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The Huns Before Attila: From the Rise of the Xiongnu to the Birth of Attila

220 B.C. to 406 A.D.


The Huns swept into Europe in the 4th century A.D., seemingly out of nowhere. In fact, however, they were descendants of the western Xiongnu, a fierce tribe from Mongolia that had bedeviled the Chinese Empire... and inspired the construction of the Great Wall of China.

220 - 200 B.C., Hunnic tribes raid China, inspire construction of Great Wall

A loose confederation of separate but related tribes, whom the Chinese called the "Xiongnu," swept south from the steppes of Mongolia in a series of raids against the Chinese Empire. In response, the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ordered the construction of a series of defensive walls, which would become an important section of the Great Wall of China.

209 B.C., Modun Shanyu unites Hunnic tribes

In 209 B.C., the various Hunnic tribes were united by Modun Shanyu. His unified Huns ruled a vast area of southeastern Mongolia and Siberia, including all of the land around Lake Baikal. His capital was near present-day Ulan Bataar.

176 B.C., Xiongnu attack Tocharians in western China

The Huns attacked the Tocharians of the Tarim Basin, an enigmatic people who appear to have been of European descent. The Tocharians wore woven plaid clothing, similar to Scottish tartans, and DNA testing suggests that they are related to modern-day Ukranians. Some Tocharian people's remains were mummified by the dry heat of the Gobi Desert; they are known as the Tarim Mummies.

140 B.C., Han Dynasty Emperor Wu-di attacks Xiongnu

In 140 B.C., the Emperor Wu-di launched a major offensive against the hated Xiongnu. He was able to drive them back, but could not defeat them completely.

121 B.C., Xiongnu defeated by Chinese, driven west

Two decades later, the Xiongnu suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Han Chinese, and splintered into two groups. The Eastern Xiongnu were absorbed into the Chinese Empire, while the Western Xiongnu were driven west into the Central Asian region known as Scythia, in modern-day southern Russia and Kazakhstan.

50 B.C., Western Huns move west as far as Volga River

The Huns conquered other Asiatic tribes as they moved west to the Volga River. Soon they encountered Germanic peoples and defeated them as well, driving groups such as the Goths and Vandals deeper into Europe, and setting off a domino effect of invasion and conquest.

350 A.D., Huns appear for the first time in Eastern Europe proper

The Huns first entered Europe via a route to the north of the Black Sea in 350 A.D., sending waves of Germanic and other peoples fleeing ahead of them into the lands of the Roman Empire.

c. 406 A.D., Attila the Hun is born

The Huns were not a literate culture, so we do not have any records from them concerning Attila's birth and early life. It has been extrapolated from his apparent age during his interactions with the literate Romans that Attila was probably born around 406. His father was a Hunnic chief named Mundzuk; his mother's name is lost to history.
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