Book review: Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World

Frank McGlynn’s insight into Genghis Khan tells of man driven by vision and circumstance to take over most of the known world with brilliant and brutal efficency by Neil Robinson. 

Frank McLynn

Vintage, £12.99

GENGHIS KHAN may have been the most biologically successful man to have ever lived.

Biological success is the ability to pass on one’s genes to future generations. 

There are some 16-17 million people, 0.5% of the world’s population, alive today, all of whom have a common male ancestor from northern China around the time that he lived.

Genghis is the best candidate to be this common ancestor. His all-conquering armies took huge numbers of slaves, and he and his sons had the pick of the female captives.

Genghis Khan battle scene painting: Using the skills of his cavalry, brutal tactics and efficient bureaucracy, he managed to conqueor vast swathes of Asia and eastern Europe.
Genghis Khan battle scene painting: Using the skills of his cavalry, brutal tactics and efficient bureaucracy, he managed to conqueor vast swathes of Asia and eastern Europe.

Genghis Khan’s biological success is just one of the superlatives that his reign throws up. 

The list of cities conquered and enemies defeated, the scale of both the slaughter wrought and the empire built by Genghis are incomparable.

What makes Genghis Khan’s story even more remarkable is that at the time of his birth the Mongols looked an unlikely people to become empire builders. 

The Mongol’s seemed to come out of nowhere as they burst into China, destroyed the kingdoms and empires of Central Asia, crushed ancient Russia, and decimated the medieval kingdoms of eastern Europe.

A perennial question hangs over Genghis’s and the Mongol’s rise as it does with all such extraordinary historical stories. How much of it was due to the man and how much of it was due to circumstance? 

Frank McLynn’s answer is the only sensible one: circumstances made an extraordinary man, and then he used these circumstances to do something extraordinary.

Genghis Khan’s birth name was Temujin. He was the second son of the second wife of the leader of the Borjigid Mongol clan, Yesugei.

The Mongol steppes were in turmoil at the time of Temujin’s birth, around 1162. Mongol clans were at war with each other, and with the neighbouring Tartars. 

Both the Mongols and the Tartars had fractious relations with the neighbouring Chinese kingdoms of the Jin and the Xia dynasties. 

The Chinese, fearful and disdainful of the steppe nomads, played them off against each other to stop them from raiding and to stabilize their border.

Yesugei was killed by Tartars when Temujin was 12 and living with the family of his betrothed, Borte, at the time. His father’s death meant a return to his family and to poverty.

Yesugei’s death presented his enemies with an opportunity to weaken the Borjigid clan and supplant them in the hierarchy of Mongo clans. Temujin’s family became outcasts and paupers, their property stolen by their enemies.

The family survived by hunting and eked out a meagre existence. They were not a happy family unit. Temujin murdered his older half-brother, and chief rival for the leadership of the Borjigid clan.

His brother’s murder was used as a pretext by a rival clan to enslave Temujin. He was not held for long and his escape from slavery began to give him a reputation as a man of action.

He married Borte and began to rebuild his clan’s fortunes in alliance with his father-in-law.

Temujin’s aim was to become ruler of all the Mongols. Mongol politics was brutal. Alliances were made and broken regularly, and steppe warfare was vicious.

Temujin had one great advantage over his rivals: he was a meritocrat.

Other clan chiefs supported the established order of aristocratic family power. Temujin promoted talent and rewarded loyalty. He had little choice. 

The weakness of Temujin’s clan meant that he had to use the resources available to him. But he used what he had very well.

He had an eye for talent. Promoting from the ranks and rewarding loyalty as much as family gave him better generals and attracted the support of a wide range of followers.

Gradually, Temujin defeated all of his rival Mongol clans and other steppe people like the Tartars. Defeated enemies were incorporated into a Mongol confederacy so that the size of Temujin’s armies grew. 

In 1206 Temujin was declared the undisputed ruler of the Mongol people and was named Genghis Khan, the supreme ruler, by a council of clan leaders.

With his control over the steppes complete Genghis began to turn his attention outward.

Again, circumstance played a role and forced his hand. A large army of loyal troops needed reward and that meant accumulating plunder. 

McLynn compares Genghis’s army to a shark: he had to keep it moving forward to survive. As lord of the Mongol steppes Genghis had no one left to fight but outsiders.

Genghis used the advantages that the steppe gave him to maximum effect.

Mongols were trained for mobile cavalry warfare from birth. Unlike more settled societies the pastoral Mongols did not have a very gendered division of labour. 

Women were able to take on male roles such as herding animals so that more well-trained fighting men could be mobilized from a smaller population than could be put in the field by many larger settled communities.

Genghis also organized and disciplined his forces better. Mongol generals could co-ordinate their troops on the battlefield using flags and their troops were disciplined enough to perform complex battlefield maneuvers in large numbers. 

Their steppe ponies were able to travel longer distances than their opponents and still be ready to fight. Mongol armies could split into separate groups, navigate long distances and reunite to surprise and defeat their enemies.

Genghis’s first target was northern China, which was rich in booty. The Mongol campaign of conquest was brilliant. 

They used all of their military organization to inflict devastating defeats on Chinese forces in the field. They also proved themselves immensely adaptable, most importantly learning the art of siege warfare.

The Mongol campaigns were brutal. Mongol practice was to offer enemy cities the chance to surrender. Refusal meant extermination and enslavement when the city fell.

After defeating the northern Chinese kingdoms Genghis’s armies turned westward.

Mongol forces marched along the Silk Road, defeating the Qara Khitan and Khwarezmian empires to give Genghis control over Central Asia and what is now Iran and Iraq. 

In the later years of his reign and under his immediate successor, Ogodei, Mongol armies pushed into the Caucasus, Russia, Poland and Hungary. 

The only limit to the reach of the Mongol forces was that the further west they went the less hospitable the terrain was for their cavalry forces.

Genghis’s political skills and personal charisma held this vast empire together. He was tolerant of other religions. He kept local administrations in place and recruited the best of local administrators so that his empire was well run and unified. 

Ogodei continued Genghis’s style of rule but eventually family squabbles over inheritance meant the empire fragmented into a series of khanates.

The eventual failure of his empire cannot overshadow Genghis’s towering achievement. 

The brutality of his empire building is unquestionable but Genghis’s empire joined China and Europe in a new way to remake the world.

This achievement, coincidental though it may have been to Genghis’s lust for power, makes Genghis a true world-historical figure. 

McLynn tells his story brilliantly, cutting through myth to paint a portrait of a complex man, a product of his time and place, but able to rise above circumstance to impose himself on the world in terrifying fashion.

  • Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick


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