Huns Begin Migration West from Central Asia

The westward migration of the Huns eventually became a major factor contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

The Huns were one of several nomadic tribes that by the fourth century c.e. had come to populate the plains of southwestern Russia and southeastern Europe. They most likely originated in the steppe region of central Asia in what is now Mongolia and northwestern China. Chinese records of the second century b.c.e. refer to the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), or Huns, who had posed a serious threat to the security of China. In response, the Chinese, through war and the building of the Great Wall, repelled the Xiongnu, forcing them west beyond the Asian steppe. An illiterate people, the Huns left no written legacy. Consequently, the scant record of these nomadic people’s westward migration before the late fourth century c.e. is attributed to Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330-c. 395 c.e.). Although Ammianus’s record is sketchy, modern archaeological evidence suggests that the Hunic migration west began sometime between the third and fourth centuries c.e. By about 374 c.e., the Huns had advanced as far as the Don River in southern Russia. There, they formed an alliance with the Alani, another nomadic people. The newly formed alliance pushed west, by 376 c.e. reaching the banks of the Danube River, the northeastern frontier of the Roman Empire. For the hundred years to follow, the Huns would influence the political dynamics of the region, eventually becoming a significant factor in the fall of Rome. Theodosius the Great
Theodosius II

The Huns are depicted plundering a Roman villa in Gaul.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Huns were a predatory people who often allied with other tribes as a way to secure loot and dominate enemy lands. Not only were the spoils of war an incentive for conquest, but the Huns’ vast herds of sheep, cattle, and horses kept them in constant search for new pasture lands to sustain their livestock. At times, Hunnish alliances were nothing more than short-term arrangements forged as a matter of convenience; it was not uncommon for Huns to fight their former allies for control of territory. Eventually, the Huns would even serve under Roman command in wars against the Visigoths and Franks.

The westward migration of the Huns pushed aside Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and less well-known tribes that occupied the plains of southeastern Europe. Because these tribes were displaced from their homelands, they had no choice but to penetrate beyond the Roman frontier. Thus, Rome entered an era of invasions by nomadic tribes (barbarians) that drained the resources of its empire. By 378 c.e., the Huns had advanced beyond the Danube. The Romans, already at war with the Visigoths, feared the formation of a barbaric alliance against their northern frontier. To quell the possibility of such an alliance, Emperor Valens set out to crush the Visigoths on the open plains south of the Danube before they could unite with the Huns. In the end, this decision proved a costly mistake. The Visigoths had the advantage on the open plains. Their superb horsemanship and their weapons, which were designed for horse-mounted combat, won the day. The army of the Eastern Roman Empire was defeated. The Battle of Adrianople (378 c.e.; now Edirne, Turkey), as it became known, left Valens’s forces so devastated that Rome would no longer be able to field its own army. Likewise, the defeat at Adrianople opened the door for the Huns to penetrate the northern and western reaches of the Roman frontier.

In 382 c.e., the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great made peace with the Visigoths and immediately enlisted their support against the Huns. By this time, it had become clear that the Roman Empire had to rely on barbarians to field an army to defend its borders against other barbarians, especially the Huns. The cost of this arrangement would put a severe strain on Theodosius the Great’s treasury. From 382 to the mid-fifth century, the Roman world would see mixed alliances among Huns, Goths, and Romans despite their costly, destabilizing, and tenuous arrangements.

Theodosius the Great died in 395 c.e. leaving the Roman Empire divided between his two sons Arcadius and Honorius. Honorius became emperor of the western empire and Arcadius emperor of the eastern empire. Arcadius and his successor, Theodosius II, continued to pay tribute to the Huns. In the meantime, the Huns became united under Attila, controlling vast stretches of the Hungarian plains, east to the region north of the Black Sea.

When Theodosius II died in 450 c.e., his successor, Marcian, refused to continue paying tribute to the Huns. Instead, Marcian used his empire’s resources to fortify the east and enlarge his army. Attila, recognizing the potential costs and returns of invading Marcian’s territory, reasoned against invasion. By then the riches of the Eastern Roman Empire had become so depleted that the booty of war would not likely be worth the effort. The lands of the Western Roman Empire looked more fruitful. Turning west, Attila met tough resistance from an alliance of Romans and Gauls, strong enough that it repelled the Huns back into Hungary.

Within a year, a determined Attila set his sights on Rome itself. In the west, Rome’s strength had begun to deteriorate from constant invasions by Germanic tribes. Attila saw in this deterioration an opportunity to take the Eternal City for himself. Beginning in 452 c.e., the Huns claimed easy victories in northern Italy. These successes would be short-lived because the Hunnish army fell victim to the plague just as it was about to lay siege to Rome. In the meantime, Marcian’s army, fresh from victory over the Persians, marched west to rescue the Romans. Marcian’s advancing army and the plague were enough to convince Attila to retreat back across the Danube. Attila died in 453 c.e. before he could resurrect another invasion. Although Rome had been spared the wrath of the Huns, the empire had reached a state of internal decay that within a quarter of a century would see its final collapse at the sword of Germanic tribes.

After Attila’s death, internal dissension broke out among Attila’s heirs for control over their father’s empire. These fights left the Huns disunited, creating an opportunity for the Germanic tribes, particularly the Gepids and Ostrogoths, to revolt against Hunnic domination. In 454 c.e., the Germanic tribes defeated the Huns at the Battle of the Nedal River somewhere in Hungary. Defeated, the Huns retired east of the Carpathian Mountains in modern-day Ukraine, leaving the victorious Gepids to occupy the lands east of the Danube and the Ostrogoths the lands west of the river.


As the Huns migrated west, they set in motion the westward migration of other steppe tribes who were pushed closer and closer to the borders of the Roman Empire. As these tribes penetrated beyond these borders, they forced Rome to respond militarily, straining the resources of the empire, both politically and economically. As Rome weakened internally in response to the barbaric invasions, the empire faltered, collapsing in 476 c.e.

The Huns left another legacy that would be adopted by the later Byzantium Empire: the mounted archer. This mounted warrior would prove himself paramount in defending the new empire against Vandals, Persians, and Goths and sustain the integrity of Byzantium for the next five centuries.

Further Reading

  • Hildinger, Erik. Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 b.c. to a.d. 1700. Cambridge, Mass.: DaCapo Press, 1979. Examines the military history of several nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe.
  • Lyttle, Richard B. Land Beyond the River: Europe in the Age of Migration. New York: Atheneun, 1986. Covers the various barbaric tribes that affected Europe from the third to the sixteenth centuries.
  • McGovern, William Montgomery. The Early Empires of Central Asia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939. Examines the Asian origins of the Huns and their eventual impact on China, their westward migration into Europe, and their eventual influence on the Roman Empire. Bibliography and Index.
  • Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. A thoroughly referenced history of the Huns with particular reference given to Roman historical sources. Bibliography and Index.

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