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Asia in 400 AD, showing the Xionites and their neighbors.

Xionites, Chionites, or Chionitae (Middle Persian: Xiyōn or Hiyōn; Avestan: Xiiaona; Sogdian xwn; Pahlavi Xyon) are Romanisations of the ethnonym of a nomadic people who were prominent in Transoxania, Bactria and Iran during the 4th and 7th centuries CE.[1]


The Xionites appear to be synonymous with the Huna peoples of classical/medieval India,[2] and possibly also the Huns of European late antiquity. It is unclear whether the Xionites were connected to a people named in Ancient China as the Xunyu (Hünyü 獯鬻; Wade–Giles Hsünyü), Xianyun 猃狁 (Wade–Giles Hsien-yün) and Xiongnu (匈奴 Wade–Giles Hsiung-nu). (While some sources use names such as Hunas, Huns and Xiongnu interchangeably, this remains controversial.)

They were first described by the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, who was in Bactria during 356-57 CE; he described the Chionitæ as living with the Kushans.[3] Ammianus indicates that the Xionites had previously lived in Transoxiana and, after entering Bactria, became vassals of the Kushans, were influenced culturally by them and had adopted the Bactrian language. They had attacked the Sassanid Empire,[1][4] but later (led by a chief named Grumbates), served as mercenaries in the Sassanian army.

Within the Xionites, there seem to have been two main subgroups, which were known in the Iranian languages by names such as Karmir Xyon and Spet Xyon. The prefixes karmir ("red") and speta ("white") likely refer to Central Asian traditions in which particular colours symbolised the cardinal points. The Karmir Xyon were known in European sources as the Kermichiones or "Red Huns", and some scholars have identified them with the Kidarites and/or Alchon. The Spet Xyon or "White Huns" appear to have been the known in India by the cognate name Sveta-huna, and are often identified, controversially, with the Hephtalites.


Origins and cultureEdit

Hephthalite horseman on British Museum bowl, 460-479 CE.[5]

The original culture of the Xionites and their geographical urheimat are uncertain. They appear to have originally followed animist religious beliefs,[citation needed] which mixed later with varieties of Buddhism[citation needed] and Shaivism.[citation needed] It is difficult to determine their ethnic composition.[1]

Ancient Greek and Roman sources, such as Simocatta, Menander and Priscus, appear to distinguish between the Xionites and the Hephthalites. However, modern scholars, such as Richard Nelson Frye (1991), believe that the Hepthalites were a prominent subgroup of Xionites.[6]

The theory that the Xionites were a proto-Turkic or para-Turkic people was expressed by Sir Harold Walter Bailey (1932). Bailey wrote that the "Xyon" mentioned in "Pahlavi and Avestan texts... would appear to be... an enemy of the Iranian people in Avestan times, transferred later to the Huns owing to similarity of sound, as Tur was adapted to Turk in Pahlavi". Bailey suggested that "three divisions" of the "Xyon ... seem to be recognized", namely "the Turks, the Karmir (Red) Xyon, and the White Xyon."[7]

Differences between the Xionites, the Huns who invaded Europe in the 4th century, and the Turks were emphasised by Carlile Aylmer Macartney (1944), who suggested that the name "Chyon", originally that of an unrelated people, was "transferred later to the Huns owing to the similarity of sound". The Chyon who appeared in the 4th century, in the steppes on the northeastern frontier of Persia were probably a branch of the Huns that appeared shortly afterwards in Europe. The Huns appear to have attacked and conquered the Alans, then living between the Urals and the Volga about 360 AD, and the first mention of the Chyon was in 356 AD.[8] Macartney also considered that the name Chyon was later "replaced by that of the... Kidarite Huns". (However, he also claimed, erroneously, that "the Kidarites were... identical with the Kushan", when the Kushan Empire had been destroyed by the Xionites and/or Hunas in the mid-4th Century.) Macartney also considered the question of the identity of the Karmir Xyon or Kermichiones, saying that that they could not have been "the true Turks" (the Gokturks, who appear to have entered history on the western steppe, when "their embassy reached Constantinople... in 568". Macartney adds that the Khagan of the Turks at the time was Silzabul, Dizabul or Istämi, but the ruler of the Karmir Xyon was Askílt (Aσκήλτ, often romanised as Scultor). "Neither can they have been the Juan Juan [Rouran]... nor the Epthalites [Hephthalites], who were well known to the Byzantines and would not have been described in this way. Moreover, the Epthalites were [sometimes] known as White Huns, and... Karmir Xyon, meaning Red Chyon, occurs in a Pahlavi text in juxtaposition with Spet Xyon, White Chyon".[citation needed]

At least some Turkic tribes were involved in the formation of the Xionites, despite their later character as an Eastern Iranian people, according to Richard Nelson Frye (1991): "Just as later nomadic empires were confederations of many peoples, we may tentatively propose that the ruling groups of these invaders were, or at least included, Turkic-speaking tribesmen from the east and north, although most probably the bulk of the people in the confederation of Chionites... spoke an Iranian language.... This was the last time in the history of Central Asia that Iranian-speaking nomads played any role; hereafter all nomads would speak Turkic languages".[9]

The proposition that the Xionites probably originated as an Iranian tribe was put forward by Wolfgang Felix in Encyclopedia Iranica (1992).[1]

A suggestion that they were originally a Hunnish people who had mixed with Iranian tribes in Transoxiana and Bactria, where they adopted the Kushan-Bactrian language, was put forward by AS Shahbazi (2005).[4]

The Xionites may have originated as a confederation of Proto-Turkic and/or Proto-Mongolian tribes that collectively adopted Eastern Iranian languages and cultural practices, according to Peter B. Golden (2005).[10]



Portrait of Kidarites king Kidara, circa 350-386 AD.[11]

Xionite campaigns are better documented in connection with the history of Central Asia, particularly during the second half of the 4th century AD until the mid-5th century AD.

They organised themselves into Northern "Black" (beyond the Jaxartes), Kidarites or Southern "Red" (in Hindu Kush south of the Oxus), Eastern "Blue" (in Tianshan), and Western Hephthalites or "White" (around Khiva) hordes. Artefacts found from the area they inhabited dating from their period indicate their totem animal seems to have been the (rein)deer. An inscription on the walls of the royal palace in Persepolis about Darius's empire calls them Hunae. It appears that a combination of both the Battle of Ikh Bayan and Ban Chao's efforts are responsible for their first appearance in the West. The Armenian historian Moses of Khorene (5th century), introduces the Hunni near the Sarmatians and goes on to describe how they captured the city of Balkh (Armenian Kush) sometime between 194 and 214 .[12]

According to the Armenian sources their capital was at Balkh (Armenian: Kush).

At the end of the 4th century AD, a new wave of Hunnic tribes (Alchon) invaded Bactria, pushing the Kidarites into Gandhara.[13]


Artificial cranial deformation is suggested by a portrait of Khingila, king of the Alchon c. 430 - 490 AD.[14]

Alchon or Alχon became the new name of the Xionites in 460,[citation needed] when Khingila I united the Uar with the Xionites under his Hephthalite ruling élite.[citation needed]

At the end of the 5th century the Alchon invaded northern India where they became known as the Huna.[citation needed] In India the Alchon were not distinguished from their immediate Hephthalite predecessors,[citation needed] and both are known as Sveta-Hunas there.[citation needed] Perhaps complimenting this term, Procopius (527-565) wrote that they were white skinned,[citation needed] had an organized kingship, and that their life was not wild/nomadic but that they lived in cities.

Although the power of the Alchon in Bactria was shattered in the 560's by a combination of Sassanid and proto-Turkic forces, the last Hephthal king Narana/Narendra managed to maintain some kind of rule between 570 and 600 AD over the 'nspk' or 'napki' or 'nezak' tribes that remained after most of the Alchon had fled to the west, where they became known as the Avars.[citation needed]

The Alchon were called Varkhon or Varkunites[dubious ] (Ouar-Khonitai) by Menander Protector (538-582),[citation needed] literally referring to the Uar and Hunnoi. Around 630, Theophylact Simocatta wrote that the European "Avars" were initially composed of two nations, the Uar and the Hunnoi[which?] tribes. He wrote that: "the Barsilt, the Unogurs and the Sabirs were struck with horror ... and honoured the newcomers with brilliant gifts...",[15] when the Avars first arrived in their lands in 555AD.


The Alchon were noted for their distinctive coins, minted in Bactria in the 5th and 6th centuries. The name Khigi, inscribed in Bactrian script on one of the coins, and Narendra on another, have led some scholars[who?] to believe that the Hephthalite Khagans Khingila and Narana were of the AlChoNo tribe.[vague][citation needed] They imitated the earlier style of their Hephthalite predecessors, the Kidarite Hun successors to the Kushans. In particular the Alchon style imitates the coins of Kidarite Varhran I (syn. Kushan Varhran IV).[citation needed]

The earliest coins of the Alchon have several distinctive features: 1) the king’s head is presented in an elongated form to reflect the Alchon practice of head binding; 2) The characteristic bull/lunar tamgha of the Alchon is represented on the obverse of the coins.[16]



Portrait of a Nezak ruler, circa 460-560 CE.

Karmir Xyon & White XyonEdit

H. W. Bailey argues that the Pahlavi name Xyon may be read as the Indian Huna owing to the similarity of sound.[7]In the Avestan tradition (Yts. 9.30-31, 19.87) the Xiiaona were characterized as enemies of Vishtaspa, the patron of Zoroaster.[1] In the later Pahlavi tradition, the Karmir Xyon ("Red Xyon") and Spet Xyon ("White Xyon") are mentioned.[1] The Red Xyon of the Pahlavi tradition (7th century)[17] have been identified by Bailey as the Kermichiones or Ermechiones.[1]

According to Bailey, the Hara Huna of Indian sources are to be identified with the Karmir Xyon of the Avesta.[18] Similarly he identifies the Sveta Huna of Indian sources with the Spet Xyon of the Avesta. While the Hephthalite are not mentioned in Indian sources, they are sometimes also linked to the Spet Xyon (and therefore possibly to the Sveta Huna).

More controversially, the names Karmir Xyon and Spet Xyon are often rendered as "Red Huns" and "White Huns", reflecting speculation that the Xyon were linked to Huns recorded simultaneously in Europe.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Felix, Wolfgang. "CHIONITES". Encyclopædia Iranica Online Edition. Retrieved 2012-09-03. 
  2. ^ Hyun Jin Kim, 2013, The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe, Cambridge UK/New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 5, 36–38.
  3. ^ Original reports on the "Chionitae" by Ammianus Marcellinus:
    Mention with the Euseni/ Cuseni : 16.9.4.
    Mention with the Gelani: 17.5.1.
    Mention with Shapur II: 18.7.21
    Mention at the siege of Amida: 19.2.3 and 19.1.7-19.2.1
  4. ^ British Museum notice
  5. ^ Richard Nelson Frye; "Emperor Ardeshir and the cycle of history"
  6. ^ a b Harold Walter Bailey, Iranian Studies, Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London. BSOAS, vol. 6, No. 4 (1932)
  7. ^ Macartney, C. A. (1944). "On the Greek Sources for the History of the Turks in the Sixth Century". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. School of Oriental and African Studies. 11 (2): 266–75. ISSN 1474-0699. JSTOR 609313 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)). 
  8. ^ Richard Nelson Frye, "Pre-Islamic and early Islamic cultures in Central Asia" in "Turko-Persia in historical perspective", edited by Robert L. Canfield, Cambridge University Press, 1991. pg 49.
  9. ^ Peter B. Golden, 2005 "Turks and Iranians: a cultural sketch", in: Lars Johanson and Christiane Bulut (ed.), Turkic-Iranian Contact Areas: Historical and Linguistic Aspects, Turcologica 62, Wiesbaden, p. 19.
  10. ^ CNG Coins
  11. ^ Chinese
  12. ^ Nomads of the Steppe Archived October 13, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila, Michael Maas p.286
  14. ^ Theophilactus Simocatta, Historiae, -Ed. C. deBoor. Lipsiae, 1887, ps.251, 258
  15. ^ Notes on the Evolution of Alchon Coins, Pankaj Tandon,
  16. ^ "BAHMAN YAŠT" in Encyclopædia Iranica by W. Sundermann
  17. ^ (Bailey, 1954, pp.12-16; 1932, p. 945),

External linksEdit