The Armies of the Kushan Empire

The first mention of the Yu-Chi ( the tribal confederacy the Kushans came to dominate) is in the second century BC, under pressure from the nomadic Hsiung-nu they are pushed westwards into the Greek
kingdom of Bactria, which they conquer before 129 BC.

The Yu-Chi undergo a number of changes in the next century or so and come to be dominated by one tribe, the Kueh-Shan. Under the leadership of Wima Takto this nation overwhelms northern
India and establishes itself as a powerful empire in the last half of the first century BC. For over a hundred years until its collapse in the third century the Kushan empire remains militarily active. After its collapse a number of smaller kingdoms continue a semi independent status until the end of the fifth century with varying amounts of influence from India and Persia.

Due to this long history the next section on the military will be divided into three sections, the first on the Yu-Chi until they invade India, the second on the Kushan Empire itself and the third concerning the kingdoms that followed. Conveniently the periods roughly coincide with those in Nikonorovs The Armies of
Bactria. It is worth outlining why these divisions are used. The development of the Yu-Chi in military terms is for the most part a continuous spectrum, so the reader would not get the impression that the Yu-chi had an identical military from 100 BC to 50 BC, it no doubt changed over time.

However three key events do dramaticly and very quickly alter the Yu-Chi. The first is the Yu-Chi invasion of Ta-Shia (
Bactria) which for the first time brings them into direct contact with the Greek World. The second is the invasion of Northern India, which brings with it world power status and from the military point of view, access to the forces of Indian Satraps which are very different to those the Yu-chi already have. The third is the subsequent loss of that status, and with it the vast open plains of Bactria and thus much of the Yu-chi manpower.

The Yu-Chi Period

The Yu-chi method of fighting when they first appear in our records is the same as that of the Hsiung-nu. The Yu-chi fought with the bow and arrow from horseback, in large waves of troops (Chinese figures say they were hundreds of thousands strong. The exact numbers cannot be trusted but certainly they were numerous).

The heavily armored cavalry man was known to the west of the region, as the reports of
Gaugamela state that the Persians heavy cavalry came from the provinces of Sogdia and Bactria. This may be an addition by Arrian at a later date, but more likely if is representative of the true situation.

When the Yu-chi conquered
Bactria there are no immediate signs of them incorporating any of the military tactics already there. However this soon changes. Nikonorov maintains that at this time they probably used mercenary cataphracts from the Saca or instituted their own body. This may well be the case, but it is doubtful if these Cataphracts were as heavily armored as Nikonorov suggests. In fact horses when depicted in Yu-chi art even later with heavily armored warriors are usually unarmored. If full horse and body armor was introduced at this time it would only have been for the richest nobles, possibly even a sign of the Yabgu or leader himself. The statues of such princes are usually shown unarmored with a long coat and sword.

The incorporation of foot soldiers in this period is undocumented. One coin of Kajula Kadphises certainly appears to show a foot soldier, some times attributed as a hoplite. In addition to the possibility that some Yu-chi nobles dismounted to fight at times it seems unlikely that the Yu-chi would not have levied soldiers from the various towns they now controlled. These 'walled towns' as the Chinese call them could hardly have provided any reasonable number of cavalry, so it is logical that the Yu-chi armies developed an infantry wing, its importance and size is debatable.

One other item was certainly added to the army in this period. By the time Apollonius passes through the region, the nomads he encounters have elephants, probably traded with the Indian, Greek and Saca kings to the south. Some may well have been captured from Greek kings when
Bactria was overrun, though it is doubtful that without a method of regular supply they would have become an integral part of the army.

So what can be surmised of the Yu-chi army at this time. It is a period during which the army changes though (I assume) not to a very great extent. The Yu-chi depend on light horsemen using a bow to harass the enemy at close range in large groups. In addition they already possess or begin to develop a group of armored horsemen intended to fight at close range. With greater access to the metal working of
Bactria this group is likely to grow, though fully armored horsemen, if they do exist are restricted to individuals of great importance. In addition the Yu-chi begin to incorporate foot soldiers and elephants, as well as developing the start of an understanding of siege warfare.


The Great Kushan Empire

A large part of the Kushan nobility at this time probably fought from horse back with the heavier parts of the Kushan army, the so-called cataphracts. Nikonorov suggests that this was developed in the Yu-chi period and continued into the period of Kushan domination.

The coins of Kajula, Vima Takto, Vima Kadphises and Kanishka show the king usually unarmored, or with lighter armor than the later Kushan kings. In many coins Kanishka still appears to have a bow, but this interpretion is debatable. It is on a coin of Kanishka that we have the first representation I know of, of an armored horse.

We also have some descriptions of battle tactics. Including the dubious Buddhist texts and traditions which record elephants leading the attacks as well as chariots and other Indian forces in the Kushan army. The Chinese sources now seem to indicate a mixed force of troops.

If this is the case then the period is a transitional one. Kajula would have had to conquer the other Yabgu with pretty much the same mix of light horse that the Yu-chi entered
Bactria with. The Kushans by most accounts were closest to the Kabul valley, so it is possible we can attribute to them the elephants of Apollonius. If this is the case they may have had an advantage by using troops imported, possibly elephants, or heavier cavalry than the other Yabgu. This however interesting is just guess work.

What can be surmised is that a significant change must have occurred after the conquest of Gandhara and
Northern India by Vima Takto. The use on his coins of the term Soter Megas may indicate a propaganda attempt to gain the support of 'Greek' elements, and possibly a continuation of a similar policy by his father Kajula, who minted coins with Hermaus on them.

After the conquest the Kushans would have found themselves with a lot of new subjects with a great number of very different fighting techniques. Elephants begin to appear on the coins from Vima Kadphises onward so it is likely that these either became the mounts of the rulers or increase their status in Kushan military strategy.

The elephants are depicted with towers and a covering, read by Nikonorov as armor but possibly just padded material. If Buddhist texts can be trusted enough to infer from them (and they cant) then we might suggest infantry were used to support these elephants. Regardless the Kushans remained famed for their horsemanship and the Bactrian plain probably provided most of the manpower for the Kushan army. 

India we fortunately know something of the Kushan political organization. They appear to have ruled over a large number of tributary states which otherwise retained their original character. It is often assumed from this that the states also fielded therefore armies that were essentially native in character, consisting of chariots and elephants. Nikonorov suggests that the elephants used were provided by the Satraps. 

Greek elements also remained in the region, and it might be assumed that these had an independent military strength. As well as the mercenaries which were certainly used, including possibly Iranian swordsmen (to bolster an otherwise weak force of foot troops).

The later kings become increasingly heavily armored in this period and it is more than likely that the heavy cataphracts often discussed reaches numbers that are truly significant on the battlefield. 

The assumption then is this. The Kushan army retains its original dependence on the light horseman of the Yu-chi but probably to a much lesser degree (as they now have 3 times as much are to cover). The nobles and minor nobles of Kushan origin now form an increasingly significant force of heavy cavalry, most still on unarmored horses. In addition to this core army, the Kushans add armies of an Indian origin with chariots and perhaps elephants in addition to the Kushans own, mountain tribes, Greek and possibly Saca inhabitants of northern
India, perhaps with some hellenistic equipment as well as Iranian swordsmen and mercenaries.

This concoction belongs to a dozen cultures and speak an indeterminate number of languages. It must have been as colorful and fascinating a display as the deities represented on the coins at the time.


The lesser Kushans

After the death of Vasu Deva Kushan fortunes are on the decline. The remaining period consist essentially of Sassanid domination of
Bactria and northern India until the arrival of the Hephthalite huns. A number of attempts were made by the Kidarites to reestablish the dominance of the Yu-chi in the region. 

The evidence for this period is much more fragmentary but it would appear that a lot of the variety of the earlier period was lost. The Kidarites were predominantly cavalry as were the Sassanids both it is likely using a mix of light and heavy cavalry as the Yu-chi had done before them. In addition to which Satraps would have provided them with additional
India forces such as elephants.

The largest change from the time of the Great Kushan period is the reduction in the size of the empire, at not time did the area ruled ever return to the size and influence of the period under the Kushan emporers. This must have resulted in a dimunition of the size of the military force the various groups could field.