Huns And Their Western Migration
Author: Marcellinus

Huns And Their Western Migration

A.D. 374-376


The Huns, whose incursions into Europe constituted the first "yellow
peril," were a nomadic Mongolian race. In the fourth century before Christ
they successfully invaded China. From the country, about A.D. 90, they were
driven by Hiong-nu, and the Huns then proceeded, joined by hordes of their
fellows from the steppes of Tartary, to make their way to the Caspian Sea.

Previous to the incursion of the Huns another Tartar tribe, the Alani -
the first of that race known to the Romans - had ravaged Media and Armenia,
A.D. 75, carrying off a vast number of prisoners and an enormous booty. They
later settled themselves in the country between the Volga and the Tanais, at
an equal distance from the Black Sea and the Caspian. The Huns, having
crossed the Volga, drove the Alani before them to the Danube. Valens, the
then Emperor of the East, was a weak, incapable ruler; he failed to recognize
the peril by which his empire would ere long be threatened, and permitted the
Alani to find a refuge in his dominions. These were in turn followed and
absorbed by the Huns, and the whole Roman Empire was finally faced by Mongol

The historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote racily of these events at the
time of their occurrence.

The Huns And Their Western Migration

The swift wheel of fortune, which continually alternates adversity with
prosperity, was giving Bellona the Furies for her allies, and arming her for
war; and now transferred our disasters to the east, as many presages and
portents foreshowed by undoubted signs.

For after many true prophecies uttered by diviners and augurs, dogs were
seen to recoil from howling wolves, and the birds of night constantly uttered
querulous and mournful cries; and lurid sunrises made the mornings dark.
Also, at Antioch, among the tumults and squabbles of the populace, it had
come to be a custom for anyone who fancied himself ill-treated to cry out, in
a licentious manner: "May Valens be burned alive." And the voices of the
criers were constantly heard ordering wood to be carried to warm the baths of
Valens, which had been built under the superintendence of the Emperor

All which circumstances all but pointed out in express words that the
end of the Emperor's life was at hand. Besides all these things, the ghost
of the King of Armenia, and the miserable shades of those who had lately been
put to death in the affair of Theodorus, agitated numbers of people with
terrible alarms, appearing to them in their sleep, and shrieking out verses
of horrible import.

Last of all, when the ancient walls of Chalcedon were thrown down in
order to build a bath at Constantinople, and the stones were torn asunder, on
one squared stone which was hidden in the very centre of the walls these
Greek verses were found engraved, which gave a full revelation of what was to

"But when young wives and damsels blithe, in dances that delight,
Shall glide along the city streets, with garlands gayly bright; And when
these walls, with sad regrets, shall fall to raise a bath, Then shall the
Huns in multitude break forth with might and wrath, By force of arms the
barrier-stream of Ister they shall cross, O'er Scythic ground and Moesian
lands spreading dismay and loss; They shall Pannonian horsemen brave, and
Gallic soldiers slay, And nought but loss of life and breath their course
shall ever stay."

The following circumstances were the original cause of all the
destruction and various calamities which the fury of Mars roused up, throwing
everything into confusion by his usual ruinous violence: the people called
Huns, slightly mentioned in the ancient records, live beyond the Sea of Azov,
on the border of the Frozen Ocean, and are a race savage beyond all parallel.

At the very moment of their birth the cheeks of their infant children
are deeply marked by an iron, in order that the usual vigor of their hair,
instead of growing at the proper season, may be withered by the wrinkled
scars; and accordingly they grow up without beards, and consequently without
any beauty, like eunuchs, though they all have closely knit and strong limbs
and plump necks; they are of great size, and bow-legged, so that you might
fancy them two-legged beasts, or the stout figures which are hewn out in a
rude manner with an axe on the posts at the end of bridges.

They are certainly in the shape of men, however uncouth, but are so
hardy that they neither require fire nor well-flavored food, but live on the
roots of such herbs as they get in the fields, or on the half-raw flesh of
any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing in between their own
thighs and the back of their horses.

They never shelter themselves under roofed houses, but avoid them, as
people ordinarily avoid sepulchres as things not fitted for common use. Nor
is there even to be found among them a cabin thatched with reed; but they
wander about, roaming over the mountains and the woods, and accustom
themselves to bear frost and hunger and thirst from their very cradles. And
even when abroad they never enter a house unless under the compulsion of some
extreme necessity; nor, indeed, do they think people under roofs as safe as

They wear linen clothes, or else garments made of the skins of
field-mice; nor do they wear a different dress out of doors from that which
they wear at home; but after a tunic is once put round their necks, however
much it becomes worn, it is never taken off or changed till, from long decay,
it becomes actually so ragged as to fall to pieces.

They cover their heads with round caps, and their shaggy legs with the
skins of kids; their shoes are not made on any lasts, but are so unshapely as
to hinder them from walking with a free gait. And for this reason they are
not well suited to infantry battles, but are nearly always on horseback,
their horses being ill-shaped, but hardy; and sometimes they even sit upon
them like women if they want to do anything more conveniently. There is not
a person in the whole nation who cannot remain on his horse day and night.
On horseback they buy and sell, they take their meat and drink, and there
they recline on the narrow neck of their steed, and yield to sleep so deep as
to indulge in every variety of dream.

And when any deliberation is to take place on any weighty matter, they
all hold their common council on horseback. They are not under the authority
of a king, but are contented with the irregular government of their nobles,
and under their lead they force their way through all obstacles.

Sometimes, when provoked, they fight; and when they go into battle, they
form in a solid body, and utter all kinds of terrific yells. They are very
quick in their operations, of exceeding speed, and fond of surprising their
enemies. With a view to this, they suddenly disperse, then reunite, and
again, after having inflicted vast loss upon the enemy, scatter themselves
over the whole plain in irregular formations: always avoiding the fort or an

And in one respect you may pronounce them the most formidable of all
warriors, for when at a distance they use missiles of various kinds, tipped
with sharpened bones instead of the usual points of javelins, and these bones
are admirably fastened into the shaft of the javelin or arrow; but when they
are at close quarters they fight with the sword, without any regard for their
own safety; and often while their antagonists are warding off their blows
they entangle them with twisted cords, so that, their hands being fettered,
they lose all power of either riding or walking.

None of them plough, or even touch a plough handle; for they have no
settled abode, but are homeless and lawless, perpetually wandering with their
wagons, which they make their homes; in fact, they seem to be people always
in flight. Their wives live in these wagons, and there weave their miserable
garments; and here, too, they sleep with their husbands, and bring up their
children till they reach the age of puberty; nor, if asked, can any one of
them tell you where he was born, as he was conceived in one place, born in
another at a great distance, and brought up in another still more remote.

In truces they are treacherous and inconstant, being liable to change
their minds at every breeze of every fresh hope which presents itself, giving
themselves up wholly to the impulse and inclination of the moment; and, like
brute beasts, they are utterly ignorant of the distinction between right and
wrong. They express themselves with great ambiguity and obscurity; have no
respect for any religion or superstition whatever; are immoderately covetous
of gold; and are so fickle and irascible that they very often, on the same
day that they quarrel with their companions without any provocation, again
become reconciled to them without any mediator.

This active and indomitable race, being excited by an unrestrainable
desire of plundering the possessions of others, went on ravaging and
slaughtering all the nations in their neighborhood till they reached the
Alani, who were formerly called the Massagetae; and from what country these
Alani came, or what territories they inhabit - since my subject has led me so
far - it is expedient now to explain, after showing the confusion existing in
the accounts of the geographers, who, at last, have found out the truth.

The Danube, which is greatly increased by other rivers falling into it,
passes through the territory of the Sauromatae [Scythians], which extends as
far as the river Don, the boundary between Asia and Europe. On the other
side of this river the Alani inhabit the enormous deserts of Scythia,
deriving their own name from the mountains around; and they, like the
Persians, having gradually subdued all the bordering nations by repeated
victories, have united them to themselves and comprehended them under their
own name. Of these other tribes the Neuri inhabit the inland districts,
being near the highest mountain chains, which are both precipitous and
covered with the everlasting frost of the north. Next to them are the
Budini, and the Geloni, a race of exceeding ferocity, who flay the enemies
they have slain in battle, and make of their skins clothes for themselves and
trappings for their horses. Next to the Geloni are the Agathyrsi, who dye
both their bodies and their hair of a blue color, the lower classes using
spots few in number and small; the nobles broad spots; close and thick, and
of a deeper hue.

Next to those are the Melanchlaenae and the Anthropophagi, who roam
about upon different tracts of land and live on human flesh. And these men
are so avoided on account of their horrid food that all the tribes which were
their neighbors have removed to a distance from them. And in this way the
whole of that region to the northeast, till you come to the Chinese, is

On the other side the Alani again extend to the east, near the
territories of the Amazons, and are scattered among many populous and wealthy
nations, stretching to the parts of Asia which, as I am told, extend up to
the Ganges, a river which passes through the country of the Indians, and
falls into the Southern Ocean.

Then the Alani, being thus divided among the two quarters of the globe -
the various tribes which make up the whole nation it is not worth while to
enumerate - although widely separated, wander, like the nomads, over enormous
districts. But in the progress of time all these tribes came to be united
under one generic appellation, and are called Alani.

They have no cottages, and never use the plough, but live solely on meat
and plenty of milk, mounted on their wagons which they cover with a curved
awning made of the bark of trees, and then drive them through their boundless
deserts. And when they come to any pasture land, they pitch their wagons in
a circle, and live like a herd of beasts, eating up all the forage -
carrying, as it were, their cities with them in their wagons. In them the
husbands sleep with their wives - in them their children are born and brought
up; these wagons, in short, are their perpetual habitation, and, wherever
they fix them, that place they look upon as their home.

They drive before them their flocks and herds to their pasturage; and
about all other cattle, they are especially careful of their horses. The
fields in that country are always green, and are interspersed with patches of
fruit-trees, so that, wherever they go, there is no dearth either of food for
themselves or fodder for their cattle. And this is caused by the moisture of
the soil and the number of the rivers which flow through these districts.

All their old people, and especially all the weaker sex, keep close to
the wagons and occupy themselves in the lighter employments. But the young
men, who from their earliest childhood are trained to the use of the horses,
think it beneath them to walk. They are also all trained by careful
discipline of various sorts to become skilful warriors. And this is the
reason why the Persians, who are originally of Scythian extraction, are very
skilful in war.

Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty. Their hair is
somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce; the lightness of their armor
renders them rapid in their movements, and they are in every respect equal to
the Huns, only more civilized in their food and their manner of life. They
plunder and hunt as far as the Sea of Azov and the Cimmerian Bosporus,
ravaging also Armenia and Media.

And as ease is a delightful thing to men of a quiet and placid
disposition, so danger and war are a pleasure to the Alani, and among them
that man is called happy who has lost his life in battle; for those who grow
old, or who go out of the world from accidental sicknesses, they pursue with
bitter reproaches as degenerate and cowardly. Nor is there anything of which
they boast with more pride than of having killed a man; and the most glorious
spoils they esteem the scalps which they have torn from the heads of those
whom they have slain, which they put as trappings and ornaments on their war

Nor is there any temple or shrine seen in their country, nor even any
cabin thatched with straw, their only idea of religion being to plunge a
naked sword into the ground with barbaric ceremonies, and they worship that
with great respect, as Mars, the presiding deity of the regions over which
they wander.

They presage the future in a most remarkable manner, for they collect a
number of great twigs of osier, then with certain secret incantations they
separate them from one another on particular days; and from them they learn
clearly what is about to happen.

They have no idea of slavery, inasmuch as they themselves are all born
of noble families; and those whom even now they appoint to be judges are
always men of proved experience and skill in war. But now let us return to
the subject which we proposed to ourselves.

The Huns, after having traversed the territories of the Alani, and
especially of that tribe of them who border on the Gruthungi, and who are
called Tanaitae, and having slain many of them and acquired much plunder they
made a treaty of friendship and alliance with those who remained. And when
they had united them to themselves, with increased boldness they made a
sudden incursion into the extensive and fertile districts of Ermenrichus, a
very warlike prince, and one whom his numerous gallant actions of every kind
had rendered formidable to all the neighboring nations.

He was astonished at the violence of this sudden tempest, and although,
like a prince whose power was well established, he long attempted to hold his
ground, he was at last overpowered by a dread of the evils impending over his
country, which were exaggerated by common report, till he terminated his fear
of great danger by a voluntary death.

After his death Vithimiris was made king. He for some time maintained a
resistance to the Alani, relying on the aid of other tribes of the Huns whom
by large promises of pay he had won over to his party; but, after having
suffered many losses, he was defeated by superior numbers and slain in
battle. He left an infant son named Viderichus, of whom Alatheus and Saphrax
undertook the guardianship, both generals of great experience and proved
courage. And when they, yielding to the difficulties of the crisis, had
given up all hope of being able to make an effectual resistance, they retired
with caution till they came to the river Dniester, which lies between the
Danube and the Dnieper, and flows through a vast extent of country.

When Athanaric, the chief magistrate of the Thuringians, had become
informed of those unexpected occurrences, he prepared to maintain his ground,
with a resolution to rise up in strength should he be assailed as the others
had been.

At last he pitched his camp at a distance in a very favorable spot near
the banks of the Dniester and the valleys of the Gruthungi, and sent Muderic,
who afterward became duke of the Arabian frontier, with Lagarimanus and
others of the nobles, with orders to advance for twenty miles, to reconnoitre
the approach of the enemy; while in the mean time he himself, without delay,
marshalled his troops in line of battle.

However, things turned out in a manner very contrary to his
expectations. For the Huns - being very sagacious in conjectures -
suspecting that there must be a considerable multitude farther off, contrived
to pass beyond those they had seen, and arranged themselves to take their
rest where there was nothing at hand to disturb them; and then, when the moon
dispelled the darkness of night, they forded the river, which was the best
plan which presented itself, and fearing lest the pickets at the outposts
might give the alarm to the distant camp, they made all possible speed and
advanced with the hope of surprising Athanaric himself.

He was stupefied at the suddenness of their onset, and, after losing
many of his men, was compelled to flee for refuge to the precipitous
mountains in the neighborhood, where, being wholly bewildered with the
strangeness of this occurrence, and the fear of greater evils to come, he
began to fortify with lofty walls all the territory between the banks of the
River Pruth and the Danube, where it passes through the land of the Taifali;
and he completed this line of fortification with great diligence, thinking
that by this step he should secure his own personal safety.

While this important work was going on, the Huns kept pressing on his
traces with great speed, and they would have overtaken and destroyed him if
they had not been forced to abandon the pursuit from being impeded by the
great quantity of their booty. In the mean time a report spread extensively
through the other nations of the Goths, that a race of men, hitherto unknown,
had suddenly descended like a whirlwind from the lofty mountains, as if they
had risen from some secret recess of the earth, and were ravaging and
destroying everything which came in their way. And then the greater part of
the population which, because of their want of necessaries, had deserted
Athanaric, resolved to flee and to seek a home remote from all knowledge of
the barbarians; and after a long deliberation where to fix their abode, they
resolved that a retreat into Thrace was the most suitable for these two
reasons: first of all, because it is a district most fertile in grass; and
also because, by the great breadth of the Danube, it is wholly separated from
the barbarians, who were already exposed to the thunderbolts of foreign
warfare. And the whole population of the tribe adopted this resolution

Accordingly, under the command of their leader Alavivus, they occupied
the bank of the Danube, and having sent ambassadors to Valens, they humbly
entreated to be received by him as his subjects, promising to live quietly,
and to furnish a body of auxiliary troops if any necessity for such a force
should arise.

While these events were passing in foreign countries, a terrible rumor
arose that the tribes of the North were planning new and unprecedented
attacks upon us; and that over the whole region, which extends from the
country of the Marcomanni and Quadi to Pontus, a barbarian host, composed of
different distant nations, which had suddenly been driven by force from their
own country, was now, with all their families, wandering about in different
directions on the banks of the river Danube.

At first this intelligence was lightly treated by our people, because
they were not in the habit of hearing of any wars in those remote districts
till they were terminated either by victory or by treaty.

But presently, as the belief in these occurrences grew stronger, being
confirmed, too, by the arrival of the foreign ambassadors, who, with prayers
and earnest entreaties, begged that the people thus driven from their homes
and now encamped on the other side of the river might be kindly received by
us, the affair seemed a cause of joy rather than of fear, according to the
skilful flatterers who were always extolling and exaggerating the good
fortune of the Emperor; congratulating him that an embassy had come from the
farthest corners of the earth unexpectedly, offering him a large body of
recruits; and that, by combining the strength of his own nation with these
foreign forces, he would have an army absolutely invincible; observing
further that, by the yearly payment for military reinforcements which came in
every year from the provinces, a vast treasure of gold might be accumulated
in his coffers.

Full of this hope, he sent forth several officers to bring this
ferocious people and their wagons into our territory. And such great pains
were taken to gratify this nation which was destined to overthrow the Empire
of Rome, that not one was left behind, not even of those who were stricken
with mortal disease. Moreover, having obtained permission of the Emperor to
cross the Danube and to cultivate some districts in Thrace, they crossed the
stream day and night, without ceasing, embarking in troops on board ships and
rafts, and canoes made of the hollow trunks of trees, in which enterprise, as
the Danube is the most difficult of all rivers to navigate, and was at that
time swollen with continual rains, a great many were drowned, who, because
they were too numerous for the vessels, tried to swim across, and in spite of
all their exertions were swept away by the stream.

In this way, through the turbulent zeal of violent people, the ruin of
the Roman Empire was brought on. This, at all events, is neither obscure nor
uncertain that the unhappy officers who were intrusted with the charge of
conducting the multitude of the barbarians across the river, though they
repeatedly endeavored to calculate their numbers, at last abandoned the
attempt as hopeless; and the man who would wish to ascertain the number might
as well - as the most illustrious of poets says - attempt to count the waves
in the African Sea, or the grains of sand tossed about by the zephyrs.

Let, however, the ancient annals be accredited which record that the
Persian host which was led into Greece was, while encamped on the shores of
the Hellespont, and making a new and artificial sea, numbered in battalions
at Doriscus; a computation which has been unanimously regarded by all
posterity as fabulous.

But after the innumerable multitudes of different nations, diffused over
all our provinces and spreading themselves over the vast expanses of our
plains, who filled all the champaign country and all the mountain ranges, are
considered, the credibility of the ancient accounts is confirmed by this
modern instance. And first of all Tritigernus was received with Alavivus,
and the Emperor assigned them a temporary provision for their immediate
support, and ordered lands to be assigned them to cultivate.

At that time the defences of our provinces were much exposed and the
armies of barbarians spread over them like the lava of Mount Aetna. The
imminence of our danger manifestly called for generals already illustrious
for their past achievements in war; but nevertheless, as if some unpropitious
deity had made the selection, the men who were sought out for the chief
military appointments were of tainted character. The chief among them were
Lupicinus and Maximus, the one being count of Thrace, the other a leader
notoriously wicked - and both men of great ignorance and rashness.

And their treacherous covetousness was the cause of all our disasters.
For - to pass over other matters in which the officers aforesaid, or others
with their unblushing connivance, displayed the greatest profligacy in their
injurious treatment of the foreigners dwelling in our territory, against
whom no crime could be alleged - this one melancholy and unprecedented piece
of conduct - which, even if they were to choose their own judges, must appear
wholly unpardonable - must be mentioned:

When the barbarians who had been conducted across the river were in
great distress from want of provisions, those detested generals conceived the
idea of a most disgraceful traffic; and having collected hounds from all
quarters with the most unsatiable rapacity, they exchanged them for an equal
number of slaves, among whom were several sons of men of noble birth.

About this time also, Vitheric, the King of the Gruthungi, with Alatheus
and Saphrax, by whose influence he was mainly guided, and also with
Farnobius, approached the bank of the Danube and sent envoys to the Emperor
to entreat that he also might be received with the same kindness that
Alavivus and Fritigern had experienced.

But when, as seemed best for the interests of the State, these
ambassadors had been rejected, and were in great anxiety what they should do,
Athanaric, fearing similar treatment, departed, recollecting that long ago,
when he was discussing a treaty with Valens, he had treated that Emperor with
contempt in affirming that he was bound by a religious obligation never to
set his foot on the Roman territory; and that, by this excuse, he had
compelled the Emperor to conclude a peace in the middle of the war. And he,
fearing that the grudge which Valens bore him for this conduct was still
lasting, withdrew with all his forces to Caucalandes, a place which, from the
height of its mountains and the thickness of its woods, is completely
inaccessible; and from which he had lately driven out the Sarmatians.


Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center