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Gallery of reconstructed portraits


Created: 2003
Published: 2003


The reconstructed portrait of Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun

The Huns were nomads who had moved from the steppes of Central Asia into Eastern Europe in the fourth century ce. Prior to this, the Huns had already afflicted the northern border of China for some centuries (locally known as Hunnu or Xiongnu). They were closely related to ‘Altai’ horseback nations like the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans — who preceded the Huns — and the Bulgars, Avars, Chasars, Magyars, Turks, and Mongols — who all would play a significant part on the border of Europe and Asia after the Huns. In 434 ce Attila the Hun (*406–†453 ce) succeeded his uncle as khan (= ‘leader’) of the Hunnic horde, together with his brother. In 445 ce Attila gained absolute power by killing this brother. The territory of the Huns, with Pannonia along the Danube as their base of sortie, had no fixed boundaries and Attila the Hun didn't govern it as a state. He earned a bad reputation as plunderer among various Germanic nations and he lent his troops — archers on horseback — as mercenary forces to the Western Roman Empire, in exchange for gold. Through extortion he could collect even more gold from the Eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople. When Attila the Hun also started pillaging in Gaul, the Romans and Visigoths joined forces and dealt him a defeat, on the ‘Catalaunian’ fields near the present-day Châlons-en-Champagne. A short raid through Northern Italy was his final threat to Rome. Attila the Hun died the next year from an alcohol overdose combined with a nosebleed.

How should we picture the appearance of Attila the Hun? Priskos was a contemporary who travelled to the main encampment of the Huns as an envoy of the Eastern Roman Empire. There he made the acquaintance of Attila the Hun in person. Unfortunately, only fragments of his testimony have survived. Luckily, in the sixth century ce the Ostrogothic historian Jordanes could still consult the writings of Priskos (among others) to give us a description of Attila the Hun. Jordanes describes him as a small but broad man, with a large head, small eyes, a partly grey, thin beard, a flat nose, and tanned skin. In addition, Priskos himself reports that Attila's dress was comparatively moderate. What these clothes looked like can only be derived from images of Scythians, because contemporary images of Huns don't exist (anymore). Contemporary authors frequently denote the Huns with “Scythians”, mainly because the Huns inhabited the former Scythian area, but maybe also because they resembled the Scythians. It's plausible that, as far as culture and appearance are concerned, the Scythians and Huns didn't differ that much. The appearance of the Scythians (who called themselves Skoloti; among the Persians also known as Saka; among the Greeks as Skuthai) is clearly represented on a Greek comb, two Greek–Scythian vessels, and a Greek–Scythian plaque. If we may rely on these images, Attila the Hun wore comfortable, long trousers, soft riding boots, a shirt with long sleeves that was closed crosswise at the front, a girdle, and a conic cap. The shirt and the trousers had been decorated with regular, geometric patterns. Attila the Hun could arm himself, like the Scythians, with bow and arrows in a quiver that was attached to his girdle, a short sword, a shield, and a throwing spear. Finally, he must have worn long hair and a long beard, similar to the Scythian fashion.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Attila the Hun? Only few objects of art have been found that originate directly or undisputedly from Hunnic culture — certainly no images of humans, let alone portraits. The heritage of the Scythians was mostly made or influenced by Greeks. In the art of later Eurasian steppe nations, on the other hand, the influence of Arabic, Persian, Indian, or Chinese image culture can be recognized. The so-called ‘animal stylecan indeed be defined as an indigenous, characteristic style of the Eurasian nomads, but it offers little hold, because — obviously — this style is almost exclusively restricted to depictions of animals. It consists of curled and ornamental shapes. Fortunately, in the Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia some pieces of textile in this style have been discovered, also containing images of humans. These tomb gifts — felt saddle-cloths and carpets, among other things — are attributed to the Pazyryk culture (named after the site of find), which in turn is associated with the Scythians. The images are characterized by almost abstract, sometimes naive, curled shapes, solid colours (particularly ochre, red, and blue), and long, bent, dark or light lines. The figures are represented in side view, without depth or perspective.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Attila the Hun was displayed on horseback, because it wouldn't be appropriate to depict the khan of a nation of horsemen on foot. The clothing, the horse's bridle, and the weaponry were entirely derived from the Scythian examples on the comb, vessels, and plaque. The face was modelled on description of Jordanes. All was deformed and coloured on the basis of the style characteristics of the ‘animal style’ and the Pazyryk culture. It's almost unthinkable that Attila the Hun ever sat on his horse with so many weapons at once. He rather made a choice or he entrusted his arms to a weapon bearer. However, by depicting him with all of those, a touch of the strength of him and his horde is shown.


Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated. Are you curious about what this portrait would look like today, if it had existed and if it had been preserved? One of the forgeries was based on this reconstruction.

A student at the Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City (usa) suggested in march 2005 that the Huns were among the first to use the stirrup. In his opinion, the portrait of Attila the Hun should have included a stirrup. The idea, however, that the Huns developed or even knew the stirrup is speculative and controversial. The first solid evidence of stirrup use originates from 4th century China ce. By that time the Huns had long left that region, so they could hardly have adopted the invention from the Chinese. Had they invented the stirrup themselves, the Romans — who either hired or fought them — would certainly have noticed this excellent tool. They did not. There are no indications of common stirrup use in Europe until the 8th century ce. All the more reason to conclude that a stirrup in the portrait of Attila the Hun would be an anachronism.


Sources

  • Priskos (a.k.a.Priscus’) wrote a report on his visit to the court of the Huns (448 ce), as part of a history of eight volumes, which now has been lost for the greater part.
  • Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum (551 ce). Jordanes (an Ostrogoth) put his work on the Goths, which also discusses the Huns, together by summarizing and consulting the writings of other historians, particularly Cassiodorus and Priskos. Chapter XXXV contains the passage about Attila the Hun.
  • Greek comb, Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum, DN 1913 1/1 (430–390 bce). The golden comb shows a horseman, two warriors, and a perished horse in relief. The figures' dress and arms are of Scythian origin, but the helmet and armour of the rider and the armour of one of the warriors are typically Greek. The comb was probably made in a Greek workshop by order of a Scythian customer and was excavated in the Ukraine, along the Dnjepr, from the Solokha kurgan.
  • Two Greek–Scythian vessels:
    • Greek–Scythian vessel, Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum, DO 1911 1/11 (4th century bce). The gilded, silver, ball-shaped vessel shows various seated and knelt Scythians in relief and was excavated in Russia, near Voronezh along the Don, from Chastye kurgan 3.
    • Greek–Scythian vessel, Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum, KO 11 (400–350 bce). The golden, ball-shaped vessel shows various seated and knelt Scythians in relief and was excavated in the Ukraine, on the Crimean Peninsula, near Kerch on the Sea of Azov, from the Kul'Oba kurgan.
  • Greek–Scythian plaque, Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum (4th century bce). The golden plaque shows a Scythian horseman in relief and was excavated in the Ukraine, on the Crimean Peninsula, near Kerch on the Sea of Azov, from the Kul'Oba kurgan.
  • The Eurasian ‘animal style is sufficiently represented by many objects in the prehistoric section of The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
  • Examples of tomb gifts from the Pazyryk culture:
    • Saddle-cloth, Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum, 1295/150 (Altaj 5th century bce). The saddle-cloth consists of red, blue, and ochre felt, leather, and hair of horses. It contains a symmetric representation of a goat and a griffin fighting. It was excavated in Russia, in the Southern Siberian Altai Mountains, in the valley of the river Bolshoy Ulagan, from kurgan 1 of Pazyryk.
    • Two fragments of a saddle-cloth (with an elk and griffin), Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum, 1684/326 + 1684/325 (Altaj 5th century bce). The fragments were made of felt and were excavated in Russia, in the Southern Siberian Altai Mountains, in the valley of the river Bolshoy Ulagan, from kurgan 2 of Pazyryk.
    • Hanging carpet, Rossija: Sankt-Peterburg: The State Hermitage Museum, 1687/94 (Altaj 5th–4th century bce). The felt carpet contains the representation of several horsemen and some enthroned sitting women: one of the rare portrayals of humans in the art of the Eurasian nomads. It was excavated in Russia, in the Southern Siberian Altai Mountains, in the valley of the river Bolshoy Ulagan, from kurgan 5 of Pazyryk.

Alternatives for ‘Attila’: Atlius / Attala / Atli / Etzel / Ethele.

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