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By Invictus, 2001; Revised
Category: Steppes and Central Asia: Ancient Steppes
Arrival of the Huns
In 376 A.D. the barbarians Huns north of the Danube turned to their civilized rival, the Romans, and begged for protection. For a far more barbaric tribe was coming. Perhaps no other people have struck greater fear in the west than the Huns. In the end of the fourth century the Huns seemed to have materialized out of nowhere and crushed they way into the Hungarian plains. From there they extended their domains south of the Danube River, into Gaul and then northern Italy, leaving a trail of destruction and terror wherever they went.
The Huns were nomads from the Central Asian Steppes, but their exact Origins of the Huns remain a mystery. It is often said that they were remnants of the Xiong Nu, which were driven west by the Chinese, but there are no solid evidence to prove this is true, other than the fact that the Huns appeared right after the Xiong Nu dissapeared. Even if this was so, the Hunnic "Empire" was very diverse in its people, as they subjegated a variety of cultures and brought them all under the control of one nobility. Because of their origins, the language of the Huns has been suggested to be Turkic, but there are also evidences that point to the usage of Germanic languages, native to the lands that the Huns conquered.
Accounts vaguely suggest that the Huns had already settled in the area north west of the Caspian Sea as early as the 3rd century. Around 370 A.D. the Huns moved west and destroyed their neighboring Alans. They continued westward and destroyed the sedentary Ostrogothic kingdom of Eramanarich, inducing widespread panic into Europe. At around the same time, another Hun force crossed the Caucasus and ravaged Armenia, penetrating as far as Syria. The story of the Huns begins here, when their ferocity has finally earned them a place in the chronicles.
Although the Huns soon became a prominent force in Europe, they did not have the political unity to stage a massive and serious campaign. More often than not, the Huns before Attila were a loose confederation of many kings rather than an empire. There existed the title of "high king" but few of such rank had the competence to control all of the Huns. For the most part the Huns attacked and operated in separately commanded groups without a unified objective.
The first thing in Attila's mind was to force the militarily weakened Eastern Roman Empire to recognize the superiority of his Huns. This he did in the treaty of Margus, which the Romans were forced to sign. The treaty dealt with Hun merchants' rights, military alliance conducts, the return of Hun fugitives (that had sought refugee in the Romans), and a tribute of 700 pounds of gold that must be paid each year.
With the southern border secured, Attila campaigned eastward and subjugated many tribes. He returned home as a victor, but when he realized that the Romans failed to pay tribute and return the fugitives, he was furious. Furthermore, the Roman bishop of Margus had crossed the Danube and robbed royal Hun graves, stealing their burial treasures. War broke out and Attila's and his men poured into the Eastern Roman Empire. The Roman army was too weak to organize and Attila campaigned nearly unopposed. Cities including Margus, Singidunum (Belgrade), and Viminacium were destroyed. A brief truce in 441 was arranged, but war resumed in 443 when the Romans still refused to pay tribute. Attila penetrated southwestward, sacking important cities such as Sardica, Philippopolis, and Arcadiopolis. The Huns reached Constantinople and defeated the Imperial army in the outskirts of the city. However, the defense at Constantinople was stronger than expected. Instead of foolishly wasting his men trying to breach the walls of the city, Attila continued his path of destruction elsewhere. Finally, the Roman Emperor Theodosius gave after a Hun victory at Chersonesus that left the Roman military totally destroyed.
Attila and the Eastern Roman Empire
The victory against the Romans was only a beginning of Attila's power. Around 445 Attila's brother, Bleda died, giving him undisputed control over the Huns. It is often said that Attila murdered his brother, but there is no real evidence to give verification. After his death, Bleda was honored with a burial and giant a three-day feast that all the nobles in the Empire attended. According to the Roman historian Priscus, on the night after the feast, Attila had a dream that an old man descended from the sky and granted him the legendary sword of the gods (called by the Romans: The Sword of Mars). Attila then saw himself flying with the wind and subduing everything in his path. On the next morning, the prophecy was fulfilled. A shepherd had discovered the Sword of Mars and the sacred weapon was brought to Attila. Whether or not this actually happened, we can see that Attila's power had grown to an enormous scale. By now, he definitely had total control over the Huns, a position no previous ruler had attained.
The year 447 saw yet another Hunnic campaign against the Eastern Roman Empire. Attila led his men south and laid waste to the Balkans. He then turned west to Thrace, and according to a Gallic chronicle, destroyed no less than 70 cities, including the highly populated Marcianople. No information on the extent of Attila's attack is known. However, it is evident that shortly after the war, the Second Peace of Anatolius was signed. The Romans' annual treaty was increase total evacuation of Romans in a strip of land section of land south of the Danube was required.
There was temporary peace, but once again, disputes between the Huns and the Romans reemerged. In 449 Attila dispatched an embassy to Constantinople to settle issues with the Romans. While at Constantinople the Hun commander Edeco was offered great riches and titles if he were to comply in a plot to assassinate Attila. Edeco assented and asked for 50 pounds of gold. He also stated that for concealment purposes, he was not to receive the bribe money on the first visit of the Roman ambassadors to Attila, but on a different trip scheduled later. The one who would give the bribe money would be an interpreter named Bigilas.
The Hunnic and Roman ambassadors left Constantinople together and headed for Attila's camp for the second stage of the negotiation. Upon arrival, Edeco betrayed the plot and told Attila about the assassination. However, Attila decided not to deal with it for now. He treated the Roman ambassadors as normal as possible and the negotiation went as usual. As a result, the Romans left Hunnia not knowing that the plot had been betrayed. When Bigilas arrived with the 50 pounds of gold for Edeco, he was immediately arrested and in chains. The bribe money was sent back to Constantinople with a taunting message to the Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius, now totally embarrassed, finally decided to be truthful in the treaties. The Third Peace of Anatolius was signed and peace (and tributes) was restored. The fact that Attila sought peace rather than war is interesting. It probably wasn't because Constantinople was too difficult to attack, but because the Huns believe tribute, not territory, was the ultimate symbol of superiority.
The Invasion of Gaul
While the Huns were fighting the Eastern Roman Empire, they had, for the most part, had good terms with the Western Roman Empire. The relation had been kept because of the presence of Aetius in the West, a long time friend of the Huns ever since Attila's uncle Rua was in power. However, the relationship between the two powers started tumbling downhill. In 450, Attila decided he would bring the west into submission, much like what he did to the East. He planned to undertake a campaign that would destroy the irritating Visigoths in Gaul, and then to conquer the Western Roman Empire. But shortly after he made the decision to invade, news was received from Constantinople that the Emperor Theodosius had died, and the annual tribute from Constantinople will be terminated under his successor, Marcian. Not allowing himself to be torn between choices, Attila decided without hesitantation to invade the West.
Some time later, Attila received a message from the sister of the Western Roman Emperor, Honoria, asking him to take her as his wife. Attila realized that this was an opportunity. He dispatched a letter to the Western Emperor (Valentinian), demanding to have Honoria be given to him. Valentinian refused. Coincidentally, the Pipurarian Frankish Confederation was in civil war with brothers fighting for succession. One of the brothers appealed to Attila for help while the other appealed to Aetius and the Romans. With Honoria being kept hostage by the Western Emperor and the civil war of the Franks, Attila's invasion was justified and set out for Gaul in 451.
Attila's army smashed through Germany, causing widespread panic and destruction. Meanwhile, Aetius (who had been assigned by the Emperor to deal with Attila) formed an alliance with the man he hated most, the Visigothic King Theodoric. The alliance was formed without much of a choice, for neither Aetius nor Theodoric's men could defeat Attila alone. On April 7 Attila reached and sacked the Frankish city of Metz. He then moved on to Orleans, but suddenly, Aetius and Theodoric's army appeared on the horizon. Attila withdrew to Catalaunian plains, the site of the legendary battle between the former friends of Attila and Aetius.
Attila's battle line contained his own Hunnic warriors in the center, with Ostrogoths and Germans at the flanks. On the other side of the Field was Aetius's army, with his "Romans" at his left flank, Alans in the center, and Theodoric's Visigoths on the right. Unlike how it's often misunderstood as a battle solely between the Huns and Romans, the armies were very multinational. The battle became a stalemate and by night both sides withdrew to their camps. The decisive event actually happened the next day when the Visigoths discovered that their king, Theodoric, had been killed. Infuriate, they went into a frenzy and surrounded Attila's camp. By now, it was clear that Aetius and the Visigoths had the upper hand. However, Aetius realized it was unwise to destroy the Huns. For doing so would mean the rise to power of other barbarians, namely the Visigoths, whom he'd always hated. And of course, the Huns were his long time friends. Aetius talked the Visigoths out from attacking, and allowed Attila to freely retreat.
Attila's repulsion from Gaul meant defeat. To make his situation worse, the Eastern Roman Empire was becoming more and more troublesome. At first he wanted to uphold another invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire, but suddenly he changed his mind. He quickly assembled an army, but instead of attacking the Eastern Romans, he crossed the Alps, and suddenly appeared in Northern Italy. The Romans were entirely caught off guard and was defenseless. Attila stormed the walls of Aquileia,
Vicetia, Verona, Brixia, Bergomum, and Milan, massacring the population and reducing the cities to the ground.
The Romans were quick to attempt to make peace, and they sent an embassy of their most skilled diplomats, including Pope Leo to Attila's camp. No one is certain how the negotiation went but after the embassy met with Attila, the Huns soon pulled out of Italy. The actual reason why he withdrew was probably of an epidemic that happened that rendered his army unable to continue.
Attila returned to the Hungarian Plains, having been foiled yet again. But the Hun king had not lost his vigor. For The Eastern Roman Empire had long failed to pay tribute, and with any mean possible Attila was determine to annihilate its presence. Before the Huns were going to war, however, there was a celebration on the Hungarian Plains. Attila was to be wed with another wife, this time a Germanic girl named Ildico. On the next morning, Attila laid dead, with Ildico crying beside his bed. He had died of a severe nosebleed. His warriors came into the tent, took out their blades, and mutilated their bodies. "The death of the greatest of all warriors is to be mourned not by the tears of women, but by blood of warriors."
Collapse and Legacy
The death of Attila foreshadowed the end of the Huns. Attila had long arranged his eldest son, Ellak to be his successor. But Ellak was nowhere skilled enough to hold the empire together. Attila's other sons stepped up and challenged his authority. Taking advantage of the situation, the former subjects of Attila rebelled with great vigor. The Huns were defeated. The Empire came to an end in 469, with the death of Attila's son Denghizik, the last of the Hun Kings. The remaining Huns retreated to Scythia, where they vanished into the winds, much like how they once were.
To Western Europe, the Huns failed to achieve any effect other than a rearrangement of barbarian power, the relocation of the Goths westward, and the founding of Venice by those who fled the Huns in Northern Italy. Thus, in western history the Huns are best remembered as one of the barbarian groups that contributed to the collapse of Rome. Because of so, they are generally seen as being cruel and barbaric. In Eastern Europe, however, the Huns had a different effect. In countries such as Hungary, Attila is regarded as a hero and a symbol of power, bravery and courage. The Hungarian dynasty of Arpad even claimed direct descent from Attila and the procession of Attila's sword. Whether Attila was a ruthless barbarian or a man of bravery and courage, the Huns will always be remembered for the fierocity of their warriors.
The Hun Society
According to Romans, the Huns lived, ate, and sleep on horseback, and that they would become dizzy when setting foot on the ground. While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, we can see that compared to western Europeans of the time, the horse was a highly important part of their society. In the steppes, horses were a necessity for travel, hunting, wealth, survival, and of course, warfare. In short, it was their way of life. It is no surprise how these points are emphasize by western accounts.
Because of the great interest Attila had in gold and plunder, we can infer that the wealth and power were greatly interdependent. After a successful campaign, the higher-ranking officers received almost all the spoils, and the spoils were important in securing high positions. The empire was run by a group of officers either selected by Attila or was inherited through lineage. These officers served as administrators or as commanders who had direct control over a small "personal" army. Because skilled administrators were hard to fine, kings of conquered territories were often re-employed as administrators. For the most part, these subject kings were loyal to the Hun central authority.
The Hun Military
Like other steppe people, Hun warriors fought exclusively as cavalry, and their warriors relied on the mobility of their horses and the penetration power of their composite bows. Like other steppe people, the Huns were natural warriors, having shot a bow and ridden on a horse for his entire life. On the battlefield, the Huns would fire a shower of arrows, inflicting casualties in long range.
When the enemies try to close in they would gallop away while turning their bodies and firing their bows at the enemy. Many Europeans, barbarians especially, were unused to such hit and run tactics, and thus were at a disadvantage. The proficiency of Hun warriors made them a popular choice as mercenaries. The Hun mercenary force was decisive in victory of the East Romans over the West Romans in the battle of Sisca in 388.
Nobles usually wore armor, most likely scale armor, while regulars wore little or none. Shields and helmets were commonly issued to all warriors alike. Besides their famed composite bow, the Huns also occasionally carried swords, lances, and other irregular weapons such as lassos.
The Hun army has always been exaggerated in size to promote their ferocity. Accounts claim the size of Attila's army at Catalaunian plains being at 200,000. A more realistic and reasonable size would be around 30,000. Accounts also describe that the Huns eventually switched from being a cavalry army to an infantry army. The "infantry" Hun army was not because they had dismounted, but because of other barbarians infantry that the Huns incorporated into their army. At Catalaunian Plains, at least half of Attila's army was other barbarians, namely Germans and Ostrogoths. Finally, there is the matter of siegecraft. In a siege during Attila's Italian campaign, it was noted that the Huns themselves failed to storm the walls while the "other barbarians" in his army did. From this, we can imply that the Hun siegecraft was only as good as the other barbarians that they incorporated into their army. But the consistent success and the numerous cities that Attila did capture make this a point to ponder
List of Kings
Balamber (240 AD-?)
Uldin (390-411 AD)
Donatus (? -412 AD)
Charato (411 AD-?)
Octar (? - 431 AD) - Shared power with Rua (?)
Rua (? - 434 AD) - Sole ruler in 432
Bleda (434- 445 AD) Dual kingship with Attila
Attila (434-453 AD)
Ellac (453-455 AD)
Dengizik (?-469 AD)
Note: It is difficult to come up with a list of rulers for the Huns because of the lack of information, and fact that the Huns before Attila were more of a confederation and thus did not have a rigid definition of a king. Attila was probably the only king ever to achieve entire control over the Huns.
370 AD - Hun expansion into Eastern Europe. Defeats Alans and Ostrogoths along the way.
395 AD - Mass raid into Armenia
400 AD - Attila is born
434 AD - Death of Rua and succession of Attila and Bleda
440 AD - Treaty of Margus with the Eastern Roman Empire
441 AD - Attila invades the Eastern Roman Empire
443 AD - Second campaign against the Eastern Roman Empire. First Peace of Anatolius is signed.
436?-39? AD - Eastward expansion of the Huns
445? AD - Bleda dies. Attila assumes total control over the Huns.
447 AD - Third Campaign against the Eastern Romans. Second Peace of Anatolius is signed.
449 AD - Roman attempt to assassinate Attila Fails. Thrid Peace of Anatolius is signed.
450 AD - Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius dies, succeeded by Marcian. Marcian withdraws from the treaties with the Huns made during Theodosius's reign and terminates the annual tributes to the Huns set by the Peace of Anatolius.
451 AD - Attila's campaign into Gaul. Repulsed at Catalaunian Plains (aka Chalons)
452 AD - Attila's campaign into Northern Italy.
453 AD - Marries Ildiko and dies on the night of the marriage.
451 AD - Ellak, Attila's successor, dies
469 AD - Dengizik, successor of Ellak, dies. End of the Hunnic Empire. Surviving Huns settle in Scythia and is said to have then merged with the Bulgars.