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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.

Vatican fresco: The Meeting between Leo the Great (painted as a portrait of Leo X) and Attila. Raphael Eventually, Rome was forced to pay tributes in order to stop the Huns’ onslaught.

Vatican fresco: The Meeting between Leo the Great (painted as a portrait of Leo X) and Attila. Raphael (Public Domain) Eventually, Rome was forced to pay tributes in order to stop the Huns’ onslaught.

According to ancient texts, the Huns were fearsome to behold because every boy’s face was slashed as an infant, partly to make him a fearsome warrior, partly to teach him to endure pain. Jordanes writes, “For by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom perhaps they did not really surpass in war. They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful...Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds.” (Bos, 2004)

‘Invasion of the Barbarians’ or ‘The Huns approaching Rome’ by Checca

‘Invasion of the Barbarians’ or ‘The Huns approaching Rome’ by Checca (Public Domain)

The Huns Were Master Equestrians and Archers

More important for their military prowess, the Huns were incredibly skilled horsemen. Legend has it that they learned to ride as soon as they could walk. One of their favorite military strategies was to keep additional horses in tow while charging into battle. This not only provided replacement horses in case one got tired or killed but made the hordes of Huns seem even larger than they really were. The Huns’ battle tactics were especially shocking because they were completely unlike that of the “ordered and dignified” Roman army. In the 390s, the Roman historian Ammianus wrote “They fight in no regular order of battle, but by being extremely swift and sudden in their movements, they disperse, and then rapidly come together again in loose array, spread havoc over vast plains, and flying over the rampart, they pillage the camp of their enemy almost before he has become aware of their approach” (Mark, 2014).

The ancient historians claim they did not use iron, only stones and animal bones, but this is probably not true. What is true is that the Huns perfected the recurve or reflex bow and used it to deadly effect. With a recurve bow, even a sort pull could generate enormous power. This enabled the Huns to shoot while riding on horseback (with a traditional bow, an archer must stand firmly and pull back mightily). “An expert archer could shoot an arrow more than 500 feet. Even in retreat, many warriors were so adept that they were able to turn around while riding to shoot—using only their legs to remain stable on the galloping horse. It is from this tactic that we get the term ‘parting shot’” (Dowling, 2016). This assisted in the ‘whirlwind’ speed of assaults.

All the various skills and tactics of the Huns would coalesce in Attila the Hun. A skilled military mind, Attila unified his people and brought them to the very gates of Rome. His bold, ruthless strategies would ensure that the Huns evoked terror even 2000 years after their empire disappeared.

‘Feast of Attila’ by Mor Than.

‘Feast of Attila’ by Mor Than. (Public Domain) Attila was the powerful leader of the Huns.

Top Image: Huns in battle with the Alans, 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880) Source: Public Domain

By Kerry Sullivan


Bos, Carole D. "Who Were The Huns?" N.p., 1 Feb. 2004. Web.

Dowling, Mike. "Attila and the Huns."  The Huns - The Middle Ages. Mr., 11 July 2016. Web.

Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

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