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The Huns

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For a nation that would have such a devastating impact on the greatest Empires of its day, we know almost nothing about the origin of the Huns. Early references are to peoples who can now be identified as having not been Hunnic, such as Scythians, Cimmerians, Parthians, etc.

The earliest positive reference to ‘Huns’ comes from 363 AD, when the Roman and Persian Empires concluded a hasty treaty after their usual round of mutually destructive campaigning was interrupted by the appearance of the Kidarites Huns from the Caucasus region. These were to prove a serious threat to both empires for years to come, but were never directly linked with the Hunnic tribes that were to ravage Western Europe less than a century later. It would be true to say that until 376 AD the civilised world at large remained ignorant of the terrible threat that lurked beyond its borders.

Our Huns were sculpted by Michael Perry.

The Huns
by Adrian Garbett
On the Danube frontier, Roman intelligence officers began to hear of mass movements of people around the Black Sea area. Refugees began to arrive bearing second hand tales of a war between the Goths and a fearsome foe from the East.

The Romans were used to such tales, and may have even been quite pleased that a powerful and aggressive neighbour was acting as a buffer zone. It was only when the trickle of refugees became a flood and 200,000 displaced people demanded sanctuary within the Empire that they realised something more significant than a little barbarian squabble had occurred. When the true extent of the conflict was realised the Romans were shocked: the Gothic kingdom of King Ermanarich had ceased to exist. The victors were the previously unknown Huns. Worse still, the Alan people of the Bosporus region had been subjugated some years earlier and now marched as vassals of the Huns, and the Romans had not even known!

The Gothic refugees caused further problems as they tried to carve out a new life for themselves within the Empire. Friction with the Roman officials appointed to control them led to all out war, culminating in the Roman disaster at Hadrianopole in 378 AD when the Visigoths and Ostrogoths destroyed the army of the Emperor Valens, who was killed in the process. Led by the famous Alaric, these Gothic forces went on to further destabilise the Empire until they took and sacked Rome in 410 AD. It is interesting to note that dissident Huns and Alans seemed to have accompanied them.

Over the next quarter of a century the Hunnic threat grew. Whole tribal nations came under their control, including the Skirians (or Sciri), Gepids, Heruls, and Quadi, all Germanic peoples known to the Empire. During this time the Huns seem to have had no central control (luckily!) and they spread out East and West along the borders of the Roman and Persian Empires conquering as they went. By the end of the 4th century they were firmly established along the Danube frontier and began raiding within the Empire, despite Roman attempts to fortify their towns and increase the size of the Danubian flotilla.

As the 5th century dawned one Uldin is mentioned as ‘Prince of the Huns’, chiefly because he led a sizeable invasion of the Eastern Empire, where massed Skirian vassals accompanied the Hun army. Uldin also entered the politics of the Empire by capturing one Gainas (a soldier-politician of Gothic descent), who had been meddling in the court of Arcadius in Constantinople to such an extent that the citizens of the city barred him from the gates and went on an anti Gothic riot which resulted in several thousand deaths. Gainas fetched up on the Danube frontier with a mercenary band and was promptly captured and killed by Uldin, who made a gift of his head to Arcadius. Such Hunnic intervention would increase over the next 50 years.

Two decades into the 5th century, it seems, the Huns accepted kings to rule over them. In the East this was Donatus (a Roman name) and in the West Ruga. In 412 AD the Eastern Empire sent an ambassador to Donatus, who exchanged gifts and oaths of friendship with the Hunnic king and then had him assassinated. This power vacuum was soon filled by Ruga who, realising that the Romans and Persians were at war in the East, launched a huge raid into Thrace. This was so overwhelming that the Emperor Theodosius II agreed to pay Ruga 350 pounds of gold to leave. This payment would be the first of many.

Ruga had two sons, Bleda and Attila, and when he died in 434 AD Bleda succeeded him. The Romans tried to withhold their payments to Bleda, so in 435 AD he and Attila rode to Margus on the River Morava to tell the emissaries from Constantinople that they had just doubled the tribute to 700 pounds of gold a year. They also demanded a free market with the Empire and a treaty in which the Romans would promise not ally themselves with any of the Huns’ enemies. The Romans agreed, leaving the Huns to turn their attention to the West and the remaining Germanic peoples not yet under their control. Time was running out for the Romans.

Contrary to popular belief it was Bleda who was the more aggressive of the brothers. He rode south and captured the Emperor’s birthplace, Naissus, plus the cities of Serdica and Phillopolis. Attila seems to have been undecided as to whether he should engage in the fighting, it being recorded that he was in negotiation with Constantinople while his brother raided within the Empire, and it was only in 441 AD — after reducing a town which refused his demands — that he decide to join Bleda.

Bleda died in 443 AD, either in a hunting accident or at Attila’s instigation — we may never know which — and Attila (from Atel, ‘The Little Father’) succeeded him in turn. He organised the Hunnic Empire on a grand scale and, from his dealings with the Romans, he was obviously an astute politician. He fostered relationships with some of his vassals, putting trust in Ardaric of the Gepids and Edika of the Skirians to facilitate his next great adventure.

In 447 AD Attila invaded the Empire again. This time he skirted the Imperial fortresses and captured and reduced up to 70 cities, including Sofia. In Constantinople the citizens quailed at the advancing army, their fears multiplying when, on the morning of 26 January, the biggest earthquake recorded up to that time hit the region. To add to their woes this was followed by four days of torrential rain that swept away parts of the city’s defences. Then plague broke out.

This was the situation that met Attila as his army halted before the capital of the Empire — theoretically easy prey for the rapacious Huns. But Attila turned away and did not attack the city. Why? Even with its defences reduced Constantinople was a formidable city, and Attila had no siege engines. There was plague within the city, and his own troops seem to have been afflicted by malaria (common in that area). Lastly, he did not need to reduce Constantinople. Doing so would have cut off a lucrative source of tribute and trade that his people needed. Instead he settled for a rise in the annual tribute to 6,000 pounds of gold (which increased yearly) and a 500 km (300 mile) wide stretch of the Lower Danube. Only now did the Eastern Romans realise that they were being bled dry.

While the Eastern Empire held rich pickings the West had declined and been subjected to a steady erosion of power and prestige. Wave after wave of tribal peoples had penetrated the borders and had either taken land, been absorbed into the Imperial army, or had wandered on to found their own kingdoms. By the 5th century the Imperial capital had been transferred to Ravenna, as Rome was undefendable (as shown in 455 AD, when the Vandals sacked it). Visigoths held Spain; Franks and Burgundians were on the Gallic borders; Britain was lost and besieged; Alan refugees were setting up their own settlements in Gaul, and the Vandals had taken North Africa. Into this scenario rode Attila and the Huns. Facing him was the Roman commander Aetius, Warlord of Gaul.
(We make a model of Aetius: see pack WA006)

Attila invaded Gaul with a huge army in 451 AD and headed for Toulouse, the old capital of the Visigoths. The campaign went well until Attila met unexpected resistance at Orleans, which the Huns and their allies were unable to take despite their best efforts. This was a new experience for Attila. Meanwhile, Aetius had marched across the Alps and had set about making alliances for the defence of the Western Empire.

Attila was also surprised when Sangibert, King of the Alans, did not rise up to support him as had been previously agreed. Instead, the Alan king went over to Aetius, revealing what he knew of the Huns’ plans. Alliances and promises were made and broken elsewhere too. The single most powerful force in the area was the Visigothic kingdom of Theodoric I, which, to Attila’s dismay, also sided with the Roman Aetius. The scene was now set for one of the great battles of history.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 451 AD: The rival armies assembled on a flat plain broken only by a small hill. They were disparate to say the least. Almost every tribe and people from the Atlantic coast to the Danube frontier and the Black Sea was represented, the same tribe sometimes being present on both sides. With Attila rode Ardaric of the Gepids and Walamir of the Ostrogoths. Also in his army were vassal Franks, Rugians, Thuringians, Burgundians, and Alans. Opposing this cosmopolitan array was Aetius and his small Roman force, accompanied by Theodoric of the Visigoths, Sangiban of the Alans, and a host of Armoricans, Franks, Germans, Saxons, and even Sarmatians attempting to check Hunnic expansion.

The battle was strangely simple considering the numbers and fighting styles involved. The Romans advanced and took the small hill in the centre of the battlefield, holding this all day against repeated Hun attacks. The Visigoths charged their opponents (probably the Ostrogoths) and broke them, and Attila then pulled back to his camp and retreated during the night. For their own political reasons the allied armies of Gaul did not pursue the Huns, and they rode back to their own lands unopposed.

Attila returned to extortion as a way of life. He invaded Northern Italy in 452 AD but once again found that the Romans had fortified their towns well. He was brought to a halt at Aquileia, which commanded the main thoroughfares through the region, which the Huns and their allies besieged for months. Attila eventually ordered the siege to be raised, at which point an extraordinary event took place. As the army began to decamp at dawn a stork flew from one of Aquileia’s towers, followed by its young. The Hunnic shamans immediately reported this to Attila, and he halted the retreat, returned to the siege, and eventually destroyed the town.

After this Attila plundered through Italy but never seemed set to attack Ravenna or Rome. At one point he met with Pope Leo I, who begged for Rome to be spared. However, since — as before, at Constantinople — the Hunnic army was suffering from disease and the countryside was still recovering from famine, it is highly unlikely Attila would have undertaken this anyway. Even more pressing was an attack mounted across the Danube by the Emperor Marcian. Attila set off home again.

Further setbacks against the Alans and Goths were alleviated by the prospect of Attila’s wedding to a woman named Ildico (possibly a Burgundian princess). He enjoyed his wedding feast immensely, drank well, and retired to bed late. In the morning he was found dead; an artery had burst, drowning him in his own blood. The ‘Scourge of God’ was no more. He had been King of the Huns for a mere eight years. Though his conquests were great they would be surpassed by others. And yet Attila’s name has lingered on in the memory of subsequent generations as a byword for terror.

From then on the Huns’ ascendancy waned. Their sometime allies the Gepids turned on them and broke their power at the Battle of Nedao in 454 AD, and the Huns returned to their tribal ways, becoming part of the fledgling Avar and Bulgar Empires which continued to cause problems for the Eastern Romans for centuries to come.

The Huns are a fearsome combination on the wargames table, if only because an opponent will not be sure what they are about to face! Early Hunnic forces were all tribal warriors, unarmoured horse archers prepared to fight hand-to-hand when necessary. Although some may have picked up odd pieces of armour this did not change their fighting methods. It has been suggested that there was a noble elite who wore armour and carried lances, but Roman emissaries recount how difficult it was to tell a Hunnic prince from a simple clansman, as they were all similarly equipped and dressed. The only other distinctive feature of Hunnic warfare at this time was their use of wagon laagers, into which they would retreat in order to rally and attack again from a different direction via concealed gateways.

A Hun army can therefore consist entirely of tribal cavalry. The personal followers of chieftains could be given a higher rating than the bulk of clansmen and may be distinguished by better equipment, brighter clothing, and some items of armour.

Allied contingents could constitute between one and two thirds of a Hun army. These chiefly consisted of Skirians, Gepids, Ostrogoths, and German warbands. The Skirians and Ostrogoths had similar forces, consisting of noble cavalry who charged ferociously at full gallop supported by about double their number of loose order, unarmoured, infantry archers. The Gepids had similar cavalry and bowmen but added ferocious foot warbands to the ensemble, the cavalry, archers and warband being of roughly equal numbers. All three of these peoples sometimes turned up on campaign with only their cavalry, having left the slower moving infantry behind. They might also bring their own wagon laagers for defence.

German warbands provided a second source of vassal troops for the Huns. Once again, up to a third of a Hunnic force could be a mixture of Burgundii, Rugi, and Frankish and/or Thuringian foot. Hun chieftains would command these, as their own leaders had probably been killed (the Burgundians, for instance, had ceased to exist as a nation once the Huns had finished with them). Lastly a few Alan horse would have been present in most Hun armies, but would have been largely indistinguishable from their masters. However, some may have been armoured and have carried lances.

The Huns themselves are readily available. You may wish to distinguish the chieftains by mixing in a pack of Sarmatians from the Dacian range DS006 with the Hun Command. For Franks use the Frank & Saxon range, while the other Germanic tribes are best represented by Saxons etc. FS002/3, for whom chieftains can be found in the Command pack FS006. For Skirians, Gepids, and Ostrogoths use a mixture of Dacians DS005/7, Late Romans LR023/24, and Arthurians LR031/33, with the emphasis on unarmoured types. Swapping heads here would give a really good effect. For the supporting archers, go for a wide mix of Dacians DS004 a few Late Romans LR019 with the embroidery filed off their tunics, and Frankish/Saxon figures FS007. Gepid infantry would be as the Germanics above, or from the Ancient German range, while Alans would be very similar to the Huns.

The Huns that are pictured throughout this article were converted and painted by Kevin Dallimore.

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