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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

The Tribes of the North


THE collision between Russia and Turkey, which at present engages public attention, is only one scene in that persevering conflict, which is carried on, from age to age, between the North and the South,—the North aggressive, the South on the defensive. In the earliest histories this conflict finds a place; and hence, when the inspired Prophets denounce defeat and captivity upon the chosen people or other transgressing nations, who were inhabitants of the South, the North is pointed out as the quarter from which the judgment is to descend.

Nor is this conflict, nor is its perpetuity, difficult of explanation. The South ever has gifts of nature to tempt the invader, and the North ever has multitudes to be tempted by them. The North has been fitly called the storehouse of nations. Along the breadth of Asia, and thence to Europe, from the Chinese Sea on the East, to the Euxine on the West, nay to the Rhine, nay even to the Bay of Biscay, running between and beyond the 40th and 50th degrees of latitude, and above the fruitful South, stretches a vast plain, which has been from time immemorial what may be called the wild common and place of encampment, or again the highway, or the broad horse-path, of restless populations seeking a home. The European portion of this tract has in Christian times been reclaimed from its state of desolation, and is at present occupied by civilized communities; but even now the East remains for the most part in its primitive neglect, and is in possession of roving barbarians.

It is the Eastern portion of this vast territory which I have pointed out, that I have now, Gentlemen, principally to keep before your view. It goes by the general name of Tartary: in width from north to south it is said to vary from 400 to 1,100 miles, while in length from east to west it is not far short of 5,000. It is of very different elevations in different parts, and it is divided longitudinally by as many as three or four mountain-chains of great height. The valleys which lie between them necessarily confine the wandering savage to an eastward or westward course, and the Slope of the land westward invites him to that direction rather than to the east. Then, at a certain point in these westward passages, as he approaches the meridian of the Sea of Aral, he finds the mountain-ranges cease, and open upon him the opportunity, as well as the temptation, to roam to the North or to the South also. Up in the East, from whence he came, in the most northerly of the lofty ranges which I have spoken of, is a great mountain, which some geographers have identified with the classical Imaus; it is called by the Saracens Caf, by the Turks Altai. Sometimes too it has the name of the Girdle of the Earth, from the huge appearance of the chain to which it belongs, sometimes of the Golden Mountain, from the gold, as well as other metals, with which its sides abound. It is said to be at an equal distance of 2,000 miles from the Caspian, the Frozen Sea, the North Pacific Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal: and, being in situation the furthest withdrawn from West and South, it is in fact the high capital or metropolis of the vast Tartar country, which it overlooks, and has sent forth, in the course of ages, innumerable populations into the illimitable and mysterious regions around it, regions protected by their inland character both from the observation and the civilizing influence of foreign nations.


To eat bread in the sweat of his brow is the original punishment of mankind; the indolence of the savage shrinks from the obligation, and looks out for methods of escaping it. Corn, wine, and oil have no charms for him at such a price; he turns to the brute animals which are his aboriginal companions, the horse, the cow, and the sheep; he chooses to be a grazier rather than to till the ground. He feeds his horses, flocks, and herds on its spontaneous vegetation, and then in turn he feeds himself on their flesh. He remains on one spot while the natural crop yields them sustenance; when it is exhausted, he migrates to another. He adopts, what is called, the life of a nomad. In maritime countries indeed he must have recourse to other expedients; he fishes in the stream, or among the rocks of the beach. In the woods he betakes himself to roots and wild honey; or he has a resource in the chase, an occupation, ever ready at hand, exciting, and demanding no perseverance. But when the savage finds himself inclosed in the continent and the wilderness, he draws the domestic animals about him, and constitutes himself the head of a sort of brute polity. He becomes a king and father of the beasts, and by the economical arrangements which this pretension involves, advances a first step, though a low one, in civilization, which the hunter or the fisher does not attain.

And here, beyond other animals, the horse is the instrument of that civilization. It enables him to govern and to guide his sheep and cattle; it carries him to the chase, when he is tempted to it; it transports him; and his from place to place; while his very locomotion and shifting location and independence of the soil define the idea, and secure the existence, both of a household and of personal property. Nor is this all which the horse does for him it is food both in its life and in its death—when dead, it nourishes him with its flesh, and, while alive, it supplies its milk for an intoxicating liquor which, under the name of koumiss, has from time immemorial served the Tartar instead of wine or spirits. The horse then is his friend under all circumstances, and inseparable from him; he may be even said to live on horseback, he eats and sleeps without dismounting, till the fable has been current that he has a centaur’s nature, half man and half beast. Hence it was that the ancient Saxons had a horse for their ensign in war; thus it is that the Ottoman ordinances are, I believe, to this day dated from “the imperial stirrup,” and the display of horsetails at the gate of the palace is the Ottoman signal of war. Thus too, as the Catholic ritual measures intervals by “a Miserere,” and St. Ignatius in his Exercises by “a Pater Noster,” so the Turcomans and the Usbeks speak familiarly of the time of a gallop. But as to houses, on the other hand, the Tartars contemptuously called them the sepulchres of the living, and, when abroad, could hardly be persuaded to cross a threshold. Their women, indeed, and children could not live on horseback; them some kind of locomotive dwelling must receive, and a less noble animal must draw. The old historians and poets of Greece and Rome describe it, and the travellers of the middle ages repeat and enlarge the classical description of it. The strangers from Europe gazed with astonishment on huge wattled houses set on wheels, and drawn by no less than twenty-two oxen.


From the age of Job, the horse has been the emblem of battle; a mounted shepherd is but one remove from a knight-errant, except in the object of his excursions; and the discipline of a pastoral station from the nature of the case is not very different from that of a camp. There can be no community without order, and a community in motion demands a special kind of organization. Provision must be made for the separation, the protection, and the sustenance of men, women, and children, horses, flocks, and cattle. To march without straggling, to halt without confusion, to make good their ground, to reconnoitre neighbourhoods, to ascertain the character and capabilities of places in the distance, and to determine their future route, is to be versed in some of the most important duties of the military art. Such pastoral tribes are already an army in the field, if not as yet against any human foe, at least against the elements. They have to subdue, or to check, or to circumvent, or to endure the opposition of earth, water, and wind, in their pursuits of the mere necessaries of life. The war with wild beasts naturally follows, and then the war on their own kind. Thus when they are at length provoked or allured to direct their fury against the inhabitants of other regions, they are ready-made soldiers. They have a soldier’s qualifications in their independence of soil, freedom from local ties, and practice in discipline; nay, in one respect they are superior to any troops which civilized countries can produce. One of the problems of warfare is how to feed the vast masses which its operations require; and hence it is commonly said, that a well-managed commissariat is a chief condition of victory. Few people can fight without eating;—Englishmen as little as any. I have heard of a work of a foreign officer, who took a survey of the European armies previously to the revolutionary war; in which he praised our troops highly, but said they would not be effective till they were supported by a better commissariat. Moreover, one commonly hears, that the supply of this deficiency is one of the very merits of the great Duke of Wellington. So it is with civilized races; but the Tartars, as is evident from what I have already observed, have in their wars no need of any commissariat at all; and that, not merely from the unscrupulousness of their foraging, but because they find in the instruments of their conquests the staple of their food. “Corn is a bulky and perishable commodity,” says an historian; “and the large magazines, which are indispensably necessary for the subsistence of civilized troops, are difficult and slow of transport.” But, not to say that even their flocks and herds were fitted for rapid movement, like the nimble sheep of Wales and the wild cattle of North Britain, the Tartars could even dispense with these altogether. If straitened for provisions, they ate the chargers which carried them to battle; indeed they seemed to account their flesh a delicacy, above the reach of the poor, and in consequence were enjoying a banquet in circumstances when civilized troops would be staving off starvation. And with a view to such accidents, they have been accustomed to carry with them in their expeditions a number of supernumerary horses, which they might either ride or eat, according to the occasion. It was an additional advantage to them in their warlike movements, that they were little particular whether their food had been killed for the purpose, or had died of disease. Nor is this all: their horses’ hides were made into tents and clothing, perhaps into bottles and coracles; and their intestines into bowstrings.

Trained then as they are, to habits which in themselves invite to war, the inclemency of their native climate has been a constant motive for them to seek out settlements and places of sojournment elsewhere. The spacious plains, over which they roam, are either monotonous grazing lands, or inhospitable deserts, relieved with green valleys or recesses. The cold is intense in a degree of which we have no experience in England, though we lie to the north of them. This arises in a measure from their distance from the sea, and again from their elevation of level, and further from the saltpetre with which their soil or their atmosphere is impregnated. The sole influence then of their fatherland, if I may apply to it such a term, is to drive its inhabitants from it to the West or to the South.


I have said that the geographical features of their country carry them forward in those two directions, the South and the West; not to say that the ocean forbids them going eastward, and the North does but hold out to them a climate more inclement than their own. Leaving the district of Mongolia in the furthermost East, high above the north of China, and passing through the long and broad valleys which I spoke of just now, the emigrants at length would arrive at the edge of that elevated plateau, which constitutes Tartary proper. They would pass over the high region of Pamer, where are the sources of the Oxus, they would descend the terrace of the Bolor, and the steeps of Badakshan, and gradually reach a vast region, flat on the whole as the expanse they had left, but as strangely depressed below the level of the sea, as Tartary is lifted above it. This is the country, forming the two basins of the Aral and the Caspian, which terminates the immense Asiatic plain, and may be vaguely designated by the name of Turkistan. Hitherto the necessity of their route would force them on, in one multitudinous emigration, but now they may diverge, and have diverged. If they were to cross the Jaxartes and the Oxus, and then to proceed southward, they would come to Khorasan, the ancient Bactriana, and so to Affghanistan and to Hindostan on the east, or to Persia on the west. But if, instead, they continued their westward course, then they would skirt the north coast of the Aral and the Caspian, cross the Volga, and there would have a second opportunity, if they chose to avail themselves of it, of descending southwards, by Georgia and Armenia, either to Syria or to Asia Minor. Refusing this diversion, and persevering onwards to the west, at length they would pass the Don, and descend upon Europe across the Ukraine, Bessarabia, and the Danube.

Such are the three routes,—across the Oxus, across the Caucasus, and across the Danube,—which the pastoral nations have variously pursued at various times, when their roving habits, their warlike propensities, and their discomforts at home, have combined to precipitate them on the industry, the civilization, and the luxury of the West and of the South. And at such times, as might be inferred from what has been already said, their invasions have been rather irruptions, inroads, or, what are called, raids, than a proper conquest and occupation of the countries which have been their victims. They would go forward, 200,000 of them at once, at the rate of 100 miles a day, swimming the rivers, galloping over the plains, intoxicated with the excitement of air and speed, as if it were a fox-chase, or full of pride and fury at the reverses which set them in motion; seeking indeed their fortunes, but seeking them on no plan; like a flight of locusts, or a swarm of angry wasps smoked out of their nest. They would seek for immediate gratification, and let the future take its course. They would be bloodthirsty and rapacious, and would inflict ruin and misery to any extent; and they would do tenfold more harm to the invaded, than benefit to themselves. They would be powerful to break down; helpless to build up. They would in a day undo the labour and skill, the prosperity of years; but they would not know how to construct a polity, how to conduct a government, how to organize a system of slavery, or to digest a code of laws. Rather they would despise the sciences of politics, law, and finance; and, if they honoured any profession or vocation, it would be such as bore immediately and personally on themselves. Thus we find them treating the priest and the physician with respect, when they found such among their captives; but they could not endure the presence of a lawyer. How could it be otherwise with those who may be called the outlaws of the human race? They did but justify the seeming paradox of the traveller’s exclamation, who, when at length, after a dreary passage through the wilderness, he came in sight of a gibbet, returned thanks that he had now arrived at a civilized country. “The pastoral tribes,” says the writer I have already quoted, “who were ignorant of the distinction of landed property, must have disregarded the use, as well as the abuse, of civil jurisprudence; and the skill of an eloquent laywer would excite only their contempt or their abhorrence.” And he refers to an outrage on the part of a barbarian of the North, who, not satisfied with cutting out a lawyer’s tongue, sewed up his mouth, in order, as he said, that the viper might no longer hiss. The well-known story of the Czar Peter, himself a Tartar, is here in point. When told there were some thousands of lawyers at Westminster, he is said to have observed that there had been only two in his own dominions, and he had hung one of them.


Now I have thrown the various inhabitants of the Asiatic plain together, under one description, not as if I overlooked, or undervalued, the distinction of races, but because I have no intention of committing myself to any statements on so intricate and interminable a subject as ethnology. In spite of the controversy about skulls, and skins, and languages, by means of which man is to be traced up to his primitive condition, I consider place and climate to be a sufficiently real aspect under which he may be regarded, and with this I shall content myself. I am speaking of the inhabitants of those extended plains, whether Scythians, Massagetæ, Sarmatians, Huns, Moguls, Tartars, Turks, or anything else; and whether or no any of them or all of them are identical with each other in their pedigree and antiquities. Position and climate create habits; and, since the country is called Tartary, I shall call them Tartar habits, and the populations which have inhabited it and exhibited them, Tartars, for convenience-sake, whatever be their family descent. From the circumstances of their situation, these populations have in all ages been shepherds, mounted on horseback, roaming through trackless spaces, easily incited to war, easily formed into masses, easily dissolved again into their component parts, suddenly sweeping across continents, suddenly descending on the south or west, suddenly extinguishing the civilization of ages, suddenly forming empires, suddenly vanishing, no one knows how, into their native north.

Such is the fearful provision for havoc and devastation, when the Divine Word goes forth for judgment upon the civilized world, which the North has ever had in store; and the regions on which it has principally expended its fury, are those, whose fatal beauty, or richness of soil, or perfection of cultivation, or exquisiteness of produce, or amenity of climate, makes them objects of desire to the barbarian. Such are China, Hindostan, Persia, Syria, and Anatolia or the Levant, in Asia; Greece, Italy, Sicily, and Spain, in Europe; and the northern coast of Africa.

These regions, on the contrary, have neither the inducement nor the means to retaliate upon their ferocious invaders. The relative position of the combatants must always be the same, while the combat lasts. The South has nothing to win, the North nothing to lose; the North nothing to offer, the South nothing to covet. Nor is this all: the North, as in an impregnable fortress, defies the attack of the South. Immense trackless solitudes; no cities, no tillage, no roads; deserts, forests, marshes; bleak table-lands, snowy mountains; unlocated, flitting, receding populations; no capitals, or marts, or strong places, or fruitful vales, to hold as hostages for submission; fearful winters and many months of them;—nature herself fights and conquers for the barbarian. What madness shall tempt the South to undergo extreme risks without the prospect or chance of a return? True it is, ambition, whose very life is a fever, has now and then ventured on the reckless expedition; but from the first page of history to the last, from Cyrus to Napoleon, what has the Northern war done for the greatest warriors but destroy the flower of their armies and the prestige of their name? Our maps, in placing the North at the top, and the South at the bottom of the sheet, impress us, by what may seem a sophistical analogy, with the imagination that Huns or Moguls, Kalmucks or Cossacks, have been a superincumbent mass, descending by a sort of gravitation upon the fair territories which lie below them. Yet this is substantially true;—though the attraction towards the South is of a moral, not of a physical nature, yet an attraction there is, and a huge conglomeration of destructive elements hangs over us, and from time to time rushes down with an awful irresistible momentum. Barbarism is ever impending over the civilized world. Never, since history began, has there been so long a cessation of this law of human society, as in the period in which we live. The descent of the Turks on Europe was the last instance of it, and that was completed four hundred years ago. They are now themselves in the position of those races, whom they themselves formerly came down upon.


As to the instances of this conflict between North and South in the times before the Christian era, we know more of them from antiquarian research than from history. The principal of those which ancient writers have recorded are contained in the history of the Persian Empire. The wandering Tartar tribes went at that time by the name of Scythians, and had possession of the plains of Europe as well as of Asia. Central Europe was not at that time the seat of civilized nations; but from the Chinese Sea even to the Rhine or Bay of Biscay, a course of many thousand miles, the barbarian emigrant might wander on, as necessity or caprice impelled him. Darius assailed the Scythians of Europe; Cyrus, his predecessor, the Scythians of Asia.

As to Cyrus, writers are not concordant on the subject; but the celebrated Greek historian, Herodotus, whose accuracy of research is generally confessed, makes the great desert, which had already been fatal, according to some accounts, to the Assyrian Semiramis, the ruin also of the founder of the Persian Empire. He tells us that Cyrus led an army against the Scythian tribes (Massagetæ, as they were called), who were stationed to the east of the Caspian; and that they, on finding him prepared to cross the river which bounded their country to the South, sent him a message which well illustrates the hopelessness of going to war with them. They are said to have given him his choice of fighting them either three days’ march within their own territory, or three days’ march within his; it being the same to them whether he made himself a grave in their inhospitable deserts, or they a home in his flourishing provinces. He had with him in his army a celebrated captive, the Lydian King Crœsus, who had once been head of a wealthy empire, till he had succumbed to the fortunes of a more illustrious conqueror; and on this occasion he availed himself of his advice. Crœsus cautioned him against admitting the barbarians within the Persian border, and counselled him to accept their permission of his advancing into their territory, and then to have recourse to stratagem. “As I hear,” he says in the simple style of the historian, which will not bear translation, “the Massagetæ have no experience of the good things of life. Spare not then to serve up many sheep, and add thereunto stoups of neat wine, and all sorts of viands. Set out this banquet for them in our camp, leave the refuse of the army there, and retreat with the body of your troops upon the river. If I am not mistaken, the Scythians will address themselves to all this good cheer, as soon as they fall in with it, and then we shall have the opportunity of a brilliant exploit.” I need not pursue the history further than to state the issue. In spite of the immediate success of his ruse de guerre, Cyrus was eventually defeated, and lost both his army and his life. The Scythian Queen Tomyris, in revenge for the lives which he had sacrificed to his ambition, is related to have cut off his head and plunged it into a vessel filled with blood, saying, “Cyrus, drink your fill.” Such is the account given us by Herodotus; and, even if it is to be rejected, it serves to illustrate the difficulties of an invasion of Scythia; for legends must be framed according to the circumstances of the case, and grow out of probabilities, if they are to gain credit, and if they have actually succeeded in gaining it.


Our knowledge of the expedition of Darius in the next generation, is more certain. This fortunate monarch, after many successes, even on the European side of the Bosphorus, impelled by that ambition, which holy Daniel had already seen in prophecy to threaten West and North as well as South, towards the end of his life directed his arms against the Scythians who inhabited the country now called the Ukraine. His pretext for this expedition was an incursion which the same barbarians had made into Asia, shortly before the time of Cyrus. They had crossed the Don, just above the sea of Azoff, had entered the country now called Circassia, had threaded the defiles of the Caucasus, and had defeated the Median King Cyaxares, the grandfather of Cyrus. Then they overran Armenia, Cappadocia, Pontus, and part of Lydia, that is, a great portion of Anatolia or Asia Minor; and managed to establish themselves in the country for twenty-eight years, living by plunder and exaction. In the course of this period, they descended into Syria, as far as to the very borders of Egypt. The Egyptians bought them off, and they turned back; however, they possessed themselves of a portion of Palestine, and gave their name to one town, Scythopolis, in the territory of Manasses. This was in the last days of the Jewish monarchy, shortly before the captivity. At length Cyaxares got rid of them by treachery; he invited the greater number of them to a banquet, intoxicated, and massacred them. Nor was this the termination of the troubles, of which they were the authors; and I mention the sequel, because both the office which they undertook and their manner of discharging it, their insubordination and their cruelty, are an anticipation of some passages in the early history of the Turks. The Median King had taken some of them into his pay, made them his huntsmen, and submitted certain noble youths to their training. Justly or unjustly they happened one day to be punished for leaving the royal table without its due supply of game: without more ado, the savages in revenge murdered and served up one of these youths instead of the venison which had been expected of them, and made forthwith for the neighbouring kingdom of Lydia. A war between the two states was the consequence.

But to return to Darius:—it is said to have been in retaliation for these excesses that he resolved on his expedition against the Scythians, who, as I have mentioned, were in occupation of the district between the Danube and the Don. For this purpose he advanced from Susa in the neighbourhood of the Persian Gulf, through Assyria and Asia Minor to the Bosphorus, just opposite to the present site of Constantinople, where he crossed over into Europe. Thence he made his way, with the incredible number of 700,000 men, horse and foot, to the Danube, reducing Thrace, the present Roumelia, in his way. When he had crossed that stream, he was at once in Scythia; but the Scythians had adopted the same sort of strategy, which in the beginning of this century was practised by their successors against Napoleon. They cut and carried off the green crops, stopped up their wells or spoilt their water, and sent off their families and flocks to places of safety. Then they stationed their outposts just a day’s journey before the enemy, to entice him on. He pursued them, they retreated; and at length he found himself on the Don, the further boundary of the Scythian territory. They crossed the Don, and he crossed it too, into desolate and unknown wilds; then, eluding him altogether, from their own knowledge of the country, they made a circuit, and got back into their own land again.

Darius found himself outwitted, and came to a halt; how he had victualled his army, whatever deduction we make for its numbers, does not appear; but it is plain that the time must come, when he could not proceed. He gave the order for retreat. Meanwhile, he found an opportunity of sending a message to the Scythian chief, and it was to this effect:—“Perverse man, take your choice; fight me or yield.” The Scythians intended to do neither, but contrived, as before, to harass the Persian retreat. At length an answer came; not a message, but an ominous gift; they sent Darius a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows; without a word of explanation. Darius himself at first hailed it as an intimation of submission; in Greece to offer earth and water was the sign of capitulation, as, in a sale of land in our own country, a clod from the soil still passes, or passed lately, from seller to purchaser, as a symbol of the transfer of possession. The Persian king, then, discerned in these singular presents a similar surrender of territorial jurisdiction. But another version, less favourable to his vanity and his hopes, was suggested by one of his courtiers, and it ran thus: “Unless you can fly like a bird, or burrow like a mouse, or swim the marshes like a frog, you cannot escape our arrows.” Whichever interpretation was the true one, it needed no message from the enemy to inflict upon Darius the presence of the dilemma suggested in this unpleasant interpretation. He yielded to imperative necessity, and hastened his escape from the formidable situation in which he had placed himself, and through great good fortune succeeded in effecting it. He crossed the sea just in time; for the Scythians came down in pursuit, as far as the coast, and returned home laden with booty.

This is pretty much all that is definitely recorded in history of the ancient Tartars. Alexander, in a later age, came into conflict with them in the region called Sogdiana which lies at the foot of that high plateau of central and eastern Asia, which I have designated as their proper home. But he was too prudent to be entangled in extended expeditions against them, and having made trial of their formidable strength, and made some demonstrations of the superiority of his own, he left them in possession of their wildernesses.

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