Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, & Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

I. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World [2004] by Jack Weatherford – ★★★★

They can do all because they think they can“. Virgil

“Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Sun Tzu 

Based on the ancient account The Secret History of the Mongols (dating c. 1227), this book tells of the life of Genghis Khan, his first foreign campaigns and his later conquests of other countries. Although dramatised and sometimes not entirely objective, the book is a very engaging, endlessly fascinating and perceptive account of the world’s most successful invaders. It demonstrates all the reasons for Genghis Khan’s unprecedented success in conquest since, historically, the Mongol army was the one to whom fell numerous countries and millions of people kneeled, as the army started to dominate virtually two continents, including the majority of China, India, Russia, Persia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the South-East Asia.

Jack Weatherford starts his book with the birth and childhood of Genghis Khan (then Temujin), and this early life is wonderfully written and presented. From his unusual birth in 1162, the book traces Temujin’s mother’s circumstances and talks about the environment he was raised in – amidst constant and complex clan wars, where no one was sure of their future. Rivalries between brothers, his allegiance to a boy that would later become his rival number one and his first foreign campaigns are all interesting to read. Khan would later establish a complete control over the Silk Road and expand his empire to the west and south. Kingdoms of Jurchen (China, 1215) and Muhammad II (Persia, 1219) would all fall, as he would also overpower Russians, Bulgarians, Germans and Poles. “Novelties became necessities”, writes Weatherford, “and each caravan of cargo stimulated a craving for more. The more he conquered, the more he had to conquer” [2004: 101, 108].

Genghis Khan died in 1227, leaving a fragmented kingdom behind, and his sons and grandsons all tried to make their own contributions to history in their own way: grandson Kublai managed to establish control over millions of Chinese under his command, using intricate tactics that purport to merge and change criminal codes and civil structures. In that vein, the Mongols tried to bring elements of practicality and efficiency to the finer Chinese traditions. Then, there was grandson Mongke and his eastern campaigns, and son Ogodei, who continued the expansion of the Empire, but whose campaigns were less successful that those of his father’s and who installed a stationary court [Weatherford, 2004: 125].

They “overrun everything from Indus River to the Danube from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean…In a flash, only thirty years, the Mongol warriors would defeat every army, capture every fort, and bring down the walls of every city they encountered” [Weatherford, 2004: 86].

The author enumerates reasons for the effectiveness of the Mongol army. “Genghis Kan’s army combined the traditional fierceness and speed of the steppe warrior with the highest technological sophistication of Chinese civilisation” [2004: 8]. It is fascinating to learn why it was able to conquer such vast expanses of land and so many kingdoms in such a short time. Apparently, that was because, unlike other armies at that time, the Mongols had:

  • Armed cavalry (instead of foot soldiers), which could adapt quickly to their surroundings, and no heavy machinery transportation. This meant that the army was capable of covering vast distances quickly and their rich-in-protein diet meant they could go without food for days on end: “they ruled from horseback and had a mobile centre of power” [Weatherford, 2004: 133];
  • Superior battle tactics; in his later and most infamous battles Genghis Khan relied on decades’ worth of expertise and knowledge to gain victories, adapting his knowledge to a battle at hand, improving all the time. He introduced important changes to the army, including new rules on looting: “Khan’s willingness to abolish old practices when they hindered the functionality of his new society” proved very advantageous. His army employed the following tactics where adaptability was key:
  • The use of propaganda;terror, he realised, was best spread not by the acts of warriors, but by the pens of scribes and scholars…the Mongols operates a virtual propaganda machine that consistently inflated the number of people killed in battle and spread fear wherever its words travelled”[2004: 114];
  • No “fair game” rules; Khan realised early that “victory did not come to the one who played by the rules, it came to the one who made the rules and imposed them on his enemy” [2004: 8]. Stealth, trickery and psychological terror before the battle were all “fair game” to the Mongols.  They were prepared to employ anything to reach their goal of victory. They diverted rivers to flood enemies, cut off their food supplies and often appeared as though to retreat only to attack [Weatherford, 2004: 96]. All these tactics were designed to break the spirit of the enemy, and these were coupled with reinvented techniques of army advancement, such as “lake formation”.

The Mongol’s success arose from their cohesion and discipline, bred over millennia as nomads working in small groups, and from their steadfast loyalty to their leader” [Weatherford, 2004: 90].

  • Certain mentality of warriors; Mongol warriors were used to think of themselves as being immortal and optimism was encouraged. In fact, Weatherford states that it was forbidden to think about death in the army. The Mongols also had the mentality of invaders and not settlers. They had little to no attachment to goods and places, which played in their favour. For them, “a fleeing conquest was as good as a stationary one” and they had “don’t defend the place, but kill the enemy” mentality [Weatherford, 2004: 95].
  • Tendency to overlook aristocracies, nationalities and hierarchies of (captured) people, choosing and using people based on their knowledge, talents and skills; Mongols transported the best knowledge and skills taken from every nation in their vast empire, making culture portable [2004: 229]. Their insistence on tolerance of diversity had probably more to do with their vast empire and nothing to do with benevolence. They had countless nations under their control and the unification of all was not only impractical – it was impossible. Neither were they very special when it came to innovation. As the saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention”, and the larger the Mongol Empire grew, the more it necessitated changes made and inventions introduced. The same happened in the Roman Empire, for example regarding the construction of their aqueducts, some of which stand to this day.

Unlike some other reviewers, I thought the author was frank about the atrocities committed by the Mongols. I do not think the book “casts aside” brutalities or “glosses over” what may be called “the spoils of conquests”. Ruthlessness and bloodthirstiness are evident in the Mongol army at that time as the author describes the tendency of the Mongols to use “death almost as policy” [2004: 115] and to mercilessly kill members of aristocracy, while plundering cities thoroughly (without any thought to works of art or architectural wonders). There was a very savage attack on Russia, too, and Khan is definitely presented as an effective conqueror with his own policies and not some celebratory hero: “the Mongols showed little concern for the loss of enemy life so long as it preserved Mongol life” [2004: 93]. The negatives are that there are some evident personal assumptions and a clear dramatisation of events to boost the engagement of the book. There is some repetition, and the book is not an objective account at all in its last chapters.

Jack Weatherford really makes history “alive” in Genghis Khan. His engaging book takes us to the midst of all action on battlefields and deep into the mindset of Mongol warriors. This is one history book that reads on one breath.

II. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic [2003] by Tom Holland – ★★1/2

This book on the Roman Republic and its final years starts with a prophecy and this theme of folklore and superstition pretty much dictates the rest of the author’s narrative, and a narrative is certainly what this book is. Holland starts his book c. 140 B.C. (the city of Carthage was defeated in 146 B.C.) and explains briefly in the opening pages why Romans were so successful in building their Empire. He also elaborates on the paradoxes of the Roman Republic and on the psychology of the Roman people: “More than any other nation, the Romans have sought out glory and been greedy for praise” [2003: 5], re-states the author Cicero before talking at length about the childhood of Caesar, which is probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the book (because so little verifiable data on this is actually available). His other statements such as “a community was cherished wherever it was found” [2003: 18], “the Romans had little concept of private space” [2003: 115], and “the central paradox of Roman society [is that the] savage divisions of class could coexist with an almost religious sense of community” [2003: 63] are curious, but I also thought they were actually equally applicable to the Middle Ages. What follows is a rather hectic and chaotic narrative “sweep” through the Roman conquests, with such names as Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey, Lucullus and Cato hardly even being introduced in this process of telling a rather confusing story.

As the author’s narrative continues, his numerous broad and “dramatic” statements, with which he so likes to open every other paragraph, become rather annoying in all their “poetic” pretentiousness. Generalisations and assumptions abound, to comment using Holland’s own style. Thus, we have: “the life of a young Roman nobleman was filled with opportunity and risk” [2003: 110], “hardness was a Roman ideal” [2003: 111], “greatness clearly beckoned” [2003: 121], “for the romans, the truest monuments to glory were fashioned not of marble but of memories” [2003: 220], “no true citizen could endure to be a slave” [2003: 229], etc. Another unfortunate element is that the author’s narrative is “all over the place”. He can mesh (there is no other word to describe it) the history of Rome, the psychology of people, their beliefs, politics, Roman childhood, a passion for fish, architecture and city planning all on one page and in such a manner that the material becomes nothing but hurried sketches of some unfocused ideas rather than an exciting presentation of fascinating history. The result is a book which is only sporadically insightful and certainly rather disappointing in its presentation and execution.

8 thoughts on “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, & Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

  1. Oh, I have such a soft spot for Tom Holland’s “Rubicon”!! I read it a few years after it first came out, and it really helped to rekindle my childhood love of ancient Rome — so much so that I’ve remained in love with Rome’s history and culture ever since, and took many courses on it in university. I haven’t read the book in so long that I can’t remember its merits or weaknesses too clearly (although I have read books by Holland since — none of which I’ve enjoyed as much), but . . . it will always have a place in my heart! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad to hear that you had a wonderful experience with Rubicon! I guess to each his own. I have been fascinated by the Roman history since I was a child too and recall a wonderful illustrated book I had in my childhood “Romans, Illustrated World History”. I would spend ages with it. As I said, I cannot fault research or good intentions behind Rubicon, but the presentation and the execution did not agree with me at all for some reason.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s perfectly fair! 🙂 And sometimes how we feel about a book is really just heavily influenced by the context in which we read the book — sentimentality sometimes makes me very forgiving of flaws that would otherwise drive me crazy!

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