What do we know of the Huns?
The Huns first appeared at the end of the fourth century when they attacked barbarian tribes living to the north and west of the Danube. These barbarians then crossed the river and attacked the Roman Empire. They brought with them a style of warfare not entirely unknown to either the barbarians or the Romans, although neither had seen it on such a large scale. This description of the Huns, also from the pen of Ammianus Marcellinus, somewhat distorts what is fact and fiction about the Huns, but it does show the curiosity of the Roman people toward these soldiers: They are ill-fitted to fight on foot, and remain glued to their horses, hardy but ugly beasts, on which they sit like women to perform their everyday business. Buying or selling, eating or drinking, are all done by day and night on horseback and they even bow forward over their beasts’ narrow necks to enjoy a deep and dreamy sleep. When they need to debate some important matter they conduct their conference in the same posture . . . They sometimes fight by challenging their foes to single combat, but when they join battle they advance in packs, uttering their various war-cries. Being lightly equipped and very sudden in their movements can deliberately scatter and gallop about at random, inflicting tremendous slaughter (Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire (A.D. 354–378), trans. Walter Hamilton.
The Huns and the Romans
Initially, the Romans hired the Huns to help them fight the other barbarian tribes who had attacked their borders. As the Huns became a more permanent presence in the Empire, the Romans, who had been unable to handle the speed of the barbarian invasions before this, still held the balance of power on the frontier, although this balance was shifting away from them. This, in turn, created a previously unseen unity among the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and other barbarians to survive against these two enemies, the Romans and the Huns. Content at first to remain on the frontiers of the old Empire, the barbarians penetrated farther and farther into Roman territory until they occupied southern Gaul, Spain, and North Africa. However, even before those final migrations came about, in about 405 a large group of Huns, perhaps the majority of them, had turned their backs on the Romans and began to fight against both the Eastern and the Western Empire.
A new kind of warfare
So very early on in the history of the Early Middle Ages both the barbarians and the Romans felt the full force of the Huns’ method of fighting wars, for they fought very differently than either the barbarians or the Romans. Obviously, some of this difference was in their attitude, as the Huns are reported to have fought with a confidence and a ferocity that had rarely been seen in soldiers before this time— certainly, if Vegetius is correct, Roman soldiers lacked this. Some of the difference was also attributable to the Huns’ training and discipline: they were able to perform military maneuvers on the battlefield with a speed and dexterity that could only have come from years of being on horseback, a characteristic that Ammianus gives them in his description above. Yet a major reason for the difference between the Hunnic art of war and that of the barbarians or Romans was their use of the mounted archer as the primary component of their strategy and tactics.
What made the Huns unbeatable?
The Huns used light cavalry, all of whom carried composite bows, and some also carried spears and swords (there is even a legend about a sacred Hun sword). This cavalry almost always operated as mounted archers. They would not ride directly into an opposing force as in a charge, but would ride around them, firing as they passed. The contemporary writer, Claudian, describes the tactic: “Their double nature fitted not better the twi-formed Centaurs to the horses that were parts of them. Disorderly, but of incredible swiftness, they often return to the fight when little expected”. These soldiers were especially skillful, capable of shooting their bows with great accuracy from either side of their horses at full gallop. They could also fire across the rear of their horses to protect themselves and their companions as they withdrew from an attack or in case of retreat. Their bows were not overly powerful, certainly not compared with the bows carried by Byzantine foot soldiers or by later, mounted archers. They appear to have been unable to shoot an arrow capable of penetrating the armor worn by their opponents, although against unarmored enemies or unprotected parts of armored soldiers their barbed arrows could be devastating. The Huns only used infantry as auxiliaries. Despite contemporary and modern popular opinion that the mounted archers of the Huns wore no armor, it is currently believed they did indeed wear it during battlefield confrontations. However, the Huns favored scale or lamellar armor and not the mail that was becoming more prevalent throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. This preference is remarked on by several late Roman writers who seem surprised by it, perhaps giving an indication that scale armor was not considered to be as protective as mail at the time, or perhaps they believed the Huns should have been able to afford the more expensive mail coats. A simpler answer could be that mail was more fashionable among Romans than scale, but the opposite was true with the Huns. One late Roman author, writing in the fifth century, also describes a Hun who wore no sleeves on his scale armor, provoking some surprise. This might indicate a general trend, especially among these mounted archers who may have thought the weight and bulkiness of such armor impeded their ability to fire their bows accurately. No doubt both scale armor with or without sleeves was used by Huns; again, there was no standardization.
What did contemporary sources think of the Hunnic cavalry?
Judging from his earlier comments, Ammianus Marcellinus had a low opinion of the beauty of Hunnic horses—being “illshaped”— although he seems to have held their abilities in higher esteem—calling them “hardy.” It is certainly clear from his statement that their owners greatly valued their horses, better known as “steppe ponies.” Apart from the horses the Huns had extreme beauty standards for themselves.
While little is known about the horses that were ridden by other barbarian tribes who fought in these early medieval wars, much more is known about Hunnic horses, especially that they were light, short, and fast. They could also go for long distances without tiring, although Ammianus remarks elsewhere in his narrative that most Hun cavalry soldiers traveled with several horses during times of war, changing mounts frequently to preserve their horses’ strength. Moreover, the Huns’ horses were most often mares, as their milk could sustain the life of the warrior on campaign if needed. Mares are also easier to control than stallions. These may in fact have been the ancestors of the modern Mongolian horse, the mares standing an average of 50 inches (127 centimeters) high and being able to be milked four to five times a day, providing 0.11 pounds (50 grams) of milk each time.
The eventual demise of the great Hunnic horde
After the defeat of the Hun King Attila at the battle of Chalons in 451, his star began to fall rapidly. This most feared of all barbarian military leaders had been forced to turn back from an invasion of foreign lands, virtually the first time that such had happened to a Hun army since 405. Attila tried to regroup in Hungary, but even after he had done so, when he turned his army south into Italy, he could not regain his former military status. His army, hampered more by disease than by enemy forces, was forced to turn back once again. Attila did not live much longer. He died in 453, after a night of drinking and carousing, reports a contemporary critic, Jordanes. Attila was a man whose excesses in life, more than any military activity, brought about his premature death. A Hunnic civil war followed Attila’s demise, fought between his two sons over leadership of the tribe. Peoples previously subjected to the Huns, both barbarians and Romans, took advantage of this turmoil and the now extremely weakened Hun army could do nothing in response. By the end of the next decade, the Huns had begun retreating from Europe back toward the steppes. Some remained in what was later to be called Hungary, but those who did were forced to appeal to their former enemies for protection against invaders of their lands.