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Primary Source: Ammianus Marcellinus on the Huns

Posted January 19th, 2017 at 11:26 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated January 19th, 2017 at 11:40 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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The document on the Huns is from Ammianus Marcellinus’ book called Res Gestae. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote his work during the late 300s of the Common Era as a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of the Emperor Nerva until the end of Emperor Valens’ reign; a period spanning from 96 to 378 AD. The historical context of Ammianus’ document lies in his writing a history of the Roman Empire. Ammianus started his history from where Tacitus left off in the First Century of the Common Era (Reynolds). Within the book Res Gestae there is a section on the barbarians that the Roman Empire encountered, within the time frame of the period that the book deals with. The document is likely a record of history but may also have been used to fulfill a political agenda as was common among many ancient historians. Ammianus likely held a bias against the Huns as they were unlike the other barbarians that the Romans encountered that is to say Mongoloid peoples from the steppe, and he was also a Roman soldier and likely fought against barbarians.
The purpose of this write up is to discuss the importance of Ammianus Marcellinus as a primary source for the Huns. Another aim for this will be to somewhat discuss the accuracy and purpose of Ammianus’ writings on the Huns based on the information that was available to him at the time. This will analyze some of the information that Ammianus gives and to compare the information with the events of the time period relating to the Huns.
L.D. Reynolds (ed.), Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 65

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Ammianus Marcellinus gives what is most likely not his own firsthand account on the Huns. Ammianus writes that the Huns were a savage people that “live beyond the Sea of Azov, on the border of the Frozen Ocean” this area corresponded to modern Southern Russia. Ammianus gives a physical description of the Huns as “the cheeks of their infant children are deeply marked by an iron… and accordingly they grow up without beards, and consequently without any beauty… though they all have closely knit and strong limbs and plump necks; they are of great size, and bow-legged” he points out what he believes to be their lack of personal beauty. He also describes the living practices of the Huns by saying that Huns “are so hardy that they neither require fire nor well-flavored food, but live on the roots of herbs as they get in the fields, or the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they warm by placing it between their own thighs and the back of their horses. He also writes of the linen and fur clothing and of their round fur caps that the Huns wore until they became rags. Ammianus says that the Huns lack skills in fighting on foot but that they are very good horsemen and that they spend much of their own time on horses outside of the battle field. Because of their skill on horse they are able to move rapidly but must avoid enemy fortifications. Ammianus also writes of their nomadic lifestyles and that none of them ever remain in an area or farm and that they “wander about, roaming over the mountains and the woods”. He then goes on to say that the Huns are unreliable and that they act like beasts. The Huns will brutally attack whenever the opportunity arises and it was in this way that the “indomitable race” of the Huns slaughtered all of the nations that surrounded them.

It is important to point out, especially when judging any ancient writer as a source for the Huns that Ammianus Marcellinus is one of the few surviving primary sources for the Huns. This alone makes his importance paramount. It is also important to note that Ammianus Marcellinus’ died before the Fifth Century and so he never witnessed the Hun onslaught of Attila in the 440s some fifty years after the Roman writer’s death (Thompson). Based on this we may deduce that Ammianus’ negative feelings towards the Huns were based on a growing distrust of these strangers which had only recently come into direct contact with the Romans. This happened at the time when the Huns had driven the fleeing Visigoths into the borders of the Roman Empire and is one of few sources to describe the Huns in detail before the rise and decline of the Huns under Attila and his successors. Ammianus Marcellinus seems to be biased towards the Huns as shown in his description of them as beasts in the forms of animals and calling them “treacherous and inconstant” in their treaties. Indeed, if Ammianus is not a witness and does not provide cases for these events then his calling them treacherous enemies is not justified. It is possible that Ammianus wants to build distrust against the Huns due to fear of their warlike prowess. Ammianus is objective in his descriptions such as their eating habits and how they live a nomadic life style or even in describing how hardy the Huns are. Ammianus as a soldier may see it as fair to compliment their skills in warfare and their hardiness so that they may fight even in subsistence conditions. Never the less Ammianus seems to be attempting to build the image of the Huns to that of dangerous and warlike super soldiers; barbarians which are more foreign and deadly than any Germanic tribe that the Romans have encountered.
E.A. Thompson. A History of Attila and the Huns. Oxford University Press, 1948, pp 42

Ammianus Marcellinus is one of the few surviving primary sources on the Huns. His work the Res Gestae also contains descriptions of the Huns as a people and culture before the rise of the Hunnic Empire. Primarily Ammianus seeks to give a history of this barbarian tribe as part of his bigger history of the Roman Empire. The purpose of this was to put judgment upon Ammianus as a source for the Huns. To understand what he wrote and why he chose to present the information in the manner that he did. The essay and readings of the sources listed was to show and particularly for me to understand the importance of Ammianus as a historian whose writings contained most of the information that was available on the Huns at the time. Unfortunately he died before the most famous of all the Huns was even born, that is clearly Attila. Had Ammianus lived during those tumultuous times it would have been interesting to read his account or even his opinions. No doubt some would have said that he predicted the savagery and threat of these barbaric Huns, the Barbarians among barbarians perhaps, and he would have had little to put this into doubt seeing Attila's onslaught to the very gates of Constantinople and even Gaul.

N.F. Cantor (ed.), The Medieval World: 300-1300, The Macmillan Company, 1963, pp. 67-69

L.D. Reynolds (ed.), Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 65

E.A. Thompson. A History of Attila and the Huns. Oxford University Press, 1948, pp 42
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  1. Old Comment
    RomaVictrix's Avatar
    Excellent work, Oda! Yes, I'd say that his negative descriptions of the Huns were certainly fueled by the fear of their impending military threat. For instance, it's hard to say positive things about a big hulking biker dude in a leather jacket who you just saw from across the street punching someone else in the face. That's the microcosmic equivalent of what the Huns did to the neighboring Goths.
    Posted January 20th, 2017 at 11:04 AM by RomaVictrix RomaVictrix is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar
    Thanks! I wonder if he was alive during Attila's invasions he would not have said "told you so". The way he describes the Huns they might as well be Nazi super soldiers though.
    Posted January 20th, 2017 at 04:54 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga Lord Oda Nobunaga is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Ajax_Minoan's Avatar
    This was helpful to me for something I am researching. I'm going to have to read the account of this historian on the Huns myself. I want to read Jordanes Origins and Deeds of the Goths as well.
    Posted April 23rd, 2017 at 03:24 PM by Ajax_Minoan Ajax_Minoan is offline

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