Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns

The Huns were a nomadic tribe that were first mentioned in Roman texts around 91 CE. At the time, they were no threat to the Romans but that changed 200 years later when the Huns had developed a reputation for being a particularly brutal barbarian tribe. They rose to their height under Attila the Hun (434 CE to 453 CE) and became the most powerful and feared military force in all of Europe. By Attila’s death in 453 CE the Huns had built a large empire. However, Attila’s sons were left in control of the empire and their battle for supremacy tore it apart by 469 CE.
Here are just a few things that you might not know about the Huns.

No One Knows Where They Came From

Hun 3
Picture of a Hun feast

There are numerous theories about the origin of the Huns. Since the 18th century one of the prominent theories is that the Huns were one in the same with the Xiongnu people. The Xiongnu were a mysterious nomadic tribe that terrorized the northern border of China during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE). The reason for the belief is that the Xiongnu were nomadic like the Huns, they fought mounted just like the Huns and they were particularly skilled at bow and arrow. That is where the similarities end. There has never been any definitive evidence found that links the two peoples together. Many historians reject the idea of a Xiongnu/Hun link because there is so little evidence to support it. The Xiongnu had a distinct art form that featured stunning animal motifs, an art form that has never been found on any of the Hun artifacts. Both tribes did use bonze cauldrons and some early writing suggests they may have come from China but the majority of ancient writing on the Huns suggests a more sinister origin. It was the consensus of the period that the Huns were born of demons or witches who lived deep in the wilderness.

Another theory about the origin of the Huns suggests they came from the area that is now modern Kasakhstan. Historically the area was controlled by nomadic tribes and the Huns did control the steppes of Kasahkstan up until the fall of the empire. Most historians seem to agree that whatever the core origin of the Huns was, the tribe that we refer to as the Huns was likely a “super -tribe.” That is, a tribe that was a conglomerate of nomadic tribes from throughout Europe and even Asia which would explain the variety of different influences found in Hun ruins and artifacts.

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  • magdy awadalla

    ” The Huns seemed about to overrun all of Western Europe, but they eventually had to withdraw and this possibly saved Europe from becoming part of the Hunnish Empire”……….. why did they have to withdraw? , did they loose a major battle somewhere and their armies were chased till China ? hence Europe was saved from what happened in Baghdad for example .

    • Ed

      Hi Magdy

      Thanks for your question!

      The Huns were forced to withdraw from Western Europe because of plague and low supplies.

      Thanks Ed

    • JBZL

      Huns lost a series of battles to the Han Chineses. Prior to that, the Han dynasty emperors were bribing the Huns to keep peace. The 5th emperor of the Han Dynasty decided to accumulate horses and to fight like the Huns.

      The Han emperor (Wu Di) sent his fast striking calveries (25,000) backed by a strong infantry force (800,000) to mop up the defeated Huns. Horseback archery (Hunnic style warfare) remained in Eastern warfare until firearm took over.

      The Huns were defeated in a series of fast moving battles led a young Chinese general (started 18, dead at 24 from disease, being related the emperor helped). The war was intense. Many night battles were fought (unconventional at the time). The defeat was total. Han army slaughtered the Hun horses, sold captives into slavery, even destroyed the mine that produced the pigments for their women’s cosmetics. Poetry praising or cursing the general from both side were recorded until this day.

  • Fred in Bose

    Ah, yes. The Plague. Nasty little detail that Historians seem to minimize if not outright ignore. Gutted Roman Empire east and west.

  • Ross Christensen

    Most interesting and informative article I’ve read in a long time. Thanks!

  • RhettButler1

    There is a lot of reference to relate the Huns with Germanic tribes. I suppose there is some genetic connection there……….

    • Peter Carmody

      Some Germanic tribes were conquered, and/or simply joined the Guns. Ostrogoths did this.

  • Robert H.

    There’re more reasons to buy into the Hun/Xiongnu connection:
    The names, for one
    The Hunnic word for “Hun” was pronounced with an H that was halfway between H anc Ch, and ended with an exhalation that was almost a second syllable (sometimes rendered Chunni, and sometimes rendered Hunni). Add to this, the Eastern Eurpoean pronunciation of it turns the N into an “ng” sound, hence the name of the nation Hungary, named for its descent from the Huns.
    This pronunciation then, “Chungni” is not far from the pronunciation “Xiongnu. (somewhere between shyong nih and shyong nu).
    Secondly, the Xiongnu were driven west by the Chinese about 100 years before they became a threat to Rome. It’s not hard to envision a 100 year transition from “spanning Central Asia but mostly focussing on China” to “Spanning Central Asia and moving Westward into the Roman Empire.”
    Thirdly, the beards.
    The Xiongnu were known for full beards.
    The Huns disfigured their faces in infancy to prevent the growth of beards.
    Seems to be the opposite, right?
    Given their Asian origins, this “oppositeness,” to coin a term, is a good reason to believe they are the same.
    In numerous ancient Asian cultures (even as recent as the transition from the Qing Dynasty to the Kuomingtang era in China) it was common for a new government to show it’s newness by completely reversing a custom identified with the old one. The example I’ve already given was from China, where the fall of the Qing Dynasty was marked by men cutting off the hair queues which they were required to grow by order of the Qing Emperors. It’s not a big stretch to imagine, during that 100 year period I mentioned, for some new ruler to come to power and say “to show that this is a new era, the beards which marked our loyalty to (insert old ruler’s name here) will never again befoul the faces of Chungni warriors!”
    Admittedly it’s all still speculation, but it’s more viable speculation than the article gives credit for.