In 378 AD the Roman Empire suffered one of the most ignominious defeats in its long history with the annihilation of Emperor Valens' army at the hands of Fritigern’s Goths at Adrianople. It was a defeat in which the emperor himself perished. The Goths themselves however had of course been seeking refuge in imperial lands; fleeing from an even greater menace.
The dreaded Huns
On the River Dniester some years before, far from the Roman frontier, the Gothic tribe of the Greuthungi had suffered their own crushing defeat in which two of their kings had fallen in battle. The Greuthungi had come under attack from a barbarian people who had exploded out of the Eastern Steppe and who seemed utterly unstoppable. These were the Huns; fierce nomadic tribesmen who practically lived in the saddle and were peerless in the art of fighting on horseback. They are described in Roman sources as being barely human; hideously ugly, bow legged from a lifetime on horseback and dressed in filthy, reeking clothes which were made improbably from the skins of mice. No one knew where the Huns had come from since that part of the known world from which they had appeared was a blank on the map. It has been suggested that they were descended from the Xiongnu; a fearsome nomadic people who had so terrorised the Chinese some centuries before that they had inspired the construction of the original Great Wall.
Whilst the Romans and even the Goths were happy to dismiss the Huns as savages, they soon learned to respect their martial prowess. In around 350 the Huns had crossed the Volga, initially in small raiding parties and then in greater numbers. They had smashed the power of the nomadic Alans who were tough warriors in their own right; sending them fleeing westwards. Now the Huns were moving into the territory of the Goths. Athanaric the leader of the Tervingi; another Gothic tribe who neighboured the Greuthungi to their west, had attempted to stand and fight but was driven back to the old defensive lines which had once protected the Roman province of Dacia. Still the Huns came on.
The Huns were a pastoral people accustomed to survival in the unforgiving environment of the Eastern Steppe and they were self-sufficient and hardy. From early childhood, every Hunnic boy would learn the skills essential to a life of driving livestock from one place to another and of hunting and raiding. He would learn to ride almost before he could walk and soon after would begin to learn to use a bow so that by the time he reached adulthood he would be an expert horseman and archer.
The Hunnic bow was the most powerful yet seen. It was a compound recurve bow with an unusual asymmetric design being shorter at the bottom to allow it to be used more easily from horseback. Based on the best efforts of modern re-enactment, Hunnic warriors could fire perhaps as many as thirty arrows per minute from horseback at speed. An army facing the Huns in battle would find itself facing a maelstrom of galloping horsemen who would fire arrow after arrow into their lines as they rode along them before wheeling away to resupply from carts in the Hunnic rear. Fresh horsemen would then take their place and continue the deadly hail of iron tipped shafts which were sent whistling through the air with enough power to pierce armour from a range at which their enemies’ counter fire was barely effective. The modern historian John Man has calculated that a force of a thousand Huns fighting in this way could unleash a rate of fire of twelve thousand shots per minute. The peoples whom they faced simply had nothing to match that kind of firepower. At close quarters the Huns employed the skills learned in rounding up horses on the steppe and wielded lassoes with which they ensnared their opponents before running them through with the sword.
With large numbers of Goths driven into imperial territory, where they would continue to have a cataclysmic impact culminating in Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, the way was clear for the Huns to become the major power in the lands beyond the Danube. The disparate Hunnic groups under their own leaders and the Germanic populations who had chosen to remain in their lands and become subjects of the Huns rather than take their chances as migrants had been gradually drawn into the gravitational pull of an increasingly powerful and proportionally shrinking number of Hunnic warlords. This dog eat dog process of absorption of the weaker by the stronger continued towards its logical conclusion until the entire vast domain of the Huns, stretching from the shores of the Black Sea to the banks of the Elbe, was controlled by just two men who happened to be brothers. Their names were Attila and Bleda. The fact that Bleda the Hun is not a household name suggests his likely fate at the hands of his more famous brother.
Attila the Hun
The Hunnic Empire under Attila and Bleda operated as a giant protection racket. The Huns threatened to smash up the Danube provinces of the eastern empire unless the level of yearly tribute previously agreed with their Uncle Rua, who had bequeathed them their empire, was doubled from three hundred to seven hundred pounds of gold. The Romans agreed to this and then the Huns attacked anyway. Unlike previous barbarian invaders the Huns had mastered the siege craft necessary to take walled cities and had now added rams, towers and scaling ladders to their fearsome military repertoire. The cities of Margus, Vimanaceum, Sirmium, Constantia and Singidunum which is now Belgrade were all taken, plundered and reduced to smouldering rubble. Their people were led away into slavery. In the peace agreement of 442 which was concluded outside the blackened ruins of Margus where the whitening bones of the slaughtered still lay scattered over the ground, the Romans agreed to a further doubling of the tribute to fourteen hundred pounds of gold. The Huns did not even bother to dismount during the negotiations.
Two years later Attila disposed of his brother and assumed sole control of operations. Dispensing the vast quantities of loot from the eastern empire with great largesse he kept the leaders of his subject peoples on side with gifts of fine clothes, silver plate and elaborate weapons. As the Huns still lived an essentially nomadic existence there was not really much else to spend it all on, although one of Attila’s deputies had himself a Roman bath house constructed at one of the permanent royal settlements that Attila had established throughout his domains. Attila himself preferred substance to style and affected a simplicity in his dress and possessions, leaving it to his followers to outdo each other with bling. Like any good gangster Attila the Hun rewarded loyalty with generosity and swiftly eliminated any whom he had reason to suspect. Under the terms of the treaty, the Romans were obliged to return any of his subjects who sought asylum in their lands to face an immediate and nasty death by impalement. Like all successful empire builders Attila understood that fear and violence, magnanimity and generosity were all tools to be employed as the situation demanded. He kept the leaders of his subject peoples close by him, as honoured members of his inner circle, where he could keep an eye on them.
In 447 Attila was obliged to march into the eastern empire once again when the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II suspended tribute payments. This time the Huns raided as far south as Thermopylae and even threatened the walls of Constantinople itself although the mighty land walls, which had been hurriedly shored up following an earthquake, were formidable enough to deter the Huns. Two heavy defeats in the field and the destruction of more cities soon persuaded Theodosius to resume payments. Predictably, the amount of tribute demanded by Attila was again doubled.
Determined to free the empire from the menace of Attila, the imperial chamberlain in Constantinople; a eunuch by the name of Chrysaphius, decided to employ some gangster tactics of his own. Taking aside a member of a Hunnic delegation, Chrysaphius attempted to bribe one of Attila’s most trusted henchmen to arrange the murder of his master whilst accompanying Roman diplomats on an embassy to the Huns. This plan backfired spectacularly as the would-be assassin agreed to the plot but then reported the Romans’ intentions immediately to Attila upon his return. The Roman delegation’s translator was apprehended by the Huns whilst bringing the money to pay for the hit. Having caught the Romans red handed Attila enjoyed the moment; dispatching an embassy to Constantinople to publically castigate Theodosius in his own court, admonishing him as an unworthy and dishonourable vassal who had raised his hand against his rightful lord.
In 450 the weak willed Theodosius II died and was succeeded by his Master of Soldiers Marcian who strengthened his claim to the purple by marrying Theodosius’ sister Pulcheria, who had always been the power behind her brother’s throne. The more militarily minded Marcian immediately declared that gold was for his friends whilst iron was for his enemies. There would be no more payments made to the Huns. Attila, ever the opportunist, decided that he had milked the eastern empire for long enough and that easier pickings could be found by now turning against the poorly defended west rather than by picking a fight with the defiant Marcian. Attila had an interesting pretext for making war on the west, for he had received an offer of marriage from the Princess Honoria, the sister of Western Emperor Valentinian III.
Valentinian was another weak willed emperor who had initially been dominated by his mother, the formidable empress Galla Placidia and then presided as little more than a figure head as a trio of warlords divided up responsibility for the governance and protection of the western empire, although predictably they had soon fallen to fighting amongst themselves.
The man who eventually prevailed in this struggle to become de facto leader and protector of the west was Flavius Aetius. Aetius was well connected in barbarian circles, having spent time as a boy as a political hostage to both the Goths and the Huns. He was appointed initially to the Gallic command where he faced barbarian incursions on all fronts and where the footprint of Roman imperial control was steadily shrinking. The south-west had been gifted to the Visigoths whilst in Brittany a rebel state now existed where the locals had taken matters into their own hands and no longer recognised the sovereignty of Rome. To the north the Franks had occupied the Belgic provinces and on the Rhine frontier another Germanic group known as the Burgundians were encroaching onto Roman territory. Aetius thus had plenty to keep him busy and scant resources with which to defend his patch. As a result he relied heavily on his connections amongst the Huns in order to bolster his forces with large numbers of Hunnic mercenaries. These additional troops proved a decisive advantage, allowing Aetius to keep his various enemies at bay. He had been powerless however to prevent the loss of Roman North Africa to the predations of the Vandals under their swashbuckling king Gaiseric. In 439 the Vandals had taken Carthage and the rich province of Africa Proconsularis had been lost. This was a disaster which constituted a very large nail in the coffin of the Western Roman Empire.
Getting back to Honoria; having found her freedom curtailed following a series of scandalous liaisons culminating in an embarrassing pregnancy, the princess wrote to Attila; sending him a ring and imploring him to rescue her. This improbable turn of fortune prompted Attila to demand that Valentinian should hand over his sister to be the latest bride of the King of the Huns along with half of the remaining territory of the western empire by way of a dowry. Naturally Valentinian refused and so the Huns and the Western Romans prepared for war.
In 451 a vast force of Huns and allied peoples, which the Romano-Gothic historian Jordanes describes as being an unbelievable half a million strong, began marching on Gaul. They drove up the Moselle Valley, bypassing heavily fortified Trier and sacking Metz. As the Huns spilled out on to the plain of Champagne, Aetius desperately organised a coalition of Romans, Goths, Franks and Burgundians in order to resist the invader who was an enemy feared equally by them all.
By mid-June Attila had laid siege to the large and prosperous city of Orleans whilst the defenders desperately looked to the south for the approach of Aetius’ coalition. When the Roman and Gothic army appeared, Attila decided to retreat and retraced his steps eastwards towards Troyes. Here his forces ran into a contingent of advancing Franks and following heavy fighting which the Huns had the worst of, they made a fortified camp from their circled wagons in an area known as the Catalaunian Plains.
Battle of Catalaunian Plains
Here Aetius caught up with the Huns and battle was joined. Both sides raced to claim an area of high ground in the centre of the battlefield, with the Visigothic cavalry reaching it first and driving off the Huns. The Hunnic cavalry then unleashed their storm of arrows against the advancing allies who somehow stood up to the battering and kept coming on. The battle was now a clash of infantry between the various allied contingents in the Hunnic force and those fighting under Roman colours. On Attila’s side were Goths, Rugi, Scirians, Gepids and those Franks who supported Attila’s preferred claimant to their disputed throne rather than Aetius’ man.
Battle raged until darkness fell and men could no longer identify each other in the gloom and ended with Aetius’ forces as masters of the field and the Huns driven back inside their circle of wagons. Somewhere in the confusion King Theodoric of the Visigoths was struck by a spear and as he fell from his horse was trampled under the hooves of friend and foe.
As dawn broke on the Catalaunian Plains Attila prepared to face the final onslaught of his enemies. He ordered a great pyre to be made from saddles and resolved to burn alive if his camp fell to the enemy. He was spared so dramatic an end however as the Visigoths came across the body of their fallen king in a heap of corpses and the threat of a succession crisis prompted them to return to Aquitaine. The Franks were similarly preoccupied and also retired and Attila was permitted to slip away to friendly territory. Aetius let him go, appreciating perhaps that the dreaded Hun was of more use to him alive than dead, given the foreboding he inspired amongst the other groups who threatened the west.
Attila however was not done yet and in the following year he once more led his forces onto Roman soil, this time invading Italy itself. The northern city of Aquileia was subjected to a typically brutal sack and Attila next contemplated the inviting target of Rome itself. Disease had broken out in his army however and supplies were short. Already laden with plunder, he decided to withdraw. This at any rate is a more plausible reason for his withdrawal than the intercession of Pope Leo I, who is credited with persuading the man the western church had dubbed the ‘Scourge of God’ to spare the city of Rome. Whatever the reason, the Romans had been given another reprieve.
Attila meets the Pope
A year later came news of the biggest let off of all for Attila was dead. He had expired on his wedding night. Having just deflowered his latest teenage bride and sozzled with alcohol, the King of the Huns suffered a nosebleed and choked upon his own blood in his sleep. It has to be admitted that by the standards of the time this was a pretty good way to go.
The demise of its most formidable enemy was not enough to prevent the continuing collapse of the western empire. The foolish Valentinian III, jealous of Aetius’ talents and suspicious of his ambition, murdered the western empire’s most effective defender in 454. Unusually the emperor did his own dirty work and cut the unsuspecting Aetius down with his sword during an audience. Valentinian was then himself killed in reprisal by officers loyal to Aetius within a year of the deed. His passing marked the end of the Theodosian dynasty which had ruled in both east and west for over sixty years and left the western empire destabilised and vulnerable as enemies closed in from all sides.
As for the Huns, the death of Attila led to the rapid disintegration of his empire which it seemed had only been held together by the force of his personality. Within a year of his death a major battle took place on the River Nedao in modern Hungary in which an alliance under the King of the Gepids defeated the Huns under the command of Attila’s son Ellac and shattered Hunnic control over the various peoples settled along the Danube. Whilst bands of Huns would continue to serve as mercenaries in the wars of the Roman Empire, spreading terror wherever they went, their own days of empire were alas, or perhaps thankfully, at an end.
Priscus' account of the embassy to Attila
Jordanes' account of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields
I was lazy for this article and reused material from my own book The Battles are the Best Bits, but if you liked it please check out the book.
You may also enjoy my Enemies at the Gate series of posts
You may also enjoy my Enemies at the Gate series of posts