The historical importance of the westward movement of the Huns into Europe

A new enemy was on the horizon, an enemy of Teuton and Roman alike. The nomad hordes known to history as the Huns appeared in the reign of Emperor Valens west of the Caspian Sea, and swept over southern Russia.

It is probable that for many generations the Huns had established pastures near the Caspian and Aral Lakes. It may be considered almost certain that their westward movement into Europe was occasioned by political events in northern and central Asia which set in motion new movements among the nomad peoples.


Now we know of a great political revolution in Asia in the fourth century which is the probable explanation of the movements of the Huns. Our knowledge, such as it is, of the early history of central records we know that in the third and early fourth centuries the dominant people in these regions was the Sien-pi, and that towards the middle of the fourth century their power was overthrown by the Zhu-zhu, who succeeded them to the dominion of Tartar Asia, and finally founded a great empire extending from the coast of the North Pacific, from Corea to the borders of Europe. It may be supposed that it was events connected with the rise to power of the Zhu-zhu that disturbed the Huns and induced them to move westward.

The name Huns, Greek ounnoi, is generally supposed to be a corruption of the word Hiung-nu -the name meaning common slaves, that was given by the Chinese to all the nomadic peoples of Asia. It is important to understand what nomad life meant in the proper sense of the word; for the word is often used in a loose and inaccurate way, as if it simply meant wandering or unsettled. Etymologically, of course, nomad means a grazer. In the strict and proper sense nomad peoples are peoples of pastoral habits who have two fixed lands far apart and migrate between them twice a year regularly like migratory birds. In central Asia northern tracts which are green in summer supply no pasturage in winter, while the southern steppes, which in summer are not inhabitable on account of the drought, afford food to the herds in winter. Hence arises the necessity for two homes.

These nomads are not people who roam promiscuously over a continent. They are herdsmen with two fixed habitations, summer and winter pasture lands, between which they might move for ever, provided the climatic conditions did not change and they were allowed to remain undisturbed by their neighbours.

Migrations to new homes would as a rule occur only if strange tribes drove them from their pastures. The successive immigrations of nomads to Europe -of the ancient Scythians; of the Huns; and of all those who come after them- were due, as has already been intimated, to the struggle for existence in the Asiatic steppes, and the expulsion of the weakest. As to those who were forced to migrate:

With an energetic Khan at their head, who organised them on military lines, such a horde transformed itself into an incomparable army, compelled by the instict of self-preservation to hold fast together in the midst of the hostile population which they subjugated; for however superfluous a central government may be in the steppe, it is of vital importance to a conquering nomad horde outside it” (Cambridge Mediaeval History, vol. i. p. 350).


These invading hordes were not numerous; they were esteemed by their terrified enemies to be far larger than they actually were.

But what the Altaian armies lacked in numbers was made up for their sjill in surprises, their fury, their cunning, mobility and elusiveness, and the panic which preceded them, and froze the blood of all peoples. On their marvellously fleet horses they could traverse immense distances, and their scouts provided them with accurate local information as to the remotest lands, and their distances. Add to this the enormous advantage that among them even the most insignificant news spread like wildfire from aul to aul by means of voluntary couriers surpassing any intelligence department, however well organised” (Cambridge Mediaeval History, vol. i. p. 350).

The fate of the conquered populations was to be partly exterminated, partly enslaved, and sometimes transplanted from one territory to another, while the women became a prey to the lusts of the conquerors. The peasants were so systematically plundered that they were often forced to abandon the rearing of cattle and reduced to vegeterianism. This seems to have been the case with the Slavs.

Such was the horde which swept into Europe in the fourth century, encamped in Dacia and in the land between the Theiss and Danube, and held sway over the peoples in the south Russian steppes, the Ostrogoths, Heruls, and Alans. For fifty years after their establishment north of the Danube we hear little of the Huns. They made a few raids into the Roman provinces, and they were ready to furnish auxiliaries from time to time to the Empire. At the time of the death of Theodosius they were probably regarded as one more barbarian enemy, neither more nor less formidable than the Germans who threatened the Danubian barrier. We may conjecture that the organisation of the horde had fallen to pieces soon after their settlement in Europe. No one could forsee that after a generation had passed Rome would be confronted by a large and aggressive Hunnic Empire.


The first apprisal that the peoples of Europe had of the danger which menaced them through the advance of a new and formidable enemy from Asia was the news of a victory which the Huns had gained over the Alans, a people who lived north of the Caucasus and south of the river Don. This was the year A.D. 372. The Alans were terror-stricken by the appalling nomads, and a larger portion of the nation fled westward, to be ultimately absorbed in the Germanic world. The Huns then continued a westward course across the steppes of south Russia, initiating by their impact a movement the great historical significance of which is that it shuffled and displaced the whole East-Germanic world.

First of all the Ostrogoths were subdued. The empire of Hermanric collapsed before the onrush of the Asiatic shepherds who were to form a greater empire than his: the old king is said to have slain himself in despair. The danger was now at the gates of the Visigoths. The Visigoths under the leadership of Athanaric, advanced to the Dniester and made a stand, but were utterly defeated. The nation as a whole were seized by panic and firmly believed that there was no safety for them north of the Danube. They determined to withdraw southward beyond that river and seek the shelter of the Roman Empire.

This was a very critical decision: it led to events which determined the course of the history of the Roman Empire. Accordingly, they sent an ambassador to the Emperor Valens, who was then staying at Antioch, beseeching him to allow the nation to cross the river and grant them lands in the provinces of the Balkan peninsula. It was the year 376. In the meantime their families abandoned their homes and encamped along the shores of the lower Danube, ready to cross the moment the Romans permitted them.

The situation was highly embarassing for the Emperor and his government. It was unique; they had no experience to guide them in dealing with it. It was pressing; some decision must be come to immediately; there was no time for ripe deliberation. The opinion of ministers and councillors was naturally divided, but it was finally decided to accede to the request of the Goths and to receive them as new subjects on Roman soil. The decision was reached with much hesitation and only after many searchings of heart; but we may be certain that the Emperor and his advisers did not in the least realise or imagine the difficulties of the task to which their consent committed them. To settle peacefully within their borders a nation of perhaps 80,000 or more barbarians was a problem which could be solved only by most careful organisation requiring long preparation. Quite suddenly, without any time for thinking out the problem or for any preparation, Valens was called on to admit into his dominions a foreign nation, of barbarous habits, armed and warlike, conscious of their national unity: to provide them with food, and to find them habitations.

The Roman state was highly organised, but naturally there was no organisation to deal with an abnormal demand of this kind, which could not have been anticipated. As might have been expected, when the barbarians crossed the river and encamped in Lower Moesia (modern Bulgaria) all kinds of difficulties and deplorable incidents occured. The military and civil officials were quite unequal to coping with the situation, and no wonder. War was the result, a war lasting nearly two years and culminating in A.D. 378 in the great battle of Hadrianople, which is one of the landmarks of history -on of the three most disasters that befell Rome in her conflicts with the Germans, the first being the battle of Teutoburg in A.D. 9, when the legions of Varus, the general of Augustus, were annihilated, the second the defeat and death of the Emperor Decius by the Goths in 251. The last Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, ends his work with this battle, and after this year we have to depend -so far as Latin literature is concerned- for the record of the history of the Empire and its German invaders on meagre chronicles, rhetorical verse writers, and incidental notices in ecclesiastical annalists.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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