Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men – a classic still well worth a read

Although published now nearly a century ago – in 1927 – Harold Lamb’s highly successful biography Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men is still well worth a read.

Written in a style typical of history books of the period – strong on narrative accounts, weak on sourcing of evidence and heavily concentrating on individuals and military events rather than longer-term social and economic trends – it provides a lively and, by current standards, still reasonably accurate account of Genghis Khan’s rise and dominance as leader of the Monguls.

Given Khan’s record of large scale butchery of opponents – both military and civilian – no biography is ever going to portray him that nicely. But Lamb shows how he was a slightly more rounded character, pointing out how much of our knowledge of Khan rests on accounts written by his enemies and that religious toleration was a major feature of Khan’s rule – as was an emphasis on appointing military commanders based on expertise. This modest degree of meritocracy often gave the Mongols an advantage over opponents.

There was also a strong insistence on the rule of law – and it was a law that gave people some rights we would recognise, including a strong presumption of innocence. Someone accused of lawbreaking could only be convicted if they were caught red-handed or confessed. Such generosity did not extend to enemies, killed on an appalling scale with horrific regularity – illustrating how Khan was savvy enough to appreciate that treating your own side well helped keep you in power and get more from your supporters. Do that, be stronger and you can then kill even more opponents. Lamb implies that Khan’s killings were so widespread not because he was more bloodthirsty than contemporaries but simply because he was more successful.

That defining characteristic of death did leave me with one puzzle by the end. How did Genghis Khan end up being the person cited in the phrase ‘more right wing than…’? People all across the political spectrum have killed millions and Khan does not appear to have had views that make him an obvious candidate for a far right yardstick given his willingness to create bureaucracy to manage his lands, for example. That, however, is not a puzzle to hold against this book.

Buy Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men here.


One response to “Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men – a classic still well worth a read”

  1. Genghis Khan never waged a “Hearts and Minds” campaign but one totally based on ultra violence. he wasn’t like the Buddha trying to convince folks by thoughtful appeals. he united the Mongols by violence and it continued to be his main tool in the building of the empire. it should also not be forgotten that the “unity” of the Mongols imploded mere decades after his death as internecine warfare among his family and Mongol tribes broke out again. the whole Mongol “empire” was a predatory and parasitic enterprise from the start. the Mongol invasions were a huge step back for civilization as a whole. the Mongols destroyed flourishing civilizations like no one before or since. they engaged in destruction and extermination on a level not even the Nazis did. they murdered men women and children when it was completely unnecessary. in their march of conquest they destroyed numerous hospitals, libraries and centers of learning. the ruins of cities like Riazan and Merv who never recovered from the Mongol destruction bear mute testimony. what art, letters and scientific knowledge was carelessly obliterated by Mongol thugs we will never know. as to GK the “Law Giver” Wikipedia notes;” the Yassa or law was a secret written code of law. it was never made public. The absence of any physical document is historically problematic. Historians are left with secondary sources, conjecture and speculation, which describes much of the content of this overview. Historical certainty about the Yassa is weak compared to the much older Code of Hammurabi 18th century BCE or the Edicts of Ashoka, 3rd century BCE. “ so we don’t even know that it existed much less some legal system was ever set up to preside over the law. one can assume that the death penalty was widely used in most cases.

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