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Huns |
Attacked by seeming half-humans

Huns is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 142, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Squat, flat-nosed, arrogant, deadly and, so it appeared, indefatigable, the Huns were feared most of all, but after Attila died, they faded fast

Huns - Attacked by seeming half-humans

Huns - Attacked by seeming half-humans
The reputation for demonic ferocity that history has accorded the Huns is evident in this nineteenth-century illustration. Very possibly, the heads of slain enemies did adorn their horses, as shown, adding a gruesome element to the physical threat. Sketch from Guizot’s nineteenth-century History of France.

His head was large, people said, and the ferocious glare of his deep-set little eyes terrified everyone within range. His nose was flat, his beard sparse, his skin dark, his body squat and powerful, his demeanor arrogant, and his energy inexhaustible. He was rumored to have dined upon two of his own sons. His name was Attila, and for two decades of the fifth century, no one in the world struck more acute terror into Roman hearts, nor did their empire more damage.

The people Attila led to so many stunning victories (the seventy-some cities they flattened during their savage campaigns through Europe included Cologne, Trier, Milan, Verona and Padua) were known as the Huns. Nomadic horsemen, they lived in rudimentary felt tents, subsisted mainly on milk and cheese, and dressed in skins and leather. Their ears were pierced and their heads shaved to a tuft on top and short braids behind their ears. They were uneducated, unwashed and brutal, a reputation they earned well before Attila’s time.

They originated in central Asia, and for twelve hundred years, some sources say, their eastward raids kept China on edge, until the emperor Chin-Shi-Hwang-Ti built the Great Wall in the third century b.c., specifically to block the Huns. In the mid-fourth century a.d., they moved westward from the great Eurasian steppe, along the north coast of the Black Sea.

The Goths, first among the Germanic tribes to experience their fury, thought the Huns must be descendants of witches and demons, “a stunted, foul, and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech” (from The Goths, by the sixth-century Goth historian Jordanes). They were consummate horsemen, charging on their tough little mounts without stirrup or spur, as they discharged deadly arrows from bows which arguably were then the world’s best.

Emerging from the valley of the lower Volga River, they plundered their way southward through Armenia and Cappadocia into Syria. Farther north, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Alans, Suevi and Vandals fled westward before them as they crossed the Danube and slaughtered and burned their way through the Roman provinces and into northern Italy. In 434, when Attila became their leader, Rome ceded them the province of Pannonia outright.

By then, a Hunnic confederacy stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian, with Attila and his older brother Bleda ruling jointly until 445, when Bleda was killed (probably by Attila). They ravaged the eastern empire to the very gates of Constantinople, and sent threatening embassies to the emperor Theodosius II.

The most complete description of Attila at home comes from a minor official of the eastern empire called Priscus of Panium, who in 449 accompanied a mission from Theodosius to Hun headquarters far north of the Danube. This was a vast tent village with one stone building, a public bath constructed by a captive Roman architect. There the Romans waited in frustration while Attila alternately rebuffed, entertained and berated them.

The explanation later emerged. Unbeknownst to Maximinus, head of the mission, or to its other members, the chief eunuch in Constantinople had conspired with the delegation’s interpreter to offer one of Attila’s aides fifty pounds of gold to assassinate his chief. (Only the interpreter could speak Hunnish.) The aide informed Attila instead. Amazingly, the Hun allowed all the Romans to get home safely.

Such diplomatic diversions aside, Attila’s confederacy needed continual plunder to survive. He raided through Gaul right to Toulouse, and crossed the Rhine to attack Orleans in 451. There the Roman general Aetius decisively defeated him at the Battle of Chalons, although he failed to destroy the Hun army. The next year Attila headed into Italy, where the “Eternal City” itself lay vulnerable. But he did not reach Rome–for reasons never adequately explained.

Two hundred miles northward, he was met by a Roman delegation. Ignoring the rest, Attila demanded the name of the white-bearded old man who, although lost in prayer, seemed to be in charge. “I am Leo, the pope,” said this man, moving forward. The unexpected upshot of their talk was that Attila meekly retired from Italy with only a modest tribute payment.

This astonishing withdrawal provoked wild surmise. One persistent legend claimed that Attila saw behind Leo a white-robed figure brandishing a sword–perhaps Paul or Peter. The pope would only say “Let us give thanks to God, for he has delivered us from great danger.”

Or perhaps the Huns had simply reached the end of their strength and resources. Whatever the explanation, admiration for the intrepid pope grew mightily. As for Attila, he led his Huns back to the homeland they had established in Hungary, although he vowed to return if the empress Honoria’s promised dowry remained unpaid. (See page 143.)

He also decided to marry again (he reputedly sired at least sixty children), with a beautiful young German girl, named Ildico, as his latest bride. At the wedding feast, he ate heartily and drank heavily, as usual, and next morning was found dead with Ildico weeping beside him, possibly having choked on his own blood when an artery burst in his throat. However, on the off chance that Ildico poisoned him, his warriors slew her on the spot.

Attila’s death in 453 marked the end of the glory of the Huns. His sons fought bitterly; by 470, his confederation disintegrated, and the storied Huns laid down their bows. They had produced no epics, observes historian E. A. Thompson (A History of Attila and the Huns, Oxford, 1948), and left few archeological traces. They were absorbed among other barbarians in Scythia, and the Roman Empire feared them no more.

To this day, however, their name is preserved in that of Hungary, although most Hungarians are descendants of the Magyars, another fierce tribe from the Asian steppes. It moved into the area in the ninth century.

But despite the brevity of their appearance in history, Attila and his Huns had set off a world-altering chain of events.

This is the end of the Huns category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 142, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Huns from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at