Ancient Peoples: The Huns


Figure 1.--The ferocity of the Huns intimidated even the most barbaric of the german tribes. This is a modern artists depiction of the Huns looting a villa in Gaul about 451 AD. Note how Romanized Gaul is depicted as having become. The artist leaves unanswered what became of the family that has not yet been killed. While the image is not very clear, note the child between his parents holding on to his or her mother.

The central Asian steppes gave rise to the Huns. What is now Mongolia was populated by various people, most of whom are lost to history. The earliest known group which organize a state of importance was the Xiongnu, or Hun state. Very little is known about the origins of the Huns. Historians have yet to determine with any certainty if the Huns were a proto-Mongolian or a proto-Turkic tribal people. The Huns emerged as a powerful nomadic state in central Asia led by a monarch which they called ďshanyuĒ. The Xiongnu or Huns developed as a minor nusiance to a amajor challenge for the Chinese. The growth of the Great Wall reflected the rising power of the Huns. Modun the most powerful of shanyu of the Hun rose to power (209 BC). He not omly united the Hun but conquuered neighbouring tibes, carving out a vast kingdom in what is now Mongolia and wider areas of Central Asia. He then turned his attention on China ruled at the time by the Han dynasty. The result was a titanic struggle between the Hun and Han Chinese. Shanyu Modun had a much smaller army, but managed to defeat the Han in a series of ebgagements. The Han were forced to sign a humiliaring peace treaty. The Chinese emperor recognized Modun and this Hunic Empire. Shanyu Modun also conducted acampaigns in the west, defeating the Sogdians an Iranian-speaking people. The Hunnic Empire gradually declined after Shanyu Modun died. The tribes split. The southern tribes were defeated or absorbed. The northern tribes were driven west out of central Asia. These are the tribes that pressed the German west and eventually reached Europe themselves. The Huns were the first mounted Asian warriors to move east and threaten Europe. They appeared on war horses out of the trackless Asian steppes. The Huns first appear inWestern history when they come in contact with Rome in the late-4th century AD. It was the Huns who drove other tribes west, including the Germans. And the Germans and Huns would destroy the Roman Empire.

Civilized and Barbarian Balance of Power

One of the enduring condlict in hitory is that between settled agricultural people and the herding people of the Steppe. The power of the Steppe peole waxed and weined over time. Historians are only beginning to study thee different periods and the reasons for waves of Barbarian invders from the East. It is the Steppe people that set the Germns in motion with disaterous consequences or the Roman Empire. Many of the Steppe tribes are largely lost to history. Others are well known to history. Vertainly the Huns are one such people, but only one of many such Steppe tribes.

Origins

The central Asian steppes gave rise to the Huns. What is now Mongolia was populated by various people, most of whom are lost to history. The earliest known group which organize a state of importance was the Xiongnu, or Hun state. Very little is known about the origins of the Huns. Historians have yet to determine with any certainty if the Huns were a proto-Mongolian or a proto-Turkic tribal people. The Huns emerged as a powerful nomadic state in central Asia led by a monarch which they called ďshanyuĒ.

Hun Life

The Huns had no written language. Thus almost all of what we know about the Huns come from the Chinese and Romans. As both fiercely hated the Huns, these ources are hardely unbiased. One account from the Romans indicates at birth, a Hun boy was slashed on his face even before he began to nurse. The Hun life was very demanding and Hun wars from an early age had to be taught from an early age to ignore pain. So the account is plausible, but I am not sure how accurate. There is also some anthroplogical fins suggesting skull deformation. The Huns were anamists, practicing a primitive hamanism. They worshipped variuos spirits and demons.

Hunnic Clothing

Hun clothing shared mant features with that of the Scythianand Persians who war garments similar to modern trousers, the most destinctive Western garments. While the Huns seem terrifying and remote to the Western imagination, it is notable that modern Westeners do not wear Greek and Roman togas or the kilts worn by Roman soldiers , but pants mote like the garments worn by the people of the Steppethe including the Huns. Other Hunnic grments featured shirts, coats, and vests..

The Xiongnu /Hunnic State

The Xiongnu or Huns developed as a minor nusiance to a amajor challenge for the Chinese. The growth of the Great Wall reflected the rising power of the Huns. Modun the most powerful of shanyu of the Hun rose to power (209 BC). He not omly united the Hun but conquuered neighbouring tibes, carving out a vast kingdom in what is now Mongolia and wider areas of Central Asia. He then turned his attention on China ruled at the time by the Han dynasty. This was a simple matter of targeting the cloest wealthy state.

War with Han China

The result was a titanic struggle between the Hun and Han Chinese. China was the only state capable of resisting the Hun. Shanyu Modun had a much smaller army, but managed to defeat the Han in a series of ebgagements. The Huns established their domains south to the Yellow River. The Han were forced to sign a humiliaring peace treaty. The Chinese emperor recognized Modun and this Hunic Empire. Shanyu Modun also conducted acampaigns in the west, defeating the Sogdians an Iranian-speaking people.

Decline of the Hunnic Empire

The Hunnic Empire gradually declined after Shanyu Modun died. Under Shanyu Modun, the Huns developed an effective administrative system and a highly efficient military force. The luxuries of victory, especially in China over time weakened the warrior tradition of Shanyu Modun's descendents. This is of course a major historical trend. The ruling dynasty was further weakened by the intrigues of princes attempting to seize power. The Chinese Emperor U-di atacked the Huns (90 BC). The Shanyu massed his forces to meet the Chinese. The epic battle of Yangjan was the last great victory of the Hunnic Empire over the Chinese. Following the battle, the Hunnic Empire continued to weaken from within. There were more intermal struggles for power. The Han continued to confront the Huns, They not only pressed them militarily, but used diplomacy to convince subgegated non-Hunic tribes tp succed from the Hunnic Empire. Gradually the authority and power of the shanyu declined. The Hunnic Empire eventually broke into southern and northern tribes (48 BC). The southern Huns recognized the overlordfip of the Chinese Han emperor. The northerners tribes remained independent, but were increasingly hard pressed.

The Northern Tribes

The Chinese victories splitthe Hunnic trobes. The southern tribes were defeated or absorbed. After the split of the Hunnic tribes, the northern tribes were confronted with mounting difficulties. Their power eroding, the neighbouring Xianbi (Syanbi) tribe attacked them. Faced with fighting both the Chinese and now the Xianbi, the northern Hunnic tribes began moving west (about 150 AD). The northern tribes eventually split four ways: 1) some joined the Xianbis, 2) some moved south into Chinese-controlled areas, 3) others moved somewhat into central Asia, and 4) others commenced a vast migration west toward Asia. These are the tribes that pressed the Germanic tribes west and eventually reached Europe themselves. The stunnic fact given that they emerged for aime as the most powerful military force in Western Europe is that they were only a small fraction of the Hunnic force that had fought the Han. One can only imagone the result if a united Hunnic Empire had attacked the West. Even so, a fragment of the northern tribes led by Attila would bring down what was left of the Western Empire and threaten the Eastern Empire (Byzantium). He created an ephemeral state in Central Europe that soon collapsed after his death.

Attila's Early Life

Atilla transformed the Huns from a tribe of nomad raiders that could have had an enormous impact on the history of Western Europe. When his father died, Attila was raised by the king of the Huns, an uncle. He is said to have learned to ride and use a sword before he was 5 years old. The Huns at firstallied themselves with the Romans. They were hired as mercinaries as allied to fight the Germans, especially the Visagoths. At this time the Huns and Romans exchanged hostages to ensure hgood faith--a common Roman practice. Atilla made friends as a boy with a Roman hostage--AŽtius. The two as adults would fight one of the greatest battles waged in the fading years of the Roman Empire.

Military Organization

The Huns were mounted cavalry and were superb horsemen. Their principal weapon was the bow. They were organized in units of 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 horsemen.

International Situation

The arrival of the Huns in the 4th century AD had the affect of destabilizing the international situation. The Romans had for centuries contended with northern Barbarians. First the Celts and then the Germans. The arrival of the Huns added a degree of instability into the international system, further weakening the already declining Roman Empire.

The Germans

The Huns appeared on war horses out of the trackless Asian steppes. Very little is known about the origins of the Huns until they come in contact with Rome in the late 4th century. The Huns were the first mounted Asian warriors to move east and threaten Europe. Their first European victim were the Alans (a people living between the Volga and the Don) and then moved further West. Their first European victim were the Alans (a people living between the Volga and the Don) and then moved further West. The Huns were a major force in driving the Germanic tribes west. Many attempted to reach the saftey of the Roman Empire which would help destabalize the Western Empire. The Huns moved east north of the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths. Then they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire. This led to the disastrous defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople (378 AD).

Beda

Beda and Attila became co-rullers on the death of Beda's father. Attila argued for a more agressive policy. Increasing demands for gold were made on the Eastern Romans who after punative raids had no choice but to comply. The tribute was raised from 115 kg to 200 kg annually. Beda was killed in a hunting accident. Many believed that his death was enginered by Atilla. This seems likely, although there is no actual historical evidence of this.

Hunnic State

The Huns settled along the Danube, particularly on the Hungarian Plain.

The Roman Empire

Europe with at the time meant the Germans and beyond the Rhine and Danube, the declining Roman Empire. The Huns first appear to Western history when they come in contact with Rome in the late-4th century AD. It was the Huns who drove other tribes west, including the Germans. And the Germans and Huns would destroy the Roman Empire. For nearly 50 years the Hun both served the Romans as allies as well as wared with them. The Huns were the most dangerous barbarian people that the Romans came into contact with. Unlike the Germans, the Huns steadfastly refused to Romanize. They refused to learn Latin and settle down and farm the land. There was of course in the 4th century, two Roman empires, an eastern and western empire which still cooperated with each other.

The Eastern Empire--Byzantium

The Eastern Emperor, beginning in the 420s, paid an annual tribute to the Huns. Gradually the Huns demanded more gold and the Eastern Empire refused, the Huns conducted punative raids. The Eastern Empire complied. When the more ambitious Attila succeded as as King of the Huns he adopted a more aggressive policy. He soon became known as the "Scourge of God." Atilla turned the financial screw on the Eastern Empire. When the Emperor refused to pay a larger tribute, Atilla wage a merciless campaign in Thrace. The destruction was total. Finally the Emperor agreed to ahuge expansion of the tribute to almost 700 kg of gold. The slaughter and wanton killing the Huns left in their wake would indeed be hard to exagerate. The Huns not only slaughtered their enemies, but forced the ones allowed to live to serve in their armies. As a result after pillaging the European domains of the Eastern Empire and extracting an increased subsidy, Atilla turned west. He saw much to be lost by asaulting the formidable defenses of Constasntinople. Instead, Atilla signed a treaty with the Eastern empire to guarantee his rear.

Gaul

Gaul was still nomimally a part of the Western Empire. The Visagoths were contending with the Romans for control of Gaul. Rome had used the Huns as mercinaries to hold the Visagoths in check. The Roman commander in Gaul, AŽtius, was a boy hood friend of Atilla. AŽtius was the only Roman commander with a creditable force. Having drained the Eastern Empire trasury and plundered much of its European possesions, Atilla determined that the rewards of plunder lay in the West. It is at this time that a daughter of the Western Emperor send Atilla her ring. Demanding a dowery of half of the Empire, Atilla moved west. The havoc and devastation he wrought in Gaul before the Battle of Ch‚lons (451 AD) was passed down in Medieval folklore. (In one of the curious turns of history, AŽtius and Atila were boyhood friends. AŽtius had been sent as a boy to the Huns as a hostage to ensure good relations. It was there he met the young Atila and became friends with him.) In his army were Ostrogoths and other Germanic warriors (including Burgundians and Alans) who had lived on the Germanic side of the frontier with Gaul. The Franks were split between pro- and anti-Roman factions. It was AŽtius who assembled a confederacy to confront the huge Hunnic army. AŽtius' army was composed of Franks, Visigoths (led by Theodoric), and his own Romano-Germanic army. Atilla had ravaged large areas of Gaul when the two armies met on the Catalaunian Fields, near Ch‚lons-sur-Marne. (A famous World War I battle was also fought on the Marne.) It was one of the great battles and certainly most bloody of the late Roman/early Medieval era. It was also one of the rare occassions when Atilla sufferec defeat. AŽtius emerged victorious, but did not destroy Attila and his army, apparently thinking that his his Visigothic allies would desert his coalition and seize control of Gaul if the Hunnic threat was destroyed.

Rome

The Western Empire in the mod-5th century was largely a fiction. It was nominally ruled by the Emperor Valentinian III, in fact effective control lay with the warlord general, AŽtius. Attila led his hordes across the Alps into Italy. One of the first cities ravaged by Atila was Aqualea. The few survivors there flead into the marshlands and founded Venice. Atilla drove onto to Rome leaving a path of destruction in his wake. AŽtius wa unable to raiuse an army to come to Rome's defense.

Christianity

Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Constantine. Gradually in the 4th century, the Empire became increasingly Christianized. There was a the time no one center of Christianity, but rather five major centers and other lesser ones. The pope or bishop of Rome was recognized as an important Christian leader, but despite his claims had no special authority in the Christian world. To Christian Romans the Huns represented the end of the world. Many began to see an Apolocypse or end of the world in 500 AD. Attila earned the title, "The Scourge of God". Christian legend has it that Pope Leo and the force of the Cross persuaded Attila to spare the city. Rhere was an added enducement of a payment in gold. It should be noted that the Bishop of Rome at the time did not have the status in the Christian Church that it would come to have. The story about Pope Leo is unlikely. It is more likely a subsequent invention to help build the status of the Papacy. More plausibly Attila turned back to deal with a threat from military forces of the Eastern Empire. And surely Atilla planed to return. What ever the reason, Atilla did turn back, and Leo's role in this earned great prestige for him and the papacy in the West.

Atilla's Death

Then while moving toward Constantinople to destroy the Eastern Empire, Attila apparently drowned in his own blood from a nose bleed (453 AD). After Attila's death the power of the Huns wained. This was in part because the size of their cavalry force was declining and they were becoming more of a typical barbarian army. There were also interscine squables between heirs.

Bulgars

The remnants of Attila's Huns eventually regrouped in the Balkans wherecthey ruled the Slavic population. These people known as the Bulgars became a continuing threat to the Eastern Empire.

Importance

The Huns are today a footnote in history. Atila's early death was, however, of great importance. The Huns resolutely resisted Romanization and Christianity. Had they prevailed rather than the Germans which were much more influenced by the Romans and gradually accepted Christianity, European history would have been very different. The continuity between the classical world and the Medieval world would have been broken.






HBC







Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main Mongolian history page]
[Return to the Main Ancient German page]
[Return to the Main Ancient Rome page]
[Return to the Main ancient civilization page]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]





Created: August 28, 2003
Last updated: 1:36 AM 6/2/2014