A historical overview by Ian Wilson (Rated G)
“He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the rumors noised abroad concerning him. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action; mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants, and lenient to those who were once received under his protection. He was short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard was thin and sprinkled with gray. He had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion, revealing his origin.” (Jordanes, 102)
This is the only surviving description given to us of Attila the Hun. Jordanes was a historian of the Gothic peoples, who lived in the sixth century, two hundred years after the death of Attila, so his description may be disputed. Nevertheless, it’s what we have.
If this description is to be believed at all, Attila may have been of oriental origin; this is the theory of most mainstream scholars. It is believed that the name “Attila” was of Turkic origin, but again, this is just speculation, we don’t know what language the Huns spoke.
Many scholars have attempted to link the Huns to the Xiongnu tribe who attacked China during the Han dynasty, thus the erroneous presence of the Huns in the 1998 Disney film, Mulan. This theory, however, has mostly been dismissed by historians for lack of evidence. I believe the filmmakers of Mulan made the Huns the main antagonists because they would be more familiar to Western audiences. The Mongols would have been a much more likely opponent.
Jordanes posits another, very different theory of the Huns’ roots:
“We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae, after their departure from the island of Scandza…found among his people certain witches. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech. “
To Jordanes, the struggle against the Huns was a holy war against the demoniac forces of chaos. The Huns weren’t just savage, they were inhuman.
All that aside, there isn’t much we really know about the Huns. What little we do know is that the Huns, like many Asian steppe people, were adept on mounted warfare and deadly with the re-curve bow. They wore armor of leather treated with animal fat to make it more flexible and rain resistant. Their helmets were also of leather, but lined with steel and mail to protect their heads and necks. In close combat, they were skilled with the blade. They were renowned for their cruelty and cunning by all those who had this misfortune of encountering them.
The Huns were content to live at the outer edges of the Roman world for hundreds of years after they first appear in the historical record. But suddenly, in the 3rd and 4th century AD, they began spreading into Northern and Western Europe, pushing Germanic and Celtic tribes into Roman lands, where the Romans took them in and made them part of their border defenses.
The Huns eventually invaded the Roman territories of Thrace and Syria, destroying everything in their path. They had no central authority at this time; there were many divisions or tribes within the Huns, each relying on its own chieftain.
Eventually, two brothers, Attila and Bleda, rose to the top, becoming joint rulers of the Huns. Together they negotiated a treaty with the Romans, one which they had no intention of keeping. The brothers devastated Roman cities, even coming close to invading Constantinople itself. The Eastern Emperor was naive enough to believe Attila and Bleda would stay true to their word and was aghast when they didn’t. I’m sure the Goths could have warned him that would happen.
About that time, Bleda disappears from the historical record; most historians agree that Attila had him murdered. This left Attila on top as the head honcho of the Huns. In 451, Attila invaded what is now Eastern France, but was driven back by a combined force of Roman and Gothic forces. Not one to be disheartened by a single loss, Attila invaded Italy, where he experienced much greater success. He then returned to his home base on the Hungarian Plain. By this time, his empire stretched from Russia to France.
So where are the Huns now? After the death of Attila, the empire was divided between his three sons, who fought each other. The people they ruled over took advantage of the chaos, threw off the Hunnish yoke and carried out a savage vengeance on the Huns. Those who hadn’t been killed were absorbed into local populations and the Huns ceased to exist as a distinct culture by the late 4th century.
As quickly as the Attila and the Huns rose to power, they simply vanished, the empire they had built dying with them. This is a lesson for many who are alive today and seeing the rapid changes in our own world. As quickly as these people and institutions may rise to prominence, they can fall just as quickly, their place remembering them no more. Remember that if you are ever dismayed by the corruption in the headlines today.
(To be concluded next week)