History of the Mongols SPECIAL: Subutai
To coincide with the release of the Kings and Generals Biography video of the Mongol general Subutai, for our podcast we’ll present for your listening an extended version of that script, courtesy of our series historian writer. While Subutai is the most well known of all medieval Mongolian generals, the full extent of his career is rarely presented in a single document. With this episode, we’ll hopefully do just that for you; providing an idea of the vast scope of Subutai’s campaigns and his service to three generations of Chinggisids, providing along the way an idea of what made up this man’s personality, and some historiography on him. This version of the script will be accessible to read with full footnotes and sources on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the generals of the Mongol Empire, none stand taller than Subutai, who led armies from China, across Iran, the Caucasus, Russia and into Eastern Europe. Yet, Subutai remains a murky figure, with difficult to access primary sources providing fertile ground for all manner of myths to grow instead. Utilizing the latest scholarship and medieval materials, we will paint for you a more accurate biography of one of history’s fiercest generals.
Perhaps the best place to start would be his name. Subutai, the most common form of his name on the internet, comes from the Chinese rendering of his name( 速不台 ). Numerous transliterations of his name exist, but perhaps the best approximation of the Mongolian is Sübe’etei. The common epithet attached to his name, Ba’atar, signifies bravery and is often translated as hero or knight.
Sübe’etei was born in northwestern Mongolia in 1175-1176, to the Uriyangqat Mongols. There has been modern confusion of the Uriyngqat Mongols, nomadic pastoralists in the Mongolian steppe, with the Turkic Uriyangqai of the forests north of Mongolia, reindeer herders who did not raise the vast herds sheep, goat or horses. This confusion has resulted in the common misconception today that Sübe’etei was a Tuvan. However, the 13th and 14th century sources clearly identify Sübe’etei as a man of the steppe, whose father herded sheep and their family having been in close contact with that of Chinggis Khan’s for five generations, a sublineage of the Mongol tribe to which Chinggis Khan belonged. Stephen Pow in his article with Jingjing Liao on Sübe’etei suggests part of the appeal to this belief of Sübe’etei as a ‘reindeer herder,’ is the irony in one of history’s greatest cavalry commanders being a man who did not learn to ride a horse until well into his adulthood.
Though specific details of Sübe’etei’s early life are lost to us, we can assume it mirrored that of other Mongolian children. He would have learned to ride a horse, shoot a bow, hunt and herd animals from a young age, the basic skills necessary for warfare on the steppe. In the politically chaotic period of late 12th century Mongolia, Sübe’etei and his family likely suffered from raids and predatory marauders. As a young boy, he found a role model in the form of a fellow Mongol named Temujin. Since the time of Sübe’etei’s great-great-grandfather Nerbi, their families had been close allies, and perhaps from Sübe’etei’s earliest days Temujin had appeared as the centre of Sübe’etei’s world. In the Secret History of the Mongols, around 1185 Temujin was elected as Khan of his Mongol lineage, the Borjigon. Per the Secret History’s account, Sübe’etei, perhaps little more than 10 years old, attended, accompanied by his older brother Ca’urqan and their older cousin, Jelme. In Sübe’etei’s most formative years, he attached himself to this rising warlord, whose family he would stay in loyal service to for the next six decades.
Sübe’etei’s role, if any, in the many trials of Temujin’s rise to power are unmentioned. At 14 years old he would have been enrolled into military service as a lightly armoured horse archer. It is not until 1203, when Sübe’etei was about 27, that we have the first described event of his life. That year, Temujin suffered a devastating setback, betrayed by his ally Toghrul, the Ong Khan of the Kereyit. Defeated in battle by Toghrul and Jamukha, another ally turned enemy, Temujin’s army was scattered and with a small force he fled to Lake Baljuna in eastern Mongolia. Slowly, his allies trickled in, one of whom was Sübe’etei’s father Qaban, driving a flock of sheep to Baljuna to feed Temujin’s hungry men. As described in the Yuan shi, Qaban was ambushed and captured by robbers. Sübe’etei and his brother Ca’urqan, not far beyond with the rest of the animals, followed the tracks of the robbers and ambushed them. Bringing down several robbers, the rest panicked and fled. Their father was rescued, and they brought the much-needed sheep to Temujin at Baljuna. Heartened by their loyalty and courage, he rewarded them; Ca’urqan was made a commander of 100, and Sübe’etei was enrolled into the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, as was common for younger brothers of unit commanders. Alongside physically protecting the Khan, the keshig also served as his closest servants, preparing his meals, protecting his herds and maintaining his belongings. The keshig also served as a training school for commanders, where the skills of leading armies, logistical needs and battle were advanced. It is here that Sübe’etei began his education as a general.
By 1206, Temujin had unified the tribes of Mongolia, taking the title of Chinggis Khan and declaring the Mongol Empire. Sübe’etei was among those rewarded for his service. It was not without sacrifice, as his older brother had died in the fighting against the Naiman in western Mongolia. With 95 others, in 1206 Sübe’etei was appointed to command a minggan, 1,000 men. His reputation as a ferocious warrior in the name of the Khan had already begun to be established, for at the sametime he was noted among Chinggis Khan’s Four Dogs of War: Jebe, Qubilai Noyan and Jelme Uha. Unlike Chinggis’s four Horses -Bo’orchu, Muqali, Boroqul, Cila’un Ba’atar- who were Chinggis Khan’s personal friends from his youth, the Four Dogs were among the deadliest men of the Khan’s arsenal. To paraphrase the Secret History of the Mongols, the Four Horses were the men at Chinggis’ side, while the Four Dogs were those charging wherever the Khan pointed. Brutal, daring, often cruel yet utterly loyal, the Four Dogs were Chinggis’ swords to wield against Asia. It was in this service that Sübe’etei would excel.
In the first Mongol invasions, against the Tangut Kingdom in 1209 and the Jin Dynasty in 1211, Sübe’etei’s mentions are sparse. In 1212 Sübe’etei was the first onto the walls of Huanzhou. He was richly rewarded for his role in taking the city, and for his courage he earned the title of Ba’atar. Jebe Noyan, with whom Sübe’etei was often partnered with, went on a long ranging campaign across the Jin Empire in 1213, through Manchuria and taking one of the Jin capitals, Tung-ching. It’s possible Sübe’etei accompanied him on their series of long marches, feigned retreats and sacked cities, but such is only speculation.
By 1216 Chinggis Khan was back in Mongolia, his armies having taken the Jin supreme capital of Zhongdu and left them on the backfoot. In Mongolia Chinggis had to deal with rebellions and foes who had survived the unification. One army under Boroqul was sent to subdue the forest peoples around Lake Baikal, who were in open revolt against Mongol rule; Jebe was sent to capture a fugitive Naiman prince who had usurped power in the Central Asian realm of the Qara-Khitai; Muqali was to command the armies fighting the Jin; and Sübe’etei was to accompany Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi far across the western steppes, in pursuit of Merkit tribes who ha…