Neil Faulkner charts the transformation of the Huns from tribal nomads into continent-straddling militarists.
The Eurasian steppe is a belt of land several hundred miles wide which extends from the Hungarian Plain to the Pacific Ocean. A treeless grassland of climatic extremes, it was, from earliest prehistory until the 19th century, populated mainly by nomadic pastoralists.
The history of Europe, Turkey, Persia, India, and China is punctuated by military crises brought on by eruptions of steppe nomads from their homeland. That of the Huns between the 370s and 450s AD precipitated the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
The Huns combined hunting and gathering with the herding of horses, cattle, sheep, and goats. The poverty of the steppe and the primitiveness of their mode of production meant their numbers were few and scattered, their social organisation loose and democratic.
Specialisation was extreme. The Huns’ landscape and lifeway made them first-class horsemen, and they fought their tribal wars as light cavalry armed with composite bow, lasso, and sword. Horse, bow, and lasso were the equipment of the steppe; the sword was a prized trade good.
It is impossible to reconstruct why the Huns began to move west in the mid 4th century AD. The poverty of their primitive mode of production meant they had no margin of safety. Drought was death on the steppe. So, probably, they were set in motion by ecological crisis. Violence, subjugation, and westward expansion became their escape-route from a burnt-out, suddenly overpopulated homeland.
When they reached the Ukraine, they overran the Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths). As they pressed further west, they drove the Visigoths (Western Goths) to seek refuge inside the Eastern Roman Empire.
The tensions between Goths and Romans exploded into war. The army of the Eastern Roman Empire was annihilated at the Battle of Adrianople (AD 378). The steppe-nomads, by indirect pressure, were beginning to remake the old world.
As they did so, they were themselves transformed. The Goths were prosperous peasant-farmers. When conquered by the Huns, they were forced to pay tribute to their new masters. The steppe-nomads were enriched by agricultural surpluses. Hunnic warlords used these surpluses to increase their military retinues and thus their ability to make further conquests.
Yet greater prizes awaited them inside the Roman Empire itself. And, as the Goths had proved at Adrianople, the Empire was militarily much weakened.
The Roman provincial peasantry had been turned into serfs. Exploitation and alienation had hollowed out the traditional manpower base of Roman military imperialism. Increasingly, instead of citizen legionaries, Roman emperors relied on bribes and barbarian mercenaries to defend their frontiers.
Sometimes, Huns were hired as Roman allies. Sometimes, they were bought off with subsidies. Either way, Roman treasure was added to Gothic tribute to complete the transformation of the Huns from tribal nomads into continent-straddling militarists - a transformation marked by the accession of Attila as King of the Huns in AD 434.
At its height, Attila’s empire extended from the Baltic to the Alps, from the Rhine to the Caspian. To the Hunnic capital - half permanent village, half nomadic encampment - flowed tribute from within the empire and subsidies and payoffs from beyond.
Half a century before, the Huns had fought as tribal forces of a few hundred under elected war-chiefs. Now, for the Huns, war was a permanent state of being, the militarisation of their social world total, and the power of their supreme commander absolute.
The Hunnic war-state fed off the rottenness of the Roman Empire, sucking out the surpluses made possible by the Iron Age revolution in technique. In the heyday of Roman military imperialism, the Roman surplus had supported armies of free-peasant citizen soldiers. In its decline, a ‘bastard’ military imperialism evolved, in which the surplus fed a monster nomad-empire centred on the Hungarian Plain.
As war-leader, Attila controlled the military surpluses, and as war was now permanent, so too was his authority. The King of the Huns was able to cut the anchor-chain of tribal obligations and democratic constraints that had once limited the power of any single individual.
But the vast network of patronage that bound Attila’s client-kings, subject-chiefs, and leading retainers to him depended on an unbroken flow of tribute and subsidies, plunder and prestige goods. So Attila was, perforce, a robber-baron, a warmonger, a restless conqueror ever pushing forwards. Dynamism was inherent in the Hunnic state.
Attila was the ‘Scourge of God’ to the Late Roman ruling classes. Many of the poor saw him differently. Huns and Gallic Bagaudae (peasant revolutionaries) sometimes formed alliances against the Romano-Gallic landlords in the 440s AD.
But the Kingdom of the Huns was too crude, predatory, and unstable to constitute a reliable force for progressive social change. When Attila attacked Gaul (France and Belgium) in AD 451, his great lunge westwards lacked any diplomatic finesse. The Bagaudae had been alienated and did not move, and Romano-Gallic landlords and Visigothic free-peasants had joined forces. So the West, momentarily united, inflicted a decisive defeat on Attila at the Battle of Ch√¢lons.
The King of the Huns recoiled into his Central European heartland. Two years later, he was dead, and his empire disintegrated, destroyed by territorial struggles between his successors and revolts from below among the subject-peoples.
The intervention of the steppe-nomads had been sudden and catastrophic, but their positive contribution to history had been nil. The Western Roman Empire fragmented into myriad barbarian kingdoms ruled by Germans and Goths. The Eastern Roman Empire petrified into an historical fossil - bureaucratic, conservative, inert. But the Hunnic Empire simply vanished from the face of the Earth.
Why was its collapse so sudden and so total?
In the space of a generation, the Huns had morphed from nomadic pastoralists into military predators. They ceased to have any productive forces of their own, depending entirely on their ability to extort from others the tribute, subsidy, and plunder essential to their bastard polity.
Their numbers were few, but their domains vast. Theirs was an over-extended empire subject to extreme manpower shortage. Fear and force enabled them to sustain the system as long as it appeared powerful.
But an end to expansion would have cut off the flow of extorted surplus necessary to sustain the Hunnic state infrastructure of chieftains, retainers, and warriors. Growing over-extension was inherent in a dynamic system of robbery with violence lacking its own productive base. There was no ballast; only an engine hurtling through history to its destruction.
The story of the rise and fall of the Huns between the 370s and 450s AD makes a sharp contrast with the fate of another race of nomadic-pastoralists. They came not from the steppes of Central Asia, but from the deserts of Arabia.
Not only would they shatter the ancient empires of the Eastern Romans and the Persians in whirlwind military campaigns of no more than a few years. They would also build a new civilisation which fused the language and religion of Arabia with the cities, techniques, learning, and arts inherited from antiquity.
We turn next to the Arab-Islamic conquests of the 7th century AD and their transformation of the Middle East.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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