The Huns: History and Facts

The Huns were groups of nomad horsemen that reigned from 370 AD to around 469 AD. The history of the Huns shows that they were an organized set of barbaric people (as described by the Romans) with unbridled military capabilities. This enabled them to strike fear into the hearts of cities and tribes all the way from Central Asia to Europe.

With great and ambitious leaders such as Rugila and Attila, the Huns were unrelenting in their push into both Eastern Roman and Western Roman Empires. Large swaths of areas along the Roman borders were constantly terrorized by them. Their incursions resulted in the migration (popularly known as the Great Migration) of hordes of culturally and socially diverse tribes into the Roman Empire. This eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Historians maintain that at the peak of their power, they raided all the way to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). But for the timely intervention of Pope Leo I, the Huns would have even made it into the heart of Rome.

Unfortunately for the Huns, civil unrest and power struggle came knocking at their door shortly after Attila’s death around 453. An empire that was once ferocious and thriving ended up collapsing just as fast as it came into existence.

Who were the Huns?

The Huns

Speed and agility were key attributes of the Huns.

The Huns were expert horse riders. Their equestrian skills are what allowed them to swiftly move across the various areas they ransacked. It has been said that they were so good at horse riding that some of them could even sleep while riding.

A typical Hun would have started learning the ropes of horse riding by age 3 or 4. Legend has it that they were trained right from an early age to feel no pain. The towns and cities that lived around them certainly would not have had any kind words about them. For example, the Goths believed that the Huns were the direct descendants of Gothic witches. Goths, as well as the towns on the outskirts of the Eastern Roman Empire, saw the Huns as a reincarnation of bad spirits.

The apparel worn by Hun soldiers was usually simple enough to facilitate rapid movement on their horses. This was a very crucial strategy. Speed and decisiveness were paramount factors in their upbringing. After all, they were a group of nomadic tribes.

The moment they were through with one parcel of land, the Huns moved on to the next. They kept minimal livestock. Neither was farming something that the Huns relied on to meet their food needs. They hunted and gathered in the surrounding areas that they found themselves.

Where did the Huns come from?

Up to this day, historians still struggle to pinpoint the exact place that gave birth to the Huns. Some sections of ancient historians believe that they hailed from the Xiongnu people. The Xiongnu were very skilled nomads that lived in close proximity to Northern China. As a result of this, they had several deadly exchanges with the Chinese during the Qin Dynasty (around the 3rd century A.D.) and the Han Dynasty (around the 4th century AD).

Some historians go as far as saying that the magnificent and very imposing Chinese wall (the Great Wall of China) was to keep nomads such as the Huns away.

Even though it lacked concrete archaeological evidence, the Xiongnu-Hun link gained critical notoriety after Joseph de Guignes proposed it in the 18th century. Christopher Kelly, a critic of Guignes, maintain that Guignes intentionally placed the Huns origin eastward in order to justify why the Huns (the so-called barbaric East) were so brutal to the West (that is Rome).

A contrary theory to Guignes’ proposition is that the Huns came from regions close to the Caspian Sea. Proponents of this origin story maintain that they first gathered around present-day Kazakhstan but later pushed and launched attacks west of Europe.

Ancient Historians’ depictions of the Huns

The reason why the Huns have so many different origin stories is because they were an amalgamation of several tribes. They did not operate like the typical ancient empire. Even though they would eventually have one overarching ruler or king, their leadership was often dominated by a host of tribal chiefs.

What is undoubtedly known is that they rode westward and pillaged everything that was in their path. The ancient historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century), described them as the most beastly of all barbarians with very little civilization. He cited an example where the Huns did not cook their food properly. Rather, they placed the food in between their thighs to warm it up. When they attacked, they did not have a regular pattern. Ammianus described the cries they made while attacking as deafening.

Historian Jordanes (6th Century) evoked the spiritual and supernatural explanation of the Huns. He described them as beasts and savages that were the product of unholy mating between witches and demons. Jordanes stated that Filimer, king of the Goths, once expelled some terrible witches from his kingdom. Having nowhere to go, the witches wandered the desert with other unclean spirits. These witches later bore children that eventually became the Huns. Jordanes remarked that one of these vile tribesmen mistakenly stumbled into the civilized world while chasing a game. This ushered in the beginning of their savagery. Jordanes drew comparisons between the Huns’ movement and how whirlwinds move.

Another biased, but favorable, depiction of the Huns came from Priscus of Panium in the 5th Century. Priscus described the Huns as very civilized and advanced horse riders.  He argued that their military capabilities were far superior to the Romans. Priscus had very nice words to say about them because it is believed that he actually interacted with them. Some even claim that he met and dined with the great Attila himself.

What were their Military Capabilities and Strategy?

The Huns

Horses were very instrumental for the Huns.

The Huns developed a very quick manner of movement that confused their opponents. They had come to rely on this during their raids. They also made sure that they had no discernible pattern of attacking. This left their opponents muddled with fear.

Horses were everything to them. The horses were like an extension of their bodies. A typical Hun soldier would have spent the majority of his life on the backs of horses. Some historians even claim that they slept on the back of their horses.  Furthermore, all their clothes were carefully made (or perhaps evolved) to support riding instead of walking.

The Huns were good at using bow and arrows. They had a range of about 80 yards. Also, they hardly ever missed their target.

They also brought their experiences in lassoing to the battle field. They Lassoed opponents that tried to escape. Another form of torture technique that they used was dragging their enemies to death. And when it came to breaking down walls and gates of cities, they used battering rams.

What Places did the Huns Terrorize?

The first few places to suffer at their hands were the Alans and the Goths. According to Jordanes, the Huns first attacked the people of Scythia. He believed the evil spirits backing the Huns envied the Scythians. Hence, the Huns sacked their lands.

Areas like Thrace and Syria had their farmlands completely overrun by the Huns under the leadership of Uldin. Uldin was one of their first leaders. Historians believe that he carried out several attacks in the Eastern Roman Empire around 408 AD. To make matters worse, they never made attempts to settle on those arable lands and farms that they took. Destruction and theft were all that they could do.

Prior to Thrace attack, a Huns onslaught compelled the Vandals to migrate across the Rhine River into Gaul territories.

Other areas mainly along the Western and Eastern Roman Empires’ borders were ravaged by the Huns from the 4th to 5th centuries A.D. In one such raid of theirs, the Visigoths were forced to seek protection deep in Roman territory.

The Huns’ battles with tribes along the Roman borders

The Huns reign of terror started in the late 4th century A.D. They quickly made the Great Hungarian Plains their stronghold. By 370 AD, they had made their way across the Volga River. They reduced the Alans to ashes. The Alans nomads were a bit similar to the Huns but less cruel and organized. They spent most of their time fighting among each other. Consequently, when the Huns struck, the Alans put up very little resistance.

Soon, it was the Ostrogoths’ turn. Just like the Alans, the Ostrogoths were a group of nomadic tribes of Germanic origins. And because the Ostrogoths often looted cities on the boundaries of the Roman Empire, news of their demise was welcomed in Rome.

By this time, it was apparently clear that the Huns were making a push for the Eastern Roman territories. They now had a much bigger army since when they first attacked the Alans. In some instances, they conscripted men from villages they sacked to replenish their army.

For the Christians living in provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, one mention of the Huns would have induced a dread comparable to the one induced by the devil himself. They were seen as abomination cast from the deepest part of hell.

Re-organization of their Society

According to ancient.eu., some tribes of the Huns may have worked as mercenaries for the Roman army. Around the close of the 4th century, the Huns were anything but purposeful in their actions. Some days they attacked and pillaged the Romans. Other days, they worked with the Roman Empire to defeat other barbaric tribes. They were as exactly as Jordanes described them- purposeless and went wherever the wind took them. Regardless, the absence of an overall leader or chief did not affect the rate at which the various Huns tribes looted places in and around the Roman Empire.

However, this changed as their numbers grew and perhaps as their economy flourished. With more loots and spoils to go around the tribes, they got more organized. A natural leader emerged by name, King Rugila (or Rua).

Rugila took the Huns’ barbarism a notch higher. As at the middle of the 5th century A.D, they had risen to unmistakably become the greatest barbarian forces on earth. They had also grown in numbers and military capabilities. Along with his brother, Octar, Rugila led the Huns to more successes.

The Roman Emperor, Theodosius, had every reason now to be afraid of the Huns. Therefore, Theodosius went into an alliance with Rugila. The price for this fragile alliance was several pounds of gold. It is believed that Theodosius solicited the help of Rugila to vanquish the pestering Goths. The 5th century saw the Romans dish out lots of gold to the Huns for peace as well as protection from other tribes.

Rugila also supervised the Huns shift from a solely nomadic system to one that resembled most thriving empires back then. They settled around the Great Hungarian Plain. Commerce and trade started to flourish. Their army now boasted of a relatively better structure. They had tribe generals that worked to unite the various Huns tribes.

Upon Rugila’s death in 434 A.D, an even more ruthless and blood-thirsty king took his place. This king had one objective only: conquer Rome.

The Great Attila’s Reign and Conquests

Due to his murdering and pillaging, Attila was nicknamed “the scourge of God”

Rugila’s successors were Attila and Bleda. Those two were brothers and nephews of Rugila. Attila and Bleda co-ruled and complemented each other’s work perfectly. This made them even more vicious than their predecessor.

Attila was the shorter of the two men. He had a large head and a thin beard. He also spoke Latin and Goth fluently. This came in very handy during negotiations of peace treaties with the Romans. Historians believe that Attila was an expert negotiator. In 439 AD, Attila and Bleda signed the Treaty of Margus with Rome. The Romans were forced to negotiate because they could no longer restrain the Huns. As part of the deal, Rome would pay annual tributes to the Huns. The gold payments kept them at bay for some time.

In 441 AD, tensions flared again because the Eastern Roman Empire failed to pay the agreed gold tributes.  There were brief clashes with the Eastern Roman Empire for about a year or so.

The following year, however, Attila’s attacks got even stronger. He went on looting spree through the Balkans down south, all the way to Constantinople. In Constantinople, the only thing that halted him was the city’s high wall. In order to keep the Huns out of their city, the city officials had no option than to path away with lots of gold.  Attila returned to his base in the Hungarian Plains with chest-full of gold. He also acquired the unenviable title of “the scourge of God”.

Death of Attila’s brother, Bleda

Some historians claim that Attila killed his own brother, Bleda. Priscus of Panium believed that it was a preemptive attack. And had Attila not done so, Bleda would have killed him. However, there exists no evidence to support this claim. Perhaps Bleda died in campaign.

After the death of Bleda in 447, Attila became overall ruler of the Huns. This increased his thirst for more carnage and violence. However, he was not a brainless and irrational King. He was a very calculating opportunist. He exploited every slip up the Romans made. Peace treaties and deals meant nothing to Attila. In a classic case of sheer dishonesty, he attacked the Romans even though the peace treaty was still in place. The Romans were in Sicily on a campaign and as a result, they had left one of the border regions of Illyricum unguarded. This act of betrayal infuriated the Roman emperor Theodosius II.

Betrayals of those sorts made it impossible to deal with the Huns. They valued raids and pillage more than anything else. It even got to a point where gold and wealth accumulation were not the main reasons why the Huns did what they did. Regardless of the concessions made, or the tributes paid, the Huns always found a way of coming back for more raids and violence.

What aided the Huns and Attila was the fact they had absorbed so much intelligence from the Romans during the periods that they served as mercenaries. It was only inevitable that they would turn this knowledge gained against the Romans.

The Battle of Catalaunian Plains

Ever since Attila came to the scene, the Huns’ slaughtering and plundering rates skyrocketed. They reached the zenith of development- militarily and economically. They were feared by everyone in Europe. Death followed them everywhere they went.

In 451, the Huns set their eyes on the Gaul. Gaul stretched from present-day France down south to Italy and covered a significant portion of Germany. As usual, he was counting on a resounding victory as well as lots of loots. All throughout his life, he had never lost a single battle.

This time around it was different. The opposition had a very capable general in the person of Flavius Aetius. General Flavius did what many of his predecessors never imagined doing. Flavius struck alliances with a host of barbaric tribe men in and around the Roman territory. The Romans now had a sizable force that included the Visigoths and various other tribes along the Eastern border

Interestingly, a sorcerer in Attila’s camp warned that his army would fall in the battle. However, Attila disregarded such baseless prophecies and proceeded into battle. The sorcerer’s prophesy came to pass. Attila was resoundingly beaten in the battle that took place on the Catalaunian Plains (eastern France). A great number of his soldiers died. Attila retreated to his home base in the Hungarian Plains. This was his first and only military defeat.

The Huns’ Brief Campaigns in Italy

The Huns, led by Attila, invade Italy (Attila, the Scourge of God, by Spanish painter Ulpiano Checa, 1887)

The defeat at Catalaunian did not force Attila into retiring. He cast his attention to Italy and marched towards Rome in 452 AD. Along the way, they attacked a group of settlers and forced them to retreat into the place that is now called Venice.

Just as Attila was about to sack Rome, he had encountered the ghosts of St. Peter and St. Paul. Legend has it that the ghosts threatened him not to go ahead with the Rome attack. In a tale that is reminiscent to St. Paul’s Damascus encounter with Jesus Christ, the ghosts asked him to peacefully negotiate with Pope Leo I. Attila soon agreed to withdraw his forces from Italy.

How Attila Died

The history of the Huns is invariably linked to the life and story of Attila the great. From the year 434 to 453, they covered vast lands in both central Asia and Europe. Considering the number of times their great leader, Attila, dabbled with death-defying raids, one would have expected him to die on the field of battle. That was not the case.

Attila’s story came to an unexpected end on his wedding night in 453 AD. The bride to be was Illdico. Priscus stated that Attila got drunk on the night of his wedding and was later found dead. Apparently, he had choked to death as a result of too much intake of wine. It was quite a disgraceful end to a man that was feared all over Europe.

The folks living in Constantinople must have rejoiced at the passing of Attila. Prior to his death, he had planned to raze Constantinople to the ground because the Eastern Roman Empire failed to pay an agreed tribute.

While the surrounding cities in Europe celebrated, the Huns went into deep mourning of their leader. His death was a monumental loss to their course. Had he lived a bit longer, the history of Europe could have taken a different course than the one that we know today.

So, typical of the Huns, they mutilated themselves and performed several barbaric acts to mourn their leader. Legend has it that the gravediggers were murdered in order to conceal the exact burial site of Attila. He was buried in three coffins. The first coffin that housed his body was made of gold. After that, this golden coffin was placed in another silver coffin. That silver coffin, in turn, was placed in an iron coffin.

Disintegration and Eventual Collapse of the Hunnic Empire

The Empire of the Huns lasted for just under hundred years

Attila favored his eldest son, Ellac. He probably wanted Ellac to succeed him on the throne. However, this did not happen. After Attila died, the Huns Empire was split among his sons Ellac, Dengizich, and Ernakh. In retrospect, this was not a very good idea. His other sons ganged up and started fighting among themselves. A power struggle ensued and plunged the Huns into a bloody civil war. Many states and cities took advantage of this and attacked the sons of Attila one after the other.

By the year 459 AD, the Huns Empire had completely crumbled. Ancient.eu maintain that the Huns were long forgotten by 469 AD, and all that was left was the stories and some myths about them. Considering how reckless and selfish his sons were, Attila must have rolled in his grave. Too bad we still don’t know where his grave is.

FAQs about the Huns

We have summarized the history of this nomadic group in the following questions and answers:

Who was the most famous leader of the Huns?

Attila the Hun is the most famous leader. He ruled from 434 to 453 AD and is often called the “Scourge of God” because of his successful and brutal campaigns in Europe.

Were the Huns Mongolian?

The exact origins of the Huns remain a matter of debate among historians. Some theories suggest a connection to the Xiongnu, a nomadic people from Mongolia, but there is no definitive evidence to confirm this.

Why did they invade Europe?

Multiple reasons are believed to have prompted the Hunnic invasions, including climate change, pressure from other nomadic groups, and the allure of wealth and resources in the Roman Empire.

How did they fight?

The Huns were skilled horsemen and archers. They used swift hit-and-run tactics, which made them a formidable force on the battlefield. Their composite bows gave them a significant advantage in range and power over other contemporary armies.

Were the Huns responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire?

While they put significant pressure on the Roman Empire, especially during Attila’s reign, these nomadic horsemen were not solely responsible for its fall. The Western Roman Empire faced internal and external challenges, including economic difficulties, political instability, and invasions from multiple barbarian groups.

How did the Hunnic Empire end?

After Attila’s death in 453 AD, internal conflicts and external pressures led to the rapid disintegration of the Hunnic Empire. By the end of the 5th century, the Huns had largely disappeared as a distinct group.

Did the Huns have a written language?

There’s no evidence to suggest that the Huns had their own written language. Most of what we know about them comes from external sources, particularly from Roman and Byzantine historians.

How did they influence Europe?

The invasions and pressures exerted by the Huns contributed to the migration and movement of other barbarian tribes. This “Migration Period” reshaped the political and ethnic map of Europe, leading to the foundation of several medieval kingdoms.

The Huns' FAQs

 

Were the Huns related to the Magyars or Hungarians?

While both the Huns and Magyars were nomadic groups that played significant roles in European history, they are distinct from one another. The Magyars settled in the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century AD, centuries after the decline of the Huns. Some Hungarian legends do connect their origins to the Huns, but historical and linguistic evidence suggests they are separate groups.

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