By special guest writer Joseph Kaminski
Ah, the Huns!
In history, we often recall the civilized empires that brought upon the foundations of society. We think of the incredible “socially correct” Romans, the Greeks, the Assyrians. But what is the word we recall when we think of the nomadic warriors of the Huns? Barbaric.
In this post, we’ll go through the entire history of the barbaric civilization that terrorized such “advanced” societies throughout their existence. Deep within Eastern Europe and Central Asia lived the nomadic Huns, a military powerhouse that were unpredictable thanks in part to a lack of societal organization. But, in order to understand their height of power, we have to go back to square one.
Between the first and seventh centuries, the Hunnic people lived within an area of the world that was heavily condensed when it comes to people. At the very beginning, the Huns lived east of the Volga River, the longest river in all of Europe.
Flowing through central Russia and discharging into the Caspian Sea, historians believe that the Huns began using the river for not only protection against the Scythian peoples, but also as a source of life and community. In one of the first official sources recording the Hunnic people, which was written in 91 CE, the Huns had migrated down to the south – making their way to the Caspian Sea itself. Within the next sixty years, by 150 CE, the Huns had migrated into the Caucasus.
The Caucasus is a very important yet poorly emphasized region of the world, as a natural geographical border between the European and Asian “civilizations”. Nuzzled between the Black and Caspian seas, the Caucasus is a very mountainous region that Europe’s highest mountain calls home – Mount Elbrus. Thus, the Huns lived in an area home to the continent’s largest river and the tallest mountain in a rather ancient era that had trouble conquering either.
By the year 370, the Huns had established a vast dominion within Europe, with its heart located within the mountains of Caucasus. Although short-lived, it quickly gained the attention of the all-so-important Romans, albeit due to a domino effect caused by the Huns themselves.
After invading the Pontic steppes, the Huns had forced the Goths to move out of the area to seek refuge within the Roman Empire in the year 376, according to sources written by Ammianus Marcellinus, a fourth-century Roman soldier and historian. This sudden migration of Gothic people alerted the Romans to the Hunnic presence, as the Huns themselves shortly thereafter crossed the Volga River to invade the lands of Alans. Many residents of Alans fled into Roman territories themselves, although many stayed.
The Alans who remained under Hunnic rule eventually founded a powerful kingdom in the North Caucasus in the Middle Ages, which, ironically, ended at the hands of a new barbaric civilization. Yes, the Mongols would eventually invade the former Hunnic land somewhere around the 13th century, thus putting an end to this former Hunnic expansion.
But, back to the Huns. After invading the land of Alans, slaughtering several hundred and forcing survivors who didn’t flee for refuge to submit themselves to Hunnic rule, the Huns had proven themselves to be a rather militaristic threat to the west of the Roman Empire.
These barbaric men took over the Gothic homeland and then immediately turned their attention to the Alans. And the historically puzzling part of all of this? We still don’t know the reasoning behind either attack. Why did the Huns suddenly desire to attack their neighbors?
One popular theory, which has been more or less rejected throughout history, is that the Huns found themselves in a rather sticky situation with something they couldn’t declare war upon: mother nature. Climate change in the steppes of eastern Europe at this period of time was rather high, and the neighboring people lived in geographically cooler situations.
However, it is much more likely that the Huns, as barbaric as they might be, desired to expand their profits and increase their military ambitions through taking over the authority around them. The Huns realized what they were – a group of military conquerors who needed to spread their influence in order to survive and strive.
But, we’re not even done with the early attacks.
After dominating the Alans, the Huns began plundering the settlements of eastern Gothic civilizations again. Of course, the Goths went through a terrible period of time because of it. Their king, a man named Ermanaric, allegedly committed suicide after realizing the Huns were more or less an imminent apocalypse resting upon his flank. He was succeeded by his great-nephew, a man named Vithimiris.
Vithimiris thought of a brilliant idea to keep the Huns at bay – he hired them (to clean up their own mess). We keep finding ourselves going back to the Alans who did not subject themselves to Hunnic rule. After the invasion, they fled into the eastern sides of Roman and Gothic domain and the western extent to the Hunnic territories. These Alans were rather annoying to the Gothic state, so Vithimiris believed he could kill two birds with one stone by hiring the Huns to, well, fight the remaining Alans.
But, not everything goes to plan. Vithimiris, according to Ammianus Marcellinus (the actual only known source on this man), soon afterwards died in battle.
At this point in history, most of the Greunthungi (the remaining Gothic people within the Black Sea steppes) surrendered themselves to the control of the Huns. Those who refused found themselves marching closer to the now-thriving Eastern Roman Empire.
However, those remaining Gothic people realized they couldn’t resist the Hunnic invasions. Emperor Valens permitted the Thervingi (those western Goths who were forced to march) to cross the Lower Danube to settle within the Roman Empire in the autumn of the same year – 376 CE.
Those fortunate Thervingi were followed by the fleeing Greuthingi.
The Greuthingi were then followed by a flood of tribal people who had fears of the Huns as well.
This influx of migration caused revolt, and the war that came from it (between the Goths and the Romans) lasted for more than five years. All support for the Gothic leadership diminished completely as the refugees made their way into the garrisons of Roman divisions in Thrace, finally “safe” from Hunnic harm.
But not for long.
In 395 CE, the Huns began their first major attack on the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire. They brutally decimated Thrace, overran Armenia, pillaged all of Cappadocia, entered the borders of Syria, threatened Antioch with a brutal fist, and swarmed through the province of Euphratesia. All within a span of around three years. The unstoppable Hunnic force forces Emperor Theodosius to completely re-strategize his military, which were forced to be fully committed to their western front until the Huns “restored peace”.
Well, here’s some historical controversy. In Roman history, it is proclaimed that the Huns were forced to leave after being defeated in battle. However, it is more likely that the Huns just…left on their own. Yet again, we don’t know why such a powerful barbaric force would just basically just get bored or give up.
There is no record of victory from eunuch Eutropius (who led the opposing force composed of Romans and Goths which “fought off” the Huns), but we do have evidence that the Huns were leaving by the time he arrived.
One could probably assume that the Huns only left the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire because they decided that they had bigger fish to fry. After leaving the Eastern Roman Empire in 398 CE, they almost immediately invaded the Sassanid Empire.
Initially a victory, the Huns almost came close to capturing the capital of Ctesiphon. However, they were destroyed by Persian counterattacks and were forced to retreat back towards the Caucasus Mountains, to which they called home. Afterwards, they turned their attention back to threatening western tribes.
Radagaisus, a Gothic king with a force of about 20,000 fighting men, fled from Hunnic pressures and entered Italy in 405 CE.
The Rhine River was crossed, with Gaul being brutally invaded by the Vandals and the Sueves and (ugh) the Alans, on December 31st, 406 CE. The initial historical gathering of these barbarians on the east bank of the Rhine River is interpreted as a banding of refugees who were, you guessed it, running from the Huns. However, some historical records claim this gathering could have been the remnants of Radagaisus’s men from Italy looking to expand even further.
The Huns during most of this do not appear to the civilized men of Europe as a single force with a single ruler or any form of government. Many of the so-called Huns were employed as mercenaries and fighting forces by both East and West Romans, and also by the Goths themselves.
This notion of unorganized Hunnic territory all ended when Uldin, the first Hun known by an actual name, headed a group of barbaric warriors against Radagaisus in defense of Italy. This, however, was not the first major step for Uldin’s Hunnic career.
Defeating Gothic rebels that had given the Eastern Romans trouble and beheading Gainas around the year 400, Uldin found himself in a situation in which his mere presence pressured the civilizations surrounding him. After beheading Gainas, the ambitious Gothic leader, he was apparently offered “gifts” by the Eastern Romans. Uldin accepted, and the head was displayed in Constantinople afterwards.
He and his forces eventually crossed the Danube, capturing a fortress and ransacking Thrace, the Romans realized that the Huns were basically unstoppable in terms of militia. So afraid of this man, the Romans tried to buy Uldin off, offering him more “gifts” and gold to make him leave the area once and for all. But, Uldin’s price was too high for the Empire.
So, what did the Romans do? They started buying off Uldin’s men, resulting in many of the Huns deserting their barbaric “tribe”. But, of course, this isn’t the end. More mercenaries were employed and the Huns soon found themselves bought by the Western Romans to defend Italy against impending doom. Alaric, the first King of the Visigoths, eventually gave up on his plans to march on Rome.
For now, of course. He would be back, twice more, and eventually would sack Rome in the year 410. He is considered a decisive mark in the decline of the Roman Empire.
Now, something very important to note, we’ve discussed the entire beginning of the Hunnic powerhouse. We’ve entered a steady peak. To save time, we’re fast-forwarding about twenty years. Now, we introduce one of the most famous barbarians in history… Attila the Hun!
To be continued….
Joseph Kaminski is a writer, historian and a political activist. He is also an advocate for suicide prevention. Joseph keeps himself very busy and writes an amazing blog on history-related articles, politics and more. His website is josephkaminski.org . You can also discover the latest news from Joseph via his twitter account @publishingminds.