The Barbarians Who Did not Sack the City

By Dr. Michael Richard Jackson Bonner


This article originally appeared in the print edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2019, pp. 90-94.



HERODOTUS CLAIMS to have marvelled at his contemporaries who “separated and divided” the lands of Africa, Europe, and Asia. To the eye of Herodotus, those continents obviously formed one huge landmass. The father of history was right to reject those arbitrary and vague distinctions, but the full significance of geography and its influence could not be properly understood until the age of exploration was over, mysterious dark patches on the map filled in, and the various histories of Eurasia compared and integrated. And yet, what seemed obvious to Herodotus is still obscure to many modern people

In the great Culture War that rages online, and to a lesser extent in academia itself, two factions are preoccupied in a mortal struggle over the identity of classical and antique studies. On one side, we have the extremists of the so-called Alt-Right who are determined to restrict Antiquity to Europe, and to deprive that continent of all but an exclusive, narrowly-defined racial identity. To these, the Graeco-Roman world was white and European. On the other side, we have the new wave of classicists who are determined, I think rightly, to prove this wrong. Donna Zuckerberg, who writes for the online magazine Eidolon, often inveighs against the so-called Alt-Right’s appropriation of the classics, but most famously in an online article of Nov. 2016, How to be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor. She observes that “the Alt-Right is hungry to learn more about the ancient world. It believes that the classics are integral to education. It is utterly convinced that classical antiquity is relevant to the world we live in today.” Obviously, they are not only ones who believe that: I for one am grateful that the classics were integral to my formation. But the problem, Zuckerberg argues, is that for many who pose as “defenders of Western Civilisation, … the study of Classics is the study of one elite white man after another."

Now, I agree with Zuckerberg’s claim that her opponents seem “to have little interest in understanding the ancient world in any way other than the most superficial one.” I also agree with the claim that the study of the ancient world is not, and should not be, “fodder for [a] ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders.” Posturing for shock-value online would be bad enough; but if anyone truly believes that nonsense, it is evidence only of profound delusion. But Zuckerberg’s recommended cure is as bad as the disease. “In your scholarship,” she says, “focus on the parts of antiquity that aren’t elite white men.” That is where I part ways with Zuckerberg.


THE IDEA THAT there is something especially white or European about antiquity is as Zuckerberg asserts “ludicrous.” But when she assumes that there was a cabal of “elite white men” running the show in Antiquity, Zuckerberg is sadly proceeding from the same erroneous assumption as her opponents. 

As I have argued before (“Crisis in the Classics” The Dorchester Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, Autumn/Winter 2017, p. 75-8), the adjective “white” properly describes the people of northern Europe, not those of the Mediterranean. The Roman writer Vitruvius at least considered northern peoples to be particularly fair-skinned; and the writer Yan Shigu, who commented on the Chinese classics during the T’ang dynasty, described the Indo-European barbarians of the northwest as red-haired and green-eyed, and compared their pale faces to those of macaques. So, if anything, “white people” must mean the Germanic tribes of the north, i.e., the destroyers of the Graeco-Roman world. It was they who replaced Roman power in Europe with an amalgam of Germanic and Hunnic customs and institutions, and after them came the Slavs, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Magyars, and others. It was they, not the descendants of the Hellenes or Italians, who established the new sub-Roman Europe, and the Christendom of Clovis and Charlemagne. Moreover, in Antiquity the various peoples of the Mediterranean world had far more in common with one another than they did with the northern barbarians. Such, at least, was the conclusion of the amusing online feud between classicist Mary Beard and aphorist Nasim Nicholas Taleb. And so to re-imagine the Graeco-Roman elite as white and their subject peoples as non-white is to create an imaginary distinction.

I believe that the most important distinction which can be made between the various peoples of the ancient world is not one connected with race. Instead, historians can more profitably focus on two broad categories of peoples: those of the sedentary, agricultural, and urbanized world, and those of the nomadic world of the steppe. With these two differences in mind, any observer will realise that the peoples of Europe owe more to the nomadic steppe than they do to classical Antiquity. And, far from being the abode of an imaginary homogeneous white race, or even a white elite, Europe was a strange melting pot of peoples who migrated there from the remotest parts of Eurasia.

Until quite recently the vast steppe stretching between Hungary and Manchuria was the land of the nomad and was only dimly comprehended by outsiders. The inhabitants of the steppe carried on a way of life which could be thought of as somewhere between hunting and gathering and rudimentary subsistence farming; they lived mostly on the milk and meat of their livestock and drove their flocks before them in search of pasture according to long-established rhythms. They were formidable warriors, and mastery of the horse carried them across enormous distances swiftly; and, as it seemed, they could move without opposition from one end of the world to the other. For thousands of years, the abode of the nomad was the strange, outer world abutting the sedentary, agricultural states which first appeared in Mesopotamia, the Indus river valley, and the central plain of China.


"I believe that the most important distinction which can be made between the various peoples of the ancient world is not one connected with race."


TO THE SEDENTARY peoples who dwelt in those regions, the nomads of the steppe appeared as forces of nature, comparable perhaps to storms or earthquakes, which posed an unpredictable and inexplicable threat to civilisation. Both Herodotus and Sima Qien, the grand historian of China, are nearly unanimous in their description of steppe peoples. They filled the steppe with ferocious tribes who fashioned their enemies’ skulls into drinking cups; and they noted with grim fascination the customs of blood-drinking savages, cannibals, carnivores, people who copulated in the open air, and men with dogs’ heads. For their part, nomads disdained the servile labour of agriculture and looked with contempt upon herbivores who confined themselves to a single space. But it was the huge expanse of the steppe which linked the civilisations of China, India, Iran, and Rome; and it was the steppe which produced the greatest world powers of ancient and mediaeval times.

The kings of the earliest Persian empire were the first to undertake major expeditions into the steppe. Their purpose was to police and to control the nomads of that threatening outer world, but the consequences were disastrous. In about 530 BC, Cyrus the Great perished in battle with the people whom Herodotus calls Massagetae, astounded by the size and ferocity of the battle in which Cyrus fell. His successor Darius I campaigned against the Scythians to the north of the Black Sea, and a feigned retreat drew the Persian army ever deeper into the wilderness. Of course, Persian fear of the steppe peoples seems to have been misplaced, since the ruin of the first Persian empire came from a series of small conflicts on the western fringe of the sedentary world. These culminated in conquest by Alexander the Great who may perhaps have taken advantage of instability along Persia’s frontier with the steppe.

The emperors of China were to make expeditions into the steppe similar to those of Cyrus and Darius, and they were to experience similar defeats. But in the end it was their westward expansion which linked the steppes into a political, as well as a geographic, unit. What the Chinese called the Xiyu, or “western regions,” lay beyond the Gansu corridor, a narrow passage 600 miles long between the Qilian mountains to the south and the Beishan mountains, the Alashan plateau, and the Gobi desert to the north. That long corridor linked the interior of China with the oasis of Dunhuang upon the edge of the Taklamakan desert. From there two long and dangerous roads departed and followed the northern and the southern flanks of that inhospitable wasteland, passing through the tiny oasis towns upon the edge of that desert, and converged at the city of Kashgar: the junction of the Himalaya, the Pamir, and the Tien Shan mountain ranges. Those two perilous roads were enough to assure communication and trade, however slow and precarious, between all the sedentary peoples of the earth. This is the network which is romantically, but improperly, called the Silk Road, along which the cultures of India, Iran, Rome, and China met and blended.

To the north of the Taklamakan desert and the Tien Shan mountains stretched the steppe where a people whom the Chinese called Xiongnu, known in the west as the Huns, were the dominant nomadic power in the age of the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). Chinese interest in their western borderlands and the world beyond them brought them into conflict with those and other nomads, and the sedentary world fought with the nomadic over control of the Gansu corridor and the mysterious regions of the west.

The first westward thrust of the Huns was a momentous event in world history. When the Chinese had expelled them from the Gansu corridor, the Huns launched a series of raids westward in about the year 176 BC. Six years later, they had defeated and displaced another nomadic confederacy known in the west as the Tocharians, and in Chinese sources as the Yuezhi. As the Tocharians fled westward, they came into conflict another nomadic group known as the Wusun. They attacked the Tocharians and drove them south in about the year 132 BC. Two years later that the wanderings of the Tocharians brought them to Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan) whence they dislodged the nomadic Sakas and overran the relics of Alexander’s empire.

That was the first great stirring within the Inner Asian steppe. But in the interval between roughly 100 BC and AD 350, the world of the steppe was either preoccupied with internal upheaval or engaged in conflict with China. It was this period of relative calm upon the steppe in which a small Mediterranean town thousands of miles from the heart of Asia began to assert itself and reached its apogee. Annexing one city state after another, the city of Rome had transformed itself from a backwater into a regional power; and by the first century before Christ, Rome dominated the Mediterranean and its government began to expand into Asia, just as Alexander had done long before. When the relics of Alexander’s conquests in Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Levant, were annexed, Rome gained an empire. By the second century AD the Roman state abutted its great rival Iran directly along an ill-defined and porous frontier running south from the mountains of the Caucasus down into the sands of Arabia.

Those events have little to do with any theory of Roman or European exceptionalism, and no connexion whatsoever with an imaginary theory of racial superiority. The truth is that the rise of Rome would never have occurred if the energies of the nomadic world had been directed westward. In fact, the moment when the steppe world turned to the west, the Roman empire was done for.




CHINESE FOREIGN and military policy succeeded in dividing the Huns into a northern and a southern group. In the about AD 150, the northern Huns were crushed and subjugated by a confederacy known to the Chinese as the Xianbei who soon rose to prominence on the steppe. A series of conflicts in the north preoccupied the arms of the Xianbei and those of the Han until that dynasty succumbed to civil war in the year 220. The three mutually hostile states which arose upon the ruins of the Han monarchy might have been easy prey to the Xianbei. But the generals of the Wei, the Shu, and the Wu resisted all incursions from the steppe throughout the third century, until all three were overpowered by the Jin dynasty. Like the later Germanic federates of the western Roman empire, a portion of the southern Huns was settled within the borders of China, right before the Han state dissolved. Contingents of Huns were employed amidst the contest between the three hostile states which followed the Han. They had federated with the Jin also, and when civil war engulfed that dynasty, their Hunnish allies revolted. They destroyed the Chinese capitals at Chang’an and Luoyang, humiliated two emperors, and established a new half-Hun, half-Chinese state in about AD 311.

But Chinese revenge came not long thereafter. In AD 350 the Chinese general Ran Min seized power and began what we would now recognise as a genocide involving hundreds of thousands of deaths. His purpose was the destroy the southern Huns and their allies, and anyone with a high nose and a full beard (symbols of Hunnish and Indo-European foreigners) was murdered. Perhaps the largest migration in human history followed that genocide. Some of the Huns remained in China, but most fled. They moved westward: some of them appearing upon the eastern marches of Iran, others moving ever onward until they reached the Ukrainian steppe.

This momentous migration displaced many other peoples. But the most famous fugitives who fled before the Huns were the Germanic tribes of the Greuthungi and the Tervingi known collectively as the Goths. The Goths moved southward below the Danube river, and the Roman struggle to control them and to restore order in the plains of Thrace gave way to the worst military disaster in Roman history. In the year 378, at the Battle of Adrianople, most of the Roman army was destroyed, and the emperor Valens himself perished. Not long thereafter, in the year 410, the Gothic armies of Alaric sacked the city of Rome, and a little more than sixty years later Roman rule in Europe and the western Mediterranean was all but extinct. The Huns, then under the leadership of Attila, settled upon the Hungarian plain, and began to assault both halves of the Roman empire, and that settled state was only saved from destruction by Attila’s sudden death in 453. But this was not the end of the Huns. They intermarried with Goths and formed the ruling elite of the new sub-Roman Europe. A Roman rump lived on in what we call the Byzantine empire, guarded by the stout walls of Constantinople and the formidable plateau of Anatolia — natural and artificial barriers between that empire and the world of the steppe. (To them, theirs was the only authentic Roman Empire, no matter what Charlemagne and his successors may have claimed.) Invaders continued to pour into Europe, and the emperor Justinian’s attempt to retake the west in the 6th century ultimately failed.

The foregoing facts suggest some important revisions to popular and scholarly perspectives on world history. A narrow, almost pointillist, view of history is not only boring but also bound to be wrong. Events at one end of the globe can have consequences in very distant parts. Anyone with any historical imagination may have thought of that general principle. But without an emphasis on the unity of Eurasia, the history of the world will appear to be random and perhaps even unintelligible. Those facts should also force people seriously to re-examine what they mean when they speak of European heritage. 


WE OUGHT TO ask ourselves how much of modern European and American culture really goes back to the Graeco-Roman world. Justinian and the jurists who served him would surely be surprised to learn that the Roman civil code which they produced forms the basis of European law, as well as that of Quebec and Louisiana. Apart from that, the Christian religion, and many of our symbols of imperial power have Roman antecedents, of course. Yet these were all appropriated by the peoples who overthrew and replaced Roman power in Europe. They blended or overlaid the relics of Roman culture with their own barbarian heritage, and what we now call European and North American civilisation issued from that curious amalgam. 

But when we think of European culture, we are very wide of the mark if we are fixated on Antiquity and Graeco-Roman civilisation. Feudalism and the act of homage, the practice of eating mostly meat and drinking beer, the aristocratic tradition of the mounted knight, and falconry, are all practices which are commonly associated with the culture of post-Roman Europe. Not a single one of them has a Roman antecedent and they all come from the steppe. The Inner Asian battle tactic of the feigned retreat, and the so-called Parthian shot, were introduced into Europe by the Huns and were famously deployed at the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror. These facts are brought home, sometimes startlingly, in Hyun Jin Kim’s 2016 book, The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe. So I could remark, cheekily, that there was nothing exclusively western about Western Civilisation, nor was the culture of western Eurasia particularly European. At least not at first.

I will close with one more cheeky observation. It was the art of the steppe with its writhing animal forms and ferocious energy — not the austere figures of antique frescoes and statuary — which evolved into the improperly named Romanesque and Gothic styles. When this energy had been tamed somewhat, it produced the sublime and aristocratic faces of the statues at the cathedral of Chartres, which have a spiritual dimension unknown to the Graeco-Roman world. And speaking of Roman statuary, Cicero’s Verrine Orations provide some insight into the sort of art preferred by the Roman gentry. The antique statues of Praxiteles, Myron, and Polycleitus would have been about five hundred years old when they adorned the villas of well-to-do Romans. Their once bright and lively paint would have faded, revealing the pale stone beneath. So perhaps the whitest thing about the Romans was the marble of their favourite statues. 

This article originally appeared in the print edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2019, pp. 90-94.

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