Nearly 16 centuries after he lived and died, the name of Attila the Hun still carries overtones of wanton destruction and senseless slaughter. The Huns, unlike the Franks or the Anglo-Saxons or the Goths, have no modern politicians claiming them as glorious ancestors for a shot of cheap nationalism; the Huns embody the stereotype of the barbarian as rampaging looters, destroyers who left in their wake nothing but charred cities full of bones.
The Huns came to the attention of Roman writers seemingly out of the blue, and from the get-go, outside observers saw them as savage primitives who could be fit neatly into thousand-year-old stereotypes of nomads who dwelled on the great Eurasian steppe.
But the Huns weren’t primitive. They were already an imperial power when the arrived on the fringes of the Roman world, the owners of an empire that stretched from Russia’s Ural Mountains to the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. It took the western branch of the Huns only 80 years to create an empire that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Rhine, and Attila turned both the western and the eastern halves of the Roman Empire into vassals who owed him tribute.
How did the Huns do this? It wasn’t pure savagery or native cunning, or even their command of mounted archery; this was a complex and well-organized empire, heir to imperial institutions and structures born of other great empires of the steppe over the past 600 years. When the Huns arrived on the scene, they already had a blueprint for how to conquer and rule.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. It seems pretty silly to me that professional historians don’t actually talk to the general public—why would you spend decades working on something if you don’t want to tell people about it?—so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
In this episode, we look at where the Huns came from, who they were, and how they conquered and ruled such a vast stretch of territory, culminating in the epic rise of Attila.
If that sounds interesting to you, give the ninth episode of The Fall of Rome a listen.