BMCR 2020.07.11

Geopolitics in late antiquity: the fate of superpowers from China to Rome

, Geopolitics in late antiquity: the fate of superpowers from China to Rome. Routledge studies in ancient history. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2018. 130 p.. ISBN 9781138292550 £115.00.

This short book deals with two topics that would each warrant a book-length study: the impact of the Huns on Eurasian history and a vindication of geopolitics as historiographical concept. In spite of this, the book is an easy read. The author argues his points with passion, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

There is no doubt that Hyun Jin Kim is among the foremost scholars of Hunnic studies.[1] In this book, he focuses on core aspects of the Huns’ contacts with the three empires that dominated parts of the Eurasian world during late antiquity: China, Persia, and Rome. While he does not explore these relationships in full detail, he does use his broad knowledge to write two brief, but stimulating chapters. First, he outlines the geopolitical situation defined by the relationships between these superpowers and the Huns. In doing this, he outlines each of the empires’ initial responses to the sudden emergence of a new threat: both China and Persia suffered humiliating military defeats and paid tributes afterwards. Rome was driven into a deep crisis, as it had to face an alternative to its geopolitical hegemony. Second, he sketches the reactions of the three Eurasian empires to the Hunnic challenge in three subchapters: “China strikes back”, “Rome falters”, and “Persia collapse”. China became more daring and proved successful against the Xiongnu (who were weakened by internal divisions). Rome, by contrast, was not able to find a workable geostrategic answer to the challenge posed by the Huns. Disputing the traditional account, Kim argues that the Huns pursued a consistent policy that did not aim at the destruction of Rome, but rather expected it to accept Hunnic overlordship and the payment of tribute. However, the Romans played foul and broke treaties with the Huns without being able to overcome them. The Persian kings tried to recast their legitimacy, but only the successes of the Turks against Huns in Central Asia provided relief to the Persians. They did not use this opportunity effectively, however, but were defeated by the Byzantines and Arabs. As previously noted in several reviews, these two chapters are marred by simplifications and factual errors in details.[2] Many scholars consider the short-lived Hunnic empire to be much less stable than Kim does, but there is no doubt that these pages contain exciting ideas.

The second topic of this book is geopolitics, a theoretical concept Kim utilizes to connect late antiquity and contemporaneous history. He seems intent upon offering modern Chinese and American politicians models for understanding global hegemony. His main theoretical basis is a highly controversial book by J.J. Grygiel.[3] Geopolitics is an extremely contentious (political/historical) concept as it was a key idea shaping the Nazi ideology of foreign policy. Kim, while aware of this problem, downplays it in order to justify his reliance on the concept, stating that Hitler was a poor practitioner of geopolitics (2)—in my view, this remark is simply cynical. There may be useful applications of the theory of geopolitics (although in my view it is reductionist), but in order to use this concept effectively, its misuse in other contexts must be examined in a more nuanced manner. Yet, Kim does not appear to be concerned with the moral dimension of foreign policy in general: after recommending that the US should come to terms with Putin in order to fight China and contain Iran, he confesses: “Geostrategy … cannot and should not be guided/determined by personal sentiments, political preference and even strictly moral considerations” (104). There is no doubt that such attitudes, which were fairly popular in the 1920s, are fashionable nowadays as well. While such analyses present a veneer of “realism” and “objectivity,” they fundamentally ignore the complexities of political decisions, which must be based on many factors including moral considerations—if only because otherwise governments will lose legitimacy in both the domestic and the international spheres. Historians should be aware of the existence and impact of humanitarian attitudes even if they do not share them. But this is certainly also an issue of Weltanschauung.

From a purely scholarly point of view, Kim’s approach to geopolitics lacks complexity and nuance. There are good theories for conducting historical comparisons, e.g. by Jürgen Osterhammel. Scholars must take into account that whatever they compare is fluid and, then have to indicate the axes of comparison and identify and employ patterns of similarity and difference. Kim, however, takes his readers through a wild ride of possible parallels between late antiquity and the modern world. Expressions such as “reminiscent,” “similar,” and “reminds of” are in abundance. For example, the defeats of the Sasanians against the Huns are “reminiscent of the state of China after the catastrophic fall of Maoism and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe” (74). The communist party, Kim argues, had to replace Maoism. The Sassanian answer to a similar problem was to recast and rebrand their legitimacy by reinventing history (74), etc. To give another example: “If the Hunnic Empire was arguably the geopolitical equivalent of the ‘Soviet Union’ in Late Antiquity, then the Eastern Roman Empire was arguably the ‘US’ of that era” (54)—but should a geopolitical analysis not take into account that the US was beyond the Atlantic (or the Pacific) from the perspective of the Soviet Union? Kim neglects or downplays conceptual problems like this. To complete his analogy, Kim compares France to the Western Roman Empire because “it actively tried to go its own way” (55f.). What Kim never addresses, however, is whether such comparisons have actual explanatory value or how they are more than arbitrary associations.

I did not find any methodological reflection about the outlined comparisons that meets the prevailing standards of contemporary social science. If history is written and analyzed in this one-dimensional way, it lends itself to misuse. Simplifications dominate many political debates today. Historians, however, are trained to think in a multifaceted way. If they want to be taken more seriously than spin doctors, they should not abandon the complexity of their reasoning.


[1] E.g. The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, The Huns, London: Routledge, 2016.

[2] Mischa Meier in: sehepunkte 19 (2019), Nr. 9 [15.09.2019]; Christian Michel in: H-Soz-Kult 18.11.2019.

[3] Jakub J. Grygiel, Great Powers and Geopolitical Change, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. However, some of Grygiel’s conclusions are criticised by Kim himself.