Gibbon was not alone in his fascination for the Roman Empire, and in the following generation Napoleon Bonaparte expressed his interest rather more practically by attempting to effectively refound it with himself as the new emperor. So it is quite fitting that in one his first battles as emperor, at Eylau, he should find himself up against Cossack horsemen armed with bows and arrows. They probably looked much like the Huns, also steppe nomads, who had played such a big role in the destruction of the empire that he was trying to revive.
It would be poetic if they had played a major role in his defeat, but history doesn’t work like that. They were only deployed by the Russians in desperation to cover their retreat. Armed with muskets, the French were able to cope with them with ease, contempt even. It was a bit of a sad end of a tradition going back many centuries of mounted tribesmen inspiring fear and panic in their victims.
The Steppes Tribesmen and Civilisation
The Huns were simply another example of a recurring theme in ancient history.Civilisation developed in the Middle East and later spread into the Mediterranean. The people of those regions started living in permanent settlements to concentrate on producing food. As a by-product this produced a new and rich culture where it was possible to accumulate a great deal of wealth.There were many problems to be solved for this process to take off. One of the more pressing was that less civilised people were quite likely to turn up and try to take away the stuff you had just accumulated. So it is not surprising that most early cities had walls. The most troublesome group of freebooters were the tribes of nomads living on the steppes of Russia, an area of grassland stretching some 5,000 miles from the forests of Poland in the West to the borders of China in the East.
What we know about the early steppe nomads comes from the accounts of the civilisations to whom they were at different times servants, enemies and from time to time masters.There was in fact almost a predictable cycle to the relationship.A horde would, seemingly out of the blue, sweep in from the plains, overthrow the rulers and take over the elite positions in society. The farmers on the land were generally left to get on with their lives. The comfortable life of the settled soon seduced the once fearsome warriors and two or three generations later they themselves are overthrown by new invaders. So the invaders often had a big impact on the headlines of history – the battles, the rise and fall of dynasties and so on. But they rarely made much difference to the long term trends of what was happening in the societies that they invaded. Here is an example.
The Persians originated as a tribe from the Steppes who settled in what is now Iran.But the original settlers were soon conquered by closely related people from the north, in what is now southern Russia.This happened several times.The most confusing one being the Parthians.These were a people who spoke a language closely related to Persian, who conquered and ruled the Persians for a couple of centuries.They were not really very different to the actual Persians – I hope I am not offending any Persians by saying this – so when the Persians rebelled and drove out the Parthians not a huge amount changed. It does mean you have to keep on your toes when you are doing a podcast about Roman history though.
The Greeks knew the barbarians of the steppes by the name of the Scythians.This was a generic term that covered any number of ethnic groups. In reality the races of the steppes were made up of many different ethnicities.Many were related to the Persians, some were what we would now call Turkic.The Mongols were later to become significant under the famous Gengis, but were no doubt around before then. There were probably a fair number of Germans too. Even today there still exist tribes of nomadic horsemen that talk Turkic languages but which are characterised by blonde hair and blue eyes and who would not look out of place in Oslo.
The Nomadic Lifestyle
It was very much the lifestyle rather than the genes that defined the the steppe horsemen.They lived a pastoral life supported by some hunting and gathering, but largely relying on their flocks of goats, sheep and cattle. Their diet was largely carnivorous in marked contrast to the grain fed farmers of the settled cultures. There was nothing to stop them moving freely across the plains at will. Indeed they would have to move in search of fresh pastures. This mobility limited the complexity of their society.
The tribe was very much like a large extended family. The leader was a patriarch whose authority rested both on his descent from the original founder of the tribe, and his own skills in fighting and horsemanship. But his power was very much informal and restrained by custom and the practical fact that every man was to some extent a warrior and able to stand up for himself. The tribe all claimed some share in the blood of the founder so everybody expected and received a level of respect.
The tribal life style bred men of strength, character and independence. They learned to ride from an early age and became highly skilled horsemen. They could kill wild animals, often by shooting them straight from the saddle. They were adept at travelling great distances without any food if necessary, but often packing a kind of cheese that they made and carried in cow’s stomaches. The Mongols later were reported to tap into their horses to drink their blood as a stop gap source of protein. This may well have been practised much earlier – it doesn’t require much imagination though it does need a strong stomach.
One of the consequences of having an unsettled life and no fixed place to live was that they were somewhat limited in the technology they could develop. But they weren’t unable to innovate. They learned how to ferment mare’s milk into a potent alcoholic beverage. And that cheese required some skill to make. The Huns themselves were probably responsible for the invention of the Hun bow, of which more later.
This nomadic lifestyle predated civilisation by millenia, and there are still some small populations who live that way today, though the numbers involved are now tiny.In Gibbon’s time there were still large tracts of Russia and Siberia inhabited by the exact same tribesmen living exactly the way that their ancestors had done – he referred to them as Tartars. He drew on what he knew about the Tartars to illustrate what he assumed, quite reasonably, to be universal truths about pastoral nomads. The interesting thing is what he reveals about what he doesn’t know, which is the geography of the northern part of Siberia. It is instructive to remember that even at this time large parts of the map of the globe were still blank. Gibbon probably knew as little about what was going on in that region in his own time as the Romans in theirs.
What made the Huns dangerous
The big disadvantage of the nomadic life is that you spend all your time looking for food and can’t spend much time creating luxuries and high quality goods. But given that you can acquire these things from the civilised, it isn’t all bad. There were a number of strategies open to you as a skilled horseman. You could simply hire out your muscle. Or if you are in the mood, you can get together with some fellow nomads and take the things you desire by force. If you are really sophisticated about it and have enough warriors to present a credible threat, you can even simply menace the townsfolk and oblige them to give you money to go away. This is the most cost effective use of your time, but it does take a bit of doing.
Civilisations have more or less the opposite problems. The bulk of the population have to spend their time producing food, but there is enough spare to have some people who specialise in fighting.
And in fact, no civilisation would have lasted long in the ancient world without soldiers to defend it. The soldiers and the civilians lived in a sort of symbiotic relationship. The history books talk about people like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar who spent a lot of time away from home conquering other places, but these were actually quite rare behaviours in the Ancient World. Generally armies were located at home looking after their food supply, and foreign conquests were not really on the agenda. Only a handful of states ever even attempted a widescale campaign of conquest. And even fewer of them created entities that last more than a couple of generations.
The nomads didn’t have the same constraints, and could therefore appear at any time in just about any numbers without warning.This possibility had to be considered carefully by the military planners of China, Persia and Rome. It isn’t too surprising to see both the Romans and the Chinese come up with extensive walls as a solution to the problem. Walls enabled small numbers of troops to hold off much larger numbers until help arrived. Or that at any rate was the theory. Whether these fortifications actually served that purpose is a good question. They certainly did not seem to pose any kind of barrier to the advance of the Huns.
But you can hardly blame them for trying to keep them out when you consider the problems they posed when they got through. The skills that they needed to survive on a daily basis were readily transferable to military purposes. For a start, were formidable hand to hand fighting. After all, if you can kill a rabbit with a bow and arrow then a larger and slower human being is a piece of cake. The characteristic and generally highly successful Roman soldier with his short blade was simply easy meat. The Huns used bows that were more powerful than any the world had yet seen. The composite nature, composed of wood, glue and bone bent double against the grain allowed them to kill at a greater range than any other bowmen. They could do this from horseback and with great speed. Infantry simply could not face a large group of Huns. They would simply be killed where they stood or hunted down where they fled. They could only be safe by retreating behind the walls of a fort or a city.
Heavily armoured cavalry had a chance if they could get close enough without losing too many to arrows, but the Huns’ horsemanship and speed enabled them to escape relatively easily.
Basically on terrain that suited them and with the element of surprise the Huns couldn’t be beaten, and would probably win. A good general with plenty of resources and excellent intelligence might be able to hinder them to some extent, but would be very unlikely to be able to eliminate them.
Strategic Advantages of the Huns
The Romans were good at logistics – it was one of the keys to their success. They had an effective organisation that could keep their very large army in the field supplied. They also had good communications that enabled them to react quickly to events and to use intelligence, er intelligently. But the Huns swept aside these advantages. Where a legion could not advance too far ahead of its supply trains, the Huns could travel as fast as their horses.
The Romans’ normal response to an invasion would be to send out an army to deal with it. But the speed of the Huns enabled them to retreat from any encounter that looked risky. The Romans could not pursue them. And in fact, the Huns now had a further advantage. Because they could move so quickly, they now new where the Roman army was but the Romans didn’t where the Huns had gone. Communications could travel at the speed of a fast horse, but that was only a little quicker than the Huns could move routinely.
Basically there was only one effective response, which was to retreat to fortified places and wait for hunger or boredom to persuade the Huns to go away. The Huns were not good against walls. But even though the they were not equipped for sieges, there was nothing to stop them hiring specialists to work for them. Walls only buy time, they can’t stop a determined enemy.
There was one, and only one, effective counter to an enemy like the Huns. Their strength was entirely dependent on their unity. A wily emperor could deploy the wealth and prestige of the empire to sew dissension in the camp of the enemy. It required skill and leadership, but it could be done.
State of the Empire in the Fourth Century
Most of this picture would be well known enough to the inhabitants of the empire, who were only too aware that just over the borders were hordes, literally, of barbarians both willing and able to sweep in at any time and wipe out everything in their path. It is always worth keeping this in mind when reading about the brutality of Roman life. With that threat hanging over you, you tolerate and even approve a lot of harsh behaviour from the men at the top. The trouble was that although the men at the top might be ruthless and brutal, that didn’t guarantee that they would have the more subtle skills. In fact, this seems to have been something that they lost grip on towards the end of the Western Empire.
The inhabitants of the empire in the late fourth century were fearful of a calamity. Valens hardly inspired confidence as a military leader. Valentinian at least had skills as a soldier but was beset by attacks on all sides – on the Danube and the Rhine, in Britain and in Africa. But he never showed much subtlety. To make things even more disquieting, a huge earthquake followed by atsunamicaused huge devastation across huge swathes of the Mediterranean. Alexandria lost 50,000.Boats were washed ashore far inland.It looked very much like God was expressing his displeasure in some way.
But if that was bad, the possibility of the very empire itself being swept away by a new tribe of barbarians different and more deadly than any that had ever been seen before was soon to show that none of God’s acts could match for terror those of men on horses.