In the popular imagination, the name “Genghis Kahn” continues to conjure images of savage Mongol hordes laying waste to everything in their path. But Frank McLynn’s sweeping study entitled Genghis Kahn: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy reveals a more complicated story. This is a portrait of a single man’s rise to greatness and of an obscure tribe’s transformation from an isolated nomadic existence to a world power. McLynn relies heavily on the 13th-century semi-legendary chronicle, The Secret History of the Mongols. The author is unknown but was probably a Mongol, court insider. Like many other accounts of the ancient and medieval periods, it contains exaggerations and fabricated stories. However, historians agree that the core narrative of this primary source is invaluable for establishing a historical record of the Mongols. Another source, 9th-century writings from China’s Tang Dynasty, is the earliest recorded mention of the Mongols.
The future Kahn was born Temujin in 1162. He had three brothers and a sister, but he distinguished himself early, building a reputation as a warrior at 14. McLynn explains the young man’s rapid rise from an accomplished warrior to an influential leader this way: “The attraction of Temujin was that he had created a haven for all who had broken away from the rigidities of the old kinship-based clan structure” (50). One of McLynn’s themes is that Genghis was an innovator, because he “recalibrated” Mongol society, while also being mindful of his peoples’ traditions. First among them was the battue, or hunt, a massive training exercise that covered hundreds of miles and demanded many of the same skills used in battle. These hunts came to an end with thousands of Mongol warriors encircling herds of animals for slaughter.
After years of ferocious campaigning, Temujin united the disparate nomad tribes of the steppe. In 1205, he became Genghis or “tough ruler” (94). But the new Kahn did not rest; he had grand designs for his new Mongol empire in the west and especially south into Northern China. The Jin Dynasty was in the Mongols’ sights, but it would take years to subdue the Chinese kingdoms. The Khan’s conquests were made possible partly by his aptitude for administration and organization. McLynn compares the Mongol’s skills to Napoleon’s legendary prowess.
Whether Genghis used lightening tactics to engulf an enemy or more patient strategies to wear down a strong opponent, McLynn shows how much of the Mongol empire’s success can be traced to the ruler’s willingness to embrace a “do what works” mentality, instead of sticking to the old ways for the sake of pride or ancient traditions. Depending on what the circumstances dictated, Genghis would use a combination of feigned retreat, encirclements, frontal assaults, and ambushes. He insisted that his men were disciplined and well trained in these tactics.
As highly mobile horse raiders, the Mongols had no expertise with the tactics and strategies of siege warfare. Genghis recognized this would have to change if they were to defeat China’s heavily fortified cities. His foresight in acquiring this knowledge served his heirs well as they rode west to conquer cities in the Middle East and Europe. In the course of his conquests, he captured or hired many of the finest experts in siege technology and tactics.
As with McLynn’s previous book on Marcus Aurelius, his treatment of Genghis Kahn bolsters his belief in the efficacy of the “Great Man” concept for illuminating historical periods. But he is not content to discuss Genghis and the Mongols only in terms of tribal politics and conquests. He also describes weapons and tactics with the same vivid detail. For example, he compares the Mongol composite recurve bow to the English longbow. Many readers would be surprised to learn the Mongol bow, with a pull of 166 lbs., was greater than the legendary English version.
McLynn argues that even though the image of the Mongol ruler had been tainted by propaganda and legend, it is possible to get a sense of Genghis Kahn the man. He displayed many personality traits: he was paranoid, cruel, intelligent, and crafty. Of course, it is almost universally agreed that Genghis Khan was a political and strategic genius. He was also known to be interested in other religions and cultures, and eager to borrow from other ideologies if he thought they would help him in his endeavors.
This is the portrait of a complex man driven to greatness by the strength of his abilities and an unshakable will. But we must not forget it is also the story of a brutal leader responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold upheaval and suffering. McLynn effectively encapsulates the Mongol’s essence with the last words he spoke to his sons on his deathbed. “Life is short. I could not conquer the world. You will have to do it” (376). His sons honored his legacy, expanding his empire west into Europe. But they could not match their father’s unique capabilities and were unable to hold Genghis Kahn’s empire together.
Mike Phelps is a freelance writer residing in Huntington Beach, CA.