This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Who Were the Huns?.
The Huns are remembered as the most fearsome of the Barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire. This account from this period tells us the knowledge that the classical world had of them.
This selection is from Res Gestae by Marcellinus published in 390. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Marcellinus (330-400) was a Roman historian of the middle Empire period.
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 himself.
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 happen:
“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 it 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 others.
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 intrenchment.
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.
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