- Nomadic steppe people who were skilled horsemen and great warriors and who challenged the power of the Roman Empire in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Although the Huns were never a direct threat to the existence of the empire, they did create great difficulties for Rome and won a number of battles against imperial armies. They both served in the Roman military against invaders and were themselves invaders. The Huns also may have caused such great terror among various Germanic tribes along Rome's periphery that their advance led to the Germanic migrations (or barbarian invasions) of the fourth and fifth centuries. They created a great empire under their greatest leader, Attila, which collapsed shortly after his death.The origins and early history of the Huns remain obscure and uncertain. The ancients offer a number of views of their origins. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus said that they came from the "ice-bound north," suggesting, therefore, that they had Finno-Ugrian roots like the tenth-century invaders, the Magyars who settled in Hungary. Other sources describe them as a Turkic people, or as a new wave of Scythians, Iranian horsemen who disappeared in the second century. A popular modern view of the Huns places their origins on the frontiers of ancient China. According to this view, the Huns can be associated with the Hsiung-nu (the name Huns thus would be a corruption of the Chinese word for "common slaves"), northern neighbors of the Chinese until the second century a.d. The Hsiung-nu had long harassed the Chinese and inspired the erection of the Great Wall to protect the Chinese from their powerful neighbors. Kept in check by the great Han dynasty, the Hsiung-nu turned their attention elsewhere and eventually moved westward, with dire consequences for those in their way. As attractive as this last view is, it has met with increasing skepticism. It is likely that the Hunnish nation, like that of the other barbarian peoples, was not ethnically homogenous but made up of a number of peoples. At the very least, it is clear the Huns were a nomadic steppe people of Eurasia, who absorbed Alans, Goths, and other peoples as they swept into the Roman Empire.The ancient sources also reveal certain physical and sociocultural characteristics of the Huns. According to the historian of the Goths, Jordanes notes that the Huns prepared their meat by placing it between the horse and saddle and "cooking" it as they rode. Moreover, up until the time of Attila, and to a lesser degree his predecessor Ruga, the Huns lacked a central ruling authority. As a nomadic people shepherding their flock from pasture to pasture, they were migratory and organized under tribal chieftains who were hierarchically ranked. The Huns themselves were organized by families and larger clan units, with families living together in one tent, six to ten tents forming a camp, and several camps forming a clan. Kinship, rather than kingship, was the most important institution among the Huns until the time of Attila, and even then it remained an important institution. Indeed, even Attila, the greatest ruler of the Huns was not recognized as a sacred king. The Huns were skilled horsemen and equally skilled in the use of the composite bow, a bow made of different materials that were glued together and reinforced by strips of sinew. The ancient sources also reveal the funeral rites, at least for exalted figures like Attila. His body was borne into an open field, where it was laid to rest in a tent of the finest Chinese silk. A ceremony called the strava then took place around the body, during which the Huns rode around the tent, chanting a dirge, tearing out their hair, and gashing their faces. He was then buried in a three-layer coffin of gold, silver, and iron and and much wealth was placed in the grave with him. The slaves who prepared Attila's tomb were killed so that its whereabouts would remain unknown.The Huns, whatever their exact origins, first arrived in Europe in 375 and helped initiate the so-called migration of peoples. It should be noted, however, that although the arrival of the Huns and their allies among the Gepids, Rugians, and others caused great turmoil and forced the movement of the Goths, a generation passed before the Huns were politically mature enough to exploit the situation in the empire and along its frontiers. Nonetheless, the arrival of these terrifying warriors on horseback did destabilize the balance along Rome's frontier.The Huns' advance included the conquest of the Alans along the Don River-and the Huns were ruthless overlords who kept their subject peoples from seceding-which brought them and their allies from among the subject Alans into contact with the Ostrogothic kingdom of Ermanaric. The exact size of the army of the Huns remains in doubt, but it is likely that they fought a series of successful battles against Ermanaric. The Gothic king then took his own life, a sacrifice to the gods for the safety of his people that proved ineffective. The failure of Ermanaric and his successor led to the absorption of much of Ermanaric's nation by the Huns. Some Goths, however, escaped subjugation by seeking the protection of the emperor, Valens, and requesting admission to the empire as foederati (federated allies). This was perhaps the most serious consequence of the Huns' first contact with the Germanic peoples living along Rome's frontier. The settlement of the Goths in the empire had disastrous consequences; in 376 the Goths fought a major battle at Hadrianople that resulted in the death of the emperor and the weakening of the empire.A generation passed, however, before the Huns themselves raised the banner of war and conquest again. In the last decade of the fourth century, Hunnish raiders once again began striking at the frontiers of the empire and at the Germans living on either side of that frontier. During the winter of 394-395, the Huns simultaneously attacked the Balkan provinces of the empire and, moving across the Caucasus, Asia Minor. The advance was stopped by a Visigothic count, Tribigild, whose success inspired his demands for reward from the imperial government. When the emperor refused, Tribigild rebelled, in 399, and another Visigoth in the service of the empire, Gainas, was sent to put down the rebellion. Gainas quickly rallied the large number of Visigoths in the Roman army to his side, and then he too rebelled. His campaign was much more serious than that of Tribigild; he aimed to establish himself as the power behind the throne in Constantinople. Gainas met success early and even occupied the city of Constantinople for a time. He was, however, expelled from the capital, and as many as 7,000 of his followers were massacred during the withdrawal. But Gainas, remaining undaunted, attempted to establish a kingdom north of the Danube and sacrificed the Roman soldiers in his control to the god of the Danube to ensure success. At this point the Huns, led by the first known Hunnish king, Uldin, met the Visigoth and his army. The two armies fought several battles. Uldin ultimately triumphed; Gainas died in battle on December 23, 400, and the Hunnish king sent his rival's head to Constantinople. The imperial government lavished gifts on Uldin and established a treaty with him.The treaty proved a great benefit to the empire when a wave of Goths and other peoples spread into the empire in 405, possibly the result of increasing pressure from the Huns themselves. Uldin, however, honored the treaty with Rome when the Gothic leader Radagaisus invaded the empire. Although it was the Roman military commander Stilicho who defeated Radagaisus, he was able to secure his victory because of the support of Uldin's Huns. Although he was only one of several Hunnish rulers at the time, Uldin's association with Rome set the stage for Roman-Hunnish relations for much of the next generation. Roman military commanders, such as Stilicho and Aëtius, employed Hunnish soldiers, and made alliances toward that end with other Hunnish kings, such as Charaton. The Huns aided Roman generals against invading barbarians and against internal rebels during this period, and also solidified their position along the Roman frontier, possibly in the Carpathian mountain region.During the opening decades of the fifth century, the Huns underwent a process of transformation. As they moved into the Carpathians and also across Illyria, the Huns shed some of their earlier social and political structures. They became less pastoral and migratory and more dependent upon the agricultural produce of their subject peoples. They also undertook raids to acquire the livestock they no longer husbanded themselves. With settlement came changes in their political organization, as the old tribal structure of hierarchically ranked chieftains was gradually replaced by a smaller number of kings and, eventually, a sole king who ruled the Hunnish peoples and their subject folk.In the 420s Attila's uncles Octar and Ruga ruled the Huns as kings and shaped them into a more unified people. Ruga, the senior partner, was particularly important to the formation of the Huns and helped establish the foundation for his nephew's success. As king, Ruga oversaw important changes in the relationship of the Huns and the Roman Empire. In 433, the leading general of the West, Aëtius, feared for his position and life and turned to the Huns for assistance. He negotiated a treaty with Ruga and returned to the Western Empire with strong Hunnish military support that enabled him to reestablish his power and, in fact, increase his authority. The relationship with Aëtius was surely an aid to Ruga and his Huns, who also were involved with the Eastern Empire. Ruga staged raids on the Eastern Empire and threatened the capital of Constantinople. He was the first leader of the Huns to extract tribute from the Eastern Empire, imposing a treaty on Constantinople involving annual payments of 350 pounds of gold. Although this was not a significant amount, it did suggest a changing balance of power and the increasing self-confidence of the Huns and their king. Ruga also demanded the return of Hunnish soldiers who had deserted to imperial armies, and failure to return them, Ruga declared, would be a violation of the treaty between the empire and the Huns.Ruga's death occurred before he could resolve the disagreement over the return of Hunnish soldiers, which would be addressed by his successors, his nephews Attila and Bleda. The Huns continued to enjoy success against the empire under Attila and Bleda. In 435, they negotiated a new treaty with Rome that doubled the annual tribute and required the return or ransom of Hunnish deserters. In the early and mid-440s, Hunnish power continued to expand at Rome's expense. The violation of the treaty Attila had signed led to an invasion of the empire that involved the razing of a number of cities by the Huns, who also threatened the city of Constantinople. Attila's invasion led to another treaty with the empire that increased the annual tribute to 2,100 pounds of gold and a one-time payment of 6,000 pounds of gold. At this point, fortunes turned for the Huns, who no longer appeared so fearsome to their enemies. Bleda was blamed for this and was assassinated by his brother, who now became the sole ruler of the Huns.Attila quickly resumed hostilities against the empire, ravaging the Balkans, and reestablishing his position. In 450 he turned his attention to the Western Empire, perhaps because of a marriage proposal from the emperor's sister, Honoria. He invaded with a huge force, numbering between 300,000 and 700,000 soldiers according to contemporary sources, made up of Huns and various subject peoples and allies. Despite a sizeable force, Attila met several setbacks at the hands of Aëtius and his equally mixed army of Romans and Germans, setbacks that included the failure to take the critical city of Orleans. Aëtius and Attila fought a terrible and bloody battle on the Catalaunian Plains. At one point things were going so badly for the Huns that Attila prepared to commit suicide. But the Huns rallied and left the battlefield in orderly fashion, and they were not pursued by the Roman armies-wounded, the Huns would have fought on ferociously, and Aëtius needed the Huns too much to destroy them. Attila pressed on and invaded Italy in 452 for a second time. The invasion began more favorably for the Huns, until they met Pope Leo the Great, who persuaded Attila to withdraw, which he did. According to sacred tradition, Saints Peter and Paul and a host of angels and saints supported Leo and forced Attila's departure. Another explanation for Attila's withdrawal is that his army was being decimated by plague. Attila refused to relent and planned a great invasion of the Eastern Empire in 453, but his death on his wedding night put an end to those plans.With the death of Attila, the Roman Empire breathed more easily. Although he never threatened the empire's existence, Attila posed a great challenge that did serious damage to the empire and its allies. Unfortunately for the Huns, but fortunately for everyone else, Attila had no successor that was his equal. His numerous sons failed to provide a united front and were unable to overcome the challenge raised by the various subject peoples, particularly the Gepids. In 454 the Huns and their allies were decisively defeated by an ethnically diverse army, similar to those that had fought for and against Attila, at the Battle of Nedao. Attila's oldest son, Ellac, died at Nedao, but other sons continued the struggle and were defeated and killed by 469. The empire of the Huns collapsed, and rival Germanic peoples carved out new kingdoms in its place. The Western Roman Empire, too, did not long survive the death of Attila and the collapse of his empire. Within a generation of his death and the disappearance of his empire, various Germanic peoples had moved into the Western Empire and brought about its fall.See alsoAëtius; Alans; Ammianus Marcellinus; Attila the Hun; Hadrianople, Battle of; Jordanes; Ostrogoths; VisigothsBibliography♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. Vol. 1. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.♦ Heather, Peter. "Goths and Huns, c. 320-425." In The Late Empire, a.d. 337-425, vol. 13, The Cambridge Ancient History, ed. Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 487-537.♦ Lot, Ferdinand. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages. Trans. Philip and Mariette Leon. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961.♦ Reynolds, Susan. "Our Forefathers? Tribes, Peoples, and Nations in the Historiography of the Age of Migrations." In After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History, ed. Alexander Callander Murray. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 17-36.♦ Thompson, Edward A. A History of Attila and the Huns. Oxford: Clarendon, 1948.♦ ---. The Huns. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.
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