I don't know about you, but when I think of the Huns, I often recall images of pointy-headed skulls and bow-legged savages whose invasions ravaged the Western Roman Empire. Jordanes, a sixth-century Roman historian whose racial slurring descriptions rightfully offend modern readers, wrote that the Huns were a “stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech. Their swarthy aspect is fearful, and they have a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes.”
No doubt the epicanthic fold of their eyelids coupled with the Hunnish practice of skull-binding infants to achieve the coveted “cone head” appearance made the Romans wonder whether the Huns were from another world or even “spawn of demons.” Jordanes did, however, have great respect for their hardiness and noted they were “quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad-shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and had firm-set necks ever erect in pride.”
However, he accused them of having the “cruelty of wild beasts”, particularly to their children. “From the very day of their birth, they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk, they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless, and their young men are without comeliness because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard.”
In my book, Empire Resurgent, my main character, General Belisarius, has a Hunnish counterpart, Sunicas, who is like a brother to the general even if his unique Hunnish ways seem odd to Roman sensibilities. Sunicas is a master bowman and fiercely loyal to Belisarius and the Roman Empire.
Who were the Huns, really?
The Huns were a nomadic and pastoral people originally from Central Asia who were driven west by a mega-drought caused by abrupt climate change east of the Caspian Sea. The first documented interactions with this people group come from Roman writers in the fourth century A.D. who write that the large group (often called “Scythians”) had migrated and settled east of the Volga River in modern Russia. For centuries, the Huns orchestrated devastating raids on Gothic tribes beyond the Roman frontier and eventually drove the Goths as refugees into Roman territory. This mass migration wreaked havoc on the Empire, and the Gothic victory over the Romans at Adrianople in 378 A.D. ranks as one of the catastrophic events that contributed to the eventual collapse of the Western Empire.
Little is known about the Hunnish system of government, their language, or religions. But much has been written about their nomadic lifestyle and the skill of their warriors.
Attila, King of the Huns
Attila the Hun is a well-known historical figure, even sixteen hundred years after his death. He was responsible for stretching the Hunnish Empire west across Europe into Roman lands. In his day, the Huns posed an existential threat to the Western Empire. But shortly after their defeat at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 A.D. and the death of Attila, the Hunnish Empire quickly collapsed and ceased to pose much of a threat to Rome.
So how did the Huns go from being a feared foe to being a part of the Eastern Roman army?
Hired as Mercenaries
By the time the Western Roman Empire had fallen in the fifth century, the threat of the Huns had been long gone. Even though the majority of the Huns had settled down, some retained the military skills that the group had become known for. Those men were paid well to serve as mounted archers in the Eastern Roman army.
Fighting alongside Roman-born men came with many challenges. Only a century before, the Hunnish light cavalrymen had been the scourge of the Romans, and now troops asked to trust the men on their flanks had their doubts. Their loyalty was often questioned, and sometimes for good reasons, since Huns on horseback could more easily flee a battle gone wrong than Roman infantrymen.
And these are the dynamics that are at play in Belisarius’s racially mixed army.
Does History Repeat Itself?
Mark Twain once wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” And that's one of the reasons why I love reading about it. It is almost like sitting in a fortune teller’s booth. Almost seventeen hundred years ago, entire populations of Goths left what is now modern Ukraine, fleeing the brutal aggression of the approaching Huns. The victims left their homeland and resettled in the borderlands of what was then the Roman Empire. We can be grateful that the refugees of the current conflict north of the Black Sea are not being refused entry but are generally receiving all the care that they need.
Mark. Joshua J (2018) "Huns" World History Encyclopedia
Retrieved on August 12, 2022, from https://www.worldhistory.org/Huns/
Image of Attila the Hun: