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The Huns included Asiatic peoples speaking Mongolic or Turkic languages who dominated the Eurasian steppe from before 300 b.c. In the third century a.d. the Great Wall of China, 2,400 kilometers long, was built to fend off "western barbarians." The reverse impact of attacks set off a domino effect of westward migrations. Just after a.d. 370 the Huns crossed the Volga River and conquered the Alans, who had dominated the steppe north of the Caucasus Mountains for millennia. The Huns destroyed the Ostrogothic empire in the Dnieper–Don interfluve in a.d. 375 and defeated the Visigoths at the Dniester River the next year. In his work Getica the sixth-century historian Jordanes described a century of Hun subjugation, with Latin translations of passages from eyewitness accounts by the Byzantine Rhetor Priscus. Copies of this compilation biased medieval historiography. Records by a Roman officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, from the late fourth century a.d. form another collection of topics (beginning with the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century b.c.) that still may be found in the curricula of many European schools.

Roman infighting in a.d. 395 permitted the Huns to conquer the Roman Balkan provinces and then invade present-day southern Poland. In 406 fleeing German peoples broke into the western Roman Empire at the Rhine. The Huns exploited this situation by offering lucrative mercenary services to the Romans against the intruders. After attacking the Balkans, the Huns moved the seat of their empire into the southern Great Hungarian Plain in about 425. Several late Sarmatian settlements in this area show evidence of violent destruction. The Romans paid Hun mercenaries in money and war booty and provided them access to Roman areas ravaged by Germanic migrations, including Pannonia (a.d. 434). The Huns' expansion is marked by finds in more than 150 archaeological sites across the Carpathian Basin. The finds include large metal cauldrons in Hungary (fig. 1), which are also depicted in rock art in the Altai Mountains in Siberia and southern Russia and western Mongolia.

The empire of the Huns filled a geopolitical vacuum between the two Roman Empires and even acted as a power broker. Huns conducted ambitious military campaigns in both directions. They raided Byzantine territories (a.d. 408, 441–443, and 447–449), occupying a series of cities and approaching Constantinople. In 442 the Huns extorted 6,000 pounds of "war compensation" plus 2,100 pounds of gold annually from Byzantium. This was the heyday of their empire. In 445 Attila, the new king of the Huns, attacked the western Roman Empire. He turned back before Ravenna, however, after an earthquake in 447 destroyed the Theodosian Wall in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), built against the Huns in 408. Damage to the wall left the city vulnerable. The allied Gepid and Ostrogothic infantries slowed Attila's move on Constantinople, allowing months for the reconstruction of the wall. The siege was canceled, but the Huns conducted prolonged peace negotiations with Byzantium. It was then that Rhetor Priscus, who documented the last decades of the Hun empire (434–455), visited Attila's court in 449 with a Byzantine delegation.

Possibly under Byzantine inspiration, Attila moved west in 451, until the Romans and Visigoths and their allies stopped him at Orléans. His army united Gepids, Ostrogoths, Skirs, Alans, and Sarmatians, who faced fellow barbarians in the battle of Catalaunum. Fighting to a draw, the Huns retreated to the Great Hungarian Plain. Early in a.d. 452, Attila raided northern Italy, advancing beyond Mediolanum (modern-day Milan). In the summer, however, he was forced back by heat, epidemics, and the news that Byzantine forces had crossed the Danube River into Hun territory. Early the next year, amid preparations against Byzantine intrusion, Attila died unexpectedly. Subsequent infighting weakened the empire, and even his victorious son could not quell vassals, who defeated the Huns under Gepid leadership (a.d. 455). The Huns fled toward the Pontic steppe. Barbarians emerging after Hun rule finished off both Roman Empires, although written sources attribute much of this destruction to the Huns.

Although western chroniclers of the fifth through seventh centuries detailed Attila's plundering of Gaul and Italy (451–452), the exploits of the Huns in Byzantium remained underrepresented in the historical record. Medieval Catholic propaganda also profited from an unauthenticated encounter between Pope Leo I and Attila. The bishop of Rome became the savior confronting "flagellum dei" (scourge of God), Saint Augustine's term for Gothic King Alaric transposed to Attila in medieval Italy. Attila's popular descriptive, "the Dog-Headed," is a reminder of artificial skull deformation, a custom evidenced in fifth-century burials in the Hun confederacy. Attila's life spans nearly a hundred and twenty-four years in documents, of which he spent forty-four as king. In reality, he ruled for eight years before dying at about the age of forty-five.

In German tradition Attila's image varied between bloodthirsty despot and generous monarch. Christian Hungarians started considering Hun ancestry when the Nibelungenlied, a High German epic, was written in about 1200. Although the Turkic name Onugarian had been used haphazardly in western sources to denote Magyars (Ungar, Hungar, and Vengr) and other warlike equestrian barbarians, it was not linked specifically with Huns (Hsiung-nu) until the Middle Ages. In about 1283 Simon Kézai, "a loyal priest," crafted an influential legend comparable to the Niebelungenlied with a heavy Hungarian emphasis. It was dedicated to King László IV of eastern Cumanian extraction, who was involved in a power struggle with his noblemen and the church. An apocryphal relation to Attila possibly attained paradigmatic significance when steppic tradition had to be reconciled with Christianity.

Despite differences in ethnohistory, language, and physical makeup, the images of Huns and conquering Hungarians hopelessly converged. Coincidentally, both Huns and Magyars launched ruthless raids on their neighbors and beyond from the Carpathian Basin, but with a five-hundred-year time gap between them (Huns in 425–452 and Hungarians in 899–955). Their renowned light cavalry tactics also were similar. By the sixteenth century the Hungarian nobility were considered the glorious descendants of Huns who had re-conquered Attila's empire. In the nineteenth century the theory of Hun ancestry spread without social content in the public education system in Hungary, and the myth has become "historical knowledge," periodically resuscitated even today.

In contrast to this passionate historical interest, the Huns have been studied archaeologically in Hungary only since 1932. The three tumultuous decades of their empire left a rich but scattered archaeological heritage in Hungary. (Even in central Asia only a very few Hun finds predate the fourth century a.d.) Stylistically, Alans and Germanic tribes shared many predominantly "Hun" elements in their attire. "Cicada" brooches represent one of the characteristic artifact types. The archaeological traces of the Huns include not only grave goods and hoards but also destruction layers at Antique settlements. Crude architectural structures over such strata often are linked to Hun occupation.

See alsoAnimal Husbandry (vol. 2, part 7); Hungary (vol. 2, part 7).


Bóna, István, A hunok és nagykirályaik [The Huns and their great kings]. Budapest, Hungary: Corvina, 1993.

Daim, Falko, ed. Reitervölker aus dem Osten: Hunnen+Awaren. Schloss Halbturn, Austria: Burgenländische Landesausstellung, 1996.

Kovács, Tibor, and Éva Garam, eds. A Magyar NemzetiMúzeum régészeti kiállításának vezet˝oje (Kr. e.400,000–Kr. u. 804) [Guide to the archaeological exhibit of the Hungarian National Museum]. Budapest, Hungary: Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, 2002.

Lengyel, A., and G. T. B. Radan, eds. The Archaeology ofRoman Pannonia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, and Budapest, Hungary: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1980.

LÁszlÓ Bartosiewicz


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The Huns (the word means "people" in Altaic) were a confederation of steppe nomadic tribes, some of whom may have been the descendants of the Hsiung-nu, rulers of an empire by the same name in Mongolia. After the collapse of the Hsiung-nu state in the late first century c.e., the Huns migrated westward to Central Asia and in the process mixed with various Siberian, Ugric, Turkic, and Iranian ethnic elements. Around 350, the Huns migrated further west and entered the Ponto-Caspian steppe, from where they launched raids into Transcaucasia and the Near East in the 360s and 370s. Around 375, they crossed the Volga River and entered the western North Pontic region, where they destroyed the Cherniakhova culture and absorbed much of its Germanic (Gothic), Slavic, and Iranian (Sarmatian) ethnic elements. Hun movement westward initiated a massive chain reaction, touching off the migration of peoples in western Eurasia, mainly the Goths west and the Slavs west and north-northeast. Some of the Goths who escaped the Huns' invasion crossed the Danube and entered Roman territories in 376. In the process of their migrations, the Huns also altered the linguistic makeup of the Inner Eurasian steppe, transforming it from being largely Indo-European-speaking (mainly Iranian) to Turkic.

From 395 to 396, from the North Pontic the Huns staged massive raids through Transcaucasia into Roman and Sasanian territories in Anatolia, Syria, and Cappadocia. By around 400, Pannonia (Hungary) and areas north of the lower Danube became the Huns' staging grounds for attacks on the East and West Roman territories. In the 430s and 440s, they launched campaigns on the East Roman Balkans and against Germanic tribes in central Europe, reaching as far west as southern France.

The Huns' attacks on territories beyond the North Pontic steppe and Pannonia were raids for booty, campaigns to extract tribute, and mercenary fighting for their clients, not conquests of their wealthy sedentary agricultural neighbors and their lands. Being pastoralists, they wielded great military powers, but only for as long as they remained in the steppe region of Inner Eurasia, which provided them with the open terrain necessary for their mobility and grasslands for their horses. Consequently, Hun attacks west of Pannonia were minor, unorganized, and not led by strong leaders until Attila, who ruled from about 444 or 445 to 453. However, even he continued the earlier Hun practice of viewing the Roman Empire primarily as a source of booty and tribute.

Immediately after Attila's sudden death in 453, the diverse and loosely-knit Hun tribal confederation disintegrated, and their Germanic allies revolted and killed his eldest son, Ellac (d. 454). In the aftermath, most of the Huns were driven from Pannonia east to the North Pontic region, where they merged with other pastoral peoples. The collapse of Hun power can be attributed to their inability to consolidate a true state. The Huns were always and increasingly in the minority among the peoples they ruled, and they relied on complex tribal alliances but lacked a regular and permanent state structure. Pannonia simply could not provide sufficient grasslands for a larger nomadic population. However, the Hun legacy persisted in later centuries. Because of their fierce military reputation, the term "Hun" came to be applied to many other Eurasian nomads by writers of medieval sedentary societies of Outer Eurasia, while some pastoralists adopted Hun heritage and lineage to distinguish themselves politically.

See also: caucasus; central asia; ukraine and ukrainians


Christian, David. (1998). A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Vol. 1: Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Oxford: Blackwell.

Golden, Peter B. (1992). An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Maenchen-Helfen, O. J. (1973). The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sinor, Denis. (1990). "The Hun Period." In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roman K. Kovalev


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Mongolians who invaded Europe via the Russian steppes during the 4th century a.d. and precipitated the Germanic invasions of the Roman world. Their identity and their reasons for migrating westward are undetermined. True nomads, grouped in many small tribes and clans without a central government, they advanced into Europe presumably after an ephemeral tribal coalition. Ammianus Marcellinus indicates that with their strange racial features, crude habits, expert horsemanship, swift movement, and short, powerful bow they had psychological and military advantages over more sedentary peoples. About 369 they swept along the conquered Alans as their unwilling allies. They decimated the Ostrogoths and occupied their land (370375). For five decades they dominated East Central Europe as Germans fled from them

across the Rhine-Danube frontier. Little is known of their internal affairs. Loosely organized, they were ready to serve as mercenary troops for the Visigoths (Adrianople 378), Theodosius (388), Stilicho (406), or Aetius (425,433439). They raided the Balkans in 395, 408, and 422, but only after they had concentrated their forces under a centralized government could they threaten the Roman Empire. By 425 three brothers (Mundiuch, Octar, and Rua) ruled the Huns. When Rua died in 434 Attila and Bleda inherited the power of their uncles. Attila reigned alone after he murdered Bleda c. 445. The Huns crossed the Danube in raids (422, 441443, 447) and exacted tribute from Byzantium (430, 435, 443, 448). The historian Priscus supplies valuable information about them in these years. When Marcian in 450 stopped the tribute, Attila for unknown reasons decided to undertake a western campaign. In early 451 the Huns and their Germanic allies crossed the Rhine to Metz and Orléans where they were stopped in June. Attila retreated to the "Mauriac Plain" near Troyes, where the Roman general Aetius attacked him. The battle was indecisive but Attila withdrew and, as Aetius failed to exploit his advantage, descended into Italy in 452. Cities surrendered without resistance until food shortages, losses of troops, and an East Roman attack at his rear disposed Attila to heed the pleas of an embassy from Rome: Pope Leo I, the Prefect Trygetius, and the Consul Avienus. Attila returned to Hungary and died in 453. Quarrels among his sons permitted the Germans to rebel and shatter the Hun empire in a battle at the Nedao River in Pannonia c. 454. Thereafter Hunnish remnants entered the East and West Roman armies or wandered about the steppes as Kotrigurs, Onogundurs, and Utigurs. They probably merged with Bulgarians, Avars, and similar Mongol groups eventually.

Bibliography: e. a. thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford 1948). f. altheim, Geschichte der Hunnen, 5 v. (Berlin 195962). c. d. gordon, The Age of Attila (Ann Arbor 1961).

[r. h. schmandt]


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The people who invaded the eastern Roman Empire around 372-453 C.E. and were particularly ruthless and effective in their war campaigns under the leadership of Attila. Modern day Hungarians claim ancestry dating back to the Huns.

Ancient historians recorded legends that grew out of the severe stress the Huns created in all those whom they fought against. They credited the Huns with a supernatural origin. The Huns were referred to as "children of the devil," because it was said that they were born of a union between demons and hideous witches, the latter cast out of their own country by Philimer, king of the Goths, and his army. The old writers state that the Huns were of horrible deformity and could not be mistaken for anything but the children of demons. The German historian C. Besoldus (1577-1638) claimed that their name came from a Celtic or barbaric word signifying "great magicians." Many stories are told of their magic prowess and of their raising specters to assist them in battle.


Manchen-Helfen, Otto. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Huns Nomadic people of Mongol or Turkic origin who expanded from central Asia into e Europe. Under Attila, they overran large parts of the Roman empire in 434–53, exacting tribute, but after his death they disintegrated.

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