Oct 26, 2020
To coincide with the release of the Kings and Generals Biography video of the Mongol general Subutai, for our podcast we’ll present for your listening an extended version of that script, courtesy of our series historian writer. While Subutai is the most well known of all medieval Mongolian generals, the full extent of his career is rarely presented in a single document. With this episode, we’ll hopefully do just that for you; providing an idea of the vast scope of Subutai’s campaigns and his service to three generations of Chinggisids, providing along the way an idea of what made up this man’s personality, and some historiography on him. This version of the script will be accessible to read with full footnotes and sources on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the generals of the Mongol Empire, none stand taller than Subutai, who led armies from China, across Iran, the Caucasus, Russia and into Eastern Europe. Yet, Subutai remains a murky figure, with difficult to access primary sources providing fertile ground for all manner of myths to grow instead. Utilizing the latest scholarship and medieval materials, we will paint for you a more accurate biography of one of history’s fiercest generals.
Perhaps the best place to start would be his name. Subutai, the most common form of his name on the internet, comes from the Chinese rendering of his name( 速不台 ). Numerous transliterations of his name exist, but perhaps the best approximation of the Mongolian is Sübe’etei. The common epithet attached to his name, Ba’atar, signifies bravery and is often translated as hero or knight.
Sübe’etei was born in northwestern Mongolia in 1175-1176, to the Uriyangqat Mongols. There has been modern confusion of the Uriyngqat Mongols, nomadic pastoralists in the Mongolian steppe, with the Turkic Uriyangqai of the forests north of Mongolia, reindeer herders who did not raise the vast herds sheep, goat or horses. This confusion has resulted in the common misconception today that Sübe’etei was a Tuvan. However, the 13th and 14th century sources clearly identify Sübe’etei as a man of the steppe, whose father herded sheep and their family having been in close contact with that of Chinggis Khan’s for five generations, a sublineage of the Mongol tribe to which Chinggis Khan belonged. Stephen Pow in his article with Jingjing Liao on Sübe’etei suggests part of the appeal to this belief of Sübe’etei as a ‘reindeer herder,’ is the irony in one of history’s greatest cavalry commanders being a man who did not learn to ride a horse until well into his adulthood.
Though specific details of Sübe’etei’s early life are lost to us, we can assume it mirrored that of other Mongolian children. He would have learned to ride a horse, shoot a bow, hunt and herd animals from a young age, the basic skills necessary for warfare on the steppe. In the politically chaotic period of late 12th century Mongolia, Sübe’etei and his family likely suffered from raids and predatory marauders. As a young boy, he found a role model in the form of a fellow Mongol named Temujin. Since the time of Sübe’etei’s great-great-grandfather Nerbi, their families had been close allies, and perhaps from Sübe’etei’s earliest days Temujin had appeared as the centre of Sübe’etei’s world. In the Secret History of the Mongols, around 1185 Temujin was elected as Khan of his Mongol lineage, the Borjigon. Per the Secret History’s account, Sübe’etei, perhaps little more than 10 years old, attended, accompanied by his older brother Ca’urqan and their older cousin, Jelme. In Sübe’etei’s most formative years, he attached himself to this rising warlord, whose family he would stay in loyal service to for the next six decades.
Sübe’etei’s role, if any, in the many trials of Temujin’s rise to power are unmentioned. At 14 years old he would have been enrolled into military service as a lightly armoured horse archer. It is not until 1203, when Sübe’etei was about 27, that we have the first described event of his life. That year, Temujin suffered a devastating setback, betrayed by his ally Toghrul, the Ong Khan of the Kereyit. Defeated in battle by Toghrul and Jamukha, another ally turned enemy, Temujin’s army was scattered and with a small force he fled to Lake Baljuna in eastern Mongolia. Slowly, his allies trickled in, one of whom was Sübe’etei’s father Qaban, driving a flock of sheep to Baljuna to feed Temujin’s hungry men. As described in the Yuan shi, Qaban was ambushed and captured by robbers. Sübe’etei and his brother Ca’urqan, not far beyond with the rest of the animals, followed the tracks of the robbers and ambushed them. Bringing down several robbers, the rest panicked and fled. Their father was rescued, and they brought the much-needed sheep to Temujin at Baljuna. Heartened by their loyalty and courage, he rewarded them; Ca’urqan was made a commander of 100, and Sübe’etei was enrolled into the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, as was common for younger brothers of unit commanders. Alongside physically protecting the Khan, the keshig also served as his closest servants, preparing his meals, protecting his herds and maintaining his belongings. The keshig also served as a training school for commanders, where the skills of leading armies, logistical needs and battle were advanced. It is here that Sübe’etei began his education as a general.
By 1206, Temujin had unified the tribes of Mongolia, taking the title of Chinggis Khan and declaring the Mongol Empire. Sübe’etei was among those rewarded for his service. It was not without sacrifice, as his older brother had died in the fighting against the Naiman in western Mongolia. With 95 others, in 1206 Sübe’etei was appointed to command a minggan, 1,000 men. His reputation as a ferocious warrior in the name of the Khan had already begun to be established, for at the sametime he was noted among Chinggis Khan’s Four Dogs of War: Jebe, Qubilai Noyan and Jelme Uha. Unlike Chinggis’s four Horses -Bo’orchu, Muqali, Boroqul, Cila’un Ba’atar- who were Chinggis Khan’s personal friends from his youth, the Four Dogs were among the deadliest men of the Khan’s arsenal. To paraphrase the Secret History of the Mongols, the Four Horses were the men at Chinggis’ side, while the Four Dogs were those charging wherever the Khan pointed. Brutal, daring, often cruel yet utterly loyal, the Four Dogs were Chinggis’ swords to wield against Asia. It was in this service that Sübe’etei would excel.
In the first Mongol invasions, against the Tangut Kingdom in 1209 and the Jin Dynasty in 1211, Sübe’etei’s mentions are sparse. In 1212 Sübe’etei was the first onto the walls of Huanzhou. He was richly rewarded for his role in taking the city, and for his courage he earned the title of Ba’atar. Jebe Noyan, with whom Sübe’etei was often partnered with, went on a long ranging campaign across the Jin Empire in 1213, through Manchuria and taking one of the Jin capitals, Tung-ching. It’s possible Sübe’etei accompanied him on their series of long marches, feigned retreats and sacked cities, but such is only speculation.
By 1216 Chinggis Khan was back in Mongolia, his armies having taken the Jin supreme capital of Zhongdu and left them on the backfoot. In Mongolia Chinggis had to deal with rebellions and foes who had survived the unification. One army under Boroqul was sent to subdue the forest peoples around Lake Baikal, who were in open revolt against Mongol rule; Jebe was sent to capture a fugitive Naiman prince who had usurped power in the Central Asian realm of the Qara-Khitai; Muqali was to command the armies fighting the Jin; and Sübe’etei was to accompany Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi far across the western steppes, in pursuit of Merkit tribes who had fled Mongolia and sought shelter with the Qipchap-Qangli east of the Caspian Sea. This was the Mongol Empire’s first great expansion west of the Altai Mountains. The precise dating and presence of Jochi on this western campaign has been debated by scholars, but we will follow the likeliest chronology proposed by historian Christopher Atwood. Before they set out on the long journey, the Secret History of the Mongols has Chinggis provide Sübe’etei an iron reinforced cart for the journey. This statement may perhaps be the partial origin for the myth that Sübe’etei was immensely overweight, and that no single horse could carry him, requiring instead specially made carts! No medieval source describes Sübe’etei’s weight in any capacity, but Stephen Pow noted that Rashid al-Din mentions of an elderly Uriyangqat who needed to be carried everywhere in a cart, as well as a grandson of Orda bin Jochi who was immensely obese and also required a cart to travel, for no horse could bear him. Possibly, such descriptions were confused with Sübe’etei, encouraged, Pow suggests, again by the “irony of a man [unable to] ride a horse becoming the nomadic cavalry’s greatest general.”
In two battles over late 1218 and early 1219, Sübe’etei and Jochi defeated the Merkit and their Qangli allies in what is now western Kazakhstan. On the long trek back across the steppe to Mongolia they made an unexpected meeting. The ruler of the vast Khwarezmian Empire, Muhammad II, intercepted the Mongols somewhere in central Kazakhstan. Jochi and Sübe’etei informed Shah Muhammad they had no quarrel with him, that their task had been simply to deal with the Merkits. But Muhammad had come north looking for a fight, and the Mongols would have to do. Outnumbered, the Mongols made a good show of themselves, the right wings of both armies pushing back the opposing left. Both armies fought until darkness forced them apart. Lighting many fires to make it appear they were setting up camp, the Mongols slid away into the night. The Khwarezmians awoke the next morning to see the mysterious enemy had vanished. Horrified by the destruction wrought by this encounter in the field, Muhammad Khwarezm-shah seems to have developed a phobia of facing the Mongols in open battle.
Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Chinggis late in summer 1219, in similar time to the arrival of news of the infamous Otrar Massacre. The Khwarezmian governor of Otrar, Shah Muhammad’s uncle, murdered a trade caravan sent by Chinggis Khan. It is unclear if the massacre took place with or without Muhammad’s support, but when Chinggis’ envoys arrived demanding punishment for the butchery, Muhammad had them executed. As Jebe had by then conquered the Qara-Khitai, the aggressive Khwarezmians were now direct neighbours of the Mongol Empire. Scarcely had Jebe, Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Mongolia when they set out to invade the Khwarezmian Empire at the end of 1219.
The story of the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm is well told and does not require our attention here. Muhammad, seeking to avoid field battles relied on garrisons within city walls, believing the Mongols, as nomads, lackes sige capabilities. He was sorely mistaken. By spring 1220 the northern frontier of Khwarezm had collapsed. Muhammad fled deeper into his empire, and in pursuit Chinggis Khan unleashed his dogs of war: Jebe Noyan and Sübe’etei Ba’atar, supported by a third tumen under Chinggis’ son-in-law Toquchar.Across Khurasan and northern Iran sped Shah Muhammad. Jebe and Sübe’etei followed. While Muhammad was their primary goal, as they went they took the submission of cities- those which resisted were marked for Toquchar to secure as he followed behind them until his death outside of Nishapur in November 1220. After Nishapur, Jebe and Sübe’etei split up to cover more ground. In Radkan, Sübe’etei was so pleased by the pleasant climate that he apparently avoided any bloodshed, appointed a Mongol governor and moved on. In Quchan, the Mongols committed great slaughter. In Mazandaran, Jebe captured Shah Muhammad’s mother and his harem, sending them back to Chinggis Khan.
Jebe and Sübe’etei reunited at Rayy, tracking Shah Muhammad to Hamadan. Sources differ on what exactly happened at Hamadan. Nasawi describes a battle near the city, ibn al-Athir
has the Shah escape before they arrive and Juvaini wrote that the Mongols caught him on the road, wounding him with arrows before he escaped. No matter what occurred, after Hamadan Jebe and Sübe’etei lost his trail. Muhammad died a few weeks later, succumbing to pneumonia on an island in the Caspian Sea in December 1220.
Spending that winter in Azerbaijan’s Mughan Plain, Jebe and Sübe’etei spent the next two years pinballing across the Caucasus and northwestern Iran. Inflicting a devastating defeat on the Georgian King Giorgi Lasha in February 1221, by the summer they cut back to Persian ‘Iraq where cities they had previously taken were revolting. The Eldeguzid Atabegs of Azerbaijan wisely refused Georgian requests for an alliance and instead submitted to Jebe and Sübe’etei. By mid-1222, messengers had returned from Chinggis Khan, informing them that they could continue the conquest against the Qipchap tribes north of the Caucasus. Striking the enemy from unexpected directions was always a favourite ploy of Chinggis Khan, and the Qipchaq had already shown themselves to be enemies by allying with the Merkit and fighting for the Khwarezm-shah.
While passing north, Jebe and Sübe’etei took the city of Shamakhi, employing a particularly gruesome tactic. To mount the walls, corpses of locals and livestock were piled into a platform. For three days, the Mongols fought from it until it decomposed and collapsed. Such tactics had a use far greater than the individual siege, for they contributed to a dread reputation designed to discourage resistance. Upon exiting the Caucasus, Jebe and Sübe’etei were confronted by a much larger force of Alans and Qipchaqs, perhaps alerted to the Mongol approach by the Shah of Derbend. After a difficult journey through the mountains, Jebe and Sübe’etei were reluctant to fight against such odds. Sending messengers to the Qipchaq, they bribed them into abandoning the Alans. After overcoming the now isolated Alans, the Mongols then fell upon the unsuspecting Qipchaq, killing their most powerful leaders.
Under their leader Kotjen, the Qipchaq survivors fled west to the Rus’ Principalities. There, Kotjen organized an alliance between his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, and several other leading Rus’ princes. Modern retelling has often presented what follows, the famous Kalka River Battle, as Sübe’etei’s master stroke, perfectly drawing the Rus’ and Qipchap into a long distance feigned retreat. However, as historian Stephen Pow has recently argued, the primary sources suggest a much closer run thing. Often overlooked has been a small engagement in the lead up to the battle, where the Rus’ chronicles described a Mongol general Hamabek being caught and killed by the Rus’s Qipchaq allies. Pow argues that Hamabek is actually how the 13th century Rus’ interpreted Yama Beg, the Turkic form of Jebe’s name and that by which the Qipchaq knew him by. Bold and often leading from the front, Jebe’s recklessness evidently cost him his life, caught hiding in a kurgan and perhaps, embarrassingly, cut in half.
Jebe had been the commanding officer and something of a mentor to Sübe’etei. To suddenly lose him, thousands of kilometres away from any reinforcements and deep in enemy territory, meant Sübe’etei was thrust for the first time into independent command. The famous nine day feigned retreat which followed may have therefore been an actual retreat. The Qipchap and Rus’ hotly pursued them, until Sübe’etei noticed the enemy had strung themselves out. At the Kalka River in May 1223, Sübe’etei turned about and brought the full weight of his army against the Qipchaps, who broke. Fleeing Qipchaps collided with the oncoming Rus’, breaking their formation as Mongol arrows rained upon them. The result was a massacre. Survivors held up on a nearby hill resisted briefly before being convinced to surrender by Sübe’etei. With guard and weapons let down, the Rus’ were slaughtered, their leaders captured and smothered under boards upon which the Mongols feasted and celebrated.
Sübe’etei had won a great victory, but was in no position for further conquest. While often presented as the great, undefeated conqueror, the Kalka Campaign had been only narrowly won. On the return journey, sometime in late 1223 or early 1224, Sübe’etei’s forces passed through the territory of the Volga Bulghars along the Volga and Kama Rivers. Laying ambushes for the Mongols had several places, the Bulghars drew the Mongols into feigned retreats, surrounding and killing many. Some modern writers of popular biographies, such as Frank McLynn and James Chambers, have Sübe’etei regroup his forces and inflict a defeat in turn upon the Bulghars. Such statements have no basis in the historical sources. The most detailed description of the encounter with the Bulghars is in the chronicle of ibn al-Athir, who describes the Mongols suffering heavy losses against the Bulghars, before moving on to campaign farther south along the Volga, attacking the Qipchaq settlement of Saqsin. Some authors may have conflated Saqsin as a location in Bulghar territory, or been misled by outdated works like those of Abraham d’Ohsson and Rene Grousset, who presented the encounter much more favourably for Sübe’etei. The need to dismiss Sübe’etei’s defeat is necessary in order to uphold his popular image as the undefeated champion of Chinggis Khan. The most heavily utilized sources such as Juvaini and the Secret History of the Mongols provide no specific comments on, or outright ignore, the encounter with the Bulghars. In comparison, those who actually provide evidence for the encounter, such as ibn al-Athir and Friar Julian, remain much more difficult to access, allowing the exaggerated version of Sübe’etei’s record to often go about unchallenged.
We can also note another popular rumour relating to this campaign. It is sometimes claimed that Sübe’etei, while venturing into the Crimean peninsula in 1223, formed an alliance with local Ventian merchants there. The Mongols would attack representatives of Venice’s other Italian rival, Genoa, present in Crimea at the port of Sudaq, and provide exclusive trade privileges to the Venetians. In exchange, the Venetians would provide intelligence and maps for the Mongols in Europe, as well as spreading rumours of Mongol ferocity to sow dissent and fear. James Chamber’s The Devil's Horsemen forwards this, among many other false claims on Sübe’etei’s life. As historian Peter Jacskon has noted in his review of Chambers’ book, “Chambers has borrowed the whole idea from Bréhier’s L’église et l’Orient au moyen âge: it is derived ultimately from Cahun’s Introduction à l’histoire de l’Asie (1896), which has all the authority of a historical novel.” The actual Italian presence in Crimea in the early 13th century was minimal. The Mongol sack of Sudaq had nothing to do with Genoa, the major source describing the incursion, ibn al-Athir, signifies the city as a place where the Qipchaq came to sell their wares and slaves, making no mention of any Italians. Historian Denis Sinor describes Suqaq as an outpost of the empire of Trebizond, home to a mixed population of Greeks and Armenians. Meanwhile A.C.S Peacock has argued that there is evidence that Sudaq, also known as Soldaia, at the time of the Mongol arrival to the Crimean peninsula was actually in the hands of the Seljuqs of Rum. Beyond the story of the Venetians bribing the Mongols into sacking Genoan rivals at Sudaq being false, there is simply no medieval evidence supporting any alliance between Venice and the Mongol Empire, and appears to be in part a conflation of later Italian contacts among the Mongols, most notable in the form of Marco Polo. This was however, the acts of individual merchants, rather than the Venetian state.
While this campaign from Shah Muhammad’s death until Sübe’etei’s return to Mongolia is often termed the Great Raid, and described as if it was intended to just gain information on the west, this is a modern extrapolation. The contemporary sources describe it in terms no different than any other stage of the conquests. If a reconnaissance-in-force, then it was a great success; but if intended to seize the western steppe and subdue the Qipchap, it was a poorer showing, marred by the humiliating death of Jebe, heavy losses, a military defeat and no conquered land. The Secret History of the Mongols describes the entire campaign in a laconic line: “Sübe’etei Ba’atur had been put in a difficult situation by these peoples.” It would take well over a decade before the region saw a permanent Mongol presence, and Sübe’etei knew that in order to avenge Jebe and his own defeat, he would need to return in overwhelming force.
Upon his return to Chinggis Khan, Sübe’etei was in an imminent position. Despite his great trial in the west, he faithfully returned with loot for the Khan. Chinggis was preparing for the final campaign against the Tangut, but told Sübe’etei to visit his parents, who he had not seen in a decade. Sübe’etei simply responded, “If the emperor will be busy working and the vassal will be at rest, my heart will be in deep uneasiness.” The Khan’s loyal hound, Sübe’etei led in the conquest of the Tangut in 1226, cutting off the western half of the Tangut Kingdom, skirting along the south to subdue Uyghurs and other local tribes before striking the Tangut’s western border. There, he sacked numerous counties along the Tangut-Jin frontier in Gansu, ensuring no aid would come from that direction. 5,000 captured mares he sent to Chinggis Khan, and it was here that he learned of his master’s death in August 1227.
Chinggis Khan was the single most influential figure on Sübe’etei’s life, and in his memory he would continue to loyally serve his family. Attending the coronation of Chinggis’ son Ogedai as Khan in 1229, Sübe’etei was rewarded with an imperial princess as a wife. Soon after his enthronement, Ogedai resumed the war with the Jin Dynasty. A Mongol army commanded by Doqulqu was shockingly defeated at Dachangyuan in the first weeks of 1230 by the Jin general Pu’a and his “Loyal and Filial Army,” made up of captives and deserters from the Mongols. Ogedai lacked the authority of his father and the confidence of many of the generals, who thought his younger brother Tolui was the better captain. Such military defeats uneased the new Khan and undermined his position. To offset this, in the last days of 1230 Ogedai led an army against the Jin accompanied by Tolui and Sübe’etei.
With the Jin Dynasty’s northern border protected by the Yellow River and its southern by the neutral Song Dynasty, access to Jin territory was through the mountains guarding Henan province’s west, a route blocked by the formidable Tongguan fort. Thre, the garrison wisely refused to be lured into a feigned retreat. Frustrated and not desiring to be stuck in a long and costly siege, Ogedai sent Sübe’etei to find a route through the hills south of the fort. Sübe’etei managed to force a smaller pass, cutting through and ransacking towns in western Henan. Through the hilly terrain his forces became spread out, and the Jin general Chenheshang with 1,000 men of the Loyal and Filial Army cornered and defeated Sübe’etei at Daohuigu 倒回谷. Suffering heavy losses of both men and horses, Sübe’etei was forced to retreat back to a furious Ogedai. So enraged was Ogedai that he removed Sübe’etei from command, and nearly did Sübe’etei disappear from history if Ogedai’s brother, Tolui, did not step in and vouch for him.
A new strategy was decided on, a triple pronged assault on all the Jin frontiers. Ogedai with the main army was to cross the Yellow River along its central stretch, another army would probe the eastern end while Tolui and Sübe’etei were to bypass Tongguan entirely, cutting south through Song territory to come behind Jin lines. Unable to diplomatically gain military access through Song lands, Tolui and Sübe’etei had to rush through potentially hostile territory. The result was unexpectedly successful. In the last weeks of 1231 they penetrated the Song frontiers, feeding men and horses in country untouched by the Mongol-Jin war. After a few weeks of plundering they cut north into the Jin lands. The main Jin generals, Pu’a and Hada, pulled back troops from Tongguan to catch Tolui and Sübe’etei, skirmishing over January 1232 until the Mongols were surrounded on Sanfeng Mountain that February. Pu’a sent a threat boasting that he would rape the Mongols’ women once he was done with them. When a snowstorm blew over the armies, Sübe’etei told Tolui to wait it out, telling him the Jin forces were weak people from cities who could not handle the elements, while the hardy Mongols would endure. After three days, deeming the Jin were suitably weakened, the Mongols charged down the hill and routed them.
As punishment for Pu’a’s boast, the Mongols sodomized the Jin prisoners. The captured general Hada asked for death, with his final wish to lay eyes on Sübe’etei. Perplexed when he heard of this, Sübe’etei came to see the captive Hada, telling him, “You will die momentarily. Why do you want to see me?” To which Hada replied, “Each of us vassals work for our respective masters. You are braver than other generals, and by nature you are a hero. Could that all really just be random chance? I have met you and now I shall die in peace.”
One they linked up with Ogedai’s army, Tolui and Ogedai returned north, leaving Sübe’etei as supreme commander against the Jin. With Jin offensive ability shattered, Sübe’etei invested their capital, Kaifeng. It took a year for the city to fall, in which time the Jin Emperor escaped and many losses were inflicted on the Mongols. When Sübe’etei alerted Ogedai to the city’s final surrender in early 1233, he was prepared to carry out the standard practice of massacre for the city’s prolonged resistance. In Sübe’etei’s mind, it was a well deserved punishment and one he was eager to carry out. But Ogedai was convinced by his Khitan adviser, Yelu Chucai, to spare the inhabitants. What followed is perhaps the most illustrative example of Sübe’etei’s worldview, as far as we can understand it. Sübe’etei was to limit killing to just members of the Jin imperial family, the Wanyan clan 完顏氏, and not harm the inhabitants. Having gone from being prepared to kill them all, Sübe’etei, whatever his personal thoughts on the matter, now carried out the Khan’s will to the greatest detail. Halting depredations of Kaifeng and its population, Sübe’etei allowed them to travel unhindered in search of food. Travel was permitted north of the Yellow River to organize food shipments for the beleaguered population, and Sübe’etei’s biographer in the Yuan shi goes as far as to say the people appreciated him for his efforts.
Sübe’etei led the final push against the Jin, ending their dynasty in early 1234. Back in Mongolia by 1235, Sübe’etei took part in the organization of his most well known endeavour: the Great Western Campaign. Sübe’etei reached his apogee, the senior commander alongside the leading princes of the third generations of Chinggisids under Batu bin Jochi. With a great army, over 1236 they swallowed up the western steppe. The only organized Qipchaq resistance under their leader Bachman was swiftly crushed; the Volga Bulghars who had once ambushed Sübe’etei could do little as the great wave washed over them and destroyed their cities. One of the Mordvin principalities wisely submitted to Sübe’etei; the other foolishly offered a brief resistance. The divided Rus’ principalities were quickly picked off. The Mongols rested men and horses in the summer before resuming attacks in the winter when the frozen rivers were easily traversable. In this way, from 1237 to 1240 the Rus’ cities were burned. Few cities lasted as long as two weeks, though Mongol losses were incurred and part of the army under Guyuk and Mongke returned to Mongolia late in 1239.
By the start of 1241, Sübe’etei and Batu had brought the Mongol Empire to the edge of Europe, splitting their forces to take multiple routes through Poland, Hungary and Transylvania. Sübe’etei wanted to draw the Hungarian royal army onto ground of his choosing, forcing them to cross an exposed bridge over the Sajo River where on the far bank the treeline would hide flanking Mongol forces. King Bela IV foiled this by not crossing the bridge. The new plan was for Batu to force the bridge while Sübe’etei tried to cross downriver and outflank the Hungarians. Either impatient or Sübe’etei was behind schedule, Batu charged the bridge too early, resulting in heavy losses and the Mongols being repulsed. Angered with Sübe’etei’s failure to cross the river, a new plan was used; early on April 11th, the bridge guard was overcome by Mongol catapults. Crossing over the River, near the village of Mohi the Mongols encircled and destroyed the Hungarian royal army.
Despite the success, some Mongol princes were apprehensive of pressing on after the costly fighting. But Sübe’etei shamed them for their cowardice, telling them, “If my lord wishes to retreat, then retreat by yourself. Until I reach Bacha city on the Danube River, I will never return.” The loyal Dog of Chinggis Khan now had to whip his grandchildren into shape. So they pressed onwards, pushing as far as Austria until the Mongols began to withdraw at the end of March 1242. Finding their catapults and siege techniques ineffective against stout stone fortifications, Batu and Sübe’etei desired to step back and restrategize. The withdrawal from Hungary was methodical, campaigning as they went to reduce whoever survived the first pass.
Sübe’etei stayed with Batu up to the Volga River, where in late 1243 or 1244 Batu set up his permanent encampment. Sübe’etei scolded Batu for refusing to attend the quriltai in Mongolia to elect Ogedai’s successor, but before departing, Sübe’etei and Batu came to peace regarding the losses at the battle of Mohi. In time, Batu gave thanks to Sübe’etei, attributing to him the reason for their successes.
Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1246 to meet the new Khan of Khans, Ogedai’s son Guyuk. Now aged 71, Sübe’etei was one of the few remaining individuals left who had personally known Chinggis Khan. The Franciscan Friar John de Plano Carpini, during his journey to Guyuk’s enthronement in 1246, mentions the elderly Sübe’etei, a figure of immense respect among the Mongols “known among them as ‘the knight.” Later that year, the venerable Sübe’etei went on his final campaign, a brief incursion against the Song Dynasty, as described by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din. Yet, this campaign goes unmentioned in Chinese sources. Possibly, the elderly Sübe’etei was forced by age or illness to step back from the campaign before it could achieve anything. Perhaps Guyuk’s death in early 1248 ended this campaign prematurely. Either way, we know Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1248, for he died there later that year, somewhere along the Tula River, aged 73. Sübe’etei, most famous of all Mongolian generals, was one of the few to die of old age.
Sübe’etei’s sons continued to serve as commanders, the most well known being Uriyangqadai, who accompanied them on the great western campaign, served with Kublai Khan against the Dali Kingdom, occupied Thang-long, modern Hanoi in Vietnam, and fought against the southern Song Dynasty. Uriyangqadai’s son Aju was another of Kublai Khan’s lead generals, who served alongside his father in Yunnan and northern Vietnam. After leading in the siege of the Song fortress-city of Xiangyang, Aju, longside Bayan of the Barrin, was the top Mongol commander in the final campaigns against the Song Dynasty. After the ferocity of Uriyangqadai and Aju, their descendants picked up the pen instead of the bow. Aju’s son Bolianjidai was an administrator well known for his leniency, while his own son Tongtong was a scholar and academic, and from then the lineage of Sübe’etei disappears from us.
Utterly loyal to Chinggis Khan, perhaps no other commander in history could be said to have travelled so many kilometres. Depending on how one counts, Sübe’etei fought in over 50 battles and sieges against almost every major power of the thirteenth century, though despite some claims was not undefeated. Neither was he the sole strategist of the Mongols, and often his most effective campaigns were those where the planning had been in the hands of Chinggis Khan or Tolui. Sübe’etei had no care for administration, only in carrying out the Khan’s will against his enemies. Frustrated by Chinggis’ descendants, Sübe’etei still carried out their mandate with thoroughness and ferocity. To quote Stephen Pow in his email correspondence with this author, Sübe’etei “emerges from the surviving writings as very loyal to emperors, sardonic toward enemies, and ultimately loyal to Chinggis Khan’s yasa or vision in terms of carrying out missions, following orders even if they went against his own preference. A bit of Cardinal Richelieu can perhaps be found in him – his only enemies were those of the state... and the state was the khan”.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our extended look at Sübe’etei’s life; you can find the written version of this script, featuring all the various sources and footnotes, on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.