Visual History of the World




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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


The epics of Homer, the wars of Caesar, and temples and palaces characterize the image of classic antiquity and the cultures of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. They are the sources from which the Western world draws the foundations of its philosophy, literature, and, not least of all, its state organization. The Greek city-states, above all Athens, were the birthplace of democracy. The regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and great parts of Northwest Europe were forged together into the Roman Empire, which survived until the time of the Great Migration of Peoples. Mighty empires also existed beyond the ancient Mediterranean world, however, such as those of the Mauryas in India and the Han in China.


Alexander the Great



The Nomad Empires of the
Eurasian Steppes



The Eurasian belt of steppes that stretches eastward from the Black Sea in the west to the Yellow Sea in China has always been inhabited by nomads. Clashes with the Scythians, Sarmatians, or Sakas who lived there played a role in the history of the ancient empires of the Persians, Greeks, and Indians, but these peoples never became organized as a nation. One of the oldest groups was the Xiongnu, who established a great nomad empire at the end of the third century B.C. on the northern borders of China. Their defeat and displacement by the Han dynasty triggered a chain reaction of migratory movements whose western ripples in the fourth century a.d. pushed the Huns into the Goths and set off the Great Migration of Peoples that altered the make-up of Europe.

Xiongnu, Kushana, and Hephthalites

Mongol Empire in 1227 at Genghis Khan's death

Even before the rise of the Huns, great nomad empires were formed on the basis of moving confederations of tribes.

Genghis Khan
(1167 -1227)

The empires of the 2 equestrian nomads of the Xiongnu, 1 Huns, and Turkic people, as well as the 3 Mongolian empire of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, were all based on coalitions of different tribes and peoples.

Because the founders of the empires did not define themselves by ethnicity, every group that identified with the interests of the empire—even former enemies—was taken in. Of course, this confederal style easily led to fragmentation of the nomad empires, and most of them were very short lived.

The tribal federation of the Xiongnu, which formed at the end of the third century B.C., presented a serious threat to Han dynasty China, which went to great lengths—from the construction of the Great Wall to offensive military strikes—to rid itself of this opponent. During the course of the second and third centuries, the Chinese succeeded in gradually dividing and driving off the Xiongnu. Parts of the confederation then became dependent on the Chinese and were assimilated; other groups were
defeated by the Chinese and driven westward. It seems likely that the Xiongnu, as they withdrew, forced out other peoples and tribes living further west—the Kushana, who then invaded Central Asia and India, for example. Today it is considered doubtful that the Huns who appeared in the fourth century were directly related to the Xiongnu, although it is possible that some remains of the Xiongnu merged into the tribal confederation of the Huns. In the fifth century, the powerful Sassanians of Persia came into conflict with the nomad empire of the Hephthalites, who were also known as the "white Huns." After the Hephthalites swept south to destroy the remains of the great Gupta empire in northern India, they were themselves annihilated in 567 by the Sassanians under Khosrow I.


1 Huns in Europe,
steel engraving, 19th century

2 The stone carving
'Horse trampling the Xiongnu'
in front of the Huo Qubing's Tomb.

Nomad yurts in the Gobi Desert, present-day Mongolia


The Huns

Huns map

The military expeditions of the Huns, particularly under King Attila, the "scourge of God," were so devastating that many in Europe believed that they were experiencing the end of the world.

Hun king Attila

The Huns overran the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths in 375, destroying everything in their path. Due to their custom of strapping their children's noses flat from an early age, in order to widen their faces, they were described by early chroniclers as "animal-like creatures"—which only increased the terror they instilled. The Huns were not set on totally exterminating the Germans, though, since they needed them for their army.

East Rome tried to hold off the Huns from its borders with payments of up to 1,500 pounds of gold annually.

But despite this, the 4 Huns under Attila— who had earlier killed his brother and co-regent Bleda in 445— pushed deep into East Roman territory 6, 7 devastated the Balkan provinces, and extorted ever greater tribute payments.

Attila then turned towards the West, leading his immense, and growing, army of Huns and Germanic tribesmen. Along the way many cities, such as Trier and Metz, were burned to the ground. In June 451, the Franks, Visigoths, and Romans, led by the imperial commander Aetius, brought the Huns' advance to a halt.

The resulting 8 Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons-sur-Marne, lasted several days and cost around 90,000 lives.

The Huns and their allies were forced to withdraw toward Eastern Europe, but Attila was still not completely defeated. In 452 he invaded northern Italy and threatened Rome.

Huns map




king of the Huns
byname Flagellum Dei (Latin: Scourge of God)
died 453

king of the Huns from 434 to 453 (ruling jointly with his elder brother Bleda until 445). He was one of the greatest of the barbarian rulers who assailed the Roman Empire, invading the southern Balkan provinces and Greece and then Gaul and Italy. In legend he appears under the name Etzel in the Nibelungenlied and under the name Atli in Icelandic sagas.

Attacks on the Eastern Empire.
The empire that Attila and his elder brother Bleda inherited seems to have stretched from the Alps and the Baltic in the west to somewhere near the Caspian Sea in the east. Their first known action on becoming joint rulers was the negotiation of a peace treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire, which was concluded at the city of Margus (Požarevac). By the terms of the treaty the Romans undertook to double the subsidies they had been paying to the Huns and in future to pay 700 pounds (300 kilograms) of gold each year.

From 435 to 439 the activities of Attila are unknown, but he seems to have been engaged in subduing barbarian peoples to the north or east of his dominions. The Eastern Romans do not appear to have paid the sums stipulated in the treaty of Margus, and so in 441, when their forces were occupied in the west and on the eastern frontier, Attila launched a heavy assault on the Danubian frontier of the Eastern Empire. He captured and razed a number of important cities, including Singidunum (Belgrade). The Eastern Romans managed to arrange a truce for the year 442 and recalled their forces from the West. But in 443 Attila resumed his attack. He began by taking and destroying towns on the Danube and then drove into the interior of the empire toward Naissus (Niš) and Serdica (Sofia), both of which he destroyed. He next turned toward Constantinople, took Philippopolis, defeated the main Eastern Roman forces in a succession of battles, and so reached the sea both north and south of Constantinople. It was hopeless for the Hun archers to attack the great walls of the capital; so Attila turned on the remnants of the empire’s forces, which had withdrawn into the peninsula of Gallipoli, and destroyed them. In the peace treaty that followed, he obliged the Eastern Empire to pay the arrears of tribute, which he calculated at 6,000 pounds of gold, and he trebled the annual tribute, henceforth extorting 2,100 pounds of gold each year.

Attila’s movements after the conclusion of peace in the autumn of 443 are unknown. About 445 he murdered his brother Bleda and thenceforth ruled the Huns as an autocrat. He made his second great attack on the Eastern Roman Empire in 447, but little is known of the details of the campaign. It was planned on an even bigger scale than that of 441–443, and its main weight was directed toward the provinces of Lower Scythia and Moesia in southeastern Europe—i.e., farther to the east than the earlier assault. He engaged the Eastern Empire’s forces on the Utus (Vid) River and defeated them, but he himself suffered serious losses. He then devastated the Balkan provinces and drove southward into Greece, where he was only stopped at Thermopylae. The three years following the invasion were filled with complicated negotiations between Attila and the diplomats of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II. Much information about these diplomatic encounters has been preserved in the fragments of the History of Priscus of Panium, who visited Attila’s headquarters in Walachia in company with a Roman embassy in 449. The treaty by which the war was terminated was harsher than that of 443; the Eastern Romans had to evacuate a wide belt of territory south of the Danube, and the tribute payable by them was continued, though the rate is not known.

Invasion of Gaul.
Attila’s next great campaign was the invasion of Gaul in 451. Hitherto, he appears to have been on friendly terms with the Roman general Aetius, the real ruler of the West at this time, and his motives for marching into Gaul have not been recorded. He announced that his objective in the West was the kingdom of the Visigoths (a Germanic people who had conquered parts of the two Roman empires) centred on Tolosa (Toulouse) and that he had no quarrel with the Western emperor, Valentinian III. But in the spring of 450, Honoria, the Emperor’s sister, sent her ring to Attila, asking him to rescue her from a marriage that had been arranged for her. Attila thereupon claimed Honoria as his wife and demanded half the Western Empire as her dowry. When Attila had already entered Gaul, Aetius reached an agreement with the Visigothic king, Theodoric I, to combine their forces in resisting the Huns. Many legends surround the campaign that followed. It is certain, however, that Attila almost succeeded in occupying Aurelianum (Orléans) before the allies arrived. Indeed, the Huns had already gained a footing inside the city when Aetius and Theodoric forced them to withdraw. The decisive engagement was the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, or, according to some authorities, of Maurica (both places are unidentified). After fierce fighting, in which the Visigothic king was killed, Attila withdrew and shortly afterward retired from Gaul. This was his first and only defeat.

In 452 the Huns invaded Italy and sacked several cities, including Aquileia, Patavium (Padua), Verona, Brixia (Brescia), Bergomum (Bergamo), and Mediolanum (Milan); Aetius could do nothing to halt them. But the famine and pestilence raging in Italy in that year compelled the Huns to leave without crossing the Apennines.

In 453 Attila was intending to attack the Eastern Empire, where the new emperor Marcian had refused to pay the subsidies agreed upon by his predecessor, Theodosius II. But during the night following his marriage, Attila died in his sleep. Those who buried him and his treasures were subsequently put to death by the Huns so that his grave might never be discovered. He was succeeded by his sons, who divided his empire among them.

Priscus, who saw Attila when he visited his camp in 448, described him as a short, squat man with a large head, deep-set eyes, flat nose, and a thin beard. According to the historians, Attila was, though of an irritable, blustering, and truculent disposition, a very persistent negotiator and by no means pitiless. When Priscus attended a banquet given by him, he noticed that Attila was served off wooden plates and ate only meat, whereas his chief lieutenants dined off silver platters loaded with dainties. No description of his qualities as a general survives, but his successes before the invasion of Gaul show him to have been an outstanding commander.

E.A. Thompson

Encyclopaedia Britannica

4 The Huns under Attila invade Europe, wood engraving, 19th century

6 The Huns pour across the steppes north of the Caspian Sea,
Hunnic Cavalry, 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger

7 Looting of a Gallo-Roman villa by the Huns, wood engraving, 19th century

8 The Huns at the Battle of Chalons by Alphonse De Neuville

The Huns, led by Attila, invade Italy. From a painting by V. Checa.

However, Pope 9 Leo I managed to persuade the Huns, who were afflicted by starvation and epidemics, to turn back.

Attila 5 died suddenly in 453, just after his wedding celebrations.

5 Attila dies on his wedding night,
wood engraving, 19th century

The Huns split apart in the battles that followed, and were ultimately defeated and dispersed almost as quickly as they had conquered.

Following in the footsteps of the Huns, new equestrian nomads began to move into Europe from the east, among them the Avars and Magyars.

The Avars are credited with introducing the stirrup to Europe, which gave their mounted warriors a major advantage in battle. In Central Asia, the Turkic people took up the legacy of the Huns and from the sixth to seventh century established a great nomad empire that stretched all the way from China to the Caspian Sea.

9 Raphael The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila
Leo I, with Saint Peter and Saint Paul above him, going to meet Attila


Mor Than
The Feast of Attila

Fragment of Priscus (depicted at right, dressed in white and holding his history):
"When evening began to draw in, torches were lighted, and two barbarians came forward in front of Attila and sang songs which they had composed, hymning his victories and his great deeds in war. And the banqueters gazed at them, and some were rejoiced at the songs, others became excited at heart when they remembered the wars, but others broke into tears—those whose bodies were weakened by time and whose spirit was compelled to be at rest.



The Appearance of the Huns

"For by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom perhaps they did not really surpass in war....Their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had...pinholes rather than eyes. Their audacity is evident in their threatening appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds."

Jordanes, Getica (History of the Goths, ch.XXUI) 551 a.d.

Artificially deformed skull of a noblewoman, fifth century a.d.




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