“The Civilizing Barbarians”

The Civilizing Barbarians: Nomadic Imperial Networks and Trans-Eurasian Circulation in Late Antiquity

Richard Payne


Wall painting depicting Hun ruler dressed in the guise of an Iranian counterpart. Balalyk Tepe (Uzbekistan). 5th-6th c. CE. Google images, after L.I. Al’baum, Balalyk-Tepe (Tashkent 1960).

The arrival of nomadic warriors on the Roman and Iranian frontiers —Huns, Turks, and others— tends to announce destruction and the dismantling of political order in current accounts of late antiquity. The project will argue that the Huns and the Turks established, to varying degrees, imperial formations that brought political stability, economic growth, and commercial dynamism to Central Eurasia, from the Pontic Steppe to the Hindu Kush, bringing Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies and states into ever closer contact with regions once regarded as unimaginably distant. It will do so on the basis of recent archaeological work as well as a reinterpretation of the literary accounts that Roman and Iranian authors produced. The rethinking of nomadic political economies has implications for our understanding of Roman-Iranian interaction with Central Eurasia and of the increased circulation of populations, commodities, and ideas within and across the continent. The project will examine two relevant phenomena in particular: 1) the development of the trans-Eurasian commerce normally studied within the framework of the 'Silk Road' as an aspect of nomadic political economy, with enormous consequences for Roman and Iranian material —and political— culture; and 2) the development of a trans-Eurasian grammar for inter-imperial relations in which elite identities and state claims to sovereignty were becoming recognizable and legible across geographical and cultural frontiers, including those between supposed civilizations and their 'others.'