Ammianus devoted the most famous of all his ethnographic excursuses to an account of the Huns and the Alans, who were supposed to have been responsible for driving the Gothic tribes settled between the rivers Dnieper and Dniester south to the river Danube. The Huns, he reported, lived east of the Sea of Azov near the frozen ocean, and were abnormally savage. Their faces were deeply scarred by gashes that were cut in their children's cheeks, but hairless, like those of eunuchs. “Their shape, however disagreeable, is human, but their way of life is so rough that they have no use for fire or seasoned food but live on the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal” (Ammianus 31.2.3, trans. Hamilton). They virtually lived on horseback, roaming over mountains and forests, indifferent to hardship, and never settled to cultivate the land. They were formidable mounted archers, a fact confirmed by a fragment of Olympiodorus (fr. 19) who noted that their leaders (reges, “kings”) were notable for their skill with the bow. This famous description should not be interpreted too literally. Ammianus presented the Huns according to a familiar ethnographic schema, which contrasted savage, untamed nomadic peoples, who knew no laws, with their settled and civilized counterparts. He also drew on Herodotus' well-known account of the Scythians, which had provided all subsequent classical writers with a model depiction of the horse-riding warriors of the steppes. However, it is at least clear that they were racially distinct from the Germanic peoples, and Ammianus emphasized their alien appearance by comparing them immediately with the tall, fair-headed Alans, with their fierce direct gazes, who joined the Huns in their early raids. Claudian and Jerome, Sidonius and Jordanes all mention the terror and repulsion caused by the Huns' physical appearance.15
Ammianus may also be misleading when he implies that the Gothic tribes were forced to cross the Danube into the empire by the Huns' irresistible onslaught. The Tervingi waited at the river for several weeks before word came from Valens that they were to be admitted into the empire in 376 (Ammianus 31.3–4). In reality the situation was very confused. Some Goths still remained in settlements north of the Danube (Ammianus 31.4.13; Zosimus 4.35.1, 37–9). There is also evidence that groups of Huns had themselves crossed the frontier of the empire, and were recruited into Roman forces by Theodosius I and Valentinian II during the 380s.16 Since, according to Ammianus, the Huns had no king or overall leader but operated in bands “under the improvised command of their chief men,” it would be a mistake to see them as a coherent threat at this period. The first major Hunnish raid on the Roman Empire descended not on the Balkan region but was directed through the Caucasus against Asia Minor in 395, extending south as far as Syria. Tribigild, who was in command of Gothic troops stationed near Nacolea in Phrygia, recorded a notable success against a Hunnic group in 398. It may be that Ammianus, writing in 390s and impressed by these events, exaggerated the influence that the Huns had exercised on Gothic movements in 376.
The first Hunnic leader named by contemporary sources was Uldin, who was responsible for capturing and beheading the Goth Gainas when he fled from the emperor across the Danube after his failed coup in 400. The Roman government of Arcadius rewarded him with the offer of a treaty, and six years later he reappears on the Roman side at the head of a force of Huns that defeated the Germanic barbarians who had invaded Italy under Radagaisus in 405/6 (Orosius 7.37.8; Zosimus 5.26.3–5). It may in fact be the case that increasingly numerous and effective groups of Huns had been responsible in the first instance for driving Radagaisus and his numerous tribal followers out of their homes. The events of 405 were followed on December 31, 406, by another huge multi-ethnic incursion across the upper Rhine, consisting of Vandals, Alans, and Suevi. About the same time it appears that the Burgundians moved from settlements in the area between the upper Rhine and the Danube to new homes west of the Rhine. The numbers crossing into the empire at this date were very large, with figures for armed men numbered in the tens of thousands, and overall numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Hunnic pressure may be the reason for this mass migration, which resembled that of the Tervingi and Greuthungi across the lower Danube in 376. Mounted bands of marauders would have readily terrorized settled Germanic villages in search of plunder and land to support their way of life.17 However, we should not discount the possibility that the multi-ethnic forces introduced at the beginning of 407 had in fact been brought into Gaul by Honorius and his advisors, faced as they were by the prospect of a civil war with Constantine III. By 408 Uldin had taken his followers to Castra Martia in Dacia Ripensis, and boasted that nothing was beyond the Huns to achieve “He pointed to the sun and declared that it would be easy for him, if he so desired, to subjugate every region of the earth that is enlightened by that luminary” (Sozomen 9.5.2–3).
Almost all that we can say about the realities of Hunnic society at this period is based on analogies with better documented nomadic groups of the Asiatic steppe. E. A. Thompson suggests that small groups of families, living in tents and moving between grazing grounds, formed camps of about fifty to sixty people, and these in turn might fuse into clans several hundred strong. Groups of clans in turn operated in concert to form tribes, with a population of some thousands. The sources include the names of several Hunnic tribes, such as the Akatziri, who occupied territory east of the Black Sea in the mid-fifth century,18 and the 7,000 Kutrigurs, who menaced Constantinople in 559 (Agathias 5.22). It is implausible that the threat of the Huns to the settled peoples of eastern Europe was posed by teeming hordes of mounted warriors, since pastoral economies were incapable of supporting such concentrations of population. However, rapidity of movement and the terror that the Huns inspired by their behavior and appearance will have been powerful reasons why enemies overestimated their numbers. For the most part Hunnic forces attested on specific occasions numbered between 200 and 1,200. Larger forces could only be maintained with the support of the Roman commissariat (Zosimus 5.50.1).19
The eastern response to the Huns, and to other threats from the Balkans, was to build the new walls of Constantinople in 413 and to strengthen the Danube fleet in 412 (CTh. 7.17.1, cf. 7.16.2). Up to this point relations between the Huns and the Roman Empire had been good, thanks to the close links established by the western generalissimo, Aetius, who had spent time among them as a hostage. The western chronicles indicate that Aetius had been able to use Hunnic forces to control other barbarian groups, including the Visigoths in 425, 430, and 436, the Franks who gave trouble in 428 and 432, and also the Bagaudae of western Gaul and the Burgundians in 436–7. However, in 440 the Huns, now under the joint leadership of Attila and his brother Bleda, who were doubtless inspired by the Vandal success, refused to cooperate with Rome and launched a major invasion across the Danube. This setback was aggravated by growing Vandal pressure in Africa. In 442 Aetius had to cede the wealthy provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena to the Vandals, receiving in exchange the poorer regions of Numidia. The overall loss of tax revenue from Africa was devastating. Following A. H. M. Jones, Peter Heather calculates that this included not only the entire tax income from the richest African provinces of Byzacena and Proconsularis, but also seven-eighths of the land tax from the poorer, westerly regions of Numidia and Mauretania. The drastic reduction of the state's income had an immediate impact on the military capability of the western empire, and was scarcely alleviated by measures taken by Valentinian III to mitigate the effects: the introduction of a 4 percent sales tax and the abolition of previous fiscal exemptions.20
These extreme pressures on the empire ushered in a twelve-year period, during which the Huns were able, without inflicting an outright military defeat, to impose their will on both the eastern and the western empire. The historian Priscus, who himself took part in a critical embassy to Attila in 449, is an extraordinarily valuable source of information about this period of Hunnic domination.21 His fragments, above all the account of the embassy of 449, are the cornerstone of our understanding of Hunnic affairs and Roman foreign policy in the mid-fifth century.
In 435 the Hunnic king Rua was succeeded by the brothers Attila and Bleda. In 439, at the fort of Constantia on the north bank of the Danube opposite Margus they negotiated a treaty which determined Hunnic relations with the eastern empire for the next twelve years. Romans were to receive no more fugitives from the Huns and surrender those they had. The ransom price for Roman prisoners was raised from one to eight gold solidi per head; the Romans were not to support barbarian tribes which fought the Huns. Markets were to be set up where Huns and Romans could do business. The Romans were to pay an annual sum of 700 gold pounds (up from 350) to keep the peace. Two refugees from a ruling Hunnic family who had fled to the Romans were returned to Attila and Bleda, and executed on territory controlled by the Huns within view of the Thracian fortress of Carsium (Priscus fr. 2). Terror was an essential ingredient of Hunnic diplomacy, and fear of the Huns is cited as the major reason why the Romans agreed to much harsher terms when the peace was updated in 447. After defeating a Roman army in the Thracian Chersonesus, Attila had launched a major attack on Constantinople, and the city was preserved only after its inhabitants made a supreme effort to repair the walls of Theodosius, which had been thrown down by an earthquake. The new agreement stipulated the payment to the Huns of 6,000 gold pounds owing in back tribute, future annual payments of 2,100 pounds, and a ransom price of 12 pounds per Roman prisoner. Priscus dwells at length on the privations which Attila's new demands inflicted on the inhabitants of Constantinople (Priscus fr. 9.3).
In 449 the eunuch Chrysaphius, then at the height of his powers in Theodosius' court, hatched a plot to persuade one of Attila's closest associates, Edeko, who had come on an embassy to Constantinople, to assassinate his master. Priscus himself was a member of the reciprocal embassy to Attila, and thus narrates not only the encounter of the Roman group with the Huns but also the unfolding drama of the assassination plot, which was betrayed to Attila at a very early moment by Edeko (Priscus fr. 11–14).
Attila's Huns were completely transformed from the nomads of Ammianus' description. Attila himself dominated all around him with the terror and cunning of a tyrant. He was supported by a close entourage consisting of clan leaders and members of his own family, including many sons. The overriding characteristics of Attila's regime were intimidation, greed, and the remorseless exercise of power. The economic basis of his authority came from two sources. From 435 to 450 the Huns milked the eastern Roman Empire for everything they could extract: booty from the looted cities of the Danube region, escalating tribute requirements from the state treasury in Constantinople, ever larger ransom demands for captive prisoners, and the expectation of lavish gifts for every representative who undertook embassies to meet the Romans. The other basis of the Hunnic economy was trade. Frontier trading posts are one of the keys to understanding the interface between Romans and barbarians along the length of its northern frontier. Sources identify these fairs at Margus, Viminacium, Naissus in the Balkans, and Cherson in the Crimea. For their part the Huns, or their subjects, could deliver horses, skins, furs, and slaves. What they sought, above all, were the luxuries of the Roman Empire: jewelry, lavish textiles, spices, costly foods, wine. Attila's village encampment, at an unlocated site in the Hungarian plain west of the Carpathian Mountains, could even boast a bathhouse, built from stone that had been laboriously carted from the Roman province of Pannonia. It had been built by a prisoner of war captured during the Hunnic seizure of Sirmium in 441. Trade was not only essential for the growth of Hunnic power but also helps to explain the readiness of the east Romans to opt for a policy of appeasement, by paying tribute, rather than attempting a military confrontation. The wealth acquired by Attila's people had to be spent. Large sums will have been used in buying the allegiance of a kaleidoscopic medley of Germanic peoples and other barbarians extending west almost to the Rhine and east to the fringes of the Caucasus. But much of the cash would have found its way back into the empire, used as payment at the frontier fairs for the luxuries and comforts that the empire had to offer. Two episodes from the diplomatic exchanges between the Huns and the court at Constantinople underline the importance of trade to the barbarians, and the fact that the border that divided their territory from the Romans was not primarily intended as a military frontier but as a location of commercial exchange. In 449, when Edeko came to Constantinople after Attila's destructive incursions of the previous years, he asserted the Huns' claim to a broad strip of land south of the Danube, extending from Pannonia to Thrace, which the Huns had conquered.
Furthermore, he said that the market in Illyria was not on the bank of the Danube, as it had been before, but at Naissus, which he had laid waste and established as the border point between the Scythian and the Roman territory, it being five days' journey from the Danube for an unladen man. (Priscus fr. 11.1, trans. Blockley)
Some years after the fall of Attila, in the reign of Leo, the former's sons came to the emperor with the request that “a peace treaty should be made and that in the old manner they should meet with the Romans at the Danube, establish a market and exchange whatever they received” (Priscus fr. 46, trans. Blockley). They were sent away empty-handed by the emperor, who ruled that since they had done much damage to Roman territory, they should not have access to Roman trade.
Priscus provides many insights into the mixture of cultures and languages which were to be heard around Attila's encampment: Gothic, Latin, the Hun's own language (of which only a single word seems to be recorded), and even Greek. At the heart of his narrative Priscus reported his encounter with a native of Greece, who had become a businessman at Viminacium, doubtless profiting from the cross-border trade, until he became the prisoner and slave of Attila's close associate Onegesius. He had won his freedom by the courage he had displayed in a war against the Akatziri, but opted to stay in his new home. Priscus reports (or rather invents) the discussion they shared about the virtues of life on either side of the Roman frontier, a topic that is better interpreted as a rhetorical commonplace than as a faithful report of their exchange of views.22 The Greek emigrant to the Huns argued that he lived a life of comfort and leisure. Above all he had no taxes to pay, and he was spared the inequalities of Roman law, and the attentions of corrupt judges and their assessors. It is striking that a similar point is made by the Christian historian, Orosius, when he alluded to Romans who chose to live among the barbarians, poor but free, rather than among the Romans burdened by oppressive taxes (Orosius 7.41.7). Priscus' response is a rather frigid presentation of an ideal Roman Rechtsstaat. The arguments he presents have an academic feel to them – the shadow of Plato hangs over this ideal republic – but their emphasis precisely on the rule of law is significant. Amid the cultural and ethnic confusion of the eastern as well as the western empire in the mid-fifth century, nothing defined Romanitas more surely than its written laws.