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Huns at Battle of the Catalaunian Fields

Huns were nomadic people living in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia between the 1st and 7th centuries CE. It was because of this militant person that the Great Migration of the barbarian peoples to the west took place and the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

According to accounts, the Huns originally inhabited the lands east of the Volga River, which were part of Scythia. The appearance of the Huns is associated with the migration to the west of the Scythian tribe – Alans.

In 91 CE, the Huns were to be near the Caspian Sea, and by 150 CE they moved southeast to the Caucasus. By 370 CE, the Huns had stabilized their brief domination in Europe.

Who were the Huns?

The Huns were in fact a confederation of “armed bands of warriors” that influenced other groups to strengthen their military position in the Eurasian Steppe between the 4th and 6th centuries CE. Historian Peter Heather says that they had gained their position through sudden attacks and the subjugation of neighbouring groups. Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who formed in the late Western Empire, stated that they resided “beyond the Sea of ​​Azov, near the frozen ocean”. In turn, Jerome of Stridon links them with the Scythians.

In the eyes of Roman and Christian civilization, the Huns appeared to be the embodiment of the worst biblical demons – Gog and Magog – who were to herald the end of the world. The sources do not provide any evidence of national consciousness among the Huns, or even a stronger sense of solidarity.

Hunts’ war tactics

Strategikon – a work from around CE 600 – says that the Huns and the Avars had a reputation for being brilliant warriors. Their tactics were largely based on a sudden and surprising strike and the destruction of the opponent’s supplies. Moreover, they did not set up fortified camps but stayed overnight in grazing fields according to their clan affiliation, where they protected their horses. During the war campaign, the Huns took large amounts of these animals with them, so that they could move quickly (tired horses were exchanged) and give the impression of having a larger army.

The battle line was set up very early in the morning to surprise the enemy as much as possible. According to Strategikon, the Huns did not form a tight battle line like the Romans or Persians, and in reserve, they had considerable strength to prepare ambushes and provide a reserve. The army was usually divided into divisions according to clan affiliation. In the far rear of the troops were luggage, supplies, and free-standing horses that were well protected by guards.

The Huns preferred long-distance combat, organized ambushes, laps and improvised escapes. After their victory, the Huns usually chased the fleeing enemy and harassed him relentlessly. When the enemy took refuge in the fortress, the siege began.

Roman villa in Gaul plundered by Attila troops. The illustration comes from the book by Georges Rochegrosse.

Weapons of the Huns

Strategikon mentions that the Huns used swords, bows and lances in combat, but usually the warrior was armed with a bow and lance, which he used depending on the situation on the battlefield. Horses were dressed in quilted linen, wool, and sometimes with iron sprinkles when they put on caftans and quilted headgear themselves. Historians also believe that the Huns were the first to use the langsaks, a single-edged combat knife with a total length of about 60 cm, which was widely used in the period of the great migration of peoples.

Historical records

The earliest mention of the Huns is in the 2nd century BCE due to Claudius Ptolemy, who places them among the peoples of European Sarmatia. The analysis of his text allows for the assumption that the Huns of that time lived between the Don and Manycz in the north, the upper Kubania in the south and the Sea of ​​Azov in the west. In the east, their territory could extend as far as the Caspian Sea and the Volga estuary region. It seems that during the next two centuries they did not change their whereabouts because Ammianus Marcellinus still places them “beyond the Maeotian swamps”, that is, near the Sea of ​​Azov.

The Romans became aware of the presence of the Huns when thousands of Goths were forced to emigrate to the Lower Danube in 376 CE – the barbarians were looking for lands where they could take refuge from the savage hordes of the Huns. Such a sudden appearance of the Huns in Roman historiography gives rise to suspicions that the Huns crossed the Volga much earlier. First, they invaded the lands of the Alans who inhabited the lands east of the Don. The Huns killed many of them, killing some or forcing them to flee west.

After subjugating the Alans, the Huns and their allies began to plunder the eastern Goth settlements – the Ostrogoths, west of the Don. Their king Hermanaric bravely commanded the defence against the Huns. According to Amman Marcellinus, however, he eventually committed suicide in CE 375, seeing that he was unable to protect his people from the Huns.

After these events, the Ostrogoths surrendered to the Huns, although they were still ruled by their own king. Some Ostrogoths, however, did not come to terms with the Hun domination and made contact with the Athanaricus, the Visigothic leader. However, the Huns unexpectedly crossed the Dniester and defeated Athanaric before he managed to join the disgruntled Ostrogoths. The defeated Visigoths took refuge either in the Carpathian region or in Thrace, where the Romans allowed them to settle. In Thrace, however, they revolted soon and defeated the Romans at Adrianople in 378 CE.

The Huns never constituted one political organism. This is evidenced by the fact that some of the Huns took the status of allies and, together with the Goths and Alans, settled in Pannonia. These Huns then took part in the wars of the Roman Empire, fighting against the Jutunga in the service of Valentinian II in 384 CE, and in 388 helping Theodosius I defeat the usurper Maximus. In 394 CE, the Hun warriors of Thrace were again hired by Theodosius when he fought the usurper Eugene.

It is certain that at the end of the 4th century CE one could not speak of a single commander of all Huns, for until CE 395 no Hun (except the dubious Balamber) was mentioned by name in sources.

Suggested Huns’ migration.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In 395 CE, the Huns launched the first major invasion of the Eastern Empire, invading Thrace, conquering Armenia, and plundering Cappadocia. They managed to invade Syria, and threaten Antioch and the province of Augusta Euphratensis. The Roman army of Theodosius I was completely absorbed in the situation in the western part of the Empire, therefore the Huns plundered the lands to the east without any obstacles. Only the eunuch Eutropius at the court of Emperor Arcadius in 397-398 CE displaced the Huns (with the help of the Goths) from the Asian provinces to Armenia and beyond the Caucasus.

After the clash with the Romans, the Huns then invaded the Sassanid Empire, reaching the capital Ctesiphon. Ultimately, however, as a result of the Sassanid counterattack, they suffered heavy losses and had to abandon most of their gains.

Some of the Huns at that time lived in Pannonia and today’s eastern Romania. From these lands, further Hun raids led by a certain Uldin, whose sources call the king (regulus). Uldin in 404-405 started a raid on Thrace with no intention of permanent occupation. In April 406 CE the Huns, in the service of the Western Empire’s commander, Stilicho, contributed to the defeat of the Gothic king Radagajs at the Battle of Fiesole.

In 408 CE, Uldin attacked Thrace again, capturing Castra Martis (the present Sphere) in Moesia. However, soon many of his troops, bribed by the emperor, abandoned him, and others were destroyed so that Uldin had difficulty getting to the north bank of the Danube, where he was not heard of. In 409, a detachment of three hundred Huns fought on the side of the Romans against Ataulf’s Gothic Hun army, which was another telltale sign that the Hun groups were fighting on the side of those who paid them well.

In 412 CE, the Romans made a treaty with another Hun “king”, Charaton, probably based in Pannonia. In 422 CE, the Huns invaded Rugi Thrace and threatened Constantinople itself. Under the conciliation treaty, the empire was to pay them 350 pounds of gold each year.

In 425 CE, Flavius ​​Aetius, who was once a hostage to the Huns and has been on intimate terms with them ever since, reportedly brought 60,000. Huns to help usurper Jan. John was killed by the forces of Emperor Valentinian III a few days before the Hun reinforcements arrived, but their presence allowed Aetius to bargain for forgiveness and a position for himself. At his request, the Huns were to return without causing any harm. In CE 432, Ruga supported Aetius by helping him restore his power in Ravenna, for which the Huns received the province of Pannonia Prima the following year.

With peace with the Western Empire assured, Ruga threatened the Eastern Empire by declaring his intention to start a war against the tribes he believed to be his subjects, who had once fled to Byzantine territory. The Romans began negotiations, resulting in a treaty that increased the tribute due to the Huns to 700 pounds of gold.

In 436 CE, the Huns, together with Aetius, destroyed the Burgundian kingdom of Worms. In the years 436 to 439 CE, the Hun troops also supported the Romans in the fight against the Visigoths in Gaul, until they were destroyed by the latter. In 441, however, war broke out again between the Huns and the Eastern Empire. During it, the Huns destroyed cities such as Viminacium, Margus, Singidinum (present-day Belgrade) and the key fortress of Sirmium.

The dimensions of the imperial defeat illustrate the harsh conditions of peace in CE 447. The annual tribute was to be raised to £ 2,100 gold, and the Romans were to pay £ 6,000 outstanding tribute. Hun’s refugees would be handed over to refuse them in the future, and south of the Danube, the empire would create a five-day-wide strip of no-man’s land so that army movement could be easily controlled.


After Ruga’s death, Bleda took power over the Huns, and then Attila (from 444 or 445), who probably murdered his predecessor. Undoubtedly, Attila was the most powerful ruler of the Huns in history, but as many historians believe, not as powerful as we think. He controlled Pannonia and some adjacent lands, ruled over the Huns, Goths, and Gepids, and possibly other groups. In his case, it is also not certain whether he ruled over all the Huns (especially the North Caucasian Huns).

Empire of Attila around 450 ne
Author: Slovenski Volk | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The goal of Attila’s policy was to force the Romans to settle the issue of paying tribute, and his campaigns were not aimed at conquest, but only to ensure a steady flow of funds. Attila’s state organism proved after his death to be fragile. After Attila’s death in 453 CE, the tribal confederation broke up, and each of his sons was given command of a different group.

Gradually, the power of the Huns weakened. The nomadic groups were largely Germanic, leading to an open revolt for leadership. The Gepid king, Ardarik, led a coalition of various peoples’ revolt against the Huns, defeating them in CE 454 or 455 at the Battle of the Nedao River. The Huns suffered heavy losses in this clash, and Attila’s eldest son, Ellak, died on the battlefield. Many of the survivors made their way towards the Black Sea steppes, where another son of Attila, Ernak, was to take power over them.

There were also attempts to influence the Huns on the Byzantine Empire, but with little success. A certain Dengizich took the place of the fallen brother Ellac. In 467 CE, he asked the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I to make a treaty and open a market where the Huns could trade with the Romans, but they refused. As a result of a conflict, Dengizich and his Huns were defeated in battle in CE 469, and his own head was displayed in Constantinople to the public.

The Battle of the Nedao River was a historical moment when the Huns lost their supremacy in Europe and gradually disappeared from history. Most of the Hun’s nomadic tribes returned to the steppes and were incorporated into new tribal groups.

  • Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae
  • Lech A. Tyszkiewicz, Hunowie w Europie: Ich wpływ na Cesarstwo Wschodnie i Zachodnie oraz na ludy barbarzyńskie
  • Philip Matyszak, Wrogowie Rzymu. Od Hannibala do Attyli, króla Hunów, Warszawa 2007

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