Medieval Chinese drawing
Native name Sübügätäi
Born c. 1175
Burkhan Khaldun, Mongolia
Died 1248 (aged 7273)
Tuul River, Mongolia
Nationality Uriankhai
Other names Latin transcriptions: Subetei, Subetai, Subotai, Tsubotai, Tsubodai, Tsubetei, Tsubatai
Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi, Sübü'ätäi
Modern Mongolian: Sübeedei (Mongolian: Сүбээдэй), Middle Mongolian: "Sube'edei", Сүбэдэй (Tuvan: Сүбэдэй)
Occupation General
Title Örlög baghatur, Noyan of a Mingghan
Relatives Jelme, Chaurkhan, Qaban, Nerbi

Subutai (Classical Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü'ätäi; Tuvan: Сүбэдэй; Modern Mongolian: Сүбээдэй, Sübedei; Chinese: 速不台 1175–1248) was an Uriankhai general, and the primary military strategist of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan. He directed more than twenty campaigns in which he conquered thirty-two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles, during which he conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history.[1] He gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that were hundreds of kilometers away from each other. He is also remembered for devising the campaign that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces over five hundred kilometers apart.

Early life

Historians believe Subutai was born in the year 1175,[2] probably just west of the upper Onon River in what is now Mongolia. He belonged to the Uriankhai clan. Subutai's family had been associated with the family of Temujin (future Genghis Khan) for many generations. Subutai's great-great grandfather, Nerbi, was supposedly an ally of the Mongol Khan Tumbina Sechen. Subutai's father, Jarchigudai, supposedly supplied food to Temujin and his followers when they were in dire straits at lake Baljuna, and Subutai's elder brother Jelme also served as a general in the Mongol army and was a close companion of Temujin. Jelme rescued a severely wounded Temujin (hit by an arrow from Jebe, then an enemy) in the process of unification of the Mongolian plateau. Another brother, Chaurkhan (also romanized as Ca'urqan) is mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols.[3]

Despite this close family association, Subutai may be considered proof that the Mongol Empire was a meritocracy. He was a commoner by birth, the son of Jarchigudai, who was supposedly a blacksmith. When he was 14 years old, Subutai left his clan to join Temujin's army, following in the footsteps of his older brother Jelme who had joined when he was 17 years old, and he rose to the very highest command available to one who was not a blood relative to Genghis.[4] Within a decade he rose to become a general, in command of one of 4 tumens operating in the vanguard. In 1212 he took Huan by storm, the first major independent exploit mentioned in the sources. Genghis Khan is reported to have called him one of his "dogs of war" in The Secret History of the Mongols:[5]

"They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai (different than Kublai Khan), Jelme, and Subotai."
The Secret History of the Mongols

Mongol histories say that Subutai said to Genghis Khan, "I will ward off your enemies as felt cloth protects one from the wind."[6]

As a general

Subutai was one of the first Mongol generals, alongside Genghis Khan, who realized the value of engineers in siege warfare. Even in field battles he made use of siege engines, much as Chinese armies had in their own wars. In the Battle of Mohi, the Hungarian crossbowmen repelled a night bridge crossing by the Mongols, and inflicted considerable casualties on the Mongols fighting to cross the river the following day. Subutai ordered huge stonethrowers to clear the bank of Hungarian crossbowmen and open the way for his light cavalry to cross the river without further losses. This use of siege weapons was one of the first recorded uses in the West of artillery outside of siege warfare. While the stonethrowers were clearing the path to cross the main bridge, Subutai supervised construction of another temporary bridge downriver to outflank the Hungarians.

Subutai was also well known for incorporating conquered peoples who brought specialized skills into his forces, especially engineers. He was skilled at intelligence gathering and planning his campaigns well in advance. For instance, he used spies to gather information on the Russian principalities, the Poles, and the Hungarians at least a year before the attacks on each. He tailored his strategy to match the enemy, adjusting his tactics according to the opponents, the terrain, and the weather as required. He emphasized the use of light cavalry in his army, maneuvering the enemy into feints and ambushes, and efficiently pursuing and defeating broken armies to destroy further resistance. Subutai kept his forces in line with the Mongol tradition of dispensing with excess baggage train and ensured his troops could efficiently live off the land and rapidly advance great distances on campaign. He preferred to maneuver the enemy into a position of weakness before committing to battle.

First campaigns in the West

Genghis Khan sent Subutai to hunt down the Merkits. Subutai defeated them on the Chu River in 1216 and again in 1219 in Wild Kipchak territory. Mohammad II of Khwarizm attacked Subutai shortly afterwards along the Irghiz. Subutai held him off after a fierce battle.

Genghis Khan led the Mongol army westwards in late 1219 to invade Khwarizm as retaliation for the execution of Mongol ambassadors. Subutai commanded the vanguard of the invasion force. With roughly 100,000 armed men, the Mongol army was numerically inferior to the forces of the Khwarizim Empire, but through deception and rapid maneuver, the Mongols crushed the Khwarizim in several key battles. Mohammad attempted to save himself by fleeing into central Persia, leading Genghis Khan to send Subutai and Jebe with 20,000 men to hunt him down. Mohammad eluded capture, but he fell ill and died at a fishing village on the Caspian Sea in early 1221.

Subutai spent part of the winter in Azerbaijan. Here he conceived the idea of circling the Caspian Sea to fall on the rear of the Wild Kipchaks and Cumans. After a police action in Persia and a raid into Georgia, the Mongols cut across the Caucasus Mountains during the winter to get around the Derbent Pass. Using clever diplomacy, Subutai isolated and defeated the Alans and Don Kipchaks/Cumans in detail. He crushed a combined Rus and Cuman army along the Kalka (31 May 1223). The campaign concluded with Subutai rejoining Genghis Khan as the Mongol army was making its way back home.

In the Secret History of the Mongols, the only reference to this early battle is: "Then he (Chinghis Khan) sent Dorbei the Fierce off against the city of Merv, and on to conquer the people between Iraq and the Indus. He sent Subetei the Brave off to war in the North where he defeated eleven kingdoms and tribes, crossing the Volga and Ural Rivers, finally going to war with Kiev."

Against Xi Xia and Jin

Subutai played a key part in the campaign against the Xi Xia in 1226. In 1227, he conquered the Jin districts along the upper Wei River. The Mongol operations were interrupted by the death of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was succeeded by his son Ögedei. In 1230-1231, Ögedei personally led the main Mongol army against the Jin (in Central China), but the attempt to break into the plains of Henan ended in failure after Subutai was defeated at Shan-ch’e-hui. The Mongols besieged and took Fengxiang, a secondary target. In 1231-1232 the Mongols made another attempt. This time Subutai was able to outmaneuver the Jin armies.

The Mongols won decisive victories at Sanfeng (9 February 1232), Yangyi (24 February 1232), and T’iehling (1 March 1232). Ögedei and the main Mongol army returned to Mongolia, leaving Subutai with a small force to complete the conquest of Henan. Subutai found it difficult to take the large cities and needed almost two more years to finally eliminate the Jin. He made an alliance with Song to get help to complete the job. But it did not take the Song long to fall out with the Mongols. Two Song armies seized Kaifeng and Luoyang during the summer of 1234. The Mongols returned and retook the cities.

The second series of Western campaigns

Ögedei decided to send a major part of the army into the western regions to finally crush the Wild Kipchaks and Bulgars. Subutai was tasked to direct the operations (under the overall command of prince Batu). He defeated Kipchak leader Bachman on the north side of the Caspian Sea and next conquered the Volga Bulgars. In late 1237, Subutai attacked Ryazan and Vladimir-Suzdal, operating with three columns (attacking as the Mongols usually did during the winter). The Rus forces were defeated in 3 separate engagements and their cities were taken in quick succession. The Mongols spent the summer of 1238 resting along the Don River. Columns were sent out to subjugate the various tribes living in the plains around the Black Sea. In 1239, the Rus state of Chernigov was defeated and their cities were taken.

The Mongols had made a treaty with Galich-Vladimir, whose prince was therefore taken by surprise when the Mongols suddenly attacked in December 1240. Kiev, Vladimir, and other cities were quickly taken. The Mongols were ready to enter Central Europe. Subutai operated with several separate detachments, aiming to distract on the flanks, while he dealt with the main Hungarian army in the center. The Mongols defeated European armies at Chmielnik (18 March 1241), Kronstadt (31 March 1241), Liegnitz (9 April 1241), Muhi (10 April 1241), and Hermannstadt (10 April 1241). Hungary was overrun. The Mongols set out for home in 1242, after learning that Ögedei had died, relieving Vienna and the rest of Central Europe from further assaults.

Attack on central and eastern Europe

The attack on Europe was planned and carried out by Subutai, who achieved his lasting fame with his victories there. Having devastated the various Russian principalities, he sent spies as far as Poland, Hungary, and Austria in preparation for an attack into the heartland of Europe. Having a clear picture of the European kingdoms, he brilliantly prepared an attack nominally commanded by Batu Khan and two other princes of the blood. While Batu Khan, son of Jochi, was the overall leader, Subutai was the actual commander in the field, and as such was present in both the northern and southern campaigns against Kievan Rus'. He also commanded the central column that moved against the Kingdom of Hungary. While Kadan's northern force won the Battle of Legnica and Güyük's army triumphed in Transylvania, Subutai was waiting for them on the Hungarian plain.

King Béla IV of Hungary had summoned a council of war at Esztergom, a large and important settlement upriver from Buda and Pest. As Batu was advancing on Hungary from the northeast, the Hungarian leadership decided to concentrate their strength at Pest and then head north to confront the Mongol army. When news of the Hungarian battle strategy reached the Mongol commanders, they slowly withdrew to the Sajo River, drawing their enemies on. This was a classic Mongol strategy, ultimately perfected by Subutai. He prepared a battlefield suitable to his tactics, and waited for his enemies to blunder in. It was a strong position, because woods prevented their ranks from being clearly scouted or seen, while across the river on the plain of Mohi, the Hungarian army was widely exposed.

Only one day after the smaller Mongol army in Poland had won the Battle of Legnica, Subutai launched his attack, thus beginning the Battle of Mohi during the night of April 10, 1241. At Mohi, a single division crossed the river in secret to advance on the Hungarian camp from the southern flank. The main body began to cross the Sajo by the bridge at Mohi, and continued to attack the following day. This was met with fierce resistance, so catapults were used to clear the opposite bank of crossbowmen, as was noted earlier. When the crossing was completed, the second contingent attacked from the south.

The result was complete panic, and, to ensure that the Hungarians did not fight to the last man, the Mongols left an obvious gap in their encirclement. This was one of Subutai's classic tricks, to create a tactical situation which appeared to be favourable to the enemy, but which was anything but. The Mongols had already incurred heavier than usual casualties as the Hungarian crossbowmen had done considerable damage to the Mongol cavalry. Subutai did not want a battle where the massed crossbowmen, supported by mounted knights, stood firm and fought to the death against his army. He far preferred to let them flee and be slaughtered individually. The gap in the Mongol lines was an invitation to retreat, which would leave the knights and crossbowmen spread out all over the countryside, easy pickings for the disciplined Mongols. As Subutai had planned, the Hungarians poured through this apparent hole in the Mongol lines, which led to a swampy area, poor footing for horses and hard going for infantry. When the Hungarian knights split up, the Mongol archers picked them off at will. It was later noted that corpses littered the countryside over the space of a two-day journey. Two archbishops and three bishops were killed at the Sajo, plus 40,000 fighting men. At one stroke, the bulk of Hungarian fighting men were totally destroyed, with relatively minimal casualties to the Mongols, reportedly less than 1,000 men.

Final years

By late 1241, Subutai was discussing plans to invade the Holy Roman Empire, when news came of the death of Ögedei Khan. Over the objections of Subutai, the Mongol Princes withdrew the army to Mongolia for the election of a new Great Khan. The death of Ögedei effectively put an end to the Mongol invasion of Europe.

Subutai insisted that Batu attend the kurultai to elect the successor of Ogedei in Mongolian heartland. Batu declined to come and Güyük was elected after three years. Güyük had no love for Batu and wanted this best of the Mongol generals unavailable to Batu if the feud between them came to open war. The new Khagan placed Subutai in charge at the age of 70 of the campaign against the Song dynasty for 1246–1247. The Papal envoy Plano Carpini saw him when he was in Karakorum, Mongolia. He said Subutai was well respected among the Mongols and called Knight/Valiant (translation of Baghatur). Subutai returned to Mongolia from the Song campaign in 1248 and spent the rest of his life at his home in the vicinity of the Tuul River (near modern Ulaanbaatar), dying there at the age of 72. His descendants such as Uryankhadai and Aju would serve the Great Khans for the next three decades as commanders.

Historical fiction



  1. Ch 1 Great Captains Unveiled Liddell Hart ISBN 0-8369-0618-7
  2. Gabriel, Richard. "Genghis Khan's Greatest General Subotai the Valiant". University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, p. 6.
  3. Tsendiin Damdinsüren (1970). "120 (III)". Монголын нууц товчоо [The Secret History of the Mongols] (in Mongolian) (1st ed.).
  4. Gabriel 2004, pp. 1, 3.
  5. Cummins, Joseph. History's Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events That Changed the World. 2006. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006. Print.
  6. Saunders, J. J. (1971). The History of the Mongol Conquests, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. ISBN 0-8122-1766-7

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