A British nickname for the Germans in World War II.

Used in such contexts as:
"Ere, when are we going to take the war to the blasted hun?"
Used along with Krauts, Jerry and Fritz amongst others.
Even before the famous or infamous Attila the Hun came along , these guys were a bunch of, what would be termed today, badasses.

They arrived on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. They rode their horses out of the great steppes of Asia and struck fear into Germanic barbarians and Romans alike. It is believed that they had moved against the Chinese Empire but were turned away. They set their sights on Rome instead. As they approached the Black Sea, they conquered a people called the Ostrogoths, they also drove the Visogoths across the Danube and into the Roman Empire.

The early Huns used traditional tactics of mounted archers and must have seemed like some kind of monster from the dark when compared to their more civilized contemporaries. A Roman historian, Ammainus Marcellinus, wrote the following towards the end of the fourth century in describing their tactics and customs.

"The nation of Huns surpasses all other Barbarians in wildness of life. And though the Huns do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half raw flesh of any sort of animal."

"I say half raw, because they give it a kind of cooking by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses."

"When attacked, they will sometimes engage in regular battle. Then, going into the fight in order of columns, they fill the air with varied and discordant cries. More often, however, they fight in no regular order of battle, but by being extremely swift and sudden in their movements, they disperse, and then rapidly come together again in loose array, spread havoc over vast plains, and flying over the rampart, they pillage the camp of their enemy almost before he has become aware of their approach. It must be owned that they are the most terrible of warriors because they fight at a distance with missile weapons having sharpened bones admirably fastened to the shaft. When in close combat with swords, they fight without regard to their own safety, and, while their enemy is intent upon parrying the thrust of the swords, they throw a net over him and so entangle his limbs that he loses all power of walking or riding."

So it seems that when the Huns first appeared on the edge of the Roman Empire, they made quite an impression. After their initial threats, they settled along the Danube in the Great Hungarian Plain. For about 50 years, they served the Romans more as allies than enemies. In return , the Eastern Emperor paid them an annual subsidy. On the whole, the uneasy relationship between the Huns and the Roman Empire worked well. That is, until Attila the Hun came along.


Whence came the Huns? The Roman historians Priscus and Ammianus place their homeland next to Lake Maeotis (the Sea of Azov), separated from their neighbors by the vast and trackless Maeotic swamp. A more recent theory, benefitting from access to Chinese imperial histories, identifies the Huns with the Inner Asian Xiongnu, whose menace had forced the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi to unify China's scattered border defenses into one Great Wall—which project, in turn, excluded the Xiongnu raiders from the fertile Chinese heartlands, thus turning their eyes westwards in search of easier plunder. This theory was first put forth in the 18th century, and Gibbon (vol. III, p. 262) further identified the rise of the Xianbei in north China as the cause of the Xiongnu flight west, but his theory has little solid evidence behind it. This is still a matter of some debate.1

The Huns themselves, while they retained some memories of their origins and the deeds of their great kings in oral histories2, were illiterate. Like most nomads of the Asian steppe, they never developed a writing system of their own, and what little they knew of their origins was recorded only in the Roman chronicles, most of which have not survived. In a case such as this, we might turn to the archaeological records to cast some light on our subject, but if the Huns ever produced any durable goods of their own—which is unlikely; their nomad's lifestyle did not lend itself to forging or stonecarving, and they preferred to trade for (or steal) whatever they could not easily produce themselves—no significant number of such objects has been found. The question of the Hunnish origins, therefore, remains unsettled to this day, and what little firm knowledge we have comes from hostile Roman witnesses.

The early years of the Huns

The Roman historians were scarcely better-informed about the origins of the Huns than we are today. Some, Ammianus chief amongst them, accepted their ignorance and recorded only the minimal truths which they knew3; others engaged in wild speculation about the Huns and the beginnings of their migration westward. So it is that we find one legend repeated throughout histories from the fifth century onward, from the Byzantine Eunapius down to the fourteenth century. Priscus' Byzantine History gives a version of this legend:

"While the hunters of this tribe were as usual seeking game on the far bank of Lake Maeotis, they saw a deer appear unexpectedly before them and enter the swamp, leading them on as a guide of the way, now advancing and now standing still. The hunters followed it on foot and crossed the Maeotic swamp [the swamp surrounding the Straits of Kerch, which join the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea], which they had thought was as impassable as the sea. When the unknown Scythian land [note: more probably the lands of the Ostrogoths in the Crimea] appeared, the deer disappeared. . . . The Huns, who had been completely ignorant that any other world existed beyond the Maeotic swamp, were filled with admiration of the Scythian country, and, since they were quick of mind, believed that the passage, familiar to no previous age, had been shown to them by the gods. They returned to their own people, told them what had happened, and persuaded them to follow along the way which the deer, as their guide, had shown them. They hastened to Scythia. . . . Soon they crossed the huge swamp and like some tempest overwhelmed [the various tribes].4

So runs the legend throughout the histories; some substitute a lost heifer and its herdsmen for the deer and the hunters, but the basic form remains unchanged. The story is entirely false. It is almost certainly adapted from Aeschylus, who uses the same phrasing to describe Io's crossing of the same straits.5

Attack on the Goths.

We do not know what force motivated the Huns to leave their homeland; the ancient histories are nothing more than conjecture, and the archaeological records are scanty to non-existent. The first reliable account appears around 376, when the Roman garrisons on the Danube frontier received reports of massive barbarian movements to the north and east. These were the Goths who, having recently been driven from their homes by Hunnish incursions, were now seeking a safe refuge. The scattered bands of Gothic refugees who gathered on the north bank of the Danube were the first raindrops of the great stormΒ which would eventually overwhelm the western Roman Empire.

The Goths, under their king Ermanarich, had not been the first to fall to the Hunnish onslaught. Some years before, the Alans (a nomadic tribe dwelling east of the river Don) had also fallen under Hunnish rule6. Those who were not slaughtered were conscripted into the Hunnish horde and made to lead the vanguard of further assaults. Since the Alans themselves were considered to be dangerous and fearsome barbarians (having raided, repeatedly, the provinces of Armenia and Media), this was a worrisome sign for the Romans. It was about 370 that the Huns reached the borders of the Gothic lands between the Don and Dniester, where they were met first by Ermanarich, then after that aged king's suicide by his great-nephew Vithimiris, who had hired some Hunnish mercenaries of his own. Vithimiris failed to hold back the Hunnish hordes, falling in battle on the river Erac after only a year. The Ostrogoths—those few who had not fled west towards Rome—were now under the sway of the Huns. A small contingent, led by the chieftains Alatheus and Saphrax, beat a fighting retreat to the Dniester where, under one Athanaric, the kingdom of the Visigoths stood. Athanaric, though determined to fight, was outmaneuvered, outflanked, and crushed by the Hun cavalry. Fleeing to the Carpathians, he tried to mount a defense between the rivers Pruth and Danube. He again lost to the Huns, and his army fled in a panic, seeking shelter within the iron ring of the Roman Empire.

Adrianople and the beginnings of the Völkerwanderungen

The Romans, though they permitted the refugees to cross the Danube (with an estimated 200,000 Goths a'knocking at the doors, they had little choice in the matter), were not pleased to have a bunch of armed barbarians running loose throughout Thrace. The Emperor Valens took action to expel (or exterminate) the menace, but was defeated and killed in one of the worst disasters in Roman military history, even greater than Cannae or the Teutoburg Forest. The Huns may have played a minor role in the battle; a small band of Hunnish cavalry, previously hired to break the Roman encirclement in the Haemus Mountains, was found amongst the victors of Adrianople some days later7.

Records of the Hunnish movements following Adrianople are scant; we know that they were active in the Balkans, and that Theodosius I won minor victories over their scattered war bands. Some tribes probed the borders of Gaul, but the raids were sporadic and undirected. Only in 395 did they launch an invasion of the Empire, crossing the frozen Danube to devastate Thrace and parts of Dalmatia. In the east, they rode down out of the Caucasus to lay waste and plunder Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, and parts of Syria, stealing everything of value and enslaving the inhabitants8. The legions, encamped in the western half of the Empire following the civil war between Stilicho and Rufinus, were unable to meet the threat, and only the quick thinking of the Byzantine eunuch Eutropius (who hired mercenaries among the Goths to complement his scattered handful of regular legionaries) stemmed the tide. Saint Jerome recorded a stirring account of this invasion:

"Behold, the wolves, not of Arabia, but of the North, were let loose upon us last year from the far-off rocks of Caucasus, and in a little while overran great provinces. . . . Not even if I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, and a voice of iron could I recount the name of every catastrophe. . . . Lo, suddenly messengers ran to and fro and the whole East trembled, for swarms of Huns had broken forth from the far distant Maeotis. . . where the Gates of Alexander 9 pen in the wild nations behind the rocks of Caucasus. They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic alike as they flitted hither and thither on their swift horses."10

The Rhine frontier is shattered. Völkerwanderungen in full swing. Uldin.

After the events of 395, the Huns again faded out of the Roman history books. Some hints survive; the westward flight of the Vandals, Suevi, and Alans across the Rhine (which frontier broke on New Year's Eve, 406 A.D.) must have been caused by Hunnish expansion, but all records of these events are lost. Also at this time (about 405) a horde of Goths (both Eastern and Western) under King Radagaisus marched into Italy, where Stilicho, aided by a contingent of Hunnish mercenaries, defeated them utterly11. It is at this time that the first Hun known by name, one Uldin, enters the annals. Though he had raided the Balkans in late 404-early 405, he was happy to provide Stilicho with troops against Radagaisus. In 408, however, he invaded the Balkans again, taking the important fortress of Castra Martis by treachery12. The Roman general, unable to meet the Hun head-on, tried to bargain for peace; during the negotiations, he convinced most of Uldin's subordinate tribes to desert. The Hunnish leader himself fled across the Danube, never to be seen again.

The decades before Attila

From Uldin to the time of Attila the Huns did little. Since their Alan allies had deserted, fleeing across the Rhine, their power was somewhat lessened. Some contingents of Hunnish cavalry fought under the usurping Emperor Joannes in the 420s, and Flavius Aetius employed Hun mercenaries. The Huns also raided Thrace and other parts of the Eastern empire, forcing the Emperor Theodosius II to reinforce and rebuild the walls of Constantinople in 422. On the internal history of the Huns, there is only one fragment of Olympiodorus' history:

"Donatus and the Huns, and the skillfulness of their kings in shooting with the bow. The author relates that he himself was sent on a mission to them and Donatus, and gives a tragic account of his wanderings and perils by the sea. How Donatus, being deceived by an oath, was unlawfully put to death. How Charaton, the first of the kings, being incensed by the murder, was appeased by presents from the emperor [Honorius]."13

In the early 430s Rua, uncle of Attila, ruled over the Hun confederation which had arisen at that time. He aided Aetius (who had been a hostage amongst the Huns some years earlier) in the wars with the Burgundians on the Rhine and in his struggles with Sebastian and the empress Gallia Placidia. It was in the East, however, that Rua concentrated his efforts.

Sometime before 434, a number of subordinate tribes14 had fled the Hunnish confederation to join the Byzantine Empire. These tribes were welcomed, as the Eastern Roman rulers needed troops to fight their wars with the Vandals in Africa, which wars weakened the defenses along the Danube, giving the Huns an opportunity like those which incited their invasions of 422 and 395 (both undertaken at times when the Empire's defenses were weakened by other exigencies). Rua demanded that the Byzantines should hand back those rebellious tribes hiding within the Empire's borders, and Theodosius II sent Plintha and Epigenes (the former a consul, the latter a quaestor) to negotiate with the Hunnish warlord, who died before the threatened invasion could begin.

Attila: That destroyer comes in, that adversary of Christ—of God

Rulership of the Hunnish confederation now passed to Attila and his elder brother Bleda, the sons of Rua's brother Mundzuk. They met the embassy of Constantinople at the city of Margus (where Diocletian's rise to power had begun) in the year 435. The terms which the two Huns imposed on the Romans were humiliating: all the fugitives were to be handed back, the Romans were not to aid any of the Huns' enemies, Rua's previously-demanded tribute of 350 pounds of gold was to be doubled, and Hunnish merchants were to be allowed into Roman markets on equal terms. Furthermore, any escaped Roman prisoners of the Huns were to be either returned or ransomed for eight gold solidi apiece. After imposing this harsh Treaty of Margus, Attila and Bleda turned away from Rome to consolidate and expand their jointly-ruled empire, which reached from central Germany to an unknown eastern frontier, and from the Baltic15 south to the Danube. Theodosius II used this breathing space to expand and strengthen the walls of Constantinople against threatened Vandal incursions. He also beefed up the forts and naval patrols along the Danube, and it seemed that the Eastern Empire would be safe from Hunnish invasions.

First invasion of Byzantium

All this changed in 440, when two disasters—the capture of Carthage by the Vandals and the invasion of Armenia by the Sassanid Yezdegerd II—forced the Eastern emperor to strip his Danube defenses to the bone. Attila and Bleda saw their opportunity and jumped, taking the trading forts north of the Danube and slaughtering the Roman merchants. They claimed—truthfully—that the bishop of Margus had despoiled the royal Hun graves on the north bank of the Danube and furthermore, that Theodosius had failed to hand over the fugitive tribes, as agreed in the treaty of 435. Driven by the desire to enforce their treaty (or by simple greed), Attila and Bleda swept through the Eastern Empire in 441, razing Viminacium (Kostolacz), Margus (which fell by the treachery of its bishop16), Singidunum (Belgrade), and Sirmium (the vital center of the Danube defenses). No trace was left of these cities; the buildings were burned to the foundations, and the inhabitants were carried off into slavery. After the fall of Sirmium, the campaign of 441 ended; the Huns were somewhat constrained in their maneuvers by the remaining Roman fortifications, but they had broken through the Danube wall and the Balkan provinces were open before them.

Surprisingly, Attila and Bleda did not continue their campaign in 442; it is thought that the Byzantines had arranged a temporary truce (exactly how they managed this is unknown). Theodosius took used this time to reinforce and reequip his armies, having recalled those forces previously sent against the Vandals17. With his defenses now strengthened, he felt prepared to refuse the Huns' demands. Attila, angry at this snub, attacked east along the Danube, eventually reaching and destroying the vital military base at Ratiara (Artscher). Having thus secured his rear, he turned to Naissus (Nish, the birthplace of Constantine and a military center), which was also burned to the ground. Moving from here along the Nischava river valley, Attila's hordes swept over Sardica (Sofia), Philippopolis, and Arcadiopolis; Adrianople and Heraclea escaped untouched. Encountering Theodosius' reconstituted army outside Constantinople, they routed it, pinned it in the Chersenonus, and wiped it out. Though the Huns were unable to assault the massive walls of Constantinople, Theodosius knew that he was defeated and begged for terms.

The peace, negotiated by one Anatolius, was harsh: the owed tribute (some 6,000 pounds of gold) was to be paid immediately; the annual tribute was to be tripled to 2,100 pounds of gold; fugitives from the Hun empire were to be returned (and any future fugitives to be turned back), while the ransom for Roman soldiers was raised from 8 solidi to 12. Furthermore, the prisoners captured at Asemus (the one city which had successfully resisted the Huns, slaughtering a large number thereof) were to be returned immediately. This Peace of Anatolius was ratified sometime in 443.

Having won the desired victory, the Hunnish tribes returned to the interior of their empire, giving the Eastern emperor a chance to reinforce and rebuild his fortifications along the Danube. At some time during this brief interlude of peace (the exact date is not clear; probably around 445), Attila murdered his brother Bleda (why, we do not know) and rose to rulership of the entire Hun empire. While his hereditary position gave him some authority over the Hunnish tribes, he also based his power on the superstitions of the nomads; in 449 one of his herdsmen had found a rusty sword buried in a field, which object Attila declared to be the Sword of the War-God (sometimes called the Sword of Mars), an ancient holy relic of the Huns; it would, he claimed, give him victory over his enemies.

Second invasion of Byzantium

Beginning in 444, Byzantium was racked by a series of disasters both natural and man-made; circus riots in Constantinople killed many, and plagues struck the capital in 445 and 446 (the second following a food shortage and mass starvation). Attila, like a vulture, swept down on the stricken East, leading a force even larger—contingents of Germanic peoples were pressed into service alongside the Hunnish cavalry—than the horde which he had led in 441. As his armies prepared to march, yet another natural disaster hit the Empire; a four-month series of earthquakes shook Constantinople and its environs, swallowing entire villages and leveling a good part of the capital, even the vital defensive walls (and to make matters worse, the thousands of corpses left unburied in the streets caused yet another plague). Though it seemed that Constantinople would surely fall to the Huns, the Praetorian Prefect Flavius Constantinus organized the citizens to rebuild the defenses, so that within sixty days they had not only restored the damaged sections of wall but also built a new line of defense in front of the old. Constantinus' achievements were commemorated with engravings on both sets of fortifications.

Theodosius had made other preparations for the new Hunnish invasion. Under the magister militum Arnegisclus (a Goth), the Byzantine army marched out of Marcianople to meet the Huns on the river Vid and was defeated utterly, though not without inflicting heavy losses on Attila's horde. Theodosius had staked everything on this battle, and he had lost; the Huns ran rampant throughout the Balkans and Greece, reaching as far as Thermopylae. Callinicus recorded the terrors of this new invasion:

"The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. . . . And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers."18

The Acatziri

Following this great invasion, Attila turned inwards to pacify a nomadic tribe known to us only as the Acatziri, who lived somewhere between the Black and Baltic Seas. Theodosius, recognizing the value of an ally in his enemy's rear, had attempted to cultivate the friendship of these Acatziri but had fouled up; misunderstanding their social organization, he sent his embassy to the wrong chieftain, thus slighting the true ruler (one Curidachus), who turned to Attila for help against the supposed usurper. Attila crushed the Acatziri, leaving only Curidachus as an independent (though subordinate) ruler.

Renewed negotiations with Byzantium

Having broken the military power of the Eastern empire, Attila felt free to dictate what peace terms he saw fit; he demanded that a strip of land south of the Danube, stretching 300 miles east from Sigindunum (Belgrade) with a depth of at least 100 miles, be evacuated. The Byzantines, not wishing to yield their vital defensive border, began intensive negotiations with Attila. The same Anatolius who had negotiated peace after the previous Hun invasion eventually (in 450) induced Attila to retire from all lands south of the Danube. Though such a diplomatic coup must have seemed near-miraculous—negotiations from a position of weakness rarely achieve such successes—the Byzantine embassy was aided in its negotiations by Attila's strong desire to secure his eastern frontier in preparation for a campaign in the west.

Attila's campaigns in the west

Attila, since the beginning of his reign, had been on friendly terms with Flavius Aetius, general of the Western Empire; the two doubtless knew each other well from Aetius' time of exile in 433, when the Roman had sought shelter amongst the Huns from his enemies Sebastian and Gallia Placidia. Attila had also aided the Western armies against both the Goths and the Bagaudae rebels in Gaul, until the latter had massacred a Hunnish force in 439; he had even been appointed magister militum19 of the West around 445. The alliance had been strained by the greed of Aetius' servants, who had stolen plunder from under Attila's nose during the campaigns of 441, but seemed to be strong in 450, when Attila announced that he would attack the Visigoth kingdom of Toulouse as the ally of the Emperor Valentinian III. His intent may have been to remove Flavius Aetius from power and make his previously ceremonial title of magister militum a reality, thus allowing him to rule the Western Empire from within.20

Justa Grata Honoria

The story of Valentinian's sister is well-known; her affair with the palace steward Eugenius, her forced betrothal to the senator Herculanus, and her offer of marriage to Attila in the spring of 450. Valentinian, as soon as had he discovered his sister's plot, took steps to negate it; Honoria was handed over to the custody of her mother and letters were sent to Attila denying the legitimacy of the marriage proposal: Honoria, being already promised to another man, had no right to marry Attila or to promise him half of the Western Empire, since succession to the Imperium was through the male line only. Matters were further snarled by Theodosius' death after a fall from his horse (in the summer of 450) and his successor Marcian's refusal to continue paying tribute to the Huns. Finally, Aetius and Attila came down on opposite sides in a succession struggle between the sons of the Frankish king—Attila had supported one son, while Aetius had gone so far as to adopt the other as his successor. Attila, faced with the choice of punishing Marcian or continuing his planned western campaign, chose the latter; in the first months of 451, he marched out from his encampments in Hungary, picking up allies—and subjects—as he went.

Invasion of Gaul, and the Catalaunian Fields

At first Valentinian thought that Attila's attack might still be restricted to the Visigoths of Toulouse, but Attila's continued and unreasonable demands—for Honoria's hand in marriage and her deserved share of the Western Empire—soon ended these hopes. As the Hunnish hordes crossed the Rhine, Aetius marched forth from famine-ravaged Italy, hoping to convince his life-long enemy Theodoric to aid in the defense of Gaul. Somehow (we do not know exactly how) he succeeded, and to the Roman and Gothic armies were added some contingents of Alans and Saxons from northern Gaul. The armies met Attila at Orleans, which the Hun had nearly overwhelmed, and forced him to retreat to the Catalaunian Plains, where the two armies clashed. We have no clear picture of the battle, but we know that Theodoric fell in the fighting, and the Huns were nearly destroyed; only Aetius' hope that the Huns might still serve as a check on the Visigoths saved Attila from complete destruction.21

Second invasion of the West.

Aetius' plan succeeded (in a way); Attila remained strong enough to launch a punitive raid into Illyricum in the following year, in order to punish the Emperor Marcian for cutting off tribute. This raid could not have been very dangerous, as Marcian himself rode out to repulse it and met with success, but it was only a taste of the Hun's planned invasions. First, however, Attila wished to settle matters in the West, and he set out again in the summer of 452, invading northern Italy. Aetius was caught flat-footed; no doubt he had expected that his conduct after the Catalaunian Plains would help him regain the Hun's friendship, but he was wrong, and his mistake in leaving the northern frontiers practically undefended would cost him dearly. When Aetius received the news that Attila had entered Italy, he gave up; taking the Emperor Valentinian with him, he abandoned Rome to her fate. Attila marched into Italy almost unopposed; after the fall of Aquiliea22, no force remained to resist him.

What stopped Attila, when Rome itself lay undefended before him? Legend has it that the barbarian conqueror was so impressed with the piety and holiness of Pope Leo I—who (it is said) went out barefoot through the snow to meet the Hun army and plead for mercy—that he halted and turned back, while Priscus tells us that Attila feared he would meet the fate of Alaric, who had died shortly after sacking Rome in 410. These stories are probably not true; if we recall that Italy had recently suffered famine and plague, and that Marcian had taken advantage of Attila's absence to invade the center of the Hunnish empire north of the Danube, the departure of the Huns from Italy is no mystery at all.

End of the Hunnish Empire

In 453, Attila seemed poised to punish Marcian's insolence in refusing to continue the agreed-upon tribute, but the dreaded hammer-stroke never fell. During the early months of the year, the Hun king had taken another wife, a Goth named Ildico, and after their wedding feast, he died in her bridal chamber; passed out drunk, he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked on his own blood.α His men, upon discovering his unmarked corpse, mourned him in proper Hunnish fashion, cutting themselves with their swords so "the greatest of all warriors should be mourned with no feminine lamentations and with no tears, but with the blood of men."23 He was buried covered with gold, silver, and iron (symbols, respectively, of the tributes of the East, the tributes of the West, and his conquest of all peoples).

Attila's empire did not outlast him. His sons immediately began bickering over the lands which he had conquered, and the once-mighty Hunnish empire fell into civil war. Some scattered bands, now refugees themselves (for the Avars had arisen as a new power in the east—chased from their homes, says Priscus, by griffins—excluding the Huns from their home on the Black Sea), settled in the Eastern empire. So ended the Huns—they who had set in motion the Völkerwanderungen which would overwhelm the Western Empire and change the ethnic makeup of Western Europe forever—scattered and disunited tribes, subject to the same empire they had once sought to conquer.


1 For the counter-proposals, see J.B. Bury's edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall (Vol. III, Appendix 6) wherein he warns against fanciful connections between north China and the steppes of Russia (where the Huns first entered the Western records)—though Bury later reversed himself, accepting the theory; see his Later Roman Empire, Vol. I (London, 1923). Also see Otto Maenchen-Helfen's Huns and Hsiung-Nu, wherein he presents a fairly comprehensive debunking of the Hun-Xiongnu connection, on linguistic, historic, ethnographic, and archaeological grounds.

2 Priscus records the Huns singing the praises of Attila in their banquet halls:

"When evening began to draw in, torches were lighted, and two barbarians came forward in front of Attila and sang songs which they had composed, hymning his victories and his great deeds in war. And the banqueters gazed at them, and some were rejoiced at the songs, others became excited at heart when they remembered the wars, but others broke into tears—those whose bodies were weakened by time and whose spirit was compelled to be at rest."

While some have theorized that the Huns had picked up this custom from their Gothic neighbors, and in fact sung the songs in the Gothic language, this is unlikely; why would Attila have adopted not only the customs, but also the language of his weak and inferior neighbors? It is more likely that similar societies produced similar customs.

3 Ammianus (XXXI, 2.1) says only "The nation of the Huns, scarcely known to ancient documents, dwelt beyond the Maeotic marshes beside the frozen ocean, and surpassed every extreme of ferocity."[note: it is not entirely clear which ocean is here referred to; neither the Black nor the Caspian Sea is permanently frozen, and the Maeotic swamps (near the Sea of Azov) are very far from the Arctic Ocean.]

4 Priscus, Byzantine History, fragment 10.

5 See A.A. Vasiliev, The Goths in the Crimea (Cambridge, Mass., Medieval Academy of America: Monograph No. 11, 1936), p. 29.

6 We do not know whether force brought the Alans into the Hunnish hordes or whether the alliance was mutually beneficial. Saint Ambrose of Milan provides one perspective (De Fide, II, 16, in CSEL, vol. 73) on the chain of events leading up to Valens' defeat at Adrianople:

"The Huns threw themselves upon the Alans, the Alans upon the Goths, and the Goths upon the Taifali and Sarmatae; the Goths, exiled from their own country, made us exiles in Illyricum, and the end is not yet."

Whether by mutually-agreed alliance or by subjugation, the Alans cooperated with the Huns for approximately three decades, from the 370s to the first years of the 5th century A.D., when they broke from the Hunnish horde and fled into Gaul.

Β Forgive my overwrought language here, and realize that the Germanic "invasions" of the Empire don't really fit the popular image of axe-wielding barbarian hordes, driven before the whips of the savage Huns and led by heroic kings bent on pillage, rape, and conquest, overwhelming the gleaming white walls of old Rome. Rather, think of the Völkerwanderungen as a bunch of ordinary (if warlike) folk, in search of a place do what they did: plant crops, raise children, live their lives under what was for the time surprisingly enlightened governance (some of the Germanic tribes elected their leaders by universal (free) male suffrage, an idea which wouldn't come back in force until the 19th century) .

7 Well. . . it's like this: The Roman army, under one Saturninus, had pinned the Goths between the Danube, the Haemus Mountains, and the Black Sea; the Goths, unable to break the encirclement (hampered as they were by the large numbers of women, children, and the elderly among their numbers—remember that this was more a migration than an invasion), sent emissaries to a group of Huns and Alans operating to the west. This war band crossed the Danube and outflanked the Roman army, forcing a retreat. These Huns remained with the migrating Goths, but it is unlikely that they got involved in the battle; the Alan cohorts, however, did take part in the final cavalry charge which broke the back of Valens' legions. See Ammianus, XXXI, 12.

8 It is worth noting that some inhabitants of the invaded territories willingly joined the Hunnish armies, suggesting that even submission to these savage barbarians was preferable to life under the corrupt and lethargic Roman government. See Maenchen-Helfen, 1973, pp 58-9.

9 Alexander's Wall is today thought to be the Caucasian Wall near Derbent, built by the Sassanid Emperor Anushirvan in the 6th century—but the legend long predates the construction of the wall, as Jerome (writing in the late 4th-early 5th century) and even Flavius Josephus (Jewish War, Book VII) show. The legend eventually made its way into the Quran (18:94-97), which relates how Zul-qarnain (the Two-Horned One, sometimes thought to be Alexander the Great) built an iron wall to hold back Gog and Magog. Note also that the southern passes of the Caucasus (vital as they are to the defense of Persia) have often been fortified, so the legend may well have some truth to it. See Robert Silverberg's The Great Wall of China and Andrew Runni Anderson's Alexander's Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations (Cambridge, Mass., Medieval Academy of America, 1932).

10 Saint Jerome, Epistulae, LX 16, LXXVII 8

11 The triumphal arch commemorating this war records that the nation of Goths had been "crushed forever", which inscription must have amused Alaric when he marched into Rome only four years later.

12 While the Huns were able to outflank—out of necessity, as they were unskilled in siege-craft—the fortifications of the limes, they could not remain within the frontiers of the Empire for any time: With Roman fortresses left un-taken in their rear, they would eventually be pinned between the armies of the interior and the legions at the border. Taking Castra Martis allowed them to operate freely in the relatively undefended interior provinces.

13 Olympiodorus, fr. 18. This account survives only as an epitome recorded in Photius' Bibliotheca.

14 Thompson (p. 71) thinks that these were Hunnish groups which had opposed Rua's kingship, though the Roman sources name them as the Amilzuri, Itimari, Tunsures, and Boisci (Jordanes, xxiv. 126)

15 Roman coins from Attila's time have been found in abundance on the islands of Bornholm, Oeland, and Gotland, while coins from other eras are very rare. See Olov Janse, Notes sur quelques représentations des bractéates en or scandinaves (in Revue Archéologique, Ser. 5, vol. XIII, 1921, pp. 373-95) and Notes sur les solidi romains et byzantins trouvés en Scandinavie (Revue numismatique, Ser. IV, vol. XXV, 1922, pp. 38-48).

16 Public opinion in Byzantium had turned against this fellow (with good reason); why, the people asked, should the entire Empire be placed at risk because of one man's greed and folly? Suspecting that he would be sacrificed to appease the Huns' wrath, the bishop defected and betrayed Margus to Attila's horde, which burned the city to the ground. The traitor himself disappeared, never to be heard from again.

17 Roman coins from this year reveal the urgency of Theodosius' efforts. A large number of hastily-stamped gold solidi, showing on one face Theodosius in arms and armor, on the other Constantinople, helmeted, holding the world in her right hand and the Cross in her left, were minted in this year; Theodosius' grandiose titles were also omitted from these coins, which were needed to finance the war against Attila. See A. Blanchet, Les Monnaies de la guerre de Théodose II contre Attila en 442 (Revue historique du sud-est européen, 1, 1924, pp. 97-102).

18 Callinicus,Life of Saint Hypatius, p. 139, 21.

19 For Attila, the title was purely ceremonial; he commanded no troops within the borders of the Empire.

20 See Thompson, pp. 131-2; but he acknowledges that we know nothing significant about Attila's motivations for invading the West. Greed may have been part of the story; after two massive invasions, the Balkans had little left to steal.

21 Aetius, on the day following the battle, maneuvered Thorismud (son of Theodoric) into leaving the field by suggesting that those Goths remaining at Toulouse might try to seize the throne; furthermore, he induced the Frankish king to return home by pointing out that the Huns' retreat would take them through the lands of the Franks. See Jordanes, XLI. 215.

22 This city, it is said, had never been taken, and indeed it was the greatest challenge Attila faced throughout his campaign. The Huns themselves were unable to storm its walls; they called on some of their subject nations, more skilled in siegecraft, to reduce the walls before swarming in and razing the city to the ground. The destruction was so thorough that the city disappeared completely; visitors to the site some hundred years later were unable to find any trace of it.

αThe Pardoner's Tale mentions this:

Looke, Attilla, the grete conquerour,
Deyde in his sleepe, with shame and dishonour,
Bledynge ay at his nose in dronkenesse.
A capitayn sholde lyve in sobrenesse;

23 Jordanes, XLII. 222

24 Jordanes, XLIX. 225


Sources Modern

  • Gibbon, Edward; The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. III; (NY, Knopf, 1993)
  • Gordon, C.D.; The Age of Attila: Fifth-century Byzantium and the Barbarians (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1960)
  • Maenchen-Helfen, J. Otto (ed. Max Knight); The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973)
  • Maenchen-Helfen, J. Otto; Huns and Hsiung-Nu (published in Byzantion, XVII, 1944–45, pp. 222-243)
  • Maenchen-Helfen, J. Otto; The Legend of the Origin of the Huns (published in Byzantion, XVII, 1944–45, pp. 244-251)
  • Thompson, E.A; A History of Attila and the Huns (London, Oxford University Press, 1948) was most helpful in compiling other sources.

Sources Classical

  • Ammianus Marcellinus (tr. W. Hamilton), The Later Roman Empire (Rerum Gestarum XXXI Libri) (London, Penguin Books, 1986)
  • Callinicus (tr. G.J.M. Bartelink), Life of Saint Hypatius (Paris, Editions du Cerf, 1971)
  • Jerome, Epistulae (London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1963)
  • Jordanes, The Origins and Deeds of the Goths
  • Photius, Bibliotheca (tr. J.H. Freese) (NY, MacMillan, 1920)
  • Priscus, Byzantine History; in Dindorf, Ludwig, Historici Graeci Minores (Leipzig, B.G. Teubner, 1870)
  • Procopius (tr. G.A. Williamson), The Secret History (London, Penguin Books, 1966)

Final words from the author: This is only the history of the Huns; detailed writeups on their ethnography, society, and warfare will be placed elsewhere, as this writeup is already too damn long.

Props to mblase and Rancid_Pickle for their quest; props also to McLennan-Redpath, where I did my research.

Hun (?), n. [L. Hunni, also Chunni, and Chuni; cf. AS. Hnas, Hne, OHG. Hni, G. Hunnen.]

One of a warlike nomadic people of Northern Asia who, in the 5th century, under Atilla, invaded and conquered a great part of Europe.


© Webster 1913.

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