killed the following year in battle against the Macedonians, after which the Scythians were absorbed by the SarmatiansSarmatians, another Iranian nomad people of the Russian steppes. By 350 b.c.e. the Sarmatians were already governing the Pontic steppes, where they founded Kamenskoye, present Dniprodzerzhyns’k. Like the Scyths, these mounted nomads wore coats of mail and depended more on the lance than on the bow. By the late third century the Sarmatians had forced the Scyths south toward the Crimea and occupied the Russian steppes west of the Volga.

The Scyths of Central Asia, however, continued to menace the wealthy oases and towns to the south. Macedonian leader Alexander the Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;Central AsiaGreat (356-323 b.c.e.), after conquering Persia, had failed to extend his rule over the nomads of that region. On the south bank of the Jaxartes River he founded a frontier outpost, Alexandria Eschate, but in 329 b.c.e. rebellious Śakas (nomads)[Sakas]Śakas in Sogdiana threatened his new frontier town. Alexander then launched a campaign of terror enabling him to regain command of most of Sogdiana, including Maracanda, present Samarqand. The Scyths in Parthia seceded from Alexander’s successors in the third century b.c.e., and during the Seleucid civil wars nomad strength was revived. More Scythian nomads from the northern steppes invaded Parthia to aid the local nomads led by ArsacesArsacesArsaces (fl. third century b.c.e.), who established an independent state with Nisa as its capital.

Farther east, a Turko-Mongolian people had begun attacking the Chinese empire as early as the ninth century b.c.e. Like the Scyths, these were nomadic, mounted warriors whose aggressiveness later caused the Chinese to construct the Great Wall. They were probably the ancestors of the Xiongnu, the earliest of the famous Huns;Xiongnu ancestorsHuns. At any rate the Chinese were to adopt a more mobile style of warfare better suited to defense against these mounted neighbors. Only by the second half of the third century b.c.e.. did these Xiongnu (ancestors of Huns)Xiongnu unite under a leader called the Shanyu (Shan-yü). Under Shanyu DumanDuman (Tuman)Duman (Shan-yü Tuman, died c. 210 b.c.e.), they moved into western Gansu (Kansu). Duman’s son and successor, Mao Mao DunMao DunDun (Mao-tun), fought several wars with the Chinese and then turned westward in 177 b.c.e. to complete the conquest of western Gansu from the Yuezhi, driving the remnants into the Gobi Desert. However, the Xiongnu had been compelled to sign a treaty with China’s Han Dynasty;and Xiongnu[Xiongnu]Han rulers in 198 b.c.e., the beginning of Chinese ascendancy over the nomads. Han emperor Wu Wu DiWu DiDi (Wu Ti, 156-87 b.c.e.) attacked the Xiongnu of the Ordos west of China and ended the payment of tribute to the horde in 133b.c.e. Within twelve years China overcame the Xiongnu in Gansu and initiated Chinese settlements there. Han troops then attacked the Xiongnu in Mongolia. By 48 b.c.e. the Xiongnu presence had disintegrated in MongolsMongolia, and the southern branch recognized Chinese hegemony to inhabit the Ordos region as subjects.

Meanwhile, after 140 b.c.e. Śaka nomads had overwhelmed the BactriaBactrian kingdom of Heliocles Heliocles IHeliocles I (Bactrian ruler)[Heliocles 01]I (r. 150-140), bringing an end to the Greco-Bactrian state. They themselves were being pushed south by the Yuezhi (nomads)Yuezhi. Chinese sources place them in Xingjiang province, present eastern Turkistan, as early as the fifth century b.c.e.. The Yuezhih, also called Tochari (nomads)Tochari, were an Indo-European people dwelling in Gansu (part of Xinjiang), just south of the Gobi Desert, by the early second century b.c.e. In approximately 177 b.c.e. they were driven from that region to the Ili Valley by chief Mao Dun of the Xiongnu and twelve years later were forced south by the Wu Sun (Wu-sun), ancestors of the Sarmatian Alans and vassals of the Xiongnu. Part of the Yuezhi formed a confederacy and moved south to the Tibetan mountains. Most, however, occupied territories between the Amu Dar’ya and Syr Dar’ya Rivers in Sogdia, driving Śaka tribes south into Khorāsān and Bactria. The Yuezhi established their capital at Kienshih, previously known as Maracanda and Samarqand. In 138 b.c.e. the Chinese Han emperor Wu Di dispatched an ambassador to the Fergana Valley to secure the Yuezhi’s assistance against the Xiongnu. However, the embassy came to nothing, because the Yuezhi were more interested in the southern lands. Hence the Yuezhi invaded Bactria between 141 and 128 b.c.e., after which the region was renamed Tocharistan. One branch of the Yuezhi, the Kushāns, moved into the Sistan and Kabul river valleys and crossed the Indus River in 50 c.e. to establish the Kushān Kushān DynastyDynasty in northwestern India. Nevertheless, a Yuezhi state continued to exist into the next century in Bactria.

In 380 c.e. a chieftain named Toulun (Mongol chief)Toulun led his Mongolian people, called the Juan-juan (nomads)[Juan juan]Juan-juan, westward from China. These warriors defeated the Xiongnu to establish a large steppe empire. About a generation later Toulun adopted the title of “khan” or “khagan.” The Juan-juan were eventually overwhelmed, however, by the Toga Toga TurksTurks, who controlled northern China in the fifth century. The remaining Juan-juan migrated to the Yenisei region in Siberia to launch the Avar Empire that spread westward through the steppes. That empire lasted until it was overthrown by the Altai Altai TurksTurks under a leader named Tuman or DumanDuman (Tuman)Duman, who took the title Khan of the Blue (or Celestial) Turks. Meanwhile, the western tribes of the Avars migrated to the Russian-Ukrainian steppes, eventually invading Eastern Europe to threaten the Byzantines for two hundred years.

The HunsHuns emerged in fourth century b.c.e. Mongolia. Although little is known about them for several centuries, they most probably descended from the Turkic Xiongnu. After they had established control of Inner and Outer Mongolia, a rift occurred in their ranks by the year 44 c.e. Some of the Huns formed a new confederation and moved the nation into what is now Kazakhstan. By 48 c.e. the eastern branch further split into northern and southern factions, and the former were conquered by Mongol tribes called the Xianbi (Mongol tribe)Xianbi (Hsien-pi). Those in the south became confederates of the Chinese emperor and resided south of the Great Wall in Shansi. These southerners, under Liu Liu CongLiu CongCong (Liu Ts’ung, died c. 334), eventually overthrew the Chinese emperors and became rulers of North China by 318. However, by 348 this Hun or Xiongnu Empire in China had collapsed.

The western Huns took their federation farther west, across the Volga, in 374, defeating first the Sarmatian AlansAlans and then the OstrogothsOstrogoths. All of the GothsGoths were pressured to leave the steppes for Roman East Europe, and the Huns then followed them, terrifying the inhabitants with their mounted archers. The Roman historian Ammianus Ammianus MarcellinusAmmianus Marcellinus (Roman historian)Marcellinus (c. 330-395 c.e.) described them as “skilled in unimaginable ferocity.” In 432 the Romans were compelled to pay tribute to the Huns. When the Romans later balked at further exactions, AttilaAttila (king of the Huns)Attila (c. 406-453), the Hun chieftain, led the Huns farther into the Roman world, as the emperor ceded vast lands to them south of the Danube River. Early in 451 Attila moved his nation into Roman Gaul. After crossing the Rhine, he set Metz ablaze but failed to take the fortified town of Orléans. He was stopped to the west of Troyes by a Frankish-Roman confederacy under Aëtius (died 454) in 451. A year later the Huns ravaged Milan and Pavia in Italy before retiring northward, following the promise of tribute by the bishop of Rome. After the death of Attila in Pannonia in 453, no new leader could manage to hold the nation together. The forced allies revolted and killed Attila’s eldest son. Another son, Dengizich (died 469), at first directed the Huns back toward the steppes but then altered course to attack the Eastern Roman Empire. The Huns were defeated,Dengizich (Hun chieftan)Dengizich was killed, and his head was placed on exhibit in the circus of Constantinople in 468.

In Central Asia another horde, called the White HunsEphthalite or White White HunsHuns, moved south from the Altai Mountains to the Aral Sea region of Turkestan in the mid-fifth century. This horde occupied Sogdiana, Transoxiana, and south to Bactria. Later in the fifth century they attacked Khorāsān, killing the Sāsānian king Peroz. Subsequently the White Huns took Merv and Herat, eventually replacing the Yuezhi and Kushāns in Bactria, Kandahar, and Kabul. They were stopped, however, when they attempted to conquer the Punjab. Sources describe these White Huns as barbarians eschewing all the elements of settled civilization. Like their counterparts in the West, they seem to have passed out of history in the same era.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Paleolithic grave sites reveal the use of knives and spear points. Those of the Andronovo population of 1750 to 800 b.c.e. show flint arrowheads and bronze weapons. However, such evidence may indicate more of a hunting than a military culture. The Okunev Okunev peoplespeoples, who engaged in metalworking in the Altai Mountain region in the era from 1800 to 1500 b.c.e., may have been the first SiberiansSiberians to develop Metallurgy;Siberiametallurgy, especially bronze casting, for military enterprises, although armed horsemen arose much later. The CimmeriansCimmerians had produced bronze battle-axes by 1000 b.c.e. Early in that first millennium sword-length daggers with hollow handles were typically found in grave sites. The first militant horsemen appeared in north Central Asia at about this time.

Hunnic Migrations, c. 484

With the rise of organized warfare, the dominant weapon in the steppe was the bow and Bows and arrows;steppe nomadsArchers and archery;steppe nomadsarrow. The Scyths and their successors in the steppes surpassed all other peoples in their ability to fire with accuracy from both sides (50-60 meters) while galloping on horseback at great speed. After dismounting they could fire also with amazing agility while running at full speed. Their Arrows;Scythsarrows were usually of sharp bone points, shot from composite bows made from different materials, usually with a wooden core backed with sinews and bellied with horn. The length of the bow was 140 to 160 centimeters, and the string was permanently attached to one end. Such bows were found in graves from the fourth century b.c.e. Characteristic of the Scythian bow was its short length and double-curved nature. They were made by professional craftsmen, not by the steppe warriors themselves. Much later the Huns improved the composite bow, which was copied by the Romans.

Among other common steppe weapons was the Lanceslance, used since the sixth century b.c.e. The longest one was extended 10 feet and its weight was such that the user held it with two hands while on horseback. First used by the Alans and Sarmatians, it was still employed by the Huns one thousand years later. The Lassoslasso, used to entangle an opponent before hand-to-hand Hand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat]combat, was a device employed by the Alans, the Sarmatians, and later the Huns.

As for Armor;steppe nomadsarmor, the steppe warriors for centuries fought without breastplates, until they were first worn by nobles. Gradually, the practice of wearing protective cuirasses made from bone or horn began to be regularly adopted. By the fourth or third centuries b.c.e. bone breastplates were found in use from evidence in burial mounds of the lower Ob River, although bone lamellae from as early as the eighteenth century b.c.e. have been discovered in the Cis-Baikal region. From 100 b.c.e. to 100 c.e. scale armor was introduced by steppe warriors in the Altai region and in Western Siberia.

The Xiongnu wore leather and bone armor and sometimes even bronze. Iron scales were used in TuvaTuva as early as the second century b.c.e. Within a century, chain mail had appeared among the Sarmatians in the Kuban Basin. Use of armor spread from the Ukraine to Manchuria by the second century c.e. By the early fifth century the nobles among the Huns wore a metal thorax that covered the sides as well as the breast. By this time the same Huns wore Helmets;steppe nomadshelmets that protected even the nose, a device that may have been Sāsānian in origin. In the East, tribes wore such helmets by the beginning of the modern era. To decrease their weight, shields were made of wicker and supported by leather; they were made smaller for use on horseback and larger for use on foot. As for dress, common to the both the Scyths and Huns were wide trousers, gripped tight at the ankles to facilitate horse riding. The sleeves of the loose robes were also wound close to the wrists. Ammianus wrote that the Huns wore “ratskin” and linen tunics until they “rotted away on their bodies.”

Military Organization

Mounted Hunnic warriors on a raid carry a collection of weapons, including spears, swords, maces, and bows and arrows.

(Library of Congress)

Steppe warriors were ruled by Khagans (nomadic leaders)khagans, or Khans (nomadic leaders)khans, who exercised total authority over their troops. Organization was primitive, but the warriors gave allegiance to the tribal nobles who administered the wishes of the khagan. Military federations were formed, reformed, disintegrated, and overwhelmed. Armies depended upon the charismatic appeal of the leader and, upon his death, civil wars usually erupted among the followers of each son until the strongest was able to meld together a new federation. Grave sites confirm the existence of class among the warriors, and the elites were the first to wear armored protection. Armies also included Women;steppe nomadswomen warriors, who may have constituted between 15 and 18 percent of the fighting forces. Most steppe warriors of the early centuries had no known military organization, similar to that of the medieval Mongols, yet the Huns were organized into right and left provinces, each of which was under a king who governed his army commanders. They in turn supervised the chiefs of either one thousand, one hundred, or even ten soldiers. Most, however, were simply organized into hordes, living off the conquered lands by pillaging. As they moved over long distances, their allegiances were fragile, often breaking down over competing grazing rights or plunder.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Nomad military success depended upon speed, surprise, and psychology. The rapid advance of the Cavalry;steppe nomadscavalry would be highlighted by volleys of arrows from the horsemen followed by hand-to-hand fighting by scattered bands who appeared to fight in disarray, but whose intent was to destroy any unity among the opposition. Often, when fighting other steppe tribes, the strategy of feigned flight was successfully employed. Sometimes steppe warriors fled quickly when encountering opposition and then suddenly reversed direction to attack again with amazing speed. There was no strategy employed to attack fortified positions, because, in most cases, warriors’ accuracy with bows was sufficient to overcome the defenders. In many cases, combat was accompanied by Battle cries“howling” typical of the Avars, Magyars, Huns, and others. Another psychological weapon was the well-advertised practice of Scalpingscalping their defeated foes, whose heads were used for drinking vessels during victory feasts. From the Scyths in the West to the Xiongnu in the East, the steppe warriors were known for their swift, unexpected raids for plunder. If pursued, they would lead their opponents into an open field, where they could not be pinned down and where their horses could work to the best advantage. The nomads would employ volleys of arrows to exhaust their foes before engaging them in hand-to-hand combat.

As early as the fourth millennium b.c.e. the skill of horse Horses and horse ridingriding may have existed in the region of modern Kazakhstan. The horse culture became so pervasive among the steppe peoples that the warriors, men and women, spent a great portion of their lives on horseback, eating, fighting, negotiating, and even sleeping. Such traits were common throughout the long history of nomadic peoples, whether Turk, Mongol, or Indo-European. Early steppe horsemen wore neither metal stirrups nor spurs, and they directed their horses with whips. Surely, however, the Avars used the Stirrupsstirrup with great success in their attacks on Eastern Europe. The early warriors used few saddles, though pillow saddles stuffed with deer hair were discovered in graves at Pazyryk. At the same site was evidence of earmarks to discern ownership of horses, and by the second century c.e., the Sarmatians were branding horses. From the era of the Scyths, steppe peoples castrated their male horses to better manage their herds.

Grave sites and burial mounds also reveal the use of Chariots;steppe nomadschariots for carrying war booty from battle, as well as for fighting. Such practice was true of the Scyths (Śaka), Sarmatians, Xiongnu, Alans, and Huns from the sixth century b.c.e. Two-wheeled chariots drawn by steppe horses provided formidable fighting forces. The custom of burying chariots in the graves of rulers was common in Mesopotamia, the steppe cultures of Eurasia, and China. By 900 b.c.e. steppe warriors had mastered the art of attacking with bows and arrows while on horseback. When on march the warriors consumed fermented horse milk, horse blood, and sometimes a mixture of the two, as well as horse meat and cheese. It is said they even tenderized the meat by pounding it under their saddles.

Ancient Sources

Ancient sources on the earliest history of steppe warfare depend more on the findings of modern archaeologists than upon the ancient writers. Nevertheless, valuable information still rests upon classic works such as SunziSunziSunzi’s (Sun Tzu) Bingfa (c. 510 b.c.e. ; The Art of War, Art of War, The (Sunzi) 1910), which deals in part with the Chinese wars with the Xiongnu nomads. The military exploits of the Scyths, Massagetae, Cimmerians, and even the Amazons are fully described by the Greek historian HerodotusHerodotus (Greek historian) Herodotus (c. 484-424 b.c.e. ), especially in chapter 4 of his Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e. ; The History, 1709).

The Roman historian Ammianus Ammianus MarcellinusAmmianus Marcellinus (Roman historian)Marcellinus (c. 330-395 c.e.), who was born a Greek and later served as an officer in the Eastern Roman armies, wrote a history describing the plight of the Roman Empire in its struggles with the barbarians, including the Huns and Avars. He did not know the Huns directly but relied upon Gothic intermediaries, ending his account in the 390’s. The sixth century Gothic historian JordanesJordanes (Gothic historian)Jordanes tells much about the Huns from his knowledge of the writings, which survive only in fragments, of the Roman philosopher Helvidius Priscus (died c. 70-79 c.e.).Steppe nomadsNomads

Books and Articles
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Brentjes, Burchard. Arms of the Sakas and Other Tribes of the Central Asian Steppes. Varanasi, India: Rishi, 1996.
  • Cernenko, E. V. The Scythians, 700-300 B.C. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1983.
  • Chaliand, Gérard. Nomadic Empires: From Mongolia to the Danube. Translated by A. M. Berrett. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2004.
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeanine, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonsky, eds. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat Press, 1995.
  • Fields, Nic. The Hun: Scourge of God, A.D. 375-565. Illustrated by Christa Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.
  • Frye, Richard N. The Heritage of Central Asia: From Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Weiner, 1996.
  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Translated by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970.
  • Hildinger, Erik. Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. New York: Sarpedon, 1997. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2001.
  • Karasulas, Antony. Mounted Archers of the Steppe, 600 B.C.-A.D. 1300. Illustrated by Angus McBride. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2004.
  • Kelly, Christopher. Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire. Toronto: McArthur, 2008.
  • Man, John. Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome. New York: T. Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
  • Mänchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Edited by Max Knight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
  • Smith, John Masson, Jr. “Nomads.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Szabó, Christopher. “The Composite Bow Was the High-Tech Weapon of the Asian Steppes.” Military History 22, no. 9 (December, 2005): 12.
Films and Other Media
  • Attila. Feature film. Embassy Pictures, 1954.
  • Attila. Television miniseries. Alphaville Films, 2001.
  • Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea. Feature film. Shochiku Films, 2007.
  • Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan. Feature film. New Line, 2007.

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