Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns

Stephanie Schoppert - July 29, 2016

The Huns were a nomadic tribe that were first mentioned in Roman texts around 91 CE. At the time, they were no threat to the Romans but that changed 200 years later when the Huns had developed a reputation for being a particularly brutal barbarian tribe. They rose to their height under Attila the Hun (434 CE to 453 CE) and became the most powerful and feared military force in all of Europe. By Attila’s death in 453 CE the Huns had built a large empire. However, Attila’s sons were left in control of the empire and their battle for supremacy tore it apart by 469 CE.
Here are just a few things that you might not know about the Huns.

No One Knows Where They Came From

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Picture of a Hun feast

There are numerous theories about the origin of the Huns. Since the 18th century one of the prominent theories is that the Huns were one in the same with the Xiongnu people. The Xiongnu were a mysterious nomadic tribe that terrorized the northern border of China during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE). The reason for the belief is that the Xiongnu were nomadic like the Huns, they fought mounted just like the Huns and they were particularly skilled at bow and arrow. That is where the similarities end. There has never been any definitive evidence found that links the two peoples together. Many historians reject the idea of a Xiongnu/Hun link because there is so little evidence to support it. The Xiongnu had a distinct art form that featured stunning animal motifs, an art form that has never been found on any of the Hun artifacts. Both tribes did use bonze cauldrons and some early writing suggests they may have come from China but the majority of ancient writing on the Huns suggests a more sinister origin. It was the consensus of the period that the Huns were born of demons or witches who lived deep in the wilderness.

Another theory about the origin of the Huns suggests they came from the area that is now modern Kasakhstan. Historically the area was controlled by nomadic tribes and the Huns did control the steppes of Kasahkstan up until the fall of the empire. Most historians seem to agree that whatever the core origin of the Huns was, the tribe that we refer to as the Huns was likely a “super -tribe.” That is, a tribe that was a conglomerate of nomadic tribes from throughout Europe and even Asia which would explain the variety of different influences found in Hun ruins and artifacts.

The Huns Had No Written Language

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Attila meeting the Pope

Despite the fact that the Huns were able to conquer and control a large area of land and build substantial structures, they had no written communication. This makes it very hard to know what life was like for the Huns and how they really lived. The only written descriptions about the Huns come from Roman and Chinese sources, both of which had a great distaste for the Huns. Huns were often referred to as barbarians that were born from demons and emerged from the wilderness to destroy all that was in their path. So any description of how the Huns lived from these sources is very unreliable.

What makes the lack of a written language particularly startling among the Huns is that there was no unified spoken language either. There are varying accounts of the language spoken by the Huns with many believing it to have Turkish and Mongolian roots. But there is evidence of a distinct Hunnic language that emerged within the Hunnic Empire. Without a written language, there is little known about the Hunnic language beyond the proper names that were referenced in the Roman and Chinese accounts. Even with the development of this Hunnic language it was not a unifying language. There are accounts of Attila speaking a language that was different from the Hunnic language that developed among his people. The distinct language barrier makes Attila’s ability to control and lead his army even more astonishing.

There are some who believe that the Hunnic written language exists but it yet to be discovered. One report of the Huns states that names of prisoners were read aloud from a list, which would imply some form of writing. Another account from the 5th century tells of a Bishop who visited the Huns and returned with books written in the Hunnic language. There have been some suggestions that the Huns had a sort of runic language but there is no substantial proof to this claim yet.

Attila the Hun Was a Noble Who Studied Strategy and Lived Modestly

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Invasion of the Barbarians or The Huns approaching Rome – Color Painting

While Attila was responsible for plenty of death and destruction he was not any worse than any other conquers of the period. He studied strategy and his enemies in order to pit them against each other to his benefit. He was also a brilliant general and if he could he would avoid all-out war. He tended to adopt strategies that would allow him to get his way with as little violence as possible.

Attila was born into one of the most powerful families north of the Danube River. He was given a solid education in sword-fighting, riding and caring for horses. It is even believed that he was taught how to speak Gothic and Latin. Some reports even suggest that Attila could read and write in those languages as well. Despite his upbringing Attila was known for his frugal lifestyle and although he was treated as a king, he lived as a common nomad. While others were eating off gold plates at feasts he was eating from a simple earthenware bowl. Attila also tended to eat like a nomad and did not eat bread and largely lived off milk and meat. He also dressed simply and it was only his stature and presence that differentiated him from his men.

He may have even been a man of mercy as displayed during his attack on Italy. He was approached by Pope Leo who asked him to spare Rome. Attila turned away from Italy and returned home. It is not clear if that is the only reason for Attila’s refusal to attack Rome but many credit the Pope with saving the city. When Attila died suddenly his men buried him in a series of coffins, one gold, one silver and one iron to show his strength and ability to unify his people

Huns were becoming a settled people

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Hun metalwork

The Huns were nomadic but as their empire grew their need to be nomadic started to change. It is suggested that the more the Huns, and especially Attila, came into contact with the Romans, they more they sought a sedentary lifestyle for themselves. Ruins found in Kazakhstan are believed to be Hunnic and they cover 300 acres. It is a massive stone complex that some historians believe was created to be a place of ritual or a meeting place. It does suggest that by the 4th and 5th centuries the Huns were perhaps moving toward more permanent settlements.

Some records suggest that Attila may have had a permanent headquarters. A place he remained when he was not leading his tribe off to battle. In 449 the Roman diplomat Priscus wrote of visiting Attila the Hun in one of his homes. Priscus noted that this home was supposed to be grander the rest but that was built of polished wood and therefore not made to be a fortress. The home was large enough to fit a large banquet hall so that Priscus and his Roman embassy could dine with the other chiefs and high ranking men of Attila’s army. It is unclear where exactly this home or even the home base of Attila may have been.

There were also written accounts of a Hun capital that other kings or ambassadors would visit. Like Priscus the reports place the majority of the capital as being made of wood with just a stone Roman bath. While this may have been a sign of the confidence of the Huns, it makes it hard for historians to find evidence of the capital centuries later. Several other accounts also put Attila’s capital as a large village or even a city that was mostly constructed out of wood. Attila’s palace was in the center and was quite large. There were also separate homes for each of his wives.

Huns were Great Horsemen

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Hun rampage as imagined by a 19th-century artist

The Huns came to be renowned for their abilities on horses. From an early age, the Hunnish males were trained to ride a horse. Riding and archery were both taught to male Huns. For a nomadic tribe, there were few things a man valued over a good horse. The Romans noticed that the Huns were very dedicated to their horses and even suggested that the Huns did everything atop the back of the horse. Some accounts suggest that the Huns even slept and ate upon their horses. Their skill on the horse was part of what made them particularly devastating barbarians in that they could approach quickly and shoot arrows in order to attack from a substantial distance. They could raze entire cities without ever leaving the back of their horses.

The Huns, and especially Attila knew that part of the fearsome reputation of the Huns came from their skill on the horse. Therefore, whenever the Huns went into battle they would bring with them plenty of extra horses in order to make their army seem larger than it was. The tactic may have worked because accounts of Hun attacks put the army at substantially larger than historians believe Attila’s army to have been.

In times of long campaigns the extra horses may have also provided food. Though the Huns had a wide range of domesticated animals, their main source of meat came from sheep. They would make stew from the mutton in their brass cauldrons. On long campaigns if the mutton ran out then it was possible for the Huns to eat horses that did not perform as well or were not as valuable as others. They were also known to drink mare’s milk and even make cheese.

The Huns Practiced Body Modification

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Modern recreation of Hun cavalrymen

Descriptions of the Huns comes from sources that saw them as the “scourge of the earth” and therefore all of them depict the Huns has appearing to be ugly and savage. Some of the written accounts of the Huns and their appearances have been supported by Hunnic graves however. The Huns believed that it was better to honor the death of a warrior by the blood of warriors rather than tears. For funerals and in times of mourning the men would deeply cut their bodies so they could bleed as a sign of respect. This led to the Huns having a very scarred appearance. Some Roman accounts even suggested that infants were cut at birth and that is why the Huns never grew beards. To the Romans the lack of a beard only made their appearance even more vile.

There is also evidence to suggest that the Huns practiced cranial modification. For the Huns cranial deformation was a sign of status and social class. Those of the Hunnic nobility and higher order would have had the practice done to themselves and to their children. As a large conglomeration of tribes it may have also been a way to identify the core tribe members and therefore the ones closest to the King. Cranial deformation started in infancy and continued through early childhood in order to get the desired shape. The method used by the Huns is not known and it is possible that their method had something to do with the written records that the Huns cut into the faces of infants or why they did not grow beards.

Huns Battle Tactics

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Medieval tapestry of a Hun siege

Reports of the Huns in battle suggest that they were very skilled and devious. Attila was known to study strategy and even learn the strategies and the politics of his enemies in order to have the upper hand. The Huns preferred to fight with surprise attacks, through deceit and by cutting off supply lines. They preferred to avoid direct battle often fighting from a distance or using other means of attack. The Huns were very strategic in their army formations choosing to have irregularly sized divisions in a single line. Then they would have a separate force in reserve that would watch for ambushes. The Huns themselves often used ambushes against their enemies and therefore knew how devastating an ambush could be against an unprepared army. Their provisions and extra horses would be kept a mile off guarded by a small force.

When they controlled the battle, Huns preferred to keep it long range. They would keep the enemy at bay with bows and would sometimes even fake a retreat in order to increase the battle distance. The Huns got their brutal name partially due to the fact that they would pursue their enemies after a defeat. The Huns would rather force an army back to their camp and wear them out with a long siege than to continue a drawn-out head to head battle.

The Huns were skilled with a variety of weapons that allowed them to be flexible in battle. Most Hunnic warriors would be armed with both a bow and a lance and they were skilled enough to use both interchangeably as the battle required. Huns were also known to protect themselves with maille and helmets.

The Huns Only Defeat Is Disputed

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Map of the Hun Empire


On June 20th, 451 AD the Huns moved on Gaul in order to make a move on the Western Roman Empire. The Romans knew that the battle was coming so Flavious Aetius moved his troops to Gaul. The Romans were also able to convince their long-time enemies the Visigoths to stand with them against the Huns. It was a shaky alliance and one that some believe allowed for Attila’s survival.

The Huns moved on Gaul only to find the Romans and Visgoths covering a ridge along the Catalaunian plain. The Huns tried to advance on the plain but the Visigoths and Romans took the upper hand. The next day of battle the Romans and Goths came upon the Hun camp and attacked. Attila was said to have created a funeral pyre of burning saddles so that if the Huns were defeated he would throw himself into the fire to prevent anyone the honor of wounding him.

There is little information on the real end of the battle. Most historians believe that the Visigoths left after their King was killed in battle and after Aetius convinced the Visigoth prince not to attack Attila’s camp. Aetius feared that if the Huns were completely defeated that there would no longer be a reason for an alliance between the Goths and Romans. Aetius may have also believed that by letting the Huns retreat he would be able to form a military alliance when them later, likely as allies against the Goths. However, some historians believe that Attila was not defeated at all and simply left Gaul after accomplishing all of his objectives. They argue that both Aetius and the leader of the Goths lose track of their armies in the night and are forced to retreat back to their camps. The Goths return home after the death of their leader and the need to secure his throne. The Romans are left to fend against the Huns alone and they leave a gap that the Huns exploit. Many historians have found evidence against this theory but it continues to be a possible outcome of the battle given the information available.

The Huns May Have Invaded the Western Roman Empire For a Wedding

Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns
Festival in Hungary in honor of Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun was known for having a number of wives but that did not stop him from wanting another. In 450 the older sister of Emperor Valentinian III, Honoria was set to be wed to a Roman senator on the order of her brother. Valentinian III wanted to wed his sister to a man whom he believed would not use the position to threaten his position as emperor. Honoria was against the marriage and decided to find a way out of it. She sent a letter to Attila the Hun begging him to save her from the marriage and sent her ring as proof of her words.

Attila took the letter and the gift of the ring as a sign that Honoria was proposing marriage to him in order for him to save her. He accepts the proposal and then asks for half of the Western Roman Empire as her dowry. Valentinian III discovered the plan and decides to kill Honoria, who told her brother that she never meant to propose to the barbarian. Valentinian III spares Honoria only at the request of their mother, choosing instead to send her into exile. Valentinian III then sends a message to Attila informing him that the proposal was not legitimate. Attila responds in 451 by sending an emissary to Ravenna. The emissary tells Valentinian III that it was legitimate, that Honoria was innocent and that he would be marrying her and collecting the dowry.

In 451, Attila moved on Italy and the Battle of the Catalunian Plains commenced and Attila retreated. But he was not deterred for long. A second request by Attila in 452 went unanswered and therefore Attila decided to attack Italy. This time he ended up turning back after a meeting with the Pope and the knowledge that Italy was too starved from famine to support his army. He would not have been able to steal or gather the supplies needed to move on Rome. Most historians believe that the marriage proposal by Honoria was only used as an excuse or even as a bonus for plans that Attila had already made for attacking the Western Roman Empire.