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The Hunnic Empire was tribal confederation controlled by the Huns, centered in present-day Hungary. During the peak of its expansion under Attila, it controlled much of the territory in the modern-day locations of Germany, Central Europe, the Balkans, Russia, and Ukraine. The empire bordered the Eastern Roman Empire to the southeast and the Western Roman Empire to the west and southwest, with its northern and eastern boundaries uncertain. The empire dissolved after Attila's death in 453 as a result of struggles over succession and leadership, finally fragmenting around 469 upon the death of Dengizich.


The origins of the Huns that swept through Europe during the 5th century remain unclear. Some historians have speculated that they may have been connected with the Xiongnu and the later Northern Xiongnu, which had been defeated and dispersed by China some three centuries before. However, some historians consider them a group of nomadic tribes from Central Asia with mixed origin.[citation needed] The region roughly parallels that of the earlier Scythia. There was a Hunnic language, though Gothic seems also to have been used as a lingua franca and use of Latin was not uncommon.[1]

Early campaigns in Europe

European accounts first mention the Huns in about 370 in the lands north-west of the Caspian Sea, when they overwhelmed a tribe of Alans to their west and propelling some of them to flee westward into Roman lands, while some remained under Hun rule. Pushing further westward, the Huns subjugated large numbers of Goths and caused many others to flee. In 376, an unmanageable number of Goths and others crossed the Danube into the Roman province of Moesia seeking asylum from the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens.

In 395, a Hun army raided across the Caucasus mountains and devastated Armenia, then captured Erzurum, besieged Edessa and Antioch, and even reached Tyre.[citation needed]

In 408, the Huns under Uldin (?–412) invaded the Eastern Roman province of Moesia but were repulsed and Uldin was forced to retreat.



For all their early exploits, the Huns were politically disunited, more a confederation of tribes than an empire. They often served as mercenary troops under Roman command.

Startin in c. 420, the brothers Octar and Rugila began uniting the Huns. Octar died in c. 430, leaving Rugila as sole ruler of the Hun confederation. Rugila united the Huns into a cohesive group with a common purpose. He led them into a campaign in the Western Roman Empire, through an alliance with Roman General Aetius. This gave the Huns more wealth and power. He planned a massive invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire in the year 434, but died before his plans could come to completion. His heirs to the throne were his nephews, Bleda and Attila, who ruled in a dual kingship. Though they divided their peoples between them, they still regarded the empire as a single entity.

Under dual kingship

Attila and Bleda were as ambitious as Rugila had been. They forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus in 435,[2] giving the Huns trade rights and an annual tribute from the Eastern Romans. The Romans also agreed to give up Hunnic refugees (individuals who could have threatened the brothers' grip on power) for execution. With their southern border protected by the terms of this treaty, the Huns turned their attention to the further subjugation of tribes to the west.

The Huns breached the treaty in 440 when Attila and Bleda attacked Castra Constantias, a Roman fortress and marketplace on the banks of the Danube.[3] The Eastern Romans stopped delivery of the agreed tribute, and to honour other conditions of the Treaty of Margus. The 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 angered the Hun kings. War broke out between the two empires, and the Huns overcame a weak Roman army to raze the cities of Margus, Singidunum and Viminacium. Although a truce was signed in 441, two years later Constantinople again failed to deliver the tribute and war resumed. In the following campaign, Hun armies came alarmingly close to Constantinople, sacking Sardica, Arcadiopolis 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 in autumn 443 signed the Peace of Anatolius with the two Hun kings. The Huns returned to their lands with a vast train full of plunder.

Attila's empire

Empire of Attila

Bleda died in 445, with some historians speculating that his death was at the hands of Attila, Attila had unchallenged power over his subjects. In 447, Attila turned the Huns again toward the Eastern Roman Empire. His invasion of the Balkans and Thrace was devastating. The Eastern Roman Empire was already beset by internal problems, such as famine and plague, as well as riots and a series of earthquakes in Constantinople itself. Only a hasty 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 Thermopylae. The war against the Eastern Romans came to an end in 449 with the signing of the Third Peace of Anatolius.

Throughout their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns had maintained good relations with the Western Roman Empire, to a large extent due 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 Attila interpreted the gesture. He claimed half the Western Roman Empire as dowry. To add to the worsening relations, a dispute arose between Attila and Aetius about who should inherit the kingship 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 Metz, then his armies continued westwards, passing both Paris and Troyes to lay siege to Orléans.

Aetius was given the duty by Valentinian of relieving Orléans. Bolstered by Frankish and Visigothic troops (under King Theodoric), Aetius' Roman army met the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, also known as the Battle of Châlons. 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 remains a matter of debate.[4][5][6]

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 Aquileia, Vicetia, Verona, Brixia, Bergamum, and Milan. Hoping to avoid the sack of Rome itself, Emperor Valentinian III sent three envoys, the high civilian officers Gennadius Avienus and Trigetius, as well as the Bishop of Rome Leo I, who met Attila at Mincio in the vicinity of Mantua, and obtained from him the promise that he would withdraw from Italy and negotiate peace with the emperor. Prosper of Aquitaine gives a short, reliable description of the historic meeting, but gives all the credit of the successful negotiation to Leo. Priscus reports that superstitious fear of the fate of Alaric—who died shortly after sacking Rome in 410—gave him pause. In reality, Italy had suffered from a terrible famine in 451 and her crops were faring little better in 452; Attila's devastating invasion of the plains of northern Italy this year did not improve the harvest. To advance on Rome would have required supplies which were not available in Italy, and taking the city would not have improved Attila's supply situation. Therefore, it was more profitable for Attila to conclude peace and retreat back to his homeland. Secondly, an East Roman force had crossed the Danube under the command of another officer also named Aetius—who had participated in the Council of Chalcedon the previous year—and proceeded to defeat the Huns who had been left behind by Attila to safeguard their home territories. Attila, hence, faced heavy human and natural pressures to retire from Italy before moving south of the Po. 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 Constantinople. However, in 453 he married a girl with the Germanic name Ildico, and died of a haemorrhage on his wedding night.[7]


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.

See also

  • Hunnic language
  • List of Hunnish rulers

References and notes

  1. 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")
  2. Thompson et al., E. A. (1999). The Huns. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 136. 
  3. Harvey, Bonnie (2003). Attila the Hun. Infobase Publishing. pp. 15. 
  4. Creasy, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World
  5. Norwich, Byzantium: the Early Centuries. 1997, p. 158.
  6. Bury, The Later Roman Empire, pp. 294f.
  7. Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns (1973) ISBN 520-01596-7. University of California Press. page 364, referring to Jordanes's Getica 254: "Shortly before he died, as the historian Priscus relates, he took in marriage a very beautiful girl named Ildico, after countless other wives, as was the custom of his race. He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war."

Further reading

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