In ancient times the steppes of Central Asia were home to numerous tribal federations. Since the proto-Indo-Europeans had first domesticated the horse around 4000 BC and started using it for warfare, a new way of life had originated on the plains of southern Russia. Originally, this way of life was restricted to Indo-European speaking peoples, but somewhere during the first millennium BC the Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic tribes north of China started adopting this lifestyle as well. They soon became masters of equestrian warfare and formed a mighty tribal federation known as the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu were probably the most succesful and longest lived tribal federation in history, changing shape, homeland, and names over the course of centuries. Beside Xiongnu, these tribes were known as Chionites, Hephtalites, Huna, and Huns. Who were these people?
Indo-Iranian origin of the nomadic warrior lifestyle
The nomadic warrior lifestyle for which the Xiongnu and later the Mongols were known likely originated on the plains of Southern Russia, more specifically north of the Black and Caspian Seas. In this region, along the major Russian rivers, lived a relatively advanced civilization of early agriculturalists with a stratified society and knowledge of bronze working. Their language lay at the origin of all Indo-European languages. These proto-Indo-Europeans were also the first ones to domesticate the horse. First they only used it as an animal of burden, but later they found out that they could also ride it in battle. As a result of this, part of the proto-Indo-Europeans split off and took to the steppes with their horses, where they had plenty of room for their herds to graze. These early nomads spoke languages belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family and they were known as ‘arya’, from which the word ‘Aryan’ is derived. Although most of these ‘arya’ eventually migrated to India and Iran, many of them remained on the steppes. They became known as the Scythians or the Saka and they became masters of equestrian warfare. Their tribes spread as far east as Mongolia, where the indigenous population, that spoke Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic languages, copied their way of life and soon became masters of it themselves.
Rise of the Xiongnu
Throughout the first millennium BC, during the Warring States period in China, nomadic tribes from Mongolia occasionally raided the territory of the divided Chinese kingdoms. These tribes usually acted in isolation and did not leave any permanent damage, retreating as soon as they got the loot that they wanted. This all changed during the late third century BC, when China was unified under the rule of Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang (220-210 BC). Qin Shi Huang implemented an aggressive expansionist policy and tried to subjugate the northern tribes by force. In response to this, the nomadic tribes of Mongolia reorganized themselves into one tribal federation. The tribes remained largely autonomic economically, but in times of war they united under one leader: the shanyu. The first shanyu was appointed in 209 BC, just one year after Qin Shi Huang’s death, when the catastrophic rule of Qin Shi Huang’s son Qin Er Shi threatened the unity of China.
The Xiongnu Empire
Their loose way of governing ensured the succes of the Xiongnu federation. The tribes did not feel limited in their freedom, but they did enjoy the benefits of having a unified army. The Xiongnu were incredibly successful during their first years. They expanded their influence all across the steppes, up to present day Kazakhstan, and drove away earlier Indo-European tribal federations like the Yuezhi and the Wusun, who had settled in Northwest China. The Yuezhi and the Wusun – known in the west as Tocharians or Kushans – fled westwards and invaded present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. While doing so, they drove before them the Saka, who invaded the Parthian Empire and started raiding the Iranian Plateau. The Xiongnu also regularly invaded the Chinese Empire, that was now ruled by the Han dynasty. The Han Chinese had trouble keeping the Xiongnu hordes at bay. In fact, the first parts of the Great Wall of China were built just for this reason. They were the empire’s most formidable enemy and in his Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian describes the Xiongnu barbarians as the polar opposite to the civilized Han Empire.
Fall of the original Xiongnu
Up until the first century BC, the Han Empire and the Xiongnu federation were pretty much equally matched. The shanyu of the Xiongnu was treated as an equal to the Han emperor and the shanyu even had a prestigious capital city from which he ruled. However, in response to Xiongnu raids the Han expanded their northern walls and started conquering what is now known as Northwestern China. Now that the Han controled the corridor between the Mongolian steppes and the Kazakh steppes, the Xiongnu Empire was split in two. The core of the empire, located on the Mongolian steppes, was weakened significantly and no longer posed a threat, although isolated groups carring the name Xiongnu kept existing until fourth century AD, when the Rouran Khaganate came to dominate Mongolia. The Rouran Empire was basically the Xiongnu Empire revived. It encompassed the same general area and the same tribes, but a different elite was now in charge. The same can be said for all subsequent Turkic and Mongolian empires.
In the fourth century AD a tribal federation known as the Chionites came to dominate the Kazakh steppes. The similarity between this name and the name ‘Xiongnu’ has been recognized for a long time, but is still very controversial. Perhaps tribes on the western fringes of the former Xiongnu Empire kept the name ‘Xiongnu’ alive between the first century BC and the fourth century AD, but this is very hard to prove due to the lack of sources. However, it is not unlikely that some tribal groups continued to hold the name ‘Xiongnu’ in high esteem and continued to apply it to themselves. These groups likely intermingled with the local Saka tribes and had adopted most of their (material) culture. Most Chionite leaders had Eastern Iranian names and their material culture is not similar to that of the Xiongnu. This has also been used as an argument that the Xiongnu and the Chionites were not the same, but it doesn’t necessarily rule out a continuity in the names. The Chionites, who are known in Persian sources as the Hyaona, invaded the Sasanian and Kushan Empires in the 350s and subjugated all lands between the Kazakh steppes and the borders of present day Iran. From that moment on the Chionites regularly raided Persian territory, but the Sasanians were strong enough to keep them at bay. In the beginning the Chionite federation was led by the Kidarites, or Red Huns, but from the early fifth century on the Hephtalites, or Black Huns, dominated the federation. From the late fifth century on some of these Chionites, known in Indian sources as the Huna, invaded India, but they were repelled by the Gupta dynasty.
In the 370s, some twenty years after the Chionite invasion, a group known as the Huns started invading Europe. Many of the Sarmatian and Alan tribes that roamed the steppes of Southern Russia joined their federation. Some Germanic tribes may also have been incorporated, although most of them decided to flee instead, starting the Great Migration period. Eventually these Huns settled on the Pannonian plain in present day Hungary. From there they conducted raid against neighboring Germanic tribes and the Roman occupied territories in the Balkans. Their main goal was to have their attacks be bought off by gold, a tactic that was also used by the Xiongnu 600 years earlier but not by the Scythian and Sarmatian tribes of Europe. The Huns were feared throughout Europe and few Germanic tribes dared to resist them. If one sees a map of the Hunnic Empire – like the one below – the assigned territory should not be seen as a region where the Huns had ultimate control, but rather as a region where no one dared resist the Hunnic raids. They either joined them or fled.
The conflict between the Roman Empire and the Hunnic federation came to a climax in 451, during the Battle on the Catalaunian Fields. A new Hunnic warlord named Attila had managed to unite all of the Hunnic tribes, along with many Germanic tribes, into one powerful coalition with which he invaded the Western Roman Empire. His goal was to claim the daughter of the Roman emperor, Honoria, as his bride, and thus proclaim himself as the crown prince of Rome. Near present day Chalons in France, Attila’s coalition met with a Roman army led by Flavius Aetius, that was itself supported by numerous Germanic client tribes. The battle was mostly Germans fighting Germans. Aetius managed to defeat the Hunnic hordes, but at great costs of human life. The Romans did not succeed in restoring their authority in Gaul after that battle. Furthermore, the dynamic tribal federation was not beaten yet. In subsequent years Attila’s Huns regularly invaded Italy. When Attila died in 453, however, the Hunnic federation collapsed due to the absence of a worthy successor.
The end of the Xiongnu?
After 500 the Xiongnu/Chionites/Huns seem to disappear all of a sudden. The original Xiongnu had already been absorbed into the Rouran federation during the fourth century and the Rouran federation was in turn absorbed by the Gokturk federation in 552. This Gokturk federation – the first recognisably Turkish empire – spread its influence to the Caspian Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east within a few decades. The Gokturks teamed up with the Sasanian Persians to defeat the Chionite federation led by the Hephtalites at the Battle of Bukhara in 557. The Chionite Empire was then split up between the Persians and the Turks, with the Oxus river as the border. The European Huns never got a new leader with the same capacities as Attila. They hung around the Pannonian plains for a while until other nomadic federations, like the Avars, subjugated them. The leading tribes among the Avars are though to be descended from the ruling elite of the Rouran, who had fled their homeland after the Gokturks had taken over. Thus the European Huns were absorbed into the Avars. This could be seen as the end of the Xiongnu, but as I told you before, all that really happens when one tribal federation subjugates another is that the ruling elite changes, along with the name by which it is known. Although the Xiongnu may be gone, their descendants live on among peoples throughout Eurasia.
A great primary source on the Xiongnu are the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian. They give very detailed information, but they do bear an ethnocentric bias. For more information on the nomadic federations of Central Asia I would recommend Findley’s The Turks in World History (2005) or Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes (1970). The early parts of these works deal extensively with the Xiongnu and related peoples, but the later parts may interest you as well.