The term 'barbarian' has usually been used by civilized people to refer to any neighboring peoples who might not be as civilized as themselves. Throughout history, the 'barbarians' who posed a real threat to civilization belonged almost entirely to one extraordinary group of men: the nomads from the steppes and deserts in the very center of the Old World. These nomadic tribes consistently plundered a wide range of advanced cultures from China, the Middle East, India, and all the way to Europe. And it was only the Old World that experienced attacks from this extraordinary breed of humanity.
It took only a slight disturbance to set these nomadic horsemen into action and away from their arid pastures. A dispute could break out between tribes, or a drought or population increase would drive them outward in any direction. This usually ended in them invading their neighbor's lands. Their neighbors, in turn, were then set into motion, invading their neighbor's lands as well. As years went by, the effects of these movements extended over thousands of miles across the vast expanse of Asia and Europe.
When these nomadic marauders finally reached settled and civilized peoples, the results were brutal. They attacked with speed and surprise during a time when everything moved slowly. Castles were built in Europe from Poland to Transylvania in preparation for these surprise invaders. And In China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered construction of the Great Wall beginning in the third century BC. The Ming dynasty continued building sections of wall as late as the 17th century.
In Eastern Europe, invaders traditionally left at the start of Winter. The nomadic invaders, however, winterized themselves and ate the countryside down to the root. Central Europe traditionally did not experience the kinds of invasions like the conquests in China and the Indies. The recorded exceptions include invasions of Huns, Avars, Hungarians, and Mongols. The nomads generally attacked the weaker peoples who lived on the approaches to civilization. Their misery was central Europe's peace.
The nomads attacked towards the area of least resistance. They moved wherever their explosive lifestyle was most easily exerted, towards Europe, Islam, India, or China. In 1368 the Chinese drove out the Mongols and burned their great center at Karakorum in the Gobi desert, then retreated back to China. This forced successive waves of nomads westward as other events had for so many thousands of years.
But things would end differently this time. A tribe of nomads called the Nogais crossed the Volga River in present day Russia in about 1400. The peoples who had been attracted west towards frail Europe for the past 200 years now turned back east for the next 300 years, attracted by the vacuum left over north of China. The most dramatic events were the conquest of northern India by Barber in 1526 and the sacking of Peking (Beijing, China) by the Manchus in 1644.
Europe was living more peacefully as a result. Russia began seizing new lands in the mid 1500's. With greatly reduced nomadic pressure, Russia secured territory all the way east to the Volga River during the same time period. Russian peasants moved east into these new lands. The lands they left were filled by peasants from Poland. The gaps the Pols left were in their own turn filled by peasants from Germany and Scotland. European civilization successfully moved eastward.
By this time, national armies in Europe were equipped with guns. New territory and resources afforded an advancing economy. The nomadic Manchus had driven into China in the 1680's, leaving Siberia wide open. The Russians raced eastwards and seized Siberia without much resistance. They were faced with Chinese resistance along the valley of Amur and signed the Treaty of Nertchinsk on September 7, 1689.
photo credit: New York Public Library
The nomadic tribes now turned back westward towards Europe, only now they did not find the west so easily conquered. They met substantial resistance from a new Russia under Peter the Great. Russian literature is filled with accounts of these battles during the 18th century.
This in fact ended the long history of these wild nomads. Gunpowder had triumphed over the horsemen's speed. The barbarian nomads were now condemned to stay in one place and accept their fate once and for all. The effects of their existence never the less were experienced for many thousands of years. It is remarkable that this unique breed of humanity was only defeated a mere 300 years ago. It is a story of how civilization eventually wins.
Originally published January 2, 2017
The Structures of Everyday Life by Fernand Braudel