a Hun
The Huns (the word means "people" in Altaic) were a confederation of steppe nomadic tribes, some of whom may have been the descendants of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), rulers of an empire by the same name in Mongolia. The Huns were an illiterate nomadic people who probably spoke a Turkish language, most likely worshiped natural spirits and gods with shaman and fortunetellers who foretold omens by examining the shoulder blades of sheep. The military exploits of the Huns were chronicled in some detail by early European historians.

The Huns originated in the Altai regions. Scholars believe they were descendants of the Xiongnu (See Mongols). At first they were merely groups of raiders and bandits. Around A.D. 100, the Huns were driven westward out of eastern Asia by the Chinese. They settled in the valley of the Volga River and emerged in the 4th and 5th centuries to cause havoc in Europe.

All surviving accounts of the Huns were written by enemies of the Huns, and none describe the Huns in very positive terms. Jordanes, a Goth writing in Italy in 551, a century after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, described the Huns as a "savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech." "They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had, if I may call it so, a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes. Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless and their young men are without comeliness, because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts."[Source: Wikipedia]

Books: 1) Christian, David. (1998). A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Vol. 1: Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Oxford: Blackwell; 2) Golden, Peter B. (1992). An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag; 3) Maenchen-Helfen, O. J. (1973). The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press; Sinor, Denis. (1990). 4) "The Hun Period." In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives

Hun State and Society

Hun empire at its furthest extent

The Hun state had an early class organisation. It was governed by four aristocratic families. The supreme governor, shanjui, could at that time only be from Luyandi, the noblest family bound with three others by conjugal ties. These families were the Hun elite. The specific character of the supreme power in the nomadic community was that the entire family headed by shanjui ran the state. There was a hierarchy of clans and tribes playing a significant role in the Hun society. The subjugated tribes which were included in the Hun system were the lowest rank in this division. [Source: B.E. Kumekov, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010 ]

The supreme shanjui was followed by the left and the right “wise princes”, usually his sons or closest relatives. They governed in the western and eastern regions, being at the same time military commanders over the right and the left wings, correspondingly. Then there were twenty four local governors’ having different titles, military commanders. The rule of shanjui was exclusively hereditary, blessed by the divine power, the divine kharism (Tengri Kut). The sacred rule of the shanjui was perfectly inserted into the main features of the universe. Heaven and Earth were described as powers giving birth, and Sun and Moon as powers promoting life. A jasper seal symbolized the authority of the shanjui.

The army and population were organised in tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands for military structuring and census taking. Beginning from the 2nd century B.C., the Huns made records of the quantity of population and cattle, according to which people paid an income tax and a tax on cattle. Records were kept in a written form, and decrees and laws were issued. The territory was quarded by frontier sentinels. The economy was based on nomadic cattle breeding, and special attention was paid to horse breeding. The Hun cavalry was divided in four armies, according to colours of horses: white, grey, black, and chestnut. Well-trained and capable of great endurance, the cavalry was the main unit of the army and power of the state. The favourite expression of Huhanie, a shanjui of the Huns, says that, “the Huns created their state fighting on horseback”.

Slavery was widespread. In population numbering 1.5 million people, more than 190 thousand were slaves, i.e. the one-tenth of the population. Slaves tended sheep, and were engaged in agriculture and craftsmanship. There was private property in the society for cattle and slaves. Subjugated tribes were to pay tribute. The traditions of the Hun state served as a prototype for nomadic states in Central Asia.

Hun Customs, Culture and Weaponry

5th century Hun silver buckles and iron brooches

Artificial cranial deformation was practiced by the Huns and sometimes by tribes with whom they influenced. The historian Otto Maenchen-Helfen wrote: “Like so many other people, the Huns inflicted wounds on their live flesh as a sign of grief when their kinsmen were dying." When a leader died, it was tradition to mourn them with blood instead of tears and so the warriors would slash their cheeks to "cry blood". [Source: Wikipedia]

The Huns kept herds of cattle, horses, goats and sheep. Their other sources of food consisted of wild game and the roots of wild plants. For clothes they had pointed caps, trousers or leggings made from ibex skin, and either linen or rodent skin tunics. Ammianus reports that they wore these clothes until the clothes fell to pieces. The a Roman historian Priscus describes Attila's clothes as different from those of his men only in being clean. Women would embroider the edges of the garments and often stitch small colorful stone beads on them as well.

In warfare the Huns used the bow and javelin. They also fought using iron swords and lassos in close combat. The Hun sword was a long, straight, double-edged sword of early Sassanian style. These swords were hung from a belt using the scabbard-slide method, which kept the weapon vertical. The Huns also employed a smaller short sword or large dagger which was hung horizontally across the belly. A symbol of status among the Huns was a gilded bow. Sword and dagger grips also were decorated with gold. With the arrival of the Huns, a tradition of using more bone laths in composite bows — with made the bow stiffer and more powerful — arrived in Europe.

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “The Huns were unusual in that they were both allies and enemies of the Roman Empire. It was commonplace to see Huns and various barbarian tribes as auxiliary units in the legions. They were opportunists who sought to exploit any given situation in their favor. They were also different from other steppe people in that they made regular use of the lasso as a weapon. They were strongest under the leadership of Attila and did not suffer defeat until they met an uneasy alliance between barbarians and Romans in a pitched battle in Gaul. When Attila died, the Huns, like most steppe people, dispersed and were no longer a threat. Archaeological evidence dispels two myths concerning the Huns: they neither used stirrups nor buried their dead with operational recurved composite bows. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

Huns and Xiongnu

Many believe the Huns descended from tribes referred to by the Chinese as the Xiongnu. Irma Marx of the Silk Road Foundation wrote: “The Xiongnu stemmed basically from the Siberian branch of the Mongolian race. During the third and second centuries B.C. they rose to great power and became a tribal confederation. During Emperor Mo-tun reign (208-175 B.C.), the Xiongnu were at the zenith of their might and occupied a huge territory from Lake Baikal on the north to the Ordos plateau on the south and the Liao River on the east. By 55-34 B.C. their political influence reached as far as the lower Volga and the Ureal foothills. This expansion westwards significantly increased the trade with the western world. The trade route was leading now from the west through the northern oasis of east Turkestan to the Xiongnus' headquarters in north Mongolia and southward to north China. [Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation ]

“The basis of the Xiongnus' economy was herding, mostly pastoral nomads who lived in felt-cobbled tents, using bow and arrow from horseback. By the first century B.C. there were also large settled populations with well-developed agriculture of millet, barley and wheat. The production of crafts flourished as wll, iron and bronze was smelted in their workshops and fine tools, weaponry, household utensils, jewelry and ceramics were produced.

“Chinese sources inform us that the Xiongnu worshiped the sun, moon, heaven, earth, and to their ancestors. They had shamans or medicine men who had great influence over the tribesmen. The horse played a leading role in the herder's migration, hunting and war. In special ceremonies they sacrificed white horses and drank the blood. When a man died his widows were married either to a younger brother or a son. When a great chief died, concubines and retainers were often killed and buried with him. The Xiongnu apparently had no writing. It is believed that they spoke one of the Turkic languages (Guniley, 1960, pp. 48-49; Meanchen-Helfen, 1973, pp. 376-443). However, the question of language is far from being resolved.

“During the newly established Chinese Han dynasty (AD 206-220), China expanded its borders and the Xiongnu empire lost ground. Weakened by the loss of men and animals because of their constant battles, and the split by internal dissension, the tribes of the confederation began one by one to accept a position of vassalage under China. The northern Xiongnu moved from Outer Mongolia into what was than Dzaungaria, where they conquered a new but short lived empire. With the beheading of their leader by a Chinese army the group disappeared from history.

Huns around AD 200

“The southern Xiongnu, who replaced their northern kindred in Outer Mongolia, remained at peace with China for some years. With the turn of the Christian Era these Xiongnu extended their power west into Dzungaria and reasserted their independence from China, although some tribes along the borderlands remained vassals of the Chinese and served as buffers against their independent kinsmen. In the first of this millenium the Hsien Pei, a Tungusic or Mongol people, appeared north of China and conquered Mongolia, forcing the independent Xiongnu into Dzungaria. A century later the Hsien Pei also gained control of Dzungaria. The Xiongnu who had remained on the borders of China lingered on in history until the fifth century. Those who were forced out of Dzungaria by the Hsien Pei disappeared from notice in A.D. 170.

Hunnu: Ancient Chinese Account of Huns?

Chinese description of the Hunnu or Hu are believed to be primarily accounts of the Xiongnu, and possibly the Huns, According to Mongolia Today: ““The Hunnu kingdom stretched from Baikal Lake in the north to Great Chinese Wall in south, from Yellow Sea to the oases of Central Asia. The state, ruled by a king or Shanyu elected by assembly of all tribe chieftains- khurultai, was built on the principle of military democracy under which all the nomadic herders were warriors and subjects at the same time. Chinese historical records noted that each autumn all men and cattle were counted to decide the amount of taxes and army subscripts. Hunnu army was based on decimal system and was well armed. Rock paintings from that period depict armored knights and horses protected with aprons embroidered with metal plates. [Source: Mongolia Today, June 18, 2007 ]

“Hunnu domesticated various animals including camels and grew crops. Inside graveyards corn grindstone and parts of plough prove that their grew crops. Hunnu knew metal works as the amazing number variety of their arms suggest. Each and very Hunnu warrior had various arms for close and distance combat. Plenty of bronze and potter kitchenware proves that Hunnu had well developed craftsmen.

“The decline of Hunnu empire began in the first century B.C. starting from the rivalry of two princes, Huhan’e and Zhizhi. After several major battles the younger brother fled, leading his men to West, towards the Caspian Sea. Five hundred years later, their descendants migrated further reaching Dunai River and setting up own kingdom headed by . The remaining and weakened Hunnu fell under the repeated assaults of a neighboring nomadic tribe, Xianbi, which appeared on the eastern flanks of the Hunnu empire.

“Recent research suggests that Hunnu did not differ much from modern Mongols in their appearance and may represent their ancestors. Anthropological studies show that the Mongoloid race or Central Asian type was already well shaped by the time of Hunnu. This a final conclusion made by Prof. G.Tumen, Chair of the Anthropology and Archeology of the Mongolian National University, after more than 30 years of comparative study of skulls from Stone Age to modern times. DNA analysis also proved the consistency of genetic lines between Hunnu and modern Mongols. This scientific conclusion implies that Atilla the Hun was indeed an ancestor of the Mongols.”

Orgin of the Huns Table, People D the most likely candidates

Hun Conquests

On horses bred for distance, Huns, spread from Volga area into China and Europe between A.D. 304 and 370. The Huns were steppe horsemen who entered Europe from central Asia in A.D. 372. As they moved westward they absorbed German tribal and Roman culture.

The Huns conquered large parts of Europe, Persia and India. The Roman historian Marcellinus dismissed them as barbarians that “fall at every step — they have no feet to walk; they live, wake, eat, drink, and hold counsel on horseback.” The Europeans called them the “Scourge fo God.”

Denis Sinor wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: No people of Inner Asia, not even the Mongols, have acquired in European historiography a notoriety similar to that of the Huns, whose name has become synonymous with that of cruel, destructive invaders. Just as the name of the Germanic Vandals has given us the term “vandalism,” the name Hun has been used pejoratively to stigmatize any ferocious, savage enemy. Their greatest ruler, Attila, “the scourge of God,” has become the legendary embodiment of a cruel, merciless leader of barbarians. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

“There are several reasons why the Huns caught the Western imagination. Firstly, not since Scythian times had any Inner Asian people seriously challenged the equilibrium of the Western World. The Germanic menace to Rome, serious though it was, presented nothing unusual or unexpected – it was part and parcel of Roman political life; the limits of conflict and the patterns of resolution were clearly established. The Huns presented a challenge of a different type: they did not fit into any conventional political category; their very looks, their mode of waging war set them apart from humanity as known to Europe. Secondly, they appeared on the European scene at a time when both the eastern and the western parts of the Roman Empire had to contend with serious internal disorders which weakened their military preparedness. Thirdly, the status quo of the period was disturbed not only by their direct action but even more by their being instrumental in setting into motion the great upheaval of peoples commonly known as the Völkerwanderung.”

Huns Move Into Europe

After the collapse of the Hsiung-nu state in the late first century c.e., the Huns migrated westward to Central Asia and in the process mixed with various Siberian, Ugric, Turkic, and Iranian ethnic elements. Around 350, the Huns migrated further west and entered the Ponto-Caspian steppe, from where they launched raids into Transcaucasia and the Near East in the 360s and 370s. Around 375, they crossed the Volga River and entered the western North Pontic region, where they destroyed the Cherniakhova culture and absorbed much of its Germanic (Gothic), Slavic, and Iranian (Sarmatian) ethnic elements. Hun movement westward initiated a massive chain reaction, touching off the migration of peoples in western Eurasia, mainly the Goths west and the Slavs west and north-northeast. Some of the Goths who escaped the Huns' invasion crossed the Danube and entered Roman territories in 376. In the process of their migrations, the Huns also altered the linguistic makeup of the Inner Eurasian steppe, transforming it from being largely Indo-European-speaking (mainly Iranian) to Turkic. [Source: Roman K. Kovalev, Encyclopedia of Russian History, 2004]

From 395 to 396, from the North Pontic the Huns staged massive raids through Transcaucasia into Roman and Sasanian territories in Anatolia, Syria, and Cappadocia. By around 400, Pannonia (Hungary) and areas north of the lower Danube became the Huns' staging grounds for attacks on the East and West Roman territories. In the 430s and 440s, they launched campaigns on the East Roman Balkans and against Germanic tribes in central Europe, reaching as far west as southern France.

The Huns' attacks on territories beyond the North Pontic steppe and Pannonia were raids for booty, campaigns to extract tribute, and mercenary fighting for their clients, not conquests of their wealthy sedentary agricultural neighbors and their lands. Being pastoralists, they wielded great military powers, but only for as long as they remained in the steppe region of Inner Eurasia, which provided them with the open terrain necessary for their mobility and grasslands for their horses. Consequently, Hun attacks west of Pannonia were minor, unorganized, and not led by strong leaders until Attila, who ruled from about 444 or 445 to 453. However, even he continued the earlier Hun practice of viewing the Roman Empire primarily as a source of booty and tribute.

Huns March of Conquest Through Europe

The Huns first appeared in Europe in the 4th century. They show up north of the Black Sea around 370. The Huns crossed the Volga river and attacked the Alans, whom they subjugated. After the Huns defeated the Alans, the Huns and Alans started plundering Greuthungic settlements. The Greuthungic king, Ermanaric, committed suicide and his great-nephew, Vithimiris, took over. Vithimiris was killed during a battle against the Alans and Huns in 376. This resulted in the subjugation of most of the Ostrogoths. Refugees streamed into Thervingic territory, west of the Dniester. The Barbarian invasions of the 5th century were triggered by the destruction of the Gothic kingdoms by the Huns in 372-375. The city of Rome was captured and looted by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455. [Source: Wikipedia]

With a part of the Ostrogoths on the run, the Huns next came to the territory of the Visigoths, led by Athanaric. Athanaric, not to be caught off guard, sent an expeditionary force beyond the Dniester. The Huns avoided this small force and attacked Athanaric directly. The Goths retreated into the Carpathians. Support for the Gothic chieftains diminished as refugees headed into Thrace and towards the safety of the Roman garrisons. [Ibid]

After these invasions, the Huns begin to be noted as mercenaries. As early as 380, a group of Huns was given Foederati status and allowed to settle in Pannonia. Hunnish mercenaries were also seen on several occasions in the succession struggles of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire during the late 4th century. However, it is most likely that these were individual mercenary bands, not a Hunnish kingdom. [Ibid]

The Huns do not then appear to have been a single force with a single ruler. Many Huns were employed as mercenaries by both East and West Romans and by the Goths. Uldin, the first Hun known by name, headed a group of Huns and Alans fighting against Radagaisus in defense of Italy. Uldin was also known for defeating Gothic rebels giving trouble to the East Romans around the Danube and beheading the Goth Gainas around 400-401. Gainas' head was given to the East Romans for display in Constantinople in an apparent exchange of gifts. [Ibid]

Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun unified the Huns and led many of major Hun campaigns of conquest in Europe. He was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. Under Attila, the Huns raided Gaul, Italy, and the Balkans. In 447 they attacked Constantinople but were unable to take it. In 451, they menaced France and besieged Orleans. In 448, they invaded Italy and achieved a number of victories, coming up just short of Rome itself.


According to some reports Attila the Hun was a dwarf. In other reports he never took showers. Priscus, a Roman historian who met Attila as an emissary for the Eastern Roman Empire in 445, described Attila as: "Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin...His clothes, tattoos, were simple, and no trouble was taken except to have them clean. The sword that hung by his side, the clasps of his barbarian shoes and the bridle for his horse were all free of gold, precious shrines or other valuable decorations.” His residence, he wrote, “was made of polished boards, and surrounded with wooden enclosures, designed not so much for protection as for appearance’s sake.”

Nothing is known of Attila’s early life. It is not known where or when he was born. Attila and his brother Bleda became leader of the united Hun tribes upon of their father Rugila (also known as Rua or Ruga) in 434. At the time of two brothers' accession, the Hun tribes were bargaining with Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II's envoys for the return of several renegades (possibly Hunnic nobles who disagreed with the brothers' assumption of leadership) who had taken refuge within the Eastern Roman Empire. The following year Attila and Bleda met with the imperial legation at Margus (present-day Po arevac) and, all seated on horseback in the Hunnic manner, negotiated a successful treaty. The Romans agreed to not only return the fugitives, but to also double their previous tribute of 350 Roman pounds (115 kilograms) of gold, to open their markets to Hunnish traders, and to pay a ransom of eight solidi for each Roman taken prisoner by the Huns. When the eastern Romans failed to fully up on this deal its in motion a wave of plundering attacks by the Huns. [Source: Wikipedia]

In an account of the person of Attila, Jordanes wrote: “When Attila's brother Bleda who ruled over a great part of the Huns had been slain by Attila's treachery, the latter united all the people under his own rule. Gathering also a host of the other tribes which he then held under his sway he sought to subdue the foremost nations of the world — the Romans and Visigoths. His army is said to have numbered 500,000 men. He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumors noised abroad concerning him. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes here and there, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection. He was short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head: his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with gray: and he had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion showing the evidences of his origin.. [Source: From: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), p. 322]

Attila the Hun died while celebrating during one of his many "wedding nights," this time to a German named Hilda in 453. According to Priscus he died after severe nosebleed, choking to death while passed out. Jordanes wrote: "The greatest of all warriors should be mourned with no feminine lamentations and with no tears, but with the blood of men." His horsemen galloped in circles around the silken tent where Attila lay in state, singing in his dirge, according to Cassiodorus. Jordanes said: "Who can rate this as death, when none believes it calls for vengeance?"After Attila was dead and Hun empire collapsed.

Traveling with Attila and the Huns

According to the University of Calgary: “The Greek writer Priscus actually visited the Huns and conversed with Attila. He received a very different impression of the people from the fearsome pictures given earlier by Ammianus Marcellinus. We may however infer that the Huns had been a good deal changed by their contact with the European peoples. Priscus and a companion, Maxim, were sent by the Roman government with messages to Attila in 448. Priscus first tells of their long journey from Constantinople to Scythia, the territory then occupied by the Huns north of the lower Danube. After some difficulty the messengers obtained a first interview with Attila. Then, as the king of the Huns was about to move northward, he and his companion determined to follow him.”

Priscus wrote: “We set out with the barbarians, and arrived at Sardica, which is thirteen days for a fast traveller from Constantinople. Halting there we considered it advisable to invite Edecon and the barbarians with him to dinner. The inhabitants of the place sold us sheep and oxen, which we slaughtered, and we prepared a meal. In the course of the feast, as the barbarians lauded Attila and we lauded the Emperor, Bigilas remarked that it was not fair to compare a man and a god, meaning Attila by the man and Theodosius by the god. The Huns grew excited and hot at this remark. But we turned the conversation in another direction, and soothed their wounded feelings; and after dinner, when we separated, Maximin presented Edecon and Orestes with silk garments and Indian gems. [Source: translated by J.B. Bury, University of Calgary]

“When we arrived at Naissus we found the city deserted, as though it had been sacked; only a few sick persons lay in the churches. We halted at a short distance from the river, in an open space, for all the ground adjacent to the bank was full of the bones of men slain in war. On the morrow we came to the station of Agintheus, the commander-in-chief of the Illyrian armies (magister militum per Illyricum), who was posted not far from Naissus, to announce to him the Imperial commands, and to receive five of those seventeen deserters, about whom Attila had written to the Emperor. We had an interview with him, and having treated the deserters with kindness, he committed them to us. The next day we proceeded from the district of Naissus towards the Danube; we entered a covered valley with many bends and windings and circuitous paths. We thought we were travelling due west, but when the day dawned the sun rose in front; and some of us unacquainted with the topography cried out that the sun was going the wrong way, and portending unusual events. The fact was that that part of the road faced the east, owing to the irregularity of the ground. Having passed these rough places we arrived at a plain which was also well wooded. At the river we were received by barbarian ferrymen, who rowed us across the river in boats made by themselves out of single trees hewn and hollowed. These preparations had not been made for our sake, but to convey across a company of Huns; for Attila pretended that he wished to hunt in Roman territory, but his intent was really hostile, because all the deserters had not been given up to him. Having crossed the Danube, and proceeded with the barbarians about seventy stadia, we were compelled to wait in a certain plain, that Edecon and his party might go on in front and inform Attila of our arrival.

Hun camp

"As we were dining in the evening we heard the sound of horses approaching, and two Scythians arrived with directions that we were to set out to Attila. We asked them first to partake of our meal, and they dismounted and made good cheer. On the next day, under their guidance, we arrived at the tents of Attila, which were numerous, about three o'clock, and when we wished to pitch our tent on a hill the barbarians who met us prevented us, because the tent of Attila was on low ground, so we halted where the Scythians desired.... (Then a message is received from Attila, who was aware of the nature of their embassy, saying that if they had nothing further to communicate to him he would not receive them, so they reluctantly prepared to return.) When the baggage had been packed on the beasts of burden, and we were perforce preparing to start in the night time, messengers came from Attila bidding us wait on account of the late hour. Then men arrived with an ox and river fish, sent to us by Attila, and when we had dined we retired to sleep. “

“After the departure of Bigilas, who returned to the Empire (nominally to find the deserters whose restoration Attila demanded, but really to get the money for his fellow-conspirator Edecon), we remained one day in that place, and then set out with Attila for the northern parts of the country. We accompanied the barbarian for a time, but when we reached a certain point took another route by the command of the Scythians who conducted us, as Attila was proceeding to a village where he intended to marry the daughter of Eskam, though he had many other wives, for the Scythians practise polygamy. We proceeded along a level road in a plain and met with navigable rivers--of which the greatest, next to the Danube, are the Drecon, Tigas, and Tiphesas--which we crossed in the Monoxyles, boats made of one piece, used by the dwellers on the banks: the smaller rivers we traversed on rafts which the barbarians carry about with them on carts, for the purpose of crossing morasses. In the villages we were supplied with food--millet instead of corn, and mead, as the natives call it, instead of wine. The attendants who followed us received millet, and a drink made of barley, which the barbarians call kam. Late in the evening, having travelled a long distance, we pitched our tents on the banks of a fresh-water lake, used for water by the inhabitants of the neighbouring village. But a wind and storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning and heavy rain, arose, and almost threw down our tents; all our utensils were rolled into the waters of the lake. Terrified by the mishap and the atmospherical disturbance, we left the place and lost one another in the dark and the rain, each following the road that seemed most easy. But we all reached the village by different ways, and raised an alarm to obtain what we lacked.

Hun warriors

"The Scythians of the village sprang out of their huts at the noise, and, lighting the reeds which they use for kindling fires, asked what we wanted. Our conductors replied that the storm had alarmed us; so they invited us to their huts and provided warmth for us by lighting large fires of reeds. The lady who governed the village- -she had been one of Bleda's wives--sent us provisions and good-looking girls to console us (this is a Scythian compliment). We treated the young women to a share in the eatables. but declined to take any further advantage of their presence. We remained in the huts till day dawned and then went to look for our lost utensils, which we found partly in the place where we had pitched the tent, partly on the bank of the lake, and partly in the water. We spent that day in the village drying our things; for the storm had ceased and the sun was bright. Having looked after our horses and cattle, we directed our steps to the princess, to whom we paid our respects and presented gifts in return for her courtesy. The gifts consisted of things which are esteemed by the barbarians as not produced in the country--three silver phials, red skins, Indian pepper, palm fruit, and other delicacies.

“Having advanced a distance of seven days farther, we halted at a village; for as the rest of the route was the same for us and Attila, it behoved us to wait, so that he might go in front. Here we met with some of the "western Romans," who had also come on an embassy to Attila--the count Romulus, Promotus governor of Noricum, and Romanus a military captain. With them was Constantius whom Aetius had sent to Attila to be his secretary, and Tatulus, the father of Orestes; these two were not connected with the embassy, but were friends of the ambassadors. Constantius had known them of old in the Italies, and Orestes had married the daughter of Romulus. The object of the embassy, was to soften the soul of Attila, who demanded the surrender of one Silvanus, a dealer in silver plate in Rome, because he had received golden vessels from a certain Constantius. This Constantius, a native of Gaul, had preceded his namesake in the office of secretary to Attila.

"When Sirmium in Pannonia was besieged by the Scythians, the bishop of the place consigned the vessels to his (Constantius') care, that if the city were taken and he survived they might be used to ransom him; and in case he were slain, to ransom the citizens who were led into captivity. But when the city was enslaved, Constantius violated his engagement, and, as he happened to be at Rome on business, pawned the vessels to Silvanus for a sum of money, on condition that if he gave back the money within a prescribed period the dishes should be returned, but otherwise should become the property of Silvanus. Constantius, suspected of treachery, was crucified by Attila and Bleda; and afterwards, when the affair of the vessels became known to Attila, he demanded the surrender of Silvanus on the ground that he had stolen his property. Accordingly Aetius and the Emperor of the Western Romans sent to explain that Silvanus was the creditor of Constantius, the vessels having been pawned and not stolen, and that he had sold them to priests and others for sacred purposes. If, however, Attila refused to desist from his demand, he, the Emperor, would send him the value of the vessels, but would not surrender the innocent Silvanus.

Palace of Attila the Hun

After describing the incidents of their journey and their arrival at a large village, Priscus wrote: “Attila's residence, which was situated here, was said to be more splendid than his houses in other places. It was made of polished boards, and surrounded with wooden enclosures, designed not so much for protection as for appearance' sake. The house of the chieftain Onegesius was second only to the king's in splendor and was also encircled with a wooden enclosure, but it was not adorned with towers like that of the king. Not far from the inclosure was a large bath built by Onegesius, who was the second in power among the Scythians. The stones for this bath had been brought from Pannonia, for the barbarians in this district had no stones or trees, but used imported material.... [Source: an account left by Priscus, translated in J. H. Robinson, “Readings in European History,” (Boston: Ginn, 1905), pp. 46-49]

“The next day I entered the enclosure of Attila's palace, bearing gifts to his wife, whose name was Kreka. She had three sons, of whom the eldest governed the Acatiri and the other nations who dwell in Pontic Scythia. Within the inclosures were numerous buildings, some of carved boards beautifully fitted together, others of straight planed beams, without carving, fastened on round wooden blocks which rose to a moderate height from the ground. Attila's wife lived here; and, having been admitted by the barbarians at the door, I found her reclining on a soft couch. The floor of the room was covered with woolen mats for walking on. A number of servants stood round her, and maids sitting on the floor in front of her embroidered with colors linen cloths intended to be placed over the Scythian dress for ornament. Having approached, saluted her, and presented-the gifts, I went out and walked to the other houses, where Attila was, and waited for Onegesius, who, as I knew, was with Attila. . . .

“I saw a number of people advancing, and a great commotion and noise, Attila's egress being expected. And he came forth from the house with a dignified strut, looking round on this side and on that. He was accompanied by Onegesius, and stood in front of the house; and many persons who had lawsuits with one another came up and received his judgment. Then he returned into the house d p and received ambassadors of barbarous peoples. . . .

Dinner with Attila the Hun

Priscus was invited to a banquet with Attila at three o'clock. He wrote: “When the hour arrived we went to the palace, along with the embassy from the western Romans, and stood on the threshold of the hall in the presence of Attila. The cupbearers gave us a cup, according to the national custom, that we might pray before we sat down. Having tasted the cup, we proceeded to take our seats, all the chairs being ranged along the walls of the room on either side. Attila sat in the middle on a couch ; a second couch was set behind him, and from it steps led up to his bed, which was covered with linen sheets and wrought coverlets for ornament, such as Greeks and Romans used to deck bridal beds. The places on the right of Attila were held chief in honor - those on the left, where we sat, were only second. . . . [Source: an account left by Priscus, translated in J. H. Robinson, “Readings in European History,” (Boston: Ginn, 1905), pp. 46-49]

[First the king and his guests pledged one another with the wine.] When this ceremony was over the cupbearers retired, and tables, large enough for three or four, or even more, to sit at, were placed next the table of Attila, so that each could take of the food on the dishes without leaving his seat. The attendant of Attila first entered with a dish of meat, and behind him came the other attendants with bread and viands, which they laid on the tables. A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, he showed himself temperate - his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the ratchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.

“When the viands of the first course had been consumed, we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first, When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang sons they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valor in war.

Entertainment at Attila the Hun's Dinner

"As twilight came in torches were lit, and two barbarians entered before Attila to sing some songs they had composed, telling of his victories and his valor in war. The guests paid close attention to them, and some were delighted with the songs, others excited at being reminded of the wars, but others broke down and wept.

Attila's death

"After the songs a Scythian entered, a crazy fellow who told lot of strange and completely false stories, not a word of truth in them, which made everyone laugh. Following him came the Moor, Zerkon, totally disorganized in appearance , clothes, voice and words. By mixing the language of the Italians with those of the Huns and Goths, he fascinated everyone and made them break out into uncontrollable laughter, all that is expect Attila."

Attila remained impassive, without any change of expression, and neither by word or gesture did he seem to be sharing the merriment except when he his youngest son, Ernas, came in and stood by him, he drew the boy towards him and looked at him with gentle eyes, and only had time for this one."

"The barbarian at my side, who was an Italian heard what I had said about the boy, warned me not to speak up, and said that the seers had told Attila that his family would be banished but would be restored by his son. After spending most of the night at the party, we left, having no wish to pursue the drinking any further."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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