Jun 21, 2006

Review: The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia

Grousset, René (translated by Naomi Walford)

New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970, 687 pages

Grousset first published his masterpiece on Central Asia in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, and perhaps his emphasis on military and political history is a reflection of the turbulent times in which he lived. This sweeping synthesis covers a geographic area from the Iberian to the Korean Peninsulas, and a time span from the Hellenic era through the eighteenth century. Grousset sought to provide readers with an authoritative text that captured the history of nomadic and sedentary peoples across the Eurasian steppes, while creating a work that possesses a lyrical flair.

The author was influenced by historians of the Annales School, as he incorporated research from fields as diverse as archaeology, geology, and linguistics into Empire of the Steppes. Grousset, for example, opened his text with such information as a survey of temperature extremes in Mongolia and a discussion of the effects of the semicircular Altai and Tien Shan mountain ranges on the climate of the steppe. While never reaching the ideal of l'histoire totale so enamored by Braudel, Grousset nonetheless pushed the boundaries of Asian historical discourse in directions previously ignored.

The book follows a chronological schema, beginning with the early history of such groups as the Huns, Scythians, and Samartians and their interactions with cultures that developed written scripts; the author divided the next two sections into the arbitrary categories of “The Jenghiz-Khanite Mongols” and the “Last Mongols.” Grousset used a topical approach within each section to group information, and readers can make use of the detailed table of contents and index to quickly find specific information about a particular group.

The author used a wide variety of European, Arabic, and Chinese sources in his research, and the text reflects this wide reading. The journey of Marco Polo, for example, merits only five pages of summary, a loud signal that Grousset was unconcerned with relying on traditional European sources for his examination of the history of the steppe. His use of linguistic research provides readers with a wealth of useful knowledge, such as the use by Europeans of the term “Cathay” to describe China is derived from a poor transliteration of “Khitan.”
Left: Mongol Empire, circa 1300 CE

A theme that Grousset weaves throughout the book involves the interaction between nomadic peoples – often referred to as “savages,” “hordes,” or “barbarians” - and sedentary cultures. The Chinese and Western European civilizations, in the eyes of the author, were both terrorized by and simultaneously rejuvenated by contact with peoples of the steppe. Grousset claimed that, once “touched by the grace of the bodhisattva,” nomadic peoples of the steppe lost their “Turkish vigor,” “native belligerence,” as well as the ability to defend themselves. The author, however, failed to consider that, despite their nomadic status, the ability of a group such as the Khitan to assemble a 50,000-man army and destroy the imperial forces of China in 936 CE implies a level of sophistication incongruent with a term such as “savage.”

Readers of the text should keep an atlas at ready reference when reading this work, as Grousset’s use of geographical landmarks can be confusing for scholars who do not, for example, know the difference between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. The text also suffers from archaic spellings of place and ethnic names; the Uighur are spelled “Uigur,” and the Jurchen become the “Jurchid” in the text. The 1970 English translation, while correcting mistakes from the original, nonetheless did not incorporate material from the previous three decades, and the text has become less reliable in the ensuing period of time.

The text also suffers from an over-reliance on extraordinary historical personages such as Attila, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan. While such individuals certainly merit inclusion in a historical treatise, a deeper analysis of the source materials could have provided readers with a much more rich social history than the elite-dominated political and military history that fills the pages of this book. Still, the text serves as an excellent outline of and reference to Central Asian history, and should be a mainstay on the shelves of historians and knowledgeable general readers.


zhonghuarising said...

I just wanted to say that I have been meaning to read this book for many years now. Your review served as a reminder that I need to get on the ball with that! Thanks for the post; the book does sound interesting -- flaws and all.

historymike said...

Thanks for stopping by, zhonghuarising.

I'll be reviewing several other Central Asian history texts in the next few weeks as I continue research for part of my dissertation.

Hooda Thunkit said...


Sounds like a difficult and confusing read for the average reader.

Did you enjoy the read, or was it a bit of an effort?

historymike said...

The difficulty lies with the individual reader, Hooda.

Readers who can skip material they are unfamiliar with will enjoy the book, as it is accessible to the general audience.

I get frustrated, though, reading a text like this that will mention some obscure village or river, and find myself looking up all the references with which I am unfamiliar.

I end up spending way too much time on side research instead of enjoying the book.

If you like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, there is wealth of information here.

Kate said...

My Mom also mentioned this book. I think if we can handle Tolstoy and Voynich we can probably handle this :-) I'm ordering from Amazon.

Thanks for the post. Twirling my hair and smacking mah gum here.