Attila the Hun is renowned as being the brutal barbarian king of the Huns. The famed tribe from the Disney movie Mulan. Okay, maybe that isn’t the most realistic movie concerning the Huns, considering they were never in China(at least not by that name). Everyone knows Attila was a vicious, brutal barbarian. Right? Well maybe there is a little more to the story.
To start off, the Huns may not have been directly in China, but it is possible they had ancestors who were. Unfortunately, at no point in the history of the Huns did they ever use writing, art, pottery, tweets, or any other form of communication. This makes it very difficult to understand their history. The best way to figure them out is to read what other people wrote and then extrapolate. One such group was the Chinese Celestial Empire. They wrote of several groups of barbarian tribes that constantly invaded China over a span of 2,000 years. These invasions eventually prompted the building of the Great Wall of China. One group of invaders was a small tribe named the Xiongnu. This tribe was very skilled at using mounted archers. Their physical description was also very similar to the description given by the Romans. Both the Huns and Xiongnu have been described as “Large head, swarthy complexion, small deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body of nervous strength though of disproportionate form.”(Orginal quote is in my paper posted on this site with full citations). So it is fairly safe to say these two peoples may have been connected. It’s also safe to say the song should really say, “Let’s get down to business to defeat the Mongolians, Xiongnu, Rung, Di, and other various nomadic tribes.” But I suppose that’s not quite as catchy.
Fast forwarding to the Roman Empire, the Huns almost entirely appeared out of nowhere and started terrorizing powerful Germanic tribes. At one point, the Ostrogoth empire was a powerful rival of Rome, but the Huns nearly wiped them out by about 400A.D. In the year 433A.D, Attila the Hun replaced his father as the king of the Huns.
At the time, there were two Roman historians who wrote about Attila. One was Jordanes, the famous historian/Roman propagandist and the other was Priscus, a Roman historian who chose to meet with Attila and write about the encounter. One of these men was hired to unite the people against the Huns and the other was a mostly objective observer. It is no wonder their views are so different.
Most people nowadays would recognize the work of Jordanes. He wrote that the Huns were offspring of Gothic witches and unclean spirits. They were given horns and elongated ears in many paintings(Notice his ears in the picture posted), and they were said to be “scarcely human.” However, Priscus wrote that Attila was a man of the people who was so kind to Roman prisoners that many of them actually opted to stay and join his army. He was seen as genteel with diplomats, savage in war, and an inspiring leader. These two drastically different viewpoints are both important in understanding the Huns and the Romans themselves.
After years of picking apart the Roman empire, Attila died from a commoners death in his sleep. Was he a demon created by witches and the devil or was he a powerful, inspiring, but terrifying ruler? It is hard for modern people to truly know who Attila really was, but for all I know, this is Attila’s snapshot from history.