The Huns were nomadic warriors who terrorized much of Europe and the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. They were impressive horsemen best known for their astounding military achievements. As they plundered their way across the European continent, the Huns acquired a reputation for being ruthless, indomitable savages.
No one knows exactly where the Huns came from. Some scholars believe they originated from the nomad Xiongnu people who entered the historical record in 318 B.C. and terrorized China during the Qin Dynasty and during the later Han Dynasty. The Great Wall of China was reportedly built to help protect against the mighty Xiongnu.
Other historians believe the Huns originated from Kazakhstan, or elsewhere in Asia.
Prior to the 4th century, the Huns traveled in small groups led by chieftains and had no known individual king or leader. They arrived in southeastern Europe around 370 A.D. and conquered one territory after another for over 70 years.
Huns in Life and in Battle
The Huns were equestrian masters who reportedly revered horses and sometimes slept on horseback. They learned horsemanship as early as age three and, according to legend, their faces were cut at a young age with a sword to teach them to endure pain.
Most Hun soldiers dressed simply but regally outfitted their steeds with saddles and stirrups trimmed in gold, silver and precious stones. They raised livestock but weren’t farmers and seldom settled in one area. They lived off the land as hunter-gatherers, dining on wild game and gathering roots and herbs.
The Huns took a unique approach to warfare. They moved fast and swiftly on the battlefield and fought in seeming disarray, which confused their foes and kept them on the run. They were expert archers who used reflex bows made of seasoned birch, bone and glue. Their arrows could strike a man 80 yards away and seldom missed their mark.
Thanks to their experience lassoing horses and cattle, the Huns skillfully lassoed their enemies on the battlefield, brutally tearing them off their horses and dragging them to a violent death. They also used battering rams to break through Roman defense walls.
But the Huns’ main weapon was fear. It’s reported that Hun parents placed binders on their children’s heads, which gradually deformed their skulls and gave them a menacing appearance. The Huns killed men, women and children alike and decimated almost everything and everyone in their path. They looted and plundered and seldom took prisoners; however, when they did, they enslaved them.
Huns Reach the Roman Empire
The Huns came on the historical scene in Europe during the late 4th century A.D when, in 370 A.D., they crossed the Volga River and conquered the Alans, another civilization of nomadic, warring horsemen.
Two years later, they attacked the Ostrogoths, an eastern tribe of Germanic Goths who harassed the Roman Empire by frequently attacking their territories.
By 376, the Huns had attacked the Visigoths (the western tribe of Goths), and forced them to seek sanctuary within the Roman Empire. Some of the Alans, Goths and Visigoths were conscripted into the Hunnic infantry.
As the Huns dominated Goth and Visigoth lands, they earned a reputation as the new barbarians in town and seemed unstoppable. By 395 A.D., they began invading Roman domains. Some Roman Christians believed they were devils arrived straight from hell.
The Huns Unite
By 430 A.D., the Hun tribes had united and were ruled by King Rugila and his brother, Octar. But by 432, Octar had been killed in battle and Rugila ruled alone. At one point, Rugila formed a treaty with the Roman Emperor Theodosius in which the Huns received a tribute from Theodosius in exchange for their army’s help in defeating the Goths.
In the 5th century, the Huns changed from a group of nomadic warrior tribes to a somewhat settled civilization living in the Great Hungarian Plain in eastern Europe. They had amassed an enormous army made up of cavalry and infantry troops from various backgrounds.
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But if the Romans had thought the Huns were brutal under Rugila’s rule, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
Attila the Hun
King Rugila died in 434 and was succeeded by his two nephews—brothers Attila and Bleda. Attila was described as a short man with a large head and thin beard who knew both Latin and Goth and was a master negotiator.
Shortly after starting his reign, he negotiated a peace treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire in which the Romans paid him gold in exchange for peace. But eventually the Romans reneged on the deal and in 441, Attila and his army stormed their way through the Balkans and the Danubian frontier.
Another peace treaty was forged in 442, but Attila attacked again in 443, killing, ransacking and pillaging his way to the well-fortified city of Constantinople and earning the nickname, “the scourge of God.”
Unable to break through the walls of the city, Attila formed another peace agreement: he would leave Constantinople alone in exchange for an annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold, a staggering sum.
In 445, Attila murdered Bleda—supposedly to prevent Bleda from murdering him first—and became sole ruler of the Huns. He then launched another campaign against the Eastern Roman Empire and thundered his way through the Balkans.
Battle of the Catalaunian Plains
Attila invaded Gaul, which included modern-day France, northern Italy and western Germany, in 451. But the Romans had wised up and allied with the Visigoths and other barbarian tribes to finally stop the Huns in their tracks.
According to legend, the night before the battle Attila consulted sacrificed bones and saw that thousands of his army would fall in the fight. The next day, his premonition came true.
The foes met on the battlefield in the Catalaunian Plains of eastern France. The Huns put up an impressive fight, but they’d finally met their match. The Romans and Visigoths had learned much from previous encounters with the Huns and fought them hand-to-hand and on horseback.
After hours of ferocious fighting that lasted well into the dark of night, tens of thousands of soldiers were dead, and the Roman alliance had forced the Hun army to retreat. It was Attila’s first and only military defeat.
Attila and his army returned to Italy and continued ravaging cities. In 452, with Rome in sight, he met Pope Leo I who acted as an emissary between Attila and Rome. There’s no record of what they discussed, but according to legend the apparitions of St. Paul and St. Peter appeared to Attila and threatened to kill him if he didn’t negotiate with Pope Leo I.
Whether because of his fear of the Pope and his saintly allies, or simply because his troops were stretched too thin and weakened by malaria, Attila decided to pull out of Italy and return to the Great Hungarian Plain.
Death of Attila
Attila the Hun may have been an infamous warrior, but he didn’t die a warrior’s death. When Marcian, the new emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, refused to pay Attila a previously-agreed-to annual tribute in 453, Attila regrouped and planned to attack Constantinople.
But before he could strike, he was found dead—on his wedding night after marrying his latest bride—by choking on his own blood while in a drunken stupor.
Attila had made his oldest son Ellac his successor, but all his sons fought a civil war for power until the Hun Empire was divided between them. Without Attila at the helm, however, the weakened Huns fell apart and were no longer a major threat.
By 459, the Hun Empire had collapsed, and many Huns assimilated into the civilizations they’d once dominated, leaving their mark throughout much of Europe.