The Huns

SHORT COMPOSITE BOW: right drawn, centre normal and left spent.

This illustration shows the short composite bow of wood, horn and sinew, held together by animal glue. All the materials were obtainable in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. Curved bows like this were immensely powerful and short enough to be fired from horseback.

The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery, not just for us but also for contemporary observers, who frankly admitted that they had no idea where these people had appeared from. It was clear that they had come from the east and there was a persistent but improbable story recounted to explain how they were first encouraged to move west. According to this legend, the Huns and the Ostrogoths lived in neighbouring territory separated by the Strait of Kerch, which is the entrance to the Sea of Azov: the Ostrogoths in the Crimea on the western side and the Huns in the steppes to the east. However, neither group knew of the other’s existence. One day a cow belonging to a Hun was stung by a gadfly and swam across the strait followed in hot pursuit by her master. He found himself in a rich and inviting land and when he returned to his own people he told them about it and they immediately moved to take it for themselves.

The historical reality seems to be that the Huns, a Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, began to move west around the year 370 and attack the Ostrogothic kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. What caused this movement is unclear, but it may have been pressure from other tribes further east. The Ostrogoths were defeated again and again and forced to leave their homes and farms in panic. A vast number of them crossed the Danube into the Balkans, still ruled at this time by the Roman Empire. Here the fugitive Goths, in their desperation, inflicted a massive defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople In 376, when their cavalry ran down the last of the old Roman legions.

Now that their horizons were expanded there was no stopping the Huns. They raided the Balkans in the aftermath of the Roman defeat but also attacked the rich provinces of the east, coming through the Caucasus and Anatolia to pillage the rich lands of Syria. St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was living as a hermit near Jerusalem at the time and he has left us one of the first contemporary accounts of their cruelty:

Suddenly messengers started arriving In haste and the whole east trembled for swarms of Huns had broken out from (behind the Caucasus). They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted here and there on their swift horses. The Roman army was away at the time and detained in Italy owing to civil wars … they were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumour, and they took pity on neither religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy. There was a widespread report that they were heading for Jerusalem and that they were converging on that city because of their extreme greed for gold.

Jerome takes up a number of themes which were to echo through the centuries as people of the settled lands recounted with horror the arrival of nomad warriors: their speed and the fact that they caught unsuspecting people by surprise, their readiness to slaughter entire populations and their blatant and overwhelming greed for gold.

Another theme repeatedly taken up by observers of the Huns was their alleged ugliness. Ammianus Marcellinus, the late fourth-century military historian, who is one of our most important sources for the earliest stages of the Hunnic invasions, commented that they were ‘so prodigiously ugly that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps that one sees on the parapets of bridges’, while Jordanes adds that they caused men to panic by ‘their terrifying appearance, which inspired fear because of its swarthiness and they had, if I may say so, a sort of shapeless lump rather than a head’. These impressions probably reflect the eastern Asiatic features of the Mongols which made them clearly distinct from their Germanic rivals and neighbours (about whom the Roman sources do not make the same comments).

Their physical appearance was not made more attractive to the Romans by their clothes. These seem to have been chiefly made of bits of fur and later of linen, presumably captured or traded because the Huns themselves certainly did not make their own textiles. Along with their ragged clothes and wearing their garments until they disintegrated was their habit of never washing. The effect of these on the fastidious Roman observers who encountered them may easily be envisaged. However critical, their enemies recognized their extreme hardiness for, as Ammianus Marcellinus observed, ‘They learn from the cradle to the grave to endure hunger and thirst.’ Not for them the heavy, slow-moving supply trains that delayed the movements of Roman armies for they carried all that they needed with them on their swift and sturdy ponies.

That the Huns were ferocious and very successful warriors is evident. It is less clear exactly why they were so. Our knowledge of both their tactics in battle and their equipment is very patchy. The main first-hand account, the work of Priscus, describes the Huns at leisure and pleasure but not at war, and the descriptions of battles from other sources are both later and too vague to be of much use. There is no known contemporary representation of a Hunnic warrior of the period. A few swords from the time, which mayor may not be Hunnic, survive but there are no archaeological traces of the famous bows.

Ammianus Marcellinus, himself an experienced military officer, wrote of them in 392:

When provoked they sometimes fight singly but they enter the battle in tactical formation, while the medley of their voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly in scattered bands and attack, rushing around in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter; and because of their extraordinary speed of movement, they cannot easily be seen when they break into a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account, you would have no hesitation in calling them the most terrible of all warriors. At first they fight from a distance with arrows with sharp bone heads [instead of metal ones] joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. They then gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. Then, while their opponents are guarding against wounds from sword thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses [i. e. lassos] over their opponents and so entangle them and pin their limbs so that they lose the ability to ride or walk.

Although Ammianus’ account was derived second-hand from Goths who had fought against the Huns, the picture clearly shows them as nomad warriors in the military tradition which was to be followed by the Turks and Mongols. The emphasis on manoeuvrability, their role as mounted archers and use of lassos all form part of that tradition.

As with all steppe nomads, observers were struck by their attachment to their horses. Jerome says that they ate and slept on their horses and were hardly able to walk on the ground. Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were ‘almost glued to their horses which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit of the woman-fashion (presumably side-saddle) and so perform their ordinary tasks. When deliberations are called for about weighty matters, they all meet together on horseback’. The Gaulish aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 479), who must have seen Hunnic mercenaries on many occasions, notes that their training began very young. ‘Scarcely has the infant learned to stand, without its mother’s help, when a horse takes him on his back. You would think that the limbs of the man and horse were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse. Other people are carried on horseback; these people live there.’ Being well versed in classical mythology, he goes on to compare them with the mythical centaurs, half man and half horse. Commentators on nomad warriors are almost always impressed by this connection with their horses. No matter how early sedentary people learned to ride, or how well trained they were, they never seem to have acquired the mastery of horses that the nomad peoples had. This mastery always gave them the advantage in endurance and in the art of mounted archery which others could never attain.

The late Roman military tactician Vegetius whose book Epitoma rei militaris (Handbook of Military Science) is one of our main sources on the late Roman army, discusses the horses of the Huns and how they differed from the Roman ones. He describes them as having great hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, strong cannon bones, small rumps and wide-spreading hooves. They have no fat on them and are long rather than high. He adds that the very thinness of these horses is pleasing and there is beauty even in their ugliness.

Apart from their physical appearance, like little ponies compared with the larger and more elegant Roman horses, what impresses Vegetius most is their toughness. He notes their patience and perseverance and their ability to tolerate extremes of cold and hunger. Vegetius was concerned at the decline of veterinary skills among the Romans of his day and complains that people were neglecting their horses and treating them as the Huns treated theirs, leaving them out on pasture all year to fend for themselves. This, he says, is not at all good for the larger and more softly bred Roman horses. There is an important point here: Roman horses needed to be fed and so the army had to carry fodder with it; Hunnic horses , by contrast, lived off the land and were used to surviving on what they could find. This gave them an enormous advantage in mobility and the capacity to travel long distances without resting. It was one of the secrets of their military success.

The question of whether the Huns used stirrups remains doubtful. We can be certain that stirrups were unknown in classical antiquity. We can also be certain that they were widely known in east and west from the eighth century onwards. The evidence for the intervening period is very problematic. There are no representations of horsemen using stirrups from the Hunnic period, nor have any metal stirrups been found in graves. If they had used a new and unfamiliar device like this, it seems most unlikely that Priscus and other classical commentators would have neglected to mention (and copy) this. It is therefore extremely unlikely that they had metal stirrups. It is possible that they may have had fabric or wooden stirrups, both of which are attested for in later periods, but again, the fact that these are not mentioned in sources makes it improbable. Mounted archers such as Scythians and Sarmatians, who preceded the Huns, were able to shoot from the saddle without the stabilizing effect of stirrups, and there is no reason why the Huns should not have done likewise. Indeed, the absence of stirrups for both sides would simply have emphasized the superiority of Hunnic horsemanship.

The Huns did not use spurs either but urged their horses on with whips; whip handles have been found in tombs. Gold and silver saddle ornaments discovered in tombs make it certain that some wealthy men rode on wooden saddles with wooden bows at front and rear to support the rider. Common sense suggests, however, that many poorer Huns must have made do with padded cloth or skin saddles or even have ridden bareback. Their most characteristic weapon was the bow. This was the short, but very powerful composite bow, perhaps 5 feet or more in length, made from wood, bone and sinews. The range would have been 200 to 300 yards, the maximum effective range of any medieval bow. In the early days at least, the arrowheads were made of bone, not iron. All the materials could be found on the steppes and the bow was the Hunnic instrument par excellence. Like the Turks and Mongols of later centuries, whom they so much resemble, it was their abilities as mounted archers that made them so formidable in battle. Better equipped Hunnic warriors would also have had swords and it is clear that Attila wore his sword even in the comparative safety of his own compound. Swords and their scabbards, like saddles, could be expensively decorated. Unlike the bows, which were peculiar to the Huns, the swords seem to have followed the standard Roman and Gothic forms, with short hilts and long, straight blades.

Confused by their speed, and perhaps hoping to account for their military success, contemporaries often gave very large numbers for armies of Huns: Priscus is said to have claimed that Attila’s army in 451 had 500,000 men. If this were true, it would certainly explain their successes in battle but, in reality, these numbers must be a vast exaggeration. As we shall see when considering the Mongols, limitations on grazing for the animals must have placed severe restrictions on the numbers of Huns who could work together as a unit. Even in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, it is unlikely that Mongol gatherings ever numbered much more than 100,000: in the more restricted areas of the Balkans and western Europe numbers must have been much smaller. Before they invaded the Empire, the Huns, like other nomads, probably lived in fairly small tenting groups, perhaps 500-1,000 people, who kept their distance from their fellows so as to exploit the grassland more effectively. Only on special occasions or to plan a major expedition would larger numbers come together and even then they could only remain together if they had outside resources. The image of a vast, innumerable swarm of Huns covering the landscape like locusts has to be treated with some scepticism.

The late Roman Empire was a society based on walled towns and the Huns soon developed an impressive capability in siege warfare. This was surely not something they brought with them from the steppes. They almost certainly employed engineers who had learned their trade in the Roman armies but now found themselves unemployed and looking for jobs. The Huns were much more successful than previous barbarian invaders had been at reducing cities. This was especially important in the Middle Danube area around modern Serbia, where cities which had successfully held out for many years were reduced to uninhabited ruins. Sometimes, as at Margus, betrayed by its bishop, this was the result of treachery, but on other occasions the Huns were able to mount a successful assault. Priscus gives a full account of the siege of the city of Naissus (modern Nis in Serbia) in 441. While the narrative certainly has echoes of classical historians, especially Thucydides (for Priscus was an educated man and keen to show it), the description probably reflects the realities of siege warfare at the time:

Since the citizens did not dare to come out to battles, the [Huns], to make the crossing easy for their forces bridged the river from the southern side at a point where it flowed past the city and brought their machines up to the circuit wall. First they brought up wooden platforms mounted on wheels upon which stood men who shot across at the defenders on the ramparts. At the back of the platform stood men who pushed the wheels with their feet and moved the machines where they were needed, so that [the archers] could shoot successfully through the screens. In order that the men on the platform could fight in safety, they were sheltered by screens woven from willow covered with rawhide and leather to protect them against missiles and flaming darts which might be shot at them. When a large number of machines had been brought up to the wall, the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the crowds of missiles and evacuated their positions. Then the so-called ‘rams’ were brought up. A ram is a very large machine: a beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together and it is provided with a sharp metal point. For the safety of those working them, there were screens like those already described. Using short ropes attached to the rear, men swing the beam back from the target of the blow and then release it, so that by its force, part of the wall facing it is smashed away. From the wall the defenders threw down wagon-sized boulders which they had got ready when the machines were first brought up to the circuit. Some of the machines were crushed with the men working them but the defenders could not hold out against the large number of them. Then the attackers brought up scaling ladders so that in some places the walls were breached by the rams and in other places those on the battlements were overcome by the numbers of. the machines. The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also by the scaling ladders set up against the parts which were not crumbling and the city was taken.

The attackers were using siege towers and battering rams but they do not seem to have had any artillery to fire stones at the walls or into the city. Later conquerors, notably the Mongols, were to use such catapults to great effect. In contrast, the Mongols do not seem to have used wheeled siege towers, at least in their Asian campaigns.

In addition to the machines, Attila was evidently prepared to sacrifice large numbers of men, probably prisoners or subject peoples, in frontal assault. The results were very impressive and most of the major cities of the Balkans, including Viminacium, Philippopolis, Arcadiopolis and Constantia on the Black Sea coast fell. Attila’s campaigns mark the effective end of Roman urban life in much of the area.

One feature which marked out the Huns and other nomad warriors from the settled people was the high degree of mobilization among the tribesmen. When Priscus, a civil servant who accompanied the East Roman ambassador to Attila’s court, was waiting for an audience with the great man, he was talking to a Greek- speaking Hun who gave him a lecture on the virtues of the Huns and Hunnic life as opposed to the corrupt and decadent ways of the Romans. He explained:

After a war the Scythians [i. e. the Huns: Priscus uses the ancient Greek term for steppe nomads] live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all or very little. But among the Romans, since on account of their tyrants [i. e. the emperors] not all men carry weapons, they place responsibility for their safety in others and they are thus easily destroyed in war. Moreover, those who do use arms are endangered still more by the cowardice of their generals, who are unable to sustain a war.

This passage forms part of a speech which is really a sermon on the virtues of the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle and Priscus attempted, rather lamely, to counter his views. But the Hun was making an important point about the enduring difference between the nomad society in which all adult males bore arms and a settled population who relied on a professional army. In absolute terms, the Huns may never have been very numerous but because of the high degree of participation in military activity, they could field a large army. They were, in fact, a nation in arms.

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