Around 370, swarms of Huns took over much of Western Europe, conquering Germanic tribes and scaring others out of their growing territory. But does this nomadic people deserve its outsized reputation?
That question is hard to answer. The Huns “remain deeply mysterious,” writes historian Peter Heather, in part due to their lack of written history and their obscure origins. The nomadic people are thought to have come from what is now Kazakhstan, and swept across the eastern steppes after about 350 A.D. Some scholars think they were a Turkic tribe descended from the Xiongnu, a group of pastoral nomads who unified much of Asia during the late third and early second centuries B.C.
As the Huns moved along the Black Sea, they attacked those in their path. These people—Vandals, Visigoths, Goths and other groups—fled toward Rome. These migrations destabilized the Roman Empire and helped the Huns gain a murderous reputation.
Their most notorious leader, Attila the Hun, solidified that perception. Between 440 and 453 A.D., he led Hunnic hordes throughout much of Europe, including Gaul (modern-day France). Along the way he pillaged with abandon, gaining a reputation in historical accounts as a “Scourge of God” whose people perpetrated unspeakable acts of terror whenever they entered new territory. (Related: Do these modified, pointy skulls belong to the Huns?)
But the archaeological record tells a different story. In 2017, for example, archaeologist Susanne Hakenbeck analyzed Hunnic bones buried in Pannonia, a former Roman region in what is now Hungary. Isotopic analysis revealed that Huns coexisted and conducted cultural exchange with Romans. Hunnic history “wasn’t necessarily just a story of conflict, but more a story of cross-border exchanges, cross-border adaptability,” Hakenbeck told the Washington Post in 2017.
Attila the Hun never invaded Rome itself, and his empire fell apart around 469 A.D. Nonetheless, his people’s barbaric reputation has endured. Greek historian Jordanes, writing in the sixth century A.D., called them a “treacherous tribe,” and they were widely associated with the fall of the Roman Empire. However, modern historians believe they played a less direct role in its dissolution, and that the empire’s inherent instability left it vulnerable to barbarian invasion.
The fearsome reputation of the Huns has played a part in modern conflict as well. After German emperor Wilhelm II encouraged his soldiers to be as merciless as the Huns during a speech in 1900, the term became associated with Germany. During World War I, “Hun” was widely used as an epithet toward Germans. Today, it still implies a barbaric people—but one that may have had much less might than their name might imply.