Impact of the Huns on Europe

Hunnic Empire map

Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

In 376 CE, the great European power of the time, the Roman Empire, suddenly faced incursions from various so-called barbarians peoples such as the Sarmatians, descendants of the Scythians; the Thervingi, a Gothic Germanic people; and the Goths. What caused all of these tribes to cross the Danube River into Roman territory? As it happens, they were probably driven westward by new arrivals from Central Asia—the Huns.

The exact origins of the Huns are under dispute, but it is likely that they were originally a branch of the Xiongnu, a nomadic people in what is now Mongolia who often battled the Han Empire of China. After their defeat by the Han, one faction of the Xiongnu began to move west and absorb other nomadic peoples. They would become the Huns. 

Unlike the Mongols of almost a thousand years later, the Huns would move right into the heart of Europe rather than remaining on its eastern fringes. They had a major effect on Europe, but despite their advances into France and Italy, much of their true impact was indirect.

Approach of the Huns

The Huns did not appear one day and throw Europe into confusion. They moved gradually westward and were noted first in Roman records as a new presence somewhere beyond Persia. Around 370, some Hunnic clans moved north and west, pressing into the lands above the Black Sea. Their arrival set off a domino effect as they attacked the Alans, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals, and others. Refugees went streaming south and west ahead of the Huns, attacking the peoples in front of them if necessary, and moving into the Roman Empire's territory. This is known as the Great Migration or the Volkerwanderung.

There was not yet any great Hunnic king; different bands of Huns operated independently of one another. Perhaps as early as 380, the Romans were beginning to hire some Huns as mercenaries and granted them the right to live in Pannonia, which is roughly the borderland between Austria, Hungary, and the former Yugoslav states. Rome needed mercenaries to defend its territory from all of the peoples moving into it after the Huns' invasion. As a result, ironically, some of the Huns were making a living defending the Roman Empire from the results of the Huns' own movements.

In 395, a Hunnic army began the first major attack on the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople. They moved through what is now Turkey and then attacked the Sassanid Empire of Persia, driving almost to the capital at Ctesiphon before being turned back. The Eastern Roman Empire ended up paying large amounts of tribute to the Huns to keep them from attacking; the Great Walls of Constantinople were also built in 413, probably to defend the city from potential Hunnic conquest. (This is an interesting echo of the Chinese Qin and Han Dynasties' construction of the Great Wall of China to keep the Xiongnu at bay.)

Meanwhile, in the west, the political and economic bases of the Western Roman Empire were gradually being undermined throughout the first half of the 400s by the Goths, Vandals, Suevi, Burgundians, and other peoples who streamed into Roman territories. Rome lost productive land to the newcomers, and also had to pay to fight them, or to hire some of them as mercenaries to fight one another.

The Huns at Their Height

Attila the Hun unified his peoples and ruled from 434 to 453. Under him, the Huns invaded Roman Gaul, fought the Romans and their Visigoth allies at the Battle of Chalons (Catalaunian Fields) in 451, and even marched against Rome itself. European chroniclers of the times recorded the terror that Attila inspired.

However, Attila did not achieve any lasting territorial expansion or even many large victories during his reign. Many historians today agree that although the Huns certainly helped bring down the Western Roman Empire, most of that effect was due to the migrations prior to Attila's reign. Then it was the collapse of the Hunnic Empire following Attila's death the delivered the coup de grace in Rome. In the power vacuum that followed, the other "barbarian" peoples vied for power across central and southern Europe, and the Romans could not call upon Huns as mercenaries to defend them.

As Peter Heather puts it, "In the era of Attila, Hunnic armies surged across Europe from the Iron Gates of the Danube towards the walls of Constantinople, the outskirts of Paris, and Rome itself. But Attila's decade of glory was no more than a sideshow in the drama of western collapse. The Huns' indirect impact upon the Roman Empire in previous generations, when the insecurity they generated in central and eastern Europe forced Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suevi, Burgundians across the frontier, was of much greater historical importance than Attila's momentary ferocities. Indeed, the Huns had even sustained the western Empire down to c. 440, and in many ways their second greatest contribution to imperial collapse was, as we have seen themselves to disappear suddenly as a political force after 453, leaving the west bereft of outside military assistance."

Aftermath

In the end, the Huns were instrumental in bringing down the Roman Empire, but their contribution was almost accidental. They forced other Germanic and Persian tribes into Roman lands, undercut Rome's tax base, and demanded expensive tribute. Then they were gone, leaving chaos in their wake.

After 500 years, the Roman Empire in the west fell, and western Europe fragmented. It entered what has been called the "Dark Ages," featuring constant warfare, losses in the arts, literacy, and scientific knowledge, and shortened lifespans for the elites and peasants alike. More or less by accident, the Huns sent Europe into a thousand years of backwardness.

Sources

Heather, Peter. "The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe," English Historical Review, Vol. CX: 435 (Feb. 1995), pp. 4-41.

Kim, Hung Jin. The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.