In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Steppe Nomadic Warfare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Significant Primary Sources
  • Modern Works Treating Specific Peoples
  • Tactics and Strategy
  • Training
  • Major Personalities
  • Steppe Nomads as Auxiliaries
  • Nomadism
  • Horses
  • Representations

Military History Steppe Nomadic Warfare
Erik Hildinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0119


This article addresses the sources by which the reader may learn about nomadic steppe-style warfare. For the purposes of this article, such warfare is considered to be not only that practiced by true steppe nomads such as Scythians, Huns, Magyars, and Mongols, but also that practiced by settled (or semi-settled) peoples who adopted or retained the nomadic approach to warfare, for example, Parthians, Turks, Mamluks, Crimean Tatars, and Russians. The subject of nomadic steppe-style warfare presents two problems for the researcher. First, steppe warriors have been almost universally illiterate, and, even where they developed a rudimentary bureaucracy to supervise subject peoples, as happened with the Mongols, they did not as a general practice write their history. This means that, for the most part, their history has been written by their enemies. Second, because most steppe warriors lived or emerged from the center of the Eurasian landmass to prey on settled peoples or upon other steppe warriors who had established themselves over settled societies at various points along the perimeter, the various accounts of their activities are written in too many disparate languages for a single researcher to master. Primary accounts of them are thus found in classical Greek, Latin, Armenian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Chinese, Persian, and Arabic—to mention only the greatest number. This bibliography of necessity concentrates on Western sources and translated Middle Eastern and Eastern sources. In recompense, however, the difficulty of life on the steppes of Asia molded the tribes from which the steppe warriors sprang into peoples with very similar societies, customs, and military practices. These similarities extend not only across geography, but across time. Thus the accounts of the military activities of Scythians, Huns, Mongols, and Crimean Tatars are remarkably uniform, although their activities extended over a period of more than two thousand years and stretched from central Gaul into western China. A good understanding of the strategy, tactics, and equipment of the Mongols, for instance, has general application to most steppe warriors: at most, details of their equipment differ, though not the equipment itself. Settled peoples had a clear bias when reporting on steppe tribes, who were seen, for the most part, as mere predators with few redeeming qualities apart from their occasional value as allied soldiers. This evident bias should put the reader of primary sources on guard; however, such bias does not come into play in any significant way when ancient writers describe the organization, tactics, and equipment of these warriors, apart from exaggerating the size of nomadic armies. A reading of different authors from different times and places on important points always shows close agreement about weapons, tactics, and strategy. Furthermore, a number of settled peoples adopted military equipment and tactics from the steppe where it was useful to them, and so it is very clear that their accounts of these things are accurate.

General Overviews

The subject of nomadic steppe warfare is narrow enough that no general work of any depth seems to have been written exclusively on this topic apart from Hildinger 1997. However, there are useful chapters or passages on the campaigns and tactics of various nomadic warrior societies in other general works on the history of warfare, notably Keegan 1994, Jones 1987, and Lot 1946. Grousset 1970, monumental and easily available, although primarily a general political history, touches on the details of steppe-style warfare in its first chapter. Although these last four works do not treat nomadic steppe-style warfare in exhaustive detail, they are informative as to its general characteristics and, by contrasting it with the more familiar aspects of warfare as practiced by sedentary peoples, they are helpful.

  • Davies, Brian L. Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500–1700. London: Routledge, 2007.

    As the title suggests, this book covers more than steppe warfare, though it has sections of some specificity regarding the equipment, tactics, and strategy involved in this area. Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, and Crimean Tatar interests are covered. It appears to be the only book-length treatment in English to focus on Russia’s expansion to the south.

  • Di Cosmo, Nicola. Warfare in Inner Asian History, 500–1800. Handbuch der Orientalistik 8. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

    Detailed academic study of warfare with, and between, nomadic peoples and their empires. There is a good deal of emphasis on Chinese responses to nomadic opponents, and a section dealing with the Manchu integration of the Mongols into their state in as they prepared to conquer China.

  • Drews, Robert. Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203389928

    A brief general history by a well-known academic. It treats the domestication of the horse, its use in warfare, steppe-style tactics, and the author’s view of the aims of those who practiced nomadic warfare.

  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Translated by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

    Treats briefly the essential military characteristics of the steppe warrior, though with some exaggeration about the practical range of the composite bow. Though dated, the book is still useful and was long a standard text on the history of the many steppe tribes of central Asia. Now superseded by Sinor 1990 (cited under Modern Works Treating Specific Peoples).

  • Hildinger, Erik. Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. New York: Sarpedon, 1997.

    Apparently the only general history of nomadic steppe-style warfare. It contains chapters dealing with nomadism, the essential combination of horse and bow, strategy and tactics, and the activities of the most significant of the nomadic warrior societies, or those settled societies that retained or adopted their military techniques.

  • Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

    Chapter 2, “The Diversity of the Medieval Ways of War,” treats briefly, but perceptively, the Mongol approach to war from a primarily strategic and logistical viewpoint.

  • Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage, 1994.

    Chapter 3, “Flesh,” discusses in some detail the various aspects of nomadic life that work to mold nomads into successful warriors.

  • Lot, Ferdinand. L’art militaire et les armées au Moyen Âge. Paris: Payot, 1946.

    Several chapters treat the more significant nomadic warrior societies with whom the West had contact. The work is long (two volumes) and detailed. There is unfortunately no English translation.

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