The lifestyle of the nomads who populated the Eurasian steppe; known by names as various as the Mongols, the Huns, the Xiong-nu, Kipchaks, Tatars hold a particular fascination for me.
To imagine that everything you own could be folded up, displaced, and moved to another location within a matter of hours; the fact that your ‘home’ was wherever you decided to set up camp in the entire grasslands across the Asian to European landmass; the fact that you grew up riding horses before walking, and were so connected to horses that you slept and ate on them, even opening up their veins to drink their blood when you were thirsty; the fact that the very concept of a city, which represented a sedentary lifestyle, was so foreign and unimaginable to you that it was worthy of contempt…
The Mongols under the rule of Genghis Khan are a fascinating study because it seems almost all of their battles were one-sided victories, massacres that left entire cities pillaged and raped. The Mongol engine bulldozed its way into Europe and south through China, usually outnumbered, but always more nimble, and almost always, victorious.
There are explanations for this success. The usual ones are: that the nomads under Genghis Khan were united like never before. That the Mongol system of organization, and its meritocracy, brought out the best tactics and operational implementation. That the Mongols used their superior quickness and stamina to bait enemies into open fields, exhausted them, and then killed them without mercy. That they used fear tactics to decrease morale in their enemies.
It seems to me that the Mongol contempt for cities stemmed from their lifestyle advantage, which led to their success in battle. They had no home bases to destroy. Unless their enemies set fire to the entire Eurasian steppe grasslands, the Mongols would always have a feeding ground, base for resources and replenishment, and ways to evade and hide. Their lifestyle led to no focused point of attack, because their quickness on horses meant they would scatter in all directions into the endless plain.
It also meant that the entire nomadic lifestyle was very binary. It was one based on grazing and hunting (living off the land), or war and pillaging (living off other people). It was a lifestyle that was inherently unstable, veering between those two modes as resources grew scarce. They did those two things very well, and in this modus operandi, what is sacrificed are the things that can occur in the sedentary life: development of civilization, literature, art, sciences.
It strikes me that the conflict between the sedentary lifestyle and nomadic lifestyle was waged over an epoch, over almost two millennia, and there was no clear winner during the entire time. During certain centuries, the latter had the advantage. And during others, the former had the advantage. The Romans fought Attila and were sacked by the Visigoths. Then one thousand years later, the Mongols using essentially the same tactics at a higher speed and organization, took over Asia and parts of Europe. Then three hundred years later, the Manchus pillaged China in the 1600s.
This was a war between two lifestyles: one composed of people who ate only red meat, hunted, grazed, and depended on sheer movement as their standard operating mode, and another composed of people who ate the vegetables that they planted, grew, and lived lives of stability within the security of the city walls.
And while the nomads regarded the city-dwellers with contempt, whenever they took over a civilization they were themselves consumed by that civilization. They fell into riches. They fell into comfort. They could not help but succumb to stability. They became effete relative to the standard by which they had conquered the former civilization. And the elders saw this happening: Genghis Khan himself foresaw that his grandchildren would succumb to the pleasures of civilization and lack the vigor with which he had conquered nations. The Manchu sent their children to be indoctrinated in their ancestral homelands in Manchuria, going so far as to try to establish a seat of administration there in an attempt to preserve their ‘Manchu-ness’, feeling that in the course of establishing an empire they were losing the values that had brought them there. And gradually, their children and their children’s children did indeed lose their grasp on the empires their forefathers had established. They grew weak.
There is something so gripping about this drama between these two modes of life. The nomadic one, while one-dimensionally superior in war, was a lifestyle of ongoing consumption, a sustenance-based one that consumed so many resources in its development and support of warfaring abilities that nothing was, or could be left behind. The sedentary one, one that spread its resources more evenly but thinly, relying on stability for the architecture from which to grow, to produce the fruit of civilization. But one whose pleasures could ultimately be its own downfall. In this you can make so many analogies to entire civilizations, companies, and even individual human lives. And I’ll leave that to you to interpret.