A chieftain named Motun (or Modu) arose to lead the Hsiung-nu to a position of great power and hegemony over the eastern steppes. He reigned from 209 to 174 BC. The story is told that Motun’s father favored one of Motun’s younger half-brothers to succeed him as chieftain of the tribe. Motun’s father therefore attempted to arrange the death of Motun by devious means. Motun’s father gave Motun to the Yue-chi as a hostage and then attacked the Yue-chi, hoping the Yue-chi would then kill Motun. Motun escaped this fate by stealing a fast Yue-chi horse and returning home. Motun’s father was impressed by his prowess and gave him command of part of the Hsiung-nu army. Eventually, Motun executed his father, his stepmother, his half-brother, and several high-ranking officials to seize power. It seems probable that Motun was able to seize power from his father because his father had previously been badly defeated by the Chinese, losing the original Hsiung-nu homeland in the Ordos region in the process. Thus discredited in the eyes of his people, Motun’s father was ripe for overthrow by the first strong candidate to come along and Motun was precisely such a candidate.
The first emperor of the Chinese Ch’in Dynasty consolidated three previous lesser walls into the one Great Wall of China specifically as an attempt to prevent the Hsiung-nu from reclaiming their lands which the Chinese had taken.
Under the leadership of Motun, the Hsiung-nu defeated first the Tung-hu to their east and then the Yue-chi to their west around 206 BC. During the period of internal disorder in China that followed the fall of the Ch’in Dynasty, the Hsiung-nu, under Motun’s leadership, recaptured their homelands that had been lost to the Chinese by Motun’s father. In 175 BC, Motun ordered his subordinate chieftain in charge of his western lands to make a second and decisive attack on the Yue-chi. This chieftain inflicted a devastating defeat on the Yue-chi, driving them off to the west. With this defeat, the Yue-Chi split into the “Greater” Yue-chi and “Lesser” Yue-chi. In 162 BC, Motun’s son and successor, Lao-shang, inflicted still another severe defeat on the Greater Yue-chi, pushing them still farther west. Lao-shang made a drinking cup from the skull of the chieftain of the Greater Yue-chi. Next, the Hsiung-nu established themselves as tax-collecting nomadic overlords of the settled culture Silk Road oasis cities in what is now northwestern China. The rich farmlands around these cities became vital to the Hsiung-nu as a source of food while the artisans of these cities became vital to them as a source of iron weapons. They would contest control of these cities with the Chinese for years to come.
The Hsiung-nu fought against China off and on during the 2nd and 1st Centuries BC. They employed a complex policy mix of commerce, diplomacy, bluff, extortion, and all-out war in the form of border raids to extract a steady stream of wealth from China. Various permutations of this scenario played out through the 1st Century AD and into the early 2nd Century AD, with the Chinese gradually but steadily gaining the upper hand in the later decades of this period.
Once the Chinese regained their strength and aggressiveness under the leadership of the “Martial Emperor,” Wu-ti (140-87 BC) of the Han Dynasty, they defeated the Hsiung-nu several times from 129 to 119 BC, taking the original Hsiung-nu lands in the Ordos region for the second and final time. Two minor Hsiung-nu tribes defected to the Chinese.
For administrative purposes, because of the enormous distances of the steppes, the Hsiung-nu divided their empire into mutually cooperating eastern and western halves. The leader of the western half was considered junior to the leader of the eastern half. The eastern half was called the “left” half and the western half was called the “right” half. This wording implies that the Hsiung-nu viewed their world from the perspective of looking south, such that east is to the left and west is to the right. For the Hsiung-nu to orient their world by looking south meant they oriented their world by looking at the Chinese. The Gök Turks would employ the same east-half-west-half organizational structure in their own empire. This system worked well for the Hsiung-nu for a time. But several years of complex royal succession struggles and civil war resulted in their splitting into eastern and western tribal groupings in 44 BC. It is significant that the Chinese supported one side in this Hsiung-nu civil war. It was the leader of the eastern half of the Hsiung-nu Empire who asked for Chinese support in return for his future fealty to the Chinese. The Western and Eastern Hsiung-nu had radically different fates:
NOTE: Starting in 115 BC, and all the way into the early 2nd Century AD, there were intermittent, on-again off-again fights between the Chinese and various elements of the Hsiung-nu over control of the Iranian-populated Silk Road oasis cities in what is now northwestern China. The Chinese used a mix of warfare and diplomacy to wrest control of these cities from the Hsiung-nu during the late 2nd and 1st Centuries BC. Subsequently, the Hsiung-nu supported these cities in rebelling against the Chinese but then the Chinese put down the rebellions. The “civilized” Chinese were brutal in suppressing revolts of Silk Road cities, cutting off the heads of prisoners by the thousands.
Before Attila came to power, the Black Huns conquered the Alans. They incorporated some Alans into their army as allies, although other Alans continued to fight against the Black Huns as allies of the Romans. The Black Huns then made huge raids into Sassanid Persia during the 360s AD. They made more large-scale raids into Syria and Mesopotamia during the 390s AD. They took enormous quantities of loot seized in these raids back home to the steppes. In 372-375 AD, the Black Huns and their Alan allies obliterated the realm of the Germanic Ostrogoth horse tribes in the Ukraine. The Ostrogoth warrior chieftain Ermanaric committed suicide. The Black Huns incorporated significant numbers of Ostrogoths into the growing Hunnic tribal confederacy. However, other Germanic tribes continued to fight against the Black Huns as allies of the Romans. During the early 400s AD, a certain number of Black Huns served as mercenaries for the Romans, in which capacity they fought against their fellow Black Huns. In the early 430s AD, a man named Rua emerged as the leader of a more centralized and powerful Black Hun nation. Rua had two nephews named Bleda and Attila. Upon Rua’s death in 434 AD, Bleda and Attila succeeded him to rule the eastern and western portions of the Black Hun realm respectively. In 436 AD, the Black Huns made a severely damaging attack on the Germanic Burgundian tribe at the city of Worms. This incident has come down through the centuries in embellished, epic legend form in the “Saga of the Volsungs” and in the “Nibelungenlied” (the “Song of the Nibelungs”). The Black Huns made damaging raids into the Balkan territories of the Eastern Roman Empire during the 440s AD.
NOTE: By this time, the administration of the Roman Empire had been reorganized into an Eastern half with its capital at Constantinople (today the city of Istanbul) and a Western half with its capital at Ravenna, just a little way inland from the eastern coast of Italy.
In 444 or 445 AD, Attila murdered his elder brother Bleda and assumed sole leadership of the Black Huns. By now, the Black Huns had set up their power base on the steppe-like plains of what is now the country of Hungary. Attila led them in terrorizing southeastern and central Europe, scooping up the loot and tribute that fueled Black Hun society and power. In 450 AD, a bizarre series of events gave Attila a pretext to invade the Western Roman Empire. The Western Roman Emperor at that time, Valentinian III, had a sister named Honoria who competed with him for power. She sent a message to Attila, along with her ring, requesting his support in this internal Roman royal family feud. Attila chose to interpret Honoria’s request and ring as a marriage proposal and to claim half the Western Roman Empire as the marriage dowry. Attila led his Black Hun army, together with his assorted Germanic and Alan allies, in an attack deep into the Western Roman province of Gaul—which today is France. Attila laid siege to the Gallic-French city of Orléans. An army of Western Romans, together with their Germanic and Alan allies, all under the leadership of Flavius Aetius, advanced to the rescue of Orléans. Attila aborted his siege of the city and sought out suitable level, open ground for his horsemen to confront Aetius. The two armies fought each other in a horrific one-day battle at Chalons, on the Catalaunian Plains of north-central France, in mid-June, 451 AD. The battle was a gruesome draw, with Flavius getting the better of it. Attila called off his invasion of Gaul-France and retreated back over the Rhine River. Nonetheless, Attila briefly raided into Italy in 452 AD. He aborted his attack on Italy due to what may have been one or a combination of factors: an outbreak of the plague and/or a shortage of food for his warriors and horses and/or news of Roman troop movements threatening his position. The story is that Pope Leo I dissuaded Attila from attacking Rome by means of negotiations, the details of which are not clear in the historical record. In 453 AD, Attila choked to death from a severe nosebleed while in a drunken stupor. In 454 or 455 AD, the Germanic tribes successfully revolted against the Black Huns, defeated them at the Battle of the Nedao River in Hungary, and drove them back toward the Ukraine. Attila’s eldest son, Ellac, was killed at the Nedao River. Another of Attila’s sons, Dengizikh, attacked the Eastern Roman Empire capital city of Constantinople in 468 or 469 AD but was utterly defeated. His head was put on display at the Constantinople circus. Three other sons of Attila demanded, and were granted, small regions of the Roman Empire to reside in with their personal bands of tribespeople.
It was Germanic tribes running for their lives from the Black Huns who eventually overran and destroyed the Western Roman Empire. (The Eastern Roman Empire survived.) In 476 AD, a Germanic tribal warrior chieftain named Odoacer deposed the last feeble puppet Roman emperor of the West. Odoacer set up a short-lived Germanic tribal kingdom in Italy. The so-called Dark Ages began as Western Europe descended into a chaos of generations of Germanic inter-tribal warfare—all, supposedly, stemming from when the Chinese defeated the Western Hsiung-nu and sent them fleeing west in 36-35 BC!
After their defeat by the rebellious Germanic tribes at the Battle of the Nedao River, the bulk of the surviving Black Huns resumed the standard horse nomad lifestyle in the Ukraine. (A highly romanticized but visually impressive TV miniseries titled Attila came out in 2001.) In the Ukraine, the Black Huns fragmented into two mutually hostile groups, the Kutrigers and Utigers:
NOTE: The brilliantly effective ruler of the Greek Christian Byzantine Empire, the Emperor Justinian, successfully played the Kutrigers and Utigers against each other in the late 550s AD. He used gifts of treasure to bribe the Utigers—who were farther away from Byzantium—to attack the Kutrigers, who were closer to Byzantium.
NOTE: The Greek Christian Byzantine Empire was the direct outgrowth of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire had remained fully functional after the last pitiful remnant of the Western Roman Empire fell to invading Germanic tribes in 476 AD. The Eastern Roman capital city of Constantinople naturally became the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. The original name of Constantinople had been “Byzantium”; hence the name of the Byzantine Empire. The city was renamed Constantinople in honor of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was the first Christian emperor of Rome. The Byzantine Empire remained a great military, economic, and cultural power for centuries. Its end came in 1453 AD when the Moslem Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. Modern Turks renamed the city Istanbul in 1930.