In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Attila and the Huns

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sources
  • Attila
  • Hunnic Origins
  • The Hunnic Raids of the 390s
  • The Huns and the Western Empire
  • The Huns’ Balkan Wars
  • Attila’s Invasion of Gaul
  • The Huns in Italy
  • Hunnic Military History after Attila
  • The Origins of Hunnic Aggression
  • The Hunnic Impact on Roman Warfare
  • Ecological Constraints on Hunnic Pastoralism
  • Ammianus’s Picture of Hunnic Warfare
  • The Hunnic Tactical Package
  • Hunnic Logistics
  • Hunnic Siege Warfare
  • The Huns and the Fall of Rome
  • Religion and War
  • The Economic Impact

Military History Attila and the Huns
by
Cameron Barnes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0244

Introduction

The Huns appear in the Volga-Don steppes in the late fourth century CE, bringing with them Inner Asian traditions of war and statecraft. After subduing the Alans, the Huns overwhelmed the Goths, sending waves of refugees toward the Roman frontier on the Danube. Roman mismanagement of the resulting crisis led to the Gothic victory at Adrianople (378), the first sign of the disasters to overtake the Mediterranean world in the years to come. The shock occasioned by the Huns’ two dramatic raids across the Caucasus in the 390s lasted until the Arab Conquest. In the fifth century, the rising Hunnic proto-state on the Danube became a growing threat to the Eastern Empire, while the Western Empire gradually slipped into military dependence upon the nomads, particularly during the years of the patrician Aetius’s dominance. In Attila’s reign, Hunnic power stretched from the Rhine to the Dnieper. The Huns ravaged the Roman Balkans in 441–442 and 446–447, invaded Gaul in 451, and raided northern Italy the next year. Their assaults entailed widespread devastation and ended urban life over much of the Balkans. When Attila died suddenly in 453, his empire collapsed. Although the Huns eventually faded from history, our sources continued to refer to Hunnic raids for decades. The Huns’ legacy in terms of military history is complex. The danger they posed led to profound innovations in Roman tactics, equipment, and military engineering. Hunnic mounted archery began a process that ended centuries of infantry dominance in the Mediterranean world.

General Overviews

Maenchen-Helfen 1973 and Thompson 1996 are still relevant, but must be supplemented with more modern accounts. Sinor 1990 provides a concise but stimulating introduction to Attila and his campaigns. Stickler 2007 provides another up-to-date overview, but is again far too short. Bóna 2002 and Lebedynsky 2018 make good use of archaeology. Kelly 2008 is probably the best recent English-language introduction, although aimed at a general audience. Kim 2013 and Kim 2016 are the only full-length, modern academic studies on the Huns in English. However, both are controversial. For an online guide to the literature on Hunnic history in general, see Mathisen 2016.

  • Bóna, Istvan. Les Huns: Le grand empire barbare d’Europe IVe-Ve siècle. Translated by Katalin Escher. Paris: Errance, 2002.

    The first half of the book is dedicated to a concise overview of Hunnic history. The second surveys the archaeological evidence for the nomadic peoples of the Hunnic and post-Hunnic eras.

  • Kelly, Christopher. Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Bodley Head, 2008.

    The book provides a useful overview of Attila’s reign. Its endnotes provide a good introduction to modern scholarship.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511920493

    Kim argues that Attila ruled a state modeled on the ancient Xiongnu Empire. Kim’s skepticism regarding traditional interpretations of Attila’s campaigns should not be lightly dismissed.

  • Kim, Hyun Jin. The Huns. London: Routledge, 2016.

    A provocative overview of Hunnic history, beginning with the Xiongnu and ending with the Avars. Kim argues for a reunification of the western half of the Hunnic Empire under Dengizich, and for the survival of an Attilid state in the Balkans into the mid-sixth century.

  • Lebedynsky, Iaroslav. Huns d’europe, Huns d’asie: Histoire et culture des peuples hunniques, IVe–VIe siècles. Arles, France: Errance, 2018.

    Lebedynsky addresses the broad sweep of Hunnic history, making good use of archaeology and modern scholarship. Concise, but up-to-date.

  • Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520310773

    Maenchen-Helfen’s monograph is still indispensable, both as a guide to the ancient sources and for his remarks on Hunnic warfare.

  • Mathisen, Ralph W. “Attila and the Huns.”In Oxford Bibliographies in Medieval Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Mathisen provides a useful online bibliography on Hunnic history, although he has little to say on military history proper.

  • Sinor, Denis. “The Hun Period.” In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Edited by Denis Sinor, 177–205. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521243049.008

    Sinor sees the collapse of the Hunnic Empire as the result of ecological factors, rather than the institutional weaknesses of the Hunnic state or Attila’s failings.

  • Stickler, Timo. Die Hunnen. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007.

    A good, brief introduction to the Huns. However, those interested in Hunnic military history may gain greater benefit from Stickler’s biography of Aetius (Stickler 2002, cited under The Huns and the Western Empire).

  • Thompson, Edward A. The Huns. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

    The 1948 edition of Thompson’s classic was enormously influential, but its picture of Hunnic society and warfare was showing its age by 1996. The Afterword by Peter Heather is essential.

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