During the course of the Zhou Dynasty as compared with the case studies about Rome and early Europe, it was shown how feudal states in China were more autonomous, had no overlapping, cross-cutting authorities, and had strong territorial markers. And that during the course of the Zhou Dynasty we see a shift from transbordersovereignty to absolute sovereignty with the Warring States Period representing a transitional phase to imperial China. From the age of Confucius onward, the Chinese people in general and their political thinkers, in particular, began to think about political matters in terms of the world.

Then when the Eastern Han government gave up its attempts to restrict the rise of a dependent tenantry, and in so doing abandoned direct administration of the countryside in part two we thus have seen how steppe chieftains were given economic subsidies in return for longterm military service to help protect the Chinese boundaries from other steppe nations.

In the west threatening the Roman empire, on the other hand, we will next see how the Huns quickly expanded their territory with lightning-fast cavalry and accurate archers, inspiring fear wherever they went.  In addition to their military might, the Huns were skilled at forging alliances with local tribal leaders by exchanging goods for loyalty.

The Chinese Empire recognized that war was an expensive prospect, and it was, therefore, better to avoid large-scale conflict. Thus, to maintain peace on the frontiers, the later Han regime paid massive subsidies to foreign nations to buy their workforce for military service or to deter attacks. By the first century AD, the Chinese were paying 101 million cash per year to the Southern Xiongnu on the Han frontiers and 270 million to the Xianbei on the Mongolian Steppe. Similar payments were made to the border-based Wuhuan nation and the Western Qiang on the southern borders of China (Tibet-Burma).1 Amounts worth 740 million cash were equivalent to about 148 million sesterces in Roman currency. This sum would have paid the salaries of a large standing army, the equivalent of thirteen legions, except that the Han considered it safer and more economical to purchase peace. 

The early Chinese and Roman Empires each faced different military, political, and financial challenges. Both regimes had to raise substantial revenues to finance state administration and create a military infrastructure that could prevent internal unrest and deter foreign invasion. The Romans met these demands by spending large sums on a vast professional army while the Chinese maintained a smaller military structure and made tribute payments to external powers to ensure peace and stability on their frontiers. Silk produced in Chinese workshops had a  unique international value, and this gave the Han a valuable renewable resource, other than precious metal, to pay border troops and bribe foreign regimes. 

The Chinese established a large and expensive bureaucracy that could manage the high levels of tax revenue extracted from its subjects. By contrast the early Roman Empire generated much of its required income from mining precious metal bullion and taxing the international commerce that developed between its territories and the eastern world. Commercial taxes financed the Roman regime, but the bullion that their merchants spent at trade centers in Babylonia, Arabia, and India was a finite resource. Trade imbalances ensured that the Roman Empire could not sustain its original prosperity or adapt to the challenges of late antiquity. 

Crucially, the Roman military failed to master steppe warfare, and consequently, the appearance in Europe of a steppe nation from East Asia was to cause the collapse of their empire.


Xiongnu, Huns and the End of Empire

In the fourth century AD, an offshoot of the Xiongnu (Hun-nu) nation moved west onto the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. The Xiongnu (Chinese: 匈奴; Wade–Giles: Hsiung-nu) were a tribal confederation of nomadic peoples who inhabited the eastern Eurasian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD.

These Xiongnu nomadic pastoral people who at the end of the 3rd century BCE formed a great tribal league that was able to dominate much of Central Asia for more than 500 years. China’s wars against the Xiongnu, who were a constant threat to the country’s northern frontier throughout this period, led to the Chinese exploration and conquest of much of Central Asia.

It is these Xiongnu that is known to the Romans as the Huns who defeated the Alani and conquered the populous Gothic realms in Eastern Europe. In the process, they caused a significant refugee movement into Europe, which destabilized the Roman Empire. Over the following century, the Huns launched devastating attacks on Roman territory that destroyed frontier defenses and eventually caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476). 

This westward movement of Xiongnu people occurred in a period of Chinese history known as the Sixteen Kingdom Era (AD 304–439). The Sogdian Letters record how the resurgent Xiongnu (Hun) overran northern China in AD 312  and sacked the walled capital Luoyang.2 The attack was led by a southern Xiongnu faction who called themselves the ‘Han Zhao’ because their leaders claimed to be descendants of the Han dynasty princess that Chanyu Modu had received as his royal bride. With an army of 50,000 steppe warriors, the Han Zhao also sacked the former capital Chang’an, capturing two Jin Emperors during the course of their campaigns (AD 304–319).3

As a consequence, the northern domains of China fractured into numerous small kingdoms formed from various nations and dynasties that had once been Chinese subjects. Some of these states and their successors existed in steppe territories ruled by warlords descended from the Southern Xiongnu. This included the Northern Lang in the Hexi Corridor, the Northern Tiefu of Inner Mongolia, and the Kingdom of Xia in the Ordos Loop. Between AD 351 and AD 376, a robust frontier regime known as Former Qin began to conquer its warring rivals, but it was the Northern Wei that achieved overall victory and established control over northern China (AD 386–534). 

The Northern Wei governed with Chinese-style administration and promoted their regime using Buddhist ideologies. But their ruling dynasty was descended from Xianbei warlords, so the system possessed numerous skilled cavalry that could campaign on the steppe. Their rise to power prompted a migration of  Xiongnu factions westward towards the Caspian steppe. A Chinese text called the  Weishu (History of the Northern Wei) records that by the start of the fourth century  ‘the remains of the Xiongnu descendants’ were to be found northwest of the steppe-dwelling Rouran who by that period occupied most of Central Asia.4

One of these Xiongnu groups called themselves the ‘White’ clan which was the symbolic color of the West in their ancient culture.5 The Roman historian Ammianus confirms that this subgroup followed a migration route into Transoxiana where they threatened lands subject to the Sassanid Persian Empire (AD 356).6

The Persians called these invaders ‘Chionites’, but the Indians referred to them as  ‘Huna’.7 The Chionites quickly overran Bactria, and the Byzantine scholar Faustus records how in AD 368 the Persian King recruited Armenian troops into his armies to try to defend his eastern provinces.8 Writing in the sixth century the Byzantine scholar Procopius calls these invaders ‘the Hephthalite Huns, who are called  White Huns’ and reports that ‘they do not intermix with any of the other Huns known to us.’9  He claims that the Huns did not seem to be ‘Scythians’ and had no ‘regal government’. 10 Claudian confirms that the Huns came from somewhere beyond the ‘extreme eastern borders of Scythia’.11 Ammianus explains: ‘A hitherto unknown race of men has arisen from some hidden recess of the earth and like a tempest of snows from the high mountains they seize or destroy everything in their way.’12

Another subgroup of Xiongnu (Huns) first appears in Roman accounts in AD 370 when they arrived in lands to the north of the Caspian Sea and crossed the Volga River. Coming from unknown territories, these Huns rapidly conquered the Alani and Goths, who occupied steppe lands north of the Black Sea (Scythia). Zosimus reports that ‘a barbarous nation, which had remained unknown until this time, suddenly made its appearance and attacked the Scythians beyond the Ister (Danube).’

The Huns had migrated to seek land, and they arrived on the Pontic steppe with their wives, children, horses, and wagons.13 Zosimus explains that their warriors  ‘were not capable of fighting on foot, rarely walked, could not fix their feet firmly on the ground, but live perpetually, and can even sleep, on horseback’.14 According to  Roman accounts they possessed superior horses, more considerable skill at archery, and demonstrated more persistence in their attacks than other steppe nations.  

Jordanes, the sixth-century Byzantine historian, describes them as being ‘tanned with a large head that is not distinct. Their eyes are small, resembling a pinhead.’ He reports that male Huns ritually scarred their faces with blades as displays of mourning enacted at funeral services.15 Procopius also suggests that the Huns had a distinctive haircut that was copied by the riotous gangs who watched chariot races in Constantinople. The Hun haircut was achieved by ‘clipping the hair short on the front of the head down to the temples, then letting it hang down in great length and disorder at the back’.16

Jordanes reports that the Huns were ‘short in stature with fast physical movements, alert horsemen, broad-shouldered and primed in the use of bow and arrow,  with firm-set necks held erect with pride’.17Ammianus offers a similar account, describing the Huns as possessing ‘compact bodies, strong limbs, and thick necks.’ 

He suggests they were disfigured by a lifetime of horse-riding and walked awkwardly when they dismounted.18 Sidonius compared the Huns to the centaurs of classical mythology, describing how they learned to ride as soon as they could walk. 

He reports, ‘You would think that the limbs of man and horse are fused so firmly does the rider always move with the horse; other people are carried on horseback, but these people live there.’19 Ammianus reports that even their war councils were conducted while mounted and ‘when deliberation is required regarding important matters, they all consult as a common body on horseback.’20

Hunnic horses were considered superior to the western breeds used by Scythians on the Pontic Steppe and Roman cavalry in Europe. A Roman named Vegetius wrote a study on veterinary medicine in which he lists the characteristics of these horses. They had ‘large hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad  jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below their knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, great strength in their cannon bones, small pasterns,  wide-spreading hooves, hollow loins, angular rumps without fat or muscles, a back  stature that is long rather than high, drawn in belly and large bones.’ This accurately describes the horses used by Central Asian steppe nations. 

Roman horses were expensive to maintain since they had to be kept warm in stables and required frequent veterinary attention. Vegetius explained that Hunnic horses did not need barns and could endure more significant cold and hunger without distress. They were also longer-lived and less prone to injury than their Roman counterparts. Hunnic breeds were also better able to bear wounds due to their quiet and sensible temperament. Therefore in the opinion of Vegetius, they held  ‘first place among horse breeds in their fitness for war’.21

Skilled Hun bowmen could outpace and outmaneuver armored Sarmatian riders who specialized in cavalry charges carrying cumbersome lances. Jordanes reports that the Alani ‘equaled the Huns in battle but had different cultures, manners, and appearance. The Huns exhausted them by their incessant attacks and subdued them.’22 Zosimus confirms that their warriors overcame the western steppe dwellers with continual attacks and ‘by the rapidity with which they wheeled about their horses, by the suddenness of their excursions and retreats, shooting as they rode they caused a great slaughter among the Scythians.’23Claudian refers to their attacks which seemed ‘disorderly, but had incredible swiftness, allowing the Huns to often return to the fight when little expected’.24

Ammianus describes how Hunnic warriors rode into battle in wedge-shaped masses, while ‘their medley of voices makes a savage noise.’ They were ‘lightly equipped for swift motion and unexpected action, they purposely divide suddenly into scattered bands and attack, rushing about in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter.’ The Huns surpassed all other warriors in the skill of their archery, but when the opportunity came, ‘they can gallop over the intervening ground and fight hand-to-hand with swords.’ They also lassoed their enemies throwing ‘strips of cord plaited into nooses over their opponents, entangling and binding their limbs so they cannot ride or walk.’25 Unlike the Chinese who possessed sophisticated crossbows, the Goths and Romans had no projectile weaponry that could easily outrange and target mounted Hunnic archers. 

Ammianus records that within a few years the Huns ‘had overrun the territories of the Alani,’ they ‘killed and plundered many of them, then joined the survivors to themselves in a treaty of alliance.’26 This gave Hunnic armies the Sarmatian cavalry equipped with scale and chain mail armor. After suppressing the Alani, the Huns moved west to attack the Goths, who by the fourth century AD were a populous nation inhabiting agricultural territories stretching from the Baltic coast to the northern Black Sea. The Goths on the Pontic steppe had adopted cavalry practices, but they fought with spears instead of the sophisticated reflex bows used by the Scythians. Procopius explains that Gothic bowmen ‘entered battle on foot under cover of heavily armed men’.27

Gothic spearmen could not ride faster than Hunnic warriors, and even in close combat, Goth riders could find it challenging to overcome Huns equipped with helmets and lamellar armor. Procopius describes how an elite Hun soldier ‘was surrounded by twelve Goths carrying spears whom all struck at him at once, but his  corselet withstood the blows, and he was not seriously injured until one of the  Goths succeeded in hitting him from behind, in a place where his body was unprotected, above the right armpit’. This Hun was only wearing a helmet and jacket-like coat of chain or lamellar armor since another spear-thrust wounded his exposed thigh.28

Roman sources suggest that it was challenging to unseat or kill a mounted Hunnic warrior. Sidonius describes a Hun who was speared by a lance, ‘transfixed, his corselet was pierced front and back so that blood came throbbing through the two holes.’29 Some Huns carried shields, and Sozomen describes a Hunnic warrior leaning on his shield, ‘as was his custom when parleying with his enemies’.30

Grave finds suggest that some Huns practiced the steppe custom of artificial cranial deformation and by binding the heads of their babies they encouraged the infant’s skull to develop in an elongated shape.31 Some Romans assumed that this practice was connected with warfare, to flatten the face and make it easier for warriors to wear helmets with broad nose-guards.32 A few wealthy Huns gilded their armor, perhaps emulating the customs of the Aorsi who wore gold ornaments.33 Asterius of Amasia reports that ‘the armor of the barbarians is ostentatious’ and describes a steppe chief on the Black Sea coast who offered his gilded cuirass to a Christian representative.34

When the Huns defeated the Gothic kingdoms, tens of thousands of refugee Goths and Alani fled south to seek protection in the Roman Empire. Ammianus reports that ‘exhausted by a lack of necessities they looked for a new homeland far from the savages and after much deliberation, they chose Thrace as a suitable refuge, because it has very fertile soil and because it is separated by the  mighty flood of the Danube from the lands exposed to war.’ The Gothic realms were allied to the Roman Empire, and Ammianus records how a large part of the defeated nation suddenly appeared on the banks of the Danube asking admittance into imperial territory.35 Zosimus reports, ‘The surviving Scythians (Goths and  Alani) were compelled to abandon their homelands to the Huns and cross the  Danube, they, therefore, appealed to the Emperor to receive them, promising to  serve faithfully as soldiers.’ Tens of thousands of Goths and Alani were admitted into the frontier provinces along with their families, but despite confiscation orders, many were able to bribe officials and cross the Danube carrying weapons.36

These refugees were confined to camps near the frontier, but they were offered limited supplies while they were systematically exploited and mistreated by various Roman officials. As a result, the Gothic refugees rebelled and overran the Balkan countryside with raiding parties (AD 376–378). In AD 378 the Eastern Emperor  Valens marched against the Gothic army, but their steppe cavalry outmaneuvered him at the Battle of Adrianople.37 The Emperor was killed along with most of the Eastern Field Army while their enemies ‘plundered the dead bodies and armed themselves with Roman equipment’.38

The Goths dominated imperial politics throughout the following century as their various nation-states crossed the Empire to seize territories from imperial control.  They overran rich agricultural territories, demanded tribute from Roman cities, and captured various armories and imperial workshops. The Visigothic chief Aleric boasted that the Roman province of Thrace forged spears, swords, and helmets for his warriors.39 Meanwhile, the Huns moved westwards towards the grasslands of Hungary on the Danube frontier. In a few decades, they had conquered and occupied a territory stretching over 1,700 miles from the Roman Danube to the Volga River. 


The Threat to Rome

Theodosius I was the last Emperor to rule a unified Roman regime. In AD 393, he placed his 9-year-old son on the throne of the Western Empire under the guidance and protection of a senior general named Flavius Stilicho. Theodosius was then succeeded by his eldest son Arcadius who ruled the Eastern Empire from a bureaucratic court, while the western government fell under the authority of generals assisted by Gothic and Germanic warlords brought into regular imperial service. 

Authorities in the Western Roman Empire sought alliances with the Huns, who occupied large parts of Eastern Europe and the Pontic-Caspian steppe. By contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire was a target for Hunnic raids, aggression, and extortion. In AD 395, the Huns sent an army through passes in the Caucasus Mountains to raid the Eastern Roman Empire. Jerome describes the sudden terror of these attacks as ‘everywhere their approach was unexpected as their speed overtook any rumor of their coming and they spared neither religion, rank nor age.’ Hunnic armies entered Armenia and rode south to plunder Syria, as the population of Antioch and Tyre retreated into their cities. Roman authorities suspected that the Huns might be planning to rob gold from Jerusalem and wealthy citizens fled onto ships to avoid capture or death.40 Jerome confirms the impact of these raids when he writes that ‘the soldiers of Rome who are conquerors and lords of the world are subdued, tremble and withdraw in fear at the sight of those who cannot easily walk on foot.’41

The Huns then turned their attention west and subjugated populations in central Germany, prompting a further movement of displaced Germanic peoples into the Western Roman Empire. In AD 405 tens of thousands of Suebians, Vandals, and Alani crossed the Rhine frontiers along with their families to settle in Roman Gaul. Up to 80,000 Vandals migrated through Spain and in AD 429 they crossed

Antioch and Tyre retreated into their cities. Roman authorities suspected that the  Huns might be planning to plunder gold from Jerusalem and wealthy citizens fled onto ships to avoid capture or death.42Jerome confirms the impact of these raids when he writes that ‘the soldiers of Rome who are conquerors and lords of the world are subdued, tremble and withdraw in fear at the sight of those who cannot easily walk on foot.’43

The Huns then turned their attention west and subjugated populations in central Germany, prompting a further movement of displaced Germanic peoples into the Western Roman Empire. In AD 405, tens of thousands of Suebians, Vandals, and Alani crossed the Rhine frontiers along with their families to settle in Roman Gaul. Up to 80,000 Vandals migrated through Spain and in AD 429 they crossed into North Africa to seize the fertile farmlands that supplied grain to Rome.44

During this period, military leaders in the Western Roman Empire recruited Hunnic warriors into imperial service as the elite bodyguards of senior commanders.  The Western Emperor Honorius (AD 393–423) maintained 300 Huns in the Italian capital Ravenna and Stilicho, the Magister Militum (‘Master of Soldiers’), was protected by a personal bodyguard of Hunnic troops.45 In AD 409, the Emperor summoned a mounted force, including 10,000 Hunnic allies, to help defend Italy from an army of Visigoths who were threatening Rome. Zosimus suggests that the Romans found it difficult to feed and supply this number of horse riders and the riders withdrew allowing the Visigoths to sack Rome the following year.46 In AD 425, a  Roman commander named Flavius Aetius requested the support of a Hunnic army to decide a succession dispute in the Western Roman Empire. He led 60,000 allied Hunnic warriors into Northern Italy before negotiating a peace that allowed him to claim the title Magister Militum.47 By this period Hunnic armies incorporated the most influential military traditions of their subject peoples, and Jordanes describes their varied appearance including ‘Suebi (Germans) fighting on foot, Huns with bows and the Alani forming-up into a heavy-armed battle-line’.48

In AD 445, a chief named Attila was proclaimed king of the Huns and, after unifying his subject peoples, ‘he gathered a host of the other tribes under his power.’ Jordanes describes Attila as ‘short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and greying, and he had a flat nose and tanned complexion.’ He was said to be ‘enthusiastic for war, but restrained in action,  mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were received into his protection’.49

Under the command of Attila, Hunnic armies reduced the political and military strength of the Roman regime and caused the collapse of the Western Empire. Like the Xiongnu, the Huns wanted to dominate and extract wealth from their imperial rivals, rather than conquer or destroy them. It was said that when Attila captured the Italian city of Milan, he saw a painting of the Roman Emperors sitting upon golden thrones and Scythians lying dead before their feet. He ordered the image redrawn to depict ‘Attila upon a throne and the Roman Emperors heaving sacks upon their shoulders and pouring out gold before him’.50 Attila’s funeral oration was reported to have praised him as the chief who ‘held the Scythian and German realms, terrified both Roman Empires, captured their cities and placated by their appeals, took yearly tribute in place of plunder’.51

Attila’s attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire began in AD 441 when Hunnic armies crossed the Danube frontier and plundered the Balkans. The Huns had with them Roman captives with the engineering skills required to bridge rivers. They also brought numerous battering-ram siege engines that they mounted on large steppe-wagons. If threatened by attack, these massive timber wagons could be quickly drawn into formation to create a fortress-like wooden stronghold. Priscus describes the siege of a fortified Roman city called Naissus when the Huns drove ‘a vast number of siege engines’ against the walls. Archers fired from wicker and hide-protected portholes in these wagons, forcing the defenders from the battlements, as the battering-rams were rolled forward. These rams consisted of a sizeable metal-headed beam fixed to chains so that it could be drawn back with ropes, then swung forward with pendulum force. The walls of Naissus were battered down at numerous points, allowing the Huns and their Gothic allies to scale the rubble with ladders and plunder the city.52 These sieges were rapid operations conducted with overwhelming force, and in AD 443, the Huns threatened but did not attack,  the heavily-fortified imperial capital of Constantinople (Byzantium). Tens of thousands of Roman subjects, including many skilled urban tradespeople, were seized in their raids and conveyed to the Hunnic homelands in Hungary and the Pontic steppe. A Roman chronicle describes the conflict as ‘a new disaster for the east:  more than seventy cities were sacked while no assistance came from the troops of the Western Empire’.53

The Eastern Empire bought peace terms with the Huns for 6,000 pounds of gold and an agreement that a further 2,100 pounds of gold per annum would be given as tribute (equivalent to 8.4 million sesterces of first-century currency).54 In addition, thousands of Roman prisoners were returned at a ransom of 8 gold solidi per person.55 According to Priscus, ‘these tributes were very heavy, as many resources and the imperial treasuries had been exhausted.’56 Priscus reports: ‘The Romans pretended that they had made the agreements voluntarily. But because of the overwhelming fear which gripped their commanders, they were compelled to accept gladly every injunction, however harsh, in their eagerness for peace.’57 Despite these protests, the Eastern Empire could pay further tribute, and John Lydus reports that in AD 457 the treasury preserved 100,000 pounds of gold,  ‘which Attila, the enemy of the world, had wanted to take’.58

In AD 449, Priscus was selected by the government of the Eastern Roman Empire to lead an embassy to the court of Attila. He traveled to one of the Hunnic capitals north of the Danube, which resembled a vast wood-built village the size of a Roman town. Attila’s royal residence was constructed from close-fitting polished timbers and ornamental wooden boards and, although it had a perimeter adorned with towers, the complex was built ‘for beauty rather than protection.’ Priscus reports that a Roman captive taken from the city of Sirmium had made a heated bath-house at the site, confirming the new engineering skills then available to the regime. Attila received envoys and petitions and oversaw legal cases in his royal hall. Priscus records that one of his royal secretaries was a Roman administrator named Rusticius who was another war-captive, employed by the Huns because of ‘his skills in speech and composing letters’.59 Attila was also promoting his regime using motifs from the Sarmatian religion and claimed to have discovered the sacred sword of the classical war god Mars (Ares).60

Another incident indicates the Hunnic capacity for acculturation. Priscus met a former Roman merchant in the Hunnic capital who spoke fluent Greek but was dressed in full ‘Scythian attire’ and cut his hair in their distinctive style. The Greeks explained he had been a wealthy inhabitant of Viminacium near the Danube River, but when the city was stormed, he was captured and brought into Hunnic service. 

He had ‘fought bravely in battles against the Romans’ and with the spoils ‘he had obtained his freedom according to the law of the Scythians.’ He could have returned to the Empire, but he married a Scythian woman, had children by his foreign wife and continued to serve the Huns.61

While Priscus was attending the Hunnic court, he spoke to visiting envoys from the Western Roman government about the threat posed by Attila. They explained to Priscus that ‘no one who ruled over Scythia or any other land had achieved such great things in such a short time.’ They warned that Attila ‘rules all of Scythia, makes the Romans pay tribute and is aiming at more significant achievements for he wants to engage the Persians and enlarge his territories’. The envoys explained that Media was no great distance from the Hunnic regions, and the Huns knew the main routes through the Caucasus Mountains. They believed that Attila, ‘with little difficulty and only a short journey, would subdue the Medes, Parthians, and Persians and force them to submit to the payment of tribute. For he has a military force which no nation can resist.’ One of the envoys from Rome named Constantiolus warned that if Persia fell to the Huns, then Attila would dictate ruling terms on the Western Roman Empire. Constantiolus claimed, ‘At present, we bring Attila gold for the sake of his rank, but if he overwhelms the Parthians, Medes, and Persians, he will no longer endure the rule of independent Romans.’62 But contrary to  Roman expectations the Huns did not engage the Persian Empire as their next military target.  In AD 450, Attila received a pretext for war against the Western Roman Empire. 

Honoria, the disgraced half-sister of the Emperor Valentinian III, sent a marriage proposal to Attila. This union would have given Attila controlling interests in the imperial succession, but the marriage was refused by the Roman court, who insisted that Honoria marry an aging senator. At the same time, the Eastern Roman Empire withheld the annual gold tribute that it had agreed to pay to the Huns. 

Priscus reports that ‘Attila was undecided whom he should attack first, but resolved to begin with the greater war and advance against the West since his fight there would be against Goths and Franks’ who had fled Hunnic rule for Roman protection.63

In AD 451, Attila attacked the Western Roman Empire with a Hunnic army supported by large numbers of subject Goths (Ostrogoths) and Germans. His invasion force would have included more than 60,000 warriors, making it the largest field-army operating in the western world. Attila plundered cities in Gaul and  ‘launched a fierce assault with his battering-rams’ on the heavily fortified town of  Orleans.64 In response, the Western Roman regime allied with the  Alani, Franks, and Visigoths who occupied large parts of Gaul and viewed the Huns as their traditional enemies. The two armies fought a large-scale engagement at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains that ended with a stalemate and the withdrawal of the Hunnic army from Gaul.65

The following year the Hunnic army crossed the Alps and sacked the significant cities in northern Italy before threatening Rome itself (AD 452). On this occasion, the Roman regime could not obtain support from their Germanic allies, and the remaining imperial units were unable to manage an adequate defense. Jordanes describes how the Hunnic army attacked the fortified city of Aquileia: ‘Bringing forward all manner of war-engines, they quickly forced their way into the city, plundered it, divided the spoils and so cruelly devastated the place that scarcely anything remained.’ He claims that the invaders ‘devastated the most significant part of Italy’ before approaching Rome.66 Pope Leo was chosen as the envoy to Rome, and the western government was forced to agree on peace terms that made their empire tributary to the Huns. Attila also reasserted his claim to an imperial marriage alliance and demanded the government surrender the princess Honoria, ‘with her due share of the royal wealth’.67 

The campaign had exhausted the Roman capacity for war, and the regime was open to invasion and exploitation by further foreign powers. With the Western Empire subdued, Attila returned with his army to his Hungarian realm to plan new campaigns against the Visigoths and Alani.68 He was also anticipating conflict with the Eastern Roman Empire as it was withholding the promised tribute payments to the Hunnic court. But in AD 453, on the night of his marriage to a German princess named Ildico, Attila suddenly died from a brain hemorrhage .69 The fate of Honoria is not known, and she may have remained in Rome under imperial custody. The death of Attila caused subject nations to rebel and his empire disintegrated in a series of conflicts. The Hunnic threat diminished, but by this period, large parts of the Western Roman Empire were under the direct rule of Germanic nations who had conquered relevant territories or been given land in return for military service. The last ever Emperor of Rome was a boy named Romulus Augustus, who was deposed by a Germanic king named Odoacer in AD 476. It had taken less than a century for a significant steppe incursion with an influx of foreign refugees to destabilize, undermine, and destroy the Roman Empire.

In antiquity, the Huns were the largest and most significant population group to have traveled across the steppe from the Far East to the Roman frontiers, a journey of more than 5,000 miles. But during the long history of the silk routes, many other unnamed, impoverished, or dispossessed individuals passed through the empires of Central Asia as the consequence of conflict, slavery, or commerce. Archaeologists excavating the ancient site of an imperial estate at Vagnari in southern Italy unearthed the graves of slave workers who had been involved in textile production during the first century AD. DNA testing of skeletal remains revealed that one of the men buried in the plot had Far Eastern ancestry inherited from his mother.70

In spite of all the wealth associated with the silk routes, his sole possession was a plain wooden food bowl, placed next to his body for use in the afterlife. Whomever this man was and however his ancestors had found themselves in the very center of the Roman Empire, he had ended his days as a slave and was buried in a simple grave on a bleak hillside.

Yet while the Chinese empire recovered from its numerous fragmentations and invasions and remained a unified nation. The explanations why the Roman Empire did not recover from its fall. As we have seen, in the middle of the second century, the Romans controlled a huge, geographically diverse part of the globe, from northern Britain to the edges of the Sahara, from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. The generally prosperous population peaked at 75 million. Eventually, all free inhabitants of the empire came to enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship.

Five centuries later, the Roman empire was a small Byzantine rump-state controlled from Constantinople, its near-eastern provinces lost to Islamic invasions, its western lands covered by a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms. Trade receded, cities shrank, and technological advance halted. Despite the cultural vitality and spiritual legacy of these centuries, this period was marked by a declining population, political fragmentation, and lower levels of material complexity.

This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years. This phase of climate deterioration had decisive effects in Rome’s unraveling.

(A to D) Evolution of central European forest cover and population from (A), together with oak sample replication (B), their historical end dates at decadal resolution (C), and examples of archaeological (left), subfossil, historical, and recent (right) sample sources (D).

Claims that the decisive factor in Rome’s biological history was the arrival of new germs the Antonine plague the Plague of Cyprian and in the sixth century, the bubonic plague, have recently been contested.


Footnotes upon request you can write to me at ericvandenbroeck1959@gmail.com


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