Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 November 2020
The Venetian traveller Marco Polo wrote of the rise of the Mongols “[…] and when Chinggis Khan saw that he had so many people, he equipped them with bows and armor and went conquering through those other lands.” No one can discount the success of the Mongol military nor its importance in the creation of the Mongol Empire. It served not only as the instrument of conquest, but also the source of from which all other institutions originated. Yet, simply having a large number of men does not make a great army. Indeed, the term “horde” originates from the Mongolian word ordo. The latter refers to camp, but in English, it has become “horde”, meaning a large group of people with a derogatory connotation, such as being unruly. It can also mean “an army or tribe of nomadic warriors.” Nonetheless, even in this example “horde” still has implications of being ill-disciplined and barbaric. Furthermore, it provides a completely inaccurate depiction of the Mongol military.
While it is sometimes thought that the Mongols conquered with overwhelming numbers, this is an inaccurate perception. At the time of the 1206 quriltai, the Mongol army probably numbered less than a hundred thousand men and the population of Mongolia may have numbered one million. Even today, with modern healthcare, the population of Mongolia is barely above three million. Although Marco Polo unintentionally misleads us above, his next statement does bear some truth:
I tell you that they conquered a good 8 provinces but did them no harm, nor did he strip them of their things. But he took them with him to conquer other peoples. In this way, he conquered this great multitude of peoples, as you have heard.
Marco Polo downplays the destructive nature of the Mongol armies (more on that later), and he is quite correct that the Mongols incorporated the defeated in to their armies. As mentioned previously, the defeated tribes of Mongolia were broken up and distributed into new regiments in order to form a single cohesive entity: the Yeke Monggol Ulus. Yet, not everyone became a Mongol. This privilege was restricted to the nomads.