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Subotai the Valiant

The life of one of Genghis Khan’s greatest generals and the victor of 65 pitched battles.

Subotai the Valiant – or Subotai Bagatur (there are several variant spellings) – was one of Genghis Khan’s greatest generals and lived to be the conqueror of Hungary as well as a leader in the conquests of China, Korea, Persia and Russia. It was only the death of the Great Khan himself that caused Subotai to return to the capital to witness the election of a new leader that spared what remained of Western Europe from the Mongol yoke.

Yet Subotai himself was born of humble stock and was presented to Genghis (or Temujin, as he was then known) as a kind of slave. In line with the meritocracy put into place by Genghis (albeit one limited in the case of the eligibility for supreme leadership), Subotai followed his older brother Jelme in proving himself to be a superior soldier and a far-seeing and well-organised general. They were the sons of a blacksmith of the clan of Uriangkhai. Blacksmiths were rare and prized individuals because metal was so rare on the Steppes that the Mongols roamed. So prized, indeed, that it would be expected that sons would be trained to take over the craft. Yet Jelme and Subotai learned military skills while serving in Temujin’s tent that enabled them to become innovative and effective generals. This was during the period when Temujin was uniting what was to become the Mongol nation, when the brothers must have had the opportunity to study every aspect of military leadership at very close quarters. At the same time, they had the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty and competence. Their careers were established from within the tent, which was a place some have described as one of the most intense and effective training centres the world has seen. This was quite an achievement for Uriangkhai youths for their people lived in the forested north of the Steppes, where horses were few and reindeer were hunted on skis on the frozen ground.

Given his chance to lead, Subotai proved to have all the qualities required of a Mongol general. Not only had he managed to acquire all the individual skills required (horsemanship, archery, survival) but he also was able to negotiate co-ordination of large military bodies over extended areas of terrain and to take decisive and correct action whenever required. For example, at the Battle of Sajo River (1241 CE), when Subotai led the Mongols to the destruction of the Hungarian King Bela’s army of perhaps 100,000 troops, his sudden flank attack threw the enemy into disarray and was instrumental in the victory that eventually followed. His skills enabled him to win an unprecedented 65 pitched battles and his armies conquered 32 nations.

Yet he was to be denied many of the rewards for long service, partly because he was unable to settle in a city such as Batu after his military service was completed. The politicking he saw there left him cold and he preferred to spend his time living a less luxurious life on the river Danube, where he could be closer to his son and grandson, as they sought to build military careers of their own. He died in 1248 CE at the advanced age of 72.

For more details, please see Richard A. Gabriel’s Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).

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