Marco Polo on Mongol Military Tactics



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World History

Ch. 12: Pastoral Peoples on the Global Stage




Marco Polo on Mongol Military Tactics
A Venetian, Marco Polo (c. 1254-c. 1324) traveled extensively through central Asia and China in the late 13th century, when Mongol empires dominated Asia. Upon his return, he described his journey in a book that made him famous and stands today as one of the most important travel books ever written. Polo is credited with introducing the East to Europe. Scholars have questioned the veracity of his account, some even going to far as to say he made up the whole thing, but such wholesale fabrication has never been proven, and many of the details contained in the book are verified by Chinese sources. His book, Il milione, known today as The Travels of Marco Polo, was wildly successful, but it seems that most Europeans who read it in Polo's day considered it a work of fiction. In this excerpt, Polo describes the military tactics of the Mongols.
Their arms are bows and arrows, sword and mace; but above all the bow, for they are capital archers, indeed the best that are known....
When a Mongol prince goes forth to war, he takes with him, say, 100,000 men. Well, he appoints an officer to every ten men, one to every hundred, one to every thousand, and one to every ten thousand, so that his own orders have to he given to ten persons only, and each of these ten persons has to pass the orders only to another ten, and so on, no one having to give orders to more than ten. And every one in turn is responsible only to the officer immediately over him; and the discipline and order that comes of this method is marvellous, for they are a people very obedient to their chiefs...
When they are going on a distant expedition they take no gear with them except two leather bottles for milk, a little earthenware pot to cook their meat in, and a little tent to shelter them from rain. And in case of great urgency they will ride ten days on end without lighting a fire or taking a meal. On such an occasion they will sustain themselves on the blood of their horses, opening a vein and letting the blood jet into their mouths, drinking till they have had enough, and then staunching it...
When they come to an engagement with the enemy, they will gain the victory in this fashion. They never let themselves get into a regular medley, but keep perpetually riding round and shooting into the enemy. And as they do not count it any shame to run away in battle, they will sometimes pretend to do so, and in running away they turn in the saddle and shoot hard and strong at the foe, and in this way make great havoc. Their horses are trained so perfectly that they will double hither and thither, just like a dog, in a way that is quite astonishing. Thus they fight to as good purpose in running away as if they stood and faced the enemy because of the vast volleys of arrows that they shoot in this way, turning round upon their pursuers, who are fancying that they have won the battle. But when the Mongols see that they have killed and wounded a good many horses and men, they wheel round bodily and return to the charge in perfect order and with loud cries, and in a very short time the enemy are routed. In truth they are stout and valiant soldiers, and inured to war. And you perceive that it is just when the enemy sees them run, and imagines that he has gained the battle, that he has in reality lost it, for the Mongols wheel round in a moment when they judge the right time has come. And after this fashion they have won many a fight.

From Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo. 3rd edition. Trans. and ed. by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier.



London: John Murray, 1921, pg. 260-63. (Translation slightly modified).


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