Did the Romans Fight the Mongols?


Posted by Julian Wymanton on Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Roman Empire and the Mongol Empire are two of the largest land-based empires in human history. At their peaks, the Romans controlled much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, while the Mongols conquered territories across Asia and Eastern Europe. However, despite their proximity in geography and time period, there was no direct conflict between the Romans and Mongols. Roman Warrior vs Mongol Warrior

Rise and Fall of Roman Power

Founded in 27 BCE, the Roman Empire grew rapidly from a single city-state based around Rome. Through a series of wars, alliances, and annexations over the next few centuries, the Romans exerted control over the entire Mediterranean region. By 117 CE, the Roman Empire had reached its greatest extent under Trajan, spanning 5 million square km.

Over the next few centuries, Roman power gradually declined due to economic turmoil, overexpansion, invasions by Germanic tribes, and internal political conflicts. By 476 CE, the Western Roman Empire had collapsed, although the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire continued for almost another thousand years before being conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.

Map of the Roman Empire at Its Greatest Extent

The Roman Empire at its territorial peak under Trajan, 117 CE

The Mongol Conquests

Meanwhile, the Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of various nomadic tribes on the Eurasian Steppe. Genghis Khan first united the Mongol tribes in 1206 CE and proceeded to lead devastating conquests across China, Central Asia, Russia, Persia, Iraq, Syria, and parts of Eastern Europe. At its peak under Kublai Khan around 1260 CE, the Mongol Empire stretched over 33 million square km, making it the largest contiguous land empire in history.

After Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1271 CE, the Mongol Empire became fragmented into four major khanates (smaller kingdoms): the Yuan Dynasty in China, the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, and the Golden Horde in Russia and Eastern Europe. By 1368, the Yuan Dynasty had fallen, and the Mongol Empire mostly dissolved over the next few decades.

Map of the Mongol Empire at its Peak

The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent under Kublai Khan, c. 1260 CE

Why the Romans and Mongols Never Fought

Despite ruling over neighboring territories for centuries, the Romans and Mongols never engaged in direct warfare against each other. There are several reasons why contact between ancient Rome and medieval Mongolia did not produce military conflict:

  • Non-Overlapping Timelines: The Roman Empire had largely dissolved by the late 400s CE, while the Mongol Empire did not begin forming until around 1200 CE. There is a gap of over 700 years between the height of Roman power and the rise of Genghis Khan’s conquests.

  • Geographic Separation: Although both empires controlled extremely large swaths of territory, their core centers of power were thousands of miles apart. The Romans were concentrated around the Mediterranean, while the Mongols originated from mainland Asia/the Steppe regions.

  • Lack of Interaction: Trade and communication networks were not advanced enough for substantial contact between ancient Romans and medieval Mongols across such vast distances. Without direct interaction, there was no impetus for military confrontation.

  • Fall of Persia: One of the few potential buffer regions between Rome and the Mongol invasions was Persia (Iran). However, Persia had already been conquered by Muslim armies after the fall of Rome, prior to the arrival of the Mongols.

So in summary, the Roman and Mongol empires were effectively isolated from each other both temporally and geographically. By the time the Mongols began their expansion outwards from Asia, Roman civilization was a long-gone relic of the past.

Proxy Warfare and Shared Adversaries

Interestingly, although they never clashed directly, the Romans and Mongols actually fought against some of the same enemies. Both empires waged wars of conquest against the Parthians, Huns, Persians, and various Eastern European tribes.

For example, the Huns launched massive invasions into both Roman and Mongol spheres of influence:

  • The Huns attacked the Eastern Roman Empire throughout the 400s CE under Attila the Hun, contributing to Rome’s eventual collapse.

  • In the 1300s CE, the Mongols campaigned against the Kipchak Khanate (a Turkic tribal confederacy) to avenge an earlier defeat. This was essentially a proto-Hunnic tribe that had threatened the Mongol homeland.

So while they did not meet on the battlefield, the Romans and Mongols both spillt blood fighting shared adversaries at different points in history. One can view this as a kind of proxy warfare spanning over a millennium!

Attila the Hun Painting

A depiction of Attila the Hun’s invasion of the Roman Empire.

Cultural Legacies and Empires Compared

Despite never directly intersecting, the Roman Empire and Mongol Empire left lasting impacts on Eurasian history in terms of culture, institutions, and technological innovations.

Some cultural legacies of the Romans include:

  • Spread of Christianity and European languages (Romance Languages)
  • Roman law principles and republican forms of government
  • Architectural designs (arches, aqueducts, roads) still used today
  • Basis for Western literature, poetry, drama, and the calendar

Whereas some Mongol influences include:

  • Unification and stabilization of trade networks across Asia and into Europe (Silk Road)
  • Flow of goods, technologies (gunpowder, printing), and ideas between civilizations
  • Foundation for the Ottoman, Mughal, and Russian empires that succeeded them
  • Spread of Eastern practices like falconry into European elite culture

Despite conquering very different parts of the world in different eras, the Roman and Mongol empires had a surprising number of attributes in common as well:

  • Highly disciplined and tactically flexible military forces
  • Tolerance and integration of diverse cultures/religions into government
  • Impressive infrastructure building (roads, waystations, canals) within domains
  • Gradual social acceptance of once-feared warrior cultures as rulers

So while they never clashed directly, the ancient Romans and medieval Mongols left unique but comparably influential imprints on Eurasian history. Their enduring cultural impacts stand as an intriguing “what if” on the dynamics that could have unfolded between two warrior civilizations separated by time and space.

Could the Romans Have Fended Off the Mongols?

Hypothetically, had the Romans somehow survived another 700+ years intact, could they have resisted the Mongol onslaughts under Genghis Khan or Kublai Khan? Or would the Romans have managed to repel Attila the Hun if facing Hunnic tactics perfected by the Mongols?

There are credible arguments on both sides. Some evidence suggests Romans would have struggled against the Mobile Mongol cavalry:

  • Mongol compound bows outranged Roman spear/sword infantry
  • Mobility allowed envelopment of large Roman formations
  • Harsh nomadic lifestyle gave Mongols physical resilience
  • Track record of breaking though “impenetrable” Chinese fortifications

However, the Romans had several factors potentially in their favor as well:

  • Superior siege engineering technology and discipline
  • Heavily-armored infantry shielded from arrows
  • Elite mounted Cataphract units to counter Mongol maneuverability
  • Global network of fortified citadels to retreat to if overrun locally

Given the many tactical and technological innovations by both sides, the outcome would likely have been determined by leadership, adaptation, and access to resources.

In their actual histories, both empires demonstrated exceptional resilience until experiencing political instability and leadership crises. Thus, at their organized apexes, whether Romans or Mongols would have prevailed is difficult to project and would have likely involved protracted, indecisive conflict.

But it remains fascinating to envision these two great conquerors of the ancient and medieval worlds testing their skill against one another!


In closing, despite their geographic proximity and overlapping timelines for several centuries, the Romans and Mongols never ended up waging war against each other. The fall of Rome preceded the rise of Genghis Khan by over 700 years, creating an insurmountable gap between the two empires’ spheres of dominance. Nevertheless, they fought common adversaries by proxy and left unique but comparably enduring impacts on human civilization across Eurasia. And hypothetically, it would have been a clash of epic proportions for the ages if the disciplined, flexible armies of both conquerors had dueled directly on the battlefield!

AI Depection of a Mongol vs Roman battle Artificial intelligence reimagines the clash of a Mongol horde facing off against Roman legions in an epic battle.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why didn’t the Romans expand into Asia?

The Romans fought against neighboring Persian empires in the Middle East numerous times. However, they found the hot desert climate and guerilla tactics of the Parthians difficult to overcome. After several defeats and stalled expansion attempts eastward, the Romans strategically focused their growth efforts on more favorable territory closer to the Mediterranean.

Could the Huns have allied with either empire?

In their conflicts with both the Romans and Mongols, the Huns operated as decentralized nomadic raiders seeking plunder. They did not have an organized empire or governing structure themselves until uniting under Attila in the 400s CE against Rome. So while tribes may have temporarily cooperated with either side as mercenaries, fully integrating with the sophisticated Roman or Mongol civilizations would have been unlikely due to cultural differences.

What prevented land passage between the empires?

The Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges formed an imposing geographic barrier separating the Graeco-Roman world from the Mongol’s Central Asian steppe homeland. These harsh, high-altitude ranges likely deterred substantial trade or travel between the regions, preventing direct contact between the empires and their spheres of awareness.

Could the Mongols have invaded Europe from Asia by sea?

While the Mongols aggressively adapted new technologies into their military, naval warfare was not one of their strategic strengths. Most of their major conquests focused on sweeping across land. While they may have been able to transport horses and men across narrow channels, conducting full-scale maritime invasions of European coasts would likely have exceeded Mongol seamanship capabilities during their peak.

What was each side’s biggest military weakness?

The Romans’ greatest vulnerability was over-reliance on heavy infantry, making their armies relatively slow and rigid. They experienced difficulties fending off the evasive tactics used by Parthian mounted archers in the Middle East. For the Mongols, their weakness was an inability to capture some heavily fortified settlements during sieges, especially in mountainous or wooded regions. Both sides struggled to adapt when they encountered unfamiliar terrain or fighting styles outside of their normal theaters of operation.


Holmes, Tommy. “The Forge of Civilisation: The Mongols and Modernity.” History Today, Sept. 2015, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/edward-i-and-mongols.

Kradin, Nikolay. “The Urban Culture of the Mongol Empire.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History, 2017, https://oxfordre.com/politics/display/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-991?rskey=CsnGpi&result=1.

Luttwak, Edward N. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Man, John. Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome. St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. Overlook, 2003.

McLaughlin, Raoul. Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India, and China. Continuum, 2010.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Basil Blackwell Inc, 1986.

Sidebottom, Harry. Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Crown Publishers, 2004.