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Central Asia

What's in a Name - Xionites

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 23 December 2018

From the fourth century AD, a wave of barbarian groups swept into eastern Iran - a region which sees the eastern edged of modern Iran meeting the southern limits of Central Asia and the northern parts of South Asia, much of which today is part of Afghanistan, but which also includes areas of Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

These barbarians probably saw their opportunity which had been presented by the decline of the mighty Kushan empire and then also of its successor, the Kushanshahs. Eastern Iran was ripe for the picking. Various characteristics of these barbarians, though, have presented scholars both ancient and modern with more than a few questions. One of those relates to the name which is generally used to group them together.

That name - Xionites (Chionites) - is the one most associated with this fresh wave of migrant warriors and their families, and one which has created the speculation that they are related to the Huns of Europe.

They were certainly the Huna or Hunas of India, but Hindu texts seem to class all Xionites as Huna without providing any differentiation between specific groups. European writers are kinder, with at least one of them - Ammianus Marcellinus - even visiting Bactria around AD 357.

He uses this term - Chionitae - in his work (Volume XVI (ix 4)). This may be related to the Iranian term, Xyōn (the source of Xionite), and also parallels the Sogdian 'xwn' which, in the Avesta text, was used to describe the arch-enemies of the king, Kay Wishtaspa of the land of Aryana Vaejah, who supported Zoroaster in the spread of his message of Zoroastrianism. However, this was in the sixth century BC - far too early to be meant specifically for the Xionites but perhaps in use as a more generalised Indo-Iranian label for barbarian groups.

Chinese sources certainly linked the Xionite tribes both to the Xiongnu and to the Huns who later invaded and settled in Europe.

Name breakdown

In all likelihood the original Turkic-Mongolian 'Huns', were a division of the Xiongnu or their remnants following divisions in the third and fourth centuries AD.

While the Huns which entered Europe kept themselves apart, the division which became the Xionites almost certainly became admixed with the still-dominant Indo-Iranians and may even have adopted Indo-Iranian culture wholesale. That makes it easier to explore the meaning behind 'Xionite'.

The root of 'Xyōn' may be a word meaning 'to rule', so 'rulers of lords' could be its true meaning.

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

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

One Old Iranian dictionary (the Old Iranian Online dictionary of Avestan, which is available online) supplies several words which seem to be related: [1]

  • xšaθrā - noun; instrumental singular neuter 'xšaθra-', meaning 'power'
    Source: Old Avestan, Yasna 30 - a gatha about reward and punishment
  • xšaθrəm - noun; accusative singular neuter 'xšaθra-', meaning 'power'
    Source: Old Avestan, Yasna 53 - a gatha (in the form of a wedding song)
    Source: Old Avestan, Yasna 30 - a gatha about reward and punishment
  • xšaθrəm-cā - noun; accusative singular neuter 'xšaθra-', meaning 'power' + conjunction; 'ca', 'and'
    Source: Old Avestan, Yasna 29 (continued)
  • xšaθrəm-cā - noun; nominative singular neuter 'xšaθra-', meaning 'power' + conjunction; 'ca', 'and'
    Source: Old Avestan, Yasna 29 (continued)
  • xšayantō - present participle active; nominative plural masculine 'xšaya', meaning 'ruling'
    Source: Old Avestan, Yasna 29, a gatha entitled the Cow's Lament

Spellings are fairly arbitrary; one should always sound out the word and feel for the variances of dialect which may exist.

The last of those examples is especially telling. The use of 'ruling' or 'power' in barbarian titles or names was usually key to confirming who was the top dog. In this case it was the Xionites, the 'ruling power'.

Another Old Iranian dictionary (the online dictionary of most common AVESTA words) gives the verb: xshi [-] (v. rt.) can (ahm178); meaning 'to govern, to rule'. The pronunciation of the beginning appears to be KSH.

For a culture with no 'sh' sound, the process of making a written recording of that name would result in the use of a 'ks' sound, which would be written as an 'x', but not the hard 'x' of x-ray. This is a softer sound, more of a 'shh' sound but with the harsher click of a 'k' at its beginning which Ammianus Marcellinus chose to depict as Chionitae - Xionite.

[1] A gatha or gāthā is a Sanskrit term for 'song' or 'verse', which refers especially to any poetic metre used in legends.


Main Sources

Blockley R C - The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Francis Cairns, Oxford, 1983

Cereti, C G - Xiiaona- and Xyôn in Zoroastrian Texts, in Coins, Art, and Chronology II, Michael Alram & Deborah E Klimburg-Salter, Eds, 2010

Conant, Jonathan - Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Jongeward D, & Cribb J - Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins, American Numismatic Society, 2015

Kaldellis, Anthony - Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012

Kitagawa, Joseph - The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Routledge, 2013

Larson, Gerald James - India's Agony Over Religion, State University of New York Press, 1995

Rezakhani, Khodadad - King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE - 651 CE), Touraj Daryaee, Ed, Ancient Iran Series Vol IV, 2017

Online Sources

Dictionary of most common AVESTA words

History of the Wars, Procopius (Wikisource)

Kidarites (Encyclopaedia Iranica)

Old Iranian Online - Avestan: Master Glossary

Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus (full surviving text via the Tertullian Project)



Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.