Book Summary: “Geopolitics in Late Antiquity” by Hyun Jin Kim

Title: Geopolitics in Late Antiquity: The Fate of Superpowers from China to Rome
Author: Hyun Jin Kim
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Kim explores the impact that the rise of the Hun/Xiongu from Central Asia had on the Roman, Chinese and Persian empires.

Key Take-aways

  • Herding societies from the Central Asian steppe had a huge, but forgotten, impact on history for over 1000 years. Not until the invention of firearms and field cannon were Agrarian empires able to end their military threat.
  • In the 4th Century Eurasia was dominated by the Roman, Chinese and Persian empires. These empires had been in existence for centuries
  • The consolidation of the herding tribes of Central Asia into a Hun/Xiongu empire created a new power that was militarily superior to any of the traditional empires.
  • Initially, the empires had no chance in battle. The Hun/Xiongu horse archers dominated the battlefield and had superior strategic mobility.
  • Once they recognized the military dominance of the Hun/Xiongu, the Chinese tried to appease it with diplomacy, tribute and trade.
  • Wars with the Huns played a decisive role in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Persian empire was also weakened by the Huns and later destroyed by the Arabs.
  • After the death of Attila in 453, the Hunnic Empire self-destructed and was torn apart by civil war. In a similar way to how the Xiongnu Empire eventually succumbed to civil war.
  • For the following 1000 years Eurasian empires had to deal with the powerful military threat from Herding societies from the Central Asian steppe.

Important Quotes from Book

This book seeks to illuminate our very modern geopolitical concerns by looking back to and examining in greater detail a sig­nificant geopolitical revolution in Late Antiquity which forced the contemporary superpowers of the known world (Rome, Iran and China) to react to a dangerous new geopolitical reality: the precipitous rise of steppe empires in Inner Asia that threatened the established world order and presented an existential crisis to these traditional, regional hegemons.

The expansion of the Huns/Xiongnu was a very Eurasian geopolitical devel­opment that impacted the whole of the Afro-Eurasian interactive system.3 The analysis of how the three superpowers of Antiquity (Rome, Iran and China) coped with this unexpected challenge (and dealt with each other in the case of Rome and Sassanian Persia) will form the core of the discussion of this book.

The following chapters will argue that the geopolitical developments of Late Antiquity are strikingly analogous (though certainly not identical) to the geopolitical order of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Crucial lessons can be learned by contemporary powers by observing how the superpowers of antiq­uity dealt with analogous situations.

In the following analysis, the book will argue that the Inner Asian Empires of the Huns/Xiongnu and the later Avars were the geopolitical equivalents of the Soviet Union/Russia, a challenger that often refused to abide by the institutional and systemic rules set by the three superpowers: Rome, Han China and Sassanian Iran. We will examine how similar (and at times different) the approaches of these three powers to the Inner Asian threat were to the US and Chinese approaches to the challenge posed by Soviet Russia.

After that threat had subsided the Eastern Roman Empire (the geopolitical equivalent of the United States in Late Antiquity) was faced with a very similar geopolitical dilemma as the United States in the post-Cold War world. A brief unipolar moment was followed by the renewed challenge from an old traditional power, Sassanian Persia (whose history to a certain extent mirrors that of mod­ern China). The resulting cataclysmic feud between the two powers, which was badly mismanaged and led to a devastating, mutually destructive conflict (largely because of poor, short-sighted geostrategic decisions made by both sides), resulted in the eventual eclipse of both superpowers in the 7th century ad at the hands of the Muslim Arabs.

From the end of the 3rd century BC  onwards, in the space of less than a century, the Eurasian world witnessed the formation of three, enduring, regional, hegem­onic powers: Rome in the Mediterranean Basin after its triumph over arch-rival Carthage; China unified first under Qin and then the Han dynasty; and in the mid­dle of the 2nd century BC Persia, reconstituted as a major geopolitical player under the Parthian Arsacid dynasty (the legacy of which would continue later under the Sassanian dynasty). These three empires were the superpowers of antiquity and their geopolitical dominance would endure for over half a millennium. Yet, the hegemony of these empires was almost immediately put to the test by a fourth disruptive power group, the Inner Asian Huns.

During the days of Qin Shihuang (the infamous First Emperor of China) the Xiongnu Huns were only one among many steppe confederacies competing with each other for dominance in the crowded eastern steppes.

All this, however, was abruptly changed by the astonishing exploits of the first great Inner Asian conqueror, Modu Chanyu of the Xiongnu.… In a matter of decades Modu united all of eastern Inner Asia and created an empire larger than that of Alexander the Great. The standing army of the Xiongnu was also expanded to 300,000 men, now a match for the huge armies of Han China. The empire that Modu created was furthermore maintained by a highly sophisticated political sys­tem, an elaborate hierarchy based on the Xiongnu’s military organisation.

China was thus suddenly faced with a challenger which was militarily superior to it, at least temporarily. Its initial response to this challenge was war, but after a disastrous defeat, the imperial court quickly shifted to a policy of appeasement and the paying of tribute to buy off the powerful foe.

Before the establishment of the Hunnic Empire in Europe in the late 4th century ad the geopolitical map of Western Eurasia had been fairly stable for nearly four centuries. The Mediterranean and its hinterlands in Europe, Asia and Africa had been dominated by Rome.

The Hunnic invasion generated a crisis in which the field armies of the Romans were put to the test against the Eastern Goths and their Alan allies, who immedi­ately showed the Romans the extent to which the traditional Mediterranean mode of warfare based on armoured infantry was both outdated and patently inferior to the new mode of warfare originating in the Eurasian steppes.

The Persian Empire of the Sassanian dynasty in the 4th century ad was an estab­lished and feared military power, on a par with the mighty Roman Empire with which it had sparred over territory and allegiance of tributary states all through­out the 3rd century.

Interestingly, the Huns had no real interest in holding on to Roman terri­tory. The tribute they imposed on the defeated Romans was also surprisingly reasonable. What the Huns wanted was similar to what the Xiongnu had earlier demanded from the Chinese, Roman recognition of Hunnic overlordship and the incorporation of a largely intact sedentary state (Rome) into the Hunnic tributary system as a vassal state… All this indicates that the Hunnic Empire was not really an existential threat to the Romans (something that the Romans feared). Not because the Huns lacked the ability to destroy the Roman state, but because in the typical Inner Asian manner they instinctively preferred to leave distant large territorial blocks autonomous as dependencies rather than annex them.

The battle of Chalons that followed was a bloodbath … the consequences are indisputable: the virtual annihilation of what was left of the Western Roman military establishment.

After this battle Aetius could no longer maintain his control over the Western Roman Empire….  The Western Roman army never recovered from the war against Attila. From this point on it degenerated into a series of hired mercenary forces commanded by clearly un-Romanised, unintegrated barbarian kings/chiefs and their retinues, who were in no way completely dependent on or even remotely loyal to the imperial government and the Roman state. The Eastern Romans who alone could have aided the West in this situation were also in no shape to mount a substantial military campaign in western Europe. They were crippled militarily for decades by the Hunnic War of 447. In the end the Western Roman state unable to rebuild its military forces and deprived of sufficient aid from either the Huns or the Eastern Roman Empire dissolved into a motley col­lection of barbarian kingdoms.

What the Romans should have realised, but ultimately failed to do so, was that the Huns were not seeking conquest, but nominal submission from them.

Like the Han Chinese they should have waited patiently for the geopolitical landscape to change in their favour. In the case of the Romans that opportunity was not long in coming. In 454 following the death of Attila in 453, the Hunnic Empire self-destructed and was torn apart by civil war in a similar way to how the Xiongnu Empire eventually succumbed to civil war.

The Romans, if they had adopted the correct geostrategy, may well have pre­served their empire largely intact… The Persians fared even worse than the Romans and were in fact conquered outright. However, even after conquering Persia the Central Asian Huns preferred to rule Iran via a puppet Sassanian vassal ruler.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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