Type of Government
Originally a nomadic tribal confederation on the Eurasian steppes, the Hunnic Empire sent horsemen to terrorize large parts of Europe and Central Asia in the late fourth and middle fifth centuries. As nomads, the Huns acquired what they could through hunting, gathering, and some trade, but took the rest by plundering neighboring societies. The Huns were ruled by charismatic tribal leaders, the last of whom was the powerful and notorious Attila (406?–453). He was the first to rule the Huns as though they were an empire and gave the tribal federation the dimensions of an organized state.
The ethnic origin of the Huns is not completely known, but they are thought to be a Turkic people descended from the Xiongnu tribes, who first appeared as a tribal confederation on the northern frontier of China in the late third century BC. As Xiongnu raids into China increased in number and intensity, the Chinese took countermeasures that eventually forced the Xiongnu to migrate to western Eurasia in the first century BC. They gathered in what is present-day Kazakhstan to form the core of what became the European Huns. After incorporating other Turkic, Iranian, and Ugric elements into their tribal union, the Huns were pushed out of Kazakhstan in AD 350 by the expansion of other ethnic groups into the area. They crossed Russia’s Volga River in 370, subjugating a population of Iranian Alans in the Don River region. In 375 they moved against the region’s Ostrogoths, who fled westward toward the frontiers of the Roman Empire. The Huns found themselves masters of the vast plains between the Ural and Carpathian mountain ranges. In 378 they made their first real mark on history by assisting the Goths in defeating the Romans at Adrianopolis.
On the Pontic steppe, which stretches north of the Black Sea and east of the Caspian Sea, the Huns continued their campaign by harassing and raiding territories of the Roman Empire. In 395 a famine forced the Huns off the Pontic steppe to explore Roman and Sassanid territories, the mountains of the Caucasus, and even as far south as Mesopotamia. In the early fifth century they were known to fight both with and against the Romans. By this time, the Hunnic tribal union had incorporated elements of the nomadic Iranian Alans, as well as the Germanic and Slavic peoples. In the 430s a power struggle ensued among the Hunnic leadership. Three principal leaders emerged: Octar (fl. 431), Rua (fl. 432), and Mundich, each of whom commanded a horde of warriors. Mundich had fathered two sons, Attila and Bleda (390–c. 445), who ruled the Huns by the mid-430s. In 445 Attila murdered his brother and set about creating a truly unified Hunnic Empire.
He declared war on the eastern Roman Empire by crossing the Danube River and moving up the Morava River. He then plundered the cities in the eastern Roman Empire. The Romans eventually ceded a wide swath of land south of the Danube River to him. For a time, the Hunnic Empire became the most powerful state of its time, and its court the setting for international politics and intrigue. In 451 Attila invaded Gaul, and after a series of victories, he was finally defeated on the Catalaunian Plain by a combined force of Visigoths and Romans. He launched an unsuccessful attack on northern Italy in 452, after which, beset by epidemics among his troops and attacks by Roman armies, he negotiated with Pope Leo I (400–461) and withdrew from Italy. Attila died in 453, after which the Germanic tribes subject to his rule revolted. In 454 his sons were defeated by Germanic tribes, bringing an end to the infamous terror and pillage wrought by the Huns in Europe.
Before the arrival of the charismatic Attila, Hunnic government consisted of a tribal confederation with only embryonic indications of statehood. Social class distinctions among the Huns were not great, but rank seems to have depended on military prowess. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330–395) described their nomadic society: “Their herds follow them on their migrations, with some of the animals being used to draw the covered wagons in which their families live. Here it is that their women spin and make clothes, bear children, and rear them until puberty.”
Attila was prone to terrible rages, and he used the fear they inspired as a political weapon. He is said to have been brutal with his adversaries, while remaining fair-minded and generous among his own people. A Gothic observer reported that Attila actually preferred cunning and politically savvy tactics to outright war. Some historians cite his ability as a statesman alongside his military genius and compare him to the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), who also united scattered tribal peoples into a mighty empire. Attila imposed no taxes on his subjects, but retained a full treasury from his looting raids and tribute extracted from the Roman and Byzantine empires.
Political Parties and Factions
The Huns operated on various fronts across Eurasia at different times and were sometimes known by different names. A tribal group known as the Chionites appeared on the northeastern frontiers of Iran in the fourth century and posed a threat to the Sassanid Empire of Persia. As late as the sixth century, Huns known as the Hephthalites (White Huns) raided across the northwestern borders of the declining Gupta Empire in India.
The Huns conducted their victory at Adrianopolis in 378 on their small Mongolian ponies, and thereby established the superiority of horsemen over foot soldiers in battle. Successive Hunnic victories reinforced the concept of using horses in battle, so much so that military tactics and strategies changed little for the next one thousand years, until the introduction of gunpowder and firearms brought about a further revolution to soldiering.
After the death of Attila’s sons, remnants of the Hunnic Empire dissolved into other regional states, such as the Khazar kingdom in the Caucasus and a union of Bulgars along the Danube River. The demise of the Huns is as shrouded and mysterious as their initial emergence off the Eurasian steppes.
Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Edited by Max Knight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.