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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia

 

 

 

Turkic Tribes IndexXionites / Kidarites (Red Huns / Hunas) (Turks)

FeatureStarting in the fourth century AD, a general invasion of nomadic tribes began to overwhelm southern Central Asia and northern South Asia (a region which can be combined under the label of 'eastern Iran'). This wave of barbarian invasions is attributed to tribal confederations which originated on the Central Asian steppe. The route southwards from there was not a new one though. It had been followed two millennia before by the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians, and also in part by the Tocharians. Even as late as the first half of the first millennium AD, the steppe was still largely the domain of Indo-European groups (such as the Sakas and Scythians). These groups would have borne a strong connection to their Indo-Iranian cousins, with both speaking satem (eastern) forms of Indo-European languages (see the feature link for more information).

FeatureChinese sources referred 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. Any of these could have been the ancestors of the Xionites and even the European Huns - often thought to be related to the Xionites - but there are various arguments for and against such a prospect (see feature link).

FeatureThat name - Xionites (Chionites) - is the one most associated with this fresh wave of migrant warriors and their families. It has also created the speculation that they are related to the Huns of Europe. They were certainly the Huna of India, while Chinese sources linked the Xionite groups both to the Xiongnu and to the Huns. Modern scholars also follow this lead, with current thought suggesting that the Xionites 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 (the Göktürks), where they mingled with Indo-European Tocharians to the south and Mongolians to the north. (See feature link for an in-depth exploration of the Xionite name.)

Ptolemy in the second century AD is one of the first European writers to mention the Huns, with Marcellinus and Priscus also doing so. They likewise suggest that the Huns were an inner Asian people - although it appears that not all Huns were of the same stock. The White Huns (Hephthalites) especially appear to have been formed of a very different group of people. The other two Xionite groups, the Alchons and Nezak, are much harder to pin down but, seeing as the Alchons were heavily involved in Hephthalite efforts to conquer northern India, there is a chance that they were of the same stock. All groups may to some extent have been influenced by and had adopted the still-dominant Indo-Iranian culture and language even prior to their invasion. However, the Kidarites seemed to dominate the others, perhaps as overlords. One or more of these Xionite groups most likely also absorbed other groups along the way, including various Saka tribes and also the Wusun.

The trouble being caused by a general nomadic invasion of eastern Iran was known by the time of the reign of Sassanid King Shapur II (AD 309-372). Ammianus Marcellinus reported on them for a Roman readership in AD 357 during a visit to Bactria. In textual sources, the Hephthalites are first mentioned in the context of their interaction with the Sassanids, most especially with Shah Peroz and his defeat of the Kidarites in the decade up to 468. If the Kidarites - the first Xionite group to become a visible threat - were the leaders of this barbarian invasion then their defeat seemingly freed up the other groups to become dominant.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE - 651 CE), Khodadad Rezakhani (Touraj Daryaee, Ed, Ancient Iran Series Vol IV, 2017), from Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins, D Jongeward & J Cribb (American Numismatic Society, 2015), from Xiiaona- and Xyôn in Zoroastrian Texts, C G Cereti (Coins, Art, and Chronology II, Michael Alram & Deborah E Klimburg-Salter, Eds, 2010), from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, R C Blockley (Francis Cairns, Oxford, 1983), from India's Agony Over Religion, Gerald James Larson (State University of New York Press, 1995), from The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Joseph Kitagawa (Routledge, 2013), from Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, Anthony Kaldellis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), from Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Jonathan Conant (Cambridge University Press, 2012), from Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society No 230, Robert Bracey & Karan Singh (Eds, Winter 2017), from The Türk Empire, Denis Sinor & S G Klyashtorny (History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The crossroads of civilizations, AD 250 to 750, Ahmad Hasan Dani & B A Litvinsky (Eds), Unesco, 1996), and from External Links: History of the Wars, Procopius (Wikisource), and Kidarites (Encyclopaedia Iranica).)

c.350

Varhran is the last Kushanshah in Tokharistan and is also a contemporary of Sassanid ruler Shapur II. Varhran's grip over the Kushanshah territories on both sides of the Hindu Kush is greatly threatened, and it is not long before his realm and power falls to the incoming Kidarites and the expanding reach of Sassanid central power. In fact it appears to be the fading of the Kushans and then their political successors, the Kushanshahs, which allows the Kidarites to mount their invasion of the region. Shapur II is forced to engage the Kidarites in several battles, part of a campaign which seems to prevent the Kidarites from proceeding too far westwards into the empire.

Map of Central Asia - Turkic Expansion AD 300-600
Kidarite coins
The Kidarites swept into eastern Iran and Tokharistan in the mid-fifth century AD, and by the end of the century they and the other Xionite groups were heavily involved in conquering areas of north-western India, which is where this Kidarite bronze obol with a scorpion was found (in the Kashmir Smast caves), while above is a map covering Turkic origins, with the region around the Altai Mountains seemingly having served as a general incubator (click on map to view full sized)

c.358 - ?

Grumbates

'King of the Chionitae' at Amida. A Sassanid ally.

359

Having only recently been enlarged and strengthened by Constantius II, the Roman frontier city of Amida is besieged by Shapur II now that he has recovered from some brutal fighting against the invading Xionites in eastern Iran. A treaty has been agreed with them which leaves the eastern section of the empire in temporary peace. Amida is captured by the Sassanids after seventy-three days with, it seems, Xionite help (presumably Kidarites, the first of the Xionites to come into contact with the Sassanids).

This is not merely in the form of captured warriors being forced to fight for a new master but as allied units under the command of a 'King of the Chionitae' known as Grumbates. Ammianus Marcellinus describes him: 'Grumbates, the new king of the Xionites, while he was middle aged, and his limbs were wrinkled, he was endowed with a mind that acted grandly, and was famous for his many, significant victories'. Clearly an accomplished warrior, despite not being quite as young as many of the men he leads.

Interest in the Kidarites is greatly revived in the early twenty-first century by the discovery of a whole new series of Kidarite copper coins, from the Bhimadevi/Shiva shrine at Kashmir Smast in the mountains of northern Pakistan and neighbouring India. This site remains active for the entire duration of Xionite dominance in the region. The Kidarite leader, Kidara, who is active in the 390s is used to name this group of coins but he is only one of several Xionite rulers in Bactria and Gandhara during the fourth and fifth centuries (albeit it best-known of them).

Coinage issues in the names of Kirada, Hanaka, Yosada, and Peroz all appear on coins which are issued before those in the name of Kidara, highlighting several previously unknown Kidarite leaders (Peroz aside). Only approximate dates can be assigned to them, however, as coins usually lack the more precise dating of the written record.

Kidarite coin
By the end of the fourth century the Kidarites had a firm hold over much of eastern Iran and Tokharistan, extending into Sogdiana to the north and India to the south, with this gold stater of AD 360-380 (MA-3618) showing an unnamed king standing (left) and the Kushan goddess of abundance, Ardoksho, seated facing (right)

The predominance of Kidara among the other associated rulers, as known from the coins, appears to be based on the fact that he is the only one of them to adopt the title 'Kushanshah, King of the Kushan' realm. These others (below) appear to be ruling as subordinates of one of the last Kushanshahs, Varahran II. Like Grumbates, above, they are not yet fully dominant in their own right.

fl 360s - 380s

Kirada

Known from numismatic evidence at Kashmir Smast alone.

fl 360s - 380s

Hanaka

Known from numismatic evidence at Kashmir Smast alone.

fl 360s - 380s

Yosada

Known from numismatic evidence at Kashmir Smast alone.

fl 360s - 380s

Peroz (Peroz III?)

Known from numismatic evidence at Kashmir Smast.

c.375

Having long since faded in Bactria, there is no evidence of any Kushans in India after Kipunada. They have been subjugated by the Gupta kings, and the rump eastern Kushan state is soon conquered by the invading Kidarites. Any possible Kushan survivors in the west are probably subsequently displaced by the Hephthalites. This is the next wave of barbarians to invade the territory of the Kushanshahs, where they conquer former Bactria and Gandhara to form their own kingdom.

c.390

Roman sources mention a specific group of Xionites known as Kidarites. Chinese sources (of the Northern Dynasties (the Beishi) and of the slightly later Wei Dynasty (the Weishu)) mention a specific name that is assigned to the ruler of this group, one Jiduoluo, interpreted as the Chinese transcription of Ki-da-ra. This particular Hunnic grouping is reported to be located in Gandhara, with its capital at Fu-lou-sha (Old Persian Paraupārisainā (commonly shown as Purushapura), Greek Paropamisus, modern Peshawar).

fl c.390

Kidara / Jiduoluo / Kitolo

Founder of the Kidarite dynasty in Gandhara. 'Kushanshah'.

Bactrian legends on the Kidarite coins issued around this period declare them to represent the 'King of the Kushan' (thereby confusing Chinese writers into labelling him a king of the Kushans). The Kidarites consider themselves to be the political successors to the Kushans and Kushanshahs. Later drachms, showing a younger portrait of Kidara, give the same name in Brahmi script, suggesting a successor of the same name. A coin type which shows the king in frontal view and wearing a crown with ram's horn has a legend in Brahmi declaring the authority to be 'Sa Piroysa', meaning 'King Peroz'. This is most likely the Peroz III of Gandhara, a potential rival to Sassanid rule, but possibly only a puppet of the Kidarites.

Kidarite coin
Both sides of a silver drachm which was issued under the rule of Kidara, 'King of the Kushan' and 'Kushanshah', illustrating his personal claim to be the legitimate successor to both empires

c.421 - 427

While Bahram V has been occupied by the fighting against Rome, the Kidarites and Hephthalites have invaded and occupied Sassanid territory in eastern Iran, with the Hephthalites at least occupying Merv (precise details are typically lacking). Having agree peace terms with Rome in 422, Bahram quickly assembles a fresh army to take east. Merv, the capital of Margiana, is captured and the Hephthalite ruler is killed. The Sassanid eastern frontier is fully secure by 427 and a pillar of thanks is erected on the banks of the Amu Darya - the northern limits of Sassanid control.

c.441 - 457

A Kidarite conquest of at least part of Sogdiana seems to be safely attested by coins from Samarkand, bearing on the obverse the schematised portrait of a ruler with the Sogdian legend kyδr. On typological and metrological grounds these coins can be assigned to the fifth century.

Hypothetically this conquest can be connected with the interruption of Sogdian embassies to China between 441 and 457, and with a piece of information in the Weishu (formerly dated to 437, but actually referring to 457) mentioning an earlier capture of Samarkand by the Xiongnu. The ruler of this captured part of Sogdiana in 457 is the third of the new dynasty. This (possibly) Kidarite dynasty maintains its hold over Samarkand until 509, after which date embassies from Samarkand are incorporated into Hephthalite ones.

c.455

The accession of Kumaragupta had seen the continuation of his father's secure Gupta empire under his able rule. However, the last days of his reign are less comfortable, as the empire is threatened by invasions by the Pushyamitras of central India. At a point somewhere around the same time, the Kidarites seize Kabul (in Gandhara) and venture east into Punjab where they reach the kingdom's borders near Doab or Malwa. There they are repulsed by Kumaragupta's successor, Skandagupta.

? - 467/8?

Kunkhas / Kounchas

Fled Bactra for Gandhara. Continued to rule there?

467/468

It is Priscus who reports the name of the current Kidarite king as Kunkhas (see Brockley for details). With the Sassanids suffering a seven year famine between 464-471 and unable to launch a serious military offensive, the Kidarites cease making tribute payments. Then both Kunkhas and Sassanid Shah Peroz attempt diplomacy through trickery until the latter is finally able to go on the attack, possibly motivated by the help rendered to him by the Hephthalites when fighting for his crown against his brother, Hormuzd III.

Overwhelmed by his attackers, Kunkhas flees his capital of Balaam (which may be Bactrian Bactra or, much less likely, a similarly named city in Sogdiana), possibly taking refuge in Gandhara where he may continue to rule. The Kidarites have permanently lost their position in Tokharistan  to the Hephthalites, or perhaps first (and temporarily) to the Sassanids. Now they retain control only in Gandhara, possibly in the Swat area.

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)

c.470

Gupta ruler Narasimhagupta drives the Hephthalites from the plains of northern India, but the Kidarites sense an opportunity in the increasing fragility of the empire and begin menacing its borders. There is clearly still some life left in the Kidarites, but records increasingly fail to distinguish between them and the Alchons to the south of the Hindu Kush.

In fact that distinction is entirely a modern one, based upon their easily-distinguished coin designs. Inscriptions on newly-discovered coins (in 2016-2017) and on already-known Kidarite coins suggests that the Alchons are not a separate wave of Xionite intrusion into the region, but a continuation of the Kidarite Hun group, one which adopts a different visual identity as it becomes influenced by Indian culture. The change could represent a change of dynasty or a shift in power between two Hun groups, but with continuing recognition of Kidara as the major player in the establishment of Hun power.  Both groups are continued under Post-Hephthalite Alchons.