Who were Attila and his Huns? Well, as Europe was slowly transitioning from the Classical Era to more medieval times, the Roman Empire was witnessing its last years as a dominant force on the continent. Well, the western half, at least. In the east, the Byzantine Empire would endure up until the 15th century. In any case, the Western Roman Empire fell due in large part to the many internal struggles for power, but also because of the many barbaric incursions coming in from Central and Eastern Europe.
But as the Romans would soon find out, these barbaric tribes weren’t looking for spoils or conquests, but in fact were they themselves fleeing a threat like never before: the Huns. Appearing as if out of nowhere, the Huns descended upon Europe with a swiftness and ferocity never before seen on the “Old Continent.” And for a period, not even lasting one full century, the Huns would inflict so much havoc and destruction that it would forever cement their place in history.
10. Baby Head Shaping
Also called “artificial cranial deformation,” this is a practice almost as old as humanity itself. The practice was performed all throughout the world, from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania, and even in some parts of Europe. In fact, in France cranial deformation was performed up until the 19th century. Though not dangerous in any way, the process does change the physical appearance. The techniques used do vary somewhat from place to place, either by using wooden planks or pieces of fabric to achieve the desired result. Flat, elongated, rounded, and conical cranial shapes were among the most sought after around the world. From about one to six months old, a baby’s skull is highly malleable, and during this time its head is tightly wrapped in cloth, in order to give it its alien-looking head shape.
And according to archaeological evidence, it seems that the Huns also practiced head shaping. Together with their ethnic origins, the Huns looked totally outlandish to the various peoples of Europe – especially the Romans. Numerous contemporary descriptions attest this fact. And it’s no wonder that these strangely shaped heads gave the Huns a terrifying look to those they attacked and slaughtered. And in fact, the Huns were the ones who introduced the practice in the European peoples they subjugated, including the above mentioned French.
9. The Huns Scarred Their Male Children
While the above mentioned “head shaping” was probably done for aesthetic reasons, or maybe to differentiate between the classes, the scarring they inflicted on their male children had another purpose altogether. On the day of their birth, male babies were slashed with a sword on both their cheeks, as a means to make them endure pain. Jordanes, a Gothic historian from the 6th century AD who lived within the Byzantine Empire in a province on the Lower Danube, had this to say about this Hunnic practice: “For by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom perhaps they did not really surpass in war. They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful…Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds.”
His words must have rung true to anyone who encountered them on the battlefield. Together with their obviously different head shape, their demeanor, as well as their brutal nature, the Huns were also waging a psychological war with their enemies. Ammianus Marcellinus, another Roman historian, also said this about the practice: “At the very moment of their birth the cheeks of their infant children are deeply marked by an iron…”
8. The Hunnic/Paleo Diet
The above mentioned historian, Marcellinus, also makes mention of what the Huns preferred to eat. “And though they do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal.”
These statements can, of course, be attributed to the hatred the Romans had for the invading barbarians. But as it turns out, this story has some bearing on real fact. Just like their nomadic successors, the Mongols, who terrorized Europe some 750 years later, the Huns of the 5th century were preparing their food in a similar manner.
While mounted for most of the day, they would place some wrapped pieces of meat between the horse and their saddle, and ride on it throughout the day. Due to the constant pressure and pounding of riding, the meat would become tenderized, and together with the salt coming off of the horse’s back, the Hunnic delicacy would also be added a layer of preservative, as well as a bit of taste. In short, the Huns were eating salted jerky, made between a horse’s back and a… well, Hunnic hard place. But when comparing it to the maggoty cheese they make in Sardinia, Italy, the nomadic delicacy doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?
7. The Hunnic War Machine
Whether or not the once mighty Xiongnu people, or sometimes called Hsiung-nu, were the ancestors of the Huns is still a matter of debate among scholars today. Some believe them to be the ancestors of the present-day Turks. Or maybe even both. Why not? What is certain, however, is that because of the Xiongnu, the Chinese to the south were forced to build their mighty wall in the first place. And like the Huns, the Hsiung-nu originated in the steppes of Central Asia. This region of the world, as many of us already know, was a perfect breeding ground for mounted warriors. Riding on horseback is what made both the Hsiung-nu and the Huns so formidable and successful against both the Chinese and early Christians, respectively.
In any case, fighting solely on horseback had a tremendous advantage when facing a predominantly infantry-based army. Following a nomadic lifestyle, the Huns seemed to the Europeans as if they were literally glued to their saddles. Some historians mention them as doing almost everything from atop their horses: eating, sleeping, or even bartering. The Huns ware taught to ride a horse as early as they could walk, at which time they were also taught how to fire a bow from atop their mount. The Hunnic bow was an engineering marvel of the 5th century. It was a reflex bow, which means that when strung, it bent back upon itself, giving it more tension than any other bow of its time. A warrior could kill a man at 80 yards and fire an arrow three times that distance.
Another key difference between the Huns and their enemies when it came to waging war was the saddle. Unlike the other saddles used by the Romans and other Europeans, the Hun ones had a high front and rear sections. These gave the rider great stability, almost as if he was fixed to his horse. This way he could twist and turn in a 360 degree angle without the risk of falling off, all the while firing his long-range bow in all directions. The Huns also usually made use of the lasso in battle. They would usually fight and travel in relatively small numbers, no more than a few hundred riders. If they encountered an enemy, they would dash in and strike with lightning speed from atop their horses, and then retreat, only to reappear elsewhere and strike again. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they didn’t often band together in larger numbers – something they often did. And in case they were ever taken by surprise and attacked, they would be able to build a fort in mere moments, just by encircling their wagons together.
6. Attila the Scourge of God
Born sometime at the beginning of the 5th century AD, Attila the Hun was part of the most powerful family north of the Danube River. While he was growing up, the Huns were ruled by Octar and Rugila, two of Attila’s uncles. In 434 AD, both Attila and his older brother Bleda inherited the kingdom of the Huns from their uncles. Their first rule of business was to negotiate and arrange a sort of peace treaty between themselves and the Byzantine Empire. Within this pact, the Romans were obligated to pay some 700 pounds of gold annually, so the Huns wouldn’t attack the Empire. After a few years, Attila claimed the Byzantines weren’t paying up, and led a devastating series of attacks throughout the Eastern Empire. At only about 20 miles from Constantinople itself, Emperor Theodosius was forced to pay Attila around 2,100 pounds of gold per year in order to make him go away.
Then, in 445 AD, Attila’s brother died suspiciously while on a hunt. Some say that Attila assassinated his brother in order to gain complete control over the Huns. Whatever the case may be, he did take control, and he became the only sole ruler of the Hunnic Kingdom throughout the duration of its existence. During his reign, Attila mounted many military campaigns throughout the Balkan region, Greece, Italy, Gaul, and the Baltic regions, leaving little besides death and destruction in his wake. He wasn’t looking to conquer or rule over any of the peoples he defeated. Attila’s main goal was to loot and pillage, taking as much as he could. Fear was one of his greatest weapons, and he would be classified today as a terrorist in every sense of the word. From this, he got the appellative “the Scourge of God.”
It is true that most of what we know about him comes from his enemies, and these descriptions can be called subjective at best. However, his actions and way of waging war seem to indicate the same things. Nevertheless, he is depicted as being true to his word, modest, and kind to emissaries. He died in bed during his wedding night in 453 AD. After his death, the kingdom was divided among his sons, who soon enough began fighting among themselves, leading to the Huns disappearing from the world stage.
5. The Huns and the Germanic Tribes to the East
Late in the 4th century AD, moving ever westward from Central Asia, the Huns reached present-day southern Russia. This was a land of fertile pastures and grasslands, but also home of the Goths. These were a Germanic tribe that later split in two, the Visigoths (to the west) and Ostrogoths (to the east). When the Huns appeared in Eastern Europe, these peoples were the first to feel their terrible power. Appearing as if out of nowhere, the Huns slaughtered the Ostrogoths on numerous occasions, leaving almost nobody alive to tell the tale. The ones who were fortunate enough to escape, mainly the Visigoths, did so by fleeing south of the Danube River into Byzantine territory. The Ostrogothic king, Ermanaric, committed suicide when his kingdom was being invaded by the Huns.
The remaining Ostrogoths, who weren’t able to escape, became subject to the Huns for the following 75 years. They went on to fight alongside the Huns in their many conquests, oftentimes as foot soldiers. After a few failed rebellions, they only managed to escape the ruthless grip of the Huns after Attila’s death. Together with their former enemies, the Gepids, the Ostrogoths, led by Theodimir, managed to defeat the Huns in the Battle of Nedao in 454, and thus gain their freedom once more.
4. The Slaughter of Burgundy
The first contacts between the Huns and the Romans went better than expected. In fact, instead of fighting each other, the Romans employed the Huns to fight for them as mercenaries and hitmen. The Romans definitely recognized the military might of the Huns and they promised them great riches if they would fight for them. And knowing the wealth the Romans had at the time, their offer was something Attila couldn’t refuse. In 437 AD the Huns launched a full scale attack against the Burgundians in modern-day France.
In fear of a civil war, the Western Roman Empire, in its later years at least, was reticent in using its own legions for waging war outside its own borders. And as the Emperors were steadily losing control of the integrity of the empire, many barbaric tribes took advantage of the situation, such as the Burgundians. Due to their frequent raids into Roman territory, the Roman general Aetius made use of the Huns against them. Different accounts of the incidents that followed somewhat vary between them, but one fact is definitely certain, in that the Kingdom of Burgundy was utterly destroyed. It would seem that Aetius did in fact attack them one year prior, in 436, and defeated them. A peace treaty was signed between Aetius and King Gundahar of Burgundy. This peace was short lived, however, since not even one year later the Huns would totally obliterate the Burgundians, “root and branch.”
Probably taken unaware because of the peace treaty, the Hunnic attack turned into an atrocity. Historical sources say that Attila slaughtered the defenders, then turned on the women and children. An estimate of around 20,000 people were killed in an ethnic cleansing of an epic scale. King Gundahar was killed in the battle, and the First Kingdom of the Burgundians collapsed. The reason for this attack was definitely not for conquering and subjugating peoples, but to instill fear in all Hunnic enemies, and to loot as much as possible.
3. The Sack of Naissus in Present-Day Serbia
Following a nomadic lifestyle, the Huns relied heavily on loot and plunder to survive. And Attila knew that in order to ensure the continued loyalty of his men, he would need to supply them with a constant influx of gold. To do so, he would have to set his sights on much bigger prizes than ever before, focusing his attention now on the Roman Empire itself. In order to extort money from the Romans, he needed to prove that he would become a big problem and a threat if they refused to pay up. And the best way to do that was basically to find a Roman city and destroy it. More like a fortress than anything else, the city of Naissus, modern-day Niš in Serbia, then part of the Byzantine Empire, was his intended target.
Birthplace for many Roman Emperors, including Constantine the Great himself, Naissus was besieged by the Huns in 441 AD. However, fighting primarily on horseback, the Huns weren’t especially suited to overtake a heavily fortified citadel, and Attila’s first wave of mounted soldiers was easily driven back. Nevertheless, the Huns overcame this impediment by making use of one of the simplest of siege engines: the battering ram. But besides these, the Huns also made use of a few siege towers and scaling ladders. And by simultaneously attacking different parts of the wall with these rudimentary siege engines, the Huns were ultimately able to overcome the city’s defenses and breach inside.
Besides being an important trade hub in the region, filled with all sorts of riches, Naissus was also an arms factory for the Byzantines. And along with the gold and supplies inside, Attila took these weapons with him, as well as all the skilled workers he could find. He massacred the rest of the city’s population, set it ablaze, and then left. Several years later, when the Greek diplomat and historian Priscus of Panium went through it, Naissus was still in ruins and deserted, with the exception of a few sick people being cared for inside the church.
2. The Mob-like Extortion Racket and Ruthless Punishments
Like any other terrorist, past and present, Attila’s main weapon of attack came in the form of psychological warfare waged through fear. And his terrifying acts of slaughter and unscrupulous murder had reached Constantinople far before he did. The news of him managing to take over a heavily fortified Roman city and kill everyone inside certainly frightened the citizens of Constantinople beyond measure. Moreover, on November 6, 447, a powerful earthquake destroyed large parts of the city’s walls, leaving them utterly exposed to Attila and his Huns. Luckily, however, Emperor Theodosius II appointed the urban prefect Kyros of Floros to oversee the reconstruction of Constantinople’s defenses. As if by a miracle, in a mere 60 days, he was able to not only rebuild the damaged sections of the wall, but to also add an extra outer wall, as well as a moat. And not a moment too soon, either, as Attila was heading in their direction.
Nevertheless, the city’s inhabitants were so afraid of his reputation that they disregarded their own formidable defenses, which Attila was utterly unsuited to overcome. And so, the Emperor had little choice but to pay off the Huns with a whopping 6,000 pounds of gold (roughly $100 million) as a bribe to make him go away. Moreover, Attila demanded his deserters who fled the camp and were now residing in Constantinople. And, of course, the Byzantines were eager to please him and give them back. As punishment for their lack of loyalty, Attila had them all impaled, leaving them to suffer a gruesome death, suspended on spikes for up to two days before they finally perished.
1. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and Attila’s Subsequent Revenge
After Attila had successfully extorted literally the last penny from the Eastern Empire’s coffers, and its armies were all but spent, he realized there wouldn’t be any more sizable riches to be had there and turned his attention west. With his back now protected from the Byzantines he set on a campaign within the Western Roman Empire, sacking and pillaging towns in present-day Belgium and France. One after the other, the cities of Metz, Cambrai, Strasbourg, Rheims, Amiens and Worms all fell to the ruthless hand of Attila. In what can only be called a heroic last stand, a sizable force of former enemies banded together in order to put a halt to the seemingly unstoppable “Scourge of God.”
A large force of Romans, led by the previously mentioned Flavius Aetius, joined forces with their former rivals, the Visigoths, led by King Theodoric I, as well as another barbaric tribe, the Alans under King Sangiban, all putting their differences aside in order to defeat this common threat. Attila and his Huns weren’t alone, either. They were joined by previously subjugated peoples like the Ostrogoths, Gepids, Franks, Rugians, Sciri, Burgundians and Thuringians. The two mighty forces first encountered each other at the town of Orlans, where the Huns were already beginning to sack and pillage. As the “allies” charged, the Huns retreated east, to a more favorable location.
Historians still debate the exact location of the battle, but they all agree it took place somewhere between Troyes and Châlons, in Champagne, eastern France. The location is known as the Catalaunian Plains (Campi Catalauni in Latin). The terrain there was virtually flat, with the exception of a hill being the predominant landmark around. Both armies raced to get there first and take the advantage of higher ground. The Romans and Visigoths succeeded in acquiring it, and were able to fend off wave upon wave of Hunnic onslaught. Both sides suffered great losses, and in a moment of opportunity the Visigoth heavy cavalry charged down the hill, overwhelming the Huns and driving them back. Realizing the battle was lost, Attila retreated. By the end of the battle, the blood flowed like a river down the hill, and the Visigoth King had perished in the battle. However, this victory for the Romans and their allies ensured Western Europe would be spared from the savage Huns.
One year later, in 452 AD, Attila would mount another offensive, but this time for revenge. His target was the Italian Peninsula. He and his men crossed the Alps and began ransacking the cities of Aquileia, Padua, Verona and Mediolanum (Milan) in northwestern Italy. Now, legend has it that only his Holiness, Pope Leo I (the Great) himself was able to persuade the “Scourge of God” to spare the city of Rome and turn back home. But the more likely scenario would be that, already laden with treasure and due to the plagues gripping the region at the time, the Huns decided to turn back home of their own accord. Whatever the case, Attila would die of a severe nose bleed one year later, after a drunken stupor during his own wedding night, and his mighty and terrible kingdom would implode due to the many internal struggles for power. And with his death, the Huns disappeared from Europe as swiftly as they appeared, not 100 years prior.