Of all the groups that invaded the Roman Empire, none caused more fear than the Huns. Their superior combat technology drove thousands of people to flee westward in the 5th century AD. NS. The Huns existed as a horror story long before they actually appeared. Their charismatic and fierce leader Attila, who by his mere appearance, made people around them fearful, causing the Romans to panic attacks, was no exception. In later times, the word "Hun" became a derogatory term and a byword for savagery. But few people know who the Huns really were and why they were so feared.
The Roman Empire has always had problems with its exceptionally long northern border. The Rhine-Danube rivers were often crossed by nomadic tribes who, out of opportunism and desperation, sometimes crossed Roman territory, raiding and looting along the way. Emperors such as Marcus Aurelius had carried out lengthy campaigns in previous centuries to secure this difficult border area.
While migrations were constant for several centuries, by the 4th century AD. NS. barbarian raiders, mostly of German origin, appeared on the doorsteps of Rome in unprecedented numbers, seeking to establish themselves in Roman territory. This epic event is often called the Völkerwanderung, or the wandering of the people, and will ultimately destroy the Roman Empire.
Why so many people migrated during this time is still controversial, as many historians now attribute this massive displacement to a variety of factors, including pressure on arable land, internal strife, and climate change. However, one of the key reasons is obvious - the Huns were on the move. The first large tribe to arrive in overwhelming numbers were the Goths, who appeared in the thousands on the Roman border in 376, claiming that a mysterious and savage tribe had driven them to a critical point. The Goths and their neighbors were under pressure from the marauding Huns, who were getting closer and closer to the Roman border.
The Romans soon agreed to help the Goths, feeling that they had no choice but to try to integrate a huge military force into their territory. However, soon after they brutally treated their Goth visitors, hell began. The Goths would eventually become unruly, and the Visigoths, in particular, would sack the city of Rome in 410.
While the Goths plundered the Roman provinces, the Huns were still approaching, and during the first decade of the 5th century, many other tribes took the chance to cross the borders of Rome in search of new lands. Vandals, Alans, Suevi, Franks and Burgundians were among those who flooded the Rhine, annexing lands throughout the Empire. The Huns created a huge domino effect, causing an overwhelming influx of new people into Roman territory. These dangerous warriors helped to destroy the Roman Empire before they even got there.
But who was this mysterious group of raiders, and how did they push so many tribes westward? From some sources it is known that physically the Huns were very different from any other peoples that the Romans encountered before, and this in turn increased the fear that they instilled.
Some Huns also practiced head binding, a medical procedure that involves tying the skull of young children in order to artificially lengthen it. In recent years, there have been many studies aimed at establishing the origin of the Huns, but this topic still remains controversial. An analysis of several well-known Hunnic words indicates that they spoke an early form of Turkic, a language family that spread throughout Asia from Mongolia to the Central Asian steppes region in the early Middle Ages. While many theories suggest the origin of the Huns in the region of Kazakhstan, some suspect that they came from a much farther east.
For many centuries, Ancient China fought with its warlike northern neighbors, the Xiongnu. In fact, they caused so much trouble that an early version of the Great Wall was built during the Qin Dynasty (3rd century BC), partly to keep them out. After several major defeats at the hands of the Chinese in the 2nd century AD. NS. the northern Xiongnu were seriously weakened and fled to the west.
The word "Xiongnu" in ancient Chinese would have sounded to foreign ears approximately like "honnu", which prompted some scholars to tentatively associate this name with the word "hun". The Hunnu were a semi-nomadic people whose lifestyle seemed to have many similarities with the Huns, and Xiongnu-style bronze cauldrons often appear in Xiongnu camps throughout Europe. And it is quite possible that over the next few centuries, this group from Far East Asia traveled all the way to Europe in search of homeland and prey.
The fighting style of the Huns made them extremely difficult to defeat. The Huns seem to have invented an early type of compound bow that bends backwards to apply additional pressure. The Huns' bows were sturdy and made from animal bones, sinew, and wood. And despite the fact that many ancient cultures have developed variations of this powerful bow, the Huns are one of the few groups who have learned to shoot from it at speed, on horseback. Other cultures that have historically fielded similar armies, such as the Mongols, were also nearly unstoppable on the battlefield when faced with slower infantry armies.
Masters of quick raids, the Huns were able to get close to a group of soldiers, shoot hundreds of arrows and gallop away again without engaging their enemy in close combat. When they approached other soldiers, they would often use the lasso to drag their enemies along the ground and then chop them to pieces with their swords.
While other ancient technical innovations in military science were simply copied as soon as they were discovered, the Huns' skill in archery on horseback could not be easily introduced into other cultures, like, say, chain mail. Modern equestrian archery enthusiasts have told historians about the grueling effort and years of practice it takes to simply hit one target at a gallop. Horse archery itself was a way of life for these nomadic peoples, and the Huns grew up on horseback, learning to ride and shoot from an early age.
In addition to their bows and lassos, they also developed the early siege weapons that would soon become so characteristic of medieval warfare. Unlike most other barbarian groups that attacked the Roman Empire, the Huns became experts in attacking cities, using siege towers and battering rams with devastating effects.
In 395, the Huns finally made their first forays into the Roman provinces, plundering and burning vast swaths of the Roman East. The Romans were already very much afraid of the Huns, having heard about them from the Germanic tribes who broke through their borders, and the alien appearance of the Huns and unusual customs only increased the Romans' fear of this group.
Some sources say that their methods of warfare made them incredible robbers, and that they plundered and burned cities, villages and church communities throughout the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Balkans in particular were devastated, and some of the Roman borderlands were given to the Huns after they were thoroughly plundered.
Delighted with the wealth they found in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns soon settled here for long journeys. While nomadism gave the Huns military prowess, it also deprived them of the comforts of a sedentary civilization, so the Hunnic kings soon enriched themselves and their people by establishing an empire on the borders of Rome.
The Kingdom of the Huns was centered around what is now Hungary, and its size is still disputed, but it appears to have encompassed large areas of Central and Eastern Europe. While the Huns caused incalculable damage to the eastern Roman provinces, they chose to avoid a campaign of major territorial expansion within the Roman Empire itself, preferring to plunder and steal from imperial lands from time to time.
The Huns are best known today for one of their kings, Attila. Attila became the subject of many terrible legends that overshadowed the true identity of man himself. Perhaps the most famous and iconic story of Attila is taken from a later medieval tale in which Attila meets the Christian man, the Saint Wolf. The always affable Attila introduced himself to the servant of God, saying: "I am Attila, the Scourge of God," and since then this title has stuck.
According to the Roman diplomat Priscus, who personally met with Attila, the great leader of the Huns was a short man, supremely confident and charismatic, and despite his great wealth, he lived very modestly, preferring to dress and behave like a simple nomad. Attila officially became co-regent along with his brother Bleda in AD 434. NS. and ruled alone since 445.
It is also worth noting the fact that Attila actually made fewer raids than is commonly believed. But also do not forget that, first of all, he was known for extorting every penny he could get from the Roman Empire. Since the Romans were so afraid of the Huns by this point and had so many other problems to deal with, Attila knew that he had very little to do to force the Romans to retreat before him.
Seeking to stay out of the line of fire, the Romans signed the Treaty of Margus in 435, which guaranteed the Huns a regular tribute in gold in exchange for peace. Attila often violated the treaty by raiding Roman territory and plundering cities, and he became fantastically wealthy at the expense of the Romans, who continued to write new treaties, trying to avoid fighting him altogether.
Attila's reign of terror did not last long. Having deprived the Eastern Roman Empire of its riches and seeing that Constantinople itself was too difficult to plunder, he turned his gaze to the Western Empire.
Attila apparently planned to march against the West for some time, but his raids were officially provoked after he received a flattering letter from Honoria, a member of the Western imperial family. Honoria's story is extraordinary because, according to the source material, she appears to have sent a love letter to Attila in order to get out of a failed marriage.
Attila took advantage of this contrived pretext to invade the west, claiming that he had come for his long-suffering bride and that the Western Empire itself was her rightful dowry. The Huns soon devastated Gaul, attacking many large and well-defended cities, including the heavily fortified border city of Trier. These were some of the worst raids of the Huns, but ultimately they stopped Attila.
By AD 451 NS. the great West Roman commander Aetius gathered a huge field army of the Goths, Franks, Saxons, Burgundians and other tribes, united in a mutual struggle to protect their new western lands from the Huns. A huge battle began in the French region of Champagne, in the area then known as the Catalaun Fields, and the mighty Attila was finally defeated in a grueling battle.
Defeated but not destroyed, the Huns will deploy their army to plunder Italy before finally heading home. For reasons unknown, Attila was dissuaded from attacking Rome in this final escapade after meeting with Pope Leo the Great.
The plundering of Italy was the swan song of the Huns, and soon Attila would die, suffering from internal hemorrhage on her wedding night in 453. The Huns did not last long after Attila and soon began to fight among themselves. After several more crushing defeats at the hands of the Romans and the Goths, the Hun Empire collapsed, and the Huns themselves seem to have disappeared from history altogether, leaving after many dire consequences.
Continuing the topic, read also about the druids of Roman Britain and why many felt fear at the mention of them.