In this state, there are two kinds of people: nomadic, horse-riding steppe-folk, and sedentary urban people. They both share the same heritage (the city people are descended from nomads who settled down in the few places fit for urban development), but there is a marked difference in culture. Furthermore, even though they are both under the same kingdom, each demographic is ruled in a different manner, with the cities being more directly controlled and the plains having a similar system to the Native Americans of the Great Plains. They do exist in a symbiotic relationship: the plains provide food and military strength, while the cities provide processed goods, trade, and thinkers.

From what I know from history, the steppes people should be able to steamroll the cities in a theoretical civil war or coup d'etat. They have all the unrivaled mobility and range of horse warriors while still having access to the specialists that come with cities.

So, my question is this: why haven't the plains people taken over the kingdom?

(Some additional detail: this world has a c. 1600 tech level, and the kingdom is all one large plain, with no large mountain ranges or rivers.)

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    $\begingroup$ You seem to be missing farmers. How are the plains people providing food if they're nomadic? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Commented Jun 15 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ This is a very strange question. Yes, of course coups and rebellions happen. Military warlords take over the kingdom. And then, guess what happens? They become kings. This is how dynasties are made. The list of examples is very long; at the specific technological level indicated in the question, and listing only founders of famous dynasties, have you heard of King Henry VII of England? Shah Ismail I of Persia? Emperor Hong Taiji of China? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 15 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ Consider the Chinese Yuan Dynasty, created by the Mongols nomads. They weren't nomads anymore. Do the nomads want to stay nomads living in the hard, arid plains? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 15 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ Just as importantly: why should they attack? Is the urbanite king and his urbanite court with urbanite nobles oppressing the nomads and their nobles? The Mongols only started invading everywhere else when one especially talented and charismatic oppressee (Temüjin) decided to take revenge. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 15 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ In real life, the steppe people were in the steppe because that's the only land the farmers didn't want. The wanted fertile land just like anyone else, but did not have the manpower to win a war against farming societies. The historical cases you are thinking of where a horde steamrolls settled populations are notable, but also exceptional. For example, China had been in a century-long civil war when the Mongols invaded, with the Song dynasty helping the Mongols defeat the Jin, and later Jin and Song soldiers providing the Mongols the needed manpower $\endgroup$
    – Fadeway
    Commented Jun 17 at 12:00

12 Answers 12


Nomads have no doubt a lot going on for them. They are physically stronger, can attack at a time of their choosing and can run away to safety. The only things working for city people are:

City Walls

By and large thats the historical reason in our world why nomads aren't able to conquer most of the cities. In absence of gunpowder city walls rarely failed to protect cities.

In the 1600s setting your story has, gunpowder isn't yet reliable enough. Also, it cannot be made in large enough number. More importantly metallurgy isn't developed to the extent of having sufficient number of reliable (that don't explode on itself) gun barrels.


Cities' locations are wisely chosen. They have to be near a water source ofcourse and the water source in almost all cases also acts as a transport channel. A sea port or a river port is usually expanded into a city.

By having one reliable channel open for transportation the other sides of the city can be in tough, barely passable terrain. The way to city can be rocky, marshy, foresty etc with extra points for having poisonous insects and reptiles (including stingy bees).

The terrain can also be muddy or tundra in summer months which is the only time a nomadic tribe can make a raid. You see those nomads have a big weakness, they don't store grains and loots cannot be reliable. Their only edible storage is in form of animals and those animals are continuous food consumers themselves. The food that those animals consume is ofcourse grass and leaves which are hard to find except in summer.

A city in middle of a desert or any non food growing area would be almost impossible for any nomadic group to attack.

Technology and Industry:

Cities are not just centers of trade. They are also centers of knowledge. Technology would be developed in a city and spread from there. Thats why city people will always have an upperhand in technology (unless the nomads have already captured another larger or more advanced city and is able to utilize its technology).

Cities will always have industry. They can apply the technology developed in industry to produce large number of weapons. Nomads will always lack in numbers in these things.

Cities can store a large number of weapons and ammunition too. Nomads being on move will have disadvantage there too.

Large Population:

Cities will always have relatively large number of people no matter which century you are in after adoption of agriculture. It means though city people are softer than nomads they can very well cover this with their large number. You see Hannibal never even attacked Rome. Rome was a large city with population in hundreds of thousands in BC!


Cities are always richer, a lot richer than neighbouring areas even if the neighbouring areas are settled villages. Therefore, cities can always pay nomadic tribes to leave them alone, byzantinian style.

The money paid to nomads would be a large sum for them but still a small amount for the city. Nomads in 16th century couldn't even imagine how much rich a city can be.

City Buildings:

Have you ever visited an old city or happens to live in one? Did you notice that almost all streets are narrow and never straight?

Thats mostly by design. It provides protection. Even if a nomadic group or heck any army nomadic, village or city people, entered a city it has to fight street by street, house by house. Each building can act like a small fortress, raining down stones, debris, and even dust on the invaders in those narrow streets. Even if the army is of high number it cannot utilize it because of the narrowness of streets.

The army has to take each building individually and that takes a lot of toll on the invaders. There is no telling where a street lead to or even if it lead to some place or just end up as a blind alley. There is no telling at which turn another street open up at a side with city defenders waiting fully prepared.

If the city buildings are build with stone or bricks it would be near impossible for any invading army in 1600s to blow up or tear them down. The city folks can have water wells inside those buildings and food stored up for months or even years (grains can last for years in storage in edible condition).

Even in 1942 German Army had huge trouble fighting inside Stalingrad and got immensely defeated there. Even today Russian Army try to bypass large cities and industrial centers (themselves cities though smaller ones) because fighting inside a city is a nightmare in all ages.

The only reliable way to conquer a city is through siege. Wait out the time the city people run out of food. But nomads cannot really do sieges because they don't have ships. City people will always trade through water ways in the 1600s setting.

  • $\begingroup$ Also the gunpowder manufacture and metallurgy that they do have are not portable. You would have to trade with the cities to get the weapons to destroy the cities. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Jun 15 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Genghis Khan, enter stage left with his nomads, to destroy hundreds of cities. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 15 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Genghis(Changaiz) Khan was ofcourse an outlier. How many like him are there in our history? Also, he was helped by relatively easier-than-other-cities surrender of chinese cities and therefore China earlier in his conquest. Thats where he got the siege equipments to conquer cities of real wealth and technology especially gunpowder technology in Khwarzamshahi Empire and beyond. Yet his successors after his grandson were unable to even hold the conquered empires yet alone conquer new cities. $\endgroup$
    – Atif
    Commented Jun 16 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ "people are softer than nomads" What? Which nomads were ever stronger than "city people"? Even the great, well known conquerors like Genghis' army were considerably smaller and weaker than the "city people" they attacked, and so were their animals. Their only advantage was always the same - logistics (and much less so, horse archery). And that both explains how they could be a danger despite all their many shortcomings (noöne actually chose to be a nomad - they were forced to be, despite what pop culture like GoT might preach) and shows how they can be stymied. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Jun 17 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ And of course, that also explains why nomadic people never really retained power over their settled neighbors for long - either they fizzled out, or they simply took over and became settled themselves. That's what you wanted to do if you had a choice; and they almost never got that choice. But you certainly can't maintain a nomadic lifestyle and at the same time do agriculture; you have to choose. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Jun 17 at 9:02

Because they exist in a symbiotic relationship.

Horse nomads that did conquest were, in general, external invaders, not an internal insurgent force. Based on your description, it sounds like these groups are co-located and interspersed. In that case, the reason why one group doesn't conquer the other group is that... they aren't that separate. There's going to be inter-marriage, trade, city sons are going to run off from home to live a noble nomadic life (or nomadic sons will abandon the nomadic life and pick up a trade). They share the same heritage, and likely the same religion. (Well, that doesn't always prevent civil wars, but...)

The nomads aren't going to attack the cities because the chieftan's favorite blacksmith lives there and he wants to make it to his daughter's wedding after the harvest. They're not going to attack the cities because the cities are where they sell their extra horses. They're not going to attack the cities because fermented mare's milk makes really shitty alcohol, and the city people have some really good craft breweries and primo distilleries.

  • $\begingroup$ All of the activities that you mention as reasons why nomads won't invade the cities would still happen afterwards. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 15 at 22:26

Why would they?

Without more context, the answer really boils down to they have no reason to.

Given that you state that the plains and city people are "both under the same kingdom" and "exist in a symbiotic relationship" I fail to see why they would "take over the kingdom".

What do the plains people stand to gain from taking over the kingdom? What does the kingdom even mean if taken over? Do the plains people claim the cities for themselves and become the new city people? If they do, who provides the food now?

Are the plains people oppressed in some way? Do the city people treat them as inferior? Do they mistreat them, imprison them, enslave them, or kill them? Do the plains people have any reason at all to engage in a large scale revolt and potentially long and deadly war?

Do the cities have any sort of fortification? Walls, guard towers, and archers can keep an army at bay for a long time, and have in many battles. That's why siege warfare exists, because it is often easier to surround a fortified city and cut off supplies for months than it is to infiltrate it with a whole army.

Are there any external threats? You say the plains people provide military strength, which tends not to exist in a vacuum. If the plains people turn their attention to taking over the cities that provide them with processed goods (presumably including weapons and armor) they are effectively turning their back on whatever external threat they were dealing with before, leaving themselves open to attack.

War is a terrible, bloody thing. And although it often seems like it happens for no reason at all, wars generally don't start unless both sides feel they have something to gain from winning.

  • $\begingroup$ Plains people and city people have different cultures. Each thinks their culture is superior. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 15 at 14:24

The horse-riding nomads would struggle to take a city because cavalry is rubbish at taking cities. It cannot besiege a city on its own; horses eat a lot and cannot subsist off of cropland, which close to the city would be mostly high-value perishables like fruit, vegetables, pigs, poultry and the like. Horses of course do not eat meat, but even if the nomads do the smart thing and attack right after the harvest, the local crops would only be available briefly (because, being perishable, they will soon spoil). With pre-mechanised transportation you cannot easily bring fodder from elsewhere because the draft animals also eat the very same fodder that they are transporting, and steppe nomads would likely lack timber for wagons anyway. If they manage to enter the city, riding a horse loses most of its advantages; you need infantry for a city assault, and the horse-riding nomads will not necessarily be quite as skilled when fighting on foot.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hmmm, the light cavalry of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and Tamerlane somehow managed to take a lot of cities... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 18 at 5:30
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, thank you except that their cavalry didn't take cities - this was done by the infantry and siege engineers integrated into their armies for this specific purpose. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Commented Jun 18 at 8:13

Clauzewitz's "On War" argues that warfare has alternated between offensive and defensive strategies. If you build a walled town, the raiders on horseback will probably look for an easier target. If your town is safe, it grows rich, and it becomes a more tempting target. The raiders on horseback learn to cooperate. They besiege your town. They conquer it. And, if the history of Jericho or Tiryns or similar places with massive walls is anything to go by, the raiders often decide to live in the town they conquered. They might improve the walls to resist another attack like their one, but after a few generations, the people in the town would be just like the last lot that got conquered. Meanwhile, other raiders on horseback have seen that walled towns could be attacked...

This was happening in the Trojan wars, and it was still happening in the nuclear age. In the eighties, the USSR had massive conventional forces. If they had invaded Europe, then the NATO forces would lose so badly according to the simulations that they would have used nuclear weapons, possibly in the first day. Yet the fort was still a valuable idea. The fort is now a deep mineshaft with several exits, able to survive a direct nuclear attack, and a place to store fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and other necessities in forward positions.

Any stand-off where defence has the upper hand is temporary.

Probably what prevents the raiders from winning is a social change. There is no empty countryside where they can run wild. The countryside is increasingly farmed. If they have horses, they could be dragooned into the King's Cavalry. This may stop offensive warfare at the local scale, but it continues at a larger scale, when the King's forces attack the country next door. Or at the supranational scale in World War.


Stability, command and logistics.

There are historical examples of nomadic peoples being very powerful - for instance the Mongol Empire of the 13th century.

However, it should be noted the Mongol Empire was expansive under Genghis and Ogedai Khans leadership, after they died the empire fractured into many small weaker entities.

The issue for the Mongols were that over the vast distances of their empire (the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous empire in history by land area) it was difficult to maintain order and control beyond the decades of their pinnacle. After the initial successes and tight reign of initial rulers it was too easy for various small factions to attempt control.

So the reasons could be:

  • large land areas are not conducive to cohesive command and control over time
  • without established cities (in which hereditary or stable command structures can be propogated) lengthy dynasties or long-term rulers would find it difficult to quell uprisings or rebellions within their ranks
  • Cities have concentrated resources and the ability to utilise varied industries to promote research and development, advanced structures and defensive (and offensive) capabilities. Nomadic tribes tend to be very static in the R&D department
  • Culture is easier to be cohesive in a city environment - in a nomadic environment it is easier for cultural differences to be more prominent and for the region to fracture.

After the Mongol Empire fractured, Kublai Kahn went to conquer the land of China and established the Yuan Dynasty, and realised he needed to reside in China in modern day Beijing as a central authority. So even the successors of the great Mongol Empire realised that cities were the only hope for future longevity of their culture.


Conquering something means staying there to keep the conquered people under control. Nomads don't stay in cities. End of argument.

They could raid the cities, but nomads also don't travel with loads of baggage. They would lose the ability for local trades (no trust) and win only short terms benefits. Overall not a good strategy.


Guns and Gunpowder

With 1600s-era technology, bows are superior to guns in many respects. Comparing a composite bow with a smoothbore musket, the bow has a higher rate of fire and similar lethality and effective range. What the musket has over the bow are ease of training and quite possibly lower cost if they are produced at scale -- not series production, as such, but city armories where master gunsmiths are assisted by many journeymen and apprentices. The composite bows, meanwhile, are crafted by nomad craftsmen who have all their tools on a pack horse or two.

For nomads, bows remain the rational choice even if they understand the principles of black powder and smithing. Nomad barrels burst more often, nomad springs break, their serpentine powder comes apart during travel.

  • $\begingroup$ And the parts to make bows and arrows are far more available than quality metals. Fire hardened wood arrow tips can be made when running out of quality stone. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 15 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidR, I would expect the nomads to have smiths, good enough to do horseshoes or arrow heads, or even sabers. But not muskets and cannon. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 15 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ While raw materials for smelting are rarer than raw materials for bows and arrows, nomadic tribes can get iron pieces from contact with other groups. For example, the Comanches got a lot of iron for arrowheads by raiding farmers and taking it. One frying pan can be worked into a lot of arrowheads. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 16 at 14:16

They might, but if they do, it doesn't matter

Your nomads could very well conquer your cities, but what happens then? Refugees flee the city and then have to choose between assimilating into the nomadic lifestyle or starving. Meanwhile, the nomads take over the city, their leaders move in to the luxurious cushioned villas of the city's old ruling class, they marry their women, and when they have children, they send them to the same teachers the old ruling class sent their children to.

This process isn't instant, but it's surprisingly fast, the nomads become the city-dwellers, and the city-dwellers become the nomads.



To conquer the city, you need a lot of food while you attack. Given their walls, that will not be overnight. As they are settled, they had a lot more chance than you to stock up on food.

Your armies will starve while they are breaking open the granaries for the next meal.


Because you don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg

Cities have many useful resources that are effectively self replenishing.

You can raid a city over and over again, and so long as you leave enough time between raids there will always be more things to take. They will rebuild and restock ad infinitum.

If you invade and destroy a city you can only do this once. When it's gone it's gone.

If you invade and take over a city, it won't run as efficiently as before. Resources will be scarce, or at least not as plentiful, and you will need to expend your own resources to take and hold it.

You wouldn't even need to attack the cities, just the merchants and traders who moved between the cities. They would be less defensible and easier to take resources from.


The plains people haven't conquered the cities because agrarian societies have more people, more food, and better technology than steppe nomads.

But first, it is unlikely that at a 1600s-level technology that one political state would encompass both the steppe/plains and an agrarian society. In fact, I do not believe that we see any such state in Terran history. (China ruled by the Mongols does not count, because the Mongols ruling China quickly became agrarian and independent of the Mongols.) This is because the agrarian society will evolve into a state, but expanding into the steppe will not happen because there is nothing that the state can gain. They steppe nomads have nothing to tax, you can't grow crops there (as evidenced by the fact that only grass is growing there, usually due to lack of rain), and defending against the nomadic horse archers is a pain.

Nomadic horse archers have always been a pain to deal with, but nomads cannot hold territory. Even the Mongols passed through, exacted tribute, and then everything fell apart within a couple of decades. States learned to deal with them, too: the Romans were able to defeat them if they were able to resist the temptation to follow them on the fake retreat. The steppe nomads were a problem because they could appear out of nowhere and they would shoot arrows and then retreat. But you can't conquer an army by skirmishing, and the greater population density and access to resources gave the agrarian societies better technology.

But with 1600s-era technology, it may be impossible for the steppe nomads to be an effective against agrarian armies, due to the invention of firearms, although the specifics are dependent on the nature of your societies.

I highly recommend Brett Devreaux's articles on this subject:

  1. That Dathraki Horde (first of four parts) is an in-depth look at steppe nomads, both Eurasian and North American (and how GRR Martin gets it completely wrong).
  2. Fireside has a discussion how the Mongol conquest was not at all inevitable (after all, it hadn't happened for two millenia).
  3. The site has a lot of other articles, including one on your question, but I cannot find it. However, searching for "steppe" and reading the results will be helpful.
  4. You probably also want to read the articles on cities, and army logistics.
  • $\begingroup$ I was personally thinking that the cities are the result of some of the nomads settling down where they found spots to do so, but that is an interesting point. $\endgroup$
    – RHF
    Commented Jun 18 at 0:17

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