Hunnu: An ancient Mongol empire known in the West as the Huns


As stated in the Western classical sources, the Huns appeared in Europe and its territory suddenly around 370 AD. For instance:

The Romans became aware of the Huns when Huns’ invasion occurred in the Pontic steppes, a vast land stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. As a result of this invasion thousands of Goths were forced to move to the Lower Danube River in order to seek asylum in the Roman Empire in 376 AD. The Huns conquered the Alans in a very short time, as well as the most of the Western Goths and the Eastern Goths. Then a huge number of Alans and Goths were forced to flee to the Roman Empire.

The invasion of the Huns has brought a far-reaching historical consequences for the development of Europe as it stimulated the Great Migration, which was a major contributing factor to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and situated the foundations of new nation-states in the European continent during Middle Ages.

In 395, the Huns began their first large-scale attacks to the Eastern Roman Empire. Huns invaded Thrace, overran Armenia, and pillaged Cappadocia. They entered parts of Syria, threatened Antioch, and passed through the province of Euphrates.

At the same time, the Huns also invaded to the powerful Sasanian Empire (the last Persian Empire before the rise of Islams). This invasion was initially successful and rapidly expanded to the capital of at Ctesiphon. But they were lost in one of the Persian counterattacks, and defeated.

Interestingly, the Huns did not raid the Western Roman Empire. It turned out that  the Huns acted as allies with the Western Roman Empire in the struggle against Germanic tribes until the middle of the 5th century. That is why, in 433 AD some parts of Pannonia (modern Hungary, Austria and Serbia) were ceded to Huns by Flavius Aetius, the Magister militum of the Western Roman Empire.


Starting from 434 AD, brothers named Attila and Bleda began to rule the Huns together. In 435 AD they forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus, giving the Huns an exclusive trade right and an annual tribute from the Romans.

But the Romans breached the treaty twice. And each time the Huns defeated the Roman’s weak armies and ravaged the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. When Hun armies approached the capital city of Constantinople in 443 AD and sacked several cities before defeating the Romans at the Battle of Chersonesus, the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II gave up to Hun and approved the demands and signed the Peace of Anatolius with the two Hun kings in the following autumn.

Bleda died in 445 AD, and Attila became the sole ruler of the Huns.
In 447 AD, Attila invaded the Balkans and Thrace. This war came to end in 449 AD with an agreement in which the Eastern Roman Empire agreed to pay Attila a tribute of 2100 pounds of gold annually. Through their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns had maintained good relations with the Western Empire.

During the reign of Attila between 434–453 AD, the expansion of the Huns centered in Pannonia reached its maximum while covering the territory from the Volga and the Caucasus to the Rhine.

expansion of the Huns

By this time, an extremely variegated composition of Germanic and non-Germanic peoples appeared in the Huns’ Empire including Bulgars, Ostrogoths, Geruls, Hepids, Sarmatians, etc. All the conquered tribes were taxed with tributes and forced to participate in military campaigns.

In 451 AD, the Huns invaded the Western Roman province of Gaul, where they fought against a combined army of Romans and Visigoths at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, and they invaded Italy in 452 AD. After Attila’s death in 453 AD, the Huns ceased to be a major threat to Rome and surrendered a part of the empire following the Battle of Nedao

Descendants of the Huns or successors with similar names are recorded by neighbor populations to the south, the east and the west as having occupied some parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia from 4th to 6th centuries. Also, some name variants of the Hun are recorded in the Caucasus until the early 8th century.

But who were these Huns, where did they come from and how did they look like? 

Ancient descriptions of the Huns are uniform, which give high stress on their strange appearance from a Roman perspective. Writers and historians mention that the Huns had small eyes and flat noses. A Roman writer Priscus gives an eyewitnessed description of Attila: “Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard was thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin that served as an evidence of his origin.”

Ancient descriptions of the Huns

Many scholars consider these racial characteristics to be unflattering depictions of East Asians (“Mongoloid”). An Austrian historian Maenchen-Helfen argues that, while many Huns had Mongoloid types of racial characteristics, some archaeological findings of Huns suggested that they contained a racially mixed group with East Asian features. This is understandable, since there were many different peoples from Eurasia in the union of the Huns.

A Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330- 400) reports that the Huns had no buildings, but they possessed tents and wagons. Maenchen-Helfen believes that the Huns likely had “tents of felt and sheepskin” like Mongolian traditional gers. Priscus once mentioned about Attila’s tent. Also Jordanes, 6th-century Eastern Roman bureaucrat of Gothic extraction reports that Attila laid in a silk tent.

The Huns have traditionally been described as pastoral nomads, living off herding and moving from pastures to pastures in order to graze their animals. The process is the same with herders in modern Mongolia.

As nomads, the Huns spent a great deal of time riding horses as Ammianus described that the Huns were almost glued to their horses. Roman sources characterize the Hunnic horses so ugly. It is not possible to determine the exact breeding of Huns’ horses, despite of having relatively well-grounded Roman descriptions. But it was likely a breed of modern Mongolian undersized horses.

There are also fragmentary Roman references that the Huns were worshiped the sky, the sun and the moon. Since ancient times, the totem of the Mongols were the images of the moon and the sun, which are in the coat of arms and the flag of modern Mongolia.

Roman writers, namely Zosimus and Agathias, wrote that Huns’ armies relied on their high mobility skills and “a shrewd sense of choosing right time to attack and to withdraw”. An important strategy used by the Huns was a feigned retreat−pretending to flee and then turning and attacking the disordered enemy. It is amazing that the same tactics were used by the best commanders of Chinggis(Genghis)Khan in the Mongol empire in the 13th century.

expansion of the Huns

As for the weapons of the Huns, they used long-range bows. Bows were short and suitable for  firing from a horse. Bows had a reverse bend, so that a greater lethal force of the bow was achieved with a smaller size. Bows used by Huns, according to the Romans, were the most modern and effective weapon of antiquity – considered as a very valuable trophy among the Romans. Flavius Aetius, a Roman commander who lived for 20 years as a hostage among the Huns, used the Scythian bow into service in the Roman army.

Aren’t there too many coincidences in the descriptions of the Huns with the Mongols? It is nothing unusual.

Modern historians counting from a French scholar Joseph de Guignes in the 18th century have associated with the Huns who appeared on the borders of Europe in the 4t h century and the Hunnu who had invaded China from the territory of present-day Mongolia between the 3rd century BC and the 2nd century AD.

Historians have found that after the crushing blow inflicted by the state of the southern Mongols called Syanbi Xianbei with the support of the Chinese Han Dynasty, the Hunnu empire was divided into two parts. And the northern part began the longest journey to the west.

They were the Huns who first introduced Europeans to the stirrups and the progressive mobile tactics of the cavalry wars.

8 thoughts on “Hunnu: An ancient Mongol empire known in the West as the Huns

  1. Alannah says:

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  2. Henry of Skallitz says:

    Not mongolian but origin of Xiognu and Xiognu are the Turkic people. Mongols hasn’t even originated yet when the Xiognu were dominant in the region.

  3. tervel says:

    Attila did not control the empire Hunnu. He was just one of the Khans (General of 10.000 horsemen) of the Dulo dynasty and as many others (Vandals, Xianbei) was sent on a mission of terror to distract the neighbours (in this case Rome). Normally as a successfull veteran he refused to abandon all he achieved to be a servant/gurad of the ones ho gave him power and became independant creating his own kingdom. Als there was brewing a clash between the two dynasties Alani and Dulo.

  4. Pingback: Да ли су ратници Атиле Хунског заиста били толико немилосрдни? – ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ

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