“In one of the most violent outbursts in history, a little-known tribe of Eurasian nomads breaks upon the great societies of the Old World like a human tsunami. It may have ushered in the modern era, but at what cost?” – Wrath of The Khans I
I recently finished a mini-series of podcasts called Wrath of the Khans, a five-part offering from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History about the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and his descendants. It was every bit as mind-blowing as Blueprint For Armageddon, Carlin’s mini-series on the First World War, and so I felt compelled to write this recommendation and share this incredible catalogue of work with as many people as possible.
Before the series, I knew very little about the Mongols. To my mind, they were nomadic tribespeople specialised in raiding on horseback who, united by Genghis Khan, mercilessly rampaged through Asia. That’s it. So, for those of you as unfamiliar with their story as I was, here’s a little something to whet the appetite. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, his empire was about four times the size of those of the Romans or the Macedonians at their respective peaks and, by 1279, his sons and grandsons had spread Mongol control yet further, as far as Eastern Europe.
Astoundingly, the Mongol army never numbered more than 100,000 warriors, yet subjugated more lands and people in twenty-five years than the Romans conquered in four hundred, building an empire that stretched from Siberia to India, and from Korea to the Balkans, dramatically redrawing the map of the world through their merging of disparate kingdoms to form modern, recognisable borders that stand to this day.
If you love history and you’re curious about Genghis Khan and his remarkable Mongol Empire, Hardcore History is a perfectly accessible entry-point to the subject, designed, as Carlin says, “for other ‘history geeks’ like me, for the group that sat around a pizza and some beers after history class and got into the weird, fun questions on history”. Now, I know that’s me, and I know I have friends out there who are the same.
And it is hardcore. A Dan Carlin mini-series is more akin to an audiobook than a podcast; his one-man shows often appearing less like a monologue, and more, as here, like a glorious 8.5 hour-long conversation. Yet, it’s immense length is never problematic – except maybe for your iPhone memory. Instead, it is precisely this sustenance that makes it so brilliant. Each episode is a smorgasbord of facts, figures, analogies and conjecture, with Carlin impressively wrangling rich detail and several developed perspectives into an easily-digestible narrative that is both entertaining and educational, without the need for academic examination.
Carlin is, in essence, just recounting a great story – and he does it well. Wrath of The Khans, like all Hardcore History shows, is an intense, blow-by-blow account of the meteoric rise of the largest contiguous empire in history, and of an army responsible for between 35 and 50 million deaths, all of which were, of course, inflicted by hand. It describes the natural strengths, intuitive tactics and unique history of the Mongols, tracing in detail their relentless assault against countless Eurasian peoples.
With the help of their own Secret History of the Mongols and other historical sources, Carlin describes the Mongols’ ingenious strategy, epic battles and gruesome submission of the likes of Jin China and the Khwarezmid Empire, alongside incredible death statistics and accounts from witnesses, in so much as they exist. For a glimpse into the ‘gore in-store’ with Hardcore History, there are surrendered civilians deployed as human shields during assaults on their still besieged neighbours, building fires accelerated by the fat of the dead, and wagon after wagon loaded with sacks full of single ears, severed as a way of counting enemy losses. It is hardcore, but it’s a fantastic show for so many other reasons too.
Also addressed, for example, is the historiography of the Mongol legacy, and the tendency of revisionist historians to gloss over the deaths of 35 to 50 million people while eulogising about the societal, cultural, and technological revolutions ushered in by Mongol devastation. The Mongols, who introduced both the first international postal system and the first international paper currency, have also been credited with: religious and cultural tolerance; the promotion of universal literacy, meritocracy and diplomatic immunity for envoys; the abolition of torture; the sponsorship of infrastructure to facilitate Eurasian trade; and the spreading of revolutionary technologies like printing, the cannon, compass, and abacus. These innovations are advanced by some as evidence of Mongols laying the foundations of the modern world. But at what cost?
Carlin concertedly emphasises those who “paid the bill”, drawing provocative comparisons between the Mongols and Caesar’s Romans, or Alexander The Great’s Macedonians, similarly ruthless in their day, yet later hailed as revolutionary. Opening on that theme with a controversial book title suggestion for brave, budding authors, “The Long-Term Benefits of the Third Reich”, he asks: will we one day forgive Hitler’s bloodshed in this same way? If history offers any indication, says Carlin, the pendulum will, perhaps in hundreds of years, swing that way. I should mention that, with such unconventional conjecture aplenty, Carlin frequently laces his narratives with the disclaimer that he is not a historian by trade but a journalist, qualifying his opinions in self-deprecating asides in which he confesses to being an amateur, a mere “fan of history”.
Carlin though, is a virtuoso orator. Part storyteller, part analyst, he is a master of the art of dissecting a multitude of angles equally, and it is this, combined with his unconventional narrative style, that renders his podcasts so unique. As I said, Hardcore History is a one-man show, 8.5 hours is a long time, and it’s true that his gravelly, dramatic intensity may take some getting used to. Nevertheless, an eventual succumbing to his eloquently rhythmic description of even the most harrowing events is inevitable.
If Hardcore History sounds right up your street, have a listen. You’ll love it.
The ten most recent episodes of Hardcore History are available free on iTunes, including the six-part, 24-hour series, Blueprint for Armageddon, on the subject of the First World War. Alternatively, Wrath of The Khans is available for $1.99 per episode from DanCarlin.com.