24 April 2014

Book Review: Warriors of the Steppe

A reasonably solid, broad overview of twenty-two centuries of a place whose people have fundamentally shaped the history of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Published on 12 JUN 2005 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. great civilizations / ancients, asia

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortunes as you please.

Prologue from “Tamberlaine the Great, Part I” by Christopher Marlowe

Introduction

Most people who are familiar with the peoples of Central Asia likely know them from medieval European history. Most histories of medieval Europe feature some minimal discussion of the peoples who come from Central Asia into Europe, starting with the Huns in the 5th Century ad and ending with the Mongols in the 13th Century A.D.

In this standard, cursory treatment, Central Asia reads like a “Great Barbarian Factory” churning out new models every 200 years or so that burst into Europe to rape and pillage, rather like the riders of Thulsa Doom at the beginning of the film Conan the Barbarian. In these treatments, each new model will have an exotic name and little other real information. In this way of telling history, it’s nearly impossible for anyone but an expert to know the difference between a Hun, an Avar, a Magyar, and a Mongol.

 

The net result of this is that the peoples of Central Asia who played a major role in shaping not only European but all of Eurasian history are reduced to caricatures and, in so doing, important currents of history are lost.

The peoples of Central Asia are a critical junction in Eurasian history: their history and culture touches upon and affects European, Middle Eastern and East Asian history all at once. Their lands, the steppe, are part of the grand highway called the Silk Road that united these cultures and enabled the critical exchange of goods and innovation between these major spheres of culture and history.

Because the study of history in our own culture is categorized by specialization in particular societies, almost exclusively literate ones, the people of Central Asia fall between the academic cracks. These peoples are side notes in European, Middle Eastern and East Asian history, but there are few, if any, who focus on them directly. And yet, because they touch on all of these areas of the world, it is through them and their history that we can see how these great spheres of civilization touch and influence one another. Lacking the expertise to examine the peoples of Central Asia in their own right, we are left with an artificial and inaccurate picture of the history of this time that places these great civilizations in their own hermetically sealed bubbles with minimal interaction and influences among one another.

Erik Hildinger’s work Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. seeks to fill this gap by putting the lands and peoples of Central Asia at the center of focus. As the title suggests, this work focuses on a region and peoples primarily from the point of view of military history. Consistent with other titles in Da Capo’s “Military History” series, it seeks to present this information in a fairly short, easy to read and interesting format. In being a short, readable military history of a relatively little-researched place, it sits alongside and nicely complements Da Capo’s Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban by Stephen Tanner.

Given how this subject matter is peripheral in several different areas of specialization, an undertaking such as this is not easy. There are very real challenges in the areas of expertise and familiarity such that the final product can be strong in some areas and very weak (or just plain wrong) in others. Further, the format of Da Capo’s “Military History” series further increases the risks: boiling down twelve hundred years of history into a little over 200 hundred pages is a challenge within a single area of specialty. However, to do so for a topic that crosses dozens of areas is a recipe for potential disaster.

Happily, in light of all of these challenges, Hildinger succeeds in putting together a reasonably solid, readable and fairly comprehensive historical overview of these peoples. As with all successful general histories, the reader is left with enough of a feel for the topic to know how much he or she doesn’t know. The work also provides good references to enable follow-up research and reading. The main weaknesses of the work center on a “rushed” feel for some of the topics and a couple of areas of editorial sloppiness. The rushed feel is an inherent danger of this type of work, while the editorial lapses aren’t fatal: merely irritating to the more fastidious of readers (such as your correspondent).

Overall, Hildinger succeeds in creating a work that fills in the gaps in this area, is a good and quick read, and leaves the reader thirsting for more detail and depth.