In the fourth century AD an offshoot of the Xiongnu (Hun-nu) nation moved west onto the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. This Xiongnu faction, known to the Romans as the Huns, defeated the Alani and conquered the populous Gothic realms in Eastern Europe. In the process they caused a major refugee movement into Europe which destabilised the Roman Empire. Over the following century the Huns launched devastating attacks on Roman territory that destroyed frontier defences and eventually caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476).
This westward movement of Xiongnu people occurred in a period of Chinese history known as the Sixteen Kingdom Era (AD 304–439). The Sogdian Letters record how the resurgent Xiongnu (Xwn = Hun) overran northern China in AD 312 and sacked the walled capital Louyang. The attack was led by a southern Xiongnu faction who called themselves the ‘Han Zhao’ because their leaders claimed to be descendants of the Han dynasty princess that Chanyu Modu had received as his royal bride. With an army of 50,000 steppe warriors the Han Zhao also sacked the former capital Chang’an, capturing two Jin Emperors during the course of their campaigns (AD 304–319).
As a consequence the northern domains of China fractured into numerous small kingdoms formed from various nations and dynasties that had once been Chinese subjects. Some of these states and their successors existed in steppe territories ruled by warlords descended from the Southern Xiongnu. This included the Northern Lang in the Hexi Corridor, the Northern Tiefu of Inner Mongolia and the Kingdom of Xia in the Ordos Loop. Between AD 351 and AD 376, a powerful frontier regime known as Former Qin began to conquer its warring rivals, but it was the Northern Wei that achieved overall victory and established control over northern China (AD 386–534).
The Northern Wei governed with Chinese-style administration and promoted their regime using Buddhist ideologies. But their ruling dynasty was descended from Xianbei warlords so the regime possessed numerous skilled cavalry that could campaign on the steppe. Their rise to power prompted a migration of Xiongnu factions westward towards the Caspian steppe. A Chinese text called the Weishu (History of the Northern Wei) records that by the start of the fourth century ‘the remains of the Xiongnu descendants’ were to be found northwest of the steppe-dwelling Rouran who by that period occupied most of Central Asia.
One of these Xiongnu groups called themselves the ‘White’ clan which was the symbolic colour of the West in their ancient culture. The Roman historian Ammianus confirms that this subgroup followed a migration route into Transoxiana where they threatened lands subject to the Sassanid Persian Empire (AD 356). The Persians called these invaders ‘Chionites’, but the Indians referred to them as ‘Huna’. The Chionites quickly overran Bactria and the Byzantine scholar Faustus records how in AD 368 the Persian King recruited Armenian troops into his armies to try to defend his eastern provinces. Writing in the sixth century the Byzantine scholar Procopius calls these invaders ‘the Hephthalite Huns, who are called White Huns’ and reports that ‘they do not intermix with any of the other Huns known to us.’
Another subgroup of Xiongnu (Huns) first appear in Roman accounts in AD 370 when they arrived in lands to the north of the Caspian Sea and crossed the Volga River. Coming from unknown territories, these Huns rapidly conquered the Alani and Goths who occupied steppe lands north of the Black Sea (Scythia). Zosimus reports that ‘a barbarous nation, which had remained unknown until this time, suddenly made its appearance and attacked the Scythians beyond the Ister (Danube).’ He claims that the Huns did not seem to be ‘Scythians’ and had no ‘regal government’. Claudian confirms that the Huns came from somewhere beyond the ‘extreme eastern borders of Scythia’. Ammianus explains: ‘A hitherto unknown race of men has arisen from some hidden recess of the earth and like a tempest of snows from the high mountains they seize or destroy everything in their way.’
The Huns had migrated to seek land and they arrived on the Pontic steppe with their wives, children, horses and wagons. Zosimus explains that their warriors ‘were not capable of fighting on foot, rarely walked, could not fix their feet firmly on the ground, but live perpetually, and can even sleep, on horseback’. According to Roman accounts they possessed superior horses, greater skill at archery and demonstrated more persistence in their attacks than other steppe nations.
Some Roman accounts suggest that the Huns had a Mongolian ethnic element. Jordanes, the sixth century Byzantine historian, describes them as being ‘tanned with a large head that is not distinct. Their eyes are small resembling a pin head.’ He reports that male Huns ritually scarred their faces with blades as displays of mourning enacted at funeral services. Procopius also suggests that the Huns had a distinctive haircut that was copied by the riotous gangs who watched chariot races in Constantinople. The Hun haircut was achieved by ‘clipping the hair short on the front of the head down to the temples, then letting it hang down in great length and disorder at the back’.
Jordanes reports that the Huns were ‘short in stature with fast physical movements, alert horsemen, broad shouldered and primed in the use of bow and arrow, with firm-set necks held erect with pride’. Ammianus offers a similar account, describing the Huns as possessing ‘compact bodies, strong limbs and thick necks’. He suggests they were disfigured by a lifetime of horse-riding and walked awkwardly when they dismounted. Sidonius compared the Huns to the centaurs of classical mythology describing how they learnt to ride as soon as they could walk. He reports, ‘You would think that the limbs of man and horse are fused together so firmly does the rider always move with the horse; other people are carried on horseback, but these people live there.’ Ammianus reports that even their war councils were conducted while mounted and ‘when deliberation is required regarding important matters, they all consult as a common body on horseback.’
Hunnic horses were considered superior to the western breeds used by Scythians on the Pontic Steppe and Roman cavalry in Europe. A Roman named Vegetius wrote a study on veterinary medicine in which he lists the characteristics of these horses. They had ‘large hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below their knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, great strength in their cannon bones, small pasterns, wide spreading hooves, hollow loins, angular rumps without fat or muscles, a back stature that is long rather than high, drawn in belly and large bones.’ This exactly describes the horses used by Central Asian steppe nations.
Roman horses were expensive to maintain since they had to be kept warm in stables and required frequent veterinary attention. Vegetius explained that Hunnic horses did not need stables and could endure greater cold and hunger without distress. They were also longer-lived and less prone to injury than their Roman counterparts. Hunnic breeds were also better able to bear wounds due to their quiet and sensible temperament. Therefore in the opinion of Vegetius they held ‘first place among horse breeds in their fitness for war’.
Skilled Hun bowmen could outpace and outmanoeuvre armoured Sarmatian riders who specialized in cavalry charges carrying cumbersome lances. Jordanes reports that the Alani ‘equalled the Huns in battle, but had different cultures, manners and appearance. The Huns exhausted them by their incessant attacks and subdued them.’ Zosimus confirms that their warriors overcame the western steppe-dwellers with continual attacks and ‘by the rapidity with which they wheeled about their horses, by the suddenness of their excursions and retreats, shooting as they rode they caused a great slaughter among the Scythians.’ Claudian refers to their attacks which seemed ‘disorderly, but had incredible swiftness, allowing the Huns to often return to the fight when little expected’.
Ammianus describes how Hunnic warriors rode into battle in wedge-shaped masses while ‘their medley of voices makes a savage noise.’ They were ‘lightly equipped for swift motion and unexpected action, they purposely divide suddenly into scattered bands and attack, rushing about in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter.’ The Huns surpassed all other warriors in the skill of their archery, but when the opportunity came, ‘they can gallop over the intervening ground and fight hand-to-hand with swords.’ They also lassoed their enemies throwing ‘strips of cord plaited into nooses over their opponents, entangling and binding their limbs so they cannot ride or walk.’ Unlike the Chinese who possessed sophisticated crossbows, the Goths and Romans had no projectile weaponry that could easily outrange and target mounted Hunnic archers.
Ammianus records that within a few years the Huns ‘had overrun the territories of the Alani,’ they ‘killed and plundered many of them, then joined the survivors to themselves in a treaty of alliance.’ This gave Hunnic armies Sarmatian cavalry equipped with scale and chain mail armour. After suppressing the Alani, the Huns moved west to attack the Goths who by the fourth century AD were a populous nation inhabiting agricultural territories stretching from the Baltic coast to the northern Black Sea. The Goths on the Pontic steppe had adopted cavalry practices, but they fought with spears instead of the sophisticated reflex bows used by the Scythians. Procopius explains that Gothic bowmen ‘entered battle on foot under the cover of heavily armed men’.
Gothic spearmen could not ride faster than Hunnic warriors, and even in close combat Goth riders could find it difficult to overcome Huns equipped with helmets and lamellar armour. Procopius describes how an elite Hun soldier ‘was surrounded by twelve Goths carrying spears who all struck at him at once, but his corselet withstood the blows and he was not seriously injured until one of the Goths succeeded in hitting him from behind, in a place where his body was unprotected, above the right armpit’. This Hun was only wearing a helmet and jacket-like coat of chain or lamellar armour, since another spear-thrust wounded his exposed thigh.
Roman sources suggest that it was difficult to unseat or kill a mounted Hunnic warrior. Sidonius describes a Hun who was speared by a lance, ‘transfixed, his corselet was pierced front and back so that blood came throbbing through the two holes.’ Some Huns carried shields and Sozomen describes a Hunnic warrior leaning on his shield, ‘as was his custom when parleying with his enemies’. Grave finds suggest that some Huns practised the steppe custom of artificial cranial deformation and by binding the heads of their babies they encouraged the infant’s skull to develop in an elongated shape. Some Romans assumed that this practice was connected with warfare, to flatten the face and make it easier for warriors to wear helmets with broad nose-guards. A few wealthy Huns gilded their armour, perhaps emulating the customs of the Aorsi who wore gold ornaments. Asterius of Amasia reports that ‘the armour of the barbarians is ostentatious’ and describes a steppe chief on the Black Sea coast who offered his gilded cuirass to a Christian representative.
When the Gothic kingdoms were defeated by the Huns, tens of thousands of refugee Goths and Alani fled south to seek protection in the Roman Empire. Ammianus reports that, ‘exhausted by a lack of necessities they looked for a new homeland far from the savages and after much deliberation they chose Thrace as a suitable refuge, because it has very fertile soil and because it is separated by the mighty flood of the Danube from the lands exposed to war.’ The Gothic realms were allied to the Roman Empire and Ammianus records how a large part of the defeated nation suddenly appeared on the banks of the Danube asking admittance into imperial territory. Zosimus reports, ‘The surviving Scythians (Goths and Alani) were compelled to abandon their homelands to the Huns and cross the Danube, they therefore appealed to the Emperor to receive them, promising to serve faithfully as soldiers.’ Tens of thousands of Goths and Alani were admitted into the frontier provinces along with their families, but despite confiscation orders, many were able to bribe officials and cross the Danube carrying weapons.
These refugees were confined to camps near the frontier, but they were offered limited supplies while they were systematically exploited and mistreated by various Roman officials. As a result the Gothic refugees rebelled and overran the Balkan countryside with raiding parties (AD 376–378). In AD 378 the Eastern Emperor Valens marched against the Gothic army, but he was outmanoeuvred by their steppe cavalry at the Battle of Adrianople. The Emperor was killed along with most of the Eastern Field Army while their enemies ‘plundered the dead bodies and armed themselves with Roman equipment’.
The Goths dominated imperial politics throughout the following century as their various nation-states crossed the Empire to seize territories from imperial control. They overran rich agricultural territories, demanded tribute from Roman cities and captured various armouries and imperial workshops. The Visigothic chief Aleric boasted that the Roman province of Thrace forged spears, swords and helmets for his warriors. Meanwhile the Huns moved westwards towards the grasslands of Hungary on the Danube frontier. In a few decades they had conquered and occupied a territory stretching over 1,700 miles from the Roman Danube to the Volga River.