Born: c. 406
Died: c. March 453 (aged 46-47)
Title: King and Chieftain of the Hunnic Empire
Marriages: Kreka and Ildico (amongst others)
Children: Ellac, Dengizich, Ernak (amongst others)
Early Life and Background Context on the Huns (c. 406 – c. 440)
As is often the case with historical characters who are not viewed as European or Eurocentric in the context of their lifetimes, we often know very little about their early childhood. I say this about Attila the Hun because simply his name denotes that: ‘the Hun’ – a foreigner, a barbarian, someone who was deemed as an outsider in contemporary Roman society. For many Romans, the ideology was very much ‘us vs them’.
What we do know is that Attila was born roughly around the year 406. The fifth century was a tumultuous period for the Western Roman Empire – only four years after Attila’s birth, Rome would be sacked by the Goths. Yet Attila was not the first of his name, like Genghis Khan was almost a thousand years later. The Huns had emerged as a major force in the 370s, but surprisingly, they had more often assisted the Roman Empire than assailed it – they were typically seen as the defenders of the borders (the Huns lived in the Balkans, almost half way between the Western and Eastern Empires’ borders).
Born into the world to shake nations, the scourge of all lands.A contemporary referring to Attila
Both Attila and his brother Bleda became joint rulers of the Huns in 434. Attila was described by contemporaries as ‘born into the world to shake nations, the scourge of all lands.’ Attila was the more powerful of the two brothers, and his appearance has been described as ‘short, swarthy, and snub-nosed, with a thin straggling beard, and beady little eyes’ as well as the fact that ‘his rolling eyes and alarming appearance terrified all who crossed his path.’ However, despite this, as a leader, a Hun contemporary denoted that Attila was also said to be ‘restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants, and lenient to those who were received into his protection.’ Yet one Roman writer referred to the Huns as the ‘seedbed of evil, and exceedingly savage.’
A pretty interesting guy to say the least!
Leadership and Early Conflicts, c. 440 – c. 451
In 440, with their leadership united under Attila and Bleda, the Hunnic Empire stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and from Germany to the Central Asian steppes – and the Huns were only just getting started on moving west. The following year, in 441, Attila invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and made a mockery of their resistance. An interesting fact to look at is that the Huns were actually the first ‘barbarian’ force to work out how to storm well-defended fortress towns, like those of the Eastern Roman Empire. The secret behind it was by using siege engines, battering rams and scaling ladders – techniques which they had directly copied from the Romans. Regardless, it worked, and the Huns succeeded. The effects of these attacks can still be seen in the massive destruction layers evident at various archaeological sites in Central Europe to this day.
Two years later, in 443, Attila brought his forces to the walls of Constantinople, but the Emperor Theodosius behind the walls of Constantinople managed to bribe the Huns (a tactic which was used throughout the Hunnic invasions) to withdraw from the walls with huge sums of cash. By either 444 or 445, Attila had his brother and co-ruler Bleda murdered. Very few sources exist regarding this, and it is not surprising – who would dare to enrage Attila by writing about him murdering his brother, and who would want to get on the wrong side of this fearsome leader?
Following the death of his brother, Attila took the leadership into his reins: he expanded his territory further east, starting with a second sweep through the Balkans and onto Constantinople. Again, he tried to conquer Constantinople, but was bribed to withdraw once more. This bribery from Theodosius soon came to an end with his militaristic successor, Marcian (r. 450-57), who refused to pay further bribes and drove the Huns from his territory altogether.
Upon his banishment from the walls of Constantinople in winter 450/51 – the one that got away in Attila’s case – he made his way west across Europe to Gaul (modern day France), and this is where the fun really begins.
Final Battles and Death, c. 451-53
The major events in Attila’s life came in the years immediately preceding his death. As I mentioned earlier, he crossed Europe into Gaul. It was here that he met the largest European force amounted up to that date. Working together, the Western Roman Emperor, Aetius, a Roman general, Flavius, and a Visigoth King, Theodoric I, amassed an army of Romans, Franks, Goths, Burgundians and Celts to confront the Huns – what they all saw as a collective threat to the Roman Empire. Historian Simon Jenkins states that “It was the first time a coalition of Roman and Barbarian armies had combined to take the field against an external foe, a first ‘European army’.”
The ensuing battle on 20June 451 took place on the Catalaunian Plains (hence the name of the battle: The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains), near modern-day Châlons and Orleans. At the battlefield, the coalition of forces was decisively victorious against Attila’s forces. Interestingly, this was also the last great set-piece battle which the Western Roman army would fight, and it was the Visigoths who played the decisive role in the fighting (although this was according to an admittedly pro-Gothic contemporary), and ultimately secured a Roman victory. However, it was not all good news. The Visigoth king, Theodoric I, was killed in the battle – either by a spear or by being trampled to death.
Attila had never before suffered such serious defeat in his lifetime up until this point. He realised that if he was to maintain control of his empire, staying put at home and licking his wounds was not an option. So, in 452, he began his next campaign. Aetius was still in Gaul, so Atilla returned from his base in the Balkans and made his way straight for Italy: he wanted Rome.
The city of Aquileia was destroyed after a terrible siege, and then Milan was taken. The inhabitants of the north-eastern Veneto region of Italy feared what Atilla’s army would do to them, so they sought refuge from the Huns in the sporadically occupied islands of the coastal lagoon, and as a result, Venice was born. “Europe has Atilla to thank for its most glorious possession.”, in Jenkins’ words.
The reason why Attila never managed to take Rome is often credited to Pope Leo I, also known as Leo the Great (r. 440-61). The most popular version of the story states that Leo joined a deputation and met Attila on the banks of the Mincio River near Lake Garda, to persuade him to retreat to the Danube River, and the Huns consolidated their settlement in what is now Hungary. This version is likely to be true, but I personally prefer another version – which actually questions why this fearsome and determined pagan leader like Attila would simply obey the Pope – a man who had no meaning to him.
There are various theories surrounding this when we pose the question of why Attila would obey the Pope. A substantial amount of money (like Theodosius offered him in the 440s in Constantinople) is a likely theory, but also Attila (like the majority of the Huns) was incredibly superstitious, and Leo may well have reminded him of how the Gothic leader Alaric died almost immediately after his sack of Rome in 410, and how a similar fate was known to occur to every invader who dared raise their hand against the city of Rome. Another – and probably the likeliest theory – is that his subjects themselves persuaded him to retire: for instance, after all the devastation they caused to the countryside in their campaigns, they were beginning to suffer from a serious shortage of food, and that disease had broken out in the ranks, too. By the time this was all deliberated, news arrived to Attila that troops from the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople were beginning to arrive to supplement the imperial forces in the West: a march on Rome, it soon appeared, might not have been quite as straightforward as Attila initially thought.
Either way, Attila’s forces retreated. The following year, in 453, Attila was celebrating his marriage to a Gothic princess named Ildico. The Roman contemporary Priscus described the events of Attila’s wedding feast: “Celebrating excessively, [Attila] lay down on his back sodden with wine and sleep,” and in the process, is believed to have suffered a brain haemorrhage, and died in his sleep. “Thus,” continues Priscus, “drunkenness brought a shameful end to a king who had won glory in war.”
Attila’s Legacy and the Future of the Huns, c. 453 – c. 475
As Attila’s lifeblood flowed away, Europe breathed a sigh of relief. For his funeral, a specially selected group of captives placed his body in three coffins: one made of gold, one of silver and one of iron. The Roman historian Jordanes states why: “Gold and silver because he received the honours of both [the Eastern and Western Roman] empires…iron because he subdued the nations.”. Once Attila’s body had been lowered into the ground and covered over – first with the rich spoils of war and then with earth until the ground above the grave was level – all of those involved in the burial ceremonies were put to death. This was so that Attila’s last resting place would remain secret and inviolate forever.
The Hunnic Empire, almost as quickly as it sprung up, disintegrated in the aftermath of Attila’s death. The Huns were dependent upon Attila’s authority, according to historian David Potter, and upon his death, the Hunnic Empire collapsed in civil war in 454. This was because the many Germanic peoples who Attila had once held in thrall rose up against their masters and defeated them in another huge battle in the central Balkans (the site of which is now unfortunately lost). The Huns withdrew to the north and then resumed their role as occasional mercenaries in Roman service.
Yet despite Attila’s defeat, the Hun invasion reinforced what Alaric’s invasion forty years prior to Attila’s had shown: that the new Europe was vulnerable to forces sweeping west across its central plains. Another legacy of this ideology is that many Roman citizens instead sought refuge in fortified towns (rather than the distant hope of imperial armies), where they gave allegiance to any leader who would offer them security. As a result, Empire gave way to Kingdoms.
Still, nothing could bring peace to battered Italy. In 475, a Roman official named Orestes – who had served in Atilla’s retinue – seized power in Ravenna and appointed his fifteen-year-old son Romulus as Emperor. The following year, in 476, Romulus was ousted by a Roman soldier of Germanic origin, called Flavius Odoacer, who did not bother with emperorship, but instead took the title of King of Italy, with his capital situated in Ravenna. Accordingly, the year 476 is generally seen as the date of the formal demise of the “Roman Empire”, although the Eastern Roman Empire survived for almost another millennium in the form of Byzantium.
To sum up Attila the Hun, I will turn to the words of the late, great historian John Julius Norwich: “He was not a great ruler, or even a particularly able general; but so overmastering were his ambition, his pride and his lust for power that within the space of a few years he had made himself feared throughout the length and breadth of Europe: more feared, perhaps, than any other single man – with the possible exception of Napoleon – before or since.”
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Simon Baker, Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (2006)
Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015)
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (2005)
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (2018)
John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History (2011)
David Potter, The Emperors of Rome: The Story of Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar to the Last Emperor (2007)