Huns, nomadic and pastoral people of unknown ethnological affinities who appeared in Europe in the 4th cent. A.D., and built up an empire there. They were organized in a predominantly military manner. Divided into hordes, they undertook extensive independent campaigns, living off the countries they ravaged. The Huns have been described as short and of somewhat Mongolian appearance. Their military superiority was due to their small, rapid horses, on which they practically lived, even eating and negotiating treaties on horseback. Despite the similarity of their tactics and habits with those of the White Huns, the Magyars, the Mongols, and the Turks, their connection with those peoples is either tenuous or—in the case of the Magyars and the Turks—unfounded.
The Huns first appeared in Europe c.A.D. 372, when they invaded the lower Volga valley. Some scholars have associated them with Hsiung-nu (as the Chinese called them). In the 3d cent. B.C. part of the Great Wall of China was erected to exclude the Hsiung-nu from China; the Hsiung-nu occupied N China from the 3d cent. A.D. until 581. As the Huns advanced westward from the Volga valley, they pushed the Germanic Ostrogoths and Visigoths before them and thus precipitated the great waves of migrations that destroyed the Roman Empire and changed the face of Europe. They crossed the Danube, penetrated deep into the Eastern Empire, and forced (432) Emperor Theodosius to pay them tribute. Attila, their greatest king, had his palace in Hungary. Most of the territories that now constitute European Russia, Poland, and Germany were tributary to him, and he was long in Roman pay as Roman general in chief. When Rome refused (450) further tribute, the Huns invaded Italy and Gaul and were defeated (451) by Aetius, but they ravaged Italy before withdrawing after Attila's death (453). Their later movements are little known; some believe that the White Huns were remnants of the Hunnic people. The word Huns has been used as an epithet, as for German soldiers, connoting destructive militarism.
See T. Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, Vol. I (rev. ed. 1892, repr. 1967); W. M. McGovern, Early Empires of Central Asia (1939); E. A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (1948); F. Teggart, China and Rome (1969, repr. 1983); J. D. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns (1973).