Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Who were the Huns?

There one of the most notorious and feared people in history. There very name denotes a leader that civilization dubbed as the Scourge of God. Explore the history and life of the Huns.

In the 4th century and 5th century C.E., the decaying civilized world of Rome faced countless encroachment of “barbarians.” From the Goths to the Vandals, they wreaked havoc to the already declining empire. But none stood out as brutal and cruel as the Huns. Their mere appearance inspired fear. Their horsemanship gave them acclamation, but there acts gave them infamy. The Huns further went into the annals of history with their brutal leader – Attila the Hun – who the church christened as the Scourge of God. They quickly galloped their way to history but with the loss of a leader, they also quickly faded away.

Accounts of the Huns

Not much is known about the Huns. Most of the primary sources came from their enemies – the Romans and the Goths. They also did not left any records of themselves as they lacked the writing system in doing so. The Romans provided a glimpse of the Huns with the records of the Byzantine diplomat Priscus and the work of Ammianus Marcellinus. A Roman Gothic historian named Jordannes (Jordanis) gave some details about the Huns in his work the Origins and Deeds of the Goths or Getica. With much of the sources about them coming from their foes, intellectuals took great caution in their words as it tend to be bias or exaggerated.

Early History of the Huns

Because of lack of sources, not much is also known about the early history of the Huns. But it has been suggested that ancestors of the Huns came from Central Asia. The Chinese called them the Hsiung-nu or Xiongnu. They lived in Central Asian Steppes as nomads, forming a confederation of various Hunnic tribes, each having their own chief. They lived of the land, raising livestock and moving from one pasture to another.

Few centuries BCE, due to the changing climate or in search greener and better pastures, the Huns began to migrate south. In 176 BCE, the Chinese historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien recorded the Hun’s victory over the Yueh-Chi or Tocharians who lived in present day Turkistan in northwestern China. But when the Chinese began to construct the Great Wall of China to ward off people like the Huns, they decided to migrate west. They galloped across the Central Asian Steppes until they reached the Ural Mountains and then the Volga River.

Towards Eastern Europe

In the 1st century CE, they took the daring step to cross the Volga River towards the Don River and Ukraine, an area known to the Romans as the Maeotian Swamp. But the Don River did not ceased the migration of the Huns.

What made the Huns cross the Maeotian Swamp was probably a continuous search for warmer climate and better pastoral lands. But the 6th century Gothic historian, Jordannes recorded a story of another reason. One day, a group of Huns hunted for a doe. The doe, however, went across the Maeotian Swamp and into the lands of Scythia. The Huns followed the doe and upon crossing, they saw the civilization of the Scythians. With envy, the Huns returned to their camp and described what they saw across the Maeotian Swamps. With desire for plunder, they descended upon the land and villages after villages fell to the Huns.

The Huns descended upon to the lands of other barbarians. In 372, under the leadership of Bladimir, the Huns destroyed the Alans in the Don River. Few years later, they descended upon the lands of the Goths and the Heruli, followed by the defeat of the Visigoths further to the south. They left nothing but destruction and death upon their wake.

The start of the 5th century, the Huns settled in the lands in the northern banks of the Danube River including the vast Hungarian Plains. Across the Danube River laid the civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantines).

Huns in Eastern Europe

The Huns, as recorded by the Romans in the north of the Danube River, were described as savages, barbarians and ugly. The Romans took notice of the Hun’s tradition, culture, appearance, clothing, food and horsemanship.


The Huns that arrived in Europe maintained their nomadic culture from Central Asia. They relied on herding, gathering and hunting for sustenance. They continued to practice shamanism. The spiritual beliefs of the Huns led also to the tradition of drinking from the skull caps of their enemies, which the Romans saw as evidence of their cruelty. Their culture had also been shaped by their constant migration.

Because of migration they remained a warrior people with little to no writing. Constant movement of the Huns led to their lack of architecture, writing system and agriculture. All activities that a sedimentary civilization meant little to the Huns.

Nevertheless, what the Huns lacked in culture, they compensated in their skills as great cavalry men. Because of their constant movement, the Huns met different kinds of people with varying attitude, from hostile to friendly. But mostly, it resulted to conflict and the Huns needed to fight to survive. They used their horses to their advantage and developed their skills as cavalrymen. The Hunnic men, passed their skills as warriors to their children at a very young age. Thus, every Hunninc boy were prepared for a life of a marauding Hun. Through centuries of warfare on horseback, they became one of the most deadly efficient cavalry force that the world knew.

There martial skills provided them other source of income. Such as, Roman Emperors hired them to work as mercenaries in exchange for gold. If they do not work as mercenaries, the Huns raided and looted villages, taking whatever valuables they saw. Other than that, they captured the survivors and sold them as slaves. Thus, a Hun had the choice of becoming a marauder or a mercenary to earn gold.

As a people, they remained scattered. They were composed of various tribes with different leaders. Nevertheless, they accepted their similarities as a people to form a confederation. The confederation worked when the Huns fought against a common enemy.


Ammianus Marcellinus described the physical stature of the Huns:
“…though they all have closely-knit and strong limbs, and plump necks; they are of great size, and low legged, so that you might fancy them two-legged beasts, or the stout figures which are hewn out in a rude manner with an axe on the posts at the end of bridges.”
Jordannes made also his own description of the Huns:
“They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts.”
The Huns had several practices that made them different and aliens to other European people when they came. The Roman historians, Ammianius Marcelinus and Jordanes wrote about the Hunnic tradition of parents slashing the cheeks of their children to leave a scar behind. The Huns believed that a child, according to Jordanes:
“…before they receive the nourishment of milk, they must learn to endure wounds."
Both Roman historians also mentioned that the Huns placed a scar in order to prevent them from growing any beards.

In addition to this, the Hunnic parents also preserved their tradition of deforming the heads of their children. By placing binders in the heads of the young, the shape of the skull deformed and resulted to what Jordannes described as “a sort of shapeless lump.” The continuing of this practice made the Huns ever more fearsome and intimidating. But also, in the eyes of the Romans, it made them barbaric and alien.


Marcelinus described the clothes of a Hun.
“They wear linen clothes, or else garments made of the skins of field-mice; nor do they wear a different dress out of doors from that which they wear at home; but after a tunic is once put round their necks, however it becomes worn, it is never taken off or changed till, from long decay, it becomes actually so ragged as to fall to pieces.”
The text suggested that the Huns used whatever suitable material they saw to make their clothing. Because of constant movement and lack of proper housing and machinery, they preferred to keep their clothes on until they became worn out. Alas, it suggested they stink, which the Roman categorized as a sign of savagery.


Huns, as horsemen, needed a lot of proteins. They survived through herding, hunting and gathering. They gathered root crops or herbs from the surrounding lands. They hunted for wild animals or relied on their herds for sources of meat. Ammianus Marcelinus recorded how the Huns prepared their meat.
“…on the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses."
Ammianus Marcelinus recorded how the Huns prepared what later became known as steak tartar – a good source of protein for hungry and busy cavalry.


Horsemanship and the horse were the center of Hunnic identity. The Central Plains provided good location for breading fast and strong horses. But when the Huns moved to Eastern Europe, the Hungarian Plains provided the lands for breeding horses. Horses provided them transport, meat and livelihood. Marcelinus described the Huns as men who conducted most of their affairs at horseback. They conducted trade on horseback. Kings and nobles conducted meetings again in horseback. Some Hunnic warriors even slept in horseback. Hunnic men spent most of their time with their horse rather than their wives.

Hunnic Army

The Hunnic army composed mostly of cavalry. But as the type of warfare and the size of the Hunnic army changed, the army underwent transformation.

The Hunnic cavalry formed the center of the army. Their quick hit and run tactics scared the wits out of their enemy. They had several weapons in their arsenal that made them deadly and unique. They used swords and javelins. But the Hunnic Cavalry became notorious for their innovative reflex bows, made of wood, horn and animal skin. Its reverse curving increased the tension of the bow, allowing it to fire arrows with faster speed and strength. In addition to the reflex bow, another weapon that differentiated the Huns was their ropes. The Huns had expertise in using a lasso, mostly used for herding livestock. Ammianius Marcelinus accounted how the Huns used their lassos.
“…often while their antagonists are warding off their blows they entangle them with twisted cords, so that, their hands being fettered, they lose all power of either riding or walking."
Besides cavalry, the Hunnic army had infantry and siege weapons. The Huns successfully assimilated Goths into their force and they served as the main source of infantry for the Hunnic army. But besides the Goths, they also recruited other allied tribes, the Alans, Herulis, among others. The Huns also developed siege weapons needed to take down walled Roman cities. The most fearsome of the Hunnic army’s siege weapon was the battering ram. It included a huge log locked on a frame and moved through a platform with wheels. The soldiers swing the log back and forth towards either the wall or the gates of a Roman city wall.

With their allies serving as infantry and their developments in siege machinery, the Hunnic army became a formidable force. This brought the Huns to its fearsome reputation as a threat and menace to the civilized world.

Before the Scourge of God

At the dawn 5th century, the Huns began to deal with the Romans. The Huns raided many Roman villages, burning them, killing the men and enslaving women and children. They also forced the Romans to send children nobles in the Hunnic court as hostages, including the future Roman General Flavius Aetius.

Rugil, however, strengthen the position of the Huns. In 420, he formed a Hunnic Confederation. Then he received tribute from the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius in exchange for the service of the Huns as mercenaries to fight the Goths in Pannonia. Rugila passed away in 434 and succeeded by the sons of his brother Mundzuk - Attila and Bleda.

The brothers Attila and Bleda continued in 437 their service of the Romans. They led the Huns in fighting the Burgundiis in Gaul along with the Roman General Flavius Aetius.

Attila the Hun – the Scourge of God

Attila the Hun served as the poster boy of the Huns in history. His brutality, rampage and plunder earned him the position as one of the most brutal leaders in history. He harassed the Eastern Roman Empire with a mafia-like style before moving on to its Western brother. There he wreak havoc in its province of Gaul, leading to one of the most brutal and bloody battles in military history.

In 441, Attila severed the Huns service as mercenaries for the Byzantines and began to launch massive raids once again. He took as his chance to attack the Byzantines while most of its troops fought the Vandals in Northern Africa. Attila’s horde marched down south of the Danube, threatening Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Attila knew, however, that capturing Constantinople was impossible because of its huge walls and other defenses. He only marched to Constantinople to scare the Emperor and extract tribute – in gang terms, protection money. Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius agreed to pay an annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold to the Huns in exchange for peace.

In 444, he began to rule the Huns solely. On that year, he murdered his brother Bleda during a hunting expedition. Murdering his brother and potential rival made him the strongest and most powerful man in the Hunnic Empire, which by then stretched from the Urals and the Volga River towards the Rhine River in Germania. 

In 447, Attila went into another rampage. He attacked the Byzantine Empire and captured the walled city of Marcianopolis. The fall of the city displayed the Huns development of infantry and siege weapons and tactics. In 450, Emperor Marcian of the Byzantine Empire refused to pay the annual tribute. But besides Marcian. The Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III also refused to pay tributes as well.

Attila went to the Western Roman Empire

In 450, Attila received an invitation from Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Honoria, sister of the Roman Emperor Valentinian proposed marriage. She and his brother had dispute over her pregnancy and love life that resulted to her treachery. In addition to marriage, he offered Attila the whole Western Roman Empire as her dowry. Attila, on the other hand, welcomed the proposal.

He attempted to come in terms with the Roman Emperor Valentinian. But Valentinian refused to accept Attila as his new brother-in-law and completely disavowed Honoria’s proposal. Attila used this as pretext to attack the Western Roman Empire.

In 451, Attila reached the Western Roman Empire. He crossed the Rhine River and into the province of Gaul. There he gained allies who heard of his brutality and capability of making Emperors bow to his will. Ostrogoths, Alans, Herulis, Gepids, Marcomannis, Franks, among others joined Attila in plundering Eastern Gaul.

Ravenna acted swiftly to stop Attila. Emperor Valentinian sent General Aetius to Gaul to put an end to Attila. Both camps eventually met in the Catalaunian Plains.

The Battle in Catalaunian Plains became the site of one of the most horrific battles in history. The Romans, in alliances with the Visigoths, Burgundii, and Franks, took up the highest position in the plains. Attila ordered a charge on the Roman position and the slaughter begins. Jordannes described the end of the battle. Aetius took victory and Attila retreated. The two sides left the plains soak in blood, where a thirsty soldier “drank water filled with gore.”

But the Battle in Catalaunian Plains failed to stop Attila. In 452, he attacked Italy. He captured the city of Aquileia, home of the Veneti. The Veneti escaped Attila’s army by going west to a nearby swamp and set up a new city, which became known as Venice. The rampaged of Attila in Italy and Gaul earned him the notorious title – the Scourge of God. After the fall of the Veneti, Attila threatened to march to Rome, the center of the powerful Catholic Church and its charismatic Pope Leo I.  At the outskirts of Rome, Pope Leo I surprisingly went to meet Attila. No one knew what transpired during their meeting.

Attila unexpectedly retreated after his audience with the Pope. His army had won success but also began to wither. A disease spread across Attila’s army. Suddenly, healthy Huns began to fall due to plague and not because of battle. Pope Leo might had used the plague to his advantage to convince Attila to back down. He probably used the plague as a sign of Attila’s disfavor in the eyes of God and his punishment for his sins. Whatever happened in the tent between Attila and Leo, the Scourge of God retreated afterwards.

A year after his brutal campaign, Attila, in a drunken madness fell to his bed. Later on, his men discovered him drowning in his own blood. The Scourge of God met his demise. A barbaric end to a barbaric leader.

After Attila’s Death

The death of Attila marked the beginning of the end of the Huns in the limelight of history. After Attila’s death, the Hunnic Empire went to the leadership of his three inept sons – Ellak, Dengizik and Ernak. None of them inherited their father’s brutality and military skills. And it prevented them from stopping the collapse of the Hunnic Empire.

In 455, a rebellion of various tribes began. Under the leadership of the Gepid chief Ardaric, the Goths, Alanis, Heruli, and other Germanic tribes rose up against the Huns. They succeeded in ending the overlord of the Huns in a battle in Nedao River in Pannonia.

After the defeat, the Huns simply faded away. Some of them migrated back east and assimilated with other tribes. Some stayed north of the Danube. Those who remained beyond the Danube remained in contact with the Romans. Romans during the reign of Emperor Justinian continued to mention the Huns. But never again they rose up to threaten western civilization again.

Summing Up

The Huns were one of the most feared barbarians that ravaged Europe during the latter decades of the Roman Empire. Their experience as continuous migrants and their lifestyle back in the Central Asian Steppes made them into a formidable cavalry force. Knowing their skills and shaped by their past, the Huns only saw raiding as their only path towards prosperity. And so they ravaged Europe for plunder. And when Attila rose up, they did not just had riches, but also an empire. But when Attila died, the Huns simply left the limelight of history. Probably due to the lack of charismatic leader or change in their culture brought by their contact with other cultures. Although they fledged shortly, the wake they left created a huge mark in European and world history. From simple migrants, different from others, they manage to create an empire that could have destroyed Rome itself.

Documentaries about the Huns

There are numerous documentaries about the Huns. Discovery Channel had a series, Ancient Warriors, which tackled the Huns in one of its episodes. The documentary length around 30 minutes and provided a short history of the Huns. It followed the life of the Hunnic warrior named Edeko, who served in Attila the Hun's army. Besides this, the History Channel series, Barbarians, featured the Huns. This almost 1 hour documentary, gave detailed information about the Huns along with good recreation. It followed General Aetius and his relation with the Huns and off course, the life of Attila the Hun.

Explore also:
Who was Attila the Hun?

"Huns." In the Encyclopedia of The Roman Empire. Edited by Matthew Bunson. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002.

"Huns."  In The Enyclopedia of European Peoples. Edited by Carl Waldman and Catherine Mason. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006.

Jordanes. "The Origin and Deeds of the Goths." Project Gutenberg. Accessed on January 12, 2016. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14809/pg14809-images.html

Ammianus Marcellinus. "The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus: During the Reigns of The Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens." Project Gutenburg. Accessed on January 12, 2016. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28587/28587-h/28587-h.htm

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your researcb. I had always believed that the Huns were not Monguls.It is also interesting tbat their origin is a mystery.

    Thanks again