New Findings About Hun Empire May Change Their Reputation

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A new archaeological analysis suggests people of the Western Roman Empire switched between Hunnic nomadism and settled farming over a lifetime.

According to Roman accounts, the Huns brought only terror and destruction.

However, research from the University of Cambridge on gravesite remains in the Roman frontier region of Pannonia (now Hungary) has revealed for the first time how ordinary people may have dealt with the arrival of the Huns.

Lead researcher, Dr. Susanne Hakenbeck, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, says the Huns may have brought ways of life that appealed to some farmers in the area, as well learning from and settling among the locals.

She says this could be evidence of the steady infiltration that shook an empire.  

“We know from contemporary accounts that this was a time when treaties between tribes and Romans were forged and fractured, loyalties sworn and broken. The lifestyle shifts we see in the skeletons may reflect that turmoil,” says Hakenbeck.

For the study, published in the journal Plos One, Hakenbeck and colleagues tested skeletal remains at five 5th-century sites around Pannonia, including one in a former civic center as well as rural homesteads.

“However, while written accounts of the last century of the Roman Empire focus on convulsions of violence, our new data appear to show some degree of cooperation and coexistence of people living in the frontier zone. Far from being a clash of cultures, alternating between lifestyles may have been an insurance policy in unstable political times.”

Roman sources of the time were dismissive of this lifestyle.

Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman official, wrote of the Hun that they “care nothing for using the ploughshare, but they live upon flesh and an abundance of milk.”

“While Roman authors considered them incomprehensibly uncivilised and barely human, it seems many of citizens at the edge of Rome’s empire were drawn to the Hun lifestyle, just as some nomads took to a more settled way of life,” says Hakenbeck.

However, there is one account that hints at the appeal of the Hun, that of Roman politician Priscus. While on a diplomatic mission to the court of Attila, he describes encountering a former merchant who had abandoned life in the Empire for that of the Hun enemy as, after the war, they “live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed.” 

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