The Huns by Hyun Jin Kim

Book Review by Ian Hughes

The study of Inner (Central) Asia has long been the preserve of historians from those regions. As a result, much of the information they have gleaned from their (admittedly meagre) sources has remained unread by many in the West, especially those, like myself, who can struggle with reading works not written in English. Thankfully, historians are now emerging who are bringing this research to the eyes of the English-speaking world.

One of these is Hyun Jin Kim, Lecturer in Classics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who has previously published The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe (Cambridge, 2013). In his new book, Kim has attempted to outline the history of the Huns from their origins as part of the Xiongnu Empire (c. 200BC - AD 200) based in the northern regions inside and outside modern China, to their evolution into the Huns and similar entities.

The book has a very straightforward layout, with an Introduction, eight chapters and a Conclusion:

Chapter 1: The Xiongnu Hun Empire
Chapter 2: The So-Called Two-Hundred Years Interlude
Chapter 3: The Huns of Central Asia and South Asia: The Kidarite and Hephthalite White Huns
Chapter 4: The Huns of Europe
Chapter 5: Attila the Hun
Chapter 6: The Huns after Attila
Chapter 7: The Huns of the Pontic Steppes: the Utigur-Kutrigur Bulgar Huns
Chapter 8: The Legacy of the Huns

Each Chapter is sub-divided into segments dealing with specific topics, such as "Europe on the eve of Hunnic arrival", and "Hunnic Civil War and the dissolution of the Hunnic Empire", which help to focus the reader on detailed analyses of the individual theme under scrutiny. This is useful, as the book is packed with information, a lot of which will be unfamiliar to Western eyes.

The main premise of the book is that Western historians have focused upon Western sources - mainly Romano-Byzantine in origin - which give an invalid portrayal of "Nomadic Culture". This has resulted in the Huns being seen as "primitive", especially in comparison to Rome and Sasanid Persia. In contrast, Kim contends that the Huns inherited a political and military system from their ancestors, the Hsiungnu, who themselves were part of a complex political system found throughout Inner Asia. In addition, Kim goes on to suggest that "Hun" was not a racial/ethnic term, but was the name given to a multi-ethnic political conglomeration which extended its control over a vast swathe of Europe, as well as parts of "Near Asia".

Most of this will be well-received by the average reader in the West. Kim`s analysis and conclusions are well thought out and persuasive, and in the case of "multi-ethnic" nature of the `tribe mirror recent hypotheses concerning the "Germanic" tribes in the West.

Another apparent example would be the apparent conclusion that Frankish Sacral Kingship and associated long hair was derived from the Huns. However, it is possible that either the reviewer did not interpret this meaning correctly or that the author has failed to clarify his position, as in private conversation Kim has noted that this was not his actual argument, which is "that the dynastic principle and sacrosanctity of the Merovingian monarchs which these traditions came to embody in the Merovingian context derive at least in part from Inner Asian precedents and similar customs (not the actual traditions themselves)". Whether this is a failing of the author or the reviewer is for others to decide.

Yet the fact that Kim forces the reader to re-evaluate his preconceptions is no bad thing in itself: Kim is correct in his thinking that Western historians have underestimated the political abilities of Hunnic leaders. One of the main reasons for this is the description given by Ammianus Marcellinus:

The people of the Huna ... exceed every degree of savagery ... the cheeks of the children are deeply furrowed with the steel from their very birth ... They all have compact, strong limbs and thick necks, and are so monstrously ugly and misshapen, that one might take them for two-legged beasts or for the stumps, rough-hewn into images, that are used in putting sides to bridges ... they have no need of fire nor of savoury food, but eat the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any kind of animal whatever, which they put between their thighs and the backs of their horses, and thus warm it a little ... They are never protected by any buildings, but they avoid these like tombs, which are set apart from everyday use ... They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. AM 34.2.1-5

Kim notes that this has resulted in the Huns being seen by Western historians as animal-skin-wearing savages with a limited culture and no concept of how to organize a large political state. Sadly, the apparent overstatements Kim makes means that many Western readers will simply discount the many valid hypotheses in the book.

A further difficulty, as in so much when relating the history in the "Last Days of the West", is that the paucity of sources inevitably results in Kim having to resort to "comparative history". Other reviews I have written for UNRV - for example that on The Langobards: An Ethnographic Approach - suffer (if that is the correct word) from the same problem. Sadly, there is no other course open to the historian without recourse to simple guesswork.

If Kim is correct in stating that Western historians have relied on heavily biased information from solely Western sources, in some respects he may be the victim of the diametrically opposite obstacle. Kim notes that, after the "dissolution" of Attila`s Hunnic Empire, the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire converted its cavalry to adopt Hunnic methods. This is almost certainly correct. Yet he also ascribes the victory of the Goths over the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople to the "steppe cavalry model", as well as suggesting that the later Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals also relied heavily on Hunnic influence when converting to cavalry-based armies.

These claims go against modern research in the West, especially those concerning the nature of the Gothic victory at the Battle of Adrianople and the composition of the later Vandal armies. It is now generally accepted that although the Gothic victory was in part due to the cavalry, the infantry bore the brunt of the fighting: the concept that Adrianople was the end of the infantryman and emergence of the later "Middle-Age" knight is no longer accepted. In addition, Procopius` account of the Byzantine "reconquest" of Africa suggests that the Vandals did not use steppe methods: indeed, they had no counter to the Romans` newly-converted horse archers, and were afraid of actual Huns. This would not be the case if they used the same methods as their opponents. In a strange irony, it would appear that Kim may not have kept up-to-date with the latest Western research and so may be open to the criticism that he is too reliant on "Eastern" sources.

Yet in his defence, it should be noted that in private conversation Kim has acknowledged the criticism and suggested that in part he was limited by the demands of the publishers - especially to the number of words allowed for the text. In reality, his position on Adrianople is that he would "not suggest that infantry became completely obsolete after the battle of Adrianople (although I would argue that progressively during the centuries following the battle they did become largely ineffective against steppe Inner Asian cavalry armies) or that the battle was won purely by cavalry, but that cavalry (mainly Ostrogothic and possibly also Alan, in other words contingents modelled on Inner Asian cavalry and tactics) played a crucial role, perhaps decisive", whilst acknowledging that Western historians "probably would not agree that it was decisive".

With regards to the Vandals, he goes on to state that what he "... did not explain in detail (which I should have) is that the reference is mainly to the presence of Alans (Inner Asian steppe cavalry) in the Vandal confederacy, their tactical and equestrian prowess however was gradually eroded during their sojourn in North Africa and by the time Belisarius invaded they were no match for real Inner Asian steppe cavalry, the same in the case of the Ostrogoths in Italy.

There is one final small criticism that can be laid against the book, although this was probably outside the control of the author: there are not enough maps and what maps are included are small and difficult to read. Kim includes a large number of place names and the names of many different peoples throughout the book. The limited number of maps means that sometimes it is difficult to follow Kim`s theories, especially when dealing with "Inner Asia". To anyone not comfortable with both the ancient and the modern political boundaries of the area, this can cause confusion. The net result is that in some respects the book is not an easy read.

Yet despite these caveats, this book is a necessary read for those interested in either the Huns or Late Antiquity in the West. For the most part the conclusions Kim draws are reasonable and thought-provoking, and even where he appears to over-extend himself, the over-extension results in the reader being forced to re-evaluate everything that has previously been read on the subject. This by itself makes the book a worthwhile read, as it forces the reader to "think outside the box"; no mean feat given the rapid pace of change being made in the study of Late Antiquity in the West. As a result, I have no reservations about recommending this book to those interested in the period.

Ian Hughes has a MA in Ancient History and Society from Cardiff University and is the author of Belisarius: The Last Roman General; Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome; Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople; and Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.

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