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Huns

Updated on September 13, 2015

Huns were a Mongolian people who for more than 80 years (ending about 454 A.D.) profoundly affected the history of Europe. The ethnic upheavals caused by their arrival in Russia were largely responsible for the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire and the collapse of imperial authority in its western provinces.

The early history of the Huns is uncertain, but they are generally identified with the Hsiung-nu, nomads whom Chinese sources describe as originally living in the southern part of the Gobi and what is now Kansu province in China.

In the middle of the 4th century A.D. the Huns dominated a large area around the Aral Sea, and about 370 they crossed the Don River and subjugated the Ostrogothic kingdom in southern Russia. By 376 they had forced the Visigoths to retreat to the Danube.

Encroachments Upon Rome

At first the Huns showed no particular enmity to the Roman Empire, tending rather to provide recruits for its armies and, on occasion, to come to the aid of hard-pressed Roman generals. This phase ended with the accession of Bleda and Attila in 433. The Huns were by then masters of virtually the whole of what is now Germany and eastern Europe north of the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus. From this vast area they were able to demand ransom from the empire. An initial annual tribute from Rome of 700 pounds of gold was raised to 2,100 pounds after a series of expeditions (441-447) in which the Huns devastated the Balkans up to Constantinople and as far south as Thermopylae in Greece.

The Roman historian Priscus, who visited Attila's court as an envoy in 448, has left a vivid account of his journey through devastated territories. He also describes a great banquet at which he was present, where the dignity and sobriety of Attila stood out in sharp contrast to the barbaric splendor of the setting and the enthusiasm aroused among the guests by the' minstrels' warlike songs.

After their incursions into the Balkans the Huns turned to the west, but there they were less fortunate. When they invaded Gaul in 451 they were defeated by the Roman general Aetius, their former ally, and in 452 their invasion of Italy, in which they destroyed Aquileia, was halted near Lake Garda.

Decline

The Hunnic empire existed by war and plunder, lacking any institutions that might have made it permanent. Its one great ruler, Attila, relied heavily on Germanic advisers and had Roman renegades in his service; but he was head of no effective legal, judicial, or administrative system. After Attila died in 453, the Germanic peoples whom the Huns had hitherto dominated rose in revolt. Attila's eldest son, Ellac, was killed in 454 in the Battle of the Nedao, an unidentified river in Hungary, and the Hunnic empire disintegrated.

For the next hundred years various Hunnic groupings were heard of in the regions north of the Danube and the Black Sea, and Hunnic soldiers were found in the imperial service. But as a people they were gradually absorbed by the other tribes of the steppes and disappeared from history, leaving only a terrible reputation for destructiveness behind them.

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