On June 20, 451 on a broad plain in the Champagne region of France, Attila the Hun, “the Scourge of God”, engaged in his greatest battle. The fate of western civilization lay in the balance.
In Chinese history, the Huns are tentatively identified as the nomadic peoples known in their histories as the Hsiung Nu (“Fierce Slaves”). In the Second Century A.D., the Chinese Han Empire drove the Huns away from their borders in a series of campaigns. The Huns then began their long migration westward, ever searching for fresh pastures for their sheep; and new peoples to plunder and subjugate.
Modern scholarship theorizes that the Huns were not ethnically one people, but a confederation of Mongolian and Turkic nomadic clans. By the time they entered European history in the 4th century, these peoples had fused into one cultural group.
The Huns were first-and-foremost mounted horse archers. From infancy, male children were taught to ride by being placed on the backs of sheep, to prepare them for a life in the saddle. They practiced daily with their primary weapon, the powerful and deadly composite bow. To make themselves appear more ferocious and terrifying to their enemies, their cheeks were slashed with knives and allowed to scar.
19th century depiction of the Huns; showing them as nearly sub-human barbarians!
Like all nomadic horsemen of the Asiatic steppes, the Huns made war as a grand hunt. Spreading out over hundreds of miles, columns of fast-riding raiders would scour the lands of an enemy, plundering outlying farms and driving refugees before them. Their victims were lassoed like sheep or cattle; to be yoked and sold as slaves. In the course of their raids, the Huns were particularly known for their sadistic brutality. Like the later Mongols, they seem to have used terror as a weapon.
Mounted on swift and hardy steppe ponies, the Huns used their superior mobility to keep just out of reach of slower, heavier opponents; all the while wearing them down with a storm of arrows. Only when the enemy was sufficiently weakened by archery would the Huns close in with lance, lasso, and sword to finish them off. Like many nomadic armies of the steppes, the Hunnic nobles fought as heavily armored cavalry lancers. These were a force of last resort, used to deliver the final, decisive charge when the enemy was deemed weakened and on the point of breaking.
Hun light horseman preparing to lasso Alan warriors, 4th century AD
Legend has it that the Huns crossed the swampy lands around the mouth of the Volga River in pursuit of stray sheep. Their, on the western side of the river, they encountered the Goths; who under Ermanaric had established a large Gothic Kingdom in southern Russia. The Goths and the other Germanic tribes of Europe they subsequently encountered, had no adequate response to their mobile tactics. The Huns appeared like demons from some previously unknown dimension of Hell. Every tribe and nation in their path was either conquered or sent fleeing before them.
These defeated survivors of early Hunnic expansion were either absorbed into the Hunnic Empire as oppressed subject peoples; or driven west into the Roman Empire to the west as dangerous refugees. It was fear of the Huns that forced the Visigoths into the Eastern Roman Balkans, leading to the Battle of Adrianople; a demoralizing defeat for Roman arms, and to the death of the Emperor Valens with much of his Army.
In the generation after Adrianople, the Huns settled in the devastated Roman province of Pannonia (modern Austria and Slovenia, and parts of Hungary), and in the lost province of Dacia (roughly modern Romania). They had come a long way from their original home, north of the Great Wall of China.
From this base of operations along the Roman border, the Huns conducted large scale raids into the Balkans and into lower Germany. Eventually, the Romans found it more expedient to simply bribe the Huns to leave them alone, by payment of an annual tribute.
The southern German tribes were not so fortunate. Most of these were incorporated into the Hunnic Empire as subject nations; forced to send their best warriors to serve as “canon fodder” for their Hunnic masters; and to furnish the beds of Hunnic lords with young women.
The Romans found the Huns to be effective mercenaries. During the early decades of the 5th century, one particular Western Roman commander used his personal connections with the Hunnic court to fill the ranks of his Household Bucellarii with Hun warriors: Flavius Aëtius . Aëtius had been sent to the Hunnish court as a diplomatic hostage early in his life. There he had made friends with many influential Hunnic lords. When later in his life he rose to prominence as a soldier, he used these friendships to recruit the deadly Hun light horsemen into his bodyguard and into the ranks of the Roman army as foederati.
Aëtius ’ Hunnic retainers and mercenary soldiers gave him an effective fighting force with which to battle Rome’s chief enemies at that time: the Goths, Vandals, and Franks. These Germanic “barbarians” had invaded the Western Roman Empire in the first decade of the 5th century , settling in large portions of North Africa, Gaul and Spain. The Western Roman government was often engaged in low-intensity border war with these interlopers. It was in just such skirmishes that Aëtius’ Huns were most effective.