Huns and Alans: Ammianus Marcellinus on “savage” nomadic threats (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Huns and Alans: Ammianus Marcellinus on “savage” nomadic threats (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023,

Ancient author: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman AntiquitiesRes Gestae 31.2 (link).

Comments: In the final book of his work, Ammianus Marcellinus turns to an ominous threat to the Roman empire in the late fourth century coming from the northeast on the Eurasian steppe: the Huns, as well as the Alans they overtake. In this digression, Ammianus sketches a stereotypical image of dangerous and savage nomadic peoples. Huns are depicted as more savage than the Alans they absorb. As several scholars note (see Burgersdijk and King), the account is largely out of touch with any real information about Huns or Alans and is constructed, in large part, by drawing on previous stereotyped accounts of nomadic “Scythian” peoples (with “Scythians” itself being a generalized etic Greek category for numerous peoples, as we know well from materials on this website). Among the accounts of Scythian nomads that Ammianus may have consulted (he names no sources) are those of Herodotos (link) and Trogus (link). Ammianus’ identification of the Alans with the earlier Massagetians is likewise suspect.

Works consulted: D. Burgersdijk, “Creating the Enemy: Ammianus Marcellinus’ Double Digression on Huns and Alans (‘res Gestae’ 31.2),” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 59 (2016): 111–32 (link); C. King, “The Veracity of Ammianus Marcellinus’ Description of the Huns,” American Journal of Ancient History 12 (1987): 77-95 (link).

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935-1940), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.


[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Maurians and Ausourianians, go to this link.]


However, the seed and origin of all the ruin and various disasters that the wrath of the Mars [Roman god of war] aroused, putting in turmoil all places with unusual fires, we have found to be this: The people of the Huns,​ hardly known from ancient records, dwelling beyond [i.e. north and east] the Maiotis marsh [Sea of Azov] near the ice-bound ocean, exceed every degree of savagery (feritas).

[Physical description of the people]

Since there the cheeks of the children are deeply furrowed with the steel​ from their very birth, in order that the growth of hair, when it appears at the proper time, may be checked by the wrinkled scars, they grow old without beards and without any beauty, like eunuchs. They all have compact, strong limbs and thick necks, and are so monstrously ugly and misshapen, that one might mistake them for two-legged animals or for the stumps, roughly shaped into images, that are used in putting sides to bridges.​

[Nomadic lifestyle]

But although they have the form of men, however ugly, they are so hardy in their mode of life that they have no need of fire nor of savoury food. Instead, they eat the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any kind of animal whatever, which they put between their thighs and the backs of their horses in order to warm it a little bit. They are never protected by any buildings, but they avoid these like tombs, which are set apart from everyday use. For not even a hut thatched with reed can be found among them. But roaming at large amid the mountains and woods, they learn from the cradle to endure cold, hunger, and thirst. When away from their homes they never enter a house unless compelled by extreme necessity, because they think they are not safe when staying under a roof.

[Clothing and use of horses]

They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. But once they put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until by long wear and tear it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. They cover their heads with round caps and protect their hairy legs with goatskins. Their shoes are not shaped to the foot, and so prevent their walking with free step. For this reason they are not at all adapted to battles on foot. Instead, they are almost glued to their horses, which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit on their horse like a woman and perform their ordinary tasks like that. From their horses by night or day every one of that people (natio) buys and sells and eats and drinks. Bowed over the narrow neck of the animal, each person relaxes into a sleep so deep as to be accompanied by many dreams. When deliberation is called for about important matters, they all consult as a common body in that fashion.​ They are subject to no royal restraint, but they are content with the disorderly government of their important men, and led by them they force their way through every obstacle.

[War customs]

They also sometimes fight when provoked, and then they enter the battle drawn up in wedge-shaped masses, while their medley of voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly into scattered bands and attack, rushing about in disorder here and there, delivering horrible slaughter. Because they move extremely fast, they are never seen to attack a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account you would not hesitate to call them the most terrifying of all warriors, because they fight from a distance with missiles having sharp bone, instead of their usual points,​ joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. Then they gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. While the enemy are guarding against wounds from the sabre-thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses over their opponents and so entangle them that they fetter their limbs and take from them the power of riding or walking.​

[Use of wagons]

No one in their country ever plows a field or touches a plow-handle. They are all without fixed abode, without hearth, or law, or settled mode of life, and keep roaming from place to place, like fugitives, accompanied by the wagons in which they live. In their wagons, their wives weave for them their hideous garments. In their wagons, they cohabit with their husbands, bear children, and rear them to the age of puberty. None of their offspring, when asked, can tell you where he comes from, since he was conceived in one place, born far from there, and brought up still farther away.

[Deceitful and untrustworthy characters]

In truces they are faithless and unreliable, strongly inclined to sway to the motion of every breeze of new hope that presents itself, and sacrificing every feeling to the mad impulse of the moment. Like unreasoning animals, they are utterly ignorant of the difference between right and wrong. They are deceitful and ambiguous in speech, never bound by any reverence for duty (religio) or for superstition (superstitio). They burn with an infinite thirst for gold, and they are so fickle and prone to anger, that they often quarrel with their allies without provocation, more than once on the same day, and make friends with them again without a mediator.

[Alans / Massagetians]

This descent group (genus) of untamed men, without encumbrances, aflame with an inhuman desire for plundering others’ property, made their violent way amid plunder and slaughter of the neighbouring peoples as far as the Alans (Halani), once known as the Massagetians (Massagetae). And since we have come to this point, it is in place to tell of the origin and dwelling-place of this people also, and to point out the confused opinions of geographers, who after many different attempts to deal with the subject have finally discovered the core of the truth.

[Geographical setting among other Pontic peoples]

The Ister (Hister) [eastern Danube]​ filled to overflowing by a great number of tributaries, flows past the Sauromatians, and these extend as far as the river Tanais [Don],​ which separates Asia from Europe. On the other side of this river​ the Alans – named after the mountain range of the same name, – inhabit the measureless waste lands of Scythia. By repeated victories they gradually wore down the peoples (nationes) whom they met and like the Persians incorporated them under their own name. Among these the Neurians (Nervii)​ inhabit the interior of the country near the lofty, precipitous peaks nipped by the north winds and numbed by ice and snow. Behind these are the Budians (Vidini)​ and the Gelonians, exceedingly savage descent groups who strip the skins from their slain enemies to make clothing for themselves and coverings for their horses in war.​ On the frontier of the Gelonians are the Agathyrsians, who checker their bodies and dye their hair with a blue colour​ (the common people with a few small marks, but the nobles with more and broader spots of dye).​ Beyond these are the Melanchlainians (Melanchlaenae​) and the Anthropophagians (or: “Man-eaters”), who according to report lead a nomadic life and feed upon human flesh. Because of this abominable food they are left to themselves and all their former neighbours have moved to distant parts of the earth. And so the entire north-eastern​ tract, until one comes to the Serians (Seres),​ has remained uninhabitable. In another part of the country, near the home territories of the Amazons, the Alans mount to the eastward, divided into populous and extensive peoples. The Alans reach as far as Asia and, as I have heard, stretch all the way to the river Ganges, which flows through the territories of India and empties into the southern ocean.

[Customs and nomadic lifestyle in wagons]

Thus the Alans – whose various descent groups (gentes) it is unnecessary now to enumerate – are divided between the two​ parts of the earth. Even though they are widely separated from each other and roam over vast tracts, as nomads do, in the course of time they have nonetheless united under one name, and are, for short, all called “Alans” (Halani) because of the similarity in their customs, their savage mode of life (efferatum), and their weapons. For they have no huts and do not care about plowing the land. Instead, they live on meat and an abundance of milk, and dwell in wagons, which they cover with rounded canopies of bark and drive over the boundless waste lands. When they come to a place rich in grass, they place their carts in a circle and feed like wild animals. As soon as the fodder is used up, they place their cities, as we might call them, on the wagons and so convey them. In their wagons, the men have intercourse with the women, and in their wagons their babies are born and reared. Wagons form their permanent dwellings, and wherever they come, that place they look upon as their natural home. Driving their plow-cattle before them, they pasture them with their flocks, and they give particular attention to breeding horses.

In that land the fields are always green, and here and there are places thick with fruit trees. So wherever they go, they do not lack food for themselves or fodder for their cattle, because of the moist soil and the numerous courses of rivers that flow nearby them. Therefore, all those who through age or sex are unfit for war remain close by the wagons and are occupied in light tasks. But the young men grow up in the habit of riding from their earliest boyhood and regard it as contemptible to go on foot. By various forms of training, they are all skilled warriors. From the same causes the Persians​ also, who are Scythians by origin, are highly expert in fighting.

[Physical appearance and war-like lifestyle, though less savage than Huns]

Moreover, almost all the Alans are tall and handsome, their hair inclines to blonde, by the ferocity of their glance they inspire dread, subdued though it is. They are light and active in the use of arms. In all respects they are somewhat like the Huns, but in their manner of life and their habits they are less savage. In their practice of banditry (latrocinor) and hunting expeditions they roam here and there as far as the Maiotis marsh [Sea of Azov] and the Kimmerian Bosporos, and also to Armenia and Media. Just as quiet and peaceful men find pleasure in rest, so the Alans delight in danger and warfare.

There the man is judged happy who has sacrificed his life in battle, while those who grow old and depart from the world by a natural death they assail with bitter reproaches, as degenerate and cowardly. There is nothing in which they take more pride than in killing any man whatever. They tear off the heads of the dead as spoils, then strip off their skins​ and hang them upon their war-horses as trappings.

[Practices associated with gods and divination]

No temple or sacred place is to be seen in their country, not even a hut thatched with straw can be discerned anywhere. Instead, after the manner of barbarians, a naked sword is fixed in the ground and they reverently worship it as their god of war, the presiding deity of those lands over which they range.​ They have a remarkable way of divining the future. They gather very straight twigs of osier and sort them out at an appointed time with certain secret incantations, and thus clearly learn what impends.​ They do not know the meaning of slavery, since all are born of noble blood, and moreover they choose as chiefs​ those men who are conspicuous for long experience as warriors. But let us return to what remains of our chosen subject.

[Segue to the narrative about contemporary invasions]

The Huns, then, having overrun the territories of those Alans (bordering on the Greuthungians) to whom usage has given the surname Tanaitians, killed and plundered many of them, and joined the survivors to themselves in a treaty of alliance. Then in company with these, they made the more boldly a sudden inroad into the extensive and rich cantons of Ermenrichos, a most warlike monarch, dreaded by the neighbouring peoples because of his many and varied deeds of valour. . . [omitted remainder of Ammianus contemporary account of the invasion].

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