Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Rise of the Huns

A/N: Part I, Paper 13 essay from Easter term of the 2007/08 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. Sarris at Trinity.

What were the implications for and effects on the barbarian and Roman worlds of the rise of the Huns?

The Huns, “a race savage beyond all parallel” according to Ammianus Marcellinus, entered the Roman historical record in around 350 AD as they pushed their way further West, displacing the settled Germanic tribes on the Roman frontier. Arguments over whether there are links between the Huns and the nomadic tribes of the Hsiung-nu that terrorised the Chinese empire have raged for centuries, though as Sinor points out there is not enough evidence to argue conclusively either way. This is not the only argument to have occupied historians: traditionally many have claimed that the arrival of the Huns sped up the decline of the Roman Empire, not only through their own violent character, but by pushing other war mongering barbarian tribes over the frontier. Other historians disagree: Goffart recommends exercising caution as to what extent the movement of barbarian peoples across the Roman frontier was the result of the Huns, Thompson almost completely dismisses the importance of the Huns to the decline of the Western Roman Empire. So were the Huns a primary factor in the collapse of the Western Roman empire as Heather suggests or, as Thompson speculated, were they nothing more than a small contributing cause to the internal strife that led to the end of the Western empire?

Before moving onto a discussion of these issues it is important to note that the study of the Huns, like many aspects of late antiquity, suffers from the fragmentary nature of the evidence available. Many of the written sources believed to be most useful for this period survive only through the works of other, less able, writers. Cassiodorus’ work on the Huns for example survives only through Jordanes’ paraphrase of it in his sixth century Gothic History, whilst the work of Olympiodorus survives only in the often inaccurate account of Zosimus. Similarly the archaeological evidence is often patchy – little conclusive evidence of Hun tribes has been found and Lindner ascribes a lot of importance to the lack of horse related finds from a people who, in the words of Zosimus, “even sleep on horseback.” Whilst it is, to a large extent, possible to work around these problems the scanty evidence makes firm conclusions difficult to draw.

Even with the problems of the sources in mind there are many visible ways in which the implications for and effects on the barbarian and Roman worlds were negative for the Roman Empire. In 376 two groups of Goths, the Tervingi and Greuthungi, comprising around 20,000 people, if the ancient sources are to be believed, sought refuge within the Roman Empire, having been “driven from their country by the Huns.” Previously the empire had only admitted small dispersed groups of barbarians to minimise the security risks. The traditional argument goes that this forced the barbarian tribes to unite with each other and so pose an organised, and therefore, much more dangerous threat to the Roman Empire. Certainly the Germanic tribes posed considerable problems, particularly for the Western Empire. In 406 for example the Vandals, Sueves and Alans broke the Rhine frontier and swarmed into Gaul; in August 410 the Goths sacked Rome for 3 days. Something which shocked many Roman citizens to the core, times were changing and the comfortable belief in Roman superiority was being challenged. Fiscally the biggest blow came in 439 when the Vandals took North Africa. The dislocation of the Germanic tribes by the Huns led to the creation of new tribal identities such as the Visigoths which emerged in the 410s. That this unifying of tribes was important can be seen in the fact that Euric, king of the Visigoths was one of the first to take advantage of the instability wrought by the frequent changing of emperors in the Western Empire and push further into Roman territory.

A second way in which the Huns had a huge impact on the barbarians and Roman worlds is the Hun attacks on the Roman Empire. Despite contentions the general views is that the Huns fought in cavalry units, using powerful bows, making them a formidable foe to the foot soldiers favoured by the barbarians and Romans. Roman troops deployed against the Huns, to deal with the Hunnic leader Uldin’s 408 capture of Castra Martis in Dacia for example, left other frontiers inadequately defended. In 405 for example this helped the Goths under Radagaisus invade Italy. The situation grew more menacing with the accession of the infamous Attila the Hun in 434, over the next decade Attila succeeded in inflicting substantial losses on the Roman Empire. In 442 the Huns under Attila invaded Naissus, and later pushed into the Western empire in the hope of expanding their territory after an invitation from Honoria, the sister of the emperor Valentinian. The direct impact of Hun invasions on the empire coupled with the violence perpetrated by the dislocated Germanic tribes meant that by the 470s modern Britain, France, Austria, Italy, Hungary and North Africa were lost to the Roman empire; the deposition of Romulus Augustus in September 476 would seem to just be the confirmation of something that was already obvious to contemporaries – the Western Roman Empire was no more.

Unsurprisingly Hunnic activity led to increased financial demands upon the Roman Empire. Coinciding as it did with the loss of tax revenues from large swathes of the Western empire Roman finances began to be pushed to their limits. Priscus tells us that the 447 truce with the Huns forced the Romans to give Huns 2,100 pounds of gold per annum. Between 443 and 450 alone the Huns were paid 22,000 pounds of gold by the Roman Empire. In the 1960s Jones claimed that the increase in taxation put unbearable pressure on the peasants, who made up 85% of the population, as they could struggled to maintain a subsistence existence. As ever heavier taxes were extracted from the remaining areas of the Western empire under Roman control local resentment grew, especially as the Roman army proved itself incapable of protecting those on the frontiers from barbarian raids. Romano-Britain for example was driven to assert its independence in 410 as help was not forthcoming from Rome, the emperor Honorius essentially asking the Roman citizens there to fend for themselves. In 439 the Vandals took control of the richest provinces of North Africa further exacerbating the financial difficulties faced by the Western Roman Empire: The loss of Numidia and Mauretania alone meant a loss of revenue equivalent to 18,000 infantrymen or 10,000 cavalry. Heather argues this disillusionment with the empire led to an erosion of the idea of “Romanitas”, that is the allegiance and loyalty the average Roman felt towards the imperial centre. This feeling of abandonment must have seemed justified when the Eastern Empire made peace with the Vandals in 474 removing any hope of recapturing the vital provinces of North Africa.

So far the argument presented has painted a picture of an empire on a path to destruction. This however ignores the contradictory evidence which points to the rise of the Huns being neither as dramatic nor as negative as might be expected. Whilst barbarian populations were pushed across Roman frontiers Heather argues that this wasn’t necessarily through desperation. In 376 the Gothic ambassadors had to make a 2000 mile trip to seek the Emperor Valens’ permission to enter the empire: time a tribe being mercilessly attacked by the Huns would not have been able to spare. Similarly a violent rebellion was not the inevitable effect of accepting large numbers of barbarians into the empire. The Tervingi, for example, only rebelled in 377 due to food shortages and Roman black-marketeering as “unscrupulous” generals took advantage of the situation. In addition the Germanic tribes did not just fight the Roman Empire; when Attila decided to march against the West in 443 the local Germanic chieftains allied themselves with Rome.

Similarly the idea that the Huns were set on animosity towards the Roman Empire ignores the more complex picture that emerges from the evidence. Far from being uniformly against the Roman Empire, at various times Hun troops were deployed against Rome’s barbarian enemies. In 383/4 for example Valentinian II paid Huns and Alans to attack the Alamanni on the Rhine frontier and in 436 Huns were employed to push the Visigoths back to Bordeaux. Even when fighting against the empire the damage the Huns could do was limited – untrained and without the supplies for siege warfare they found it difficult to take towns from the loyal Roman citizens that inhabited them. Even Attila who proved himself capable of taking towns by siege with Aquileia in 452 did not push the advantage and was back in Hungary by the end of the year. Within a few years Aquileia was once again the seat of a bishop, suggesting that any damage the Huns could do was negligible and easily reversed by the Roman Empire. Perhaps most telling is the fact that throughout this period the main enemy was perceived to be Persia rather than the Huns or the Germanic peoples. The Roman Empire believed itself superior to these barbarians: the Roman troops were much better trained – for example they were expected to be able to march 36km in 5 hours with up to 25 kilos of armour and equipment. They were also numerically superior; after Constantine’s reorganisation of the army there were between 400,000 and 600,000 troops. The Goths had at most 50,000 men and the Huns only 15000 if Lindner’s calculations are correct. The principle militaristic implication of the rise of the Huns then was the psychological threat they posed: Claudian spoke of how the Huns delighted in slaying their own parents and Jordanes told how they drank the blood of fallen enemies on the battlefield. Regardless of their true strength the Huns managed to exercise a strong hold over the Roman mind. 

In addition the financial relationship between the Huns and the Roman and barbarian worlds was not necessarily a negative one. The Huns traded luxury goods such as horses, furs and slaves with the empire (particularly the Eastern empire); In 435 Attila insisted as part of a peace treaty that the Roman markets open to the Huns should remain so, with fair terms for Hun traders. Thompson goes further and points out that although the Huns extorted money from the Eastern Empire – they often spent it there too. In the 460s it was by no means beyond the realm of impossibility that the Roman empire would re-conquer its lost lands in the West, regaining its tax revenue – Constantius, the senior Western general, had managed to defeat Jovinus in Gaul and Heraclianus in Italy in 413 – which would enable a shrewd emperor to restore the economy as Constantine had been able to do in the early years of the fifth century. Emperor Leo gave the West 46 tons of gold to help it attempt to remove the Vandals from North suggesting that right up to the final years of the Western empire both sides had faith in the strength of Rome and trusted that it was only a matter of time before the empire reasserted itself. Even the loss of these key Western provinces in North Africa need not have spelt the end of the empire as it relied on taxation from provinces stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt, many of which were well fortified. The most obvious evidence that the empire may have been able to survive is the fact that the Eastern Empire was able to survive and even flourish.

Ammianus Marcellinus claimed that “through the turbulent zeal of violent people, the ruin of the Roman Empire was brought on”, it is important to realise however that this violence was not constantly an immediate danger to the security of the Roman Empire. For example for 8 years after his accession of power Attila occupied himself with forcing the Ostrogoths and Gepids into positions of subservience, leaving the Roman Empire free from Hunnic raids. After the death of Attila in 453 the unity of the Huns was quickly destroyed as his sons who, according to Jordanes, “formed almost a people of themselves” fought for control of their father’s army. Similarly before Attila there had been little unity amongst the Huns; one group had, with the Alans, attacked Ermenaric’s Greuthungi whilst another group actually fought with the Greuthungi. This shows that the power of the Huns in Europe was not a stable force, and relied heavily on the ability of leaders such as Attila and Rua to unite and control their people. In 454 at the battle of Nedao the Gepids and Ostrogoths broke free from Hunnic rule and by the late 460s the once universally feared Huns were themselves seeking refuge from the Roman Empire.

In conclusion it cannot be denied that the Huns had a notable effect on both the barbarian and Roman worlds. As they moved into Europe the Huns pushed the barbarians across the Roman frontiers which, along with Hun invasions, created considerable difficulties for the Roman Empire as chunks of it fell to the Germanic tribes. One must be careful however not to overemphasise this impact: the Huns enjoyed a relatively short period of superiority and without other contributing factors the Empire may well have survived, certainly the threat posed directly to the Roman world by the Huns was by no means insurmountable. The true impact of the Huns on the Roman world was then indirect, through the more direct impact they had upon the barbarian world as they displaced the Germanic tribes. Even then, in many cases, they underwent Romanisation on the outskirts of empire where they were settled, adopting Roman ways of life and the Christian faith. Even with this in mind it appears that in many ways far from accelerating the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Germanic tribes, the Huns provided a means of delaying this process, for example Hun troops were deployed by the empire against marauding barbarians. In other instances the Huns did encourage the unification of Germanic tribes, such as the Gepids who overthrew their Hun rulers in 454, which then went on to turn against the Roman Empire. In short whilst the implications and effects of the Huns on the barbarian and Roman worlds was varied, it is important to note that they were only one of a host of factors that changed the fundamental relationship between the Germanic tribes and the Roman empire. The Huns exacerbated the internal problems of the Western Roman Empire such as poor communication between central government and the provinces, and tension over spiralling taxes to deal with the threat of violence and forced too many barbarians over the Western frontier for the empire to deal with effectively; but although they were not “mere plunderers and marauders” as Thompson believed, the Huns alone could not have brought about its fall in favour of the Germanic tribes.


  • Ammianus Marcellinus (Book XXXI) 
  • G.D. Gordon The Age of Attila (1960) Chapter 3 
  • C.C.Mierow The Gothic History of Jordanes (1915) 


  • T.J. Barfield The Perilous Frontier – Nomadic Empires and China (1989) 
  • R.P. Linder “Nomadism, Horses and Huns” Past and Present 92 (1981) 
  • E.A Thompson A History of Attila and the Huns 
  • Peter Heather “The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in the West” English Historical Review CX (1995) 
  • Peter Heather The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005)

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