By Chet Yarbrough
By Conn Iggulden
Narrated by Richard Ferrone
This is Conn Iggulden’s fourth book about the Mongol Empire. It is a story about a family of warriors, Genghis Khan and his heirs, who assemble the largest conquered land mass in history. The “Empire of Silver” covers 1229 through 1246/47, when the Mongol empire nears its peak of power and size. This fourth volume begins after Genghis has died and Ogodei, his son, is chosen to lead the empire.
Mongol’ tribes are united by Genghis Khan in 1206. For nearly 85 years, the Mongol empire grows to dominate Eastern Europe and East Asia. Mongol ambition is to invade and dominate the continent from sea to sea. They accomplish their goal in the east but fall short in the west.
After their great victory at Buda and Pecs (incorporated as Budapest in 1873) in Hungary, their march west ends. Iggulden infers that this stopping point comes because of the death of the second Khan, Ogodei.
Tribe leaders had to congregate to affirm a new Khan at their newly formed capital, Karakorum, which lay 5,000 miles east of Buda.
Mongol history is largely a novelist’s creation because little is really known about this ancient culture. Iggulden fills blank pages with plausible tales of murder, mayhem, and betrayal that hold a nation together through the lives of six Khans.
Genghis has been dead for two years in the beginning of “Kahn:The Empire of Silver” . In that two-year period, Genghis’s youngest son, Tului, is caretaker rather than Kahn of the tribes. Tului is the youngest son of Genghis and therefore not considered eligible for leadership of all the tribes. Genghis chose his successor before he died. Ogedei Khan, a middle son, is chosen because the oldest son, Chagatai, is considered too volatile. However, Ogedei refuses the mantle of Khan during Tului’s two-year caretaker position. Ogedei uses those two years to build the city of Karakorum.
Genghis is shown by Iggulden to have great interest in creating a dynasty but little interest in creating a nation. Iggulden suggests Ogedei’s interest is different. Ogedei spends Mongol wealth, gathered from plunder, taxes, and tributes, to build a capital city, a capital of a new nation.
Once the city is complete, Ogedei takes the mantle of Khan for all the Mongol tribes. Though Ogedei is Genghis’s chosen successor, Chagatai challenges ascension and attempts to have Ogedei murdered. The attempt fails.
Rather than retaliate Ogedei bargains with Chagatai to keep the empire whole under the leadership of the heirs of Genghis. Ogedei offers lands and armies to each of his brothers with Ogedei as Khan of all the tribes. In return for acceptance of the ascension, Ogedei agrees to make Chagatai his successor.
Each of the brothers is charged with expanding the empire. Tului is to aid Ogedei in a push to conquer the armies of Chin in China. Chagatai moves north to Russia. The expansion west is left to grandchildren of Genghis with the tutelage of one of Genghis’s great generals.
Iggulden manufactures history by giving Ogedei a heart condition. This detail gives dramatic dimension and possible explanation for the Ogedei/Chagatai’ bargain. Ogedei chooses not to execute Chagatai for the attempted assassination because Ogedei wishes to guarantee dynastic control of the Khanate. Chagatai agrees to wait because Ogedei is not expected to live much longer. The drama is in how long Ogedei will live because there are Genghis’ grandsons that have their own ideas about ascension.
Iggulden tells a plausible history of how the Mongols manage to conquer so many countries and cultures in so short a time.
Subutai, the great general that leads the Moguls west, exemplifies the Golden Hoard’s expertise in war. Subutai became a general because of his tactical genius; not because of any blood relationship with Genghis. It becomes clear that success in battle, in politics, in administration insures dynastic longevity, the penultimate objective of Genghis Khan. Success is the criteria for advancement in the Mongol empire. Genghis creates a meritocracy that demands performance for promotion.
The value of meritocracy is made clear by Iggulden’s characterization of Subutai and his tactical decisions in battle that are based on careful analysis of the enemy. Subutai explains tactics to his field generals. He notes weakness of heavily armored opponents on horseback that cannot move quickly. Subutai notes how important it is to get to the side of an armored opponent to attack weak protection points. Subutai teaches his generals to shoot the enemy’s horses when there are no head-on vulnerabilities.
There is preference for bloodline in the Mongol empire but choices for leadership remain based on merit. Tolui is the youngest son of Genghis. By tradition, Tolui could not have been selected as Khan of the tribes but middle son, Ogedei, is chosen over the oldest, Chagatai, because Ogedei’s demonstrated temperament and management skill make him a better choice. Whomever is Khan will be a descendant of Genghis but he will have been tested as a warrior to prove his ability to lead. The blood descendant with the greatest potential is meant to become the next Kahn.
With tactical superiority, borne by training and experience, the Mongols defeat larger armies of other nations. Once opposition is crushed, the reputation of Mongol superiority precedes future conquests. Fear of the Mongol horde spreads. In addition to plunder gained from military prowess and territory taken by force, conquered countries pay tributes to the Mongol empire for protection from future ravage. The Mongol empire becomes an “Empire of Silver”.
Iggulden suggests assimilation of foreign cultures is possible because of Mongol’ protection and tolerance of cultural and religious differences; i.e. some Mongol leaders become Christians, others–Muslim, Buddhist, Manichiest (a sect of Chinese gnostics); while the remaining are pagans, atheist or polytheists that live for pain and pleasure. The point is that diversity of belief, in combination with fearsome reputation, military training and tactical superiority, are Iggulden’s explanations for Mongol success. The Mongol tribe’s skill in the battlefield, plunder from winning wars, cultural flexibility, and conquered-government’ tributes insure expansion and administration of the empire.
Iggulden explains the invention of gunpowder and cannon by China and how Mongols adapt and then adopt cannon warfare. Mongol understanding of their enemy and tactical training keep them steps ahead of their opposition.
Iggulden plays with historical truth (if there is truth in history) about Mongol ascension and intrigue but he excites the imagination with plausible explanations. The role of Tolui’s wife in the political future of the Mongol Empire seems fanciful but, after all, “Empire of Silver” is a novel; a decent entertainment with a little history about an extraordinary family.
Conn Iggulden offers some interesting insight to the 13th century. Aggression and brutality pay when used in war but are less reliable when used in peace.