Thursday, March 20, 2014


Hyun Jim Kim, The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 338. ISBN 9781107009066. $99.00.

Reviewed by Richard Payne, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


Over the past decade, there has been a revolution in the study of the Huns, especially in the domains of archaeology and numismatics. The identification of the Huns the Roman and Iranian empires encountered with the Xiongnu, the nomadic architects of what Thomas Barfield has termed a "shadow empire" on Han China's northern frontier, has been given solid philological grounding in √Čtienne de la Vaissi√®re's studies of Sogdian letters and inscriptions. The Huns that laid claim to the Xiongnu legacy were empire builders rather than the marauders of Roman historiography. Recent research on the Huns in Central and East Asia has not, however, found a ready audience among historians of the Mediterranean, who all too often reproduce ancient stereotypes of the Huns as militarily impressive, but politically unsophisticated pastoralist predators, a threat to Roman civilization rather than the bearers of a civilization of their own. The present book seeks to persuade ancient historians not only that the Huns of Attila created an empire, but also that their political culture bequeathed an enduring legacy to the nascent European kingdoms of the early Middle Ages.

To do so, the author situates the rise of the Huns within a multi-millennial history of pastoralist state-making, from the "Scythians" to the Mongols. Those unfamiliar with the rich literature on pastoralist politics will find chapters two and three concise introductions to the institutions of nomadic states, their adaptation on the part of the Parthians and of the Sasanians, and the development of the various Hun states that brought the imperialism of the Xiongnu to West Asia in the fourth through seventh centuries. The Huns of Attila, Kim shows, exhibited a number of the salient features of Xiongnu political practice, including diarchy, the use of military governors with a territorial remit (the logades of Priscus), and the reproduction of genealogically intertwined groups of elite males, from whose ranks rulers and governors were drawn (pp. 55-60). They also appear to have cultivated some kind of "bureaucracy" at court, composed of Romans much as the Xiongnu employed Chinese collaborators (p. 55). In this largely persuasive account, Kim exaggerates the scale of Attila's "empire" – there is no indication that the Hun states of Central Asia had any meaningful contact with the Western Huns, unlike the sixth-century Turk Qaghanate – and perhaps the importance of the best- known Hun in relation to his Central Asian counterparts. The city-based, economically dynamic Kidarite and Hephtalite Hun kingdoms not only lasted much longer, but also yielded their structures intact to the Turks.

The author rightly insists on the strength, endurance, and reproducibility of Hun political systems against those who have considered them evanescent. But his account of how pastoralist states cohered relies on the conceptual frameworks of sedentary civilizations, taken uncritically from the very Eurocentric historiography he purports to discredit. He locates the institutional strength of the Hun empire and its forebears in "proto-feudalism" (pp. 10-11, 39, 59), an account of Hun political organization explicitly dependent on the work of Franz Altheim. It is nevertheless unclear what definition of "feudalism" the author intends to endorse, or what analytical work the concept is supposed to do for students of pastoralist polities. Does he have in mind the feudal monarchies of the thirteenth century that initiated processes of centralization through the legal fiction of the "fief"? If so, what was the concept and practice of fiefdom in "the traditional steppe system of dual kingship residing overseas ruled by sub-kings" (pp. 59-60)? Whatever parallels between European feudalism and pastoralist social and political structures that appear in the book are so general as to be entirely unhelpful for explaining the sources of Hun power. More attention to the anthropological scholarship that has transformed our understanding of the institutional complexity of steppe state formations would have helped the author to transcend the traditional historiographical framework. Critical engagement with the work of David Sneath, for example, on how pastoralist states created and organized robust structures – including bureaucracies and fiscal systems – through horizontal linkages rooted in genealogical ties reproducible across generations would have allowed him to escape Eurocentric models of the state that have prevented an appreciation of political complexity on the steppe.

The author's stated intention of putting Hun politics on imperial institutional foundations begins to falter in chapters five and six. Here he admirably reconstructs the political history of the Huns in the fifth and sixth centuries, with a view to demonstrating that their structures were not as evanescent as contemporaries presented them. The Huns vanished after the battles of neither Chalons in 451 nor Nedao 454, but rather remained in Pannonia, the Pontic steppe, and their interstices until the Avars resumed the Hun imperial project in the latter half of the sixth century (pp. 138-43). Just because the Huns no longer posed an existential threat to the Roman Empire, it does not mean that their institutions imploded. Kim nevertheless locates Hun continuity in identities rather than institutions. If elsewhere he suggests the term Hun referred primarily to the Xiongnu imperial institutional legacy and only secondarily to an ethnicity (pp. 30, 60, 140), the emphasis shifts to identifying "the likely ethnic origin of… post-Hunnic political figures" (p. 91) when he begins to build the case for political continuity between Attila's Huns and Avars. The results are convincing: Ardaric the ruler of the Gepids, Odoacer the Gothic king of Italy, and Valamer the king of the Ostrogoths emerge as genealogically connected with Huns, if not self-proclaimed Huns (a distinction Kim elides). These are important indices of Hun survival, but the focus on the identities of individuals seems to undermine the – admittedly tenuous – arguments for the success of the Western Huns at reproducing Xiongnu institutions. If the Avars were more successful than the descendents of Attila, they learned their techniques of empire building in the East rather than in the Pontic steppe.

Stronger than Roman historians have hitherto considered them, the Western Huns were far less successful at shadow empire than the Central Asian Huns, the Rouran/Avars, the Xianbei, or the Turks. It is the singular merit of The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe to invite historians of the ancient Mediterranean to consider the landmark events that signaled the end of the Western Roman empire in the context of a Eurasia nomadic imperialists had rendered interconnected in late antiquity.

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