The Huns attacked the Romans driven by drought

The Huns attacked the Romans driven by drought. 


Hunnic peoples migrated west across Eurasia, switched from agriculture to pastoralism and became violent raiders in response to severe drought in the Danubian frontier provinces of the Roman Empire, a new study argues. In particular, archaeologists now suggest that similar conditions in the 5th century may have encouraged animal herders to become raiders, with devastating consequences for the Roman Empire.


The study, published today in the Journal of Roman Archeology , argues that periods of extreme drought between AD 430 and 450 shook the Danubian frontier provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, forcing the Hunnic populations to adopt new strategies to “stamp up the severe economic challenges”.

The authors, Professor Susanne Hakenbeck from Cambridge’s Department of Archeology and Professor Ulf Büntgen from the Department of Geography, arrived at their conclusions after evaluating a new tree- ring – based hydroclimate reconstruction , as well as archaeological and historical evidence.

The Hunnic incursions into Eastern and Central Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries AD have long been regarded as the initial crisis which triggered the so-called ‘Great Migrations’ of ‘Barbarian tribes’, leading to the fall of the Roman Empire. But it is not clear where the Huns came from and what their impact on the late Roman provinces was. The new climate data, reconstructed from tree rings by Prof. Büntgen and colleagues, provide insight into annual changes in climate over the past 2,000 years. They show that Hungary experienced episodes of unusually dry summers in the 4th and 5th centuries. Hakenbeck and Büntgen point out that climatic fluctuations, especially the dry spells from AD 420 to 450,


Büntgen said: “Tree-ring data offers us a tremendous opportunity to link climate conditions to year-by-year human activity. We found that the droughts recorded in the biochemical signals of the tree rings coincide with the intensification of raiding activities in the region. Recent isotopic analyzes of the region’s skeletons, also conducted by Dr Hakenbeck, suggest that Hunnic peoples responded to climatic stress by migrating and mixing agricultural and pastoralist diets.

Hakenbeck said: “If resource scarcity became too extreme, settled populations could be forced to displace, diversify their livelihood practices and shift from agriculture to mobile pastoralism. These may have been important conservation strategies during a climate recession.” But the study also argues that some Hunnic peoples drastically changed their social and political organization to become violent raiders.

From shepherds to raiders

Hunnic attacks on the Roman frontier intensified after Attila’s rise to power in the late 430s. The Huns increasingly demanded payments in gold and eventually a strip of Roman territory along the Danube. In 451 AD the Huns invaded Gaul and a year later northern Italy. Traditionally, the Huns have been portrayed as violent barbarians driven by an “endless thirst for gold.” But, as this study points out, the historical sources documenting these events were written primarily by Roman elites who had little direct experience of the peoples and events they described. “Historical sources tell us that Roman-Hun diplomacy was extremely complex,” said Dr. Hakenbeck. “Initially it involved agreements mutually advantageous, with the result that the Hunnic elites had access to large quantities of gold. This system of collaboration broke down in 440, leading to regular raids on Roman lands and a growing demand for gold”.


The study argues that, if the current dating of the events is correct, the most devastating Hunnic raids of AD 447, 451 and 452 coincided with extremely dry summers in the Carpathian Basin. Hakenbeck said: “The economic, climate-induced disruptions may have required Attila and other high-ranking figures to mine gold from Roman provinces to maintain warbands and loyalty among the elites.” The former horse herders seem to have become raiders.” Historical sources describe the Huns in this period as a highly stratified group with a military organization that was difficult to counter, even for Roman armies.

The study suggests that one of the reasons the Huns attacked the provinces of Thrace and Illyricum in AD 422, 442 and 447 was for the acquisition of food and livestock, rather than gold, but admits concrete evidence is needed to confirm this. The authors also suggest that Attila asked for a strip of land “five days’ journey wide” along the Danube, because it might offer better grazing in a drought.

Hakenbeck said: “Climate alters what environments have to offer and this can lead people to make decisions that affect their economy and their social and political organization. Such decisions are not directly rational, nor are their consequences necessarily positive in the long run. “This historic example demonstrates that people respond to climate stress in complex and unpredictable ways and that short-term solutions can have long-term negative consequences.” By 450 AD, a few decades after their appearance in central Europe, the Huns had already disappeared. Attila himself died in 453 AD.

  • The role of drought during the Hunnic incursions into central-east Europe in the 4th and  5th centuries CE ( )


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button