Hunnic Empire

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Hunnic Empire at its peak under Attila the Hun.

Hunnic Empire was the empire of the Huns. The Huns were a confederation of Eurasian tribes, especially Turkic ones, from the Steppes of Central Asia. Through a combination of advanced weaponry, amazing mobility, and battlefield tactics, they achieved military superiority over many of their largest rivals, subjugating the tribes they conquered. Appearing from beyond the Volga River some years after the middle of the fourth century, they first overran the Alani, who occupied the plains between the Volga and the Don rivers, and then quickly overthrew the empire of the Ostrogoths between the Don and the Dniester. About 376 they defeated the Visigoths living in what is now approximately Romania and thus arrived at the Danubian frontier of the Roman Empire. Their mass migration into Europe, led by Attila, brought with it great ethnic and political upheaval. Attila is said to have been turned back from the gates of Rome by the Pope himself, which has been described as the triumph of moral persuasion over the sword. The empire collapsed around about 469, not long after Attila’s death.

In Western Europe, memory of the Huns lived on as fierce fighters. Although some tactical lessons were learned from them, they were depicted as barbaric, primitive people. Threatening order, they precipitated the collapse of the Roman Empire. In Eastern Europe, where Huns settled, they are remembered for their courage and bravery. Rome had brought law and order and a stable governance to much of Europe but was now declining internally, unable to perpetuate its empire against the Hun and other threats. Arriving suddenly and disappearing as suddenly, with some mystery surrounding their origins, perhaps the Huns' appearance did occur at a time when Europe needed to move in a new direction, away from Rome towards becoming a space in which the power of ideas would eventually replace the power of the sword. It took centuries before the ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights can be said to have dominated the European space yet the Huns may have played a part in ending one and starting another phase in the maturation of humanity.


The origins of the Huns that swept through Europe during the 4th Century remain unclear. However, mainstream historians consider them as a group of nomadic tribes from Central Asia probably ruled by a Turkic-speaking aristocracy. The Huns were probably ethnically diverse; a Hunnic language and also Gothic seems to have been used as a lingua franca.[1]

Early campaigns

Ancient accounts suggest that the Huns had settled in the lands north-west of the Caspian Sea as early as the 3rd Century. By the latter half of the century, about 370, the Caspian Huns mobilized, destroying a tribe of Alans to their west. Pushing further westward the Huns ravaged and destroyed an Ostrogothic kingdom. In 395, a Hun raid across the Caucasus mountains devastated Armenia, there they captured Erzurum, besieged Edessa and Antioch, even reaching Tyre in Syria.

In 408, the Hun Uldin invaded the Eastern Roman province of Moesia but his attack was checked and Uldin was forced to retreat. The Huns were excellent archers, firing from their horses. They engaged in hand to hand combat wearing heavy, strong armor. They employed fake retreat and ambush tactics. They preferred fighting on flat grounds (steppe) where they could maneuver their horses and fire their arrows upwards to rain down on the enemy from above, sitting low on the horse to do so. They are said to have slept and eaten on horseback.


For all their early exploits, the Huns were still politically too disunited to stage a serious campaign. Rather than an empire, the Huns were more a confederation of kings. Although there was the title of "High King," very few of those bearing this title managed to rule effectively over all the Hunnic tribes. As a result, the Huns were without clear leadership and lacked any common objectives.

From 420, a chieftain named Oktar began to weld the disparate Hunnic tribes under his banner. He was succeeded by his brother, Rugila who became the leader of the Hun confederation, uniting the Huns into a cohesive group with a common purpose. He lead them into a campaign in the Western Roman Empire, through an alliance with Roman General Aetius. This gave the Huns even more notoriety and power. He planned a massive invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire in the year 434, but died before his plans could come to fruition. His heirs to the throne were his nephews, Bleda and Attila, who ruled in a dual kingship. They divided the Hunnic lands between them, but still regarded the empire as a single entity.

Under the dual kingship

Attila the Hun pictured in the Chronicon Pictum (Hungarian, fourteenth century chronicle.)

Attila and Bleda were as ambitious as king Ruga. They forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus, giving the Huns (amongst other things) trade rights and an annual tribute from the Romans. 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 east.

However, when the Romans failed to deliver the agreed tribute, and other conditions of the Treaty of Margus were not met, both 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 incensed the kings. War broke out between the two empires, and the Huns capitalized on a weak Roman army to raze the cities of Margus, Singidunum and Viminacium. Although a truce was signed in 441, war resumed two years later with another failure by the Romans to deliver the tribute. 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 the Peace of Anatolius was signed in autumn 443. The Huns returned to their lands with a vast train full of plunder.

In 445, Bleda died, leaving Attila the sole ruler of the Hun Empire.

As Attila's empire

With his brother gone and as the only ruler of the united Huns, Attila possessed 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, with one source citing that the Huns razed 70 cities. The Eastern Roman Empire was already beset from internal problems, such as famine and plague, as well as riots and a series of earthquakes in Constantinople itself. Only a last-minute rebuilding of its walls had preserved Constantinople unscathed. Victory over a Roman army had already left the Huns virtually unchallenged in Eastern Roman lands and only disease forced a retreat, after they had conducted raids as far south as Thermopylae.

Did you know?
Under Attila, the Hunnic Empire stretched from the steppes of Central Asia into modern Germany, and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea

The war finally came to an end for the Eastern Romans in 449 with the signing of the Third Peace of Anatolius.

Throughout their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns had still maintained good relations with the Western Empire, this was due in no small part to a friendship with Flavius Aetius, a powerful Roman general (sometimes even referred to as the de facto ruler of the Western Empire) who had spent some time 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. Although it is not known whether Honoria intended this as a proposal of marriage to Attila, that is how the Hun King interpreted it. He claimed half the Western Roman Empire as dowry. To add to the failing relations, a dispute between Attila and Aetius about the rightful heir to the kingdom of the Salian Franks also occurred. Finally, the repeated raids on the Eastern Roman Empire had left it with little to plunder.

In 451, Attila's forces entered Gaul, with his army recruiting from the Franks, Goths and Burgundian tribes they passed en route. Once in Gaul, the Huns first attacked Metz, then his armies continued westwards, passed both Paris and Troyes to lay siege to Orleans.

Aetius was given the duty of relieving Orleans 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 also known as the Battle of Chalons. Although a tactical defeat for Attila, thwarting his invasion of Gaul and forcing his retreat back to Hunnic lands, the macrohistorical significance of the allied and Roman victory is a matter of debate.

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, Bergomum, and Milan. Finally, at the very gates of Rome, he turned his army back after seeing the Papacy pope (although the most likely reason why he turned back is because of plague). Attila retreated back to Hunnic lands without Honoria or her dowry. Referring to the tradition that the Pope persuaded Attila to turn aside, H.G. Wells describes this as a victory for morality, "When Attila seemed disposed to march on Rome, the patriarch of Rome intercepted him and did what no armies could do, turning him back by sheer moral force."[2]

From the Carpathian Basin, Attila mobilized to attack Constantinople, in retaliation for the new Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian halting tribute payments. Before this planned attack he married a German girl named Ildiko. In 453, he died of a nosebleed on his wedding night.

After Attila

Attila was succeeded by his eldest son, Ellak. However, Attila's other sons, Dengizich and Ernakh, challenged Ellak for the throne. Taking advantage of the situation, subjugated tribes rose up in rebellion. The year after Attila's death, the Huns were defeated by the Gepids in the Battle of Nedao. In 469, Dengizik, the last Hunnic King and successor of Ellak, died. This date is seen as the end of the Hunnic Empire. It is believed by some historians that descendants of the Huns formed the Bulgarian Empire, which stretched over the Balkans, Pannonia and Scythia. The Hungarian Árpád dynasty trace their lineage from Attila.

Kings of the Huns

  1. Balamber (died circa 345C.E.)
  2. Uldin (390-411 C.E.)
  3. Donatus (d 412 C.E.)
  4. Charato (411-430C.E.)
  5. Octar (d. 431 C.E.)—Shared power with Rua.
  6. Rua (d. 434 C.E.)—Sole ruler in 432
  7. Bleda (434- 445 C.E.) Dual kingship with Attila
  8. Attila (434-453 C.E.)
  9. Ellac (453-455 C.E.)
  10. Dengizik (d. 469 C.E.)


The Hunnic Empire did not outlive Attila by much more than a decade. However, the Hun's reputation as fierce fighters lived on. Their fighting style would be imitated by others. Contemporaries pictured the Hun as primitive and fearsome barbarians who threatened the stability of the civilized world. During World War I, and to a lesser extent in World War II, the Germans were often referred to as "The Hun" by their opponents who saw them as uncouth as well as threatening world peace. Others referred to Attila as "God's scourge," suggesting that he was an instrument of divine punishment for the iniquities of the Roman Empire, which at the time was disunited and self-indulgent. Martin Luther later referred to the Ottoman Empire in similar terms as "God's rod."[3] The Huns contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire yet Rome's internal squabbles and disunity was also a major factor in their success, enabling them to invade as far as the gates of Rome.

Their reputation in the East differs from the traditional Western image of barbarism. After the empire's demise, Huns settled in Eastern Europe where Attila is regarded as a brave and courageous hero. The quick collapse of the Hunnic empire was mainly due to the difficulty of perpetuating a polity designed for constant warfare that was ill suited for administering an extensive territory. For their part, the Romans knew how to administer a vast territory but were neglecting this due to their "internal decay." H.G. Wells suggests that Rome's days were numbered because of a failure of "will," "All empires, all states, all organizations of human society are, in the ultimate, things of understanding and will. There remained no will for the Roman Empire in the World and so it came to an end."[2] Wells points out that from the ruins of the Roman Empire, it was the Roman Catholic Church that lived on "because it appealed to the minds and wills of men, because it had books and a great system of teachers and missionaries to hold it together, things stronger than any law or legions."[2] The Church would claim temporal power but it almost always relied on moral authority, not on military might, to unite Europeans around a shared faith, shared values and common loyalties to ideals about justice inherited from Rome. Perhaps the time had come for humanity to experiment with the power of moral thought, even though war remained all too commonplace in the European space for many centuries to come.


  1. Priscus, a Roman historian who visited the court of Attila in 448, wrote: "For the subjects of the Huns, swept together from various lands, speak, besides their own barbarous tongues, either Hunnic or Gothic, or—as many as have commercial dealings with the western Romans—Latin." J.B. Bury, History of the later Roman Empire: From Arcadius to Irene. Volume I (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1889), 218.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World: The Huns and the End of the Western Empire (New York, NY: The Macmillan company). Retrieved November 17, 2008.
  3. Martin Luther, Robert C. Schultz (trans.) "On War Against the Turks," 155-205 in Luther's Works, Volume 46 (American Edition) (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1967), 170.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bury, J.B. History of the later Roman Empire: From Arcadius to Irene. Volume I. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1889. ASIN B002YIHS1K
  • Gordon, Colin Douglas. The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1972. ISBN 978-0472061112.
  • Hodgkin, Thomas. Italy and Her Invaders, Vol. 1-4. British Library, Historical Print Editions, 2011. ISBN 978-1241429799
  • Mänchen-Helfen, Otto. The World of the Huns; Studies in Their History and Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 978-0520015968.
  • Man, John. Attila: The Barbarian King who Challenged Rome. New York, NY: T. Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0312349394.
  • Thompson, E.A. A History of Attila and the Huns. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. ISBN 978-0837176406.
  • Thompson, E.A., and P.J. Heather. The Huns. The Peoples of Europe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996. ISBN 978-0631158998.
  • Wells, H.G. A Short History of the World. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. ISBN 978-1466343825


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