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The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe by Hyun Jin Kim

Kipling, it seems, had it wrong when he famously wrote that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” According to Australian academic Hyun Jin Kim, not only had they been meeting all along, but that large parts of what we consider the “West” are in fact fundamentally Asian.

The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe by Hyun Jin Kim
Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe, Hyun Jin Kim (Cambridge University Press, May 2013)

 

The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe is a book written for specialists. It is literally fifty percent footnotes and bibliography. The lay reader should not be be too put off by this, however, for the book—while admittedly dense with references to academic debates that are obscure to outsiders—is eminently readable with a fascinating conjecture at its core. Kim argues much of what has been considered distinctly European—feudalism, knights, hunting on horseback—can in fact be traced to the borders of China via the medium of the Huns.

 

The most important historical development of Late Antiquity, which was of critical importance to the later history of the world, was not the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire, which was one of its consequences, but the world-changing dynamics or convulsions, a veritable revolution in the strategic and political balance of the global power structure, which originated in a region that Central Asian specialists identify as inner Asia, the steppe region that has historically linked the main civilizations of Eurasia: China, the Greco-Roman world, Iran and India.

 

Kim starts by linking the Huns (as in Attila) back to the Xiongnu—an empire in its own right—which warred with the Chinese. This centuries-long political and cultural pedigree links to the next theme: refuting what Kim considers the—admittedly long-held—historical fallacy that the Huns were primitive tribespeople rather than, as he believes, masters of a state of considerable sophistication. This refutation is critical to Kim’s formulation, for denials of the Huns’ longer-term historical significance have often been based on this claimed lack of sophistication. Even for those of us who may have internalized the popular image of the Huns as savages and barbarians, Kim’s case seems pretty straightforward: the Hunnic (and other related Central Asian) empires were huge, their armies overpowering, their military and political tactics sophisticated. “Primitive” hardly seems the most probable description.

Kim then sets about arguing that many of the the leading personalities of the time—those who brought down the Western Roman Empire, Oadacer and Theodoric among them—were more Hun than, as has generally been supposed, Germanic, i.e. more Asian than European. To complete the contrarian view, he further argues that battles generally considered Roman victories and Hun defeats—Châlons, for example, in which the celebrated Roman general Flavius Aëtius and his Visigothic allies were supposed to have turned Attila back from Gaul—were in fact the opposite. The arguments require a close reading of the extant sources and an investigation into the etymologies of names; non-specialists may have to give Kim the benefit of the doubt.

 

As Kim points out, the story he outlines for the Huns is hardly unique: the Mongols followed a similar path the better part of a millenium later, as did the Turks even later.

 

Between AD 311, arguably the beginning of the of the great Inner Asian incursions into China, and AD 1405, which marked the death of perhaps the most brutal of the numerous inner Asian conquerors of the known world Timur or Tamerlane, every corner of Eurasia from Gaul (France) to the Pacific, from the deep frozen recesses of Siberia to the fertile plains of the Ganges in India, has at one time or another been ruled by a Turkic (heavily mixed with Iranian) or Mongolic ruling elite.

 

Kim argues that we—both West and East—have history all wrong.

 

In this world order Inner Asia formed the core and Europe, China and Middle East merely the periphery. Such a reality was difficult to accept for most historians in both the West and also the East. No Sinocentric or Eurocentric writer could ever admit that their world was of secondary importance in the grand scheme of things and that the ‘nomadic’, steppe barbarians, whom they despised, were at one stage even in the distant past their superiors and overlords.

 

 

And so what? Civilization—if that is what we wish to call the sedentary and now developed societies of East and West—won in the end. In an all-too-brief final section, Kim argues, however, that

 

the political and cultural traditions of Inner Asia brought to Europe by Central Asian immigrants, the Huns and Alans, were just as fundamental to the formation of Western Europe as the rich legacy left behind by the Roman Empire.

 

In some ways, it doesn’t really matter whence Western political and social structure originated, any more than it matters who invented gunpowder or paper money: the current world order is, for better or worse, largely Western in origin and controlled by the West.

But it might take of the hubris out of national and cultural chauvinism if the world’s leading societies realized that much of what they consider fundamental actually originated elsewhere, not with their own peoples and myths, but with someone else’s. Much of what Europe holds so dear would have been completely alien to Romans, but instead it grew out structures that Kim traces back to the very Asian Huns.

And this is why it is a shame that the Kim’s final section is so short. There’s room here for a book for a more general readership. Someone, perhaps Kim—who anyway has a somewhat non-academic penchant for the exclamation mark and rhetorical question—will write it.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.