History of the Huns

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The History of the Huns

     The Huns themselves were a people of mystery and terror. Arriving on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, riding their war horses out of the great steppes of Asia, they struck fear into Germanic barbarians and Romans alike. Some scholars believe that they had earlier moved against the Chinese Empire but were turned away and swept to wards Rome instead. As they approached the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths, they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire and caused the crisis that led to the astounding defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD.

     Those early Huns, using the traditional tactics of mounted archers, seemed like monsters from the darkness to their more civilized contemporaries. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the end of the fourth century, described their savage customs and elaborated on their military tactics:

     The nation of the Huns...surpasses all other barbarians in wildness of life....And though [the Huns] 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. I say half-raw, because they give it a kind of cooking by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses....

     When attacked, they will sometimes engage in regular battle. Then, going into the fight in order of columns, they fill the air with varied and discordant cries. More often, however, they fight in no regular order of battle, but by being extremely swift and sudden in their movements, they disperse, and then rapidly come together again in loose array, spread havoc over vast plains, and flying over the rampart, they pillage the camp of their enemy almost before he has become aware of their approach. It must be owned that they are the most terrible of warriors because they fight at a distance with missile weapons having sharpened bones admirably fastened to the shaft. When in close combat with swords, they fight without regard to their own safety, and while their enemy is intent upon parrying the thrust of the swords, they throw a net over him and so entangle his limbs that he loses all power of walking or riding.

     Obviously, when the Huns first appeared on the edges of the Roman Empire, they made a strong impression, but after their initial threats they settled down along the Danube, particularly in the Great Hungarian Plain, and for almost fifty years they served the Romans as allies more often than they attacked them as enemies. In return, the Eastern Emperor, beginning in the 420's, paid them an annual subsidy. On the whole, this uneasy relationship worked well although there were times when the Huns threatened to intervene directly in imperial affairs.