DROUGHTSDrought Encouraged Attila’s Huns to Attack the Roman Empire, Tree Rings Suggest

Published 16 December 2022

Hunnic peoples migrated westward across Eurasia, switched between farming and herding, and became violent raiders in response to severe drought in the Danube frontier provinces of the Roman empire.

Hungary has just experienced its driest summer since meteorological measurements began, devastating the country’s usually productive farmland. Archaeologists now suggest that similar conditions in the 5th century may have encouraged animal herders to become raiders, with devastating consequences for the Roman empire.

The study, published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, argues that extreme drought spells from the 430s – 450s CE disrupted ways of life in the Danube frontier provinces of the eastern Roman empire, forcing Hunnic peoples to adopt new strategies to ‘buffer against severe economic challenges’.

The authors, Associate Professor Susanne Hakenbeck from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Professor Ulf Büntgen from the University’s Department of Geography, came to their conclusions after assessing a new tree ring-based hydroclimate reconstruction, as well as archaeological and historical evidence.

The Hunnic incursions into eastern and central Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries CE have long been viewed as the initial crisis that triggered the so-called ‘Great Migrations’ of ‘Barbarian Tribes’, leading to the fall of the Roman empire. But where the Huns came from and what their impact on the late Roman provinces actually was unclear.

New climate data reconstructed from tree rings by Büntgen and colleagues provides information about yearly changes in climate over the last 2000 years. It shows that Hungary experienced episodes of unusually dry summers in the 4th and 5th centuries. Hakenbeck and Büntgen point out that climatic fluctuations, in particular drought spells from 420 to 450 CE, would have reduced crop yields and pasture for animals beyond the floodplains of the Danube and Tisza.

Büntgen said: “Tree ring data gives us an amazing opportunity to link climatic conditions to human activity on a year-by-year basis. We found that periods of drought recorded in biochemical signals in tree-rings coincided with an intensification of raiding activity in the region.”

Recent isotopic analysis of skeletons from the region, including by Hakenbeck, suggests that Hunnic peoples responded to climate stress by migrating and by mixing agricultural and pastoral diets.

Hakenbeck said: “If resource scarcity became too extreme, settled populations may have been forced to move, diversify their subsistence practices and switch between farming and mobile animal herding. These could have been important insurance strategies during a climatic downturn.”