The Hun-Driven Barbarian Invaders of the Roman Empire

Bas-relief depicting Roman cavalry charge, Rome, Italy
De Agostini / W. Buss / Getty Images

The Mongol Great Khan Genghis' ancient precursor, Attila, was the devastating fifth-century Hun warrior who terrified all in his path, before dying suddenly, under mysterious circumstances, on his wedding night, in 453. We know only limited, specific details about his people, the Huns—armed, mounted archers, illiterate, nomadic Steppe people from Central Asia, perhaps of Turkic rather than Mongolian origin and responsible for the collapse of Asian empires. We do know, however, that their actions induced waves of migrations into Roman territory. Later, the recent immigrants, including Huns, fought on the Roman side against other movements of people considered—by the proud Romans—barbarian invaders.

"[T]he 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.
~ "The Hun Period," by Denis Sinor; The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia 1990

The Huns, who appeared on the borders of eastern Europe, after A.D. 350, continued to migrate in a generally westward direction, pushing the peoples they encountered further west into the path of Roman citizens. Some of these, mainly Germanic, tribes eventually set out from Europe into northern Roman-controlled Africa.

The Goths and Huns

Agriculturist Goths from the lower Vistula (the longest river in modern Poland) began attacking areas of the Roman Empire in the third century, attacking along the Black Sea and Aegean regions, including northern Greece. The Romans settled them in Dacia where they stayed until the Huns pushed them. Tribes of Goths, the Tervingi (at the time, under Athanaric) and Greuthungi, asked for help in 376 and settled. Then they moved further into Roman territory, attacked Greece, defeated Valens at the Battle of Adrianople, in 378. In 382 a treaty with them put them inland in Thrace and Dacia, but the treaty ended with the death of Theodosius (395). Emperor Arcadius offered them territory in 397 and may have extended a military post to Alaric. Soon they were on the move again, into the western empire. After they sacked Rome in 410, they moved over the Alps into Southwest Gaul and became foederati in Aquitaine.

The sixth-century historian Jordanes relates an early connection between the Huns and Goths, a story that Gothic witches producing the Huns:

"XXIV (121) But after a short space of time, as Orosius relates, the race of the Huns, fiercer than ferocity itself, flamed forth against the Goths. We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae after their departure from the island of Scandza,--and who, as we have said, entered the land of Scythia with his tribe,--found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. (122) There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this 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. Such was the descent of the Huns who came to the country of the Goths.
--Jordanes' The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, translated by Charles C. Mierow

Vandals, Alans, and Sueves

Alans were Sarmatian pastoral nomads; the Vandals and Sueves (Suevi or Suebes), Germanic. They were allies from around 400. Huns attacked the Vandals in the 370s. The Vandals and company crossed the icy Rhine at Mainz into Gaul, on the last night of 406, reaching an area that the Roman government had largely abandoned. Later, they pushed on across the Pyrenees into Spain where they drove out Roman landowners in the south and west. The allies divided the territory, supposedly by lot, initially so that Baetica (including Cadiz and Cordoba) went to a branch of the Vandals known as Siling; Lusitania and Cathaginiensis, to the Alans; Gallaecia, to the Suevi and Adsing Vandals. In 429 they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into northern Africa where they took St. Augustine's city of Hippo and Carthage, which they established as their capital. By 477 they also had the Balearic Islands, and the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.

The Burgundians and Franks

The Burgundians were another Germanic group probably living along the Vistula and part of the group whom the Huns drove across the Rhine at the end of 406. In 436, at Worms, they almost came to an end, at Roman and Hunnish hands, but some survived. Under the Roman general Aetius, they became Roman hospites, in Savoy, in 443. Their descendants still live in the Rhône Valley.

These Germanic people lived along the lower and middle Rhine by the third century. They made forays into Roman territory in Gaul and Spain, without the incentive of the Huns, but later, when the Huns invaded Gaul in 451, they joined forces with the Romans to repel the invaders. The famous Merovingian king Clovis was a Frank.


  • Ancient Rome - William E. Dunstan 2010.
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  • Wood, I. N. "The barbarian invasions and first settlements." Cambridge Ancient History: The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425. Eds. Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • "Huns," "Vandals," by Matthew Bennett. The Oxford Companion to Military History, Edited by Richard Holmes; Oxford University Press: 2001
  • "The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe," by Peter Heather; The English Historical Review, Vol. 110, No. 435 (Feb. 1995), pp. 4-41.
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  • "The Settlement of the Barbarians in Southern Gaul," by E. A. Thompson; The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 46, Parts 1 and 2 (1956), pp. 65-75

* See: "Archaeology And The 'Arian Controversy' in the Fourth Century," by David M. Gwynn, in Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity, edited by David M. Gwynn, Susanne Bangert, and Luke Lavan; Brill Academic Publishers. Leiden; Boston: Brill 2010

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Gill, N.S. "The Hun-Driven Barbarian Invaders of the Roman Empire." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). The Hun-Driven Barbarian Invaders of the Roman Empire. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Hun-Driven Barbarian Invaders of the Roman Empire." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).