Face Music - History: Horsemen – Nomads
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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

  • Huns
    - 4th century to 6th century after Christ
- map sketch:

  • Red Huns – Xionites
  • White Huns – Hephthalites
  • Black Huns – European Huns
  • Attila the Hun

Nomadic tribes, originally from the Central Asian area, settled in the area between the Kirghiz Lake Issyk Kul, and the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar (former Urga), approx. in the 2nd century AD. These were nomadic tribes invading the west via the Caspian steppes and bringing along on their raids confusion and destruction. The people were petrified of their warfare, especially of their mounted archery.

They are frequently classified as Xiongnu who dominated western China during the time of the early Han Dynasty (202 BC until 7th/8th century AD). The Chinese reported of a neighbouring tribe in the west, whose power was on the decline in the 1st century BC and who crumbled into a northern and a southern part. The southern part was turned into a Chinese protectorate, whereas the northern Empire ceased to exist at the end of the 1st century AD; the population was incorporated into the people of the Xianbei (a hord from the Mongolian-Manchuran frontier area). These tribes that were also called Huns are not related with the European groups.

It is more likely that the nomadic tribes of different origin lived in the Central Asian area, that they organised in new groups and that changes of denomination and name were rather common. The idea that Huns of the 4th and 5th centuries could be an Altaic idion (as was assumed at some points) was finally discarded as they had spoken a language that has become extinct by now. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to make statements on their ethnical origin. One reason therefore is that the denomination "Hun" was in part used as denomination for peoples settling in the Pontic Steppes north of the Black Sea (in the area Caspian Sea and northern Caucasus) and in Central Asia (Eurasia – Caspian Sea and Tian Shan Mountains). In addition, it is also rather debatable which of the Huns described in the Chinese sources may be really called Huns. Many of these peoples did probably not have more in common than their nomadic way of life.

The Xionites (Red Huns) conquered Bactria (between Aral Sea and Tian Shan Mountains) and pushed the Kidarites (former Kushan Empire: to be considered, however, rather the rest of the tribes of Yuezhi (Yüe-tschi) under Kidara) to Afghanistan and northern India. They appeared simultaneously in time and space before the European Huns who crossed the Volga in 375 AD and subdued the Sarmatians and the Goths. The Xionites, however, were, such as the Hephthalites (White Hun), not of "Hunnic" origin but rather Indo-Germanic origin as the ethnical composition of the three groups of that time (Xionites, Kidarites, Hephthalites) and their relations with one another have not been completely solved so far. Shapur II (King of the Sassanid Empire) defeated the Xionites, who in 359 AD served as auxiliary troops in the Roman-Persian War and participated in the siege of the fortress Amida. They were followed by the Hephthalites (the so-called "White Huns" were no relatives of the "European Huns") who crossed the Syrdaria River in 425 AD and assumed dominance over the Xionites until 450 AD. It remains – in a chronological point of view – unclear when the time of the Kidarites cames to an end. The White Huns were in great part responsible for the collapse of the Indian Empire of the Gupta, and they also had several armed conflicts with Persia.

European Huns – Black Huns

At the beginning of the common era (Christian chronology) Indo-Germanic tribes of the group related with the Scythians the Sarmatians controlled the Eastern European tribes (Iazyges, Roxolani and Alans), in the 3rd century they were joined by the Goths.

Everything changed when a part of the so-called "Black Huns" initiated the great migration period in the 70ies of the 4th century. Under the leadership of Balamir (or Balamber whose existence, however, remains dubious) the Huns crossed the Volga. About 374 AD they destroyed the realm of the Alans in the area of the Black Sea. A part of them, namely the White Huns, invaded the northern Caucasus area. They allied with the population settling there and arranged raids into the Persian area. In 385 AD the Alans allied with the Huns when these subdued the Ostgoths and other Germanic tribes. On the penisula Taurica (Crimean Peninsula) they destroyed the Gothic Empire (Ermanarichs, the king of the Gothic Greuthungi). A part of them fled towards the west. In the aftermath, the Huns reached the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire so that the Westgoths (Teruingi) left the area of the Black Sea. The Byzantine population from then on gave the Black Huns a name which was later on used for all Asian equestrian peoples: Tarators = Tatars (or older: Tartars). (This denomination might be translated with "the diabolic", as it goes back to the Greek "hell" or "underworld"). The Huns also brought an Asian disease to Europe: the pox.

The Black Huns did have a quite demoniac impression on their enemies. According to their traditions and customs, they slashed the faces of their male infants to inhibit beard growth. The warriors smeared black earth into their war scars to make the scars become bigger. They also practised the custom of skull deformation, which is why many Huns showed rather high towering skulls. The upper part of the head was shaved as a visible sign of their submission as only the Khagan, this is the leader of the horde, was allowed to have long hair. In regard to their war techniques on horses the Huns were superior to the Europeans; they were excellent riders and archers and were skilled in the Parthian shot: while at a full gallop, they could turn their bodies back to shoot at the pursuing enemy. They had stable saddles with integrated steps. The Romans also had light saddles, these were, however, not equipped with steps. Due to the rather stable balance, the Huns were able to use both their hands to fight with a sabre-like short sword while sitting in their saddle, as they could guide their horses through their thighs.
The graves of Huns were often situated near rivers. When buried, the warriors were given riding saddle, lasso, quirt and harness of their horses into their graves; sometimes even the horses themselves were buried with their riders. Women used to wear big earrings; and the noble ones wore headbands made from gold, decorated with garnet and mother-of-pearl. Idols made from gold and amber, such as was the case with the Sarmatians and the Alans, were cult objects; furthermore there were amuletts and shamanistic masks. Decorative elements are the arbor vitae and raptor heads, especially of eagles. The Huns practised fortune telling and shamanism, with intestines and bladebones being used for the prediction. The natural powers were divine, with "Tang Kök and Gök Tengri", the sky, being their supreme deity. The leaders of the Huns were considered god-like as they were appointed leader and king (Yabgu / Tangri Tangriqut) by god. Furthermore, they were compared with the sun (Tang Kun / Gün Tengri). With only a few exceptions, the Huns did not wash themselves and their clothes very often because running water was considered living – as did the Mongols – and hence had to be kept pure.

Initially the Huns did not have a generally accepted leadership. And therefore they were not real danger; for this reason the Romans sometimes even hired groups of Huns. The leaders Baich and Kursisch were the first Huns to be generally recognised; they crossed the Caucasus in 395 AD and raided Roman as well as Persian territories between Antiochia at the Orontes (ancient Syria) and Ktesiphon at the Tigris (today's Iraqu) until they were defeated by the Persians. After Octar's death in 430 AD (supposedly upon gluttony) Rua (or Rugila) controlled the majority of the European Huns. He was the first to guarantee a uniform leadership of the Huns. The Romans and Rua agreed to an interim truce and had to pay heavy tolls.

Attila the Hun

After Rua's sudden death, the Empire was divided between his nephews, this is his brother Munzuk's sons, Bleda and Attila. Bleda inherited the eastern, while Attila got the western part of the empire.
On behalf of the Western Roman general Aëtius, Huns defeated the Burgund Empire in 436 AD which had existed at the Middle Rhine since 400 AD. In this way, King Attila the Hun became an integral part of the German heroic saga: " He is the King Etzel in the epic poem, the Nibelungenlied, translated as 'The Song of the Nibelungs'".
At a not exactly known point of time at the end of 444 / beginning of 445 AD Blead was killed by assassins.

Under the sole leadership of Attila the power of the Black Huns hit its peak. In the middle of the 5th century AD, the Black Huns started to settle down: Their main area of settlement had in the meantime shifted to the Tisza Basin, where Attila had concentrated his army since 444 AD; the European Black Huns lost contact to other Hun tribes. Attila had a palace built made from wood, surrounded by piles, whereas at this time the Huns still used to live in tents. There was developed an early feudal system at Attila's court. Persons of outstanding merit were provided with pensions due to the Roman gold the Huns acquired, they owned goods or privileges. Serving the Romans was still more profitable– for this reason Attila reclaimed tribe memebers as deserted vasalls from the Byzantine Emperor. In the years 441 to 447 AD Attila devastated the entire Balkan Peninsula. He forced the then Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (Byzantium) to pay high tolls. Emperor Marcian, however, ceased to pay these tolls; Attila had to find himself another source of income as the European provinces of Byzantinum had already been devastated and destroyed.

Attila finally campaigned against Western Rome: He marched through Germania and finally was met in Gaul in the year 451 AD (Celtic area) by his former ally, a Roman general. This Flavius Aëtius had in the meantime allied with the tribal kings of the Franks, the Burgundians and the Westgoths and here pushed back Attila and his Byzantine and Gepidic vasalls in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. The battle ended without a victory for either party, with enormous casualties on both sides. The Huns were totally and utterly demoralised as Attila had to make a strategic withdrawal. Attila then moved to Italy (452 AD) and devastated many towns and cities, finally, however, having to withdraw to the Hungarian Plain. Legend has it that Attila met Pope Leo the Great – and that this encounter was the reason why he did not raid Rome; the whole story, however, cannot be really proven by means of historical facts. At this point of time, also the Byzantine Empire ceased to pay any tolls; simultaneously, Byzantine troops attacked Hunnic territory. After Attila's death his empire started to collapse – because of conflicts over secession and a total defeat against the Gepidic people (Germanic tribe in Romania).
The Huns started to vanish from Europe with the beginning of the 6th century. From this point of time on they mixed with other steppe peoples, such as the invading Avars or the Khazars.

February - July 2009 – Albi – translated by Hermelinde Steiner – January 2010