Revisionist Hunnic History

By Michael

In the same vein as my previous post on New World Demographics, I would also like to share another controversial historical thesis. This is also the product of my teaching, but more recently from teaching two sections of Military History to 1789 and Introduction to European History, both of which cover (however briefly) the Hunnic Invasions of Ancient Rome, specifically the fifth century in Europe at the height of the Huns under Attila. Not to bury the lede: my hypothesis is that Attila the Hun’s most famous campaign (the sack and pillage of what-is-now France in 451 CE) was not the work of Huns, but more likely of Goths, Franks, or other Germanic tribes.

The Sources

Attila the Hun (1493 woodcut from Nuremberg Chronicle) as the literal Scourge (whip) of God

I enjoy teaching history because I enjoy teaching my students that they have no control over what elements of the modern day world will remain in 500 or 1500 years to teach the future about our complicated lives. To be clear, even those works we consider histories were generally not written by authors imagining that their words would become the definitive story of their times. This is particularly true of our main sources for today’s discussion: Jordanes and Priscus. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In this case, our classical understanding of history is sadly lacking in source material, leaving us with only a handful of authors to interrogate and understand as historians. Reflecting the near total historical ignorance of the day-to-day facts of this age, there are only educated guesses for the lifespans and biographies of these authors:

  1. Sozomen (Sozomenos, c. 400-450)
  2. Priscus (Priskos, c. 410s-after 472 CE)
  3. Jordanes (c. 500s – after 551 CE)
  4. Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585)
  5. Procopius (c. 500 – c. 554)

First, I should introduce the sources and explain their use to us in understanding Attila the Hun and his place in history.

  1. Beginning with Sozomen, his work is notable for the fact that his second volume of his Ecclesiastical History came out during the period of Hunnic tributes, treaties, and threatened invasions in the 440s. This work was dedicated to Theodosius II, the same emperor of Rome also oversaw the construction of the so-called Theodosian Walls of Constantinople between 412 and 414. The existence of his work alone is interesting evidence of the relative importance of the Huns and Goths, since they make no meaningful appearance in his history.
  2. Our nearly sole contemporary source on Attila comes from Priscus. The other sources that make some contemporary mention of the raids of Attila (into ancient Italy, not ancient France) appear in Prosper and Hydatius. Priscus, unlike his contemporaries, personally met Huns and in 448/449 took part in the embassy of the Emperor Theodosius to Attila and described a complicated individual prone to rage, but also to extreme tenderness with his children. Moreover, this embassy was quoted directly and thus corroborated in Jordanes (and presumably in Cassiodorus). Priscus reported finding Romans living peacefully among the Huns, married and happy to outside the corrupt and burdensome tax system of the empire. There he also met with the general and de facto ruler of the Western Empire, Flavius Aetius (391-454), whom Procopius called “the last of the Romans,” in a nod to similar compliments paid to Brutus and Valens by earlier historians.
  3. Jordanes is a horse of a completely different color, giving us both the most complete, and yet least reliable, version of the events of the 440s-450s, including the campaigns of the various Gothic tribes and Attila with his Huns. Jordanes was a propagandist for his emperor Justinian and generally wrote positively of the imperial system represented by strong emperors like Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian. A key paradox of Jordanes’ work is the paradox between his endless appreciation and praise for the Goths alongside their constant revolts against the Empire during the course of their history. In the work, Jordanes stated his intention to explain the origins and histories of the Goths to explain the extremely complex geopolitical situation of the mid-500s. A central episode of this history is the period leading up to Attila’s invasion of Gaul in 451 at the head of a subject Ostrogoth army, forced to retreat by a Roman-Visigoth alliance.
  4. Jordanes, however, is a notoriously unreliable source on Attila, considering both his distance in time from the material and the fact that his history was actually a short abridgment of Cassiodorus. Nothing more of his Getica (History of the Goths) survives, but it should be noted that Cassiodorus had a connection with (and possible bias towards) the family of Aetius, Attila’s primary opponent in the text. In addition to Cassiodorus, there are brief mentions of the wars of Attila (again, centered on the Italian peninsula, not Gaul) in the surviving work of Procopius on the military and political exploits of his patron, the Emperor Justinian, The Book of the Wars. Procopius tends to be more well-known for its salacious counter-part, the Anecdota, or so-called Secret History, a collection of palace intrigues and sexual adventures (including the tale of the Empress’ private areas, a trained goose, and kernels of grain) that historians have long debated over.
  5. Finally, there are a wide variety of flavorful legends (like the Nibelungenleid), saints’ lives (hagiographies), and folklore which cannot be reliably dated within centuries of the events. In other words, they more likely represent the reputation that the Huns enjoyed in the Medieval period as the scourges of God.

The Standard Story of Attila the Hun

Cartoon appearing in the New Yorker, August 2nd, 1993 from Peter Steiner

Jordanes, Procopius, and Priscus are generally combined to produce a coherent narrative, with caveats that their works are of uneven quality, uneven reliability, and uneven importance to the history of Attila and the Huns. Jordanes dedicates the most attention (of the surviving material) to the Huns, though Procopius takes pride of place as the official court historian of the era and the work of Priscus (such as survives) stands out as the only evidence of eye-witness testimony regarding Attila and his lifestyle. Jordanes, in epitomizing Cassiodorus, was satisfied by extremely high-level, big-picture narrative for much of his history of the Goths, but devoted singular attention and detail to the campaigns against Attila and the career of his chief Roman opponent, the consul and de facto ruler of the Western Empire, Aetius. Procopius, for his part, mentions Attila briefly in the third book of his multi-volume History of the Wars, specifically the first volume dedicated to the Roman wars with the Vandals (who sacked Rome within a decade of Attila’s own march into the Italian peninsula). Procopius explains that Attila’s invasion of Italy occurred as a result of the Roman execution of Aetius, contradicting Jordanes, who places Aetius in charge of the defense, specifically of the Hun siege of Aquileia. Procopius passes on the unlikely story that the Huns only took the city after a wall fell down of its own accord, which Attila predicted after seeing a stork abandon its nest in the wall the previous day.

Briefly, here is the current rendition of Attila’s campaign into modern-day France as given in Wikipedia. It represents an eclectic blend of source material, including exceedingly unlikely legends and hagiographies of local saints credited with using divine aid to turn aside the Huns from this or that city.

In 450, Attila proclaimed his intent to attack the Visigoth kingdom of Toulouse by making an alliance with Emperor Valentinian III. He had previously been on good terms with the Western Roman Empire and its influential general Flavius Aëtius. Aëtius had spent a brief exile among the Huns in 433, and the troops that Attila provided against the Goths and Bagaudae had helped earn him the largely honorary title of magister militum in the west. The gifts and diplomatic efforts of Geiseric, who opposed and feared the Visigoths, may also have influenced Attila’s plans.
Attila interfered in a succession struggle after the death of a Frankish ruler. Attila supported the elder son, while Aëtius supported the younger. (The location and identity of these kings is not known and subject to conjecture.) Attila gathered his vassals and began his march west. In 451, he arrived in Belgica with an army exaggerated by Jordanes to half a million strong. On April 7, he captured Metz. Other cities attacked can be determined by the hagiographies written to commemorate their bishops: Nicasius was slaughtered before the altar of his church in Rheims; Servatus is alleged to have saved Tongeren with his prayers, as Saint Genevieve is said to have saved Paris.
Aëtius moved to oppose Attila [and his] combined armies reached Orléans ahead of Attila, thus checking and turning back the Hunnish advance. Aëtius gave chase and caught the Huns at a place usually assumed to be near Catalaunum. Attila decided to fight the Romans on plains where he could use his cavalry.
The two armies clashed in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, the outcome of which is commonly considered to be a strategic victory for the Visigothic-Roman alliance. Theodoric was killed in the fighting, and Aëtius failed to press his advantage [against the retreating Attila].

Interrogating the Sources

Before we come to my argument, I will lay out the problems as understood by the consensus of historians. These are difficult to order, so I will be brief. Procopius gives no detail regarding the territory invaded by Attila, so that it might only refer to his campaigns in southeastern Europe in the 440s with “Scythians and Massagetae,” most likely meaning different tribes of pastoral nomads of the steppe. Aetius, according to Procopius, had earned the jealousy and mistrust of his peers by “conquering” Attila — where, when, or how is unclear. This leads to the execution of Aetius and the Hunnic invasion of the Italian peninsula and the annihilation of Aquileia after the unforeseen collapse of one of its walls… and that is all Procopius has to say about Attila.

This woodcut portrait is from the 1575 Basle edition of Elogia virorum bellica virtute illustrium (Praise of Men Illustrious for Courage in War) by the Italian historian and biographer Paolo Giovio (1483-1552).

Jordanes has the most to say about Attila, but how much of this comes from his summarizing Cassiodorus and how much from other sources (or his own imagination) no one can say. First appearing in chapter 34 of book two, Attila is described as the most famous man of the age and practically the single ruler of all the people of Scythia, which I understand to mean ‘all the nomads of the steppe.’ Jordanes than quotes from Priscus on the countryside leading to the encampment of Attila in modern Hungary and his palace within a wooden palisade. Leaving Priscus behind, Jordanes informs the reader of Attila’s intense, terrifying personality and characteristics and the fact that he “was born into the world to shake the nations.” Attila had taken this position through the finding and wielding of a sword sacred to all the Scythians and long believed lost.

Attila, in the mind of Jordanes, longed to conquer “the greatest nations” of the time, apparently meaning Rome and, less convincingly, the Visigoths. He sought this through palace intrigues, letters, flattery, and threats to sow discord between the Romans and the Visigoths – but his efforts failed. Instead, he incited war between his own army and that of the Visigoths and Romans. Of note here are their ‘vassals:’ the Romans had on their side the Franks, Sarmatians, Burgundians, Saxons, and other assorted Celtic and Germanic nationes.

Attila opposed this union and gave battle at the Catalaunian Plains, a flat space measuring more than 100 miles long… but Jordanes gives no details of any raiding or other looting of Roman Gaul. We are told that Attila arrived to Orleans because the Alan chieftain ruling agreed to surrender the city to Attila, but this was opposed by the Roman-Visigoth armies, who quickly raised a defense. Attila arrived, saw the earthworks, and asked his soothsayers the likely outcome of battle… it would go poorly for the Huns, but at least the enemy commander would die.

Jordanes gives extreme detail to the battle following: a long afternoon and evening of hand-to-hand combat, swords and spears, with no mention of cavalry or archery. Jordanes tells us it was the single greatest battle in history, some 165,000 dead (CLXV milia), rivers of blood, and the King of the Visigoths died as foretold to Attila. The combat could have led to the total destruction of the Huns, according to Jordanes, but instead Aetius pulled back his Goths for fear that they would go on to overwhelm Rome once they had destroyed their chief foe.

After the battle (when or from where is unclear in Jordanes), Attila moved his army “forward to attack the Romans,” but whom were they attacking in Orleans? Jordanes describes the invasion of northern Italy, the miraculous collapse of the wall of Aquileia, and the sacking of Milan and Pavia. The Hunnic commanders convinced Attila that Rome was a poison pill best left untouched and, while Attila was torn over whether or not to march on Rome, Pope Leo I emerged from the city to talk. He agreed to leave and return over the Danube, but that they should send Honoria, the sister of the Emperor, to him as a bride. And so Jordanes informs us that the entire Italian invasion was the fault of Honoria, who had sent secret messengers to Attila requesting his hand in marriage and the Western Empire as her dowry.

My Argument

My argument is predicated on some important and widely accepted assumptions. Namely, that the Huns of Attila were a branch of a much larger population of pastoral nomads across Eurasia, including the Hephthalites of Central Asia and the Xiongnu in northeast Asia. The archaeological record shows a pastoral nomadic culture with many unifying characteristics. Another assumption is that pastoral nomadism has traditionally been devalued, misunderstood, and demonized as savage, brutal, uncivilized, and indistinguishable from ancient hunter-gatherers. 

I am not alone in my disbelief of the Hunnic invasion of Gaul. However, I feel as though I can speak intelligently as someone more familiar with pastoral nomadism, the history of the nomads of late antiquity (namely the “greater Hun family” of Huns, Hephthalites, and Xiongnu), and the historical trend to cast aspersions and doubts on nomads in defense of sedentary farmers and ‘honest’ forest-dwellers like the Franks, Burgundians, and (to some extant) Goths.

Making maps to visualize geopolitical trends in history is fraught with difficulty, but they also offer an excellent, easy-to-grasp support for my argument. If we were to compare two maps of Europe, one showing roughly 400 CE and the other 500 CE, we would notice some interesting points.

Modern-day France, an area previously part of the Roman Empire had, by 500 CE, become the domain of Franks and Burgundians, two Germanic tribes of the ancient world. Something, the reader will understand, occurred in the 400s. Migration, or Invasion, westward by the Franks and Burgundians, not the Huns.

However, as we have seen, the standard story is different. The invasion of Gaul (modern-day France) that  history preserves is that of Attila, the Huns, and their Ostrogoth Allies against a combined Roman-Visigoth army. Jordanes, summarizing a now-lost work, lays out the history as one most important for what it reveals about Gothic intrigues. Attila offers a glorious speech, but the weight of the battle rests in its colossal loss of life, the heroism of Gothic valor, and the ultimate defense of the Empire thanks to Gothic sacrifice. However, if we compare the stories and critique the source material, we come away with a very different image. For example, if I compare one of the standard maps of the Hunnic invasion of Gaul with one reflecting only that information coming from (the weakest) of our historical sources, the difference is striking.

Two maps: on the left, from Wikipedia, on the right, edited to show information from Jordanes

Nothing about the military campaign of Attila in Gaul sounds plausible to me. Jordanes lavishes detail on the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, devoting attention that he gives nowhere else in his summary. If the Huns made military actions similar to their other actions in the Eastern Empire (and fitting with our archaeological and anthropological understanding of the militaries of pastoral nomads), Jordanes would likely have remarked on the mass of cavalry, the reliance on horseback archers, and the general lack of spears, swords, and shields. Instead we read about a “typical” war between Germanic tribes, two gigantic blocks of heroes meeting in battle, swarming up and over hilltops, and a colossal (and reciprocal) loss of life. This version allows a great deal of flexibility to Goths like Jordanes and his Frankish and Burgundian readers; flexibility to blame the despoiling and desecration of the early Christian sites in Gaul on a foreign invader. Priscus, the fragment of whose work stands alone in reliability as a first-hand account, makes no mention of how the Huns fought their wars — but does mention gold-adorned weapons and horse tack like that found in the archaeological discoveries of the era. All of this is to say that the available evidence corroborates Priscus — but quite the opposite is true for Jordanes.

Map of the Hunnic Invasions:  Note how the better-sourced invasions of the 440s and 452 seem plausible and logical for steppe-bound nomads in comparison to that of 451.

I will close with the dismissal of this campaign by the “father of military history,” Hans Delbruck. He found laughable the numbers quoted by the sources (Jordanes suggested Attila had 500,000 men, whom Delbruck considered to be principally, if not entirely, Germanic tribesmen; Delbruck also noted Paul the Deacon‘s 8th century estimate that Attila’s army consisted of a ridiculous 700,000 Huns). He noted in one lecture that the wars of the 1800s, with the aid of railways and telegraphs, were unable to repeat Attila’s efforts in moving similar quantities of men and horseflesh from the middle Danube into central France. The modern science of logistics and military supply offered compelling evidence against the already unreliable source material for Delbruck, and I concur.

Sources Cited

Lighter Reading on Attila