Extent of the White Huns' Influence c. 500 CE

Extent of the White Huns' Influence c. 500 CE

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Huna people

Hunas or Huna (Middle Brahmi script: Hūṇā) was the name given by the ancient Indians to a group of Central Asian tribes who, via the Khyber Pass, entered the Indian Subcontinent at the end of the 5th or early 6th century. Huna Kingdom occupied areas as far as Eran and Kausambi, greatly weakening the Gupta Empire. [2] The Hunas were ultimately defeated by a coalition of Indian princes [3] that possibly included the Indian king Yasodharman. He and possibly the Gupta emperor, Narasimhagupta, defeated a Huna army and their ruler Mihirakula in 528 CE and drove them out of India. [4] The Guptas are thought to have played only a minor role in this campaign. [3]

The Hunas are thought to have included the Xionite and/or Hephthalite, the Kidarites, the Alchon Huns (also known as the Alxon, Alakhana, Walxon etc.) and the Nezak Huns. Such names, along with that of the Harahunas (also known as the Halahunas or Harahuras) mentioned in Hindu texts, have sometimes been used for the Hunas in general while these groups (and the Iranian Huns) appear to have been a component of the Hunas, such names were not necessarily synonymous. Some authors suggest that the Hunas were Ephthalite Huns from Central Asia. [3] The relationship, if any, of the Hunas to the Huns, a Central Asian people who invaded Europe during the same period, is also unclear.

Gujars are sometimes said to have been originally a sub-tribe of the Hunas. [5]

In its farthest geographical extent in India, the territories controlled by the Hunas covered the region up to Malwa in central India. [6] Their repeated invasions and war losses were the main reason for the decline of the Gupta Empire. [7]


This series, 'Historical Background of Pakistan and its People', is written by Ahmed Abdulla and edited by K. Hasan.

The Graeco-Bactrian rule, like that of its predecessor the Mauryan, did not last for more than a century. Internecine warfare and internal schisms soon weakened them. Pakistan was divided into several petty Greek Kingdoms which easily fell victim to the great wave of Scythians (Sakas) which took place in the middle of the first century B.C . This was a huge sea of nomads which, pressed in Central Asia and on China's borders by fiercer and tougher people migrated on an extensive scale. They overthrew the Greek rulers and established their sovereignty as well as settlements all over Pakistan.

Pakistan began to receive many waves of Sakas and Parthians. In the next stage beginning from 1st century B.C. wave after wave of the people such as the Kushans, the White Huns and the Gujjars also began to settle in Pakistan. In the course of time, all of these groups constituted an overwhelmingly predominant element of its population. This composition continues to this day . These waves were so large and cataclysmic that everything was sub-merged in it or absorbed by it. The waves of Sakas were so enormous and their settlements so vast that Pakistan came to be known to Greek geographers as Scythia and in Indian literature as Saka-dipa.

The first three Saka kings of Pakistan were Maues, Azes I and Azilises. Their numerous coinages are, almost without exception, copied from those of their Yavana (Greek) predecessors. As regards language and culture, the Sakas mostly adopted those of the Pahlavas or Parthians of Iran. In fact at a later stage Saka-dipa (Pakistan) was ruled by Pahlava princes. The most well-known of them was Gondopharnes whose capital was Taxila . During his reign (20-48 A.D.) St. Thomas, according to early ecclesiastical legends, preached Christianity in his dominions.

"Of the political history of this period a great deal is still in suspense. The leaders of the Sakas in the Indus basin seem to have first acknowledged the power of the local Greek Indian rulers. It is not until a few decades later that they felt themselves strong enough to lay claim to supreme suzerainship. Ghandara became the centre of the Saka domains, and the eastern Capital city of Taxila was chosen by the Saka king Mavak (Maues or Mauakes in the ancient authors, and Moga in early Indian sources) in the middle of the first century B.C. as its residence. Mavak's successors propagated their power over a considerable part of the Punjab .

"In the north-west in the Punjab, however, the Saka leaders' hold was shortlived. The dynasty founded by Mavak was overthrown by the Parthians as early as the beginning of the first century of our era.

"In the Western Punjab, Upper Sind and Derajat, a number of warring rulers related to the Surens, a Parthian clan controlling the eastern areas of Iran, held sway. The Parthian Kings, who keep ousting one another, rule over this country" (The Peoples of Pakistan, By Yu.V.Gankovsky).

The Scythians inhabiting Central Asia at the time of Herodotus (5th century B.C.) consisted of 4 main branches known as the MassaGatae, Sacae, Alani, and Sarmatians, sharing a common language, ethnicity and culture. Ancient Greek (e.g. Herodotus, Pliny, Plotemy, Arrian) and Persian sources (Darius's historians) from the 5th century place the MassaGatea as the most southerly group in the Central Asian steppe. The earliest Scythians who entered the northern regions of South Asia were from this group.
Historians derive " Jat " from "Gatae", " Ahir " from "Avar", " Saka " from "Scythii", " Gujjar " from "Khazar", " Thakur " from "Tukharian", " Saurashtra " from "Saura Matii" or "Sarmatians", " Sessodia " (a Rajput clan) from "Sassanian", " Madra " from "Medes", " Trigartta " from " Tyri Getae " and " Sulika " from "Seleucids". "Massa" means "grand" or "big" in old Iranian - the language of the Scythians.

The early Sakas or Scythians are remembered by Greek (e.g. Herodotus, Megatheses, Pliny, Ptolemy) and Persian historians of antiquity as tall, large framed and fierce warriors who were unrivalled on the horse . Herodotus from the 5th century BC writes in an eye-witness account of the Scythians: "they were the most manly and law-abiding of the Thracian tribes. If they could combine under one ruler, they would
be the most powerful nation on earth." According to their origin myth recorded by Herodotus, the Sakas arose when three things fell from the sky: the i) plough , ii) sword and iii) cup. The progenitor of the Sakas picked them up and hence the Saka race began its long history of conquering lands, releasing its bounties and enjoying the fruits of their labor (the cup has a ceremonial-spiritual-festive symbolism). The relevance of these symbols and codes of life and culture to the traditional Punjabi and northwest society are tantalizingly obvious. A branch of the Sakas kown as the Alani reached regions of Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East. They have been connected to the Goths of France/Spain, Saxons and the Juts of Denmark .

Some of these Saka tribes entered northwest Southasia through the Khyber pass , others through the more southerly Bolan pass which opens into Dera Ismail Khan in Sindh. From here some invading groups went north, others went south, and others further east. This explains why some Jat, Gujjar and Rajput clans claim descent from Rajasthan (Chauhan, Powar, Rathi, Sial etc.) while others from Afghanistan (e.g. Mann, Her, Bhullar, Gill, Bajwa, Sandhu, etc.) . This is supported by the fact that the oldest Rajput geneologies (10th centuries) do not extend into the northwest's Gandharan Buddhist period (400 B.C. - 900 AD).

Sir Cunningham (former Director General of Indian Archeological survey) writes:

"the different races of the Scythians which succesively appeared as conquerors in the
border provinces of Persian and India are the following in the order of arrival : Sakas or Sacae (the Su or Sai of the Chinese - B.C. ?), Kushans (the great Yue-Chi (Yuti) of the Chinese - B.C. 163), Kiddarite or later Kushans (the little Yue-chi of the Chinese -A.D. 450) and Epthalites or White Huns (the Yetha of the Chinese - 470 A.D.).

Cunningham further notes that

". . . the successive Scythian invasions of the Sakas, the Kushans, and the White Huns,
were followed by permanent settlements of large bodies of their countrymen . . ".

Cunningham and Tod regard the Huns to be the last Scythian wave to have entered India.

Herodotus reveals that the Scythians a s far back as the 5th century B.C. had political control over Central Asia and the northern subcontinent up to the river Ganges. Later Indo-Scythic clans and dynasties (e.g. Mauryas, Rajputs) extended their control to other tracts of the northern subcontinent.

According to Ethnographers and historians like Cunningham, Todd, Ibbetson, Elliot, Ephilstone, Dahiya, Dhillon, Banerjea, etc., the agrarian and artisan communities (e.g. Jats, Gujars, Ahirs, Rajputs, Lohars, Tarkhans etc.) of the entire west are derived from the war-like Scythians who settled north-western and western South Asia in successive waves between 500 B.C. to 500 AD. Down to this day, the very name of the region `Gujarat' is derived from the name `Khazar', whilst `Saurashtra' denotes `Sun-worshipper', a common term for the Scythians . The northwest Southasian region continues to be the most Scythic region in the world.

The oldest Rajputs clans arose much later from earlier Scythic groups or are of Hun origin (5-6th century AD) and many are no doubt of mixed Scythic-Hun origin. Virtually all are of Scythic descent.

The Sakas - Indo-Scythians
Jason Neelis

Saka nomads from Central Asia migrated to the northwest of South
Asian subcontinent in the first and second centuries BCE. Herodotus
(4.1-142) describes the extent, customs, and origins of various
groups of Scythians (designation for Sakas in Western classical
sources) who inhabited large areas of the steppes of Central Asia on
the northern peripheries of the Greek world. The Sakas are also
known from Old Persian inscriptions of the Achaemenid Empire. The
Naqs-i-Rustam inscription of Darius I distinguishes three groups of

1) Saka Tigraxauda : "Sakas wearing the pointed cap" who are
portrayed in a sculpture at Behistun and described by Herodotus
(7.64) as "clad in trousers" and having "on their heads tall stiff
caps rising to a point" these Sakas lived between the Caspian Sea
and the Jaxartes River (Syr Daria)

2) Saka Haumavarga : "hauma-drinking" or "hauma-preparing" Sakas
(hauma is a type of alcoholic beverage) identified with the Amyrgian
Scythians of Greek sources, possibly located in the southeastern
Iranian province of Drangiana, which later became known as Sakastan
or Seistan

3) Saka Paradraya : Sakas "across the sea" who probably lived north
of the Black Sea and in the Russian steppes , although some groups
reached the Danube Valley in central Europe, Syria, and upper

Chinese historical annals refer to the movements of the Sai (Chinese
designation for Sakas) southwards into northwest of South Asia
following a period of disturbances in Central Asia during the second
century BCE. According to the History of the Former Han (Han shu),
covering the period from 206 BCE to 25 CE: "When, formerly, the
Hsiung-nu [Xiongnu] conquered the Yueh-chih [Yuezhi] the latter
moved west and established themselves as masters of Ta Hsia [Da
xia] it was in these circumstances that the king of the Sai moved
and established himself as master of Chi-pin [Jibin]. The Sai
tribes split and separated and repeatedly formed several states."1

The westward migrations of the Yuezhi (see Kushan essay) led to the
emigration of the Sai sometime before 128 BCE, when the Han
ambassador Zhang Qian arrived in Sogdia and Bactria to make an
alliance with the Yuezhi. Saka migrations were not led by a single
king, but were probably gradual movements of acephalous groups to
Jibin, a region apparently corresponding to Gandhara or to northwest
of South Asia
in general.

At the beginning of the first century BCE, two or possibly three
of Sakas migrated to South Asia from Central Asia:

a) Sakas from the north (perhaps coming from Khotan) took the 'Pamir
routes' through the Karakorum Mountains to Swat and Gandhara

b) Sakas crossed the Hindu Kush under pressure from the Yuezhi to
mountain valleys of northeastern Afghanistan

c) Sakas coming from the southwest (Sakastan) took control of modern
Sindh in southern Pakistan

Maues was one of the earliest Indo-Scythian rulers during the early
first century BCE. His name is preserved in bilingual Greek (Maues)
and Kharosthi (Moa) coins and a Kharosthi inscription from Taxila
(Moga). Maues' origins are obscure: he may have been connected with
the Sakas of Sakastan, or he could have belonged to another branch
of Sakas that migrated from the north through the mountains to
Gandhara and Taxila. In giving himself the title of "King of Kings"
in bilingual Greek and Kharosthi coin legends, Maues imitated
Parthian royal titles. A Kharosthi inscription on a copper plate
from Taxila dated in year 78 of an unspecified era during the reign
of " maharaja Moga the Great " records the establishment of Buddhist
relics by a donor named Patika, the son of an official (ksatrapa)
named Liaka Kusulaka. The inscription demonstrates that Liaka
Kusulaka acknowledged the authority of Maues as his overlord.
Decentralized administration continued after the period of Maues
under loosely affiliated officials who acknowledged a more powerful

Numismatic sequences and inscriptions show that Azes followed Maues
as the most powerful Indo-Scythian ruler in 58 BCE, a date
corresponding to the beginning of the so-called "Vikrama" era, which
is still used in India. Like his predecessor, Azes adopted the title
of "King of Kings" and iconography of Greek and Indic gods and
goddesses from the coins of contemporary Indo-Greeks. Indo-Greek
power in territories of central Afghanistan and eastern Punjab
rapidly diminished during the second half of the first century BCE
as Indo-Scythians predominated. Azes and his successors Azilises and
Azes II administered Taxila and other areas of Pakistan and
northwestern India through regional rulers with Iranian, Greek, and
Indian titles.

Another branch of Indo-Scythians called the "Western Ksatrapas"
ruled parts of western India from the first century BCE to the end
of the fourth century CE. The Western Ksatrapas vied with the
Satavahanas, another regional dynasty in western India, to control
trade routes between the Deccan Plateau and ports on the west coast.
This area flourished due to lucrative long-distance trade across the
Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Mediterranean (described in the
Periplus Maris Erythraei). The Western Ksatrapas and other ruling
families and groups of merchants supported Buddhist cave monasteries
clustered along routes through the Western Ghats (see essay on
Buddhism and Trade). Ujjayini in central India was the center of the
Western Ksatrapas from the second to early fourth centuries, until
the Gupta ruler Candragupta II defeated the "Sakas" between ca. 395-
400 CE.

Sakas in control of major commercial centers along the "Northern
Route" (Uttarapatha) and "Southern Route" (Dakshinapatha) encouraged
the development of trade networks and supported religious
institutions. Inscriptions that record the establishment of Buddhist
relics and donations to monasteries in Gandhara, Taxila, Mathura,
and western South Asia show that Sakas, Parthians, and other
Iranians were active lay supporters of the Buddhist community. Saka
support of Buddhism did not preclude their patronage of other
religious traditions or imply that their old beliefs were abandoned.
Iranian elements in architecture, iconography, languages, and many
other spheres of South Asian life around the beginning of the Common
Era are easy to recognize. Concurrent with their impact in South
Asia, migrations of the Sakas during the last two centuries BCE and
the Kushans in first century CE from Central Asia to northwest of
South Asia eventually led to the transmission of Buddhism in the
other direction to Central Asia and East Asia.

(1) Translation of Anthony F.P. Hulsewe in China in Central Asia.
The Early Stage: 125 B.C. - A.D. 23 (An Annotated Translation of
Chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty).
Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1979, pp. 104-5. Pinyin equivalents in brackets
correspond to the Wade-Giles transliterations.

The next important chapter in Pakistan's history begins with the arrival of another wave of Central Asian tribes called the Yueh-chi. Because of the turbulent and unsettled conditions on the borders of China, one tribe was chasing out the other and occupying their grazing lands. One such movement brought the Yueh-chi to Pakistan, a branch of which was known as the Kushans. This was about the middle of the first century A.D.

The Kushans overthrew the Saka-Parthian princes and established an empire which became one of the world's greatest and most distinguished both from the point of view of territory as well as cultural and religious achievements. The Kushan ruler who Conquered Pakistan was Vima Kadphises who was succeeded in about 78 A.D. by Kanishka. The Kushan rule, however, did not completely eliminate the Sakas from Pakistan. They had permanently settled down in these areas in large numbers and continued to be governed by their princes who merely extended allegiance to the Kushan kings.This is proved by the Sue Vihara inscription in the Bahawalpur Division which is dated in the regnal year of Kanishka 11(89 A.D.). Even the era said to have been founded by Kanishka in 78 A.D. was known as Saka Era. "There is evidence to show that they (Sakas) still governed their own states, no doubt as feudatories more or less nominal of the Kushans" (Cambridge History of India, Vol.1, edited by E.J. Rapson).

The Kushans, with their capital at Purushapura (Peshawar) had their dominions on both sides of the Hindu Kush i.e., extending up to and including parts of Turkistan in the north-west, embracing the whole of modern Afghanistan , and in the east the entire Pakistan and major portion of northern India. The greatest ruler of the dynasty, Kanishka, had adopted Buddhism and it was during his period that both Buddhist religion and Greek art reached their zenith which is known under the nomenclature of Gandhara Civilization. It was again during his regime and because of his efforts that Buddhism spread in Central Asia and China. This period is regarded as the most important in the history of Buddhism.

The budding and blossoming of Gandhara art was not a new phenomena in Pakistan's history as this land had given birth to several such brilliant civilizations since pre-historic times beginning with Indus Valley Civilizadon. Judeiro Daro and Shahi Tump in Baluchistan Moenjo Daro, Kot Diji, Amri, Chanhu Daro, and Sehwan in Sind Harappa, Sari Kola and Taxila in the Punjab, Takht-i-Bahi and Mingora in NWFP have been seats of learning and art, centres of great religious activity and pivots of political power. It may be pointed out that Sari Kola in Pindi Division (3000 B.C.), Kot Diji in Khairpur Division (2800 B.C.) and Amri in Dadu District (3000 B.C.) are all pre-Indus Valley civilizations.

"When the great monarch Kanishka actively espoused the cause of Buddhism and essayed to play the part of a second Ashoka, the devotion of the adherents of the favoured creed received an impulse which speedily resulted in the copious production of artistic creations of no small merit.

"In literature the memory of Kanishka is associated with the names of the eminent Buddhist writers Nagarjuna, Asvaghosha and Vasumitra. Asvaghosha is described as having been a poet, musician, scholar, religious controversialist and zealous Buddhist monk. Charaka, the most celebrated of the early Indian authors treating of medical science, is reputed to have been the court physician of Kanishka.

"Architecture, with its subsidiary art of sculpture, enjoyed the liberal patronage of Kanishka, who was like Ashoka a great builder. The tower at Peshawar built over the relics of Buddha and chiefly constructed of timber stood 400 feet high. The Sirsukh section of Taxila hides the ruins of the city built by Kanishka. A town in Kashmir, still represented by a village bore the King's name" (Oxford History of India, by V.A. Smith).

A unique feature of Kanishka's empire was that with the capital at Peshawar its frontiers touched the borders of all the great civilizations of the time, while its Central Asian provinces lay astride the Roman Middle East-Chinese trade routes. Roman Empire during the days of Trajan and Hadrian (98-138 A.D.) had expanded furthest East almost touching Pakistan's Kushan Empire. Similarly, Kanishka's conquests had brought Khotan,Yarkand and Kashgar within Pakistan's jurisdiction effecting direct contact with China. This was one of the most important factors in providing impetus to art and architecture, science and learning in Pakistan. The best specimen of Graeco-Roman art discovered in and around Peshawar, Swat and Taxila belong to this period, mostly executed during the 2nd century A.D. in the reigns of Kanishka and his son Huvishka. The Kushans exchanged embassies with the Chinese as well as the Romans . Mark Antony had sent ambassadors, and the Kushans sent a return embassy to the court of Augustus "In the middle of the first century of our era, one of the Tokhari princes belonging to the Kushans, Kujula Kadphises, unified the dispersed Tokhari principalities. As he grew stronger, the leader of the Kushans extended his suzerainship to the lands south of the Hindu Kush, in the Kabul Basin and on the Upper Indus. Kujula Kadphises's successors, the most prominent of whom was Kanishka (circa A.D. 78-120) kept on the expansive policy of his subcontinent ( Kashmir, the Punjab and Sind ). The rulers of Gujrat, Rajasthan and the states lying in the Ganges-Jumna doab were the vassals of the Kushan kings. The Kushan kings also held control of the territory of the present day Afghanistan , Kashgar, Khotan, Yarkand and the southern areas of Middle Asia. Gandhara i.e., the territory lying in the valleys of the Kabul and the Middle Indus, became the centre of a vast empire. The city of Purushapura (the present-day Peshawar) is known to have been the capital of Kanishka.

"The Kushan empire dissolved in the third century of our era. The Iranian shahs of the Sassanid dynasty took in the western territories. Various dynasties of Middle Asia took hold of the lands north of the Hindu Kush" (The Peoples of Pakistan, By Yu.V.Gankovsky).

After ruling for over two hundred years from the middle of the 1st century A.D. to the middle of the 3rd century A.D. the Kushan Empire collapsed. Already, a few decades earlier, its frontiers had shrinked to those of Pakistan having shed the territories beyond Hindu Kush in Central Asia and eastward of Sutlej in India. The final blow was administered by Shahpur I , the head of a new dynasty of Sassanians that had emerged in Iran in 226 A.D. after a long period of anarchy prevailing for over 500 years since Alexander had eliminated the Achaemenians. "Shahpur I clearly includes in his Empire the greater part of Pakistan. Shahpur's son Narses had been made Shah of Seistan, Baluchistan and Sind and the seashore i.e., Pakistan and a bit more " (Pakistan in early Sassanian times, By M. Sprengling).

But this time Iran could not keep its sway over Pakistan for long . Though defeated, Kushans continued to rule over Pakistan for a considerably long period with the smaller kingdoms still retained by the redoubtable Sakas---both being Central Asian tribes. It seemed that ethnically and politically the Central Asian elements had become a permanent feature of Pakistan . Strong Kushan-Saka dynasties continued to exist in Kabul and Pakistan until another great event in the history of this area i.e., the Hun invasions in the 5th century A.D.-----some principalities survived even till the Arab conquest.

An important development had taken place in the neighbouring Country of India a little earlier which deserves our attention. Buddhism, which was on the decline from the 3rd century A.D. onward was overthrown by Hinduism reasserting its lost hegemony. This process culminated with the coming into power of the Guptas by the end of the 4th century A.D. A point of considerable significance to be noted here is that though the Gupta Empire is considered one of the most glorious in the annals of Hindu history covering a vast area of this sub-continent, yet it could not bring Pakistan under its tutelage . During the Gupta period, Pakistan was in the hands of Kushan Shahis and Sassanians. Even during Samudragupta's triumphal career this region remained independent of India. "Samudragupta did not attempt to carry his arms across the Sutlej or to dispute the authority of the Kushan kings who continued to rule in and beyond the Indus basin. Gupta Empire---the greatest in India since the days of Ashoka-extended in the north to the base of the mountains, but did not include Kashmir" (Oxford History of India).

Coming back to the Hun invasion it may be mentioned that this was also, like that of the Sakas, one of the greatest migrations of Central Asian nomadic tribes in the history of Pakistan and the sub-continent. The particular branch of the Huns which was encamped in the Oxus Valley and which came to Pakistan was known as Epthalite or White Huns . They were accompanied by a number of other tribes including Gurjaras . They started coming in wave after wave from the middle of the 5th century A.D. and very soon became rulers of Pakistan. One of their mighty rulers was Mehar Gul (Sunflower) whose capital was Sakala, Sialkot .

The mass immigration of Huns and Gurjaras extending over the 5th and the 6th centuries constitutes a turning point in the history of Pakistan and of northern India both politically and socially. Politically because henceforth, till the arrival of Muslims, they were the ruling class in Pakistan and in most of northern India. Socially because the origin of majority of the tribes of Pakistan and those of Rajputana is traceable to them. "No authentic family or class traditions go back beyond the Hun invasion. All genuine tradition of the earlier dynasties has been absolutely lost. The history of the Mauryas, Kushans and Guptas, so far as it is known has been recovered labourously by the researches of scholars, without material help from living tradition." (Ibid). Many of Afghan-Pathan tribes and most of the Rajput and Jat clans of the Punjab and Sind are, according to modern scholars, descended from the Epthalites i.e., White Huns.

There was a period of confusion forming the transition from one age to another. Pakistan and north India had left the Early Period of history and entered what is generally termed as the Medieval Period . During the transition the hordes of foreign invaders were gradually absorbed into the Hindu body politic and new grouping of states began to evolve. This period was marked by the development of the Rajput clans never heard of in earlier times. They began to play highly prominent role after the death of Harsha so much so that the 500-year period from the 7th century A.D. to the 12th century A.D. (i.e., till the arrival of Muslim Turks) may be called the Rajput period .

The Hun invasions and their consequences broke the chain of historical tradition. Living clan traditions rarely if ever go back beyond the 8th century and few go as far. The existing clan-castes only began to be formed in the 6th century. The Brahmans found their advantage in treating new aristocracy , whatever its social origin, as representing the ancient Kshatriya class of the scriptures, and the novel term Raja-putra or Rajput , meaning king's son, or member of a ruling family or clan came in use as an equivalent of Kshatriya." (Oxford History of India).

During this 500-year period, again, Pakistan was under quite independent Rajput kingdoms separate from those of India. Even the Gurjara-Pratihara Empire of northern India which was one of the most important formed during this period did not include Pakistan , not even during the days of its greatest and most powerful king Raja Bhoja. "The rule of the Pratiharas had never extended across the Sutlej, and the history of the Punjab between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. is extremely obscure." (Ibid). At some time during this period, a powerful kingdom had been formed in Pakistan which extended from the mountains beyond the Indus, eastwards as far as the Hakra or 'lost river' in East Punjab so that it comprised a large part of the NWFP and the Punjab. At the time Mahmud Ghaznavi came into power at the end of the 10th century A.D. this kingdom was still in existence and it was with its ruler Raja Jaipal that he came into clash.

White Huns - Hephthalites
Silk Road Foundation

The Origin of Hephthalites

The paucity of record in Hephthalites or Ephthalites provides us fragmentary picture of their civilization and empire. Their background is uncertain. They probably stemmed from a combination of the Tarim basin peoples and the Yueh-chih. There is a striking resemblance in the deformed heads of the early Yueh-chih and Hephthalite kings on their coinage. According to Procopius's History of the Wars, written in the mid 6th century - the Hephthalites

"are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name: however they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us. They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies . "

Ephthalites was the name given by Byzantine historians and Hayathelaites by the Persian historian Mirkhond, and sometimes Ye-tai or Hua by Chinese historians. They are also known as the White Huns, different from the Hun who led by Attila invading the Roman Empire. They are described as a kindred steppe people originally occupied the pasture-lands in the Altai mountain of southwestern Mongolia .

Toward the middle of the 5th century, they expanded westward probably because of the pressure from the Juan-juan, a powerful nomadic tribe in Mongolia. Within decades, they became a great power in the Oxus basin and the most serious enemy of the Persian empire.

The Westward Expansion and War with Sassanian Empire

At the time when the Hephthalites gained power, Kushan and Gandhara were ruled by the Kidarites, a local dynisty of Hun or Chionites tribe. The Hephthalites entered Kabul and overthrew Kushan . The last Kidarites fled to Gandhara and settled at Peshawar. Around 440 the Hephthalites further took Sogdian (Samarkand) and then Balkh and Bactria.

The Hephthalites moved closer and closer toward Persian territory. In 484 the Hephthalite chief Akhshunwar led his army attacked the Sassanian King Peroz (459-484) and the king was defeated and killed in Khurasan . After the victory, the Hephthalite empire extended to Merv and Herat , which had been the regions of the Sassanid Empire. The Hephthalites, at the time, became the superpower of the Middle Asia . They not only destroyed part of Sassanian Empire in Iran but also intervened in their dynastic struggles when the Sassanid royal, Kavad (488-496), was fighting for the throne with Balash, brother of Peroz. Kavad married the niece of the Hephthalites chief and the Hephthalites aided him to regain his crown in 498.

After conquest of Sogdia and Kushan, the Hephthalites founded the capital, Piandjikent, 65 kilometers south-west of Samarkand in the Zaravshan valley. This city later reached its prosperity, produced one of the best mural paintings in the seventh century and later was destroyed by the Arabs . The Hephthalites chose Badakshan as their summer residence . Their chiefs lived north of the Hindu Kush, migrating seasonlly from Bactria where they spent the winter, to Badakshan, their summer residence. Under the Hephthalite control, the Bactrian script and language continued to be used and trade and commerce flourished as previously.

The Eastward Expansion to the Tarim Basin

With the stabilization at the western border, the Hephthalites extended their influence to the northwest into the Tarim Basin . From 493 to 556 A.D., they invaded Khotan, Kashgar, Kocho, and Karashahr . The relationship with Juan-juan and China were tightened. The Chinese record indicated that between 507 and 531, the Hephthalites sent thirteen embassies to Northern Wei (439-534) by the king named Ye-dai-yi-li-tuo.

During the 5th century, the Gupta dynasty in India reigned in the Ganges basin with the Kushan empire occupied the area along the Indus . India knew the Hephthalite as Huna by the Sanskrit name. The Hephthaltes or Hunas waited till 470 right after the death of Gupta ruler, Skandagupta (455-470), and entered the Inda from the Kabul valley after the conquest of Kushan. They mopped on along the Ganges and ruined every city and town . The noble capital, Pataliputra, was reduced in population to a village. They persecuted Buddhists and burned all the monasteries . Their conquest was accomplished with extreme ferocity and the Gupta regime (414-470) was completely extinguished.

For thirty years the northwestern India was ruled by Hephthalite kings. We learned some of the Hephthalite kings ruling India from coins. The most famous ones were Toramana and Mihrakula ruling India in the first half of the 6th century.

There are numerous debates about Hephthalite language. Most scholars believe it is Iranian for the Pei Shih states that the language of the Hephthalites differs from those of the Juan-juan (Mongoloid) and of the "various Hu" (Turkic) however there are some think the Hephthalites spoke Mongol tongues like the Hsien-pi (3rd century) and the Juan-juan (5th century) and the Avars (6th-9th century). According to the Buddhist pilgrims Sung Yun and Hui Sheng, who visited them in 520, they had no script, and the Liang shu specifically states that they have no letters but use tally sticks. At the same time there is numismatic and epigraphic evidence to show that a debased form of the Greek alphabet was used by the Hephthalites. Since the Kushan was conquested by Hephthalites, it is possible they retained many aspects of Kushan culture, including the adoption of the Greek alphabet.

It is equally inconsistent while comparing the references to the Hephthalites' religion. Although Sung Yun and Hui Sheng reported that the Hephthalites did not believe in Buddhism, though there is ample archaeological evidence that this religion was practiced in territories under Hephthalite control. According to Liang shu the Hephthalites worshiped Heaven and also fire - a clear reference to Zoroastrianism. However the burials found seem to indicate the normal practice in disposing of the dead, which is against Zoroastrian belief.

Very little was known about these Hephthalite nomads . Little art has left from them. According to Sung Yun and Hui Sheng who visited their Hephthalite chief at his summer residence in Badakshan and later in Gandhara,

The Hephthalites have no cities , but roam freely and live in tents . They do not live in towns their seat of government is a moving camp . They move in search of water and pasture, journeying in summer to cool places and in winter to warmer ones. They have no belief in the Buddhist law and they serve a great number of divinities."

Other than the deformation of skulls, the other interesting feature of the Hephthalites is their polyandrous society. The records of brothers marrying to one wife had been reported from Chinese source.

Between 557 to 561 Persian King Chosroes allied with another steppe people who had appeared from inner Asia. Chorsoes wanted to profit from the situation to take revenge over the defeat of his grandfather Peroz he married a daughter of the nomadic chief and allied himself with them against the Hephthalites. The chief Sinjibu was the boldest and strongest of all the tribes and he had the largest number of troops. It was he who conquered the Hephthalites and killed their king.

Mercilessly attacked on two sides, the Hephthalites were completely broken and disappeared by 565 that only small number of them survived. Some surviving groups living south of Oxus escaped Chosroes' grasp later fell to Arab invaders in the 7th century . One of the surviving groups fled to the west and may have been the ancestors of the later Avars in the Danube region . The decline of the Hephthalites marked a turning point in the story of the steppes. Another era was opening in Central Asia. For the allies of Chosroes were Western Turks, a new power was to dominate the steppe for next few centuries.

Richard Heli

A Western student's first encounter with the mysterious Ephthalites, or Hephthalites, or White Huns of Central Asia, is probably via the writings of Procopius, that contemporary of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and fierce polemicist against his sovereign and the Empress Theodora. Procopius recorded the observations of an ambassador traveling east with Byzantium's sometime enemies, the Persians, who had chosen for a time, and from the Byzantine perspective very fortunately, to war against their eastern neighbors for a change, the Ephthalites: "The Ephthalites are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name however they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us. They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly ." [Procopius]

Thus, even in their very first appearance, the question of the origins of this people comes into doubt. For if they are Huns, how is it that the appearance of these "White Huns" differs so markedly from that of the Huns proper? This question was not one which Procopius, so far from the Ephthalites, was in any position to determine. That modern researchers can do better is largely due to the survival of writings on the other end of the Central Asian wasteland, by those who were closer to the point of origin and encountered this group early in its history, that is, the Chinese.

To the Chinese , they were the Ye-ti-i-li-do or Yeda, even though the Chinese chroniclers seem to realize that the people called themselves the people of Hua (the similarity to Hun may help explain the origin of "White Hun") and that the Chinese terms came actually from the name of the Hua leader. Like Procopius, contemporary Chinese chroniclers had their own theories about Ephthalite origins. One thought that were related in some way to the Visha ( Indo-Europeans known to the Chinese as the "Yueh Chih"), another, a branch of the Kao-ch`ê, a third, descendants of the general Pahua, a fourth descendants of Kang Chu and a fifth admits that he cannot make clear their origins at all. This should not discourage as it is not in the theories of such writers that we may find value, but rather in their factual observations which may lead to the answer.

Japanese researcher Kazuo Enoki takes on the theories of both the ancient and the modern writers, including the redoubtable Stein, knocking the legs out from one after another. Theories which are based on coincidence of name, e.g. Pahua and Hua, are unlikely in this part of the world which exhibits so many languages and so much linguistic adaptation and orthographic variation, he points out, and should not be upheld if other sorts of evidence do not support the reasoning. Stein's contention that the Ephthalites were of the Hunnish tribe and therefore of Turkish origin is dismissed largely on this basis. On the other hand, J. Marquart finds similarities between the terms for the Ephthalites in India and words in the Mongolian language, but this theory requires so many leaps between tongues that it remains quite unconvincing. Finally, there is a whole school of researchers attempting to prove this tribe a Turkish, albeit non-Hun, one. These too must rely only on flimsy name evidence. Instead, Enoki makes a convincing case that the Ephthalites are actually an Iranian group . His theory, it must be admitted, does not explain all, but there seems little against it. More importantly, it relies first on data which is generally agreed upon, namely, ancient observations of Ephthalite geographical movements and culture.

For Enoki, Ephthalite origins may be determined by considering where they were not, as well as by where their conquests drove their enemies. They were not previously north of the Tien Shan, thus they did not stem from that region. They drove the Kidarites out of Balkh to the west, thus they came originally from the east. By such reasoning, the Ephthalites are thought to have originated at Hsi-mo-ta-lo ( southwest of Badakhshan and near the Hindu Kush ), which tantalizingly, stands for Himtala, "snow plain", which may be the Sanskritized form of Hephthal.

Turning to the elements of Ephthalite culture, Enoki notes that Procopius' comments on their appearance while not decisive, are in favor of an Iranian theory. Similarly, the seventh century travels of Hsuan Chwang show that he found no physical difference between the descendants of the Ephthalites and their known Iranian neighbors. As for their language, commentators made clear that it was neither Turkish nor Mongol , which also seems to support an Iranian origin.

Iranian customs also are common in the Ephthalite world. For example, the practice of several husbands to one wife, or polyandry , was always the rule, which is agreed on by all commentators. That this was plain was evidenced by the custom among the women of wearing a hat containing a number of horns, one for each of the subsequent husbands, all of whom were also brothers to the husband. Indeed, if a husband had no natural brothers, he would adopt another man to be his brother so that he would be allowed to marry. Conjugal rights were traded off and children were assigned in turn with the oldest husband receiving the first and so on. Tellingly, polyandry has never been associated with any Hun tribe, but is known of several Central Asian ones, including the Aryans in India, other Indo-Europeans and probably in prehistoric Iran.

In their religious beliefs, the Ephthalites are said to have worshipped fire and sun gods . While either one is not unusual in any early culture around the world, both together is likely to indicate a Persian origin. In Persia, such beliefs were later to culminate in Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religious observance, the Ephthalites did not cremate , but as is reported by all commentators including Procopius, always buried their dead , either by constructing a tomb or under the ground. This is not consistent with the Zoroastrian practice of leaving the body in the open, but is clearly at odds with Turkish nomadic groups. The practice of inhumation then may simply indicate an Iranian group which had been sundered from the main branch at an early date and had adopted local Central Asian burial customs.

The rocketlike political career of the Ephthalites may be traced in Appendix A. It may be seen that its enormous rapid successes came not only out of ferocity in battle, but also from shrewd diplomacy. Like the Arabs, the Vikings and others in the parade of history, they seem to appear virtually out of nowhere and amass for themselves a huge area. Of their language, only four words are known including "Ephthalite" itself, and these dubious. Their coins are putative at best, their arts, wholly unknown.

Despite their apparent talents for war and diplomacy, however, they appear to have been harsh rulers disliked by rebellious subjects and thus their legacy is brief. Persian Emperor Chosroes, faced with the choice of war against the Turks or conquest of the Ephthalites, hardly needed a moment to opt for the latter -- ironic if the Ephthalites truly had an Iranian origin. But such nationalistic ideas were not the rule in those times. Not much has been written about their dramatic story since 1966, but Enoki hints that from the translation and study of possible Ephthalite documents unearthed at Lou Lan, we may someday learn more about this mysterious and fascinating people. Let us hope it will be so.

Appendix A: Approximate Timeline. [Enoki, McGovern]
420-427 Ephthalites raid Persia as far west as modern Tehran.
427 Ephthalites suffer overwhelming defeat in Persia.
437 Chinese embassy to Tokharistan (area around Balkh) and Gandhara finds no sign of Ephthalites.
454 Ephthalites revenge earlier loss to Sassanid Persians.
456 Ephthalites send their first embassy to the Chinese.
457 Firuz (Peroz), former king of Persia, requests Ephthalite assistance.
459 Firuz regains Persian throne with help of Ephthalite armies.
464-475 Wars between the former allies resolved with Persian tribute in 475.
465-470 Ephthalites conquer Gandhara, set up a Tegin (a viceroy).
470-480 War between Tegin of Gandhara and Gupta Empire of India.
473-479 Ephthalites conquer Sogdiana, driving the Kidarites westwards. Next conquering Khotan and Kashgar (in the Tarim Basin).
480-500 Gupta empire collapses. Tegin is overlord of North & Central India.
484 Firuz initiates new war against the Ephthalites which fails miserably.
486 Firuz' heir Kubad takes refuge with Ephthalites following a coup.
488 Kubad regains the throne with Ephthalite assistance.
493-508 Ephthalites extend power as far as Zungaria, then Turfan and Karashar (in modern China).
497 Kubad deposed and escapes to a second refuge with the Ephthalites.
500 Ephthalites place Kubad on Sassanid throne a second time (dies 531).
503-513 Kubad makes war on the Ephthalites. Peace in 513 lasts.
522 Apex of Ephthalite power. Chief of the Juan-Juan nomads flees to the Ephthalites for protection. Ephthalites dominate north and south of the Tien Shan range. Control as far as Tieh-lo in the south, Ci`ih-le^ (Kao-ch`e^) in the north, at least to Khotan in the east probably more, and up to Persia in the west. A separate Ephthalite Empire controls much of India. Forty countries (including Sassanid Persia) are in tribute. Ephthalite centers are at Ghur, Balkh, Warwaliz (north of today's Kunduz near the source of the Oxus) and Hsi-mo-ta-lo. The entire empire probably comprises fifty to sixty thousand individuals.
531 Chosroes succeeds his father Kubad in Persia.
532 Revolts in India Ephthalites lose most of East & Central India.
532-542 Fleeing ruler conquers the Kashmir for a short reign.
552 Turks overthrow Avars and begin petty conflicts with Ephthalites.
c. 565 Turks and Chosroes (Khusrau) of Persia ally to capture and divide Ephthalite empire.
c. 570 Ephthalite rule overthrown in India.

Appendix B: Bibliography.
• Enoki, Kazuo, Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko, 1955, No. 18, "On the Nationality of the Ephthalites"
• Hambly, Gavin, Central Asia, 1966, Chapter 3: "Sassanians and Turks in Central Asia"
• McGovern, William, The Early Empires of Central Asia, 1939, Chap. 18: "The Huns in Persia and India," pp. 399-419, and notes, pp. 454-457.
• Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 1, pp. 12-15


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Xiongnu, Wade-Giles Hsiung-nu, nomadic pastoral people who at the end of the 3rd century bce formed a great tribal league that was able to dominate much of Central Asia for more than 500 years. China’s wars against the Xiongnu, who were a constant threat to the country’s northern frontier throughout this period, led to the Chinese exploration and conquest of much of Central Asia.

The Xiongnu first appear in Chinese historical records about the 5th century bce , when their repeated invasions prompted the small kingdoms of North China to begin erecting what later became the Great Wall. The Xiongnu became a real threat to China after the 3rd century bce , when they formed a far-flung tribal confederation under a ruler known as the chanyu, the rough equivalent of the Chinese emperor’s designation as the tianzi (“son of heaven”). They ruled over a territory that extended from western Manchuria (Northeast Provinces) to the Pamirs and covered much of present Siberia and Mongolia. The Xiongnu were fierce mounted warriors who were able to muster as many as 300,000 horseback archers on their periodic intrusions into North China, and they were more than a match for the much less-maneuverable chariots of the Chinese. The completion of the Great Wall along the whole of China’s northern frontier during the Qin dynasty (221–206 bce ) slowed but did not stop the Xiongnu. The early Han dynasty rulers attempted to control them by marrying their leaders to Chinese princesses. But Xiongnu raids against China continued periodically until the Han emperor Wudi (reigned 141/140–87/86 bce ) initiated a fiercely aggressive policy against the nomads, sending expeditions into central China to outflank them and to negotiate alliances with their enemies. These expeditions led to the Chinese conquest of the state of Chosŏn in northern Korea and southern Manchuria and the Chinese exploration of Turkistan.

In 51 bce the Xiongnu empire split into two bands: an eastern horde, which submitted to the Chinese, and a western horde, which was driven into Central Asia. Chinese expeditions against the former group in the 1st century ce again resulted in the temporary extension of Chinese control to much of what constitutes the present-day northwestern provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang. But as the Han dynasty began to weaken, the Chinese began to hire Xiongnu generals to patrol China’s northern borders, and these semi-Sinicized tribesmen frequently turned on their masters, particularly after the fall of the Han (220 ce ) and the establishment of a number of small dynasties.

In 304 ce one of these Xiongnu generals, Liu Yuan, who claimed descent from the early Han emperors through a Chinese princess given in marriage to a Xiongnu chief, declared himself the first ruler of the Northern Han dynasty, also known as the Former Zhao. In 329, however, the dynasty was overthrown by another Xiongnu general, Shi Le, who in 319 had established his own Later Zhao dynasty, which was also short-lived.

Xiongnu raids continued periodically in the subsequent period, but all references to the tribe disappear after the 5th century. The dominant nomad people in the Mongolian steppe in the 7th century, the Tujue, were identified with the Turks and claimed to be descended from the Xiongnu. A number of Xiongnu customs do suggest Turkish affinity, which has led some historians to suggest that the western Xiongnu may have been the ancestors of the European Turks of later centuries. Others believe that the Xiongnu are the Huns, who invaded the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Though possible, this view cannot be substantiated. The graves of several chanyu (Xiongnu chiefs) excavated in the Selenga River valley in southern Siberia have been found to contain remains of Chinese, Iranian, and Greek textiles, indicating a wide trade between the Xiongnu and distant peoples.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.


Upon Kumaragupta’s death in 455 CE, his son, Skandagupta, assumed the throne and ruled until c. 467 CE. He is considered the last of the great Gupta rulers prior to the collapse of the empire.

Skandagupta, who was celebrated as a great warrior for his victorious clashes with the Huns during his father’s reign, defeated several rebellions and external threats from the Huna people, notably an invasion in 455 CE. Although victorious, the expenses of the wars against the Hunas drained the empire’s resources. The value of the coinage issued under Skandagupta becoming severely reduced.

Coin of Skandagupta. A coin emblazoned with the image of Gupta Dynasty Emperor Skandagupta, who ruled c. 455-467 CE.

The Weakening of the Xiongnu

One of the most important factors in the collapse of the Han Dynasty, in fact, may have been the Sino-Xiongnu Wars of 133 BCE to 89 CE. For more than two centuries, the Han Chinese and the Xiongnu fought throughout the western regions of China—a critical area that Silk Road trade goods needed to cross to reach the Han Chinese cities. In 89 CE, the Han crushed the Xiongnu state, but this victory came at such a high price that it helped to fatally destabilize the Han government.

Instead of reinforcing the strength of the Han empire, weakening Xiongnu allowed the Qiang, people who had been oppressed by the Xiongnu, to free themselves and build coalitions which newly threatened Han sovereignty. During the Eastern Han period, some of the Han generals stationed on the frontier became warlords. Chinese settlers moved away from the frontier, and the policy of resettling the unruly Qiang people inside the frontier made control of the region from Luoyang difficult.

In the wake of their defeat, over half of the Xiongnu moved west, absorbing other nomadic groups, and forming a formidable new ethnic group known as the Huns. Thus, the descendants of the Xiongnu would be implicated in the collapse of two other great classical civilizations, as well—the Roman Empire, in 476 CE, and India's Gupta Empire in 550 CE. In each case, the Huns did not actually conquer these empires, but weakened them militarily and economically, leading to their collapses.

The Celts/Gaul's

Many modern scholars describe the historical Celts as a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age Europe. Proto-Celtic culture formed in the Early Iron Age in Central Europe (the Hallstatt period, named for the site in present-day Austria). By the later Iron Age (the La Tène period), Celts had expanded over a wide range of lands: as far west as Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, as far east as Galatia (central Anatolia), and as far north as Scotland.

So let us trace the origins of the Hallstatt culture.

It begins with the "Corded Ware" culture

The Corded Ware culture receives its name "Corded Ware" from the frequent use of decorative cord impressions on the pots, which differed from the earlier Pit-Comb Ware culture, Single Grave from its burial custom, and Battle Axe from its characteristic grave offering to males, a stone battle axe (which was by this time an inefficient weapon, but still a traditional status symbol).

The Corded Ware culture is an enormous European archaeological horizon that begins in the late Neolithic (Stone Age), flourishes through the Copper Age and finally culminates in the early Bronze Age, developing in various areas from about 3200 B.C. to 2300 B.C. It represents the introduction of metal into Northern Europe. Corded Ware culture is commonly associated with the Indo-European family of languages.

Corded Ware culture was the culmination of an interaction of opposing tendencies in the area of the North European Plain (between Denmark and Kiev) and between the expansionism in eastern Europe and the local sedentism of farmers in the west. The traditional view of this pottery representing a series of pan-European migrations from the steppe region of southern Russia has been abandoned. Also, Corded Ware Culture communities are now seen as sedentary agriculturalists.

Corded Ware ceramic forms in single graves develop earlier in Poland than in western and southern Central Europe. Contemporary development of non-ceramic Corded Ware burial rites in the western parts have been explained as a spread of Corded Ware cultural traits through a wide-spanning communication network rather than through migration, suggesting the existence of an "A-Horizon" in the 28th century B.C, to be understood as a number of connecting forms within different regional contexts.

It spread to the Lüneburger Heide and then further to the North European Plain, Rhineland, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Baltic region and Russia to Moscow, where the culture met with the pastoralists (animal herders) considered indigenous to the steppes (white people). On most of the immense, continental expanse the culture is clearly intrusive.

The "Beaker" Culture:

The Bell-Beaker culture ca. 2800 &ndash 1900 B.C, is the term for a widely scattered cultural phenomenon of prehistoric western Europe starting in the late Neolithic or Chalcolithic running into the early Bronze Age. The term was coined by John Abercromby, based on their distinctive pottery drinking vessels.

Beaker culture is defined by the common use of a pottery style &mdash a beaker with a distinctive inverted bell-shaped profile found across the western part of Europe during the late 3rd millennium B.C. The pottery is well-made, usually red or red-brown in colour, and ornamented with horizontal bands of incised, excised or impressed patterns. The early Bell Beakers have been described as "International" in style, as they are found in all areas of the Bell Beaker culture. These include cord-impressed types, such as the "All Over Corded" (or "All Over Ornamented"), and the "Maritime" type, decorated with bands filled with impressions made with a comb or cord. Later characteristic regional styles developed.

It has been suggested that the beakers were designed for the consumption of alcohol and that the introduction of the substance to Europe may have fueled the beakers' spread. Beer and mead content have been identified from certain examples. However, not all Beakers were drinking cups. Some were used as reduction pots to smelt copper ores, others have some organic residues associated with food, and still others were employed as funerary urns. Beakers may have been a special form of pottery with a ritual character.

Many theories of the origins of the Bell Beakers have been put forward and subsequently challenged. The Iberian peninsula has been argued as the most likely place of Beaker origin. The oldest AOO shards have so far been found in northern Portugal. Bell Beaker is often suggested as a candidate for an early Indo-European culture or, more specifically, an ancestral proto-Celtic or proto-Italic (Italo-Celtic) culture. The Kurgan hypothesis initially proposed by Marija Gimbutas derived the Beakers from east central European cultures that became "kurganized" by incursions of Steppe Tribes (White people). Her general proposition is supported, though with modifications, by archaeologists J. P. Mallory, and David Anthony.

Note: The "Kurgan hypothesis" traces the migrations of White people from Central Asia into Europe.

The "Unetice" Culture

The Unetice Culture, is the name given to an early Bronze Age culture, preceded by the Beaker culture and followed by the Tumulus culture. The eponymous site is located at Únětice, northwest of Prague. It was named after finds in Aunjetitz, Bohemia and is now focused around the Czech Republic, southern and central Germany, and western Poland. It grew out of beaker roots. It is dated from 2300-1600 B.C. (Bronze A1 and A2 in the chronological schema of Paul Reinecke). The Sky Disc of Nebra is associated with the Unetice culture.

The 3,600-year-old Sky Disc of Nebra, was uncovered in 1999 and surfaced in 2002 when German grave robbers tried to sell it on the international market.

The enigma of a priceless Bronze Age disc seems to have been solved by a Hamburg scientist who has identified it as one of the world's first astronomical clocks. The 3,600-year-old Sky Disc of Nebra, which surfaced four years ago when German grave robbers tried to sell it on the international market, shows that Bronze Age man had a sophisticated sense of time.

"We have been dramatically underestimating the prehistoric peoples," said Harald Meller, chief archaeologist of Saxony-Anhalt, where the disc was found.

The bronze disc is about 30cm in diameter, has a blue-green patina and is inlaid with a gold sun, moon and 32 stars. Robbers using metal detectors found it in 1999 alongside a pile of bronze axes and swords in a prehistoric enclosure on top of a hill in deep forest 112 miles (180km) southwest of Berlin.

The Nebra settlement is close to Europe's oldest observatory in Goseck. The site appears to have had deep spiritual significance in the Bronze Age. From the hill it is possible to see the sun set at every equinox behind the Brocken, the highest mountain peak of the Harz range. And there are about 1,000 barrows, burial grounds for warriors and princes, in the nearby forests.

Since police tracked down the thieves in Switzerland in 2002, archaeologists and astronomers have been trying to puzzle out the disc's function. Ralph Hansen, an astronomer in Hamburg, found that the disc was an attempt to co-ordinate the solar and lunar calendars. It was almost certainly a highly accurate timekeeper that told Bronze Age Man when to plant seeds and when to make trades, giving him an almost modern sense of time.

Herr Hansen first tried to explain the thickness of the moon on the disc. "The crescent on the Sky Disc of Nebra seems to be equivalent to a four-day moon," he said.

He consulted the 7th and 6th century B.C. mul-apin collection of Babylonian documents in the British Museum. It appears that the users of the 3,600- year-old clock made similar calculations. The disc was used to determine when a 13th month should be added to the lunar year, which has shorter months than the solar year. Herr Maller said: "Probably only a very small group of people understood the clock."

But the knowledge was somehow lost, and scientists say that the clock would have been used for only about 300 years. Herr Maller said: "In the end, the disc became a cult object."

The 32-centimeter disc and weighs approximately 2 kilograms is decorated with gold leaf symbols that clearly represent a crescent moon, a circle that was probably the full moon and starts. A cluster of seven dots has been interpreted as the Pleiades constellation as it appeared 3,600 years ago, scattered other stars and three arcs, all picked out in gold leaf from a background rendered violet-blue -- apparently by applying rotten eggs. The formations on the disc are clearly based on previous astrological observations and that astronomical knowledge was tied to a mythological-cosmological worldview right from the beginning.

Although an earlier impression of the cosmos dating from 2400 B.C has been found in Egypt, The painting was found in the burial chamber in the pyramid of the Egyptian pharaoh Unas, which is decorated with stars.

The "Tumulus" culture

The Tumulus culture dominated Central Europe during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600 B.C. to 1200 B.C.). It was the descendant of the Unetice culture. Its heartland the area previously occupied by the Unetice culture besides Bavaria and Württemberg. It was succeeded by the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture. As the name implies, the Tumulus culture is distinguished by the practice of burying the dead beneath burial mounds (tumuli).

The Trundholm sun chariot is a late Bronze Age artifact discovered in Denmark. The sculpture was discovered in 1902 in the Trundholm moor in West Zealand County on the northwest coast of the island of Zealand in Denmark. The sculpture has been dated to the 18th to the 16th century B.C. It has been interpreted as a depiction of the sun being pulled by a mare.

The "Urnfield" culture

The Urnfield culture (c. 1300 BC - 750 BC) was a late Bronze Age culture of central Europe. The name comes from the custom of cremating the dead and placing their ashes in urns which were then buried in fields. The Urnfield culture followed the Tumulus culture and was succeeded by the Hallstatt culture. As there are no written sources, the languages spoken by the bearers of the Urnfield culture are unknown. Some scholars consider them to be the ancestors of the Celts. Urnfield material is found in some of the areas where later people were to be called "Kelt" or "Galatoi" by classical authors (who had never been there). As we do not know how processes of ethnogenesis work or how long they last, and whether a common material culture is always associated with social and political unity, this is highly contested.

The "Hallstatt" culture

The Hallstatt culture was the predominant Central European culture from the 8th to 6th centuries B.C. (European Early Iron Age), developing out of the Urnfield culture of the 12th century B.C. (Late Bronze Age) and followed in much of Central Europe by the La Tène culture. By the 6th century B.C, the Halstatt culture extended for some 1000 km, from the Champagne-Ardenne in the west, through the Upper Rhine and the upper Danube, as far as the Vienna Basin and the Danubian Lowland in the east, from the Main, Bohemia and the Little Carpathians in the north, to the Swiss plateau, the Salzkammergut and to Lower Styria. It is named for its type site, Hallstatt, a lakeside village in the Austrian Salzkammergut southeast of Salzburg. The culture is commonly linked to Proto-Celtic and Celtic populations in its western zone and with pre-Illyrians in its eastern zone. (In classical antiquity, Illyria was a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, corresponding to parts of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, it was inhabited by the Illyrians).

Extent of the White Huns' Influence c. 500 CE - History

The Fall of Rome: Facts and Fictions

People, Places, Events and Terms To Know:

Fall of Rome
Battle of Adrianople
Theodosius I
Angles and Saxons
Visigothic Sack of Rome
Arian Christianity (Arianism)
Vandalic Sack of Rome
"The Scourge of God"
Valentinian III
Pope Leo I
Romulus Augustulus
Edward Gibbon
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
"Why Did Rome Fall?"

After nearly half a millennium of rule, the Romans finally lost their grip on Europe in the fifth century (the 400's CE). Their decline left in its wake untold devastation, political chaos and one of the most fascinating and problematical issues in history, what caused the "Fall of Rome," the problem we'll tackle in this Chapter. Though Roman government in the form of the Byzantine Empire survived in the East for almost another thousand years, so-called barbarian forces overran western Europe, spelling the end of an era. While Rome's absence in the West brought with it tremendous change—and none of it seemed very positive, at least at first—before we can even address the question of why Rome logged off and Europe switched users, we must understand how this transition happened and what exactly came to a close during this period.

The best way to answer that question is to look ahead to the changes which Rome's demise produced. Within two centuries after its purported "fall" in 476 CE—by the seventh century, that is—Europe looked very different from the days when the Romans were in charge. By virtually every measurable standard, Western Civilization had relapsed severely. Trade had virtually disappeared, taking with it the European economy and the basis of civilized life, and because most of the populace was by then mired in dismal squalor, unable to travel or attend school, education and literacy were all but relics of the past. Thus, without any way for people to see their situation from a larger geographical or historical perspective, a basic siege mentality gripped their world. On the surface, the reason for all this seems fairly clear. The invasions of non-Roman outsiders had so badly disrupted the region that, in the words of one modern historian, it was as if "Western Civilization went camping for five hundred years."

There is no better way to bring home the impact of this grim reality than to look at Europe in the early Middle Ages through a foreigner's eyes. In outlining the peoples of the world for his contemporaries, an Arab geographer of the day describes Europeans as having "large bodies, gross natures, harsh manners, and dull intellects . . . those who live farthest north are particularly stupid, gross and brutish." The tables have certainly turned when outsiders are describing Western Civilization the way classical historians like Herodotus and Tacitus had once appraised the barbarian world. The sequence of events leading up to such drastic changes, so precipitous a drop in quality of life, is where we must begin as we seek the reasons for "why Rome fell."

II. The Barbarians Arrive: The Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE

Increasing pressure from peoples outside the Empire, the much maligned barbarians, had compelled the Romans in later antiquity to let more and more foreigners inside their state. Since most of these spoke a language based on Common Germanic, the Romans referred to them collectively as Germans, even though they actually represented a wide array of nations and cultures. These newly adopted resident aliens were assigned to work farms or were conscripted into the Roman army in numbers so large that the late Latin word for "soldier" came to be barbarus ("barbarian"). And where these barbarians met resistance, they sneaked or pushed their way inside the Empire, and in such a profusion that Rome was fast turning into a nation of immigrants.

Not that that was much of a change. Things had actually been that way for centuries, only by late antiquity it was undeniable that, in spite of being called "Roman," the Empire was, in fact, a multicultural enterprise. The pretense of a "Roman" Rome had worn so thin it was impossible to maintain the illusion, for instance, that everyone in the Empire could speak—or even wanted to speak—Latin, the Romans' native tongue. Furthermore, it had been ages since any emperor had even bothered to pretend his lineage could be traced back to some ancestor who had arrived with Aeneas in Italy, an invented history which was beginning to look rather silly when Spaniards and North Africans had been steering the Empire for centuries.

The stark truth was that by the fifth century CE—and indeed for many years before that—a succession of dynamic and capable foreigners coming from all ends of the Empire had kept Rome on its feet and these men were as "Roman" as anyone born or bred in the capital. Barbarians were, and had been for a long time, guarding and feeding the Empire, which made it all the more difficult to claim they shouldn't also be running it. While three centuries earlier the Roman satirist Juvenal had lamented, "I can't stand a Greek Rome," now Rome wasn't merely Greek. It was Dacian and Egyptian and Syrian and, most of all, ever more German by the day.

Thus, the sort of change which Rome had undergone—and was at the time still undergoing which implies a certain trajectory into the future—was all too clear: from a local stronghold in Italy, to a multinational power, to the only superpower in the known world, to a globalized conglomerate of many different peoples. Even if the Romans of Rome still held the title to the Empire and affected superiority over the barbarians managing their domain, Roman possession of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea was, for the most part, only on paper. The reality was that the state was jointly owned, a participatory experiment which was by then maintained with the sweat and blood of many races—and there were even more who would have liked to sign up as "Roman" but they couldn't get in.

This begs the question, then, why so many foreigners lived—and even more wanted to live—in Rome. Why did barbarians in such numbers press to invade an empire in which they were treated as second-class citizens no matter how hard they worked and collaborated? The answer is easy. The Roman Empire in that day was a far safer place to live and offered much better accommodations than the wild world outside its borders. Roads and aqueducts and baths and amphitheaters and even taxes look good when one is gazing in from outside where poverty, blood-feuds, disease and frost reign supreme—the mild Mediterranean climate of southern Europe cannot be discounted as a factor in the barbarians' desire to infiltrate sunny Rome—but there was an even more impressive reason lurking beyond the borders of the Empire, something anyone would want to avoid if at all possible: Huns!

Traveling all the way from Mongolia in the Far East, the Huns began encroaching on Europe sometime after 350 CE. Toughened by decades of crossing the Russian steppes on small ponies, these marauding Asiatic nomads spread terror far and wide, developing a reputation for insurmountable ferocity. That led easily to exaggerated reports of their speed and numbers. Indeed, there's little that isn't exaggerated about the Huns, which amounts to a serious problem for historians, how to sift the facts from the frenzy. And besides that, there's an even greater problem. In all the history of the Huns, no Hun ever speaks to us in his own voice, because no Hun ever wrote history.

All in all, the Huns represent that rare instance where the victors didn't write the history, because—the conclusion is inescapable—they didn't care enough about history to write it. As a result, their reputation has suffered. It's very odd, really. Conquerors usually find it useful in maintaining their dominion, to make at least some public declaration or justification of their conquest, some sort of excuse for invading and conquering. Many subscribe to invented histories, forging a historical right or reason they slaughtered and marauded, if not out of a guilty conscience, at least from a victor's sense of shame. That the Huns didn't even bother lying to those they conquered, or even to posterity, is without doubt one of their most frightening qualities. And so, much like our Western ancestors, many historians run in terror just at the sound of the name.

Those barbarian tribes who lived furthest east in Europe were the first to feel the sting of the Huns' assault from Asia, in particular, the Goths, a loose confederation of Germanic peoples living northeast of the Balkan mountains, who were hit so hard and quickly by these savage marauders, that they were split into two groups: the Ostrogoths ("Eastern Goths") and the Visigoths ("Western Goths"). By 376 CE, the Ostrogoths had fallen completely in Hunnic hands, where they would be victimized and enslaved for nearly a century.

The Visigoths, severed from their brethren but saved from the brunt of the Mongol assault by the mere fact that they lived further west than the Ostrogoths, desperately sought protection by appealing to Rome for asylum. There, they ran up against an impermeable shield of customs stations at the Roman border, a veritable wall of imperial disdain which was by then standard policy when barbarians began wailing and waving their hands. Thus squeezed between scorn and the spear, the Visigoths panicked and not a few tried to push their way into Roman territory. Facing a surge of frantic immigrants, the Roman Emperor Valens had little choice but to relent and let them in.

Once inside the boundaries of Rome, the Visigoths found safety but at the same time a new and in many ways more dangerous foe. As new-comers to Roman civilization, they were ill-equipped to live in a state run on taxes and mired in the complex language of legalities, and thus made easy prey for unscrupulous, greedy imperial bureaucrats who cheated and abused them. Very quickly, the Visigoths found themselves bound in something heavier and more constricting than chains—the gruesome coils of red tape—and they responded as any reasonable barbarian would: they demanded fair treatment and, when their pleas went unheard, they embarked upon a rampage.

Valens called out his army, a threat meant to intimate the Visigoths into returning to their designated territory and tithe. But like the truant step-children they were, the barbarians remained disobedient. Left with no other recourse but corporal punishment, Valens met the Visigoths in combat at the Battle of Adrianople (378 CE) in northeastern Greece, and what happened was not only unexpected but unthinkable to any Roman living then, or dead. Primed by the insults to their pride—or because they were simply scared out of their minds—the Visigoths defeated and massacred the Roman legions sent to keep them in their room. Worse yet, Valens himself was killed in the course of the conflict.

His successor, Theodosius I resorted to standard Roman policy and pacified the Visigoths temporarily with handouts and promises. But money and titles couldn't buy back a Roman army or, more important, a reputation for invincibility. The Romans' essential weakness was now in full public view. Still, Theodosius managed to hold the state together and keep up a tense façade of peace within the Empire until, through an act which proves the cruel capriousness of fate, he died prematurely in 395. His young, pampered, feeble-minded sons were suddenly thrust to the forefront of Roman politics, yet another disaster for the Romans who could really have done without one at that juncture in history.

Those children, Arcadius and Honorius who were both still in their teens, were ill-prepared to hold real power. When a strong, new leader named Alaric rose to power among the Visigoths and started advancing on the West, Honorius panicked and recalled the Roman legions stationed on the Rhine river, Rome's northern border,which opened the door for other barbarians to force their way inside the Empire. A confederation of Germanic tribes, the Vandals, poured across the border—crossing the Rhine during the particularly cold winter of 406 when the river had frozen to an uncustomary depth—and ranged freely about the every-day-less-Roman province of Gaul. After a while, the Vandals settled in Spain. This rendered pointless the Romans' military outposts in Britain that protected what was up till then the northwestern boundary of their domain, so the Romans withdrew from the island, as it turned out permanently. Germanic tribes seized the opportunity to occupy Britain, particularly the Angles and the Saxons. Leaks were fast becoming floods.

His mind poisoned by court intrigue and the jealousy of rivals, Honorius struck a serious blow to his own cause by allowing the assassination of his best general, a man named Stilicho, in 408. So, with the Roman Emperor having done him the favor of eliminating his best defense against them, Alaric and his Visigothic forces invaded Italy with brutal barbarian dispatch and headed for the city of Rome itself. Panicking again, Honorius abandoned the capital, evading the Visigoths by fleeing to another Roman city in Italy, Ravenna, where he watched and waited out their wrath from a safe distance.

Now unprotected, the eternal city, the heart of the Roman Empire, took the full brunt of the Visigoths' rage. In this infamous Visigothic Sack of Rome (410 CE) Alaric and his comrades plundered the city for three days, a devastation which turned out to be actually less physical than psychological but, even so, a wound which went deep into the heart of an already ailing state. When Saint Jerome, the great Latin translator of the Bible, heard the news of the Visigoths' capture of Rome, he wrote "My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth." The shock was indeed registered in deafening silence empire-wide.

At the same time, however, not everything went wrong for the Romans. For one thing, Alaric died only a few months after leading his forces on Rome. This left the Visigoths without competent leadership and, more important, still in search of a land they could settle and call home. After some negotiations, the remnants of their army and people moved out of Italy to southwestern Gaul, and later Spain where with the help of the Roman army they displaced the Vandals and established a kingdom that would endure for nearly two centuries. While barbarian in origin, the Visigoths of Spain quickly adopted Roman customs, the Latin language, and even the Christian religion, though in a heretical variation called Arian Christianity (or Arianism see Section 13). Although that later caused trouble between the Visigoths and the orthodox Church in Rome, this late-ancient civilization laid the groundwork for much of Medieval Spanish culture to follow, forging a unique synthesis of barbarian, Roman, Christian and—after 711 CE when Islamic forces invaded Spain—Moslem traditions.

All this time, the Huns were marching through and enslaving eastern Europe, inflicting their own brand of terror on the barbarian tribes there. Oppressing peoples like the Ostrogoths had kept these Mongol nomads, by now only distantly Asiatic, occupied for several decades. Empires like the Huns are run on conquest and collecting tribute from terrified populaces. They must keep expanding or their momentum falters and their economy as well, if it's fair to say terrorists have economies. Fear, in fact, plays a large part in maintaining any such regime, so when the Huns' new, powerful, European-born leader Attila learned that Christians in Rome had pronounced him, in traditional Old-Testament fashion, "the Scourge of God"—meaning God's whip as a moralizing force to impose better behavior—he was very pleased and added it to his litany of royal titles. No doubt, the whip image appealed to him more than the moralizing part.

Sweeping west across the Rhine River into Gaul, Attila's forces met a Roman army near Châlons (central Gaul) in 451 CE and, against all odds, the Huns were defeated. Infuriated and apparently under-educated in military protocol, the Hunnic general took the loss as an insult, a challenge of sorts, and wheeled south heading for Italy. The Romans in panic fled at his approach. Even the Emperor Valentinian III abandoned the capital—shades of Honorius!—but the leader of the Church, Pope Leo I, not only stood his ground but went to face down Attila in person. In one of the most remarkable moments in history (452 CE), they actually did meet and speak, but only in private. In the wake of their discussion, Attila wheeled about yet again, this time leaving Italy never to return. Leo's words must have contained some powerful magic. Too bad there's no record of what he said.

Shortly thereafter, Attila died of uncertain causes. Because his death occurred the night after he'd celebrated a new marriage—the last of many!—his young bride was suspected of complicity in his demise but the charge was never proven. And, as has happened so often in history, where the Italians failed to save their land, Italy itself rose to the challenge, shades of Greece and the Persian Wars! In this instance, the Hunnic army contracted some type of epidemic during their brief stay on the Italian peninsula. This mystery disease decimated their ranks, and soon after their departure they disappeared completely, from Europe and history. As one modern writer notes, "They were not mourned."

Following their expulsion from Spain at the hands of the Visigoths and Romans, the Vandals fled to the northwest corner of Africa (modern Morocco). Once there, their wily and double-dealing leader Gaiseric helped them expand their domain by uprooting Roman control over the rich provinces of North Africa—the Vandals' imminent approach on Carthage (modern Tunisia) in 430 CE is one of the last pieces of news Saint Augustine heard as he lay on his deathbed—but their devastation to Rome was more than economic. Quite a few Christians living in this area were slain by the Vandals who ironically belonged to the same faith but as Arian Christians were strongly opposed to those who swore allegiance to the Pope. Indeed, more than one of the gruesome hagiographies ("saints' biographies") heroizing early Christian martyrs stems from the carnage which ensued as the Vandals—fellow Christians!—spread across North Africa, murdering their holy brethren.

Next, moving to sea, the Vandals took up piracy and severely disrupted trade in the western Mediterranean. The recent assassination of Aetius, who was the most competent Roman general in the day and had died at the hands of none other than Valentinian III, the Emperor of Rome himself, only made the Vandals' path to naval power and domination all the easier. This horrifying replay of Stilicho's death—shades of Honorius again!—not only led to Valentinian's own murder in retaliation for Aetius' but also opened the way for a second assault on the capital itself, the devastating Vandalic Sack of Rome in 455 CE. Unlike the Visigoths' earlier siege, the Vandals' attack involved prolonged, physical ruin, a destruction so complete and indiscriminate, so emblematic of wanton atrocity, that these barbarians' very name made its way into common parlance, and ultimately English, as a by-word for "the malicious destruction of property," vandalism.

The final days of the Roman Empire are usually assigned to the year 476 CE, when the German general Odovacar (or Odoacer) deposed the "last Roman Emperor," a boy ironically named Romulus Augustulus. Although Odovacar acted with little respect for formalities—he removed the child from the throne and sent him off to a monastery where he subsequently died—the usurper faced no real opposition, political or military. The reality of the matter was that barbarian leaders like him had been the power behind the throne for many years in Rome, and the German strongman did little more than end the pretense of non-barbarian control of the Roman West.

His move was, moreover, driven by economics as much as anything else. Despite the travails of their Western counterparts, the Eastern emperors—by then, there were two Roman emperors, one in Rome and one in Constantinople—continued to demand that the entire Empire pay taxes into a common treasury. From there, few of these funds ever made their way back to the West where they were desperately needed to defend the state and rebuild its infrastructure. In open defiance of this tradition, Odovacar began keeping the monies he collected from those areas he governed.

The luxury-loving emperors of the East were incensed to find their outstretched hands empty and responded in a manner consistent with standard Roman policy in the day. They hired barbarians to do their dirty work. In 493, Theodoric, the leader of the Ostrogoths who had at last been liberated from Hunnic dominion, was commissioned to head west and dispatch Odovacar, which he did in typically savage fashion. In the course of negotiating peace with his barbarian brother at a banquet, Theodoric stabbed him to death.

But once he'd had a good look at the West, especially the desperate condition of things, the Ostrogothic general refused to hand Italy over to some far-off "Roman Emperor" who had no intention of actually ruling it but only milking it for taxes. Now the lord of the land, Theodoric (r. 493-527 CE) set about restoring what more than a century of neglect, civil war, invasion and "vandalism" had wrought. Roman Italy needed a caring hand like his, and this barbarian proved the last ruler in antiquity to lend it such.

Theodoric oversaw the repair of Roman roads and aqueducts, and under his governance Italy witnessed a small-scale renaissance, sadly its final breath of culture for much of the remaining millennium. To those who are able to grasp the complexity of these times, Theodoric's actions come as no surprise at all. A veritable paradox, capable of both treachery and tenderness, he had been educated in Constantinople but remained essentially illiterate all his life. Moreover, he had served in his youth as a hostage to the Eastern Romans and thus had learned the language of those highly civilized bureaucrats. And like Odovacar, he was also a Christian and, although Arian, managed to maintain good relations with the orthodox powers-that-be, not that he wanted to live among them.

To this day, however, his strained relations with his secretary Boethius, an orthodox Christian, dominate the accounts of his regime—Theodoric ultimately had Boethius executed—but the Ostrogothic king would be better remembered for building a sound and effective government centered in Ravenna (northeastern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea), where his tomb can still be seen. It is fairer to him, perhaps, to recall his relationship with Cassiodorus, Boethius' successor to the post of secretary, who was also an orthodox Christian but not so contentious a man. Cassiodorus quietly oversaw the copying of many Classical manuscripts, which was an important contribution to the preservation of Greek and Roman literature and thought during the Middle Ages. All in all, whether or not any of them knew it—and quite a few probably did—these men were folding the tents of culture, packing its bags and quenching the fires of scholarship. The West was readying itself for its Medieval "camping trip."

III. The "Fall of Rome" as a Question of History

The classic conundrum of antiquity, "Why did Rome fall?," has withstood legions of scholars catapulting answers at it—over 210 different ones at last count—and still it stands unbreached. Few of the suggestions have made much of an impression. Many involve "invented histories" of some sort, speaking volumes about the answerer and syllables about the issue. More than one may be dismissed off-hand as so far from what-really-happened that, though they represent someone's history, it's clearly not the Romans'.

For instance, Rome did not fall because of the distractions pursuant to sexual indulgence. Given the influence of Christianity which the Romans had adopted as their exclusive religion by then, the conduct of those living in the fifth century after Christ was relatively sober. Indeed, if the data point to any venereal villains across the great expanse of Roman history, it is the Julio-Claudians who oversaw the height of Roman power in the first century CE and were truly perpetrators of immorality at large. So, to make an argument relating sexual behavior to Rome's "fall"—and to judge it fairly from the historical evidence—involves the ludicrous conclusion that the erotic felonies of a Caligula or Nero, in fact, sustained Rome's triumph, instead of corroding it at its core. That suggests that, to prevent the collapse of their society, the Romans should have kept the orgies up, so to speak, which is patently ridiculous.

Simply put, sex—reproduction maybe, but not sex!—had little or nothing to do with the troubles that brought the Romans to their collective knees in later antiquity. Likewise, the climate and ecology of the time cannot be adduced as the reason for something so earth-shattering as the "Fall of Rome." Nor do any of the other two hundred or so entries cited make the cut in history's time trials, meaning that no one answer has as yet won the day for why the Romans lost. All may have appealed to some but none to all or, more to the point, a majority of scholars.

And some of these answers have come from very good scholars, the likes of Edward Gibbon, the pre-eminent classical historian of England in the later half of the eighteenth century. Brilliant though it was, the thesis he expounded in his monumental and highly engaging magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—he argued that the rise of Christianity emasculated the native vigor of Rome, leaving it open to more virile conquerors, i.e. barbarians—is a proposition full of holes and inconsistencies, saying in the end less about the Roman Empire than its British counterpart, the hidden target of Gibbon's book. For example, if Christianity so weakened the Roman West in late antiquity, why didn't it weaken the other half, the staunchly orthodox East which survived nearly a millennium after the collapse of the West? Perhaps it's true that Christianity redirected the attention of many Romans away from affairs of state, but it did not undermine their civilization. To the contrary, it was as natural an outgrowth of their culture, as "Roman" as all sorts of other things they did: theatre, epic poetry, gladiators, ship-building, all of which were imports, just like Christianity.

Any hope of finding a better answer depends on assessing exactly what was happening in Rome at the time of its "fall" and the data do, in fact, point to some clear and significant trends.

Population. First of all, there's strong evidence of a steady decline in population across the entire Empire from the second century CE on. For example, peaking at around a million or so in the Classical Age, the population of the city of Rome gradually dropped over the course of the next few centuries, reaching a low point of a mere six thousand by the 500's. The reasons for this drastic if incremental reduction in human resources are not clear, though many Romans' luxurious lifestyle and their concomitant disinterest in producing and raising children must have played some part. So did plagues, no doubt, as well as constant warfare on the frontiers and perhaps even lead-poisoning, evidenced in human skeletal remains recovered from Pompeii which show that the Romans there were indeed exposed to high concentrations of the lethal element. Nevertheless, it's unclear how widespread this problem was.

Economics. Second, economic data point to other factors which doubtlessly contributed to the situation. Well-documented among the travails of third-century Rome—a full two centuries prior to its notorious "fall"—is a particularly long period of financial crisis which inaugurated the slow collapse of the economy in the West. This economic depression was due in large part to the failure of the Romans' system of conquest and enslavement. When the flow of cheap slaves began to dry up, estates throughout the Empire could no longer live off the abuse of human resources on which they had formerly depended. So without any real industry or much agricultural machinery to work the land—Roman land-owners did know about water wheels and windmills but archaeologists have found evidence of very few being used in this period—the aristocrats of late Rome apparently watched the collapse of their economy and disdained practical matters such as retooling their farms to ensure their viability.

Politics. Finally, political affairs contributed to the difficulties plaguing late Rome. The general incompetence of emperors and the failure of traditional politics in the West led to a wretchedly corrupt political structure, characterized by an oppressive burden of taxation levied to support the growing army of soldiers (barbari!) who were bribed—"employed" is too sophisticated a term for this practice—to fend off Rome's foes. This, in turn, led to inflation and debasing of Roman coinage, which bred a lethal mix of apathy and angst that inspired many Romans to flee politics and later the poleis ("city-states") of the Empire, the urban foundation on which rested most of ancient life. With that, actual power in Rome fell into the hands of local lords, and the concept of shared Roman civilization itself came under siege.

But states have survived disasters far worse than any or all of these. In sum, none of the theories or factors mentioned above explains why there's no simple answer to the simple question, "Why did Rome fall?" So, perhaps, it's not the answers that are flawed but the question itself. To a scholar, that demands an all-out Aristotelian response, a syllogism, an analysis of the question in terms of its principal elements, which are three: why, Rome, fell.

IV. Conclusion: A New Question?

Since "why" cannot be answered until the other components of the question have been determined, it's best not to start there. First, then, when we say "Rome," what do we mean? The city? The empire? Its government? Its people?

•If by "Rome" we mean the city, invaders compromised that several times in Roman history before its so-called "fall" in 476 CE. That Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410, to the Vandals in 455, not to mention its other earlier "falls" such as the one to that most-Roman-of-all-Romans, Julius Caesar himself (45 BCE), and its near capitulation to Hannibal before that. So if it's right to put the events of 476 in the same category—they were hardly as destructive physically or psychologically as those which preceded—the ouster of Romulus Augustulus can hardly labelled "the fall of Rome," when compared to other ruinous sieges and takeovers of the city.

•If by "Rome" we mean the Empire, only the Western half of that is even at issue. The Eastern Empire stood for nearly a millennium after 476, nearly as long again as classical Rome itself. So Rome as Empire can't be right.

•If by "Rome" we mean the government, that underwent drastic, often violent upheaval several times in Roman history, including the establishment of the Republic early in Roman history, the civil wars of the first century BCE, and the later reforms of the Emperor Diocletian who virtually remade the Empire in the image of autocratic Eastern regimes. That definition doesn't work either.

•Finally, if by "Rome" we mean the people, they lived on past 476. They're still there. They're called Italians. So, if the people of Rome ever "fell," apparently they got back up again. That's out, too.

Whatever the answer, the question of which "Rome" fell in 476 lies at the heart of the problem, and most of the answers that have been offered incline toward one but not all of the connotations the name Rome can carry. Yet, all are inherent in the question, at least when it's phrased so simply as "Why did Rome fall?" Clearly, any cogent answer will have to address every "Rome" in Rome, so it's probably best not to start there, either.

Hopefully, "fall" will prove a less obscure term than "Rome," and it does, unfortunately. "Fall" is quite clearly off-base, in fact, a rather inept way to describe what happened in later ancient Rome, since in most people's understanding "falling" implies an accelerating descent leading to a cataclysmic crash followed by a big ka-boom, like a tree being cut down. But that's really not how things happened in late imperial Rome. Nothing went "boom"—"blaarhhh!" maybe—but no explosion, no crash.

There must be a better metaphor and, if a derogatory term is in order—and speaking positively about Rome in the fifth century seems out of the question, without completely recasting the issue—it would be more suitable perhaps to say Rome "dissolved." Professional dignity and common sense, however, rule that out for most academics. Scholars, after all, can hardly sit around seminar tables in serious discourse debating the reasons why the ancient cookie "crumbled."

So then, how about "leak"? "Slide"? "Putrefy"? All those present the same problem, though the gradualism inherent in any of them represents a significant step toward accuracy in reflecting the slow disintegration inherent in Rome's "fall," the far-from-instantaneous process of wasting away that characterizes the end of classical antiquity. Still, The Decline and Rot of Rome? It's hard to see that on anyone's best-seller list.

So, with the implications of "Rome" unclear and, worse yet, tied to the misguided metaphor of "falling," our inner Aristotles can see that it's categorically pointless to proceed to "why." The question is all too imprecise, too rotten-at-the-core to produce sensible answers. It is, in fact, a loaded question, because it presupposes that Rome did fall, encouraging us to think in what may turn out to be inaccurate and unproductive ways. The real question is whether Rome fell, not why?

True, the Roman state did something monumentally unpleasant in the 400's CE, especially for those citizens of Rome acclimated to the benefits of life in the Empire. That's why many Romans in the day left the city for the countryside or monasteries or God's merciful embrace. But that change did not happen overnight, or even over a decade. The historical data do not support any firm break between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, certainly nothing like the social upheaval that followed in the wake of the Black Death as it surged across Europe. There, the impact of an explosive catastrophe can be seen in every corner of the European landscape. But 476 doeis not equal 1347.

The historical truth, if any exists, is that Rome did not fall rather, it evolved. Roman coloni (farmers tied to the land) gradually became Medieval serfs. The patron-and-client relationship, so central in Roman society, slowly assumed the name and nature of the lord-and-vassal bond, the social order underlying much of European society in the Middle Ages. So, if Rome fell, it was only in slow motion, very slow motion.

But change did come to Rome in the fifth century—as it has to every society in every century of human history—and a particularly drastic change it was. Many of the conventions which had once ruled the ancient Romans' lives evaporated, never to re-emerge. Primarily, citizenship in Rome offered little or no protection to its denizens, like membership in a club that was now defunct. That, in turn, precipitated an even more serious casualty, the loss of pride in being Roman, and of all things that perhaps lies at the heart of the problem. When being Roman no longer mattered, then being Greek or Dacian or German didn't either, and if their Romanness stopped giving people a sense of military or economic or racial superiority, what was the point of being Roman?

This bigotry, evidenced well before the fifth century, cuts to the heart of the myth about Rome's fall. In simple terms, the nationalistic propaganda of late Rome included a good element of racism which held that Germans, while useful in some respects, were fundamentally aliens, something less than Roman, to many in the day less than human. So when barbaric groups of Germans first defeated the Romans in battle, then captured Rome itself and finally assumed the mantle of Roman authority, it looked to those who saw "Roman" and "German" as mutually exclusive terms as if the Empire was no longer Roman, no longer an empire at all. But this was, in fact, a rationalization, an excuse concocted by the late Romans to cover their own complacency and lack of planning, which was, to be frank, rooted in laziness. Thus, lethargy and bias lurk behind the notion that 476 was a date of any supreme significance, much less the Armageddon of the classical world, the moment when "Rome fell."

At the same time, however, the fallacy of choosing 476 as a crucial moment in history—there is no year better for dating the "fall"—points to something else very telling, that Rome for the most part survived the crisis of the fifth century and in many respects weathered the circumstances surrounding its purported "fall." For instance, Rome provided the essential groundwork for the later triumphs of its successor states and, in particular, the history of the Church argues strongly for an unbroken line of development between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the gradual evolution of Roman into Medieval structures. Indeed, many Roman institutions were preserved through the Church, not least of all its bureaucracy.

This indeed goes some way toward explaining why in its later days the popes in Rome more than once stood up to defend the state, when Emperors did not, as Leo I did when he confronted and turned Attila from Italy. Churchmen like him were defending not only their homes but their home institution, both Mother Rome and Mother Church. Seen this way, Rome did not "fall" at all but passed its cultural legacy, the very heart of its civilization, to the burgeoning Christian world.

So why then all the fixation on "fall," when the "evolution" of Rome is a much more accurate way of expressing the transition Rome underwent during the fifth century? The answer should be self-evident: the "Evolution of Rome" is boring, if only because the message lacks a moral core. In other words, saying something like "We must never do something as evil as that or we will evolve like Rome, and you don't want that, do you?" isn't a very effective way to use history. It's far too easy for somebody to say "Well, why not?"

In spite of all its inaccuracy, then, "falling" is a far more palatable way for many people today to look at ancient Rome. In so complex and consequential a situation as the woes suffered by Rome in the fifth century where so little is clear and so many players cross the stage, simplicity comes at a premium. "Fall" has the great advantage over "evolve" of providing a straightforward and palpable vision of Rome's purported demise, a salient, pointed metaphor that makes history come alive. That is, to give Rome a "fall," a sudden death of sorts, makes it seem all the more human, more closely related to things people today know and see. People fall and die Rome fell and died. It's so simple, so accessible some part of it has to be right.

But it's not. Such personification is fundamentally flawed, as invalid as it is simplistic. Though made up of living organisms, societies are not people and do not live or die as humans do. Many historians, including the Roman annalist Livy, have had trouble stifling their laughter at the purported "birth of Rome" featuring Romulus and Remus, clearly fictional personifications of the fetal state. Why, then, is Rome's "fall" and the dethroning of Romulus Augustulus, the birth-tale's teen namesake, treated more seriously when it has all the earmarks of invented history, too? Both these Romuli, indeed all of Rome's "little Romes," smack of myth-making concocted for the convenience of those with little room in their lives for anything more than a superficial study of the actual, messy, complicated what-really-happened.

In that light, the "fall of Rome" becomes a sort of game based on humanity's strong but irrational need to personify past ages in order to make them more understandable. Indeed, the general urge to create periods of history stems from the same weakness. Seeking closure for Rome or any past society is a student-and-professor game convenient for quiz-taking, chart-making, sermonizing and remarkably little else.

If any metaphor drawn from real life encompasses "Rome" and helps us to understand why it "fell," perhaps it's best to describe it not as a nation, not as a people, nor a government, nor even a city, but an advertising campaign. Seen from the Nike-swoop perspective, "Get Out There And Sacrifice Yourself For Rome!" is the single most successful notion ever perpetrated in Western Civilization. Of all the impossibilities facing Roman historians, one of the greatest has to be trying to count the number of—to borrow a phrase from the American general George Patton—"poor bastards" who went out there and died for Rome. As witness to its marketing power, Rome's transcendent symbols—the eagle, the laurel wreath, the fasces, the triumphal arch—still imbue and predominate Western culture. In other words, we still live in the afterglow of the Roman state's central message, "Rome is what matters, so go out there and kill for it! Or die trying."

But ideas like that don't "live," at least not in the strictest sense of the word—they don't have sharp transitions between life and death the way people do—instead, ideas come and go, quickly or slowly, and, what's most important here, they can be resurrected at any moment, in a way that humans beings cannot. If Rome is essentially an idea, then it's inaccurate to assert that it "fell," at least in the sense that it "died." Whatever happened to the state of Rome in the fifth century, the idea of Rome lived on, and that was the essence of Rome itself.

Later history provides plenty of witnesses to this, if nothing else in the number of people who have invoked Rome's legacy to advance their own causes: Justinian and the Gothic Wars, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, Russia's czars and Germany's Kaisers—both are titles derived from the name Caesar—and, most horrifically, Hitler and the Third Reich, the First Reich being Rome. That is, Hitler tried to pass off his regime as some reincarnation of "Rome" in the modern world. Fortunately for all, his empire came nowhere near lasting a thousand years, but the allure of Rome eternal, unified, invincible, has over and over proven irresistible, at least as the yardstick by which megalomaniacs measure themselves.

The simple reality of Rome in late antiquity is that something big and centralized in the West—and only in the West—broke up into several smaller units, each resembling in many ways the larger whole to which they had once belonged, but the image of Rome and the imagery driving it lived on. Indeed, the majority of modern Western languages, laws, religions, customs and culture are in some way fundamentally Roman, making all of us by all fair standards modern Romans. And, until the last traces of Roman civilization are erased and forgotten, Rome cannot be said to have died—or fallen.

4 Cyrus The Great -- 2,090,000 Square Miles

Often described as the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the great reigned from 559-530 B.C. Persia was originally a state within the empire of Medes, until Cyrus liberated Persia, started a revolution and took the Median capital of Ecbatana, and proclaimed himself ruler. His Persian Empire was gigantic, as he conquered from India to the middle east, northern Africa and into Greece. His conquests led to the Persian Empire as being one of the largest and most historically influential empires in recorded history. Unlike Attila, Cyrus created a political infrastructure under him that kept the Persian Empire going long after his death, and his exploits as a conqueror lead to the spread of middle eastern philosophy, literature, culture and religion across Europe and Asia. Persia remained in existence for a long, long time and is often attributed to the spread of Islam and the Islamic "Golden Age".

A brief history of the art of South Asia: Prehistory – c. 500 C.E.

Art is a wonderfully tangible pathway to past cultures. In the large collar of a tiny terracotta dog from Harappa, in present-day Pakistan, we learn about people and their dogs four thousand years ago. In beds made of stone inside rock-cut viharas (monastic houses) in the hillside of Ajanta, in India, we glimpse the lives of Buddhist monks in the first century B.C.E. And in pieces of furniture fashioned from ivory and bone found in Begram in Afghanistan, we get a taste of the luxury and artistic skill that people — much like you and I — cherished nearly two millennia ago.

A few considerations

South Asia (according to the modern designation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), includes the following countries:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Bhutan
  • India
  • Maldives
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka

In this brief introduction to the art and cultures of South Asia from prehistory to c. 500 of the Common Era, we refer to these countries to aid in geographically orienting you to the material culture discussed. It is important to remember, however, that over the course of history, the sovereign nations of South Asia experienced both distinct and shared histories, and these often do not correspond to modern-day borders.

The artifacts, coins, and written records of empires and kingdoms that emerged and dissolved throughout history help us anchor the boundaries of people who shared a common lifestyle, language, and religion. In the study of prehistoric artifacts, other factors — such as shared technologies and ritual practices — help us recognize patterns of living that indicate geographically coherent cultures and societies.

Topography too (marked in yellow in the map above) influenced cultural and political histories. The Hindu Kush mountain range (in Afghanistan), the Himalayas (in Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Pakistan), the Thar desert (in northwestern India), the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Lakshadweep Sea that surround the Indian peninsula, and the Palk Strait between India and the island nation of Sri Lanka, all played important roles in shaping the histories and the art histories of South Asia.


Archaeology can help us understand much about prehistoric civilizations. A stone tool, discovered in Isampur in India (see inset in the map below), for instance, confirms human settlement in the region as early as 1.1 million years ago.

Map 2: Prehistoric sites and the Indus Valley Civilization. Clockwise from left: Seated Mother Goddess, 3000 – 2500 B.C.E., Pakistan, Baluchistan (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Sculpted face, c. 20,000 B.C.E., Aq Kupruk, Afghanistan (photo: CEMML, Colorado State University) Cave paintings, c. 9000 B.C.E., Bhimbetka, India (photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA-3.0) Handaxe, about 1.1 million years old, Isampur, India (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History).

Some of the earliest portrayals of ancient peoples in South Asia are found in the Bhimbetka caves, dated c. 9000 B.C.E., in central India. The paintings show figures dancing and humans hunting (see inset in the map above), as well as a person being hunted or attacked by an animal. E xcavated tools, pottery, and figurines of animals and humans found in Balochistan, Pakistan, also tell us about the interests and activities of people from c. 7500 – 2500 B.C.E. In the inset in the map above is an artifact from Balochistan that is thought to represent a fertility or cult goddess. From a time relatively more recent — c. 20,000 B.C.E. — is a limestone pebble with a face incised on it (inset in map above) from the archaeological site of Aq Kupruk II in the Balkh province of Afghanistan. The pebble poses interesting questions — who made it? And why?

The Indus Valley Civilization

Between 2600 and 1900 B.C.E., several settlements (see map 2 above) thrived around the river Indus which extends from the Tibetan plateau and flows into the Arabian Sea. These settlements — Indus cities have been excavated in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan — are known collectively as the Indus Valley Civilization.

Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the foreground and the granary mound in the background (photo: Saqib Qayyum, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Large sites such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in Pakistan have revealed highly efficient urban-planning, well-designed homes and neighborhoods laid out on a grid pattern, granaries, and public buildings all built with uniformly sized bricks. The Indus people were skilled in the management of natural resources the site of Dholavira in Gujarat, India for instance, had a sophisticated system of water management. A complex writing system was also in use in this period, although sadly, the Indus script remains undeciphered.

Stamp seal and modern impression: unicorn and incense burner (?), c. 2600 – 1900 B.C.E., Indus (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Miniature terracotta figurines of a range of animals including the rhinoceros, birds, and dogs, and bullock drawn carts with drivers (see below) have been excavated from Indus sites. Whether they represent votive images or are simply children’s toys is as yet undecided. Board games, jewelry made of shells and beads, and stone and bronze figurines have also been discovered as have many steatite seals. These seals may have been used in trade and ritual and are distinguishable by their engravings of animals, humans, possibly divine beings, and, on occasion, unicorns!

Terracotta figures, c. 2500 B.C.E. Indus Valley Culture, Chanhu Daro, Pakistan (Brooklyn Museum)

The Vedic period

By c. 1300 B.C.E., speakers of Sanskrit (known as the Aryas) had settled in the northwest region of the Indian subcontinent. The Rigveda, the earliest of four Vedas (Sanskrit for “knowledge”) — a compendium of sacred scriptures on ritual, liturgy, and moral principles — is dated to this period. [1] The Vedas were a significant influence on the development of the Hindu religion. Like the material artifacts from the Indus Civilization above, the V edas also carry glimpses of life in the Vedic period. We learn of the people who lived in the region prior to the arrival of the Aryas, as well as details on societal relationships, daily life, and the worship of gods and goddesses from Vedic hymns.

Scholars have been able to discern the eventual movement of people to the Gangetic plains of India (see map 5 below) from the three later Vedas — the Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda . [2] Another important set of sacred texts, collectively known as the Upanishad, were composed sometime between the seventh and the fifth centuries B.C.E., and served as an elucidation of the Vedas. [3]


The Magadha region (roughly centered around Bihar and northeastern India, see map 5 below) would become a place of socio-religious debate and the birthplace of two major religions — Buddhism and Jainism — that were born in critical reaction to Vedic traditions. Some scholars have suggested that existing spiritual traditions in Magadha — the belief in rebirth and karma, for instance, was absorbed into Brahmanism (a precursor to Hinduism), Buddhism, and Jainism. [4]

Born Siddhartha Gautama in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal, the exact date of the Buddha’s birth is not known, but scholarly consensus dates his death around c. 400 B.C.E. [5] The Buddha’s teachings offered people a new path to salvation that was different from the ritual-based practices of the Vedic religion. You can read about Brahmanic Hinduism and Buddhism, including the life of the historic Buddha, jatakas , and the Buddha’s teachings here .

Buddhist monastic sites were adorned with narrative panels that celebrated the life of the Buddha — first in aniconic form and later in iconic form — as well as with a wealth of sculptural representations of men, women, animals, architecture, plants, and nature spirits, including yakshis (female goddesses), yakshas (male gods), and mithuna (couples) in a nod to pre-Buddhist traditions of reverence for fertility spirits.

Left: A yakshi and yaksha at Bharhut stupa, 1st century B.C.E., Madhya Pradesh (photo: public domain) Right: Mithuna, Karle Caves, Maharashtra, 2nd century (photo: Photo Dharma, CC BY-2.0).

According to tradition, on his death, the Buddha’s cremated remains were distributed amongst nine clans. These relics came to be deposited in stupas (burial mounds) where they were then worshipped by the Buddha’s followers. By the early centuries of the Common Era, Buddhist sites were found throughout India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (see map 4).


The founder of the Jain religion, Mahavira, is believed to be a contemporary of the Buddha. Like Buddhism, Jainism offered a path to salvation that was unencumbered by ritual. In Jain tradition, the twenty-four Jinas (Sanskrit for “victor”) who have overcome karma (the sum of a person’s actions) through a life of spirituality and goodness serve as role models for Jains and the path to salvation. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth and final Jina.

Left: Head of Jina, 2nd century, Kushan period, Mathura, red mottled sandstone, 8 1/2 x 7 3/16 inches (Cleveland Museum of Art) Right: Jain Svetambara Tirthankara in Meditation, 11th century, Solanki period, marble, 39 inches high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jinas are often shown in the meditative posture — either seated or standing — and emphasize austerity, immobility, and asceticism. Jain sacred imagery also involves images of nature deities as well as gods and goddesses such as Indra and Saraswati who are important deities in Hinduism. Images of the Jina may have the srivatsa (an ancient symbol) marked on their chest (see image on right, above), which distinguishes them from sometimes visually congruent images of the Buddha.

The Mauryas

In c. 326 B.C.E., Alexander of Macedonia invaded the Indian subcontinent. Alexander reached as far as the river Beas in present-day Punjab, India (see map 3) before he was forced to acquiesce the exhaustion of his army and their wish to return home. Alexander’s incursions had a lasting impact on South Asian history. One of his generals, Seleucus Nicator, would become the ruler of the Seleucid Empire which stretched from Anatolia to Afghanistan and Pakistan, including parts of the Indus Valley. Seleucus’s ambitions for more territory was curbed, however, by Chandragupta of the Maurya dynasty.

Pillar capital from Pataliputra, the capital of the Maurya dynasty in Bihar, c. 3rd century B.C.E., Patna Museum (photo: Nalanda001, CC BY-SA-4.0). Very little survives from the Mauryan period.

A treatise on war and diplomacy composed by the minister Kautilya in Chandragupta’s court offers a remarkable glimpse into the Mauryan kingdom and its policies. Along with rules for military regiments and economic strategy, this treatise, the Arthashastra , details policies on the exemption of taxes in times of disaster, guidelines for the use of state resources for the care of elephants and horses, and the protection of natural resources such as forests.

Much of Chandragupta’s life is misted by legend. What is certain is that he was a formidable ruler and warrior and that the Maurya kingdom under his rule was a prosperous one. Chandragupta’s son Bindusura maintained his father’s territorial gains, but his life too is poorly documented in contemporary accounts. According to tradition, Chandragupta converted to Jainism at the end of his life.

We have far more information about Chandragupta’s grandson, the emperor Ashoka. Ashoka too was a formidable ruler, but he vowed to rule, later in life, through non-violent means in adherence with the teachings of the Buddha. Ashoka helped spread Buddhism across the entire Indian subcontinent with the installation of pillars that proclaimed dhamma (Buddhist law). In addition to Buddhist philosophy, these edicts also detailed state provisions on social welfare for both people and animals.

Map 3: Distribution of Emperor Ashoka’s edicts, 3rd century B.C.E. Pillar inscription from Sarnath (public domain) Ashokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar (photo: Bpilgrim, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Ashokan edicts have been found (see map 3) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and often in the language associated with the people who lived in those areas. Pillars were inscribed in Prakrit in the Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts, Greek, and Aramaic, as well as in bilingual scripts. While we have not found Ashokan edicts in Sri Lanka, it is believed that Buddhism also spread to the island during Ashoka’s reign in the third century B.C.E. More edicts are likely to be discovered in the future a team of archaeologists at UCLA is using geographic modeling to help accomplish just that.

Buddhist Monastic Sites

Ashokan pillar near Sanchi stupa, c. 3rd century B.C.E., Madhya Pradesh (photo: Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY-3.0)

A now broken Ashokan pillar at the great stupa at Sanchi, a Buddhist complex associated with the patronage of the emperor, was retained when the stupa was expanded to twice its size and faced with stone in the first century B.C.E. Stupas are quintessential monuments to the memory of the Buddha and are burial mounds for the relics of other important persons. Stupas were often built in the midst of large monastic settlements known as samgha(s) .

As Buddhism spread, monastic complexes were established in sites in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. The stupa of Jetavanaramaya is located in one of the oldest known samghas in Sri Lanka, and dates to the third century C.E. It is believed, however, that the oral Buddhist canon was written down during the reign of Sri Lankan king Vatthagamini (29 – 17 B.C.E.). [6] Other examples of well-known and early Buddhist sites include Amaravati, Bharhut, and Nagarjunakonda in India, Takht-i-bahi in Pakistan, and Mes Aynak in Afghanistan (see map 4).

Map 4: Select Buddhist rock-cut caves, stupas, and monasteries. Clockwise from left: Rock-cut chaitya, c. 120, Karle (photo: Kevin Standage, CC BY-SA-2.0) Sanchi stupa, c. 3rd century B.C.E., Madhya Pradesh (photo: Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY-3.0) Takht-i-Bahi Buddhist monastery, 2nd century (photo: Asif Nawaz, CC BY-SA-3.0) Buddha, 5th c, sandstone, Sarnath (The British Museum) Fragment of a dome slab showing the worship of the aniconic Buddha from Amaravati stupa, 2nd century, Andhra Pradesh (The British Museum).

Monastic sites often show multiple phases of construction spanning centuries, indicating the sustained patronage and popularity of Buddhism. Nagarjunakonda, in particular, also preserves a record of the expanding footprint of monastic complexes with its multiple stupas, prayer halls, temples, and housing accommodations.

Buddhist sites regularly received the patronage of both Buddhist and Hindu kings, as well as that of ordinary people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, merchants, and travelers. Sanchi is remarkable for the information it preserves on ordinary people. Inscribed on the great stupa are 631 donative inscriptions that tell us about the people — from merchants to monks to nuns — who contributed to the reconstruction and beautification of the stupa in the first century B.C.E. [7]

Great Stupa at Sanchi, 3rd century – 1st century B.C.E., Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh (photo: AyushDwivedi1947, CC BY-SA 4.0 Tushar Pokle, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The stupa’s four extraordinary gateways (torana), once carried six images each of yakshis. These figures served as architectural brackets and as symbols of fertility — in obeisance to the auspicious quality associated with images of women on sacred structures. [8]

Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Sanchi, and countless other Buddhist monastic complexes were built at crossroads and close to trade-routes across the Indian subcontinent. This allowed monasteries to be of service to weary travelers and adhere to the Buddha’s instruction on the importance of sharing his teachings far and wide.

Buddhist samghas (monastic complexes) were also established in rock-cut caves. There are a large number of Buddhist rock-cut monastic caves in India — ranging from elaborately decorated to simply appointed. Caves hold a special significance in Buddhist tradition according to Buddhist belief, when the Hindu god Indra went to visit the Buddha, he found him meditating in a cave.

Some of the most elaborate rock-cut caves are found at Ajanta and are dated to the fifth century of the Common Era, while a less embellished but no less stunning (rock-cutting is no easy task!) monastic complex can be found in the Barabar caves, dated to the third century B.C.E., in Bihar. The facade of the Lomas Rishi cave (image below) displays one of the earliest known representations of the “chaitya-arch” — an ornamented ogee shaped arch that replicated wooden construction in stone and became a commonly used feature in Buddhist rock-cut architecture in India. While the cave complex at Barabar belonged to an ascetic community known as the Ajivikas rather than the Buddhists, nearby inscriptions indicate that this community enjoyed the patronage of emperor Ashoka.

Entrance to the Lomas Rishi cave, Barabar, 3rd century B.C.E. (photo: Photo Dharma, CC BY-2.0)

On occasion, rock-cut caves and sculpture preserve glimpses of older architectural traditions. In the caves of Karle, Maharashtra, for instance, we find the original wooden beams from the first century B.C.E. the use of wood (see inset in map 4, above) in the ceiling ribs was a purely decorative choice that imitated the style of wooden Buddhist chaityas (Buddhist chapels) .

The adornment of rock-cut caves followed the same temporal progression of representing the Buddha — i.e., from aniconic (as emblems) to iconic (in human form) . Whereas earlier Buddhist sites employed anionic symbols such as parasols, footprints, and even stupas to signify the presence of the Buddha, in time, representational imagery of the Buddha became the norm. The image below from Sanchi stupa shows an episode from the Buddha’s life known as the Great Departure. It represents the moment when the Buddha left his life in the palace for good.

The Great Departure, Sanchi stupa, eastern gateway, 1st century B.C.E. (photo: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY 2.0)

The parasols (shown in pink) indicate the Buddha’s movement from left to right. Once the Buddha disembarks at his destination and the horse returns to the palace, the Buddha’s absence on the horse is signaled by the absence of the parasol. The parasol remains with the Buddha who is now signified by a set of footprints. Also note how as the Buddha proceeded quietly into the night, the attendants helped carry the horse!

Rock-cut caves at Ajanta showing a solid stupa (left) and a stupa with the image of the Buddha (right), c. 2nd century B.C.E. to 5th century C.E., Aurangabad (photos: Arathi Menon, CC BY-SA-NC-4.0)

In general, in earlier rock-cut sites, we find stupas made of solid-rock serving as aniconic emblems of the Buddha and the focus of devotion. In later rock-cut chaityas, an image of the iconic Buddha was attached to the solid stupa (see image above), or the stupa was replaced altogether by the image of the Buddha. Y ou can read about the complex ways in which the Buddha was portrayed in art here.

Despite the popularity of Buddhism in the centuries around the start of the Common Era, other religions continued to thrive. Two important Sanskrit Hindu epics — the Mahabharata and the Ramayana , for instance, are thought to have been composed in c. 300 B.C.E. — 300 C.E. and 200 B.C.E. — 200 C.E. respectively. [9]

The Kushans

Between the second century B.C.E. and the third century C.E., the Kushan empire became a dominant force in the northwestern part of the subcontinent. The Kushans were active in both sea and land trade and had capitals in Kapisa (near Kabul, Afghanistan), Peshawar, Pakistan and in Mathura, India. Kushan territory under the rule of the third emperor Kanishka (2nd century C.E.) also included, in addition to north India, what is today parts of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Map 5: Select sites and areas of historical importance, 6th century B.C.E. — 5th century C.E.

T wo types of iconic Buddha images were produced during the Kushan period — the Gandharan and the Mathuran Buddhas — distinguishable by both style and medium. Just as Mathuran Buddhas followed the style of local sculptural traditions, in Gandhara, images of the Buddha followed a Greco-Roman aesthetic, thanks in part to the presence of plentiful Hellenistic imagery and Macedonian and Parthian influences in the region.

Left: Standing Buddha, c. 2nd – 3rd century, Mathura style, Government Museum Mathura (photo: Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY-3.0) Right: Buddha, possibly from Takht-i-bahi monastery, 3rd century, Gandhara style (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Coin of Kanishka, c. 130, ancient region of Gandhara, Pakistan (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Kushan emperor Kanishka is considered second only to Ashoka for his contribution to Buddhism. He is credited with the building of an enormous stupa (reportedly somewhere between 295 and 690 feet high) with multiple stories and thirteen copper umbrellas. Only the foundation of the building — itself 286 feet long — survives today in Shahji-ki-Dheri, outside Peshawar, Pakistan. [10] A gold coin has survived that was minted during Kanishka’s reign and likely shows that ruler.

Hundreds of ivory and bone furniture pieces, figurines, and a large number of practical and extravagant wares, produced in South Asia and as far away as China, Rome, and Roman-Egypt, dated to the Kushan period, have been discovered in Begram, Afghanistan. These objects tell us about the kinds of goods that travelled the Silk Road in the first and second centuries. By the second century, Buddhism had also travelled and spread farther east to Central Asia and China via these same routes. The earliest known translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese is dated to the second century C.E.

Ivory figurine, Begram, Afghanistan, 1st century (photo: JC Merriman, CC BY-2.0)

The golden age

By the early centuries of the first millennium, the Vedic religion had evolved into the Hindu religion. While a core tenet of Hinduism — the concept of the Brahman (omnipresent consciousness) — had already been formulated in the Upanishads, many of the gods and goddesses that we see in Hindu art are found in the Puranas (ancient stories) that were composed in this period.

Vishnu, 5th century, Gupta period, Mathura, red sandstone, 109 x 67 x 22 cm, National Museum, New Delhi (photo: Jen, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The rise of the Gupta dynasty (c. 320 – 647) marked an important time for art, architecture, and literature. It was also a period of strong global trade scholars believe that the Gupta sculptural and temple-building style can be found in the early medieval remnants of Buddhist and Hindu art and architecture in Southeast Asia. A coin shows king Samudragupta, one of the Gupta dynasty’s most successful rulers and one who greatly expanded the dynasty’s power and territories. The inclusion of a goddess on the reverse side of the coin implies divine kingship in an effort to suggest that the king’s rule was mandated by the gods.

Coin showing the ruler Samudragupta (left) and a goddess (right), 330 – 376 C.E., gold (The British Museum)

Some of the most celebrated writers and composers of drama, poetry, and prose, lived in this period — Kālidāsa and Bānabhatta, among them. The number zero was invented as were Arabic numerals, which were referred to by Arabs as hindisat (“the Indian art”). This was also the era of great scientists the astronomer Aryabhata in the sixth century calculated the solar year at 365.3586805 days and theorized that the earth rotated on its own axis. [11]

Standing Buddha, 5th century, Gupta period, Mathura, Mathura Museum (photo: Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY-2.0)

It was also during the Gupta period that a new type of Buddha image — the Gupta Buddha emerged. Buddha images in this period continued to be produced in Mathura, but also in Sarnath and in Nalanda (see map 4). Each area had access to quarries of a specific type of stone which have helped art historians determine where an image may have been produced.

Hindu art and architecture also flourished in the Gupta period. One of the most famous religious sites associated with the Guptas is the Udayagiri complex of rock-cut caves in Madhya Pradesh (see map 5). The Udayagiri Caves are made up of twenty caves, nineteen of which are dedicated to Hindu gods and date to the fourth and fifth centuries. There is also one Jain cave that is dated to the early fifth century.

Vishnu as the avatar Varaha rescuing Bhudevi, the goddess earth, Udayagiri cave no. 5, 5th century, Gupta period, Madhya Pradesh (photo: Asitjain, CC BY-SA-3.0)

Throughout the Gupta period, regional kingdoms led by independent rulers prospered. In most instances, there was also an easy relationship between the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religions as an example, the famous Buddhist rock-cut caves at Ajanta in Aurangabad enjoyed the patronage of the Hindu Vakataka dynasty.

In contemporaneous South India, the culturally cohesive region known as Tamilakam (see map 5) produced a valuable set of texts known as Sangam (old Tamil for “academy”) literature. These texts were composed in the old Tamil language and are rich in information on ancient South Indian kings, religious devotion, temple building, daily life, and even grammar.

Bhitargaon temple, 5th century, Gupta period, Uttar Pradesh (Ankitshilu, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Structural Hindu temples were also built in this period, although the choice of brick and other more perishable construction materials has meant that most have not survived. An exception is the brick temple at Bhitargaon in Uttar Pradesh (north India) which is dated to the mid-fifth century (see above). The style and the skill of the architects and builders of Bhitargaon, as well as of Deogarh — a sixth-century structural stone temple also in Uttar Pradesh — suggests that a highly developed tradition of temple building was present by this point in time.

In fifth century Sri Lanka, a ruler named Kassapa built an extraordinary palace fortress atop a hill in his new capital. The site gets its name — Sigiriya — after “lion rock,” thanks to its enormous gateway in the form of a lion, of which only giant paws built from brick survive (see inset in map 6). Kassapa’s palace once included gardens and lakes and dozens, perhaps hundreds of mural figures of women that have been interpreted by scholars as either apsaras (heavenly beings) or ladies-in-waiting. Roughly 22 figures remain today.

Map 6: Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, 5th century C.E. clockwise from left: Lion gateway (Cherubino, CC BY-SA 3.0), mural painting of female figures (Brian Ralphs, CC BY-2.0), and view of the Sigiriya fortress (Teseum, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Also at Sigiriya is a gallery known as the mirror wall (once a wall with polished plaster) as well as 685 instances of graffiti dating between the eighth and the tenth centuries. [12] Aside from its association with its patron king, Sigiriya is an important site in the history of Buddhism and is mentioned in the Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicle the Culavamsa.

Trade and exchange

Ivory statuette found in Pompeii, c. 1st century C.E. (Museo Archeologico Napoli)

Before we move on to the next section of this three-part introduction to South Asia, a word is necessary on the region’s long history of contact and exchange with other parts of the world. The Gupta period enjoyed trade with Southeast Asia and even older networks of trade existed along the Silk Road and in the Indian Ocean. Scholars have also suggested that trade brought beads and precious stones from the Indus Valley to Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium B.C.E.

In the first century of the Common Era, a Greek sailor wrote the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea — a text that provides remarkable details on thriving trade by sea and by land in the Indian Ocean. We learn of routes, the best times to travel, the monsoon winds and their impact on sea travel, the commodities that were traded, the money exchanged, and more .

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder similarly records valuable information in his Historia Naturalis from the year 77 C.E. He reported, for instance, on which pirate-filled ports to avoid in western India and wrote somewhat sardonically of his disdain for his fellow Romans’ obsession with pepper and luxury goods.

Buddhist sites also acknowledge the cosmopolitan milieu of ancient South Asia. At a rock-cut cave in Karle (see map 4), inscriptions dating to the early second century C.E. record gifts of stone pillars by yavanas (foreigners). Roman coins from the first and second centuries have also been found in Nagarjunakonda, as well as near the ancient port town of Muziris in Kerala. In addition, Roman amphorae have been found in the archaeological site of Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu (see map 5).

As Pliny tells us, much also travelled abroad. The most famous of all objects to travel to Rome was an ivory figurine of a woman. A little under ten inches tall, this astonishing figurine with hair and jewelry much like that of the women carved on the toranas at Sanchi somehow survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 C.E. and was discovered in the ashes of Pompeii.

[1] Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), 37.

[2] R.U.S. Prasad, The Rig-Vedic and Post-Rig-Vedic Polity (1500 B.C.E. – 500 B.C.E.) (Delaware: Vernon Press, 2015), 107.

[3] Patrick Olivelle The early Upanisads: annotated text and translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 12.

[4] Johannes Bronkhorst, Greater Magadha: studies in the culture of early India (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 15 – 54.

[5] Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), 40.

[6] Vidya Dehejia, “On Modes of Visual Narration in Early Buddhist Art,” The Art Bulletin 72, no. 3 (1990): 376.

[8] Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), 65 – 66.

[9] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: an Alternative History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 693.

[10] Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), 85.

[12] Joanna Williams, “Construction of Gender in the Paintings and Graffiti of Sigiriya,” in Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art, Vidya Dehejia ed. (New York: Kali for Women, 1997), 56.

Additional resources

Catherine B. Asher and Cynthia Talbot, India before Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Frederick M. Asher, “Visual Culture of the Indian Ocean: India in a polycentric world,” Diogenes 58/3 (2011): 67 – 84.

Ute Franke, “Baluchistan and the Borderlands,” in Encyclopedia of archaeology, Deborah M. Pearsall ed. (San Diego: Elsevier/Academic Press, c2008).

J. Mark Kenoyer, T. Douglas Price, and James H. Burton, “A new approach to tracking connections between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia: initial results of strontium isotope analyses from Harappa and Ur,” Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013): 2286 – 2297.

Paul J. Kosmin, Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Yasodhar Mathpal, Prehistoric rock paintings of Bhimbetka, Central India (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1984).

Partha Mitter, Indian Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jan Nattier, A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Traditions: Texts from the Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms Periods (Tokyo: The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, 2008).

Patrick Olivelle and Mark McClish, ed. and trans.,The Arthaśāstra: selections from the classic Indian work on statecraft (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2012).

Monica L. Smith, Thomas W. Gillespie, Scott Barron and Kanika Kalra, “Finding history: the locational geography of Ashokan inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent,” Antiquity 90 (April 2016): 376 – 392.

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  1. Jaith

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  3. Tzvi

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