The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, between the 4th and 6th century AD. According to European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time; the Huns' arrival is associated with the migration westward of a Scythian people, the Alans.[1] By 370 AD, the Huns had arrived on the Volga, and by 430 the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe.

In the 18th century, the French scholar Joseph de Guignes became the first to propose a link between the Huns and the Xiongnu people, who were northern neighbours of China in the 3rd century BC.[2] Since Guignes' time, considerable scholarly effort has been devoted to investigating such a connection. However, there is no scholarly consensus on a direct connection between the dominant element of the Xiongnu and that of the Huns.[1] Priscus, a 5th-century Roman diplomat and historian, mentions that the Huns had a language of their own; little of it has survived and scholars have considered whether it was related to Turkic, Mongolic, or even Tungusic language families, although the almost complete lack of a text corpus renders the language unclassifiable at present. Some researchers indeed argue, the original Huns may have had a Yeniseian tribal elite, which ruled initially over various Turkic, Mongolic, and Iranian-speaking tribes.[3] Numerous other ethnic groups were included under Attila the Hun's rule, including very many speakers of Gothic, which some modern scholars describe as a lingua franca of the Empire.[4] Their main military technique was mounted archery.

The Huns may have stimulated the Great Migration, a contributing factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.[5] They formed a unified empire under Attila the Hun, who died in 453; after a defeat at the Battle of Nedao their empire disintegrated over the next 15 years. Their descendants, or successors with similar names, are recorded by neighbouring populations to the south, east and west as having occupied parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia from about the 4th to 6th centuries. Variants of the Hun name are recorded in the Caucasus until the early 8th century. The memory of the Huns also lived on in various Christian saints' lives, where the Huns play the roles of antagonists, as well as in Germanic heroic legend, where the Huns are variously antagonists or allies to the Germanic main figures. In Hungary, a legend developed that the Hungarians, and the Székely ethnic group in particular, are descended from the Huns.


The Eurasian Steppe Belt (in on the map).

The Huns were "a confederation of warrior bands",[attribution needed] ready to integrate other groups to increase their military power, in the Eurasian Steppe in the 4th to 6th centuries AD.[6] Most aspects of their ethnogenesis (including their language and their links to other peoples of the steppes) are uncertain.[7][8] Walter Pohl states: "All we can say safely is that the name Huns, in late antiquity, described prestigious ruling groups of steppe warriors."[9]

Domain and influence of Xiongnu under Modu Chanyu around 205 BC, the believed place of Huns' origin.
The largest extend of Xiongnu's influence in the 2nd century BC.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who completed his work of the history of the Roman Empire in the early 390s, recorded that the "people of the Huns … dwell beyond the Sea of Azov near the frozen ocean".[10][11] Jerome associated them with the Scythians in a letter, written four years after the Huns invaded the empire's eastern provinces in 395.[12] The equation of the Huns with the Scythians, together with a general fear of the coming of the Antichrist in the late 4th century, gave rise to their identification with Gog and Magog (whom Alexander the Great had shut off behind inaccessible mountains, according to a popular legend).[13] This demonization of the Huns is also reflected in Jordanes's Getica, written in the 6th century, which portrayed them as a people descending from "unclean spirits"[14] and expelled Gothic witches.[15][16]

Since Joseph de Guignes in the 18th century, modern historians have associated the Huns who appeared on the borders of Europe in the 4th century AD with the Xiongnu who had invaded China from the territory of present-day Mongolia between the 3rd century BC and the 2nd century AD.[17][18] Due to the devastating defeat by the Chinese Han dynasty, the northern branch of the Xiongnu had retreated north-westward; their descendants may have migrated through Eurasia and consequently they may have some degree of cultural and genetic continuity with the Huns.[19] Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen was the first to challenge the traditional approach, based primarily on the study of written sources, and to emphasize the importance of archaeological research.[20] Thereafter the identification of the Xiongnu as the Huns' ancestors became controversial among some.[19]

A Hunnish cauldron

The similarity of their ethnonyms is one of the most important links between the two peoples.[1] The Buddhist monk Dharmarakṣa, who was an important translator of Indian religious texts in the 3rd century AD, applied the word Xiongnu when translating the references to the Huna people into Chinese.[21] According to Zhengzhang Shangfang, Xiongnu was pronounced [hoŋ.naː] in Late Old Chinese, corresponding well to Huna.[22] A Sogdian merchant described the invasion of northern China by the "Xwn" people in a letter, written in 313 AD.[21] Étienne de la Vaissière asserts both documents prove that Huna or Xwn were the "exact transcriptions" of the Chinese "Xiongnu" name.[23] Christopher P. Atwood rejects de la Vassiere's particular etymological interpretation because of the "very poor phonological match" between the three words.[24] He instead argues that because Xiongnu begins with a velar spirant and Huna with a glottal spirant, and that Xiongnu is a two-syllable word, but Xwn only has one syllable. However, Atwood agrees with the overall idenfitication between the two, showing instead that Xwn and Greek Khōnai comes via Chinese transcription of Huní, while Sanskrit Huna comes from the transcription of Chinese Xiongnu in the 2nd or 1st century BC due to the fact Sanskrit cannot render a velar spirant or a velar nasal. He argues it was ultimately transmitted from Sanskrit to Baktrian Greek, where it became Ounna (evidenced via John Malalas and the Chinese form Wēnnàshā in the Wei Shu), as Greek cannot render a retroflex dental nasal like Sanskrit, becoming a coronal dental nasal. Likewise, he argues the glottal spirant was also lost in transcription to Baktrian Greek, since Greek tends to drop the glottal spirant, and instead became a glottal stop. Merchants then took it to the Kuban region, where it took the forms Ounnoi and Hunni in Roman Greek and Latin.[25] The Chinese Book of Wei also contain references to "the remains of the descendants of the Xiongnu" who lived in the region of the Altai Mountains in the early 5th century AD.[26] According to De la Vaissière, the Central Asian and Chinese sources prove that the Hunnic nomadic group preserved their Xiongnu identity for centuries after their movement west.[26]

Both the Xiongnu and Huns used bronze cauldrons, similarly to all peoples of the steppes.[27] Based on the study and categorization of cauldrons from archaeological sites of the Eurasian Steppes, archaeologist Toshio Hayashi concludes that the spread of the cauldrons "may indicate the route of migration of the Hunnic tribes" from Mongolia to the northern region of Central Asia in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, and from Central Asia towards Europe in the second half of the 4th century, which also implies the Huns' association with the Xiongnu.[28] The Huns practised artificial cranial deformation, but there is no evidence of such practice among the Xiongnu.[29][page needed] This custom had already been practised in the Eurasian Steppes in the Bronze Age and in the early Iron Age, but it disappeared around 500 BC.[30] It again started to spread among the local inhabitants of the region of the Talas River and in the Pamir Mountains in the 1st century BC.[30] In addition to the Huns, the custom is also evidenced among the Yuezhi and Alans.[31] The lengthy pony-tail, which was a characteristic of the Xiongnu, was not documented among the Huns.[32]

A gold stag with eagle's head, and ten further heads in the antlers. From a Xiongnu tomb on the frontier, 4th-3rd century BC

When writing of the relationship between the Xiongnu and Huns, historian Hyun Jin Kim concludes: "Thus to refer to Hun-Xiongnu links in terms of old racial theories or even ethnic affiliations simply makes a mockery of the actual historical reality of these extensive, multiethnic, polyglot steppe empires".[33] He also emphasizes that "the ancestors of the Hunnic core tribes … were part of the Xiongnu Empire and possessed a strong Xiongnu element, and the ruling elite of the Huns … claimed to belong to the political tradition of this imperial entity."[33] Nevertheless he claims: "Huns seem to have had a core Turkic element, ruling over initially a large Turco-Iranian population."[3] Taking into account the historical gap between the Chinese reports of the Xiongnu and the European records of the Huns, Peter Heather states: "Even if we do make some connection between fourth-century Huns and first-century [Xiongnu], therefore, an awful lot of water had passed under an awful lot of bridges during 300 years worth of lost history."[32]


Before Attila[]

A suggested path of the Huns' movement westwards (labels in German)

The 2nd century geographer Ptolemy mentioned a people called Χοῦνοι Khunnoi,[34][35] when listing the peoples of the west Eurasian steppe.[36][37] (In the Koine Greek used by Ptolemy, Χ generally denoted a voiceless velar fricative sound; hence contemporary Western Roman authors Latinised the name as Chuni or Chunni.) The Khunnoi lived "between the Bastarnae and the Roxolani", according to Ptolemy.[36][37] However, modern scholars such as E. A. Thompson have claimed that the similarity of the ethnonyms Khunnoi and Hun were coincidental.[37] Maenchen-Helfen and Denis Sinor also dispute the association of the Khunnoi with Attila's Huns.[38] However, Maenchen-Helfen concedes that Ammianus Marcellinus referred to Ptolemy's report of the Khunnoi, when stating that the Huns were "mentioned only cursorily" by previous writers.[10][38]

A tribe called the Ουρουγούνδοι Ourougoúndoi (or Urugundi) whom, according to Zosimus, invaded the Roman Empire from north of the Lower Danube in 250 AD may have been synonymous with the Βουρουγουνδοι Bourougoundoi, whom Agathias (6th century) listed among the Hunnish tribes.[39] Other scholars have regarded both names as referring to a Germanic tribe, the Burgundi (Burgundians), although this identification was rejected by Maenchen-Helfen (who speculated that one or both names may have approximated an early Turkic ethnonym, such as "Vurugundi").[39]

The Romans became aware of the Huns when the latter's invasion of the Pontic steppes forced thousands of Goths to move to the Lower Danube to seek refuge in the Roman Empire in 376, according to the contemporaneous Ammianus Marcellinus.[32] Their sudden appearance in the written sources suggests that the Huns crossed the Volga River from the east not much earlier.[11] They invaded the land of the Alans, which was located to the east of the Don River, slaughtering many of them and forcing the survivors to submit themselves to them or to flee across the Don.[40][41][42] The reasons for the Huns' sudden attack on the neighboring peoples have long believed to be unknown.[43] However, recent research has shown that the El Nino Southern Oscillation caused a megadrought in 360, which spurred Inner Asian migration.[44]

After they subjugated the Alans, the Huns and their Alan auxiliaries started plundering the wealthy settlements of the Greuthungi, or eastern Goths, to the west of the Don.[32] The Greuthungic king, Ermanaric, resisted for a while, but finally "he found release from his fears by taking his own life",[45] according to Ammianus Marcellinus.[32] Marcellinus's report refers either to Ermanaric's suicide[46] or to his ritual sacrifice.[32] His great-nephew, Vithimiris, succeeded him.[46] He hired Huns to fight against the Alans who invaded the Greuthungi's land, but he was killed in a battle.[46][41]

Hun warriors. Colored engraving from 1890.

After Vithimiris's death, most Greuthungi submitted themselves to the Huns.[46] Those who decided to resist marched to the Dniester River which was the border between the lands of the Greuthungi and the Thervingi, or western Goths.[47] They were under the command of Alatheus and Saphrax, because Vithimiris's son, Viderichus, was a child.[47] Athanaric, the leader of the Thervingi, met the refugees along the Dniester at the head of his troops.[32] However, a Hun army bypassed the Goths and attacked them from the rear, forcing Athanaric to retreat towards the Carpathian Mountains.[32] Athanaric wanted to fortify the borders, but Hun raids into the land west of the Dniester continued.[32] Most Thervingi realized that they could not resist the Huns.[32] They went to the Lower Danube, requesting asylum in the Roman Empire.[48] The Greuthingi under the leadership of Alatheus and Saphrax also marched to the river.[32] Most Roman troops had been transferred from the Balkan Peninsula to fight against the Sassanid Empire in Armenia.[32] Emperor Valens permitted the Thervingi to cross the Lower Danube and to settle in the Roman Empire in the autumn of 376.[49] The Thervingi were followed by the Greuthingi, and also by the Taifali and "other tribes that formerly dwelt with the Goths and Taifali" to the north of the Lower Danube, according to Zosimus.[49] Food shortage and abuse stirred the Goths to revolt in early 377.[48] The ensuing war between the Goths and the Romans lasted for more than five years.[32]

The Barbarian invasions of the 5th century were triggered by the destruction of the Gothic kingdoms by the Huns in 372–375. The city of Rome was captured and looted by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455.

Support for the Gothic chieftains diminished as refugees headed into Thrace and towards the safety of the Roman garrisons.

After these invasions, the Huns begin to be noted as Foederati and mercenaries. As early as 380, a group of Huns was given Foederati status and allowed to settle in Pannonia. Hunnish mercenaries were also seen on several occasions in the succession struggles of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire during the late 4th century. However, it is most likely that these were individual mercenary bands, not a Hunnish kingdom.[1]

Detail of Hunnish gold and garnet bracelet, 5th century, Walters Art Museum
An Hunnish oval openwork fibula set with a carnelian and decorated with a geometric pattern of gold wire, 4th century, Walters Art Museum

In 395 the Huns began their first large-scale attack on the Eastern Roman Empire.[50] Huns attacked in Thrace, overran Armenia, and pillaged Cappadocia. They entered parts of Syria, threatened Antioch, and swarmed through the province of Euphratesia. The forces of Emperor Theodosius were fully committed in the west so the Huns moved unopposed until the end of 398 when the eunuch Eutropius gathered together a force composed of Romans and Goths and succeeded in restoring peace. It is uncertain though, whether or not Eutropius' forces defeated the Huns or whether the Huns left on their own. There is no record of a notable victory by Eutropius and there is evidence that the Hunnish forces were already leaving the area by the time he gathered his forces.[1]

Whether put to flight by Eutropius, or leaving on their own, the Huns had left the Eastern Roman Empire by 398. After this, the Huns invaded the Sassanid Empire. This invasion was initially successful, coming close to the capital of the empire at Ctesiphon; however, they were defeated badly during the Persian counterattack and retreated toward the Caucasus Mountains via the Derbend Pass.[1]

During their brief diversion from the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns appear to have threatened tribes further west, as evidenced by Radagaisus' entering Italy at the end of 405 and the crossing of the Rhine into Gaul by Vandals, Sueves, and Alans in 406.[50] The Huns do not then appear to have been a single force with a single ruler. Many Huns were employed as mercenaries by both East and West Romans and by the Goths. Uldin, the first Hun known by name,[50] headed a group of Huns and Alans fighting against Radagaisus in defense of Italy. Uldin was also known for defeating Gothic rebels giving trouble to the East Romans around the Danube and beheading the Goth Gainas around 400–401. Gainas' head was given to the East Romans for display in Constantinople in an apparent exchange of gifts.

The East Romans began to feel the pressure from Uldin's Huns again in 408. Uldin crossed the Danube and captured a fortress in Moesia named Castra Martis, which was betrayed from within. Uldin then proceeded to ransack Thrace. The East Romans tried to buy Uldin off, but his sum was too high so they instead bought off Uldin's subordinates. This resulted in many desertions from Uldin's group of Huns.

Alaric's brother-in-law, Athaulf, appears to have had Hun mercenaries in his employ south of the Julian Alps in 409. These were countered by another small band of Huns hired by Honorius' minister Olympius. Later in 409, the West Romans stationed ten thousand Huns in Italy and Dalmatia to fend off Alaric, who then abandoned plans to march on Rome.

Under Attila and Bleda[]

A nineteenth century depiction of Attila. Certosa di Pavia - Medallion at the base of the facade. The Latin inscription tells that this is Attila, the scourge of God.

From 434 the brothers Attila and Bleda ruled the Huns together. Attila and Bleda were as ambitious as their uncle Rugila. In 435 they forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus,[51] giving the Huns trade rights and an annual tribute from the Romans. The Romans also agreed to give up Hunnic refugees (individuals who could have threatened the brothers' grip on power) for execution. With their southern border protected by the terms of this treaty, the Huns could turn their full attention to the further subjugation of tribes to the west.

When the Romans breached the treaty in 440, Attila and Bleda attacked Castra Constantias, a Roman fortress and marketplace on the banks of the Danube.[52] The Eastern Romans stopped delivery of the agreed tribute, and they broke other conditions of the Treaty of Margus. The Hunnic kings turned their attention back to the Eastern Romans. Reports that the Bishop of Margus had crossed into Hun lands and desecrated royal graves further angered the Hun kings. War broke out between the two empires, and the Huns overcame a weak Roman army to raze the cities of Margus, Singidunum and Viminacium. Although a truce was signed in 441, two years later Constantinople again failed to deliver the tribute and war resumed. In the following campaign, Hun armies came alarmingly close to Constantinople, sacking Sardica, Arcadiopolis and Philippopolis along the way. Suffering a complete defeat at the Battle of Chersonesus, the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II gave in to Hun demands and in autumn 443 signed the Peace of Anatolius with the two Hun kings. The Huns returned to their lands with a vast train full of plunder.

Unified Empire under Attila[]

Hunnic Empire
The Hunnic Empire circa 450 CE
The Hunnic Empire circa 450 CE
Common languages Hunnic
Various tribal languages
Government Tribal Confederation
High King  
• 370s
• c. 435–445
Attila and Bleda
• 445–453
• 453–469
• Huns appear north-west of the Caspian Sea
pre 370s
• Balamber began uniting the Huns and Germanic tribes
• Attila and Bleda become co-rulers of the united tribes
• Death of Bleda, Attila becomes sole ruler
• Invasion of northern Italy
• Dengizich, son of Attila, dies

Bleda died in 445, with some historians speculating that his death was at the hands of Attila. With his brother gone, Attila was able to establish undisputed control over his subjects. In 447, Attila turned the Huns back toward the Eastern Roman Empire once more. His invasion of the Balkans and Thrace was devastating. The Eastern Roman Empire was already beset by internal problems, such as famine and plague, as well as riots and a series of earthquakes in Constantinople itself. A last-minute rebuilding of its walls preserved Constantinople unscathed. Victory over a Roman army left the Huns virtually unchallenged in Eastern Roman lands and they raided as far south as Thermopylae. Only disease forced them to retreat, and the war came to an end in 449 with an agreement in which the Romans agreed to pay Attila an annual tribute of 2100 pounds of gold. Our only first-hand account of conditions among the Huns and of Attila himself is by Priscus, an official in the peace embassy to Attila.

Throughout their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns had maintained good relations with the Western Empire, and in particular with Flavius Aetius, a powerful Roman general (sometimes even referred to as the de facto ruler of the Western Empire) who in his youth had spent time as a hostage with the Huns. However, this all changed in 450 when Honoria, sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, sent Attila a ring and requested his help to escape her betrothal to a senator. Attila claimed her as his bride and half the Western Roman Empire as dowry.[53] Additionally, a dispute arose between Attila and Aetius about the rightful heir to a king of the Salian Franks. Finally, Attila's ability to distribute treasure to favoured followers was an important support to his power, and the repeated extortion from the Eastern Roman Empire had left it with little to plunder.

In 451, Attila's forces entered Gaul, accumulating contingents from the Franks, Goths and Burgundian tribes en route. Once in Gaul, the Huns first attacked Metz, then his armies continued westwards, passing both Paris and Troyes to lay siege to Orléans.

Aetius was given the duty of relieving Orléans by Emperor Valentinian III. Bolstered by Frankish and Visigothic troops (under King Theodoric), Aetius' own Roman army met the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Although a tactical defeat for Attila, thwarting his invasion of Gaul and forcing his retreat back to non-Roman lands, the macrohistorical significance of the allied and Roman victory is a matter of debate.[54][55][56]

Invasion of the Huns approaching Rome.
Raphael's The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila depicts Pope Leo I, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun emperor outside Rome

The following year, Attila renewed his claims to Honoria and territory in the Western Roman Empire. Leading his horde across the Alps and into Northern Italy, he sacked and razed the cities of Aquileia, Vicetia, Verona, Brixia, Bergamum and Milan. Hoping to avoid the sack of Rome, Emperor Valentinian III sent three envoys, the high civilian officers Gennadius Avienus and Trigetius, as well as Pope Leo I, who met Attila at Mincio in the vicinity of Mantua, and obtained from him the promise that he would withdraw from Italy and negotiate peace with the emperor. Prosper of Aquitaine describes the historic meeting, giving all the cr of the successful negotiation to Leo. Priscus reports that superstitious fear of the fate of Alaric—who died shortly after sacking Rome in 410—gave him pause. More practically, Italy had suffered from a terrible famine in 451 and her crops were faring little better in 452;[57] Attila's invasion of the plains of Northern Italy this year did not improve the harvest. To advance on Rome would have required supplies which were not available in Italy, and taking the city would not have improved Attila's supply situation. Secondly, an East Roman force had crossed the Danube and defeated the Huns who had been left behind by Attila to safeguard their home territories. Attila, hence, faced heavy human and natural pressures to retire from Italy before moving south of the Po. Attila retreated without Honoria or her dowry.[58]

Praying Sainte Genevieve disarm Attila - Sculpture by Etienne-Hippolyte Maindron (1857), exhibited in Notre-Dame church, Cholet, France

The new Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian then halted tribute payments. From the Pannonian Basin, Attila planned to attack Constantinople. However, in 453 he married a girl with the Germanic name Ildico, and died of a haemorrhage on his wedding night.[59]

After Attila[]

After Attila's death in 453, the Hunnic Empire faced an internal power struggle between its vassalized Germanic peoples and the Hunnic ruling body. Led by Ellak, Attila's favored son and ruler of the Akatziri, the Huns engaged the Gepid king Ardaric at the Battle of Nedao, who led a coalition of Germanic Peoples to overthrow Hunnic imperial authority. The Amali Goths would revolt the same year under Valamir, allegedly defeating the Huns in a separate engagement.[60] However, this did not result in the complete collapse of Hunnic power in the Carpathian region, but did result in the loss of many of their Germanic vassals. At the same time, the Huns were also dealing with the arrival of more Oghur Turkic-speaking peoples from the East, including the Oghurs, Saragurs, Onogurs, and the Sabirs. In 463, the Saragurs defeated the Akatziri, or Akatir Huns, and asserted dominance in the Pontic region.[61]

In 458 some Huns served under Tudila in Majorian's army, probably belonging to a group settled under Emnetzur and Ultzindur in Dacia Ripensis.[62] The western Huns under Dengzich were experiencing difficulties in 461, when they were defeated by Valamir in a war against the Sadages, a people allied with the Huns.[63] His campaigning was also met with dissatisfaction from Ernak, ruler of the Akatziri Huns, who wanted to focus on the incoming Oghur speaking peoples.[61] In 465–466, Ernak and Dengzich sent ambassadors to Constantinople requesting a peace treaty, and asking to establish a market for the exchange of needed provisions. However these requests were rejected, and Dengzich attacked the Romans in 467, without the assistance of Ernak. He was surrounded by the Romans and besieged, and came to an agreement that they would surrender if they were given land and his starving forces given food. During the negotiations, a Hun in service of the Romans named Chelchel persuaded the enemy Goths to attack their Hun overlords. The Romans, under their General Aspar and with the help of his bucellarii, then attacked the quarreling Goths and Huns, defeating them.[64]

In 469, Anagastes, the son of Arnegisclus who was slain by Attila, brought Dengzich's head and paraded it through the streets before mounting it on a stake in the Hippodrome.[65] Some Historians, like John Man, accept this date as the end of the Hunnic Empire.[66] However others, such as Kim, argue it continued under Ernak who absorbed the incoming Oghur speakers. These people were similar to the Huns and Attila's empire continued as the Kutrigur and Utigur Hunno-Bulgars.[61] This conclusion is still subject to some controversy.

Society and culture[]


As the Huns were illiterate and thus kept no records, all surviving accounts were written by enemies of the Huns, and none describe the Huns as attractive either morally or in appearance. Jordanes, a Goth writing in Italy in 551, a century after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, describes the Huns as a "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."[67]:122 Jordanes goes on to write:

They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had, if I may call it so, a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes. 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. Hence they grow old beardless and their young men are without comeliness, because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts.[67]:127–8

Jordanes also recounted how Priscus had described Attila the Hun, the Emperor of the Huns from 434–453, as: "Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin."[68]:182

In forming their view of Attila's people, the Romans tapped into attitudes inherited from the Greeks, that these were the vilest creatures imaginable. They came from the North and everyone knew that the colder the climate was, the more barbaric the people were.[69] They knew nothing of metal, had no religion and lived like savages, without fire, eating their food raw, living off roots, and meat tenderized by placing it under their horses' saddles. They had no buildings, not so much as a reed hut, indeed, they feared the very idea of venturing under a roof.[69]

The description of Huns given by the Romans has prompted some historians to believe they were of East Asian origin. Denis Sinor, noting the paucity of anthropological evidence, wrote that "there is no reason to question the basic accuracy of the western descriptions, and the absence of massive supporting evidence by physical anthropology cannot weaken the point they so tellingly make. It is the unusual that most attracts attention."[1] However, Austrian scholar Maenchen-Helfen wrote in the 20th century:

Ammianus' description begins with a strange misunderstanding ... This was repeated by Claudian and Sidonius and reinterpreted by Cassiodorus. Ammianus' explanation of the thin beards is wrong. Like so many other people, the Huns inflicted wounds on their live flesh as a sign of grief when their kinsmen were dying.[70]

The 6th-century Roman historian Procopius of Caesarea (Book I. ch. 3), related the Huns of Europe with the Hephthalites or "White Huns" who subjugated the Sassanids and invaded northwestern India, stating that they were of the same stock, "in fact as well as in name", although he contrasted the Huns with the Hephthalites, in that the Hephthalites were sedentary, white-skinned, and possessed "not ugly" features:[71][72]

The Ephthalitae Huns, who are called White Huns [...] The Ephthalitae are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name, however they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us, for they occupy a land neither adjoining nor even very near to them; but their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia [...] They are not nomads like the other Hunnic peoples, but for a long period have been established in a goodly land... They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly. It is also true that their manner of living is unlike that of their kinsmen, nor do they live a savage life as they do; but they are ruled by one king, and since they possess a lawful constitution, they observe right and justice in their dealings both with one another and with their neighbours, in no degree less than the Romans and the Persians[73]

Artificial cranial deformation[]

Artificial cranial deformation of the Alchon Huns, possible relatives of the European Huns, as seen on a portrait of king Khingila c. 440 – 490 CE.[74]
Landesmuseum Württemberg deformed skull, early 6th century Allemannic culture.

Artificial cranial deformation was practiced by the Huns and sometimes by tribes under their influence.[75][76][77][78] Artificial cranial deformation of the circular type can be used to trace the route that the Huns took from north China to the Central Asian steppes and subsequently to the southern Russian steppes.[79] The people who practiced annular type artificial cranial deformation in Central Asia were Yuezhi/Kushans.[80][81][82]

Some artificially deformed crania from the 5th–6th Century AD have been found in Northeastern Hungary and elsewhere in Western Europe. None of them have any Mongoloid features and all the skulls appear Europoid; these skulls may have belonged to Germanic or other subject groups whose parents wished to elevate their status by following a custom introduced by the Huns.[30]


Hunnic governmental structure has long been debated. In the past many scholars argued that the Huns did not have a central organization until after they entered Europe. Peter Heather argued the Huns were a disorganized confederation in which leaders acted completely independently and that eventually established a ranking hierarchy, much like Germanic societies.[83] However this has been challenged in recent years. According to Kim, it is now believed that the Huns continued the Xiongnu organization, in which their polity was divided into Left, Right, South, and North, in that order of priority.[84] It is also thought that the Huns continued the council of "six horns/nobles" that the Xiongnu had under their emperor.[85] It is unknown what the Hun emperor was called, but the terms Chanyu, Aniliki, Shah, and Yabgu are possible or interchangeable titles for the same position, as they were in use by other contemporary peoples during that period.[86][87] Likewise, it is suggested that the Huns continued to use the decimal military organization of the Xiongnu as well.[88]


A variety of languages were spoken within the Hun Empire.[89] It has been supposed that by the 440s, the "Huns" were composed mostly of Germanic-speaking subjects rather than speakers of Hunnic, and as such Gothic may have been a lingua franca of the Empire.[90][91] Kim however points out that there is no evidence for the idea that Gothic was a lingua franca.[92] Subjects of the Huns also included Iranian-speaking Alans and Sarmatians.[32] Based on some etymological interpretation of the words strava, medos, and kamos and their subsequent historical appearance, the other languages have been taken to include a form of Proto-Slavic language.[93][94][95]

Priscus noted that the Hunnic language differed from other languages spoken at Attila's court.[96] He recounts how Zerco made Attila's guests laugh also by the "promiscuous jumble of words, Latin mixed with Hunnish and Gothic."[96] Priscus said that Attila's "Scythian" subjects spoke "besides their own barbarian tongues, either Hunnish, or Gothic, or, as many have dealings with the Western Romans, Latin; but not one of them easily speaks Greek, except captives from the Thracian or Illyrian frontier regions".[97]

The ancient sources are thus clear that there was a Hunnic language. The literary sources preserve many names, and three Indo-European words (medos, kamos, strava), which have been studied for more than a century and a half.[98] Otto Maenchen-Helfen noted that the thesis suggesting the Huns spoke a Turkic language has a long history behind it.[99] Maenchen-Helfen held that by Turkic origin of Hunnic tribal and proper names, the Huns spoke a Turkic language.[100] Denis Sinor argued that "at least part of the Hun leadership was Turkic-speaking".[1]

Traditionally notable studies of proper names chronologically include that of Gyula Németh, Gerhard Doerfer, Maenchen-Helfen, and Omeljan Pritsak.[1] In Pritsak's 1982 study The Hunnic Language of the Attila Clan,[101] he analyzes 33 surviving personal names and concludes:

It was not a Turkic language, but one between Turkic and Mongolian, probably closer to the former than the latter. The language had strong ties to Bulgar language and to modern Chuvash, but also had some important connections, especially lexical and morphological, to Ottoman Turkish and Yakut.[101]

On the basis of the existing name records, a number of scholars suggest that the Huns spoke a Turkic language of the Oghur branch, which also includes the Bulgar, Khazar and Chuvash languages.[102][103] Peter Heather called the Huns "the first group of Turkic, as opposed to Iranian, nomads to have intruded into Europe".[104]

In 2013, Hyun Jin Kim suggested that "from the names that we do know, most of which seem to be Turkic... the Hunnic elite was predominantly Turkic-speaking."[92] He also suggests that the Xiongnu, who had originally spoken Yeniseian, experienced a language flip to Oghur Turkic when they absorbed the Dingling and crossed into Central Asia, like the later Golden Horde and Chagatai Khanate.[3] He noted that, beside Hunnic, people in Attila's court also spoke Gothic and Latin, and that in the western part of the Empire, where subjected Goths lived, people described as Huns probably spoke both the Hunnic and Gothic languages. An example would be the Germanic or Germanized names of noted Huns like Laudaricus.[92]

Nevertheless, some scholars still conclude that the Hunnic language cannot presently be classified, and attempts to classify it as Turkic or Mongolic are speculative.[105][106][107]


Almost nothing is known about the religion of the Huns.[108][109] Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus claims that the Huns had no religion,[110] while the fifth-century Christian writer Salvian classied them as pagans.[111] Jordanes' Getica also records that the Huns worshipped "the sword of Mars", an ancient sword that signified Attila's right to rule the whole world.[112] Maenchen-Helfen notes a widespread worship of a war god in the form of a sword among steppe peoples, including among the Xiongnu.[113] Denis Sinor, however, holds the worship of a sword among the Huns to be aprocryphal.[114] Maenchen-Helfen also argues that, while the Huns themselves do not appear to have regarded Attila as divine, some of his subject people clearly did.[115] A belief in prophecy and divination is also attested among the Huns.[116][117][114] Maenchen-Helfen argues that the performers of these acts of soothsaying and divination were likely shamans.[118] Sinor also finds it likely that the Huns had shamans, although they are completely unattested.[119] Maenchen-Helfen also deduces a belief in water-spirits from a custom mentioned in Ammianus.[120] He further suggests that the Huns may have made small metal, wooden, or stone idols, which are attested among other steppe tribes, and which a Byzantine source attests for the Huns in Crimea in the sixth century.[121] He also connects archaeological finds of Hunnish bronze cauldrons found buried near or in running water to possible rituals performed by the Huns in the Spring.[122]

John Man argues that the Huns of Attila's time likely worshipped the sky and the steppe deity Tengri, who is also attested as having been worshipped by the Xiongnu.[123] Maenchen-Helfen also suggests the possibility that the Huns of this period may have worshipped Tengri, but notes that the god is not attested in European records until the ninth century.[124] Worship of Tengri under the name "T'angri Khan" is attested among the Caucasian Huns in the Armenian chronicle attributed to Movses Dasxuranci during the later seventh-century.[119] Movses also records that the Caucasian Huns worshipped trees and burnt horses as sacrifices to Tengri,[119] and that they "made sacrifices to fire and water and to certain gods of the roads, and to the moon and to all creatures considered in their eyes to be in some way remarkable."[119] There is also some evidence for human sacrifice among the European Huns. Maenchen-Helfen argues that humans appear to have been sacrificed at Attila's funerary rite, recorded in Jordanes under the name strava.[125] Priscus claims that the Huns sacrificed their prisoners "to victory" after they entered Scythia, but this is not otherwise attested as a Hunnic custom and may be fiction.[126][114]

In addition to these pagan beliefs, there are numerous attestations of Huns converting to Christianity and receiving Christian missionaries.[127][128] The missionary activities among the Huns of the Caucasas seem to have been particularly successful, resulting in the conversion of the Hunnish prince Alp Ilteber.[114] Attila appears to have tolerated both Nicene and Arian Christianity among his subjects.[129]


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

Strategy and tactics[]

Hun warfare as a whole is not well studied, and many scholars as of recent have discounted Ammianus' description of the Huns.[130] This was first pointed out by E.A. Thompson, who stated that the Huns could never have conquered Europe without iron armor and weapons.[131] The only accurate information on Hun warfare comes from the 6th-century Strategikon, which describes the warfare of "Dealing with the Scythians, that is, Avars, Turks, and others whose way of life resembles that of the Hunnish peoples." The Strategikon describes the Avars and Huns as devious and very experienced in military matters.[132] They are described as preferring to defeat their enemies by deceit, surprise attacks, and cutting off supplies. The Huns brought large numbers of horses to use as replacements and to give the impression of a larger army on campaign.[132] The Hunnish peoples did not set up an entrenched camp, but spread out across the grazing fields according to clan, and guard their necessary horses until they began forming the battle line under the cover of early morning. The Strategikon states the Huns also stationed sentries at significant distances and in constant contact with each other in order to prevent surprise attacks.[133]

According to the Strategikon, the Huns did not form a battle line in the method that the Romans and Persians used, but in irregularly sized divisions in a single line, and keep a separate force nearby for ambushes and as a reserve. The Strategikon also states the Huns used deep formations with a dense and even front.[133]Otto Maenchen-Helfen states that the Huns likely formed up in divisions according to tribal clans and families which Ammianus calls Cunei, the leader of which was called a Cur and inherited the title as it was passed down through the clan.[134] The Strategikon states that the Huns kept their spare horses and baggage train to either side of the line about a mile away, with a moderate sized guard, and would sometimes tie their spare horses together behind the main battle line.[133] The Huns preferred to fight at long range, utilizing ambush, encirclement, and the feigned retreat. The Strategikon also makes note of the wedge shaped formations mentioned by Ammianus, and corroborated as familial regiments by Maenchen-Helfen.[133][134] [135] The Strategikon states the Huns preferred to pursue their enemies relentlessly after a victory and then wear them out by a long siege after defeat.[133]

Military equipment[]

The Strategikon states the Huns typically used mail, swords, bows, and lances, and that most Hunnic warriors were armed with both the bow and lance and used them interchangeably as needed. It also states the Huns used quilted linen, wool, or sometimes iron barding for their horses and also wore quilted coifs and kaftans.[136] This assessment is largely corroborated by archaeological finds of Hun military equipment, such as the Volnikovka and Brut Burials.

A late Roman ridge helmet of the Berkasovo-Type was found with a Hun burial at Concesti.[137] A Hunnic helmet of the segmentehelm type was found at Chudjasky, a Hunnic spangenhelmet at Tarasovsky grave 1784, and another of the bandhelm type at Turaevo.[138] Fragments of lamellar helmets dating to the Hunnic period and within the Hunnic sphere have been found at Iatrus, Illichevka, and Kalkhni.[137][138] Hun lamellar armour has not been found in Europe, although two fragments of likely Hun origin have been found on the Upper Ob and in West Kazakhstan dating to the 3rd–4th centuries.[139] A find of lamellar dating to about 520 from the Toprachioi warehouse in the fortress of Halmyris near Badabag, Romania, suggests a late 5th or early 6th century introduction.[140] It is known that the Eurasian Avars introduced Lamellar armor to the Roman Army and Migration Era Germanics in the Middle 6th Century, but this later type does not appear before then.[137][141]

It is also widely accepted that the Huns introduced the langseax, a 60 cm cutting blade that became popular among the migration era Germanics and in the Late Roman Army, into Europe.[142] It is believed these blades originated in China and that the Sarmatians and Huns served as a transmission vector, using shorter seaxes in Central Asia that developed into the narrow langseax in Eastern Europe during the late 4th and first half of the 5th century. These earlier blades date as far back as the 1st century AD, with the first of the newer type appearing in Eastern Europe being the Wien-Simmerming example, dated to the late 4th century AD.[142] Other notable Hun examples include the Langseax from the more recent find at Volnikovka in Russia.[143]

The Huns used a type of spatha in the Iranic or Sassanid style, with a long, straight approximately 83 cm blade, usually with a diamond shaped iron guard plate.[144] Swords of this style have been found at sites such as Altlussheim, Szirmabesenyo, Volnikovka, Novo-Ivanovka, and Tsibilium 61. They typically had gold foil hilts, gold sheet scabbards, and scabbard fittings decorated in the polychrome style. The sword was carried in the "Iranian style" attached to a swordbelt, rather than on a baldric.[145]

The most famous weapon of the Huns is the Qum Darya-type composite recurve bow, often called the "Hunnish Bow". This bow was invented some time in the 3rd or 2nd centuries BC with the earliest finds near Lake Baikal, but spread across Eurasia long before the Hunnic migration. These bows were typified by being asymmetric in cross-section between 145–155 cm in length, having between 4–9 lathes on the grip and in the siyahs.[146] Although whole bows rarely survive in European climatic conditions, finds of bone Siyahs are quite common and characteristic of steppe burials. Complete specimens have been found at sites in the Tarim Basin and Gobi Desert such as Niya, Qum Darya, and Shombuuziin-Belchir. Eurasian nomads such as the Huns typically used trilobate diamond shaped iron arrowheads, attached using birch tar and a tang, with typically 75 cm shafts and fletching attached with tar and sinew whipping. Such trilobate arrowheads are believed to be more accurate and have better penetrating power or capacity to injure than flat arrowheads.[146]



Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, by Hans Memling. The turbaned and armored figures represent Huns.
The Huns (outside) set fire to their own hall to kill the Burgundians. Illustration from the Hundeshagen Codex of the Nibelungenlied.

After the fall of the Hunnic Empire, various legends arose concerning the Huns. Among these are a number of Christian hagiographic legends in which the Huns play a role. In an anonymous medieval biography of Pope Leo I, Attila's march into Italy in 452 is stopped because, when he meets Leo outside Rome, the apostles Peter and Paul appear to him holding swords over his head and threatening to kill him unless he follows the pope's command to turn back.[147] In other versions, Attila takes the pope hostage and is forced by the saints to release him.[148] According to the hagiography of Saint Aignan of Orleans, during Attila's siege of Orleans, Aignan caused a storm to flood the Loire to prevent the Huns from attacking the city. Aignan then appeared in a vision to Aetius so that he hastened to defend the city and expelled those Huns that Aetius's army did not kill through his prayers.[149] Saint Lupus of Troyes is said to have let the Huns into Troyes but made the city invisible to the Huns.[150] In the legend of Saint Ursula, Ursula and her 11,000 holy virgins arrive at Cologne on their way back from a pilgrimage just as the Huns, under an unnamed prince,[151] are besieging the city. Ursula and her virgins killed by the Huns with arrows after they refuse the Huns' sexual advances. Afterwards, however, the souls of the slaughtered virgins form a heavenly army that drives away the Huns and saves Cologne.[152] Other cities with legends regarding the Huns and a saint include Dieuze, Metz, Modena, and Reims.[153] In legends surrounding Saint Servatius of Tongeren dating to at least the eighth century, Servatius is said to have converted Attila and the Huns to Christianity, before they later became apostates and returned to their paganism.[154]

The Huns also play an important role in medieval Germanic legends, which frequently convey versions of events from the migration period and were originally transmitted orally.[155] Memories of the conflicts between the Goths and Huns in Eastern Europe appear to be maintained in the Old English poem Widsith as well as in Old Norse poem "The Battle of the Goths and Huns", which is transmitted in the thirteenth-century Icelandic Hervarar Saga.[156][157] Widsith also mentions Attila having been ruler of the Huns, placing him at the head of a list of various legendary and historical rulers and peoples and marking the Huns as the most famous.[158] The name Attila, rendered in Old English as Ætla, was a given name in use in Anglo-Saxon England (ex. Bishop Ætla of Dorchester) and its use in England at the time may have been connected to the heroic kings legend represented in works such as Widsith.[159] Maenchen-Helfen, however, doubts the use of the name by the Anglo-Saxons had anything to do with the Huns, arguing that it was "not a rare name."[160]

The Huns and Attila also form central figures in the two most-widespread Germanic legendary cycles, that of the Nibelungs and of Dietrich von Bern (the historical Theoderic the Great). The Nibelung legend, particularly as recorded in the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Völsunga saga, as well as in the German Nibelungenlied, connects the Huns and Attila (and in the Norse tradition, Attila's death) to the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine in 437.[161] In the legends about Dietrich von Bern, Attila and the Huns provide Dietrich with a refuge and suppport after he has been driven from his kingdom at Verona.[162] A version of the events of the Battle of Nadao may be perserved in a legend, transmitted in two differing versions in the Middle High German Die Rabenschlacht and Old Norse Thidrekssaga, in which the sons of Attila fall in battle.[162] The legend of Walter of Aquitaine, meanwhile, shows the Huns to receive child hostages as tribute from their subject peoples.[163] Generally, the continental Germanic traditions paint a more positive picture of Attila and the Huns than the Scandinavian sources, where the Huns appear in a distinctly negative light.[164]

In medieval German legend, the Huns were identified with the Hungarians, with their capital of Etzelburg (Attila-city) being identified with Esztergom or Buda.[165] The Old Norse Thidrekssaga, however, which is based on North German sources, locates Hunaland in northern Germany, with a capital at Soest in Westphalia.[166] In other Old Norse sources, the term Hun is sometimes applied indiscriminately to various people, particularly from south of Scandinavia.[166][167] From the thirteenth-century onward, the Middle High German word for Hun, hiune, became a synonym for giant, and continued to be used in this meaning in the forms Hüne and Heune into the modern era.[168] In this way, various prehistoric megalithic structures, particularly in Northern Germany, came to be identified as Hünengräber (Hun graves) or Hünenbetten (Hun beds).[169][170]

Claims of Hunnic heritage[]

Atilla – Kurultáj
Hungarian horsemen at Great Kurultáj 2014, the Hun-Turkic tribal assembly, Bugac.

The Hungarians (Magyars) in particular lay claim to Hunnic heritage. Although Magyar tribes only began to settle in the geographical area of present-day Hungary in the very end of the 9th century, over 400 years after the breakup of Attila's Hunnic Empire, Hungarian prehistory includes Magyar origin myths. The Medieval Hungarian chronicles (see Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum, Chronicon Pictum, Gesta Hungarorum) also render this connection, a lineage is described that makes Attila the sixth-generation ancestor of Árpád conqueror of the modern Pannonian basin, through Attila's son Csaba, his son Ed, his son Ügyek, his son Előd, his son Álmos. Álmos was ruler of the Magyars and the father of Arpad[171] The national anthem of Hungary describes the Hungarians as "blood of Bendegúz'" (the medieval and modern Hungarian version of Mundzuk, Attila's father). Attila's brother, Bleda, is called Buda in modern Hungarian and some medieval chronicles and literary works attribute the name of the city of Buda to him.

There is a legend among the Székely people that claims that after the death of Attila, in a battle called the Battle of Krimhilda, 3000 Hun warriors managed to escape and settle in a place called "Csigle-mező" (today Transylvania) and they changed their name from Huns to Szekler (Székely). According to the Hungarian scholar Egyed, the Székelys speak the Hungarian language "without any trace of a Turkic substratum", indicating that they did not have a language shift during their history, and proposes that the Székelys were descended from privileged Hungarian groups.[172][173] They therefore could not have been related to the Huns, who most likely spoke an Oghur Turkic dialect.

In Book V, Chapter 9 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was written in Latin, the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede gave a list of peoples that included the Huns.[174] James Campbell notes regarding this passage that though this list of peoples has generally been regarded by historians as being a list of peoples living in Germany at the time Bede wrote this passage in the 8th century, "the sense of the Latin is that these are the peoples from whom the Anglo-Saxons living in Britain were derived."[175]:53 Regarding the inclusion of the Huns among these peoples, he writes that the list of peoples fits the 5th century better, when the Anglo-Saxons began migrating to Britain, than the 8th century, and notes that "Huns sound odd; it is equally odd that Priscus heard of a boast by Attila that he had authority over the islands in the ocean."[175]:123–124 Campbell does note that Bede "may have been writing loosely and not really meaning to imply that all these peoples were actually represented in the settlement of Britain. But it is what he says; and he does not generally write carelessly."[176] Leonard Neidorf, however, interprets the passage as being about the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, sharing a common Germanic heritage with the Huns and the other groups Bede listed.[159]

20th-century use in reference to Germans[]

A First World War Canadian electoral campaign poster

On 27 July 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion in China, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany gave the order to act ruthlessly towards the rebels: "Mercy will not be shown, prisoners will not be taken. Just as a thousand years ago, the Huns under Attila won a reputation of might that lives on in legends, so may the name of Germany in China, such that no Chinese will even again dare so much as to look askance at a German."[177]

The term "Hun" from this speech was later used for the Germans by British propaganda during World War I. The comparison was helped by the spiked Pickelhaube helmet worn by German forces until 1916, which would be reminiscent of images depicting ancient Hun helmets. This usage, emphasising the idea that the Germans were barbarians, was reinforced by Allied propaganda throughout the war. The French songwriter Théodore Botrel described the Kaiser as "an Attila, without remorse", launching "cannibal hordes".[178]

The usage of the term "Hun" to describe Germans resurfaced during World War II, although less frequently than in the previous war. For example, Winston Churchill 1941 said in a broadcast speech: "There are less than 70,000,000 malignant Huns, some of whom are curable and others killable, most of whom are already engaged in holding down Austrians, Czechs, Poles and the many other ancient races they now bully and pillage."[179] Later that year Churchill referred to the invasion of the Soviet Union as "the dull, drilled, docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts."[180] During this time American President Franklin D. Roosevelt also referred to the German people in this way, saying that an Allied invasion into Southern France would surely "be successful and of great assistance to Eisenhower in driving the Huns from France."[181]

See also[]


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