The Hunnic War Machine: Horsemen of the Steppe – Part II

The fifth century politician and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris, wrote an interesting description on the horsemanship of the Huns, stating, “You would think the limbs of man and beast were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse.” Such were the abilities of the horsemen of the steppe – an integral part of the success of the Hunnic Invasion and the creation of an empire.

[Read Part 1: The Hunnic War Machine]

Hunnic Horsemen

Being that the majority of the Hunnic cavalry consisted of light horse archers led by petty nobles and their followers, their attire would have been light. The sixth century scholar Procopius states that the Hunnic warrior/herdsman wore “loosely woven” garments. Ammianus, much earlier, describes the dress of the Huns stating:

“They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. But when they have once put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until by long wear and tear it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. They cover their heads with round caps and protect their hairy legs with goatskins; their shoes are formed upon no lasts, and so prevent their walking with free step.”

Being that the vast majority of Huns wore meager garments, their armor was not much better. In other words, do not expect the poorer Huns to be decked out in armor like the nobles or the wealthy. The type of armor worn would have been scale (sewn on) or lamellar (linked plates) armor reaching to the waist or knee. Hunnic armor also appears to have been sleeveless in some accounts. According to Procopius, he states:

“He came to be surrounded by twelve of the enemy, who carried spears. And they all struck him at once with their spears. But his thorax with-stood the other blows, which therefore did not hurt him much; but one of the Goths succeeded in hitting him from behind, at a place where his body was uncovered, above the armpit, right close to the shoulder, and smote the youth, though not with a mortal blow.”

While the Hunnic warrior could withstand a series of hits to the chest, his armpits were exposed, which indicates that his armor was sleeveless. Another interesting aspect is that the word thorax is used. This may suggest that the armor was not a breastplate but a metal shirt or scale-mail jacket, which protects all sides of the body and is sleeveless. The fourth century panegyric, Pacatus, Sidonius, and Procopius, all mention that the Hunnic horse archers wore iron cuirasses. While most Hunnic horsemen wore meager armor, those lucky enough to serve alongside Rome were decked out. Fifth century Latin poet, Flavius Merobaudes, mentions that Huns serving the Roman general Aetius wore “belts, quivers, horse, bits, helmets, and the armor, studded with precious stones, were gilded.

‘This fine and rare set of horse trappings is decorated with stones in beaded settings- a style Hunnish metalworkers favored. Fourth century. The large piece is a chamfron, which was worn on the horse's head above the eyes. This one is ornamental rather than defensive and indicated the wealth and power of the horse's owner.’

‘This fine and rare set of horse trappings is decorated with stones in beaded settings- a style Hunnish metalworkers favored. Fourth century. The large piece is a chamfron, which was worn on the horse’s head above the eyes. This one is ornamental rather than defensive and indicated the wealth and power of the horse’s owner.’  (Public Domain)

However, some of the Hunnic armor worn may have been Roman. Other Huns, not associated with Aetius, may have donned gilt Persian armor. Understand that the vast majority of Huns were not emblazoned in armor from head to toe, most wore meager amounts while the few nobles and wealthy Huns could afford the luxury of armor.

An example of lamellar armor, a Japanese cuirass.

An example of lamellar armor, a Japanese cuirass. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One such luxury was the helmet. Huns serving under the Romans were provided helmets. The majority of Huns not serving Rome donned felt or soft leather caps. Reason for this is that many of the so-called Hunnic graves are absent of such an item. Hunnic noblemen and the wealthy could afford a helmet, which could be passed down from generation to generation. The type of helmet the Huns would have worn under the Romans is called a spangenhelm. The spangenhelm is a conical helmet consisting of four to six sections, reinforced by bands over the joins. Most had large cheek pieces, neck guard and a nose piece. The origin of the helmets is said to be of Sassanid origin, which was later adopted by the Romans during the late third early fourth century.

A surviving Spangenhelm, sixth century, Vienna.

A surviving Spangenhelm, sixth century, Vienna. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Huns also used a shield. Unfortunately, like most items pertaining to the Huns, it remains elusive. The Hunnic shield would have been small, as a large shield would have been cumbersome to utilize on horseback. The type of small shield used would have been as the ones used by other steppe nomads, and since no shield has been discovered, it is suggested that the shield was made of wicker covered in leather.

As for swords, it is disputed whether the vast majority of Huns carried them. The Hunnic swords likely varied, as some were like that of the Sarmatians and Goths, which was long, straight, and designed for slashing. However, in the 10th century, Latin Germanic epic poem founded on German popular tradition called Waltharius, the hero Walther “arms himself in the Hunnish fashion… with a double-edge long sword belted to his left hip … and a single-edged half-sword at his right.” While the poem is fictional, it provides and indicates that some Huns wore a long sword, spatha, and a single-edged half-sword, semispatha, like that of the Sassanid noblemen who are regularly depicted wearing the same type of swords in this fashion.

Roman cavalry reenactor wearing a replica spatha

Roman cavalry reenactor wearing a replica spatha (CC BY 2.0)

Another side arm the Huns used was the lasso. The lasso was widely used by many steppe nomads like the Scythians and Sarmatians to name a few. Ammianus speaks of the Hun lasso and states “while the enemy are guarding against wounds from the sabre-thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses over their opponents and so entangle them that they fetter their limbs and take from them the power of riding or walking.”

As for heavy horsemen, the Huns had few and mostly relied on those they conquered and incorporated into their own military apparatus. The tribes that aided heavy cavalry to the Huns were the Sarmatians, Alans, and Goths. With heavy cavalry, accompanying the Hunnic horse archers, the Huns had a well-defined military capable of delivering mobility and shock to the enemy on the field of battle.

Bow and Arrow

The primary weapon of the Hunnic horse archer was the composite bow. The Hunnic reflex bow was made of wood, horn, and sinew. The ears of the bow had seven bone plaques, while the handle had three, two on the side one on its top.

The foundation of the bow was made of wood. The type of wood used could have been maple, yew, poplar or ash. When the tree of choice had been selected, the bowyer would choose to use the heartwood of the tree instead of the growing outer layer or sapwood.

Scythians shooting with composite bows, fourth century BCE.

Scythians shooting with composite bows, fourth century BCE. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After the selecting and fashioning the wood into shape, a layer of sinew is applied. Sinew gives the bow its penetrating power. Once the sinew is applied, the bow would be bellied with horn, which provides compressive strength and on release of the arrow, the bone brings the bow back to original position like a coil. To keep this complex weapon together, glue made from boiled animal hide was used. These multiple layers of bone made the bow quite stiff and powerful upon release.

The Hunnic bow was between 130-160 centimeters long or between four and five feet in length. Unlike other steppe bows, the length of the Hunnic bow was not ideal for use by a horse archer. The ancient Scythian bow was 80 centimeters or (2.6 feet) in length, making it ideal for horse archery, even though some were found to be 127 centimeters or (4.2 feet) in length. The Huns got around this by making the bow asymmetrical. Its upper half was slightly longer than the lower. The reason for the lower half being shorter was so as not to poke the horse in the neck. Another reason why the Huns extended the length of the bow was to produce more power. Upon release, the Hunnic horse archers could effectively hit an unarmored opponent at 150 to 200 meters or (492-656 feet), and an armored opponent at 75 to 100 meters or (246-328 feet).

A modern reconstruction of an historical composite bow.

A modern reconstruction of an historical composite bow. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The type of bowstring used also varied. The string for the bow must not be too heavy or light nor stretch easily. The materials used could have been from twisted gut, sinew, horsehair, vines, and even silk. The Hunnic horse archer probably had a variety of bowstrings on hand for various climate conditions. Horsehair strings were best suited for colder climates, whereas sinew absorbed moisture, making them less desirable due to stretching.

The Huns used a variety of arrowheads. One type was a large leaf-shaped and the other a large three-bladed iron arrowhead. The Huns are also said to have used “sharp bone” according to Ammianus. They are said to have fixed bone balls behind the tips called “whistlers”, which produce a terrifying sound for psychological effect. When placing the arrowhead on the shaft, the Huns and other eastern steppe peoples did not socket it into place like the Scythians and Sarmatians did. Instead, the Hunnic arrowheads had a tang, which was sunk into the arrow shaft. The possible reason for this is that it was easier to produce arrowheads with tangs than socketed. Later on western steppe tribes adopted the eastern tang style.

The type of arrow shafts possibly used was cane, reed, birch, cornel, rose-willow, hornbeam, and ash. Reed may have been the preferred material to use for it would travel further and easier to produce. The feathers used in fletching would generally have been from either ducks or geese. The number of feathers attached to the shaft was between two and four. The feathers provided aerodynamic stabilization for the flight of the arrow.

Ancient Greek bronze leaf-shaped, trefoil and triangular arrowheads.

Ancient Greek bronze leaf-shaped, trefoil and triangular arrowheads. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Huns carried a broad shaped bow case, which hung on the left side, and an hour glassed shape quiver or tube-like on the right side, which had a flap. The materials used to construct these cases were made of leather, bark or wood. Upon firing the arrow, the Hun would place the arrow on the right side of the bow. The archer would draw the bowstring with three fingers with the thumb locked under the first three fingers and protected by a ring of bone, horn, ivory or even stone.

An Empire of Conquest

In conclusion, the Hunnic war machine was like that of any other nomadic steppe tribe but with a twist. The twist is the Huns could do it better. Whereas the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and many others could only do little in terms of conquest and confiscation, their goals to expand beyond the steppe frontier was never considered, even when they were united. This is not to say that they did not take the plunge into the civilized sedentary world. They did, but in small strikes and fast retreats from those who posed a challenge. The Huns, like the others mentioned, became powerful enough to challenge the various steppe tribes and absorbed them through conquest. While the Huns initially were still not united, their appetite for conquest and confiscation could not be quenched and was a shared goal among them. Even when the Huns pushed out the Goths, they still found plunder by joining with the Romans. Once Attila came on the scene with his brother Bleda, the brothers were able to negotiate and coerce the tribes to coalesce as one. Therefore, the Huns were the first true nomadic empire to establish itself before the civilized world.

But their world was not long term, as the Hunnic economy was based on war and extortion with no lasting goal. In the end, the Hunnic war machine that set foot in Europe, before mighty Roman and the fractured Barbarians, would soon disappear, but the carcass of the machine remained to be absorbed by those affected, to be restudied and implemented to make their (Romans and Barbarians) armies much more effective on the battlefield.

Sculpture of Attila the Hun

Sculpture of Attila the Hun (Public Domain)

Top Image: Attila and his Hordes (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea

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