Sunday, 3 April 2011

Storm from the East; Part 1: Huns

The frontispiece of volume 2 of my copy of H. G. Wells's "Outline of History" is a painting of a man of Central Asian appearance mounted on a small but wild-looking horse against a desolate and entirely treeless background. It is entitled "The man of the great plains". This is entirely appropriate, since for more than a thousand years, the settled communities of Europe and the Near East (not to mention China and northern India) were terrorised by sporadic irruptions of invaders from the steppes. From the 4th to the 16th centuries, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks and Mongols would appear without warning and sweep westwards, spreading chaos and slaughter. Then, quite abruptly, these invasions ceased, and from then onwards the movement was all in the opposite direction.

The great steppe stretches for thousands of miles, from the Carpathian mountains across the Ukraine, southern Siberia and central Asia, all the way to China. It has few trees and in places is extremely arid, watered by only a handful of great rivers, on whose banks are found the few cities of the region. It is stiflingly hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. Most of the inhabitants were nomad clans, living in tented encampments, constantly on the move in search of grazing for the immense flocks of animals, sheep, horses or camels, which constituted their wealth. They grew no crops, subsisting on meat and cheese; they had little in the way of industries, and obtained necessities by trading with, or raiding, the settled communities on the fringes of their territory. They had no writing, and followed primitive shamanistic religions. Their strength lay in their numbers and their mobility. A charismatic leader who could unite the clans, as happened from time to time, could call upon tens of thousands of warriors to follow him. They were accustomed to travelling vast distances, were not deterred by harsh weather, and were not encumbered by much in the way of possessions.

Their fighting methods reflected this. Whereas in the tangled hills and forests of western Europe the typical warrior was a heavily-armed infantryman, good at holding defensive positions but moving only slowly, the typical warrior of the vast open spaces of the steppe was a mounted archer. The principal weapon was the composite bow, made of horn, wood and sinew glued together, immensely stronger than the short European bow, and less cumbersome to use than the English longbow; ideal for use on horseback. For tactics in battle, we should think of the old cowboy movies of Red Indians circling round a wagon-train. The nomads would keep a distance from their opponents, firing endless arrows, often feigning flight to lure them into reckless charges and then swiftly turning to counterattack, and only themselves charging in for the kill when the foe was completely disorganised and exhausted. It was by these methods that the Parthians slaughtered the Roman legions of Marcus Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BC, and the Seljuk Turks crushed the army of the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert in 1071, thus permanently changing the map of the Near East.

Under a charismatic leader like Attila, Arp Arslan or Genghis Khan, nomad empires could grow extremely fast. Surrounding peoples would be given the stark choice: join us and fight alongside us, or be slaughtered! Not surprisingly, many chose the former option, and the empire would expand at a tremendous pace - as long as battles continued to be won! But what if the momentum halted? or if the charismatic leader died, and there was a disputed succession to his crown? Then, very quickly, rebellions would break out, the different clans would go their own way, and the empire would disintegrate as fast as it had grown, leaving nothing behind except a trail of destruction. This too was a frequent outcome of the great nomad irruptions. But why did these irruptions occur when they did, and why did they abruptly cease? That remains a mystery. Climate change is a likely explanation: the increasing aridity of the central Asian steppe, combined with overpopulation, creating the need for fresh pasture-land. When Edward Gibbon wrote his great history, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" late in the 18th century, he concluded with the belief that European civilisation was by this time strong enough to resist any future barbarian attacks from the east. But already fear of any such invasions was anachronistic. Already the Russians had penetrated across Siberia to the Pacific coast, and had found that the steppe was empty. In the mid-19th century the armies of the Tsar experienced little difficulty in conquering the ancient cities, Samarkand, Bokhara and Merv, and imposing order on the nomad tribes, the Turkmen, Kazakhs and others. They subdued the vast plains by building railways across them. Later, Stalin crushed any remaining spirit of independence in the nomads by forcing collectivisation upon their flocks and herds. Much the same happened in Mongolia too, which was also under Communist rule. Today nothing survives but the legend.

Let's examine the first of these invasions in more detail. The Huns seem to have originated south of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia.By the mi-4th century they had moved westwards to the region north of the Caspian Sea, and from there they advanced to the Danube in the 370s, driving the Germanic tribes of central Europe, the Goths, Vandals and others, to take refuge inside the Roman Empire. Quarrels soon broke out between these newcomers and their reluctant hosts, and in 378 the Emperor Valens and his army were destroyed by the Goths at the battle of Adrianople. In midwinter 406 the northern frontier of the empire collapsed: the river Rhine froze solid and a vast horde of Vandals, Suevi, Franks and other tribes flooded across into Gaul. In 410 Rome itself fell to Alaric, King of the Visigoths. By this time the Roman Empire was permanently divided. The eastern empire continued strongly at Constantinople, whereas in the west, the later emperors were mere puppets in hands of German mercenary warlords. But as long as the threat of the Huns remained, the Germanic tribes wished to keep the empire going. In 433 Attila, “the scourge of God” became king of all Hun tribes. (Tolkien suggested that his name seemed to be Gothic in origin, and probably meant something like "little father"). He assembled a vast force, which included levies from the subject Germanic tribes. In 451 Attila invaded Gaul, spreading panic and devastation in his wake. Facing him was Aetius, “the last of the Romans”. A composite army of Romans, Franks, Burgundians and Visigoths fought the Huns to a standstill in a gigantic battle near Chalons, following which Attila retreated back across the Rhine. This has to be counted as one of the great decisive battles which changed world history. Next year, Attila invaded Italy (thus according to tradition forcing refugees to flee to the islands that eventually became Venice). He approached Rome, but was somehow persuaded to withdraw by Pope Leo I: a famous scene depicted in one of Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican. (In fact, Attila's withdrawal would have been effected by huge payments of gold rather than any miraculous intervention). Within a year, Attila was dead, choked to death after a wedding feast; his German subjects rose in revolt and his mighty empire fell apart. The Huns withdrew to their base in eastern Ukraine and never again troubled western Europe. But their savagery lived on in legend, with the saying, "Where Attila set his foot, the grass no longer grew".

The Avars were a Turkish-Mongol tribe, who migrated westwards in the mid-6th century after their kingdom in central Asia was destroyed. At first they fought as mercenaries for the Emperor at Constantinople, but then set up their own Khanate, based on a city of tents in present-day Hungary. They quickly defeated the surrounding German and Slavic tribes, until their empire stretched from the Black Sea to the Alps and down throughthe Balkans. It was pressure from the Avars that forced the Lombards to migrate from the Danube down into northern Italy around 590, and in 624 the Avars even besieged Constantinople itself. They were then weakened by internal quarrels, the subject Czechs and Bulgars rose in revolt, and in 803 their power was destoyed by Charlemagne. Apart from a small tribe remaining in the Caucasus mountains, the Avars entirely disappeared from history.

The Magyars did not originate in the Far East, but their impact was similar to the other invaders. They were a nomadic people from western Siberia, who began to migrate westwards from the Don valley in the latter part of the 9th century. They settled on the Danube, from where they raided into Germany, France and Italy. Their ferocity awakened folk memories of the Huns five centuries earlier, and hence they were given the name "Hungarians". Eventually they were defeated at Lechfeld in 955 by the German Emperor Ottos the Great, and soon afterwards converted to Christianity. Their descendants still speak a language utterly unlike any other in Europe.

In the next post we can look at the invasions of the Turks and the Mongols.

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