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Hunnic Empire was an empire founded by the Huns. The Huns were a confederation of Eurasian tribes, in the main probably speaking a Turkic language, but likely with elements of other linguistic groups, from the steppes of Central Asia. Appearing from beyond the Volga River some years after the middle of the 4th century, they first overran the Alani, who occupied the plains between the Volga and the Don rivers, and then quickly overthrew the empire of the Ostrogoths between the Don and the Dniestermarker. About 376 they defeated the Visigoths living in what is now approximately Romaniamarker and thus arrived at the Danubian frontier of the Roman Empire. Their mass migration into Europe, led by Attila, brought with it great ethnic and political upheaval.


The origins of the Huns that swept through Europe during the 4th Century remain unclear. However, mainstream historians consider them as a group of nomadic tribes from Central Asia with mixed origin. The Huns were probably ethnically diverse, due to an ethnogenesis process of assimilation. Gothic seems to have been used as a lingua franca.

Early campaigns

Ancient accounts suggest that the Huns had settled in the lands north-west of the Caspian Seamarker as early as the 4th Century. By the later half of the century, about 370, the Caspian Huns mobilized, destroying a tribe of Alans to their west. Pushing further westward the Huns ravaged and destroyed an Ostrogothic kingdom. In 395, a Hun raid across the Caucasus mountains devastated Armeniamarker, there they captured Erzurummarker, besieged Edessamarker and Antiochmarker, even reaching Tyremarker in Syriamarker.

In 408, the Hun Uldin invaded the Eastern Roman province of Moesia but his attack was checked and Uldin was forced to retreat.


For all their early exploits, the Huns were still politically too disunited to stage a serious campaign. Rather than an empire, the Huns were more a confederation of tribes.

From 420, a chieftain named Oktar began to weld the disparate Hunnic tribes under his banner. He was succeeded by his brother, Rugila who became the leader of the Hun confederation, uniting the Huns into a cohesive group with a common purpose. He lead them into a campaign in the Western Roman Empire, through an alliance with Roman General Aetius. This gave the Huns even more notoriety and power. He planned a massive invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire in the year 434, but died before his plans could come to fruition. His heirs to the throne were his nephews, Bleda and Attila, who ruled in a dual kingship. They divided the Hunnic lands between them, but still regarded the empire as a single entity.

Under the Dual Kingship

Attila and Bleda were as ambitious as king Ruga. They forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus, giving the Huns (amongst other things) trade rights and an annual tribute from the Romans. With their southern border protected by the terms of this treaty, the Huns could turn their full attention to the further subjugation of tribes to the east.

However, when the Romans failed to deliver the agreed tribute, and other conditions of the Treaty of Margus were not met, both Hunnic kings turned their attention back to the Eastern Romans. Reports that the Bishop of Margus had crossed into Hun lands and desecrated royal graves further incensed the kings. War broke out between the two empires, and the Huns capitalized on a weak Roman army to raze the cities of Margus, Singidunummarker and Viminaciummarker. Although a truce was signed in 441, war resumed two years later with another failure by the Romans to deliver the tribute. In the following campaign, Hun armies came alarmingly close to Constantinople, sacking Sardica, Arcadiopolismarker and Philippopolis along the way. Suffering a complete defeat at the Battle of Chersonesus, the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II gave in to Hun demands and the Peace of Anatolius was signed in autumn 443. The Huns returned to their lands with a vast train full of plunder.

In 445, Bleda died, leaving Attila the sole ruler of the Hun Empire.

As Attila's empire

With his brother gone and as the only ruler of the united Huns, Attila possessed undisputed control over his subjects. In 447, Attila turned the Huns back toward the Eastern Roman Empire once more. His invasion of the Balkans and Thrace was devastating, with one source citing that the Huns razed 70 cities . The Eastern Roman Empire was already beset from internal problems, such as famine and plague, as well as riots and a series of earthquakes in Constantinoplemarker itself. Only a last-minute rebuilding of its walls had preserved Constantinople unscathed. Victory over a Roman army had already left the Huns virtually unchallenged in Eastern Roman lands and only disease forced a retreat, after they had conducted raids as far south as Thermopylaemarker.

The war finally came to an end for the Eastern Romans in 449 with the signing of the Third Peace of Anatolius.

Throughout their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns had still maintained good relations with the Western Empire, this was due in no small part to a friendship with Flavius Aetius, a powerful Roman general (sometimes even referred to as the de facto ruler of the Western Empire) who had spent some time with the Huns. However, this all changed in 450 when Honoria, sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, sent Attila a ring and requested his help to escape her betrothal to a senator. Although it is not known whether Honoria intended this as a proposal of marriage to Attila, that is how the Hun King interpreted it. He claimed half the Western Roman Empire as dowry. To add to the failing relations, a dispute arose between Attila and Aetius about the rightful heir to the kingdom of the Salian Franks. Finally, the repeated raids on the Eastern Roman Empire had left it with little to plunder.

In 451, Attila's forces entered Gaul, with his army recruiting from the Franks, Goths and Burgundian tribes en route. Once in Gaul, the Huns first attacked Metzmarker, then his armies continued westwards, passing both Parismarker and Troyesmarker to lay siege to Orleansmarker.

Aetius was given the duty of relieving Orleansmarker by Emperor Valentinian III. Bolstered by Frankish and Visigothic troops (under King Theodoric), Aetius' own Roman army met the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains also known as the Battle of Chalons. Although a tactical defeat for Attila, thwarting his invasion of Gaul and forcing his retreat back to non-Roman lands, the macrohistorical significance of the allied and Roman victory is a matter of debate.

The following year, Attila renewed his claims to Honoria and territory in the Western Roman Empire. Leading his horde across the Alps and into Northern Italy, he sacked and razed the cities of Aquileiamarker, Vicetiamarker, Veronamarker, Brixia, Bergamum, and Milanmarker. Finally, at the very gates of Romemarker, he turned his army back after seeing Pope Leo I (although the most likely reason why he turned back is because of plague and famine). Attila retreated without Honoria or her dowry.

The new Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian then halted tribute payments. From the Carpathian Basin, Attila mobilised to attack Constantinoplemarker. Before this planned attack he married a German girl named Ildico. In 453, he died of a nosebleed on his wedding night.

After Attila

Attila was succeeded by his eldest son, Ellak. However, Attila's other sons, Dengizich and Ernakh challenged Ellak for the throne. Taking advantage of the situation, subjugated tribes rose up in rebellion. The year after Attila's death, the Huns were defeated in the Battle of Nedao. In 469, Dengizik, the last Hunnic King and successor of Ellak, died. This date is seen as the end of the Hunnic Empire. It is believed by some historians that descendants of the Huns formed the Bulgarian Empire, which stretched over the Balkans, Pannonia and Scythia.

References and notes

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. Priscus fr. 8 ("For the subjects of the Huns, swept together from various lands, speak, besides their own barbarous tongues, either Hunnic or Gothic, or--as many as have commercial dealings with the western Romans--Latin")
  3. Creasy,
  4. Norwich, Byzantium: the Early Centuries. 1997, p. 158.
  5. Bury, The Later Roman Empire, pp. 294f.

Further reading

  • E.A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (1948)
  • F. Altheim, Attila und die Hunnen (1951)
  • J. Werner, Beiträge zur Archäologie des Attila-Reiches (1956).
  • T. Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, Vol. I (rev. ed. 1892, repr. 1967)
  • W. M. McGovern, Early Empires of Central Asia (1939)
  • F. Teggart, China and Rome (1969, repr. 1983);
  • Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns (1973).

See also

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