Ancient Hungary

The masters of the Steppe, the Huns blazed a trail into Europe early in the first Millennium to become one of the most powerful tribes of central Europe.

The Ancient Huns and Magyars

King’s head from Kalocsa; Red Limestone, Árpád 13th century

The Huns were a formerly nomadic people who entered Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. They traveled light and with great speed, bursting out of central Asia to the borders of Rome, wreaking havoc on those they conquered. In reality, the Huns led by Attila were the last remnant of a much larger tribe that inhabited the ancient plains of Mongolia, but were assimilated or driven out by the expanding Mongol and Chinese kingdoms. Thus they came west looking for a place to establish a homeland. A noted characteristic of the Hun warrior was his wondrous ability to fight on a gallop. Their horses were raised with them, and prized above all else, this reaffirms the kinship with the their nomadic ancestors in the steppe. In later centuries a new force arrived from the east, the Magyars, and they settled in the Carpathian plain assimilating and conquering the remnants of the Hunnic and other tribes that had settled in the area becoming the ancestors of the Hungarians.

Hunnic Origins

The Magyars entering the Pannonian plain from the Chronicon Pictum, 1360

What is today Mongolia was inhabited by various nations since ancient times. The earliest known governmental entity was the Xiongnu, or Hun state. Historians still argue whether the Huns were a proto-Mongolian tribe, or a proto-Turkic ethnic group. Nevertheless, the Huns formed a highly elaborate state in Central Asia led by a monarch called Shanyu.

The growth of the Great Wall reflected the rising power of the Huns. In 209 B. C. the new Shanyu Modun started to subjugate neighboring nations and created a vast kingdom covering most of Mongolia and some Central Asia. The Hun state rivaled with Chinese Han dynasty that resulted in a major conflict for the supremacy in the region. Although shanyu Modun’s army was largely outnumbered by the Chinese, he managed to defeat the latter and make a peace treaty. The Han were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty and the Chinese emperor recognized Modun and this Hunnic Empire.

Shanyu Modun also conducted a campaign in the west, defeating the Sogdians an Iranian-speaking people. The Hunnic Empire gradually declined after Shanyu Modun died. The tribes split. The southern tribes were defeated or absorbed. The northern tribes were driven west out of central Asia. These are the tribes that pressed the German west and eventually reached Europe themselves. The Huns were the first mounted Asian warriors to move east and threaten Europe. They appeared on war horses out of the trackless Asian steppes. The Huns first appear in Western history when they come in contact with Rome.

At the time of Modun’s death in 174 B. C., the Huns had an efficient administrative system and a superb military. Huns practiced shamanism and worshipped variuos spirits and demons. The only challenger of the Huns was China. Eventually, the ruling house of Modun began to stagnate and princes plunged into intrigues that weakened the state affairs. In 90 B. C. Chinese emperor U-di launched a massive onslaught on Huns. Shanyu moved Huns and other subjects of the kingdom to meet them. The battle of Yangjan marked the last great victory of the Hun state. After that battle, Hun princes renewed conspiracies and fights over power in the ever weakening kingdom. Triggered by Chinese emissaries, the non-Hun subjugates began to secede and the centralizing will of the shanyu waned day after day. The relations with the Han dynasty combined wars and peace treaties alike.

In 48 A. D., the Hun state broke into northern and southern parts. The southern Huns recognized the suzerainty of the Chinese emperor. The northerners faced a great many problems. First of all, the neighbouring Xianbi (Syanbi) made a military offensive against the Northern Huns. Crippled by Chinese enmity and Xianbi aggression, the Northern Huns migrated westwards in circa 150 A. D. Thus, the northern branch of Huns tore into four groups. Xianbis absorbed some Huns. Others moved to China and Central Asia. The very last remnants of Huns went far west and became known to Europeans. Their infamous leader Attila initiated the turmoil of European nations and created an ephemeral state in Central Europe, which collapsed after his death.

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Attila the Hun

Attila, the scourge of God

Attila (406–453), also known as Attila the Hun, was ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. He was leader of the Hunnic Empire which stretched from Germany to the Ural River and from the River Danube to the Baltic Sea (see map below). During his rule, he was one of the most fearsome of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires’ enemies: he invaded the Balkans twice and marched through Gaul (modern France) as far as Orleans before being defeated at the Battle of Chalons. He refrained from attacking either Constantinople or Rome. His story that the Sword of Attila had come to his hand by miraculous means, was reported by the Roman Priscus. After having laid waste to Aquileia and many Lombard cities in 452, Attila met Pope Leo I who dissuaded him from sacking Rome. In much of Western Europe, he is remembered as the epitome of cruelty and rapacity. In contrast, some histories and chronicles describe him as a great and noble king, and he plays major roles in three Norse sagas.

Called the Scourge of God by the Romans, Attila succeed his uncle, King Rugil, in 433. The death of Rugila (also known as Rua or Ruga) in 434 left his nephews Attila Dragomer and Bleda (also known as Buda), the sons of his brother Mundzuk, in control over all the united Hun tribes. At the time of their accession, the Huns were bargaining with Byzantine emperor Theodosius II’s envoys over the return of several renegades (possibly Hunnic nobles not in agreement with the brothers’ leadership) who had taken refuge within the Byzantine Empire. The following year Attila and Bleda met with the imperial legation at Margus (present-day Požarevac) and, all seated on horseback in the Hunnic manner, negotiated a successful treaty: the Romans agreed not only to return the fugitives, but also to double their previous tribute of 350 Roman pounds (ca. 115 kg) of gold, open their markets to Hunnish traders, and pay a ransom of eight solidi for each Roman taken prisoner by the Huns. The Huns, satisfied with the treaty, decamped from the empire and returned to their home in the Hungarian Great Plain, perhaps to consolidate and strengthen their empire. Theodosius used this opportunity to strengthen the walls of Constantinople, building the city’s first sea wall, and to build up his border defenses along the Danube.

The Huns were expert Bowmen and could even shoot accurately from a galloping horse

The Huns were expert Bowmen and could even shoot accurately from a galloping horse

Attila shared his throne with his brother Bleda. He inherited the Scythian hordes who were disorganized and weakened by internal strife. Attila’s first order of affairs was to unite his subjects for the purpose of creating one of the most formidable and feared armies Asia had ever seen. The Huns remained out of Roman sight for the next few years as a Hunnic force invaded the Sassanid Empire. A defeat in Armenia by the Sassanids caused them to abandon this attempt and return their attentions to Europe.

In 434 East Roman Emperor Theodosius II offered Attila and Bleda 660 pounds of gold annually with hopes of securing an everlasting peace with the Huns. This peace, however, was not long lived. In 441 Attila’s Huns attacked the Eastern Roman Empire. The success of this invasion emboldened Attila to continue his westward expansion. Passing unhindered through Austria and Germany, Attila plundered and devastated all in his path. In 451, having suffered a setback on the Plains of Chalons, by the allied Romans and Visigoths, Attila turned his attention to Italy.

In 440 they reappeared in force on the borders of the Roman Empire, attacking the merchants at the market on the north bank of the Danube that had been established by the treaty. Crossing the Danube, they laid waste to Illyrian cities and forts on the river, among them, according to Priscus, Viminacium, which was a city of the Moesians in Illyria. Their advance began at Margus, for when the Romans discussed handing over the offending bishop, he slipped away secretly to the Huns and betrayed the city to them. As Theodosius had conquered the river’s defences, the Vandals, under the leadership of Geiseric, captured the Western Roman province of Africa with its capital of Carthage in 440 and the Sassanid Shah Yazdegerd II invaded Armenia in 441. Stripping the Balkan defenses of forces requested by the West Romans, in order to launch an attack on the Vandals in Africa (which was the richest province of the Western empire and a main source of the food supply of Rome) left Attila and Bleda a clear path through Illyria into the Balkans, which they invaded in 441. The Hunnish army, having sacked Margus and Viminacium, took Singidunum (modern Belgrade) and Sirmium before halting. A lull followed in 442 and during this time Theodosius recalled his troops from Sicily and ordered a large new issue of coins to finance operations against the Huns. Having made these preparations, he thought it safe to refuse the Hunnish kings’ demands.

This early Metalwork basket shows the high degree of craftsmanship in Hunnic metallurgy

This early Metalwork basket shows the high degree of craftsmanship in Hunnic metallurgy

Attila responded with a campaign in 443. Striking along the Danube, the Huns overran the military centres of Ratiara and successfully besieged Naissus (modern Niš) with battering rams and rolling siege towers—military sophistication that was new to the Hun repertoire—then pushing along the Nisava River they took Serdica (Sofia), Philippopolis (Plovdiv), and Arcadiopolis. They encountered and destroyed the Roman army outside Constantinople and were stopped by the double walls of the Eastern capital. A second army was defeated near Callipolis (modern Gallipoli) and Theodosius, now without any armed forces to respond, admitting defeat, sent the court official Anatolius to negotiate peace terms, which were harsher than the previous treaty: the Emperor agreed to hand over 6,000 Roman pounds (ca. 2000 kg) of gold as punishment for having disobeyed the terms of the treaty during the invasion; the yearly tribute was tripled, rising to 2,100 Roman pounds (ca. 700 kg) in gold; and the ransom for each Roman prisoner rose to 12 solidi.

Their demands met for a time, the Hun kings withdrew into the interior of their empire. According to Jordanes (following Priscus), sometime during the peace following the Huns’ withdrawal from Byzantium (probably around 445), Bleda died (killed in a hunting accident arranged by his brother, according to the classical sources), and Attila took the throne for himself, and became the sole ruler of the Huns.

An Avar helmet, which was adopted by the Huns after they conquered and assimilated with the Avar tribes

An Avar helmet, which was adopted by the Huns after they conquered and assimilated with the Avar tribes

Attila’s death in 453 wasn’t quite what one would have expected from such a fierce barbarian warrior. He died not on the battlefield, but on the night of his marriage. On that night Attila, who, despite common misconceptions, was not a heavy drinker, drank heavily in celebration of his new bride. In his wedding chambers at the end of the event, Attila passed out flat on his back. It was then and there that Attila had a massive nosebleed which caused him to choke on his own blood.

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Árpád, and the Arrival of the Magyars

A painting showing the arrival of Arpad and the Magyars into central Europe

Árpád, born in 895 AD, the second Grand Prince of the Magyars reigning from 895 till his death in 907 AD. Under his rule the Magyar people settled in the Carpathian basin, and the dynasty descending from him ruled the Magyar tribes and later the Kingdom of Hungary until 1301. Árpád was the son of Grand Prince Álmos (Grand Prince of the Magyars), leader of the Hungarian tribal federation; his mother’s name and descent is unknown.

The emergence of the Magyar tribes and their leaders in Hungarian prehistory is a specific period in the history of the Hungarian people that refers to the time starting from when the Magyars were considered a people separate and identifiable from other Ugric speakers (1000-500 BC) up until their occupation and settlement of the Carpathian Basin around 896 AD. In 894, Árpád and Kurszán negotiated together with the representatives of the Byzantine emperor, Leo VI the Wise the terms under which the confederation of the Magyar tribes was willing to assist the Byzantine Empire against Emperor Simeon I of Bulgaria.

The Statue of Arpad, in Heroes Square in Budapest depicting the founder of the Magyar nation

The Statue of Arpad, in Heroes Square in Budapest depicting the founder of the Magyar nation

In the spring of next year, the Magyar tribes attacked the Bulgarian Empire and defeated Emperor Simeon I, obliging him to conclude peace with the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Simeon, however, entered into an alliance with the Pechenegs, who were the eastern neighbors of the Hungarian tribal federation, and he made an attack against the Magyar troops. In the Battle of Southern Buh, Emperor Simeon I defeated their army; shortly afterward, the Pechenegs attacked and pillaged their territories. The Magyar tribes were obliged to leave Etelköz and move to the Carpathian Basin where they settled down, this period being known as the Honfoglalás in Hungarian. The circumstances of Álmos’ death are unclear. The leaders of the seven Hungarian tribes proclaimed Árpád to Grand Prince of the Magyars; therefore Árpád is considered traditionally to lead the Honfoglalás, or the occupation of what today roughly constitutes a portion of modern day Hungary.

In 896 the Hungarian tribes occupied the Upper Tisza river, from there they undertook numerous looting raids in central and western Europe, and in 900-901 they moved to Pannonia. The Magyars entering the Pannonian fields in 896 may have represented about 200,000–250,000 people.

Based on Arabic sources, Árpád’s title seems to have been kende or gyula. In that time kende was the spiritual leader of the Magyar tribes, while the gyula led their military campaigns. According to legends, Árpád hold the first “parliamentary” session with 40 other “nobles” on horseback before 900 AD. This is proudly known as the birth of the Hungarian nation.

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