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Huns (Turks / Mongoloids?)

In AD 372 a formidable group of Asiatic horse-borne warriors crossed the River Volga at a point not too far west of the dividing line between Europe and Asia which is formed by the Ural Mountains. They entered western Scythia, conquering anyone who stood before them, even the powerful Alani. They also stirred up a ripple effect of rumour and fear which swept ahead of them, reaching Roman ears by 376.

These Asiatic horse warriors are understood to have originated in the Ordos region of what is now Mongolia. Usually identified as the Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu) people in contemporary Chinese records, they may not have formed part this group directly but could well have been involved in a temporary confederation which included them (as could the similarly obscure early Göktürks who did not migrate alongside them). The lack of Xiongnu wealth to the west of the Urals does seem to point towards the Huns being an associated group rather than Xiongnu directly.

FeatureOther theories have them originating in Kazakhstan, although this is generally too far west to have formed a birthplace for the Turkic-Mongoloid groups, especially as it was still a stronghold of Indo-Iranian groups instead (see the attached feature for a thorough refutation of the now-discredited pan-Turkic theory of a great Turkic empire of which the Huns were largely the founders). For whatever reason - and population pressure on traditional hunting grounds is a favourite - they began a migration towards the west in the fourth century AD.

They reached the eastern edges of Scythia (also known as Samartia) by the 360s, with this wide range of plains on the northern coast of the Black Sea also reaching as far as the Caspian Sea (and now largely contained within Ukraine). For millennia this region had provided good feed for cattle and good horse-raising opportunities which were vital for its various nomadic dwellers, largely Indo-Europeans and their descendants until the third to six centuries AD.

Once established in Scythia and entering the Pontic steppe, in the 370s they clashed with the mighty Germanic Ostrogoths and other barbarians on the northern borders of the Roman empire. They were described at this time as a loose confederation of nomadic tribes. Once they reached the Danube, they established their main base in the Carpathian basin, part of the Roman province of Pannonia. This region eventually came to be known after them as Hungary, although later Hungarians referred to themselves as Magyars thanks to the ninth century invasion of Pannonia by that group.

It is a matter of contention as to whether the Huns had a single, overall leader before 374. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing circa 395, states that they had no kings, and that each group was lead by a 'primate'. This is possible, with any outward appearance of unity perhaps merely being due to a concentration of efforts by each group to destroy the opposition. Perhaps the greater chance of large-scale conquest and the opportunity of facing more organised enemies in Europe forced them to accept a single leader.

Shang bone inscription

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Peter Klinko (on AD 453), Kemal Cemal (supplying further rulers' names - shown in red), Edward Dawson (supplying name breakdowns), and Vassil Karloukovski (on Bulgar origins), from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), from The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture (Chapter IX: Language), Otto J Maenchen-Helfen, from The Barbarians: Warriors & Wars of the Dark Ages, Tim Newark (Blandford Press, 1985), from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, Jordanes (Dodo Press - and C C Mierow supplies a different translation from this version alongside some dates for early kings), from Millennium around Caspian, L N Gumilev (1993), from The Huns after Attila, Amedei Tieri (Homeland Notes, Volume XCVIII, SPb, 1855), and from External Links: Gothica, Jordanes (full text available online at Archive.com), and The First Bulgarian State Formations, Zufar Miftakhov, and Huns (History.com).)

c.360

Vund

Hunnic leader before the entry into Scythia.

c.360 - 378

Balamber / Balamir

Possibly fictitious to cover the start of European invasion.

372

The Huns cross the River Volga which empties into the Caspian Sea, dragging with them many other groups of horse-borne nomads, including the ancestors of the Kutrigurs and Utigurs. They burst into Scythia and stir up a wave of rumours and horror stories which sweep through Europe, and reach the ears of the Romans by 376.

Huns
The approach of the Huns into Central Europe spread terror and fear, and not without good reason as their unfamiliar battle tactics defeated opponent after opponent

In the northern Caucuses they clash with a group of Indo-Iranian steppe people called the Alani, defeating them. Like many others, the Alani have little choice but to become Hunnic allies.

372 - 432

The Huns, Alani, and other followers arrive on the Pontic steppe, between the Volga and the Danube, where they gradually take control. The region is nominally under the domination of the Ostrogoths, and is peopled by Gepids, Heruli, Illirs (called Pannons by the Romans, they later give their name to Illyria - the region at the top of the Adriatic Sea), Scirii, and Slavs, plus some Saxons who had settled in Dacia (later Transylvania) and quite probably the southernmost groups of Venedi.

They start by clashing with the mighty Ostrogoths, overrunning them, and in 376 they also defeat the Visigoths. The Germanic Rugian kingdom in what is now Austria is also made a client state, and the Quadi are effectively destroyed. The Huns gradually unify during this process, and only then begin to threaten the Western Roman empire.

378 - 390

Baltazár / Alypbi

Son.

390 - 410

Uldiz / Uldin

Aided Rome's Stilicho to defeat a barbarian army in 406.

407

A large body of Alani leave behind them the 'Western Huns' of Uldiz when they cross the Rhine along with the Suevi and Vandali, both of which have been forced to migrate westwards by the Hunnic invasion. The death of Uldiz leads to the Hunnic confederation splitting into three main groups which are not fully reunited until Attila's reign.

Ermanaric's death
In the face of an unstoppable and destructive Hunnic invasion, Ermanaric's final act was a (probable) ritualistic death ceremony in which he ended his own life

c.410 - 412

Donatus

Khan of the 'Eastern Huns' of the Black Sea.

c.412 - 415

Charaton / Karaton / Karatun / Aksungur

Charaton & Aksungur may be western and eastern rulers.

c.415?

Continuing their southwards migration, the Langobards enter 'Vurgundaib'. This is believed to be the original lands of the Burgundians, and can be located in the northern Carpathians. Once there, they are attacked in their encampment by 'Bulgars', probably as recruits of the Huns.

They are defeated, their king is killed, and they are subjugated. However, it seems that they quickly rise up under the leadership of the king's son and inflict an unusual defeat on the Huns. How long it takes for this to happen after their subjugation is unclear.

c.415 - 422

Bendeguz / Muncuk

Heritage unknown.

c.422 - 432

Octar / Uptar

Brother. Reunited some elements of the Huns. Killed.

c.422

Octar's name is an interesting example of Hunnic names being recorded in non-Hunnic forms. Otto J Maenchen-Helfen says: 'Before the East Romans had any contact with the Huns, they heard about them from the Goths. They must have heard many names as they were pronounced by Goths and other non-Huns, [including the Gaulish tribes in the Balkans].

Map of Central Asia - Turkic Expansion AD 300-600
Turkic origins are hard to pin down precisely, but the region around the Altai Mountains would seem to have served as a general incubator during their development, and the Romans would soon come to know them (click or ctap on map to view full sized)

'[Even after it had been recorded as Octar by Jordanes], Octar's name underwent some alteration in the course of transmission. The transition from "-ct-" to "-pt-" is characteristic of Balkans Latin, [and it] was probably there that Octar became Optar-Uptar'. Which suggests that Gaulish tribes in the Balkans were following the usual Celtic habit of swapping 'k' to 'p' even this late.

c.432 - 434

Rua / Rugila

Brother. United the Huns under a single kingship.

434 - 453

Attila

Son of Bendeguz. Terrorised Europe. Died in bed.

434 - 445

Bleda / Buda

Brother. Joint ruler. Killed by Attila.

434 - 453

Although highly successful in his initial command of the Huns, Attila never takes his people into the Roman empire to settle among the rich villa estates: the aim of all barbarians. Instead he leads major incursions into Roman, Byzantine, and Goth territory. There are also incursions into southern Lithuania around this time, suggesting the Huns or their allies also raid northwards into Balt territories. Such incursions are normally beaten off.

Map of the Baltic tribes around AD 1000
By about AD 1000 the final locations of the Baltic tribes were well known by the Germans who were beginning their attempts to subdue and control them, but these Balt groups were fairly stable, making it likely that their locations changed little before then (click or tap on map to view full sized)

451

To preserve their new domains, the Visigoths fight on the side of Rome to halt the advance of the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, in the former territory of the Catalauni. Attila is aided by his own allies, which include the Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugii, and Scirii. Although both sides fight to a standstill in this massive, bloody battle, it is Attila who withdraws and it is seen as his first major defeat, ending his reputation for invincibility.

452

By this time, the Hun headquarters are situated on the west bank of the Danube at Sicambria (Roman Aquincum, modern Buda). Attila meets Pope Leo I where he is persuaded not to attack and destroy Rome, and also to give up slaughtering Christians. His troops are seemingly weakened by malaria, but it is uncertain whether this is a contributing factor.

Even so, his approach into Italy causes panic, and refugees from Aquileia and other cities which had been burned down by Attila before his meeting with the pope escape into the lagoon marshes where they form a settlement which becomes Venice.

453

Upon the death of Attila, his sons fight each other for control, and the Huns begin to dissolve as a cohesive entity. Many elements of the empire start drifting away, some returning to their homelands. A sudden appearance of Roman solidi to the south of the Baltic Sea suggests that various Germanic groups return to their former homelands here, merging into the melting pot of leftovers known as the Vidivarii.

Attila the Hun
Despite his great success over the barbarian tribes of eastern and Central Europe, Attila's stalemate against an allied Roman-led army in 451 was a blow to his prestige, and his death soon afterwards caused his empire to crumble

453 - 454

Ellac / Ilek

Son of Attila. Killed in battle.

454

Ellac is defeated and killed at the Battle of Nedao by an alliance between Ardaric, king of the Gepids, and former Hunnic subjects. The defeat ends any presumption by the Huns to be the major power in the region. The Pannonian basin is occupied by the Gepids, while the Rugii head for Bohemia and northern Austria.

454 - 456

Dengisich / Dengizik / Dintzic / Tingiz

Brother. After 456, ruled Kutrigurs & Altyn Ola. Killed.

456 - 457

The Ostrogoths defeat and rout Attila's sons in their fight for independence. The central core of Huns apparently divides into the Kutrigurs and Utigurs (the 'Bulgarian Huns'). Dengisich may be ruler (khan) of the former, while Ernakh could rule the latter. The two also apparently control the Altyn Ola horde during their lifetimes. An alternative option is that the Kutrigurs and Utigurs are named after, and are led by, two of Ernakh's sons.

The Ostrogoths reassert power over the region following their military victory, and most Huns drift back into Scythia. They probably take with them elements of various subject groups including the Venedi, one of the latter of which seemingly reappears in 668, while others remain behind, including further Venedi, probably the bulk of them. The Tauric Ostrogoths in Crimea also regain their independence.

Hunnic nomad warrior
This illustration shows a horse-borne Hun killing an Eastern Roman soldier - although the ethnic composition of the Altyn Ola horde is unknown, it is likely that it contained some ethnic Huns anlongside a population of early Turkics

One group of Huns and their subjects settles permanently in Dacia (the Szekelys). They find that the plains of Pannonia (essentially western Hungary, northern Croatia, Slovenia, and eastern Austria) to the west of Dacia, secured by the Carpathians, is a perfect place in which to maintain their nomadic lifestyle, with its wide open grazing lands. Although many are massacred by the Ostrogoths, the remainder later become subjects in turn of the Avars and Magyars, blending into a single, united population.

Another group which migrates post-Attila is that of the so-called 'Gothi minores', according to Jordanes. They still lead a secluded existence in their mountain refuge a century after arriving there, close to Nicopolis and Istrum (Thrace - its ruins are located at the village of Nikyup, in modern northern Bulgaria).

fl 457

Tuldila

A Hun in the Roman army of Majorian.

454 - 456

Ernakh / Irnek / Hernach / Belkermak

Brother of Dengisich. Ruled the Altyn Ola & Utigurs.

Ernakh governs the surviving eastern territories, and is khan of the Akatirs, a Turkic tribe within Roman territory (probably the Utigurs). It is claimed by Procopius that Ernakh's two sons later share power and give their name to their subjugated people, who emerge in two groups named the Kutrigurs and Utigurs.

The entire Pontic-Caspian steppe is now awash with steppe tribes which jostle for supremacy, either as remnants of the Hunnic empire or having been part of an ongoing process of further tribes being forced westwards by population pressures in what is now Mongolia and Central Asia. These include the Bulgars, Onoghurs, Sabirs, and Saraghurs.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Other Hunnic remnants remain in the western core of the former empire's territory: Dacia and Pannonia. These include Huns, Turkic groups, Indo-Iranian groups, Germanics, Celts, and even Romans.

The region of Pannonia - and whatever Hunnic empire remnants it still contains by 898 - is subjugated by the invading Magyars. Popular theory claims that it retains its Hunnic-inspired name, even when the Magyars later form the kingdom of Hungary (although see the introduction for the Magyars, where this theory is largely disproved). Other elements of the orginal Hunnic groups may resurface in the early Bulgarian state in the early eighth century, whatever the modern objections against such a possibility.