Attack of the Huns

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The Huns

History of the Later Roman Empire by J. B. Bury Published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1923

The nomad hordes, known to history as the Huns, who in the reign of Valens appeared west of the Caspian, swept over southern Russia, subjugating the Alans and the Ostrogoths, and drove the Visigoths from Dacia, seem to have belonged to the Mongolian division of the great group of races which includes also the Turks, the Hungarians, and the Finns.27 It is probable that for many generations the Huns had established their pastures near the Caspian and Aral lakes. It is almost certain that political events in northern and central Asia, occasioning new movements of nomadic peoples, drove them westward; and the rise of the Zhu‑zhu, who were soon to extend their dominion from Corea to the borders of Europe, about the middle of the fourth century, is probably the explanation. As rulers of Tartar Asia, the Zhu‑zhu succeeded the Sien‑pi, and the Sien‑pi were the successors of the Hiung‑nu. It is supposed that the name Huns is simply a Greek corruption of Hiung‑nu; and this may well be so. The designation (meaning "common slaves") was used by the Chinese for all the Asiatic nomads. But the immediate events which precipitated the Huns into Europe had nothing directly to do with the collapse of the Hiung‑nu power which had occurred in the distant past.28

The nomad life of the Altaic peoples in central Asia was p102 produced by the conditions of climate. The word nomad, which etymologically means a grazer, is often loosely used to denote tribes of unsettled wandering habits. But in the strict and proper sense nomads are pastoral peoples who have two fixed homes far apart and migrate regularly between them twice a year, like migratory birds, the nomads of the air. In central Asia, northern tracts which are green in the summer supply no pasturage in winter, while the southern steppes, in the summer through drought uninhabitable, afford food to the herds in winter. Hence arises the necessity for two homes. Thus nomads are not peoples who roam promiscuously all over a continent, but herdsmen with two fixed habitations, summon and winter pasture-lands, between which they might move for ever, if they were allowed to remain undisturbed and if the climatic conditions did not change.29 Migrations to new homes would in general only occur if they were driven from their pastures by stronger tribes.

The structure of Altaic society was based on kinship. Those who lived together in one tent formed the unit. Six to ten tents formed a camp, and several camps a clan. The tribe consisted of several clans, and the highest unit, the il or people, of several tribes. In connexion with nomads we are more familiar with the word "horde". But the horde was no ordinary or regular institution. It was only an exceptional and transitory combination of a number of peoples, to meet some particular danger or achieve some special enterprise; and when the immediate purpose was accomplished, the horde usually dissolved again into its independent elements.

Milk products are the main food of most of these nomade tribes. They may eke out their sustenance by fishing and hunting, but they seldom eat the flesh of their herds. Their habits have always been predatory. Persia and Russia suffered for centuries from their raids, in which they lifted not only cattle but also men, whom they sent to the slave markets.


The successive immigrations of nomads into Europe, of the ancient Scythians, of the Huns, and of all those who came after them, were due, as has already been intimated, to the struggle for existence in the Asiatic steppes, and the expulsion of the p103 weakest. Those who were forced to migrate "with an energetic Khan at their head, who organised them on military lines, such a horde transformed itself into an incomparable army, compelled by the instinct of self-preservation to hold fast together in the midst of the hostile population which they subjugated; for however superfluous a central government may be in the steppe, it is of vital importance to a conquering nomad horde outside it."30 These invading hordes were not numerous; they were esteemed by their terrified enemies far larger than they actually were. "But what the Altaian armies lacked in numbers was made up for by their skill in surprises, their fury, their cunning, mobility, and elusiveness, and the panic which preceded them and froze the blood of all peoples. On their marvellously fleet horses they could traverse immense distances, and their scouts provided them with accurate local information as to the remotest lands and their distances. Add to this the enormous advantage that among them even the most insignificant news spread like wildfire from aul to aul by means of voluntary couriers surpassing any intelligence department, however well organised."31 The fate of the conquered populations was to be partly exterminated, partly enslaved, and sometimes transplanted from one territory to another, while the women became a prey to the lusts of the conquerors. The peasants were so systematically plundered that they were often forced to abandon the rearing of cattle and reduced to vegetarianism. This seems to have been the case with the Slavs.32

Such was the horde which swept into Europe in the fourth century, encamped in Dacia and in the land between the Theiss and Danube, and held sway over the peoples in the south Russian steppes, the Ostrogoths, Heruls, and Alans.33

For fifty years after their establishment north of the Danube, we hear little of the Huns. They made a few raids into the Roman provinces, and they were ready to furnish auxiliaries, from time to time, to the Empire. At the time of the death of Theodosius they were probably regarded as one more barbarian p104 enemy, neither more nor less formidable than the Germans who threatened the Danubian barrier. We may conjecture that the organisation of the horde had fallen to pieces soon after their settlement in Europe.34 No one could foresee that after a generation had passed Rome would be confronted by a large and aggressive Hunnic empire.

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