Attila The Hun

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Editor: Trevor N. Dupuy
Date: 1993
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,736 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1130L

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The Huns, a people of Turanian stock, began to appear as a political and military power during the second century B.C. They emerged from the pastoral peoples living on the northern steppes of Europe and Asia and reached the height of their power in the West between A.D. 350 and A.D. 470. From their earliest appearance in Europe (fourth century A.D.) they gained a reputation as fierce warriors.

The Eastern Huns (chronicled by the Chinese as hsiung-nu) attained their greatest power under King Mao Tun in the early first century A.D. In central Asia, some nineteen tribes, known as the Southern Huns, consolidated their power during the first and second centuries A.D. They gained control of the Altai region and modern Kazakhstan, expanding into northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The Huns, or hsiung-nu, became known to the Romans after the defeat of Crassus's legions by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 54 B.C. The captured legionaries were resettled on the Parthian's eastern frontiers where they became mercenaries in the service of Chih-chih, hsiung-nu shan-yu, the king of the Southern Huns. The term hsiung-nu (archaic Chinese) derives from the ancient Iranian word for ruling king and was used by the Huns when referring to themselves.

Recent excavations of early Hun sites have provided evidence that the Huns had both agrarian knowledge and weapons-fashioning skills. Agricultural tools and large storage areas for cereal grains were found along with weapons made from iron and bronze. The Hun ruling class (Logades), as best as can be determined, spoke an ancient Eastern dialect similar to Saka-Iranian.

There is little reason to believe that there was a concerted sociopolitical life within the Hun empire that would have united the Eastern, Southern, and Western Huns. Instead, each evolved separately, modifying their languages and sociopolitical and military organizations as they formed alliances, subjugated other peoples, and developed political, economic, and military spheres of influence.

Also, it is evident, from the brief period of Western Hun supremacy (A.D. 350-470) and its rapid decline after the death of Attila (A.D. 453) that it was Attila's political and military skills, as opposed to consolidated Hun political and military power, that held his part of the empire together. This is further strengthened by the fact that the Western Huns were far outnumbered by the people they ruled, the majority of whom were Germanic.

The Western Huns' peak military, power occurred sometime after Attila's birth (ca. A.D. 406) with the unification of the Western Hun tribes under one all-powerful king, Karaton (A.D. 412). Prior to this, Balamer (ca. A.D. 320-390), Karaton's father, appeared to be "first among equals" in his relationship with the loosely federated tribal chieftains.

Organization and Equipment

The Hun military organization was based on the tribe. Each tribe numbered 50,000-60,000 individuals, of whom about 10,000 were military-age males. This 10,000-man unit of mounted archers, which represented the tribe's war-making capability, was called a tumen. The basic building block of the tumen was ten light horsemen, who were combined into elements of 100 and then 1,000. The highest title among the Huns, next to that of king, was "commander of the Ten Thousand Horsemen," also known as the khan among many Turanian peoples.

The Hun tumen were the epitome of fast, light cavalry. The horse was essential to their way of life and mode of fighting. The Hun horses were small and hairy with long manes and long, bushy tails. They had large, long heads and short legs with broad hooves. Their eyes were large, and they were apparently faithful companions to their masters. These hardy horses survived quite well on grass and sparse vegetation, could tolerate extreme cold or heat without noticeable fatigue, and were rarely sick.

These horses responded equally well to bridle commands, the rider's verbal commands, and the unit commander's signals, thus leaving the rider's hands free to handle the war bow and other weapons. When the enemy's defensive line was penetrated, the Hun horses would bite and kick the enemy's troops, wreaking great havoc and consternation.

The saddle consisted of a wooden frame covered with leather and stuffed with horse hair or other materials. The stirrups were wood covered with leather. The leaders rode horses whose saddles and bridles were richly decorated with silver and gold.

The Hun's principal weapon was the reflex composite bow, which measured 140-160 centimeters (55-63 in.) in length, and which when unstrung curved outwards. In fact, the entire Hun system of warfare and tactics evolved around this bow, which was still used by the Hungarians as late as the early fifteenth century. The bow was not symmetrical, the bottom extending a shorter distance from the grip than the top. It was made of seven different materials--including wood, bone, and sinew--by expert bow makers. The quiver consisted of a wooden frame covered with leather and highly ornamented. It hung from either the saddle or the rider's belt.

The effective combat range of the Hun bow was 70-100 meters (230-330 ft.). The maximum range for "arrow showers" was 175 meters (575 ft.). The war bow was commonly referred to as the Scythian bow, and its origin and design were most likely Iranian.

The Huns complemented their use of the bow with the lasso, which was used to thin an enemy line by roping enemies out of the ranks and dragging them away. Other weapons included short, curved Iranian-type swords, daggers, maces, and pickaxes. Thrusting and jabbing lances, while known to have been used, were rare. A small shield of wood covered with leather completed the Hun warrior's equipment. Depending on the owner's rank and wealth, the weapons were decorated with silver, gold, and precious stones.

Clothing and combat attire were equally rich and again were used to display rank and wealth. The warrior wore a leather-covered conical helmet (made on a metal frame), with a peak that pointed forward. Chain mail covered the neck and shoulders, and sometimes the upper body, but body armor was usually made of hard leather, which was greased with animal fat for waterproofing. The leather armor was skin tight and bone plaques were sewn to the outer part for additional protection. Up to four layers of this armor were worn over a shirt or blouse. The warriors also wore baggy pants of goat skin, and soft boots. The boots were only good for riding as they were too fragile for dismounted use. Over this clothing, the warrior wore a knee-length split-felt or fur coat, often richly embroidered.

The Hun warrior rarely cut his hair or beard. His hair was combed and parted on top of his head. Sometimes his beard was also parted, and both the beard and hair might be plaited with colorful ribbons. During cold and rainy seasons, animal fat was thickly smeared over the warrior's face and hair for protection against the elements.

Tactics and Strategy

The Hun system of warfare was characterized by rapid movement during tactical marches toward an objective, as well as during combat itself. The Huns had no infantry or siege equipment and, therefore, depended upon rapid movement to catch their enemies off guard with city garrisons ill-prepared for defense. Movement over great distances occurred so quickly that no one, regardless how distant from the great Hungarian plains, felt secure. This mobility was provided by the horse, with each warrior having at least one remount. Some sources indicate that the Huns had as many as seven remounts. When a mount was killed in combat, the warrior changed to another. The mounts were saddled and equipped with a spare quiver and standard rations, which made each horse an individual logistical package, enabling units of 1,000 and more to travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles from home without the need for an operational support base.

In addition to individual horses, the Huns used light, two-wheeled, chariot-like carts drawn by two to three horses.

It must be noted that the armies of Balamer, Mundzuk, and Attila became progressively less Hun-like as they absorbed Gothic elements, which were mainly infantry. The Goths, Gepids, and Quadi fought dismounted, as infantry, preferring hand-to-hand combat. The Huns rarely dismounted and preferred to use their bows from a distance. Close combat was used only for finishing off the enemy in the final assault.

The Huns and other Turanians preferred to avoid hand-to-hand combat for several reasons: first, while their armor was quite effective against arrows, it offered almost no protection against the heavy cut-and-thrust weapons used by the Roman legions or Germanic tribes. Second, the Hun horses were vulnerable to the spear and lance at close combat range. Third, a limited population base and the ever-present need to protect the tribe made the heavy losses sustained in close combat unacceptable.

If the tumen of 10,000 warriors incurred heavy casualties, the tribe was endangered, since it could no longer protect itself and its livestock from marauders. Therefore, the tribal tumen was usually split. Half the warriors would remain behind to protect the tribe, while half would go on military expeditions and raids. Thus, even if the tribe's entire offensive capability was lost in war, it remained formidable defensively.

The Huns placed great value on long-range reconnaissance, deception, and concealment. The full force was never within view of their enemy. Any part of the main body might be hidden in forests, ravines, or riverbeds. In battle, units would be arrayed over wide fronts.

Skirmishes, aimed at thinning the enemy ranks, would always precede an assault. Groups would dash out from the line, fire a few well-placed arrows, wheel right, fire several more arrows, and return to their position in the line. This maneuver was repeated until the enemy ranks had been thinned sufficiently to permit the decisive tactical maneuvers to be initiated.

Units of 1,000 would then approach within bow range (70-100 m, 230-328 ft.). The front ranks would then fire direct, well-aimed shots, while the rear ranks would fire arrow showers overhead. These arrow showers would force the enemy troops to lift their shields to protect their heads and shoulders, thereby exposing their bodies to the direct fire from the Hun front ranks.

The attacking tumens would move forward quickly, then turn back and move forward again. Some elements would ride around to the enemy's rear and flanks and engage his cavalry and rear guard. Through these seemingly random forward and rearward movements the attacking Huns would attempt to lure the enemy's main body into pursuit, which was always attended by some disorganization. Another ruse was the simulation, on signal, of the flight of the entire Hun force. If the enemy pursued into the trap, units that had been kept out of sight attacked from all sides and destroyed him. If the enemy did not fall for the feint and kept his formation, a frontal assault was executed in wedge formation by units of 1,000 or by massed tumen, depending on the total size of the army.

Rivers were never an obstacle to the Hun warriors. They all carried inflatable skins. In addition rafts would be built to carry heavy equipment and carts. Individual warriors normally would ride their horses into the water and swim across. The major river-crossing sites were well guarded.

The Attila Period

Attila was brought to kingship as co-ruler by his brother Bleda (Buda, A.D. 434-445), who was the ruling king. This dual kingship was common among the pastoral peoples of the East. The elder partner was responsible for general administration and political and spiritual leadership, while the younger partner led the military forces.

Attila was by nature cautious and preferred above all to gain his political and military objectives through cunning political maneuvers rather than bloodshed as the Roman chronicler Ammianus Marcellinus noted. If he had to fight, he used his confederates and allies as much as possible rather than risking Hun forces. Although he was called a savage and a barbarian by his enemies, this assessment may not be entirely fair, particularly when considering his abilities as a military commander. Attila often led armies of 60,000 to 100,000 troops from what is now central Hungary into Gaul, Italy, Illyria, Greece, and Spain. There, he conducted siege operations and fought pitched battles. What is even more impressive is the fact that his armies were multilingual, making command and control difficult.

Attila's main adversaries were the Roman legions, at that time the best trained, disciplined, equipped, and supplied military, formations in the world. They were ably led by professional noncommissioned officers and officers. Attila's ability to effectively meet and defeat the Roman legions places his military and intellectual powers on a par with the great commanders of his time.

After the death of Attila's uncle, Ruga, in A.D. 434, good relations with the Roman Empire ceased. Bleda and Attila engaged in almost constant warfare with the Eastern Roman Empire until Bleda's death in A.D. 445. When Attila assumed sole rule, he ruthlessly made war against the Western and Eastern empires, enjoying great success.

It appears from historical accounts that no amount of monetary tribute from the Roman Empire satisfied Attila, who was bent on conquering Rome. At that time Roman military strength was heavily committed to Asia Minor, Africa, and Gaul. This left Rome the option of paying off the Huns to keep peace.

Attila made peace in the East to free his southern flank for an attack on the Western Roman Empire. He used, as justification for this attack, the refusal of Valentinianus III to accede to his demand for the hand of his sister, Honoria, in marriage. Attila appeared, unexpectedly, at the gates of Metz on Easter Sunday, 7 April 451. His army killed and looted as far south as the Loire River. At Orléans, he reached the frontier of the kingdom of the Visigoths, having burned everything in his path. When the Roman army, under Aetius, arrived, Attila and his allies were still besieging Orléans. Attila immediately raised the siege to look for a battlefield where he intended to fight a pitched battle. This decision to stand and fight was uncharacteristic of the Huns, who avoided close combat, especially when conditions were not totally in their favor.

Attila found a suitable field on the plains of Châlons (Catalaunian Plains). Here, near the city of Troyes, close to a small village called Mauriacum, he prepared for battle. Because he was superstitious and believed he would lose, he placed his Huns in the center around himself. The Ostrogoths with Walamir were placed on the left, facing the Visigoths, and Ardaric and the Gepids were on the right facing the Romans. Aetius, who was concerned about the loyalty of his Alans, placed his Romans on the left flank, the Alans in the center, and Theodoric and his Visigoths on the right.

The battle, which began around 3:00 P.M., ended late in the evening. Although Theodoric was killed, Attila clearly lost control toward evening, and the battle then turned in Aetius's favor. At dark, the Huns withdrew into the wagon fort that was their camp. When morning came, the Romans and Visigoths had withdrawn from the field. Aetius, for political expediency, had left Attila free to depart. Attila, however, turned south, invading Venetia and Aquileia (452), devastating northern Italy, and taking Milan and Apuleia. In desperation, Pope Leo I came out of Rome to meet Attila and dissuade him from sacking Rome. It is said that the pope succeeded in persuading Attila to relent and spare Rome, but it is more likely that the invasion of his home territory (modern-day Hungary) by the armies of the East Roman Emperor Marcianus cut short his Italian expedition.

Attila died a year after returning home (453) of a sudden nosebleed on the evening of his marriage to Ildiko. None of his sons was strong enough to keep Attila's allies subjugated and his empire intact. The Hun empire, within twenty years of Attila's death, disintegrated from bloody internal power struggles and fighting with the Romans. The main Hun tribes, under the leadership of Attila's two Hun sons, Irnik and Dengizik, returned to the areas between the Dniester and Don rivers. Some Hun tribes remained in the Carpathian Basin, but these either posed no threat to Rome or they entered Roman military service. Irnik also entered Roman service at some later date. Dengizik tried stubbornly to reestablish his father's empire, but was killed in combat against East Roman forces.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2342200069