10 Forgotten Conquerors From Ancient History

9. Modu Chanyu

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The horse was first domesticated on the great Eurasian Steppe, the seemingly endless ocean of grass that runs from Mongolia to Eastern Europe. Every so often, the nomadic horsemen of the plains would unite under some great ruler and erupt on the civilized world. Some of these conquerors remain famous—-Attila, Genghis, Timur the Lame—-but Modu Chanyu, who was one of the earliest, is now almost forgotten in the West.

Modu’s father was king of the Xiongnu, a people who lived in what is now Mongolia. The king preferred Modu’s brother, so Modu had him killed and took power anyway. According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian, Modu invited his bodyguards for some archery practice and told them to use his favorite horse as a target. When some objected, Modu immediately executed them. Then, he told them to use his wife as a target. Again, some objected, and Modu killed them on the spot. Finally, he told the survivors that their new target was his father. They shot him without hesitation.

After murdering his siblings, Modu launched lightning campaigns against the Donghu and Yuezhi, forming a sprawling empire that stretched across the eastern steppes. In 200 BC, he lured the Chinese Emperor Gaozu into an ambush and forced him to sign a humiliating treaty. The Chinese had to pay tribute and Gaozu agreed to give his daughter as a concubine to Modu (he sent some other girl and lied that she was his daughter instead).

In a way, Gaozu was lucky—-the king of Yuezhi had his skull turned into a drinking cup by Modu’s son. Modu himself died in 174 BC, as the ruler of an empire that rivaled Alexander the Great’s in size.

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