Hunnic Empire
around c. 370 AD–469
Huns empire.png
The Hunnic Empire at its peak under Attila
Capital Not specified
Language(s) Hunnic
Government Monarchy
High King
 - 445-453 Attila
 - 458-469 Dengizich
 - Huns destroy a tribe of Alans to their west around c. 370 AD
 - King of the Huns, Dengizich dies 469

The Hunnic empire was formed under the reign of Attila, centered in present-day Hungary; its territory included parts of Germany, the Balkans, and Ukraine. It bordered the Eastern Roman Empire to the southeast and the Western Roman Empire to the west and southwest; its other boundaries are uncertain. The empire dissolved after Attila's death in 453 as a result of struggles over succession and leadership, finally disappearing around 469.


The origins of the Huns that swept through Europe during the 4th Century remain unclear; they may have been connected with the Xiongnu and the later Northern Xiongnu, defeated and dispersed by China some three centuries before. However, most mainstream historians consider them as a group of nomadic tribes from Central Asia with mixed origin.[citation needed] There was a Hunnic language, and Gothic seems also to have been used as a lingua franca.[3]


European expansion

Early campaigns

European accounts first mention the Huns in the lands north-west of the Caspian Sea about 370, when they conquered a tribe of Alans to their west. Pushing further westward, the Huns subjugated many Ostrogoths. In 395, a Hun raid across the Caucasus mountains devastated Armenia, then captured Erzurum, besieged Edessa and Antioch, and even reached Tyre.

In 408, the Hun Uldin invaded the Eastern Roman province of Moesia but his attack was opposed and Uldin was forced to retreat.


For all their early exploits, the Huns were politically disunited. Rather than an empire, the Huns were more a confederation of tribes. They often served as mercenary troops under Roman command.

From 420, a chieftain named Oktar began to unite the Hunnic tribes under his banner. He was succeeded by his brother, Rugila who became the leader of the Hun confederation, uniting the Huns into a cohesive group with a common purpose. He led them into a campaign in the Western Roman Empire, through an alliance with Roman General Aetius. This gave the Huns more wealth and power. He planned a massive invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire in the year 434, but died before his plans could come to completion. His heirs to the throne were his nephews, Bleda and Attila, who ruled in a dual kingship. They divided their peoples between them, but still regarded the empire as a single entity.

Under dual kingship

Attila and Bleda were as ambitious as king Rugila. They forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus, giving the Huns trade rights and an annual tribute from the Romans. The Romans also agreed to give up Hunnic refugees (individuals who could have threatened the brothers' grip on power) for execution. With their southern border protected by the terms of this treaty, the Huns could turn their full attention to the further subjugation of tribes to the west.

However, when the Romans failed to deliver the agreed tribute, and other conditions of the Treaty of Margus were not met, both Hunnic kings turned their attention back to the Eastern Romans. Reports that the Bishop of Margus had crossed into Hun lands and desecrated royal graves further angered the kings. War broke out between the two empires, and the Huns overcame a weak Roman army to raze the cities of Margus, Singidunum and Viminacium. Although a truce was signed in 441, two years later the Romans again failed to deliver the tribute and war resumed. In the following campaign, Hun armies came alarmingly close to Constantinople, sacking Sardica, Arcadiopolis and Philippopolis along the way. Suffering a complete defeat at the Battle of Chersonesus, the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II gave in to Hun demands and the Peace of Anatolius was signed in autumn 443. The Huns returned to their lands with a vast train full of plunder.

In 445, Bleda died, leaving Attila the sole ruler of the Hun Empire.

As Attila's empire

Empire of Attila

Empire of Attila

With his brother gone and as the only ruler of the united Huns, Attila possessed undisputed control over his subjects. In 447, Attila turned the Huns back toward the Eastern Roman Empire once more. His invasion of the Balkans and Thrace was devastating. The Eastern Roman Empire was already beset by internal problems, such as famine and plague, as well as riots and a series of earthquakes in Constantinople itself. Only a last-minute rebuilding of its walls had preserved Constantinople unscathed. Victory over a Roman army had already left the Huns virtually unchallenged in Eastern Roman lands and only disease forced a retreat, after they had conducted raids as far south as Thermopylae.

The war finally came to an end for the Eastern Romans in 449 with the signing of the Third Peace of Anatolius.

Throughout their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns had still maintained good relations with the Western Empire; this was due in no small part to a friendship with Flavius Aetius, a powerful Roman general (sometimes even referred to as the de facto ruler of the Western Empire) who had spent some time with the Huns. However, this all changed in 450 when Honoria, sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, sent Attila a ring and requested his help to escape her betrothal to a senator. Although it is not known whether Honoria intended this as a proposal of marriage to Attila, that is how the Hun King interpreted it. He claimed half the Western Roman Empire as dowry. To add to the worsening relations, a dispute arose between Attila and Aetius about who should inherit the kingship of the Salian Franks. Finally, the repeated raids on the Eastern Roman Empire had left it with little to plunder.

In 451, Attila's forces entered Gaul, with his army recruiting from the Franks, Goths and Burgundian tribes en route. Once in Gaul, the Huns first attacked Metz, then his armies continued westwards, passing both Paris and Troyes to lay siege to Orléans.

Aetius was given the duty of relieving Orléans by Emperor Valentinian III. Bolstered by Frankish and Visigothic troops (under King Theodoric), Aetius' own Roman army met the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains also known as the Battle of Châlons. Although a tactical defeat for Attila, thwarting his invasion of Gaul and forcing his retreat back to non-Roman lands, the macrohistorical significance of the allied and Roman victory is a matter of debate.[4][5][6]

The following year, Attila renewed his claims to Honoria and territory in the Western Roman Empire. Leading his horde across the Alps and into Northern Italy, he sacked and razed the cities of Aquileia, Vicetia, Verona, Brixia, Bergamum, and Milan. Hoping to avoid the sack of Rome herself, Emperor Valentinian III sent three envoys, the high civilian officers Gennadius Avienus and Trigetius, as well as the Bishop of Rome Leo I, who met Attila at Mincio in the vicinity of Mantua, and obtained from him the promise that he would withdraw from Italy and negotiate peace with the emperor. Prosper of Aquitaine gives a short, reliable description of the historic meeting, but gives all the credit of the successful negotiation to Leo. Priscus reports that superstitious fear of the fate of Alaric—who died shortly after sacking Rome in 410—gave him pause. In reality, Italy had suffered from a terrible famine in 451 and her crops were faring little better in 452; Attila's devastating invasion of the plains of northern Italy this year did not improve the harvest. To advance on Rome would have required supplies which were not available in Italy, and taking the city would not have improved Attila's supply situation. Therefore, it was more profitable for Attila to conclude peace and retreat back to his homeland. Secondly, an East Roman force had crossed the Danube under the command of another officer also named Aetius—who had participated in the Council of Chalcedon the previous year—and proceeded to defeat the Huns who had been left behind by Attila to safeguard their home territories. Attila, hence, faced heavy human and natural pressures to retire from Italy before moving south of the Po. Attila retreated without Honoria or her dowry.

The new Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian then halted tribute payments. From the Carpathian Basin, Attila mobilised to attack Constantinople. However, in 453 he married a German girl named Ildico, and died of a nosebleed on his wedding night.

After Attila

Attila was succeeded by his eldest son, Ellak. However, Attila's other sons, Dengizich and Ernakh, challenged Ellak for the throne. Taking advantage of the situation, subjugated tribes rose up in rebellion. The year after Attila's death, the Huns were defeated in the Battle of Nedao. In 469, Dengizik, the last Hunnic King and successor of Ellak, died. This date is seen as the end of the Hunnic Empire. It is believed by some historians that descendants of the Huns formed the Bulgarian Empire, which stretched over the Balkans, Pannonia and Scythia[citation needed].

References and notes

  1. Wolfram, Herwig, The Roman Empire and its Germanic peoples, (University of California Press, 1990), 142.
  2. Heather, Peter, The Fall of the Roman Empire, (Oxford University Press, 2006), 330.
  3. Priscus fr. 8 ("For the subjects of the Huns, swept together from various lands, speak, besides their own barbarous tongues, either Hunnic or Gothic, or--as many as have commercial dealings with the western Romans--Latin")
  4. Creasy,
  5. Norwich, Byzantium: the Early Centuries. 1997, p. 158.
  6. Bury, The Later Roman Empire, pp. 294f.

Further reading

  • E. A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (1948)
  • F. Altheim, Attila und die Hunnen (1951)
  • J. Werner, Beiträge zur Archäologie des Attila-Reiches (1956).
  • T. Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, Vol. I (rev. ed. 1892, repr. 1967)
  • W. M. McGovern, Early Empires of Central Asia (1939)
  • Frederick John Teggart, China and Rome (1969, repr. 1983);
  • Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns (1973).

See also

A history of empires
Ancient empires
Medieval empires
Modern empires
Colonial empires
az:Hun imperiyaları

cv:Хунсен империйĕ es:Imperio huno fr:Empire hunnique hr:Hunsko Carstvo id:Kekaisaran Hun kk:Ғұндар мемлекеті pnb:ہن سلطنت pl:Imperium Hunów pt:Império Huno ru:Империя гуннов th:จักรวรรดิฮั่น tr:Hun İmparatorluğu

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