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Central Asia

The Identity of the Xionites

by Peter Kessler, 23 December 2018

The Xionites were otherwise known by a variety of names such as Red Huns, White Huns, Hephthalites, Alchons, Nezak and, rarely, Black Huns. These groups swept into southern central Asia and northern South Asia (a region which can be combined under the label of 'eastern Iran') in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Their origins are generally attributed to tribal confederations which originated on the Central Asian steppe, but the question of precisely where is a hot topic.

Chinese sources refer to several tribal groupings around the first couple of centuries BC and AD which occupied the plains between early China itself and the Dzungarian Gate - the entry point into the Kazakh Steppe of Central Asia. These included the Yüeh-zhi, which they divided into Da Yüeh-zhi (Greater Yuezhi) and the Xiao (or Lesser) Yuezhi. The latter can be identified with the largely peaceful and settled Tocharians. The former can be identified as Indo-Iranians.

Then there were the Xiongnu, the aggressive enemies of the Greater Yuezhi who chased them out of the region and into Bactria in the second century BC, and the Wusun, who made the most of Greater Yuezhi misfortune by attacking them several times. All of this, though, took place a good four hundred years before the first appearance of the Xionites.

However, the stock claim is often made that the Xiongnu are the ancestors of the Xionites, and also of the Huns of Europe.

Hun types

Current thought suggests that the Red Huns were a Turkic-Mongolian grouping which had migrated from the region around the Altai Mountains. This area seems to have formed the original homeland of the early Turks (in the form of the Göktürks), where they mingled with Indo-European Tocharians to the south and Mongolians to the north. Ptolemy in the second century AD, along with Marcellinus and Priscus, suggests that the Huns were an inner Asian people.

It appears that not all Huns were of the same stock though. The White Huns (Hephthalites) especially appear to have been formed of a very different group of people. Procopius of Caesarea in the sixth century states that the Xionites (meaning, it seems, the Red Huns) were of the same stock as the European Huns, 'in fact as well as in name', but [the White Huns] were sedentary, white-skinned, and did not possess 'ugly features'. This distinction is important. It seems to infer that while the European Huns and possibly the Red Huns were dark-skinned, nomadic, and Mongolian or Turko-Mongolian in appearance, the White Huns were not. Instead they were more likely to be steppe-dwelling Indo-Iranians who joined the more aggressive Turko-Mongolian groups.

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz (click on map to view full sized)

Procopius states that they 'do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us, for they occupy a land neither adjoining nor even very near to them; but their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia'. This supports the idea of an Indo-Iranian origin. Ammianus Marcellinus was in Bactria between AD 356-357 - prior to the Xionite invasions of eastern Iran - and stated that the 'Chionitae' (Xionites) were living with the Kushans. This means that they were already present in the region, but were seemingly docile subjects of the Kushan empire. After that empire faded, the Kidarites were able to launch their own invasion of eastern Iran, sweeping the White Huns along with them.

The little-known Black Huns could have been a small group of true Mongolian Huns, darker-skinned than the seemingly Indo-Iranian White Huns, and perhaps darker even than the Turko-Mongoloid Red Huns. Alternatively, they could have been native Indians who were swept up by the Red Huns just as the White Huns seem to have been.

Xiongnu-Hun links

Despite the often-quoted claim that the Xionites/Huns of eastern Iran were related to the Xiongnu (or Xiongu), there is no solid evidence and only contradictory clues to support or refute that claim.

The author John Man especially focuses on this question, devoting a sizable part of his book, Attila: A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome, to the subject. In short his pros and cons for a link between the Xiongnu and the European Huns are as follows, starting with the evidence in favour:

  • The bows they use are quite similar
  • Their names are also similar - Tacitus calls the Huns 'Hunnoi', while in Cantonese the Xiongnu are called the Hung-no
  • The Northern Chanyu (Khagans, but 'Chanyu' is exceptionally close to 'Xiongnu') are located in the same area as the Huns in AD 91 when Tacitus mentions the Huns for the first time
  • Some archaeological similarities exist, such as pottery

The evidence against is equally interesting:

  • The Huns practised skull deformation - the Xiongnu did not
  • The Xiongnu in their later existence used stirrups for riding, which the Huns did not, despite having the capacity to produce them
  • There is no mention of a Chinese past in Hunnic folklore
  • Those states which post-dated the Xiongnu in Mongolia were proud of their links with the Xiongnu, but the Huns have no mention of any sort of interaction with the Chinese

So were the Huns (and Red Huns) Xiongnu descendants? Probably not. Did they share similar cultural and ethnic origins with them? Almost certainly.

Xiongnu-Xionite links

As the Xionites are also referred to as being Huns - especially in early written sources - and are frequently linked to the Huns of Europe, one may be excused for thinking that all of this applies equally to a Xiongnu-Xionite link. Perhaps it does, and that would seem more possible in the case of the Red Huns, but it is far from certain - and it is also entirely unprovable to any degree of certainty.

The claim that the Alchons - or at least their nobility - practised the art of skull deformation certainly does link them at least to a shared cultural heritage with the European Huns who practised the same custom. Both groups must have picked up the custom in a shared homeland. Whether that shared homeland was the same as that of the Xiongnu is less certain. Most likely it was a little to the north of them, around or to the north of the Altai Mountains.

The nobility of both groups followed this custom but, seemingly, many or most of their subjects did not. While this may have been a case of the ruling set simply trying to set themselves apart from their 'ordinary' subjects, it's likely that those subjects were formed of other groups that had been swept along with the migrating elite. If true, the 'Hun' element of the Xionites may have been Turkic-Mongolian in origin, but a great many of their followers may have been collected during their migration from inner Asia to eastern Iran.

In all likelihood not all Xionites were Huns.


Main Sources

Blockley, R C - The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Francis Cairns, Oxford, 1983

Bracey, Robert & Singh, Karan (Eds) - Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society No 230, Winter 2017

Cereti, C G - Xiiaona- and Xyôn in Zoroastrian Texts, Michael Alram & Deborah E Klimburg-Salter (Eds), Coins, Art, and Chronology II, 2010

Conant, Jonathan - Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Jongeward, D & Cribb, J - Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins, American Numismatic Society, 2015

Kaldellis, Anthony - Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012

Kitagawa, Joseph - The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Routledge, 2013

Larson, Gerald James - India's Agony Over Religion, State University of New York Press, 1995

Marcellinus Ammianus - Res Gestae

Man, John - Attila: A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome, Bantam, 2005

Rezakhani, Khodadad - King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE - 651 CE), Touraj Daryaee (Ed), Ancient Iran Series Vol IV, 2017

Online Sources

History of the Wars, Procopius (Wikisource)

Kidarites (Encyclopaedia Iranica)



Maps and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.