Xiongnu, Huns and the End of the Roman Empire II

The Threat to Rome

Theodosius I was the last Emperor to rule a unified Roman regime. In AD 393 he placed his 9-year-old son on the throne of the Western Empire under the guidance and protection of a senior general named Flavius Stilicho. Theodosius was then succeeded by his eldest son Arcadius who ruled the Eastern Empire from a bureaucratic court, while the western government fell under the authority of generals assisted by Gothic and Germanic warlords brought into regular imperial service.

Authorities in the Western Roman Empire sought alliances with the Huns who occupied large parts of Eastern Europe and the Pontic-Caspian steppe. By contrast the Eastern Roman Empire was a target for Hunnic raids, aggression and extortion. In AD 395 the Huns sent an army through passes in the Caucasus Mountains to raid the eastern Roman Empire. Jerome describes the sudden terror of these attacks as ‘everywhere their approach was unexpected as their speed overtook any rumour of their coming and they spared neither religion, rank nor age.’ Hunnic armies entered Armenia and rode south to plunder Syria, as the population of Antioch and Tyre retreated into their cities. Roman authorities suspected that the Huns might be planning to plunder gold from Jerusalem and wealthy citizens fled onto ships to avoid capture or death. Jerome confirms the impact of these raids when he writes that ‘the soldiers of Rome who are conquerors and lords of the world are subdued, tremble and withdraw in fear at the sight of those who cannot easily walk on foot.’

The Huns then turned their attentions west and subjugated populations in central Germany prompting a further movement of displaced Germanic peoples into the Western Roman Empire. In AD 405 tens of thousands of Suebians, Vandals, and Alani crossed the Rhine frontiers along with their families to settle in Roman Gaul. Up to 80,000 Vandals migrated through Spain and in AD 429 they crossed into North Africa to seize the rich farmlands that supplied grain to Rome.

During this period, military leaders in the Western Roman Empire recruited Hunnic warriors into imperial service as the elite bodyguards of senior commanders. The Western Emperor Honorius (AD 393–423) maintained 300 Huns in the Italian capital Ravenna and Stilicho, the Magister Militum (‘Master of Soldiers’), was protected by a personal bodyguard of Hunnic troops. In AD 409, the Emperor summoned a mounted force including 10,000 Hunnic allies to help defend Italy from an army of Visigoths who were threatening Rome. Zosimus suggests that the Romans found it difficult to feed and supply this number of horsemen and the riders withdrew allowing the Visigoths to sack Rome the following year. In AD 425 a Roman commander named Flavius Aetius requested the support of a Hunnic army to decide a succession dispute in the Western Roman Empire. He led 60,000 allied Hunnic warriors into Northern Italy before negotiating a peace that allowed him to claim the title Magister Militum. By this period Hunnic armies incorporated the strongest military traditions of their subject peoples and Jordanes describes their varied appearance including ‘Suebi (Germans) fighting on foot, Huns with bows and the Alani forming-up into a heavy-armed battle-line’.

In AD 445 a chief named Attila was proclaimed king of the Huns and, after unifying his subject peoples, ‘he gathered a host of the other tribes under his power.’ Jordanes describes Attila as ‘short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and greying; and he had a flat nose and tanned complexion’. He was said to be ‘enthusiastic for war, but restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were received into his protection’.

Under the command of Attila, Hunnic armies reduced the political and military strength of the Roman regime and caused the collapse of the Western Empire. Like the Xiongnu, the Huns wanted to dominate and extract wealth from their imperial rivals, rather than conquer or destroy them. It was said that when Attila captured the Italian city of Milan he saw a painting of the Roman Emperors sitting upon golden thrones and Scythians lying dead before their feet. He ordered the image redrawn to depict ‘Attila upon a throne and the Roman Emperors heaving sacks upon their shoulders and pouring out gold before him’. Attila’s funeral oration was reported to have praised him as the chief who ‘held the Scythian and German realms, terrified both Roman Empires, captured their cities and placated by their appeals, took yearly tribute in place of plunder’.

Attila’s attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire began in AD 441 when Hunnic armies crossed the Danube frontier and plundered the Balkans. The Huns had with them Roman captives with the engineering skills required to bridge rivers. They also brought numerous battering-ram siege engines that they mounted on large steppe-wagons. If threatened by attack, these heavy timber wagons could be quickly drawn into formation to create a fortress-like wooden stronghold. Priscus describes the siege of a fortified Roman city called Naissus when the Huns drove ‘a vast number of siege engines’ against the walls. Archers fired from wicker and hide-protected portholes in these wagons, forcing the defenders from the battlements, as the battering-rams were rolled forward. These rams consisted of a large metal-headed beam fixed to chains so that it could be drawn back with ropes, then swung forward with pendulum force. The walls of Naissus were battered down at numerous points, allowing the Huns and their Gothic allies to scale the rubble with ladders and plunder the city. These sieges were rapid operations conducted with overwhelming force and in AD 443 the Huns threatened, but did not attack, the heavily-fortified imperial capital of Constantinople (Byzantium). Tens of thousands of Roman subjects, including many skilled urban tradespeople, were seized in their raids and conveyed to the Hunnic homelands in Hungary and the Pontic steppe. A Roman chronicle describes the conflict as ‘a new disaster for the east: more than seventy cities were sacked while no assistance came from the troops of the Western Empire’.

The Eastern Empire bought peace terms with the Huns for 6,000 pounds of gold and an agreement that a further 2,100 pounds of gold per annum would be given as tribute (equivalent to 8.4 million sesterces of first-century currency). In addition, thousands of Roman prisoners were returned at a ransom of 8 gold solidi per person. According to Priscus, ‘these tributes were very heavy, as many resources and the imperial treasuries had been exhausted.’ Priscus reports: ‘The Romans pretended that they had made the agreements voluntarily. But because of the overwhelming fear which gripped their commanders, they were compelled to accept gladly every injunction, however harsh, in their eagerness for peace.’ Despite these protests the Eastern Empire had the capacity to pay further tribute and John Lydus reports that in AD 457 the treasury preserved 100,000 pounds of gold, ‘which Attila, the enemy of the world, had wanted to take’.

In AD 449 Priscus was selected by the government of the Eastern Roman Empire to lead an embassy to the court of Attila. He travelled to one of the Hunnic capitals north of the Danube which resembled a vast wood-built village the size of a Roman town. Attila’s royal residence was constructed from close-fitting polished timbers and ornamental wooden boards and, although it had a perimeter adorned with towers, the complex was built ‘for beauty rather than protection’. Priscus reports that a Roman captive taken from the city of Sirmium had built a heated bath-house at the site, confirming the new engineering skills then available to the regime. Attila received envoys and petitions and oversaw legal cases in his royal hall. Priscus records that one of his royal secretaries was a Roman administrator named Rusticius who was another war-captive, employed by the Huns because of ‘his skills in speech and composing letters’. Attila was also promoting his regime using motifs from Sarmatian religion and claimed to have discovered the sacred sword of the classical war god Mars (Ares).

Another incident indicates the Hunnic capacity for acculturation. Priscus met a former Roman merchant in the Hunnic capital who spoke fluent Greek, but was dressed in full ‘Scythian attire’ and cut his hair in their distinctive style. The Greek explained he had been a wealthy inhabitant of Viminacium near the Danube River, but when the city was stormed he was captured and brought into Hunnic service. He had ‘fought bravely in battles against the Romans’ and with the spoils ‘he had obtained his freedom according to the law of the Scythians.’ He could have returned to the Empire, but he married a Scythian woman, had children by his foreign wife and continued to serve the Huns.

While Priscus was attending the Hunnic court he spoke to visiting envoys from the Western Roman government about the threat posed by Attila. They explained to Priscus that ‘no one who ruled over Scythia or any other land has achieved such great things in such a short time.’ They warned that Attila ‘rules all of Scythia, makes the Romans pay tribute and is aiming at greater achievements for he wants to engage the Persians and enlarge his territories’. The envoys explained that Media was no great distance from the Hunnic territories and the Huns knew the main routes through the Caucasus Mountains. They believed that Attila, ‘with little difficulty and only a short journey, would subdue the Medes, Parthians, and Persians and force them to submit to the payment of tribute. For he has a military force which no nation can resist.’ One of the envoys from Rome named Constantiolus warned that if Persia fell to the Huns, then Attila would dictate ruling terms on the Western Roman Empire. Constantiolus claimed, ‘At present we bring Attila gold for the sake of his rank, but if he overwhelms the Parthians, Medes, and Persians, he will no longer endure the rule of independent Romans.’ But contrary to Roman expectations the Huns did not engage the Persian Empire as their next military target.

In AD 450 Attila received a pretext for war against the Western Roman Empire. Honoria, the disgraced half-sister of the Emperor Valentinian III, sent a marriage proposal to Attila. This union would have given Attila controlling interests in the imperial succession, but the marriage was refused by the Roman court who insisted that Honoria marry an aging senator. At the same time the Eastern Roman Empire withheld the annual gold tribute that it had agreed to pay to the Huns. Priscus reports that ‘Attila was undecided who he should attack first, but resolved to begin with the greater war and advance against the West, since his fight there would be against Goths and Franks’ who had fled Hunnic rule for Roman protection.

In AD 451 Attila attacked the Western Roman Empire with a Hunnic army supported by large numbers of subject Goths (Ostrogoths) and Germans. His invasion force would have included more than 60,000 warriors, making it the largest field-army operating in the western world. Attila plundered cities in Gaul and ‘launched a fierce assault with his battering-rams’ on the heavily fortified city of Orleans. In response the Western Roman regime formed an alliance with the Alani, Franks and Visigoths who occupied large parts of Gaul and viewed the Huns as their traditional enemies. The two armies fought a large-scale engagement at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains that ended with stalemate and the withdrawal of the Hunnic army from Gaul.

The following year the Hunnic army crossed the Alps and sacked the major cities in northern Italy before threatening Rome itself (AD 452). On this occasion the Roman regime could not obtain support from their Germanic allies and the remaining imperial units were unable to manage an adequate defence. Jordanes describes how the Hunnic army attacked the fortified city of Aquileia: ‘Bringing forward all manner of war-engines, they quickly forced their way into the city, plundered it, divided the spoils and so cruelly devastated the place that scarcely anything remained.’ He claims that the invaders ‘devastated the largest part of Italy’ before approaching Rome. Pope Leo was chosen as the envoy to Rome and the western government was forced to agree peace terms that made their empire tributary to the Huns. Attila also reasserted his claim to an imperial marriage alliance and demanded the government surrender the princess Honoria, ‘with her due share of the royal wealth’.

The campaign had exhausted the Roman capacity for war and the regime was open to invasion and exploitation by further foreign powers. With the Western Empire subdued, Attila returned with his army to his Hungarian realm to plan new campaigns against the Visigoths and Alani. He was also anticipating conflict with the Eastern Roman Empire as it was withholding the promised tribute payments to the Hunnic court. But in AD 453, on the night of his marriage to a German princess named Ildico, Attila suddenly died from a brain haemorrhage. The fate of Honoria is not known and she may have remained in Rome under imperial custody. The death of Attila caused subject nations to rebel and his empire disintegrated in a series of conflicts. The Hunnic threat diminished, but by this period large parts of the Western Roman Empire were under the direct rule of Germanic nations who had conquered important territories, or been given land in return for military service. The last ever Emperor of Rome was a boy named Romulus Augustus who was deposed by a Germanic king named Odoacer in AD 476. It had taken less than a century for a major steppe incursion with an influx of foreign refugees to destabilize, undermine and destroy the Roman Empire.

In antiquity the Huns were the largest and most significant population group to have travelled across the steppe from the Far East to the Roman frontiers, a journey of more than 5,000 miles. But during the long history of the silk routes many other unnamed, impoverished or dispossessed individuals passed through the empires of Central Asia as the consequence of conflict, slavery or commerce. Archaeologists excavating the ancient site of an imperial estate at Vagnari in southern Italy unearthed the graves of slave workers who had been involved in textile production during the first century AD. DNA testing of skeletal remains revealed that one of the men buried in the plot had Far Eastern ancestry inherited from his mother. In spite of all the wealth associated the silk routes, his sole possession was a plain wooden food bowl, placed next to his body for use in the afterlife. Whoever this man was and however his ancestors had found themselves in the very centre of the Roman Empire, he had ended his days as a slave and was buried in a simple grave on a bleak hillside.

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