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A Gathering of the Huns
The Huns in Battle with the Alans, by Viennese artist Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880).

A Gathering of the Huns

In the seventh instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ Herbert Bushman describes how disparate Hunnic tribes coalesced into the unified force that would terrorize Europe.

· 15 min read

What follows is the seventh instalment of The So-Called Dark Ages, a serialized history of Late Antiquity, adapted from Herbert Bushman’s ongoing Dark Ages podcast. This instalment is the second dedicated to the Huns. The first five instalments, tracing the history of the Goths, may be found here.

Though the Huns were formidable at the time they first burst into Roman consciousness by driving the Goths south across the Danube, they were not yet a unified nation. While our historical knowledge of the Huns during this period is sketchy, it’s clear that in the 370s and 380s C.E., they still comprised a confederation of otherwise autonomous steppe tribes who’d banded together to plunder the riches controlled by their neighbors.

In this respect, the Huns were not so different from the Goths. But unlike the Huns, the Goths had a well-established tradition of investing overall authority in a single figure during times of crisis: the kindins, or judge. The Huns, on the other hand, seem to have made decisions by striking a consensus among independent chieftains. As discussed below, however, that would change during the fifth century, with the emergence of powerful leaders who’d begin to stitch together something resembling an empire.

The Huns were illiterate, so just about everything we know about them comes to us from outside sources. That means it’s somewhat difficult for the Huns to attract as much sympathy from modern readers as did the Goths, who had a number of later historians in their corner (as well as a more regular presence in the Roman military establishment).

The Huns must have had an oral tradition of some kind, as all peoples do. And the fifth-century Eastern Roman historian and diplomat Priscus would later refer to songs of praise being sung in Attila’s hall (though he provided no surviving details or transcripts). But otherwise, Greco-Roman writers seem to have been uninterested in recording the details of the Huns’ cultural life. So we’ll never know with certainty even basic information about their mythological universe, such as the name of the Hunnic war god, or their creation story.

The first Hun leader named in surviving historical sources is Uldin, who’s known to have died before 412 C.E. (In the last instalment, I mentioned an even earlier Hun leader named Balamber. But, as I also mentioned, he may well have been a fictional creation of Jordanes, one of those pro-Gothic historians I alluded to above.)

Uldin appeared around 400 C.E., at the westernmost edges of the Huns’ lands, in modern Romania. He’s first mentioned in connection to a Roman civil war, leading cavalry contingents working for Stilicho, who then commanded the Western Roman Empire’s legions.

And here, our Hun story starts to blur into the one I’ve already told about the Goths in the first arc of this series.

So-Called Dark Ages: Goths - Quillette
Quillette is an online magazine founded by Australian journalist Claire Lehmann. The magazine primarily focuses on science, technology, culture, and politics.

Remember Gainas, the Gothic general whom the first true king of the Goths, Alaric I, (grudgingly) served during his first stint in the Roman army? Gainas ended up being a key mover in the coup that briefly brought the eunuch Eutropius to power in the Eastern Roman Empire during the late 390s. Gainas and Eutropius divided authority, and together became the power behind the true Emperor, Arcadius, who was then still a teenager.

Eventually, Gainas attempted a coup of his own, gathering troops and moving against Eutropius. When that gambit failed, Gainas fled across the Danube, and sought help from Uldin. But the Hun king was having none of it. And he sent Arcadius a box containing Gainas’ head. Like the Romans and Alaric’s Visigoths, the Huns had no interest in seeing independent-minded Gothic warlords acting as regional military wildcards.

By the time Alaric sacked Rome in 410 C.E., these three powers—Roman, Goth, and Hun—were consistently in contact with one another. It was a period of what might be called realpolitik, with the three groups by turns negotiating with one another, maneuvering for advantage, and sometimes coming to blows. The times made for strange bedfellows, as it was common to find Huns serving as mercenaries all over the Empire, and Hunnic bodyguards became a regular sight in the retinues of powerful men.

Uldin’s big break came in 408 C.E., when Arcadius died and was replaced by his son Theodosius II, who’d just turned seven years old. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the succession, Anthemius, the Praetorian Prefect of the East (whose effective control spanned the latter years of Arcadius’ life and the first years of Theodosius II’s reign), moved troops from the Danube frontier to his eastern border with Persia. It turned out to be an unnecessary move, as a peace treaty would quickly be agreed to with the Persian King Yazdegerd I. But the thinly guarded Danube proved too much of a temptation for Uldin, who crossed with his army and captured Castra Martis, a Roman fortified garrison in modern Bulgaria, apparently by treachery.

A modern photo of Castra Martis’ ruins.

This gave Uldin a secure base from which to pillage at will throughout much of the Balkans. He became quite pleased with himself, and reportedly began to exhibit arrogant tendencies. When a Roman commander approached him with a peace proposal, Uldin famously pointed at the sun and declared that he could subjugate all the lands it illuminated if he so wished.

Anthemius responded to this threat by strengthening and extending the walls protecting Constantinople. These famous fortifications—which the Eastern Romans would successfully defend for centuries, long after the Huns’ empire had passed into history—are called the Theodosian Walls, but they were actually Anthemius’ creation. They would remain unconquered until the Ottomans brought cannons to bear on them in 1453 C.E.

A 2006 photo of a restored section of the Theodosian Walls.

For centuries, the central aim of Roman diplomatic strategy had been to play one enemy tribe (or potential enemy tribe) off another. By Uldin’s time, the Romans had learned that the Huns, while scary, were not a monolith. And so they began sending representatives to the chiefs of individual bands in Uldin’s army, offering leniency, bribes, or whatever else was necessary to stop the destruction and get Uldin back on the far side of the Danube.

These efforts were ultimately successful: Bit by bit, elements of Uldin’s forces slipped away, whether openly or covertly, who knows. The impression is that most left as small bands under their individual leaders, rather than in large blocks, so the losses came by gradual attrition. Eventually, Uldin looked up and discovered that his overwhelming force suddenly wasn’t so overwhelming.

In order to facilitate his exit, the Romans were prepared to be relatively generous. They agreed to pay Uldin an annual tribute. Hostages were also exchanged, including a teenager whom we met in an earlier instalment: Flavius Aetius (most commonly known to history readers simply as Aetius), who would go on to fill Stilicho’s shoes and become the Western Roman Empire’s last great military commander.

A Roman Trauma
In the fourth instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ podcaster Herbert Bushman describes the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410 C.E.

The Theodosian Walls weren’t the only improvement made to the Eastern Empire’s defenses during this period. Anthemius ordered the construction of new ships to patrol the Danube. Towns throughout the region improved their fortifications, and men were instructed to have weapons readily accessible at all times. (This seems to have been one reason why Gainas made little headway in his rebellion, as he was unable to seize a fortified base within the Empire’s borders for his own use.)

Uldin disappeared from the historical record after agreeing to terms with the Romans, and the years that followed 408 C.E. are the most mysterious of the Huns’ (already mysterious) history. However, though their power base was now confined to the area north of the Danube, freelancing Hunnic cavalry remained a fixture of Roman life. Recall an incident I described back in the fourth instalment, for instance, when the then-Western Emperor, Honorius, threatened to recruit 10,000 Huns with which to fight the rampaging Alaric.

Yet the presence of these Huns did nothing to soften Romans’ general attitudes. The Latin poet Claudian, a fixture at Honorius’ court, informed his audience with perfect seriousness that Huns sacrificed their parents when they grew old (with later writers adding that the elders were actually cannibalized). Our old friend Jordanes only allowed that the Huns were “a race almost of men” (my emphasis).

It’s easy for modern readers to shake their heads at this kind of bigotry. But when one considers that large swathes of the Balkans had been reduced to starvation by Hun raiders, and that almost every family in the region would have been affected in some way by these attacks, it becomes easier to understand the Roman point of view. Wives were raped, children were led off into slavery, food was stolen, churches were gutted.

The Christian church—which, as previously discussed, had been having at least some success converting the Goths—was undaunted by the Huns’ fierce reputation, and sent missionaries into their lands. Language was a problem, however. While it was fairly easy to find speakers of Gothic and the other Germanic tongues, the Huns’ language was wholly alien to Roman clergy, and only a handful managed to come to grips with it.

The most notable apostle to the Huns was Theotimus (now Saint Theotimus), the bishop of Tomi, in modern Romania. A biographer claims he won the Huns’ respect, and even performed a miracle or two while among them. But in terms of actual conversions, Theotimus did no better than any of his colleagues. A few optimists claimed that the Huns had at least stopped drinking human blood in anticipation of the day they might drink Christ’s blood—but there’s no definitive evidence that the Gospel had any real effect on any aspect of Hun behavior (including the type and quantity of blood they consumed).

Yet as fearsome and alien as the Huns were to most Romans, there would also have been ordinary people drawn to their ranks. As I mentioned in the last instalment, morale was low among many rank-and-file soldiers in the late Imperial Roman army. The common working people of the countryside also had their complaints: The wealthy dodged their taxes and the state made up the difference on the backs of the peasants. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of these people joined the invaders in their plundering, or simply exploited the chaos caused by the Huns to strike out on their own as bandits and rebels.

In historical sources from this period, the word bagaudae appears frequently—a broad term that included rebels, runaway slaves, and localized bandits. The Greek historian Zosimus would later describe these Romans, who’d “abandoned their posts,” as taking on a fake Hun identity as a means to strike greater fear into their opponents. The bagaudae seem to have been a widespread problem during this period, as even the Visigoths found themselves in conflict with them once they’d settled in Aquitaine.

Pillards Gaulois (Gallic Pillagers) by French painter Évariste-Vital Luminais (1821-1896).

In the process of their westward migrations and invasions during the fifth century, the Huns pushed—or dragged—dozens of groups with them, creating a chain of events that would have cataclysmic consequences for the Roman Empire and Europe more generally. As noted above, the early years of this process remain historically obscure. But we do know that the Huns had crossed Central Europe’s Carpathian mountains, and were in control of the Hungarian Plain, by 420 C.E. These areas, formerly the home of the Tervingian Goths, provided lush grasslands for the Huns’ herds.

Wikipedia-published map showing the main axis of Hunnic migration/invasion patterns between 158 and 451 C.E.

One point I should make here is that the Huns didn’t full-on replace the former residents of these lands—a false impression that’s easy to get from colour-coded maps that show the expansion of the Hunnic empire.

Like the other steppe-based empires that would follow them, the Huns didn’t have the numbers to completely repopulate the lands they conquered. Instead, the elite layers of the invaded society would be skimmed off and replaced with new Hunnic overlords, while the commoners remained in place. And even the leaders of vanquished Goth tribes weren’t always purged, as indicated by surviving lists of Atilla’s various supporters and sub-commanders, which include several names that are clearly Gothic in origin.

Generally speaking, the stories of the Goths and Huns would remain closely intertwined during the first half of the fifth century. In this regard, it’s important to remember that, despite all the time we spent with Alaric and his westward-marching Visigothic followers during the first arc of this series, that group constituted only a small part of the Gothic people. A huge number, probably the vast majority, had remained on the north side of the Danube, where they now had to adapt to life under new (Hunnic) management.

The Goths whose society developed under these conditions—which is to say, outside of the late Roman Empire—are the ones whom historians dubbed Ostrogoths (following on the proto-Germanic austra, meaning east). Their historical turn it far from complete, and we’ll come back to them in a future arc. But for now, as we focus on the Huns, I’ll briefly note that many of the Ostrogothic warriors took on roles as intermediaries between the Huns and their new subjects in eastern and central Europe.

As the Huns consolidated their rule, moreover, Gothic influences would shape their army: Uldin’s raids, which formerly had been conducted by exclusively horse-mounted fighters, now featured supporting contingents of infantry. The Huns were learning to deploy mixed forces effectively, thereby making themselves even more formidable on the battlefield.

Another development that seems to have been taking place in Hunnic society during this period is social stratification. Before their westward migration into Europe commenced, the average Hun would have lived in desperate poverty—as evidenced by surviving descriptions of their clothing, leather, and linen, which they wore until it rotted off their bodies. In a society such has this, which has next to nothing, there’s little incentive for the development of complex social hierarchies. Tribes would have leaders, yes, and maybe even hereditary chiefs. But in material terms, there wouldn’t have been that much difference between a chief and any other Hun.

That began to change as the Huns conquered the Goths—whose growing wealth likely had incentivized their original westward raiding in the first place—and then accelerated as the Huns made contact with the Empire.

Now there were local farmers who would deliver food when they were commanded to do so. And there were craftsmen providing goods in abundance beyond anything the Huns could have traded for or plundered on the steppe—including saddles, fine cloth, worked leather, and weapons. And across the river, in Roman lands, there was gold to be had.

Some Hun chiefs were more successful than others. Their raids brought more goods, and so more men were drawn to them, thereby giving them the resources to conduct still more bountiful raids. Strong bands could even sell their services to Roman generals. Tribes began to coalesce under the leadership of fewer and fewer leaders, and beneath them emerged a wealth- and status-stratified society.

But this process, in turn, sowed the seeds of rebellion, as the concentration of wealth and power gave ambitious men something to fight over.

Unfortunately, the process by which power came to be consolidated in Hunnic society is, like many other parts of Hun history, somewhat obscure. There was at least one Roman who could have provided us with a detailed account of Hun politics during this period—the aforementioned Aetius, who lived among the Huns for at least five years. Alas, he doesn’t seem to have kept a diary, and history is much the poorer for it.

We do know that, once Uldin left the stage, there was a Hun leader named Charaton, a real historical figure who died in 420 C.E. Two years later, Huns staged a major invasion of Thrace, led by two brothers—Octar and Rugila—who controlled the last and largest of the Hunnic confederations. In an arrangement that mirrored the (by then) longstanding binary division of the Roman Empire, Octar ruled in the west, Rugila in the East. The latter was successful enough that the then-Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, agreed to provide the Huns with an annual tribute payment of more than 250 pounds of gold.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that throughout just about all of these invasion and raids, trade continued to flow across the Roman Empire’s borders. In fact, a lot of the violent raiding can be seen as a hardball tactic intended to force more favorable trade policies. And since the Romans were the only trading partner who could supply the Huns with high-quality finished merchandise in volume, a large portion of Theodosius’ tribute payments to the Huns would eventually work its way back into the Empire’s economy.

In the long term, then, these payments were not necessarily as economically burdensome to the Romans as they may seem at first blush—at least, not at this early stage.

Am I foreshadowing? Why, yes I am.

While Rugila was wringing gold out of the eastern half of the Empire, he and his brother were also hip-deep in Roman politics in the west. This was thanks to the machinations of the Roman general Aetius, who would reveal himself to be a cynical operator when it came to foreign policy.

Upon the death of the Western Roman Emperor Honorius in 423 C.E., Aetius, still in this thirties, raised a force of 10,000 Hunnic cavalry from Octar and Rugila, to fight on behalf of Joannes, a pretender to the throne. Unfortunately, Joannes was executed just a few days before Aetius could return to Italy with his newly recruited Huns. The new Western Emperor was Honorius’ six-year-old nephew, Valentinian III—the son of our old friend Galla Placidia (who was, for now, the power behind the throne).  

A Roman gold coin depicting Joannes (r. 423-425 C.E.), produced during his brief reign as Western Roman Emperor.

This led to at least two awkward questions. First, what was Aetius supposed to do with his Huns now that the usurper they’d been hired to support was dead? And second—assuming the answer to the first question did not involve a coup d’état—what was Placidia supposed to do with Aetius?

In the end, Aetius was named commander-in-chief of all Roman forces in Gaul. Gaul was a mess, and not just because it was crawling with Visigoths. The northern provinces were barely under Roman control, as the Franks and local aristocrats both were seeking greater autonomy. The Burgundians had carved out their own kingdom along the upper Rhine. And there were bagaudae running riot all over the place. If Placidia could remove Aetius from Rome, while also getting those Huns to clean up Rome’s Gallic mess as part of the bargain, that would be a double win.

Good to his word, Aetius left Rome with his Huns and made quick work of the Burgundians—whose kingdom was finished off with a notorious act of genocidal slaughter that became legendary in Germanic literature (and to which I’ll return in a future instalment). The surviving Burgundians were scooped up and settled in what is now Savoy, where they were allowed to keep their own king.

As payback for the Huns’ subjugation of the Burgundians, an appreciative Aetius seems to have ceded them Pannonia Prima, an ancient Roman province that combined parts of modern-day Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and Slovakia. The deal was unprecedented: This was no mere foedus-style arrangement whereby the Huns would remain beholden to Roman sovereignty—but rather a straight-up giveaway of Roman territory to a barbarian power.

It should be said that the timeline isn’t really clear on this deal. In fact, I can’t find a source that proves there was an explicit quid pro quo at play. But the idea that the Huns were being rewarded for military services makes the most sense.

Nor would this be the last time that Aetius made use of Hun auxiliaries. In the 420s and 430s C.E., Hunnic mercenaries appeared regularly as mobile enforcers working on behalf of Aetius and the Romano-Gallic aristocracy seeking to reestablish their authority in Gaul.

After the death of Octar, Rugila became sole ruler of the Huns—as far as we can tell, the first person to indisputably hold that position. He mostly interacted with the eastern half of the Roman Empire, sending diplomatic missions to Constantinople fairly regularly.

The most commonly contested issue at play seems to have been the status of fugitives who’d fled into Roman territory. The Romans were reluctant to return such fugitives to the Huns—both for practical reasons (because they were useful as soldiers) and on humanitarian grounds, as some had converted to Christianity. Rugila seems to have gotten his way, however. The fugitives were returned to him, and at least some of them were immediately crucified. (The annual tribute payment was also doubled.)

Just as a unified Gothic nation on Rome’s borders had been an existential problem, so, too, was a unified Hunnic nation. Raiding would continue into the Eastern Empire, always when the legions were otherwise disposed. There were major incursions in 422 C.E., and again in 435 C.E. It seemed that Rugila could do as he pleased.

Theodosius II, who was an adult by the time these latter raids took place, supposedly prayed to be rid of this problem. And the story goes that he was rewarded when the Hun ruler was killed by a thunderbolt in the great tradition of old-fashioned divine smiting—a disaster that was accompanied by plague and infighting among the Huns.

The story about the thunderbolt is obviously quite dubious, and likely was concocted as a means to burnish Theodosius’ status as a divinely blessed figure. But it does appear that Rugila truly died around 435 C.E., whereupon he was succeeded by his two nephews, Bleda and his younger brother Atilla.

Yes, that Atilla. If Rugila’s death truly had been the answer to an Emperor‘s prayer, there can be no better example of that famous adage, “be careful what you wish for.”


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