Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The enduring mystery of the Huns

In 376 C.E., an enormous group of Germanic-speaking Goths, primarily from the Tervingi and Greuthungi tribes, showed up along the Danube River, which had long stood as an uneasy boundary between the Germanic peoples and the Roman Empire.

Most people are aware that the Roman Empire -- especially the western half of it -- would, for all intents and purposes, collapse completely less than a hundred years after that.  What's less well-known is that up to this point, it was doing pretty well; no one, in 375 C.E., would have looked around them and thought, "Wow, these people are doomed."  British historian Peter Heather analyzed all the usual factors cited in Rome's fourth-century troubles, including an uncontrolled and rebellious army, restive peasantry, food shortages from a drop in agricultural production, and conflicts with Persia on the eastern border.  None appear to be sufficient to account for what was about to happen.  Rome had stood for almost a thousand years -- to put that in perspective, four times longer than the United States has been a nation -- and had survived much worse, including the chaotic "Year of Five Emperors" (193 C.E.), which started with the murder of the paranoid and megalomaniacal emperor Commodus, made famous in the movie Gladiator.

The Roman Empire had dealt with border conflicts pretty much during its entire history.  Given its expansionist agenda, it was directly responsible for a good many of them.  But this time, things would be different.  No one at the time seems to have seen it coming, but the end result would write finis on the Pax Romana.

The difference was a group of people called the Huns.

Reconstruction of a Hunnic warrior [Image licensed under the Creative Commons George S. Stuart creator QS:P170,Q5544204 Photographed by Peter d'Aprix & Dee Finning; Owned by Museum of Ventura County, Attila the Hun on horseback by George S Stuart, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Huns are a historical enigma.  For a group so widely known -- every schoolkid has heard of Attila the Hun -- their origins are pretty much a complete mystery.  (For what it's worth, they did not give their name to the nation of Hungary; the name "Hungary" comes from the Oghur-Turkic word onogur, meaning "the ten tribes of the Oghurs."  And the Magyars, the Finno-Ugric ethnic group that makes up the majority of the ancestry in modern Hungary, didn't even come into the region until the ninth century C.E.)

As far as the Huns go, we don't even know much about what language they spoke, because they left no written records.  There are a handful of words recorded in documents from the fourth and fifth centuries, and some personal names, but the evidence is so thin that linguists haven't even been able to determine what language family Hunnic belonged to -- there are arguments that it was Turkic, Iranian, Yeniseian, Mongolian, Uralic, and Indo-European, or perhaps a linguistic isolate -- but the fact is, we simply don't know.

So basically, the Huns swept into eastern Europe from we-don't-know-where.  Certainly they at least passed through the central Asian steppe, but whether that's where they originated is a matter of pure conjecture.  There's even a contention they might have come from as far away as what is now northern China, and that they're allied to the Xiongnu culture, but the evidence for that is slim at best.

Roman chronicler Ammianus Marcellinus, who witnessed many of the events of the late fourth century that were to lead to the downfall of the Roman Empire, was grudgingly impressed by what he saw of the Huns:

The people called Huns exceed every measure of savagery.  They are aflame with an inhuman desire for plundering others' property...  They enter battle drawn up in wedge-shaped masses.  And as they are lightly-equipped, for a swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly into scattered bands and attack, rushing about in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter...  They fight from a distance with missiles having sharp bone, instead of their usual points, joined to the shafts with wonderful skill; then they gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand-to-hand with swords.

Ammianus, though, didn't know any better than anyone else where the Huns had originated; his best guess was that they'd lived on "the shores of the ice-bound ocean," but never provided any reason why he thought that.

When they did explode onto the scene, though -- wherever they'd come from -- the effects were catastrophic.  The Goths, Alans, and Sarmatians of what are now the Balkan countries of eastern Europe were shoved farther and farther west, and all of a sudden, the Roman Empire had a serious problem on its hands.  The emperor at the time, Valens, was ill-equipped to deal with a hundred thousand refugees, mostly from Germanic-speaking tribes who had long been considered little more than barbarians.  (To be fair, it's hard to imagine how anyone would be well-equipped to deal with this.)  His decision to treat the Goths as enemies, rather than joining forces with them against the greater threat of the Huns, led to the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

Valens lost both the battle and his life.

While there was some attempt to come to terms with the Goths (or even turn them into allies) by Valens's successor Theodosius I, the stage was set.  The domino effect of Huns shoving the Goths and the Goths shoving the Romans continued, chipping away at the Western Roman Empire, ultimately leading to the Gothic leader Alaric sacking Rome itself in 410.  The Huns made their way into Gaul, and even into Italy, under Attila.  This forward motion continued until the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, fought in 451 near what is now the town of Ch├ólons, France, at which a combined force of Romans and Goths finally defeated the Huns and forced them back.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the Huns was that after that battle, they began to fall apart themselves with a speed that was just this side of bizarre.  Attila died in 453 -- from what appears to have been an esophageal hemorrhage -- and none of his many sons proved capable as a leader.  They fractured into various factions which rapidly succumbed to internecine squabbling, and their power waned as fast as it had waxed seventy years earlier.  What happened to them after that is just as much of a mystery as everything else about them; most historians believe that what was left of the Huns were absorbed into other ethnic groups in what are now Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and they more or less ceased to exist as an independent culture.

So we're left with a puzzle.  One of the most familiar, instantly recognizable civilizations in history is of unknown origin and had an unknown fate, arising from obscurity and fading back into it as quickly.  But what's certain is that after they surged through Europe, the western half of the Roman Empire never recovered.  The last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, abdicated in 476.  The western half of Europe fragmented into petty kingdoms ruled by various Germanic chieftains, and the power center shifted to Constantinople, where it would remain until Charlemagne came to to the throne three hundred years later.

Historical mysteries never fail to fascinate, and this is a baffling one -- a mysterious people who swept into Europe, smashed an empire that had stood for a thousand years, and then vanished, all within the span of a single century.  Perhaps one day historians will figure out who the Huns were, but for now, all we have is scanty records, the awed and fearful accounts of the people who witnessed them, and a plethora of questions.

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