Attila: Who Were The Huns And Why Were They So Feared?

Of all the groups who invaded the Roman Empire, none was more feared than the Huns. Their superior fighting technique would cause thousands to flee west in the 5th century.

Jun 11, 2021By Alice Bennett, MSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient History
attila the huns feared
The Course of Empire, Destruction, by Thomas Cole, 1836; and Attila the Hun, by John Chapman, 1810


In the 5th century CE the Western Roman Empire collapsed under enormous strain from multiple barbarian incursions. Many of these pillaging tribes were moving west in order to avoid the most terrifying warrior band of all: the Huns.


The Huns existed as a horror story in the west, long before they actually arrived. When they did, their charismatic and ferocious leader Attila would use the fear he inspired to extort the Romans and make himself extremely wealthy.  In more recent times, the word “Hun” has become a pejorative term and a byword for savagery. But who were the Huns, and why were they so feared?

The Huns: The Fall Of The Western Roman Empire

The Course of Empire, Destruction, by Thomas Cole, 1836, Via MET Museum


The Roman Empire always had a problem with its exceptionally long northern border. The Rhine-Danube Rivers were often crossed by roaming tribes, who for reasons of opportunism and desperation would sometimes cross into Roman territory, raiding and pillaging as they went. Emperors such as Marcus Aurelius had gone on lengthy campaigns to secure this difficult borderland in previous centuries.


While migrations were a constant for several centuries, by the 4th CE, barbarian raiders of mostly Germanic origins appeared on Rome’s doorsteps in unprecedented numbers, looking to settle in Roman territory. This huge event is often called by its German name, the Völkerwanderung, or the “wandering of the people”, and it would ultimately destroy the Roman Empire.


Why quite so many people migrated at this time is still disputed, as many historians now attribute this mass movement to multiple factors, including pressure on arable land, internal strife, and changes in climate. However, one of the key causes is certain — the Huns were on the move. The first major tribe to arrive in overwhelming numbers were the Goths, who showed up in their thousands on Rome’s border in 376, claiming that a mysterious and savage tribe had pushed them to breaking point. The Goths and their neighbors were under pressure from the marauding Huns, who were traveling ever closer to the Roman border.

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Alaric entering Athens, artist unknown, c.1920, Via


The Romans soon agreed to help the Goths, feeling they had little choice but to try to integrate the enormous warband into their territory. However, before long, after they had mistreated their Goth visitors, all hell broke loose. The Goths would ultimately become uncontrollable, and the Visigoths in particular would sack the city of Rome in 410.


While the Goths were marauding in the Roman provinces, the Huns were still moving nearer, and during the first decade of the 5th century, many more tribes took the chance to cross Rome’s borders looking for new lands. The Vandals, Alans, Suevi, Franks, and Burgundians, were among those who flooded across the Rhine, annexing land for themselves across the Empire. The Huns had created a huge domino effect, forcing an overwhelming influx of new people into Roman territory. These dangerous warriors had helped to destroy the Roman Empire, before they even got there.

Mysterious Origins

A Xiongnu belt buckle, Via the MET Museum


But who were this mysterious group of raiders, and how did they push so many tribes west? From our sources, we know that the Huns looked physically quite different from any other nations the Romans had encountered before, which added to the fear they instilled. Some Huns also practiced head-binding, a medical procedure that involves binding the skull of young children to artificially elongate it.


In recent years there have been many studies aimed at locating the Huns’ origins, but the topic remains a controversial one. An analysis of the few Hun words we know of indicates that they spoke an early form of Turkic, a language family which spread across Asia, from Mongolia, to the Central Asian steppes region, during the early middle ages. While many theories place the Huns origins in the area around Kazakhstan, some suspect they came from much further east.


For many centuries, Ancient China struggled with its warlike northern neighbors, the Xiongnu. In fact, they caused so much trouble, that under the Qin Dynasty (3rd century BCE), an early version of the Great Wall was built, partially to keep them out. After several major defeats by the Chinese in the 2nd century CE, the Northern Xiongnu were seriously weakened, and fled west.


The word Xiongnu in Old Chinese would have sounded something like “Honnu” to foreign ears, which has led some scholars to tentatively connect the name to the word “Hun”. The Xiongnu were a semi-nomadic people, whose lifestyle appears to have shared many common features with the Huns, and Xiongnu-style bronze cauldrons frequently show up at Hun sites across Europe. While we still have little to go on, it is possible that over the course of the next several centuries, this group from Far East Asia traveled all the way to Europe, seeking a homeland and seeking plunder.

The Killing Machine

Invasion of the Barbarians, by Ulpiano Checa, Via Wikimedia Commons


“And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly into scattered bands and attack, rushing about in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter…”
Ammianus Marcellinus, Book XXXI.VIII


The Huns’ fighting style made them extremely difficult to defeat. The Huns appear to have invented an early type of composite bow, a type of bow which bends back on itself to exert extra pressure.  Hun bows were strong and sturdy, made from animal bone, sinews, and wood, the work of master craftsmen. These unusually well-made weapons were capable of unleashing an exceedingly high level of force, and while many ancient cultures would develop variations on this powerful bow, the Huns are one of the few groups who learned to fire them at speed, from horseback. Other cultures who have historically fielded similar armies, such as the Mongols, have also been nearly unstoppable on the battlefield when faced with slower-moving infantry armies.


The masters of speedy raids, the Huns were able to move in on a group of soldiers, fire hundreds of arrows and ride off again, without engaging their enemy at close quarters. When they did get close to other soldiers, they often used lassoes to drag their enemies across the ground, then hacked them to pieces with slashing swords.


An unbent Turkish composite bow, 18th century, via the MET Museum


While other ancient technical innovations in warfare were simply copied as soon as they were discovered, the Huns’ skill at horse-archery could not easily be introduced to other cultures in the way, say, chainmail could. Modern horse-archery enthusiasts have taught historians about the grueling effort and years of practice it takes just to hit a single target while galloping. Horse archery itself was a way of life for these nomadic people, and the Hun grew up on horseback, learning to ride and shoot from a very young age.


Aside from their bows and lassoes, the Hun also developed early siege weapons that would soon become so characteristic of medieval warfare. Unlike most other barbarian groups that attacked the Roman Empire, the Huns became experts at assaulting cities, using siege towers and battering rams to devastating effect.

The Huns Ravage The East

A Hun Bracelet, 5th century CE,  Via the Walters Art Museum


In 395, the Huns finally made their first raids into the Roman provinces, looting and burning huge swathes of the Roman East. The Romans were already very frightened of the Huns, having heard about them from the Germanic tribes who burst their borders, and the Huns’ foreign appearance and unusual customs only intensified the Romans’ fear of this alien group.


The sources tell us that their methods of war made them incredible sackers of cities, and that they looted and burned towns, villages, and church communities across the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Balkans in particular were devastated, and some of the Roman borderlands were given over to the Huns after they were thoroughly pillaged.


Delighted by the wealth they found in the Eastern Roman Empire, before long the Huns had settled in for the long-haul. While nomadism had given the Huns martial prowess, it had also robbed them of the comforts of settled civilization, so the Hun Kings soon enriched themselves and their people, by establishing an empire on Rome’s borders.


The Hun kingdom was centered around what is now Hungary and its size is still disputed, but it appears to have covered large swathes of Central and Eastern Europe. While the Huns would do untold damage to the Eastern Roman provinces, they chose to avoid a campaign of major territorial expansion in the Roman Empire itself, preferring to loot, and steal from imperial lands at intervals.

Attila The Hun: The Scourge Of God

Attila the Hun, by John Chapman, 1810, Via the British Museum


The Huns are probably best known today because of one of their kings — Attila. Attila has become the subject of many grisly legends, which have eclipsed the true identity of the man himself. Perhaps the best known and most iconic story about Attila comes from a later medieval tale, in which Attila meets the Christian holy man, St Lupus. The ever affable Attila introduced himself to the servant of God by saying, “I am Attila, the Scourge of God,” and the title has stuck ever since.


Our contemporary sources are more generous. According to a Roman diplomat, Priscus, who met Attila personally, the great Hun leader was a small man, with a supremely confident and charismatic disposition, and in spite of his great wealth, he lived very frugally, choosing to dress and act as a simple nomad. Attila officially became co-regent with his brother Bleda in 434 CE and ruled alone from 445.


While Attila is the main person people think of, when they think of the Huns, he actually did less raiding than is generally believed. He should be known, first and foremost, for extorting the Roman Empire for every penny he could get. Because the Romans were by this point so terrified of the Huns, and because they had so many other problems to deal with, Attila knew he had to do very little to get the Romans to bend over backward for him.


Eager to stay out of the line of fire, the Romans signed the Treaty of Margus in 435, which guaranteed the Huns regular tributes of gold in exchange for peace. Attila would frequently break the treaty, making incursions into Roman territory and looting cities, and he would become fantastically wealthy off the back of the Romans, who kept writing new treaties in an attempt to avoid fighting him altogether.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields And The End Of The Huns

The Port Negra Roman remains in Trier Germany, Via Wikimedia Commons


Attila’s reign of terror would not last for long. Having robbed the Eastern Roman Empire of its riches, and seeing that Constantinople itself was too difficult to sack, Attila turned his eyes towards the Western Empire.


Attila had evidently planned to move against the west for some time, but his raids were officially provoked after he received a flattering letter from Honoria, a member of the Western Imperial family. Honoria’s story is extraordinary, because, according to our source material, she appears to have sent a love letter to Attila in order to get out of a bad marriage.


Attila used this flimsy pretext to invade the west, claiming that he had come to get his long-suffering bride and that the Western Empire itself was her rightful dowry. The Huns soon ravaged Gaul, attacking many huge and well-defended cities, including the heavily fortified border town of Trier. These were some of the worst Hun raids but they would ultimately bring Attila to a halt.


The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila, by Raphael, Via Musei Vaticani


By 451 CE, the great Western Roman General Aetius had drawn together a huge field army of Goths, Franks, Saxons, Burgundians, and other tribes, all allied in the mutual cause of protecting their new western lands against the Huns. A huge fight commenced in the Champagne region of France, in an area known then as the Catalaunian Fields, and the mighty Attila was finally defeated in a grueling pitched battle.


Broken but not destroyed, the Huns would turn their army around in order to loot Italy before finally heading home. For reasons unknown, Attila was dissuaded from assaulting Rome on this final escapade, after a meeting with the Pope, Leo the Great.


The pillage of Italy was the Huns’ swan song, and before long Attila would die, suffering an internal hemorrhage on his wedding night in 453. The Huns would not survive long after Atilla and would soon begin fighting amongst themselves. After several more devastating defeats at the hands of Roman and Gothic forces, the Hunnish empire fell apart, and the Huns themselves appear to vanish from history altogether.

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By Alice BennettMSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient HistoryAlice has a BA in Ancient History and an MSt in Late Antique and Byzantine studies from the University of Oxford. She is a contributing writer and editor and is particularly passionate about the promotion and protection of historical and archaeological knowledge. In her spare time, she can be found wandering the woods or lurking around ancient monuments, taking photographs.