The Hunnic War Machine: Part I

The steppe has produced many notable horse archers who brought terror and devastation to the known world during ancient times. But of the many steppe peoples who penetrated the civilized world, none brought more destruction then the Huns.

Sometime during the mid-to-late fourth century, the Huns pushed westward. While on the move, they encountered the Alans. The Huns quickly engaged and slaughtered them.  The Huns made an alliance with the survivors. With the Alans riding alongside the Huns, they headed towards the lucrative lands of Goths, particularly that of Greuthungs, led by King Ermanaric, sometime in the 370’s. The attack was so swift and relentless that the Goths could not halt their progress. Ermanaric could do little to thwart the Hun advance, and in despair, he committed suicide. With Ermanaric dead, another took his place by the name of Vithimiris. Vithimiris continued the fight, even hiring Hun mercenaries. However, it was all in vain. Vithimiris could not defeat the Huns and eventually lost his life in 376.

Huns in battle with the Alans. An 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger.

Huns in battle with the Alans. An 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger. (Public Domain)

A suggested path of Hunnic movement westwards.

A suggested path of Hunnic movement westwards. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

With Vithimiris dead, Alatheus and Saphrax took charge, as Viderichus, the son of Vithimiris, was too young to rule. Rather than to continue fighting the Huns, they led the Greuthungs to the Danube River in 376. Furthermore, the names Alatheus and Saphrax appear Alanic, and may have been of a Sarmatian/Alan origin.

The Seeds of Destruction

Besides the Greuthungs, the Thervingi Goths, led by Fritigern and Alavivus, also joined them to escape the Huns, and in hopes of seeking asylum in the Eastern Roman Empire. The total number of refugees is disputed. The fourth century Greek sophist and historian Eunapius indicates that 200,000 Goths appeared along the Danube, while Peter Heather suggests roughly 100,000. Whatever the number, the impact was great, not only on the Goths but also the Eastern Roman Empire. Two years after arriving at the Danube, the Goths were allowed to enter into Eastern Roman territory. Once established, the Roman provincial commanders Lupicinus and Maximus took advantage of the refugees, leading the Goths to revolt which ended in a Gothic victory at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

“Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, with battle scene between Roman soldiers and Goths.

“Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, with battle scene between Roman soldiers and Goths. (Public Domain)

While the Battle of Adrianople on the surface has nothing to do with the Huns, most important is what lies beneath. The Goths, over a period of years, would not have trickled to the Danube, seeking asylum into the Eastern Roman Empire had it not been for the menace from the east.

What the Goths knew the Romans brushed off. In the words of Ammianus: “The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with unusual fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns.”

The Hunnic Invasion

The Huns were a steppe nomadic confederation that arrived in the area of the Black Sea sometime during the 370’s. These strange invaders were not like other peoples in the area. Everything from their physical appearance to their mode of warfare was new and terrifying to the Barbarians in their path, and to the civilization of Rome who would soon encounter them.

The extent of the Hunnic Empire

The extent of the Hunnic Empire (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The origin of the Huns is disputed. The ancient writers spoke little of origin and more on description and location. The Roman soldier and historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote on the Huns during the fourth century. He states that the Huns dwell “beyond the Maeotic Sea (Sea of Azov) near the ice-bound ocean, exceed every degree of savagery.” As for origins, he states that little is known from “ancient records” about the Huns. The Huns were just as much a mystery to the Romans as the Romans were to the Huns. The theologian and historian, St. Jerome (347–420), equated the Huns with the Scythians of old mentioned by Herodotus. Around the time of Jerome, another theologian and historian by the name of Paulus Orosius wrote, “the Huns, long shut off by inaccessible mountains, broke out in a sudden rage against the Goths and drove them in widespread panic from their old homes.”

Even though the ancient writers had a vague sense of the Huns origins, they knew enough that the Huns originated beyond the Ural Mountains. But who they were for certain east of Ural’s remains disputed. A number of modern historians believe that Xiongnu, a nomadic people who inhabited the eastern steppe according to ancient Chinese sources, from the third century BCE to the late second century CE, were precursors of the Huns. Linking the Huns to the Xiongnu, while possible, still, leaves a large gap of 300 years’ worth of lost history.

HUN Plaques, Xiongnu, fifth century BC.

HUN Plaques, Xiongnu, fifth century BC. (Public Domain)

As Hyun Jin Kim states, “Thus to refer to Hun-Xiongnu links in terms of old racial theories or even ethnic affiliations simply makes a mockery of the actual historical reality of these extensive, multiethnic, polyglot steppe empires.” Therefore, the Huns were nothing more than a group of elite warriors of a ruling class in an alliance with various nomadic tribes seeking plunder, extracting tribute, and expanding their sphere of influence.

Hunnic Military

To understand the Huns mode of warfare one must try to understand their way of life. According to Marcellius, the Huns “are subject to no royal restraint, but they are content with the disorderly government of their important men, and led by them they force their way through every obstacle.” The Huns initially were not a united tribe with a king when they first appeared in the west. Rather, the Huns were a tribe that amalgamated with many other nomadic tribes, like the Alans and non-nomadic tribes, such as the Germanic Suevi, Gepids, and Goths, through conquest. However, this is not always the case. Many nomadic tribes probably joined the Hunnic warbands after noticing their ability to profit from pillaging, and decided they want in on the cut. This is not to say that the Huns did not have a powerful chieftain, just that the chieftain’s power was limited.

The Huns and their tribal allies worked semi-independently under their own chieftains but were loyal to a primary Hun chief. Of course, this would change when Attila took power much later. But even as king, Attila’s power was excessive in the moment and uncertain in the long term. Attila, unlike previous powerful chieftains, strong-armed the lesser chieftains by forcing them to swear loyalty to him or be removed. By doing this, he effectively transformed the Huns from a body in search of plunder or seeking payment to serve as mercenaries, into a single body bent on expanding a sphere of influence through conquest, threats, and extortion. While Attila’s short-term strategy focused on the moment, his long-term strategy for the Hunnic nation was nonexistent. The reason for this is that the Huns were not in the business to create, they were in the business of war. Therefore, one must focus on the Hunnic military machine to gain a better understanding as to why they were so decisive on the battlefield.

Hardy Hunnic Horses

According to Ammianus, the Huns were “glued to their horses, which are hardy, it is true, but ugly.” While Ammianus found the Hunnic horse hardy and ugly, the late fourth century Roman writer Vegetius Renatus also found their horses beautifully unappealing.

The Hunnic horses:

“have a great and crooked head, bulging eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws and cheek-bones, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge rib, curved backs, bushy tails, cannon bones of great strength, small pasterns, wide-spreading hooves, hallow loins, their bodies are angular, no fat on the rump or the muscles of the back, their stature inclining to length than to height, the belly drawn, the bones huge. The very thinness of these horses is pleasing, and there is beauty even in their ugliness.”

While the physical appearance of the Hunnic horse did not always sit well in the eyes of the beholder, its characteristics did. Vegetius states that for “the purposes of war, the Huns’ horses are by far the most suitable, on account of their endurance, working capacity and their resistance to cold and hunger.” He further adds that “one forgets the ugly appearance of these horses as this is set off by their fine qualities: their sober nature, cleverness and their ability to endure any injuries very well.”

Mongolian horses.

Mongolian horses. (CC BY 2.0)

The breed of horse the Huns rode is uncertain. They may have been the ancestors of the modern Mongolian horse. The Huns likely rode mares as opposed to Stallions. If so, the Hunnic mares, like that of the Mongols, would have stood at 127cm (50 inches) high.

This choice meant that Hunnic riders could use the mares’ milk as an additional food supplement on the steppe, and the mares could be milked four to five times a day. Moreover, mares are easier to control than stallions, especially when the mare is in heat. Stallions can be easily distracted when a mare is in heat or just present. This gave the Huns, among other steppe nomads, a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Therefore, riders of the stallions had to be extra vigilant to restrain the steeds from chasing the mares.

Horse Equipment

The most important item for a rider to function proper in the saddle is the stirrup. Stirrups allow the rider to stay in the saddle comfortably and to control his mount. In others words, horse and rider become one. A bigger question often asked when dealing with the Huns is whether the Huns used stirrups. Unfortunately, Hunnic stirrups are nonexistent. Not even the Roman writers during the period ever mentioned the Huns possessing them. However, this is not to say they never used them. If the Huns did use stirrups, they must have been made from perishable materials, such as wood or leather.

Horse archer presentation in Hungary

Horse archer presentation in Hungary (Public Domain)

The fifth century poet, letter-writer, politician, and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris, wrote an interesting description on the horsemanship of the Huns, stating, “Scarce has the infant learnt to stand without his mother’s aid when a horse takes him on his back. You would think the limbs of man and beast were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse.” Sidonius description does not mention the use of stirrups but rather their limbs to guide the horse. Overall, whether the Huns used stirrups will go unanswered until a Hunnic grave is discovered bearing such contents that suggest otherwise.

Nomadic Pazyryk horseman in a felt painting from a burial around 300 BC.

Nomadic Pazyryk horseman in a felt painting from a burial around 300 BC.  (Public Domain)

The saddle was another important feature as it was a supportive structure for the rider, which fastened to the horse’s back by a girth. The Hunnic double-horned saddle was a wooden framework covered in leather, sometimes embroidered.  The double-horned saddle proved the rider a stable seat from which he could fire his arrows. A felt sweat cloth was placed under the pack saddle after which a saddle-blanket was laid over it. As for their horse bridles, the cheek pieces were made of iron or horn.

Top Image: Reenactors of Hunnic Warriors of the Steppe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Cam Rea

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