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Representation of genocides with photo of stacked human skulls.      Source: papi8888 / Adobe stock.

Suffering the Conquerors: 5 Worst Genocides in Ancient History

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The history of our world has always been a bloody and difficult affair, full of struggles, wars and conquests. And in the centuries before our own, tribes and chieftains, kingdoms and empires, all relied on subjugating the smaller nations for their own gain. In the old times, where there were conquests, there was oppression. From massacres and genocides to expulsions, to conversions and famines - the conquered peoples suffered dreadful fates at the hands of their conquerors. Vae victis! - or not?

Today we are going deep into the past as we explore the worst crimes against innocent peoples - all the way up to the 17th century. With the onset of the numerous wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a great increase in sad tales of oppression, a certain term was coined: ‘ genocide’. And that is the very word we will explore today, and all the weight, these eight letters carry within them.

Getting to Understand the Worst Genocides in History

What is a genocide? Contrary to popular belief, the term genocide does not only mean a mass murder of people. It also signifies all acts that are carried out against a populace in order to destroy it fully or partially. It refers to many acts that directly or indirectly cause the destruction of a certain population - massacre, expulsion, starvation, forced conversion, imposing of living conditions that forcefully destroy a population over time, suppression of identity, and so on. In short, a genocide refers to much more than just mass murders - any forced act that causes a disappearance or expulsion of a population can be termed a genocide.

Skeletons buried in soil, representation of the results of genocides. (asayenka / Adobe stock)

Skeletons buried in soil, representation of the results of genocides. ( asayenka / Adobe stock)

And throughout the course of history, such cases were numerous. In fact, they were a staple in ancient times. Tribes and chiefdoms relied on vicious conquests of their neighbors in order to ensure survival of their own tribe. In part, this was a crucial aspect of human nature - which is often ruthless and primitive.

Large empires, kingdoms and khaganates all inevitably brought suffering and death wherever they ventured. Massacres and expulsions were a staple of their campaigns, and forced conversions and assimilations were mandatory. As we flick through the pages of history, we can clearly see how brutal and merciless it was - entire nations and peoples - with their identities and histories - disappeared forever, either through assimilation or death.

And so we need to understand - human nature, and the laws of nature in general, were never kind. Survival of the strong is the main principle of our world, and this was the subconscious motto of all conquering empires in history. To subjugate the weak neighbor, to vanquish the pacifists, to plunder the peaceful. Brave men stood against such conquerors, small sparks trying to withstand blazing infernos. History does not remember them, nor their sacrifice. Their nations and peoples gone and forgotten. Such is the nature of man, and of genocide.

So join us as we explore some of the worst genocides from the older pages of history, all the way up to the 17th century.

The Centuries of Genocide Against the Slavic Peoples

We begin our story with one of the classic examples of how peaceful, pastoral and agrarian tribes were viciously exploited by all those that surrounded them, and greedily coveted to usurp them. The Slavic tribes and their shared ethno-linguistic identity emerged from a string of amalgamated Proto-European and Indo-European cultures that developed over centuries. This Slavic identity spread over large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe and remained in these regions for centuries, from the earliest periods AD, all the way to modern times.

But their history is grim and rife with injustice and oppression. From their earliest starts, the Slavs were peaceful and pastoral cultures, with a set of colorful mythologies and a pantheon of gods strongly rooted in nature. They were never a true warrior culture, and they had to adopt several weapons from the peoples around them. And their neighbors exploited this peaceful culture by enslaving them en masse.

The story of enslavement of the Slavs spanned centuries. It was a genocide that wasn’t a one-time occurrence - but one that went on for a long, long time. As they lived from the coasts of the Adriatic, and all around the major river systems of Europe, they were easily reached by slave traders from all sides.

The Eastern Slavs were enslaved by Mongol, Tatar and Khazar hordes from the Central Asian steppes. The Southern Slavs were targeted from the shores of the Adriatic, while the Western Slavs were captured through the rivers of Europe by the Germanic nations. Norsemen, Saxons, and other tribes captured Slavs for their thralls, while the Arabs of the Iberian Peninsula captured them in great masses, taking the men for war, and lusting after the Slavic females, taking them for harems, and greatly prizing them at slave markets. 

The Rus trading Eastern Slavs slaves with the Khazars. (Sergey Ivanov / Public domain)

The Rus trading Eastern Slavs slaves with the Khazars. (Sergey Ivanov / Public domain )

And all these trade routes that dealt in Slavic slaves grew into an organized and well-established slave trading system that was created by Radanite Jews who supervised the trade and sold these slaves, amassing great wealth through the suffering of innocent people. 

In Arab Hispania, Slavic slaves were bought in such masses, that the term Saqaliba was born. This is the Arab name for Slavs, and these Saqaliba became a crucial part of internal affairs in the Iberian Peninsula, even rising to great positions in their caliphates. One caliph even permanently settled some 5,000 captured Slavs into Syria.

And the Slavic tribes that had their homeland from the lower Jutland Peninsula and all along the Elbe river valleys, experienced centuries of genocide from the Germanic invaders - who relied on massacres and forceful conversions to vanquish the Slavs in Germany.

Such was the sad fate of the Slavs - they were enslaved in such great masses that the word for “slave” in the classical world was none other than “Slav”. The Slavic ethnonym - Slav - means “glory”, “celebration”, or “mutual intelligibility” - but their oppressors used this ethnonym to denote a slave. Such was the fate of those peaceful farmers.

The Albigensian Crusade

Also known as the Cathar Crusade, this crusade was a 20 year long Catholic campaign that sought to exterminate the Cathars - a peaceful religious group whose only threat to Catholicism was nothing other than their peace. The Cathars and their belief developed over several centuries, and grew into a dualistic form of Christianity. As it gathered many adherents and believers, it obviously took on the notions of a great movement. And such great religious movements were a direct threat to the wallets and coffers of the Catholic Church.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. (Public domain)

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. ( Public domain )

And thus, after a string of failed conversions, the Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to exterminate Catharism. From the get-go, this crusade was a vicious and bloody affair. The Catholic crusaders harbored a distinct hate against the Cathars, and sought to eliminate them in the worst way possible - through murder. What occurred in those years is today termed as one of the “worst cases of genocide in religious history.”

The Crusaders had a string of successes in their early campaign, and captured the town of Béziers in 1209. When the walled-in Cathars refused to surrender, the crusaders proceeded to massacre the entire population of the town, which resulted in 20,000 deaths.

Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Cathars / Albigensians (left). Massacre against the Cathars by the Crusaders (right). (Chroniques de Saint-Denis / Public domain)

Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Cathars / Albigensians (left). Massacre against the Cathars by the Crusaders (right). (Chroniques de Saint-Denis / Public domain )

Similar massacres and expulsions continued throughout the campaign, with burning at the stake being the crusaders’ favored method of execution. In the end, Catharism was truly exterminated by genocide, and the deaths of those peaceful religious people still stain the pages of Catholic history.

The Conquests of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan

The Turkic and Mongol Khaganates were known for their sweeping conquests of huge swaths of lands. They dominated the Central Asian steppes for centuries, and brought on several venerated conquerors such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Their hordes were known for their military prowess and durability, and the skill in horseback warfare.

But they also had the infamous reputation of brutally eradicating all those tribes and nations that dared opposed them. A number of historians term many of their conquering deeds as genocide.

One notorious example is the practice of Genghis Khan, which he used to decimate his opponents. Once he conquered a rival horde, he would force all men to walk beside a tall wagon wheel, which was common for the region. Any man who was taller than the linchpin - the part in the central hub of the wheel - was beheaded on the spot.

Statue of Genghis Khan, the emperor that ordered many genocides, on horseback in battle. (William Cho / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Statue of Genghis Khan, the emperor that ordered many genocides, on horseback in battle. (William Cho / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

His vicious methods caused the extinction of several nations and tribes, as he is known to have ordered the extermination of Tata Mongols, and masses of Kankali Turkic people. 

Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol founder of the Timurid Empire, was equally ruthless. He was especially merciless when it came to Christians and Muslims, often massacring great numbers of people at once. He ordered the killing of every single Christian person in the captured city of Tikrit, a deed that directly brought to the near destruction of the Assyrian Church of the East.

It is true that these Mongol hordes were powerful conquerors, but even a conqueror can show mercy. Sadly, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane chose not to.

Tamerlane orders campaign against Georgia. (Public domain)

Tamerlane orders campaign against Georgia. ( Public domain )

The Ottoman Oppression of the Serbs

The medieval Serbian nation saw centuries of its rich history coming to an abrupt end with the arrival of conquering Ottoman armies. The Ottoman Turks swept across Europe and subjugated several nations before facing Lazar of Serbia and the remnants of the Serbian Empire. The Serbs led by Tsar Lazar decided to put all they had against the Ottomans in hopes of saving their land and Christian Europe.

They stood against the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which both forces suffered immense losses, and the Ottomans lost their sultan. The battle had no victor, but the Serbian forces lost their leader and all of their nobility, being effectively decimated and unable to withstand further Ottoman conquests.

Painting of the Battle of Kosovo, dated 1870, which led to genocides of the Serbs by the Ottomans. Prince Lazar of the Serbian Empire is seen dying with his horse. (Adam Stefanović / Public domain)

Painting of the Battle of Kosovo, dated 1870, which led to genocides of the Serbs by the Ottomans. Prince Lazar of the Serbian Empire is seen dying with his horse. (Adam Stefanović / Public domain )

In the period that followed, the Serbian Christian populace was subjected to systematic initial genocide, both through massacres and through expulsions. People had to leave their centuries-old hearths and to flee to remote areas of their land. Many were forcibly converted to Islam, and women were enslaved en masse and sent to the Ottoman capital to be used as concubines. The Ottomans were infamous for their brutal methods of execution and oppression, as well as a tyrannical rule.

One of their well-known methods of recruiting fresh soldiers and servants for the empire, was the so-called devşirme, or in Serbian данак у крви. This was a method were Ottoman troops would take a child levy, by forcefully taking very young boys from their families and sending them to the empire’s capital, where they would be raised as Turks. As much as 300,000 mothers had their sons taken away never again to return. 

Asiatic Vespers of 88 BC

Mithridates VI is well known through history as one of the biggest and fiercest enemies of Rome. He ruled the Pontic Empire and was a constant opponent of Rome, which he engaged in a series of conflicts known as the Mithridatic Wars.

He was also known for his hatred of Romans, which led to an event that is known as the Vespers of 88 BC, and one of the earliest documented genocides in history. 

When Mithridates VI became engaged in a war with Nicomedes IV of Bythinia - a Roman puppet ruler - Rome itself was having a struggle in the Italian Peninsula. That meant that their presence in their Asian province was brought to a minimum. This allowed Mithridates to win a decisive victory against his enemies, and turn his wrath on the Roman populace of Anatolia. In 88 BC he orchestrated their extermination, and massacred around 80,000 Roman settlers that came over from Italy.

His infamy only grew after this, and the Roman’s rage was unstoppable after the genocide. But the Roman presence in the region was basically wiped out with the massacre.  

The Conquerors Dictate

Vae victis! was always the motto of the conquerors. It shows the world that the strongest will always come out on top, and subjugate those weaker than themselves. But a conqueror can also be merciful, winning over the subjugated nations through respect and kindness. Sadly, great conquerors of history didn't know this, and that caused so many genocides and the sad fate of so many innocent people.

Top image: Representation of genocides with photo of stacked human skulls.      Source: papi8888 / Adobe stock.

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Jankowiak, M. 2017. What Does the Slave Trade in the Saqaliba Tell Us about Early Islamic Slavery? Cambridge Core. [Online] Available at:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies/article/what-does-the-slave-trade-in-the-saqaliba-tell-us-about-early-islamic-slavery/EDDD35D8FD593AB8D576D11550CF62C6/core-reader

Unknown. Mithridatic Wars. Heritage History. [Online] Available at:

https://www.heritage-history.com/index.php?c=resources&s=war-dir&f=wars_mithridatic

Unknown. The Turco-Mongol Conqueror Timur. Silk Road. [Online] Available at:

http://www.silk-road.com/artl/timur.shtml

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