In approximately the 5th century, a tribe of nomadic barbarians appeared in Europe and in a few short years they rampaged through Europe and crippled one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. This group, the Huns, has been seen as demonic killers, valiant warriors, the death of Rome, and a mysterious group of people with no known origin. Many interpretations have been made, but with so little evidence it is difficult to sort through what is accurate and what is inaccurate. Their origin, legacy, morality, and culture have all had many retellings and have changed throughout history.
In Chinese history, there were several tribes of nomadic people who inhabited northern China. Among these tribes were the Mongolians, Hϋn-yu, Rung, and Di. These tribes joined together and fought with the Chinese Celestial Empire from 209B.C to A.D160 during which the Great Wall of China was built. One tribe in particular has been looked at throughout history with much speculation. The Hϋn-yu tribe became known as the Hiung-nu or Xiongnu and in William McGovern’s book, he calls this tribe the Huns and describes them as one and the same. 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.” Other similarities exist as well. The Xiongnu were well known for their interesting fighting style which included the use of mounted archers. This style of fighting was a very unorthodox method of fighting and it took a heavy toll against “The Martial Emperor,” Han Wu Ti. This war took place from 140BC to AD87 and this style of fighting reemerged four centuries later with the Huns. Many historians use this to help draw the connection between this tribe and the Huns. In similar fashion to the Huns of Europe, The Xiongnu were able to take on a much larger empire than their own by using their mounted archers and joining together with other barbarian tribes in the area.
Under King Mao Tun in the first century AD, the Xiongnu took over the Altai region, modern Kazakhstan, and expanded into India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan which led to an Empire of over 1.5 million square miles. With all this land, the Xiongnu still had no walled cities or permanent residence, but lived in felt tents and lived nomadically to find pasture for their large herds which were vital to their culture. This way of life is identical to the lives of the Huns of the 5th century. Recently, however, Joshua Mark concludes that the bronze work of the Xiongnu people had intricate patterns and religious motifs whereas the Huns had little to no art at all. This, plus the lack of concrete evidence, makes it difficult to definitively say if the Xiongnu and Huns were the same people. Cultural art tends to last with a group of people for centuries and the Huns lack of any art gives modern historians reason to believe that the Huns may have come from elsewhere.
Due to the Huns’ ability to destroy entire cities, no one is positive when the Huns first arrived in Europe. According to Trevor Dupuy, the Huns first became known to the Romans in 54BC after Crassus’ legions were defeated by the Parthians. After this, however, the Huns seem to have disappeared until 355AD when they moved into Russia and made massive moves against the Ostrogoth Kingdom and nearly destroyed it on the Dnieper River. According to many historians, this move may have been one of the causes of Rome’s downfall. The Gothic people fled to Rome for protection and this led to many internal conflicts that weakened Rome and strained its alliances. Rugila was the current King of the Huns and under him, the Hunnic Empire was more unified than it had been in years and he used the strained Roman alliances to make his own alliances. The Huns became very powerful as a combined tribe, but never an organized threat to the Roman Empire. This changed in 433 when Attila became King of the Huns.
According to biography.com, Attila was born in Pannonia, which is in present day Hungary, circa 406. Attila is seen in two very different lights. Historians who use the works of Jordanes describe him as a vicious monster and some even go as far as saying a terrorist or murderer; however, historians who use the works of Priscus will call him a vicious, merciless warrior, but a great inspirational leader who led because of respect and not fear. Jordanes was a Roman bureaucrat of the 6th century and worked to unite the Romans against the Huns in order to defeat them. Priscus however, was one of the few men to actually see Attila in his home base. Priscus went as part of an embassy to the Huns in order to record what he saw of the Huns. While he was there he found many prisoners of war who chose to stay with the Huns and join them because of their good treatment. With this thought in mind, it is difficult to peg Attila as a monster or a warrior. His legacy is irrefutable however; Attila brought together many barbarian tribes to bring down the Roman Empire. After 18 years of successful campaigns, Attila was finally stopped on the plains of Chalon’s with this being the first time he did not win a battle. After this loss, Attila rampaged across Italy until arriving in Rome a few months later. Intending to sack Rome, Attila was dissuaded by Pope Leo I. Shortly after this, Attila died after having conquered 1.6 million square miles during his 20 year reign. Over a thousand years later, the Huns were so immortalized that they were used as a moniker for the German army to emphasize their horrific acts. The Huns’ legacy has outlasted them by hundreds of years, yet it is still disputed if they were acting as warriors or terrorists.
According to the historian Jordanes, the Huns were less than human. According to him, the Huns were the offspring of exiled Gothic witches and unclean spirits and were raised in swamps. He called them a “savage race… a stunted, foul, and puny tribe. Scarcely human.” Evidence of this claim can be seen in the Huns’ treatment of their own deserters. Attila demanded the return of every Hunnish fugitive in Rome and either crucified or impaled every one of them on the borders of his empire for the Romans to see. Many reported that he used terror to rule his empire and some went so far to say he would drink the blood of men he killed and drank from their skulls. Barbarians would often start rumors like this to terrify any opposition and create legends about themselves. This may have worked well for Attila because people like the Scythians considered him to be a magician and a warrior capable of creating storms and earthquakes and this kept them under his rule through fear. Even modern portraits will show Attila with devils horns or as a devil like person. However, some historians have a kinder outlook on the Huns.
Other than Jordanes, Priscus was one of the few historians of the time to write about the Huns or to meet them face to face. Priscus was a part of an embassy to meet with Attila the Hun and is the only Roman scribe to visit Attila himself. Priscus mentions that there were several Roman prisoners who decided to stay with the Huns even when they were released because according to them, the treatment in the Huns’ camp was respectful, free, and much closer than in Rome. Another example of this is Rome’s own general Flaevius Aetius who was sent as a hostage to ensure a treaty with the Huns. He spent several years with the Huns and was treated as one of their own and became best friends with Attila himself. These two grew up together until they both became rulers of their people’s armies. After being raised with the Huns, Aetius became one of the best generals in Rome’s history. Just like Aetius, Attila proved to be very true to his word, was merciful to those who were obedient, and would not be swayed by gold or luxuries. He may have been savage and vicious on the battlefield, but it seemed to be his men’s respect for him that made him a leader and not just the fear he inspired.
During the time of the Roman Empire, banquets were the moral measure of a ruler and following this view, Attila was a very just ruler. According to Joshua Marks, Priscus’ banquet with Attila was pristine, organized, lacking gluttony and drunkenness, and Attila himself was very restrained and courteous. At the time, banquets were the moral measure of a ruler and following this view, Attila was a very just ruler. Priscus also notes that although the Huns had acquired massive amounts of gold and jewels, Attila chose to eat out of wooden bowls and plates and let his inferiors adorn themselves with gold and other precious metals. This was unusual for their culture as normally the gold belonged to the higher ranking Huns. There are many mixed views of the rest of their culture as well.
Hunnish culture was completely oriented around warfare. At a young age, Huns had to know how to ride horses as that was the way Huns fought in battle. In order to teach them, young Huns were put on sheep instead of horses and taught to ride them even before they could walk. Huns lived most of their lives on horses including eating, sleeping, and fighting. This made them the best horsemen in the area. Huns were even religious when it came to horses and were known to make sacrifices to them and to other parts of nature that fascinated them. These religious views were so important to them that when Attila was made king, a Hunnish prophecy seemed to have come true. A farmer was in his field when he saw a cow limping in the field. The farmer followed the blood trail until he found a buried sword which he brought to Attila. Attila claimed this sword was the fabled Sword of Mars that prophecy said would make the king of the Huns unbeatable. According to Chester Starr, this sword was a jeweled sword fitting for a king. Other sources say the sword was a rusty blade that may have been from any conflict. Considering the nomadic life of the Huns, it would not be difficult to imagine them coming upon a sword at some point. Even if it were the sword of an ancient king or just an average sword, Attila truly did not lose any battles for twenty years and some historians such as Joshua Mark claim that he never truly did lose a battle.
After Attila’s final campaign in Italy, he died the night of his wedding in 453. Typical Hunnish customs include building a funeral pyre and burning the body; however, after achieving an almost god-like status among his people, Attila was buried in a solid gold coffin which was placed inside a solid silver coffin which was then placed inside a wooden coffin. A river was diverted for his burial and after he was buried, both the slaves who dug the grave and the pall bearers killed themselves to keep his location a secret forever. To further mourn their king, the Huns cut their hair and slashed their cheeks “So that the greatest of all warriors should be mourned not with tears or the wailing of women, but with the blood of men.” After Attila’s death, the empire quickly dissolved under his son. Eventually there was no longer any record of Huns until the British used the name for the Germans.
With all the mystery surrounding the Huns, it is difficult for anyone to know for sure who the Huns were, where they came from, and how they acted. After viewing all the evidence, it is important to keep an unbiased opinion while trying to research the Huns. Many historians such as Priscus and Jordanes have agendas while writing the history of the Huns. Jordanes was almost a propagandist and Priscus most likely saw what Attila wanted him to see. It is impossible to say the Huns were evil or good, just that they were one of the largest forces in Roman history. Their origin is another piece of information that can be very skewed as well. Many historians try to claim the origins of the Huns as their country while others try to distance themselves from the reputation of the Huns. In my opinion after researching, the Huns are a group of people of whom we will never know the full history. As they had no records and few pieces of artwork or craftsmen, I believe they are a tribe who will live in history as one of the greatest threats to the Roman Empire; however, they will never be fully understood.
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