While the main character usually gets all the fame, it was common for the so-called great conquering statesmen to have, by their side and under their command, a military genius who provided them with victories. For example, Napoleon had Davout and Suchet, among many others; Itzcóatl had Tlacaélel; Pachacútec had Vicaquirao; Philip II had the Duke of Alba… Genghis Khan had Subutai, who also served his son Ögedei and was the architect of the unstoppable Mongol expansion westward.

Subutai’s birth (or Sübügätäi in Mongolian) is usually placed around the year 1175, somewhere on the left bank of the Onon River. Some even specify the exact location as Mount Burkhan Khaldun in the Mongolian province of Khentil, which happens to be the same place where Genghis Khan is believed to have been born (and where his tomb is supposed to be). He belonged to the Uriankhai clan, the name given to the Tuvan ethnicity originating from Siberia but at that time residing in the center of present-day Mongolia.

The Secret History of the Mongols, an epic poem, states that Subutai was the younger brother of Jelme, one of the noyans (generals) of Temujin (Genghis Khan’s original name). This would mean that his father was Jarchigudai, a blacksmith who had assisted the future conqueror and his followers during one of their exiles.

His humble profession is mentioned in the History of Yuan (a Chinese chronicle written in the 14th century), which narrates that he was given to Temujin by his father as a servant when he was around thirteen years old, after helping him fend off cattle thieves. The Mongolian version, on the other hand, says that he ran away from home to join Jelme in the army, witnessing his rise despite his humble origin. This became evident during the oath of allegiance, where he joined Genghis Khan’s personal guard – the leader he had obviously caught the attention of – kneeling down and delivering a speech quite different from the pomp used by his comrades:

I will be like a rat and gather more. I will be like a crow that gathers great flocks. Like the felt blanket that covers your horse, I will gather soldiers to cover you. Like the felt blanket that protects your tent from the wind, I will gather great armies to shelter your tent.

In any case, Subutai also rose through the ranks, notable not only for being a commoner but also for lacking blood ties with the Khan. However, Jebe had adopted him as an apprentice. Jebe was one of Genghis’s main noyans, which is curious considering that he was initially his enemy and in 1201 had even wounded him in the neck with an arrow shot from his galloping horse. Later, Genghis, admiring his skill, forgave him and incorporated him into his troops. Subutai gained combat experience alongside him in 1211, during the invasion of northern China, a campaign where four commanders stood out (Jebe, Jelme, Kublai, and Subutai himself), referred to by Genghis as his “war dogs” immortalized with that name in The Secret History of the Mongols.

It is possible that Subutai managed to learn strategic concepts during the meetings of the noyans, using his position as a guard to sharpen his ears. Later, Jebe continued his training, and upon Jebe’s death, he continued with Muqali, another commander who rose in the hierarchy from nothing (in his case, from slavery) to become the second in command of the Khan and viceroy of China. In 1197, at the age of only twenty-two, Subutai received his first command in the war against the Merkit. This tribe was one of the main khanlig (tribal confederations) on the steppe, and as they were of Turkish origin, the Mongols hated them. Subutai infiltrated their camp by pretending to be a deserter and provided them with false information, claiming that his people were far away. This made them lower their guard, and they were defeated by surprise.

In 1204, he was appointed to lead the vanguard against the Naiman, another hostile Mongol tribe that had allied with the Merkit incited by Jamukha, a former anda (blood brother) of Genghis who held a grudge against him. Subutai was one of the architects of the overwhelming victory, which marked the end of the Naiman people, who were subsequently integrated into the Mongol army (and even the wife of their leader became Genghis’s wife). In this way, Subutai was promoted to a general, a position in which he revealed himself as a strategic genius capable of coordinating bodies of hundreds of thousands of men separated by many kilometers. He knew how to give the right value to siege techniques (using siege machines even in open battles), adapt his tactics to the enemy’s characteristics (known in advance thanks to a well-established spy network), prioritize light cavalry for its mobility, ensure that troops were self-sufficient in the campaign (supplying themselves on the ground), and capitalize on the technical knowledge of defeated adversaries, incorporating them into his army.

Thanks to all this, the Mongols fought with the same chances of success in a battle as in sieges, although they only engaged in the latter against important strongholds. Otherwise, they passed by, devastating fields to leave them without provisions. They also victoriously faced elite warriors from around the world, from the cavalry of the Chinese Jin to the Turkish riders in the service of the Persian Khwarazmian dynasty, including the heavy knights of Eastern Europe (Poles, Hungarians, Georgians, etc.). Despite the nomadic and unrefined image often attributed to them, reducing them to hordes of horse archers, they also excelled in military engineering, building bridges and war machinery, using signaling systems through flags. Of course, Subutai also instilled fear through massacres and other barbarities as a means to weaken the enemy’s morale.

The alliance between the Merkit and the Naiman had been broken, but the Merkit found new support in the Cuman or Kipchak people, Tartars originating from Crimea who had spread westward to present-day Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, and eastward to Ukraine and the Kievan Rus (the precursor of Russia). Subutai defeated them in 1217 and 1219. The following year, he faced the Khwarazmian Empire of the aforementioned Khwarazmians, whose arrogance (their emperor called himself Alexander II) had led them to underestimate the Mongols by executing their ambassadors. Despite being outnumbered three to one, Subutai emerged victorious by surprising the enemy army from the rear after an unheard-of march through the desert.

While he and Jebe spent the winter plundering present-day Iran and Azerbaijan, Subutai came up with the idea of organizing an expedition to the Caucasus. It was a lightning operation despite the significant number of troops involved—twenty thousand men—because, as the story goes, they slept on horseback during the march. They conquered the kingdom of Georgia, pulverizing its army, but true to their tradition, they did not stay and began the return journey. Halfway, they encountered a coalition of steppe tribes, including Cumans, Alans, Circassians, and Russians, totaling eighty thousand warriors. Subutai and Jebe sacrificed their rearguard by feigning a retreat, but when the others, eager for loot, pursued them disorderly, they turned around and wreaked havoc. Having control of the Caspian Sea region, they left it in the hands of Venetian merchants in exchange for serving as informants.

As mentioned earlier, Subutai had taken his first military steps in Jebe’s campaign against China in 1211, where he had distinguished himself for his courage and audacity. In 1226, he faced the Chinese again, this time against the Xi Xia or Tangut Empire (one of the three that formed pre-unification China), acting as the anvil for the main force led by Genghis Khan. Together, they managed to divide the enemy and defeat them separately, seizing the Kingdom of Tibet, among other territories. However, that campaign had an unexpected and sad ending in 1227 with Genghis’s death. The succession process was not resolved until two years later, with the proclamation of Ogodei, but that and a brilliant enemy counterattack only delayed the final triumph: the conquest of China in 1235, where Subutai reached his zenith despite the difficulties of facing an army of two hundred thousand men (led by a competent general like Wan-Yen Heda, who inflicted some defeats) and a scorched-earth policy.

The following year, the Mongol onslaught reached Russia, and despite receiving help from the Bulgarians, it was futile. Making pacts with the surrounding peoples to prevent them from joining the Rus, Subutai won battle after battle and captured cities until the decisive clash at the Sit River, where Grand Duke Yuri Vladimir had prepared the final resistance. There was no such thing; he was surrounded so quickly that it was even easy to defeat him. The lingering memory of that war was the horrifying image of Mongol leaders eating on a platform supported by dozens of Russian corpses. It was the year 1240, and there was only one direction left for expansion: Central Europe. Subutai himself had convinced Ogodei of this during the assembly of clans where the invasion of China was planned.

By then, he was no longer the dynamic young man of yesteryear. He was sixty years old, one-eyed, and weighed so much that he could not ride, having to travel in a cart. But he retained his brilliance, and if he did not have the full confidence of the Khan, he did have the trust of his brother Yochi and his nephews Batu, Mongke, and Guyuk. The Russians, as we have seen, were the first step. Then, he divided his forces into three corps: one entered from the north like a knife, another through the center occupying Transylvania, and the third, commanded by Subutai himself, went against Hungary, where King Bela IV found these three armies converging on him. To stop them, he decided to face the northern one without suspecting that it was only a decoy, and a trap awaited him. The Hungarians were crushed in two successive battles, and in the last one, they were led into a swampy area where they were immobilized while Mongol archers shot at them almost at will.

Thus, the door was open to the Holy Roman Empire, and Italy appeared as an even more appetizing prey. But then, in 1241, Ogodei died, and tradition demanded a return to Mongolia for funeral rites and the selection of a new Khan. The danger looming over Europe disappeared – at least in theory, as the devastation of crops and structures sowed hardship in the following decade – and, in addition, the Cumans seized the opportunity to rebel.

Subutai supported Guyuk’s election, and he rewarded him by entrusting him with the subjugation of the Song dynasty in China, a task Subutai carried out for two years until 1247. He retired at the end of the campaign, perhaps suspecting that he had only a year of life left. At his death, he left behind five sons – some of whom were also brilliant warriors – and an impressive resume: twenty wars, sixty-five won battles, and having conquered more territory than any other man in history.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 29, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Subotai, el general mongol que conquistó más territorio que ningún otro hombre en la Historia


Richard A. Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s greatest general. Subotai the Valiant | Michael Prawdin, Gengis Kan | Michael Pradwin, The Mongol Empire. Its rise and legacy | Anónimo, Historia secreta de los mongoles | Borja Pelegero Alcaide, Breve historia de Gengis Kan y el pueblo mongol | Igor de Rachewiltz y May Wang, In the Service of the Khan: Eminent personalities of the early Mongol–Yuan period (1200–1300) | Stephen Turnbull, Genghis Khan & the Mongol Conquests 1190–1400 | Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.