The event which, more than any other, presaged the fall of the Roman Empire was the arrival of a group of the Huns in Eastern Europe, forcing many Germanic peoples to migrate southwards and westwards and setting off a chain reaction which could only end with the inundation of the Empire itself.
Those are the cold, historical facts. To the people of the time, however, these newcomers were to set new standards for savagery and terror. They became known, even to their barbarian enemies, as the 'Scourge of God'. To the Romans, they seemed the embodiment of Anti-Christ, and to herald the coming of the Apocalypse.
A tribe known as the Xiongnu existed in western China at the time of the Han Dynasty (the last two centuries BC). They divided into two groups, the smaller of which migrated southwards. The majority, however, went north-west in search of new homes. They found their way into the valley of the Volga and, in the second half of the Fourth Century, attacked the Alans (a people related to the Sarmatians, who lived between the Volga and the Don).
After routing the Alans, they then went on to conquer the Ostrogoths and drive the Visigoths westwards. Early in the Fifth Century, they seem to have been reinforced by fresh hordes, and had become so powerful that, by the time of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, the Romans felt obliged to pay them a substantial tribute. Still, the Hunnic Empire could not pose a serious threat to the Empire; its economy was too primitive, its internal divisions too great, and Hunnic skills in strategy and siege-craft too lacking to defeat a sophisticated, organised opponent.
By about 420 AD, however, a Hunnic Confederacy had been established, enriched by plunder and tribute, by the hiring out of mercenaries to the Romans, and by the extortion of what can only be called protection money. Their Empire stretched from the Baltic to the Caspian when, in 445, one of their two joint-rulers murdered his colleague and seized control of the Confederacy. The murdered man was named Bleda and his murderer was his own younger brother, Attila.
Attila reinforced his position by, it is said, digging up a rusty old sword and proclaiming it to be the Sword of Mars. The Empire he inherited was built on and sustained by booty; without a continual flow of plunder and tribute it could not survive. So it was that the God of War's chosen one launched an immediate invasion of Eastern Europe. This was in 447 AD, a time when the Empire was already suffering a series of natural catastrophes - earthquakes, pestilence and famine - and it is little wonder that the by now Christian Romans saw the Huns as the very Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The victories of this period may have more to do with Roman demoralisation than any inherent military superiority of the invaders. The Huns fought as horse archers, though their forces were much bolstered by the heavy cavalry of their Germanic subjects. In fact, the composition of the opposing armies would have been remarkably similar, with large numbers of Germans and even Huns to be found on both sides. The Roman Army of the time was little more than an assembly of allied or mercenary tribes, with barely an Italian amongst them.
During the next three years, Attila's men lived off the booty and tribute of the Eastern Empire before turning, in 450 AD, to the West. The Western Empire at this time was nominally ruled by the Emperor Valentinian III but was effectively controlled by the warlord, AŽtius. It was AŽtius who assembled a confederacy with which to confront the Hunnic threat. This was composed of Franks, Visigoths and his own Romano-Germanic army.
The two forces met in 451 at the great battle of the Catalaunian Fields, near Ch‚lons-sur-Marne. It was a brutal battle of little tactical subtlety, barbarian against barbarian, and by the end of the day AŽtius had the upper hand. He could have finished Attila once and for all but he did not. Knowing that, with the Huns destroyed, his Visigothic allies would overrun the whole of Gaul, he let the Huns escape. It was a judgment which the citizens of Italy would bitterly rue.
For Attila now led his horde across the mountains to Milan (Mediolanum), the Roman capital. He spread devastation across the whole of northern Italy and came to the walls of Rome itself. There is a story that Pope Leo persuaded Attila to spare the city and that the great king, in terror of the Cross, retreated. This, however, is Christian propaganda. The truth is that Attila had heard of a threat from the Eastern Empire and turned back to deal with it.
He planned to destroy Constantinople, and ensure that the Romans would remain in thrall to him forever. But in 453, lying in a drunken stupor, Attila suffered a nose bleed. The blood trickled down the back of his throat and choked him to death. For a man who had boasted that 'where my horse has trodden, no grass grows' it was a curiously anti-climactic death. The Empire he had created did not survive him.
With Attila dead, the Huns ceased to be a mortal threat to the Roman Empire - though the West never recovered and soon passed into the hands of the barbarians. Yet such was the mark left on men's minds that every subsequent wave of Asiatic invaders in the centuries to come were known to westerners are 'Huns' (even the Magyars, several centuries later, so that the realm they founded is known to this day as Hungary).
The remnants of Attila's Huns regrouped in south-eastern Europe, ruling over the Slavs of that region. These peoples were to found a new Empire which troubled the Byzantines for hundreds of years, and were known as the Bulgars.
Thanks to the efforts of Rien van de Wall, this page is now available in Dutch translation at http://users.pandora.be/vroege-middeleeuwen/hunnen.htm (Or just click on the flag).
Mark Furnival, 1999
This page was last updated on 10 August, 2002