The Nomad Paradox
“Cortez in Mexico City and the Christians at Lepanto were successful largely because they were not the products of a nomadic horse people, tribal society, or even theocratic autocracy, but drew their heritage from tough foot soldiers of settled small valleys and rural communities…” (p.169)
“Armies value disciplined heavy infantrymen because when properly organized and deployed they can kill horsemen.” (pp. 136-37)
“Horsemen at the onset of battle fear lines of grim infantrymen.” (p. 136)
Victor Davis Hanson tells us repeatedly in his book Carnage and Culture about the superiority of well-trained infantry over even the most heavily armored horseman. In 732 Charles Martel and the Franks stopped the advance of the emir of Cordoba, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, and his Arab and Berber horsemen at the battle of Poitiers. Hanson describes the victory as if it was an inevitable link in the continuing chain of invincibility for states defended by infantry, democracy and the rural ideal. Hanson is of course stretching the argument beyond any believability and he does not seem troubled by the fact that Charles Martel’s Franks were anything but democratic or that the Arabs had advanced to fight as far as the middle of France in the first place. But Hanson’s argument is only an extreme example of our conventional wisdom—that military superiority generally belongs to the wealthiest states who can afford to train and supply large armies with the latest weapons and that large-scale finance and administrative efficiency lead to military success.
A well trained and organized army backed by the resources of the large settled population of an empire should be able to easily hold their own against far superior numbers of “nomadic horse people and tribal societies.” Yet repeatedly we have seen exactly the opposite. The Huns, the Arabs, the Turks and the Mongols were all migratory nomadic peoples. They lived, moved and fought largely on horseback. They did not have large settled populations to create the economic wealth needed to support large armies. But year after year, they threatened and occasionally defeated the armies of one of the largest, and certainly the wealthiest, Empire in the world at the time.
Treadgold (Byzantium and Its Army 284-1081) and Haldon (Byzantium at War AD600-1453) trace the ebb and flow of the Byzantine military and deal with strategic aspects of their encounters with nomadic groups, but do not help with the tactical questions of why and how. Fortunately, Hugh Kennedy addresses this exact question in his Mongols, Huns and Vikings. He refers to it as “The Nomad Paradox” and outlines several factors that worked to their advantage:
1. Speed—the ability to surprise, encircle and retreat rapidly as needed.
2. Mobility—no elaborate military camp to tear down and set up, no supply train to transport and defend.
3. Mobilization—no civilian society, all adult males needed to be warriors.
4. Environment—harsh environments where they could not be followed: grasslands (Huns), steppe (Turks & Mongols) or desert (Arabs); with harsh weather and without the agricultural produce needed to sustain an army.
5. Weapons and tactics—mounted archery was highly effective in the age before gunpowder. It was difficult to effectively counter and hard for non-nomadic people to borrow or imitate.
6. Leadership—based on skill and knowledge of warfare, not based on civil or academic skills, wealth or privilege.
These six provide some explanation, but at the same time produce almost as many questions as they answer. The Empire, due to its location, was surrounded by nomadic tribes through most of its history. Nomadic groups were often a nuisance, but they did not always threaten the existence of the Empire. Why was it that only certain groups posed a strategic problem and only at certain periods of time? Kennedy’s seventh factor is the key:
7. Cohesion—a leader to unite and direct disparate tribes.
This is the critical piece that made the difference between bands of raiding horsemen and a major military threat. Typically nomads used their other military advantages to fight each other in small groups. Only a great leader could end these conflicts, unite warring factions and direct their military power against outside enemies. At that point a nomadic group could, and usually did, become a serious threat to larger states.
The nomadic tactical advantages held up until the advent of gunpowder when the production of effective gunpowder weapons required skills and resources that were only available in larger settled societies.