The origin of the Huns is obscure. Gibbon traces it back to early first century when they were known as the Tanjou and lived on the borders of China just north of the Great Wall. This was not a coincidence. The Tanjou were a force to be reckoned with. They had put together a vast coalition of steppe peoples via diplomacy, war and straight forward intimidation. They had become powerful enough that they threatened to overthrow the ruling dynasty in China itself. The first wall built by the Chinese was a specific response to this threat.
This was far from an overreaction. China had already been conquered by tribes from the north once, and later in history the Mongols were going to succeed in doing so again. The Tanjou were able to apply very direct and effective pressure on the Chinese, extracting substantial ‘gifts’ from their civilised but unwarlike southern neighbours. These included, most humiliatingly, noble princesses as marriage partners for top Tanjou chieftains. This was both a sign of desperation on the part of the Chinese and a very useful tool for legitimising a Tanjou takeover should the opportunity present itself. And with anywhere between two and three hundred thousand horsemen available to the Tanjou and able to move quickly in unison into China, any opportunity could be quickly and ruthlessly exploited.
But in the contest between the Chinese and the Tanjou, the Chinese were not without cards that could be played by an able and effective leader. And as it happened, just such a leader appeared. Kaoti came to the throne via a career in the Chinese army, and set about mobilising the military resources at his disposal for a pre-emptive strike against the tribesmen. He marched into the territory of the Tanjou, took them by surprise and massacred them. It was a hard fought battle with heavy Chinese losses largely as a result of operating far from supply lines, but it broke the prestige of the Tanjou. He backed up this victory with diplomatic overtures to the allies of the Tanjou. This robbed them of their power and reduced them to effectively tributaries of the empire.
Such a rapid and complete reversal of their fortunes was hard to stomach and a portion of the Tanjou set out towards the west to escape the power of the Chinese and to seek new lands to conquer and to carve out a new kingdom to replace the one that they had lost.
That at any rate is Gibbon’s version. There is in reality nothing that actually positively identifies the Huns of the fourth century with the Tanjou of the first other than a similarity in the names. In Chinese their name would have been pronounced Hunnu. Three hundred years would have been long enough to mix up any heritage they might have shared a fair bit. Nomads tend to move around a fair bit so it isn’t particularly difficult to believe that there was some kind of affinity between the two groups, but whether a direct narrative linking them makes any sense is questionable. But it does fit in nicely with the story Gibbon is telling, because what is certain is that the Huns appear as if from nowhere and radically change the course of the history of the Roman Empire and the wider history of the whole of Europe.
Whatever their origin and their motivation, there is no doubting their courage and determination nor their ruthlessness. The first obstacle to their westward advance was the large and formidable kingdom of the Alans. The Alans were themselves a nomadic people, but one with a fairly well established domain. They occupied a big chunk of what is now central Russia to the north of the Caspian Sea and stretching as far as the Black Sea and the Aral Sea. They had ben there a long time and were related to the Persians. But they didn’t show any particular favour to their relatives and often raided or even invaded Persia. They were equally a threat to both the ancient Greeks and later to the Romans. They were referred to as the Scythians and the Sarmatians at various times in their history which was a long one.
In fact it lasted pretty much up until the Huns arrived and destroyed them in 370 give or take a few years. Had the Huns done nothing else, that alone would have secured their place in history. The Alans were largely incorporated into the Huns from then on, though some fugitives escaped to Germany where they would shortly join forces with the Vandals for an assault on the Roman Empire. Another group took refuge in a mountainous region of the Caucuses where they survived undisturbed until they were massacred by the Mongols in the fourteenth century. However some escaped and today their descendants comprise the population of South Ossetia.
Taking over the position formerly occupied by the Alans was significant for the Alans themselves, but for outsiders if simply replaced one ethnic group with another. But for the Huns it was only the first step. Next they attacked the extensive Gothic kingdom only recently united under the reign of the elderly Hermanric. This stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and on paper appeared to be quite capable of defending itself. But the only thing holding it together was one elderly man. Hermanric’s long reign had put together an impressive coalition, but it had never yet had to face a challenge like the one presented by the Huns. In this crisis it began to fracture even before the fighting started. And Hermanric himself was injured by a personal feud with some nobles provoked by his attempt to maintain unity. This meant that when the Huns actually attacked it wasn’t the wily and intelligent Hermanric they faced but his inexperienced successor Withimer.
In a huge pitched battle Withimer was completely defeated. The only redeeming feature of the fateful day being that the infant king of the Goths was saved by a couple of courageous warriors, Alatheus and Saphrax, who also managed to escape with a large chunk of the people of the Goths. The Huns still had an undefeated Visigothic kingdom to face, and so the Goths of Hermanric were able to escape for now under the leadership of the guardians of the prince.
The Huns rapidly finished off the Visigoths under Athanaric. The Goths are often considered to be, and indeed were, barbarians. But compared to the Huns they were positively civilised. They had adopted many things from the Romans, including Christianity. They knew the Romans and were in constant contact with them. The Huns had no interest in any activity besides subsistence and fighting. They worshiped a naked sword plunged into the ground. The Goths found them so inhuman that they supposed them to be the offspring of witches and demons. And now they expected nothing from them but death or slavery.
Alatheus and Saphrax realised that there was only one place that they could be safe. For centuries the german tribes had maintained their independence. But now, only the walls of the Roman Empire held out any prospect of protection from the Huns. They set out towards the south on the extraordinary project of surrendering their freedom in exchange for the protection of the empire.
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