Huns in battle with the Alans, 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880)

Merciless Marauders or Fearsome Fighters? The Terror Tactics of the Huns

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Ruthless and unpredictable, few armies have been as terrifying as the Huns. Descending on a town like a whirlwind from hell, the savage horsemen killed indiscriminately – combatants and civilians, men and women, adults and children. With this military acumen, the Huns created an empire that stretched east to west from the Caspian Sea to the Rhine River and north to south from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The fullest extent of this empire was achieved under the Huns powerful leader, Attila, Scourge of God.

Recently, scholars have begun to re-examine the Huns’ image. By all accounts, the Huns were an illiterate tribe; at the very least, they left behind no written evidence about their histories and opinions. What we know about the Huns comes mainly from commentaries written by Romans, frequent victims of Hunnic attacks. Undoubtedly, the Huns were ferocious warriors, but were they really the demonic savages history has painted them as?

The Huns: Otherworldly Beasts of Roman Propaganda

 “We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae, after their departure from the island of Scandza...found among his people certain witches. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech.” (Jordanes quoted in Mark, 2014).

Thus, are the origins of the Huns were chalked up to the mating of witches and demons. This description was written in the 6th century AD by a Roman bureaucrat named Jordanes, about a century after the Huns triggered the ‘Great Migration’ (also known as the ‘Wandering of the Nations’), a major contributing factor to the fall of Rome. With the exception of Priscus (a 5th-century Roman diplomat who actually met with Attila the Hun), the Huns are presented uniformly as savages who ate raw meat and had no interests other than pillaging. The Romans saw the Huns as evil half-animals whose sole purpose seemed to be to wreak havoc on civilization.

Attila the Hun. Bronze medal after an antique original (Louvre Museum).

Attila the Hun. Bronze medal after an antique original (Louvre Museum). ( Public Domain )

This characterization of the Huns was further perpetuated by the erroneous linking of the Hun tribe with the Xiongnu people of China – the infamous barbarians that forced the Han Dynasty to construct a Great Wall. Like the Huns, the Xiongnu were nomadic horsemen who favored the bow and arrow. However, there is little evidence to link the two peoples.

A painting depicting the Xiongnu people.

A painting depicting the Xiongnu people. ( Henan Museum ) The Huns were erroneously linked to this tribe.

Christopher Kelly, a historian at Boston College, argues “the attempt to link the Xiongnu with the Huns as stemming from a desire to not only locate a definitive locale for Hunnic origins but also to define the struggle between the Huns and Rome as a battle between the ‘noble west’ and the ‘barbaric east’” (Kelly quoted in Mark, 2014). This mentality would lead to centuries of scholars taking the ancient historians’ words at face value. It is only in recent decades that experts have begun to separate reality from myth.

Empire of Attila the Hun (Orange) and the Roman Empire (Yellow)around 450 AD.

Empire of Attila the Hun (Orange) and the Roman Empire (Yellow)around 450 AD.( Public Domain )

Some Truth in the Terrifying Reputation of the Huns

It is impossible to say for certain, but most scholars now believe that the Huns were pastoralists who came from Kazakhstan and the eastern steppes. They were forced to move westward as the steppes became increasingly arid, typically traveling in family units or clans. There was little unity among Hunnic peoples and each clan pursued its own agenda. For example, some fought with the Romans, some fought against them. “For this reason, it is often difficult to determine what the overall Hun objectives were at this time other than, as Jordanes notes, ‘theft and rapine’ (Mark, 2014).

This only served to enhance their terrifying reputation. There was no way to deal with the Huns, no way to defeat them. A clan of Huns would descend on a village without warning and destroy everything in their path. They used surprise to their advantage and attacked without restraint. Other tribes’ people, such as the Goths and Vandals, came in droves to Rome in order to find security, but the Roman army was no better at fending off the deadly Huns. Eventually, Rome was forced to pay tributes in order to stop the onslaught.

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