When to fight the nomads, between China and the west


Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
Apparently in the second-century BC the Han Chinese under Wudi learned that the best time to attack the Xiongnu was in the spring, since their animals were weak from winter grazing. Yet when the Magyars arrive in Europe, we find them attacking during the spring - a number of the early raids into Italy took place in March, and three of the four attacks on Byzantium can be dated to April. If we assume that the strength of the nomads was on account of their animals, what explains the difference? Can the ecology of differing dates of spring or types of grass explain the difference? Does it matter that the Magyars were raiding on horseback and presumably leaving most of their pastoral animals behind, whereas the Han were attacking the economic base of the Xiongnu by targeting just those animals? Are European winters mild enough that a small and swift force can campaign in the spring? Does this pattern get repeated amongst other steppe groups in other times and places?
Apr 2018
Seems that also the Strategikon advice generals that fought against steppe people to launch against them winter campaigns to destrow their foraging

Probabily Mongolia has a more continental climate that europe, europe also have the effects of the gulf stream that make it warmer
Oct 2013
I think that we're talking about two different things: when to attack the "steppe warriors" and when the "steppe warriors" attacked/raided.

"Steppe warriors" did raided in winter, as frozen land and rivers enhanced their mobility (Mongols could cross the Danube only in the winter, that was exceptionally cold, thus Danube froze). There was also that sedentary populations (presumably armed forces too) where confined, goods were stored. Theoretically, raiding was more "efficient".

Does this pattern get repeated amongst other steppe group
It was quite generalized. AFAIK, Cumans, Magyar, Slav, Tartar, Cosack, Nogai, all raided in winter.

Are European winters mild enough that a small and swift force can campaign in the spring?
europe also have the effects of the gulf stream that make it warmer
Actually ... no.

Central/Eastern Europe (take approx the today's Western border of Poland and Hungary as orientation) has a continental climate, with harsh winters.

Mild spring can be a disadvantage, as it can drastically reduce the mobility of cavalry ("heavy" soil, flooding rivers).
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Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
Germanic barbarians often raided in the spring when food supplies were lowest. Raiding took the men away from home, leaving more food for the women and children. Raiding also took the men into enemy territory where they fed off enemy food supplies. Nomadic horse peoples may have thought the same thing - raiding in spring does not strain limited food supplies, it extends them.

In the 19th century, the US Army found that winter was a good time to attack the Plains Indians who were also horse nomads.
Feb 2018
From David Graff's Eurasian Way of War, which compares Tang China and Byzantine methods of warfare against nomads: "The Strategikon notes that the best time to attack nomads is in February and March “when their horses are in wretched condition after suffering through the winter,” and the Chinese traditionally favored the same season for their campaigns onto the steppe—when the nomads’ horses were thin and weak and had not had a chance to fatten on the spring grass. It was precisely at this juncture, in late winter and very early spring, that Li Jing had launched his decisive blow against the Eastern Türks [who ruled Mongolia and Northwest China] in 630."

Muqali's campaigns against the Jin from 1216-1223 also saw the Mongols continually invading in Autumn and retreating for the Summer. Their animals seemed to be at the peak capability in the autumn, and weakest in the spring, and animal health was likely the biggest concern. I don't think you can generalize all nomads this way because the Mongolian plateau is significantly colder than other parts of the steppe. Nomads certainly are not all alike. As for the health of Mongol solders themselves, Winter campaigning anywhere, including deeper Siberia or over the Tien Shan, seemed no big deal, but conversely heat and humidity could be a serious problem. They retreated from the Indian heat and humidity twice instead of chasing Jalal al Din.
Jan 2016
United States, MO
The horse of the Mongol steppe is also very different when compared to the turko-arabic breeds favored by other nomads. Mongolia gets extremely cold in winter

Here we can see that January averages around -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). Mongols don't keep there horses in stables or even in fences. Other horse breeds may be more powerful but can't survive in these conditions and require shelter, but Mongol horses are fairly low maintenance. They don't eat grass, don't need horse shoes, and roam around fending for themselves most of the time. In order to survive the extreme cold, the animals have to develop a thick layer of fat to survive the winter which they have to replenish each year in the spring. This is likely why armies from the Mongol steppe are relatively weaker in the spring.

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