Dec. 1999

An excerpt on Tartars from
Edward Gibbon,
``The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'',
Volume II (1781),
Chapter XXVI.

[Introduction by Menno Rubingh]

The extent to which ``barbarians'', such as the Tartars described in the text below, sometimes prove to be more efficient and to have more ``fitness'' in the survival struggle than more ``civilized'' people, is remarkable.  I suspect that helping uncover the ``Why?'' behind this was one of Gibbon's prime motives for writing his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and also for his including texts like the following in his book.  It is, anyway, the reason why I put this text on this website. 

I think that many of the memes which live in the culture of a prosperous, social, civilized society, such as our own Western European society right now, and such as the Roman society around the beginning of the first millennium A.D., are not advantageous to an individual and/or to the group.  I think that to continue to have progress, an individual and a group cannot escape, apart from continually trying to aquire more ''good'' (=advantageous) memes, from also sometimes removing disadvantageous memes from their ``operating system''.  It is only logical that the civilized, free, social, humanitarian, milieu of a civilized society, which is undoubtedly a conduit and a nursery for a host of very useful and excellent memes, may also act as a hotbed some disadvantageous memes.  I think that the following text points out some memes in our present culture that may be not altogether useful.  It might be possible, to see in some aspects of the areas in which these ``restless Barbarians'' gain the upper hand over the more sedentary and indolent people in the more civilized society, the victory of uncomplicated enterprise unburdened by morals, over a state of mind in which people feel morally obliged to work hard for the intact and unchanged preservation of every arbitrary, and possibly not ultimately useful, aspect of their society, regardless of the actual usefulness of the memes in which they are trapped. 

[Text by Gibbon]

[Manners of the Pastoral Nations.]

[...] The invasion of the Huns precipitated on the provinces of the West the Gothic nation, which advanced, in less than forty years, from the Danube to the Atlantic, and opened a way, by the success of their arms, to the inroads of so many hostile tribes, more savage than themselves.  The original principle of motion was concealed in the remote countries of the North; and the curious observation of the pastoral life of the Scythians[4], or Tartars[5], will illustrate the latent cause of these destructive emigrations. 

The pastoral manners of the Scythians, or Tartars.
The different characters that mark the civilized nations of the globe, may be ascribed to the use, and the abuse, of reason; which so variously shapes, and so artifically composes, the manners and opinions of an European, or a Chinese.  But the operation of instinct is more sure and simple than that of reason: it is much easier to ascertain the appetite of a quadruped, than the speculations of a philosopher; and the savage tribes of mankind, as they approach nearer to the condition of animals, preserve a stronger resemblance to themselves and to each other.  The uniform stability of their manners, is the natural consequence of the imperfection of their faculties.  Reduced to a similar situation, their wants, their desires, their enjoyments, still continue the same; and the influence of food or climate, which, in a more improved state of society, is suspended, or subdued, by so many moral causes, most powerfully contributes to form, and to maintain, the national character of Barbarians.  In every age, the immense plains of Scythia, or Tartary, have been inhabited by vagrant tribes of hunters and shepherds, whose restless spirit disdains the confinement of a sedentary life.  In every age, the Scythians, and Tartars, have been renowned for their invincible courage, and rapid conquests.  The thrones of Asia have been repeatedly overturned by the shepherds of the North; and their arms have spread terror and devastation over the most fertile and warlike countries of Europe[6].  On this occasion, as well as on many others, the sober historian is forcibly awakened from a pleasing vision; and is compelled, with some reluctance, to confess, that the pastoral manners, which have been adorned with the fairest attributes of peace and innocence, are much better adapted to the fierce and cruel habits of a military life.  To illustrate this observation, I shall now proceed to consider a nation of shepherds and warriors, in the three important acticles of, I. Their diet; II. Their habitation; and, III. Their exercises.  The narratives of antiquity are justified by the experience of modern times[7]; and the banks of the Borysthenes, of the Volga, or of the Selinga, will indifferently present the same uniform spectacle of similar and native manners[8]. 

I.  The corn, or even the rice, which constitutes the ordinary and wholesome food of a civilised people, can be obtained only by the patient toil of the husbandman.  Some of the happy savages, who dwell between the tropics, are plentifully nourished by the liberality of nature; but in the climates of the North, a nation of shepherds is reduced to their flocks and herds.  The skilful practitioners of the medical art will determine (if they are able to determine) how far the temper of the human mind may be affected by the use of animal, or of vegetable, food; and whether the common association of carnivorous and cruel, deserves to be considered in any other light than that of an innocent, perhaps a salutary, prejuduce of humanity[9].  Yet if it be true, that the sentiment of compassion is imperceptibly weakened by the sight and practice of domestic cruelty, we may observe, that the horrid objects which are disguised by the arts of European refinement, are exhibited in their naked and most disgusting simplicity, in the tent of a Tartarian shepherd.  The ox, or the sheep, are slaughtered by the same hand from which they were accustomed to receive their daily food; and the bleeding limbs are served, with very little preparation, on the table of their unfeeling murderer.  In the military profession, and especially in the conduct of a numerous army, the exclusive use of animal food appears to be productive of the most solid advantages.  Corn is a bulky and perishable commodity; and the large magazines, which are indispensably necessary for the subsistence of our troops, must be slowly transported by the labour of men, or horses.  But the flocks and herds, which accompany the march of the Tartars, afford a sure and encreasing supply of flesh and milk: in the far greater part of the uncultivated waste, the vegetation of the grass is quick and luxuriant; and there are few places so extremely barren, that the hardy cattle of the North cannot find some tolerable pasture.  The supply is multiplied and prolonged, by the undistinguishing appetite, and the patient abstinence, of the Tartars.  They indifferently feed on the flesh of those animals that have been killed for the table or have died of disease.  Horse-flesh, which in every age and country has been proscribed by the civilised nations of Europe and Asia, they devour with peculiar greediness; and this singular taste facilitates the success of their military operations.  The active cavalry of Scythia is always followed, in their most distant and rapid incursions, by an adequate number of spare horses, who may be occasionallly used, either to redouble the speed, or to satisfy the hunger, of the Barbarians.  Many are the resources of courage and povery.  When the forage round a camp of Tartars is almost consumed, they slaughter the greatest part of their cattle, and preserve the flesh, either smoked, or dried in the sun.  On the sudden emergency of a hasty march, they provide themselves with a sufficient quantity of little balls of cheese, or rather of hard curd, which they occasionally dissolve in water; and this unsubstantial diet will support, for many days, the life, and even the spirits, of the patient warrior.  But this extraordinary abstinence, which the Stoic would approve, and the hermit might envy, is commonly succeeded by the most voracious indulgence of appetite.  The wines of a happier climate are the most grateful present, or the most valuable commodity, that can be offered to the Tartars; and the only example of their industry seems to consist in the art of extracting from mare's milk a fermented liquor, which posesses a very strong power of intoxication.  Like the animals of prey, the savages, both of the old and new world, experience the alternate vicissitudes of famine and plenty; and their stomach is inured to sustain, without much inconvenience, the opposite extremes of hunger and of intemperance. 

II.  In the ages of rustic and martial simplicity, a people of soldiers and husbandmen are dispersed over the face of an extensive and cultivated country; and some time must elapse before the warlike youth of Greece or Italy could be assembled under the same standard, either to defend their own confines, or to invade the territories of the adjacent tribes.  The progress of manufactures and commerce insensibly collects a large multitude within the walls of a city; but these citizens are no longer soldiers; and the arts which adorn and improve the state of civil society, corrupt the habits of the military life.  The pastoral manners of the Scythians seem to unite the different advantages of simplicity and refinement.  The individuals of the same tribe are constantly assembled, but they are assembled in a camp; and the native spirit of these dauntless shepherds is animated by mutual support and emulation.  The houses of the Tartars are no more than small tents, of an oval form, which afford a cold and dirty habitation, for the promiscuous youth of both sexes.  The palaces of the rich consist of wooden huts, of such a size that they may be conveniently fixed on large waggons, and drawn by a team perhaps of twenty or thirty oxen.  The flocks and herds, after grazing all day in the adjacent pastures, retire, on the approach of night, within the protection of the camp.  The necessity of preventing the most mischievous confusion, in such a perpetual concourse of men and animals, must gradually introduce, in the distribution, the order, and the guard, of the encampment, the rudiments of a military art.  As soon as the forage of a certain district is consumed, the tribe, or rather army, of shepherds, makes a regular march to some fresh pastures; and thus acquires, in the ordinary occupations of the pastoral life, the practical knowledge of one of the most important and difficult operations of war.  The choice of stations is regulated by the difference of the seasons: in the summer, the Tartars advance towards the North, and pitch their tents on the banks of a river, or, at least, in the neighbourhood of a running stream.  But in the winter they return to the South, and shelter their camp, behind some convenient eminence, against the winds, which are chilled in their passage over the bleak and icy regions of Siberia.  These manners are admirably adapted to diffuse, among the wandering tribes, the spirit of emigration and conquest.  The connection between the people and their territory is of so frail a texture, that is may be broken by the slightest accident.  The camp, and not the soil, is the native country of the genuine Tartar.  Within the precincts of that camp, his family, his companions, his property are always included; and, in the most distant marches, he is still surrounded by the objects which are dear, or valuable, or familiar in his eyes.  The thirst of rapine, the fear, or the resentment of injury, the impatience of servitude, have, in every age, been sufficient causes to urge the tribes of Scythia boldly to advance into some unknown countries, where they might hope to find an more plentiful subsistence, or a less formidable enemy.  The revolutions of the North have frequently determined the fate of the South; and in the conflict of hostile nations, the victor and the vanquished have alternately drove, and been driven, from the confines of China to those of Germany[10].  These great emigrations, which have been sometimes executed with almost incredible dilligence, were rendered more easy by the peculiar nature of the climate.  It is well known, that the cold of Tartary is much more severe than in the midst of the temperate zone might reasonably be expected: this uncommon rigour is attibuted to the height of the plains, which rise, especially towards the East, more than half a mile above the level of the sea; and to the quantity of salt-petre, with which the soil is deeply impregnated[11].  In the winter-season, the broad and rapid rivers, that discharge their waters into the Euxine, the Caspian, or the Icy Sea, are strongly frozen; the fields are covered with a bed of snow; and the fugitive, or victorious, tribes may securely traverse, with their families, their waggons, and their cattle, the smooth and hard surface of an immense plain. 

III.  The pastoral life, compared with the labours of agriculture and manufactures, is undoubtedly a life of idleness; and as the most honourable shepherds of the Tartar race devolve on their captives the domestic management of the cattle, their own leisure is seldom disturbed by any servile and assiduous cares.  But this leisure, instead of being devoted to the soft enjoyments of love and harmony, is usefully spent in the violent and sanguinary exercise of the chace.  The plains of Tartary are filled with a strong and serviceable breed of horses, which are easily trained for the purposes of war and hunting.  The Scythians of every age have been celebrated as bold and skilful riders; and constant practice had seated them so firmly on horseback, that they were supposed by strangers to perform the ordinary duties of civil life, to eat, to drink, and even to sleep, without dismounting from their steeds.  They excel in the dexterous management of the lance; the long Tartar bow is drawn with a nervous arm; and the weighty arrow is directed to its object with unerring aim, and irresistible force.  These arrows are often pointed agains the harmless animals of the desert, which increase and multiply in the absence of their most formidable enemy; the hare, the goat, the roebuck, the fallow-deer, the stag, the elk, and the antelope.  The vigour and patience both of the men and horses are continually exercised by the fatigues of the chace; and the plentiful supply of game contributes to the subsistence, and even luxury, of a Tartar camp.  But the exploits of the hunters of Scythia are not confined to the destruction of timid innoxious beasts; they boldly encounter the angry wild-boar, when he turns against his pursuers, excite the sluggish courage of the bear, and provoke the fury of the tyger, as he slumbers in the thicket.  Where there is danger there may be glory; and the mode of hunting, which opens the fairest field to the exertions of valour, may be justly considered as the image, and as the school, of war.  The general hunting-matches, the pride and delight of the Tartar princes, compose an instructive exercise for their numerous cavalry.  A circle is drawn, of many miles in circumference, to encompass the game of an extensive district; and the troops that form the circle regularly advance towards a common centre; where the captive animals, surrounded on every side, are abandoned to the darts of the hunters.  In this march, which frequently continues many days, the cavalry are obliged to climb the hills, to swim the rivers, and to wind through the vallies, without interrupting the prescribed order of their gradual progress.  They acquire the habit of directing their eye, and their steps, to a remote object; of preserving their intervals; of suspending, or accellerating, their pace, according to the motions of the troops on their right and left; and of watching and repeating the signals of their leaders.  Their leaders study, in this practical school, the most important lesson of the military art; the prompt and accurate judgment of ground, of distance, and of time.  To employ against a human enemy the same patience and valour, the same skill and discipline, is the only alteration which is required in real war; and the amusements of the chace serve as a prelude to the conquest of an empire. 


[4]  The original Scythians of Herodotus (l. iv. c. 47-57, 99-101.) were confined by the Danube and the Palus Mæotis, within a square of 4000 stadia (400 Roman miles).  See d'Anville, Mem. de l'Academie, tom. xxxv. p. 573-591.  Diodorus Siculus (tom. i. l. ii. p. 155. edit. Wesseling) has marked the gradual progress of the name and nation. 

[5]  The Tatars, or Tartars, were a primitive tribe, the rivals, and at length the subjects, of the Moguls.  In the victorious armies of Zingis Khan, and his successors, the Tartars formed the vanguard; and the name, which first reached the ears of foreigners, was applied to the whole nation (Freret, in the Hist. de l'Academie, tom. xviii. p. 60.).  In speaking of all, or any, of the northern shepherds of Europe, or Asia, I indifferently use the appellations of Scythians, or Tartars

[6]  Imperium Asiæ ter quæsivere; ipsi perpetuo ab alieno Imperio, aut intacti, aut invicti, mansere.  Since the time of Justin (ii. 2.) they have multiplied this account.  Voltaire, in a few words (tom. x. p. 64. Hist. Generale, c. 156.), has abridged the Tartar conquests. 

Oft o'er the trembling nations from afar,
Has Scythia breath'd the living cloud of war.

[7]  The fourth book of Herodotus affords a curious, though imperfect, portrait of the Scythians.  Among the moderns, who describe the uniform scene, the Khan of Khowaresm, Abdulghazi Bahadur, expresses his native feelings; and his Genealogical History of the Tatars has been copiously illustrated by the French and English editors.  Carpin, Ascelin, and Rubruquis (in the Hist. des Voyages, tom. vii.), represent the Moguls of the fourteenth century.  To these guides I have added Gerbillon, and the other jesuits (Description de la Chine, par du Halde, tom. iv.), who accurately surveyed the Chinese Tartary; and that honest and intelligent traveller Bell, of Antermony (two volumes in 4to. Glasgow, 1763.). 

[8]  The Uzbecks are the most altered from their primitive manners; 1. by the profession of the Mahometan religion; and, 2. by the possession of the cities and harvests of the great Bucharia. 

[9]  Il est certain que les grands mangeurs de viande sont en general cruels et feroces plus que les autres hommes.  Cette observation est de tous les lieux, et de tous les tems: la barbarie Angloise est connue, &c.;  Emile de Rousseau, tom. i. p. 274.  Whatever we may think of the general observation, we shall not easily allow the truth of his example.  The good-natured complaints of Plutarch, and the pathetic lamentations of Ovid, seduce our reason, by exciting our sensibility. 

[10]  These Tartar emigrations have been discovered by M. de Guignes (Histoire des Huns, tom. i. ii.), a skilful and laborious interpreter of the Chinese language; who has thus laid open new and important scenes in the history of mankind. 

[11]  A plain in the Chinese Tartary, only eighty leagues from the great wall, was found by missionaries to be three thousand geometrical paces above the level of the sea.  Montesquieu, who has used, and abused, the relations of travellers, deduces the revolutions of Asia from this important circumstance, that heat and cold, weakness and strength, touch each other without any temperate zone (Esprit des Loix, l. xvii. c. 3.).