Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun
(d. 453)
   The fifth century king of the Huns, called the scourge of God. Attila was a mighty warrior who extracted great wealth from the Roman Empire and posed a threat to the peace of the late ancient world during his reign from 435 to 453. Although he did not pose a direct challenge to the existence of the Roman Empire, Attila invaded the empire on several occasions and inflicted serious damage on the empire and its armies. His armies threatened both the new Rome, Constantinople, and the original city of Rome. His empire was a rival to the Roman Empire, but despite its size and military power, the empire of the Huns did not long survive Attila, its greatest king.
   Several late ancient writers have left descriptions of Attila's physical appearance and personality. The sixth-century historian of the Goths, Jordanes, describes Attila as short of stature but of mighty bearing. Attila had a swarthy complexion, a broad chest, a large head with small eyes, a thin beard, and a flat nose. In his history, Jordanes observes that Attila had a haughty walk, which revealed his proud spirit and abundant self-confidence. A lover of war, he terrified all the world but was gracious to suppliants. The Roman ambassador to Attila's court, Priscus, left an account of diplomacy at the court that complements the account of Jordanes. Priscus describes the favorable treatment he received from the king, who spoke "friendly words" to him and sent warm greetings to the emperor. He also describes a banquet he was invited to by Attila. The king sat on a couch in the middle of the room, surrounded by couches for his guests. The guests were served lavish dishes on silver platters and wine in goblets of silver and gold, but Attila ate meat on a wooden plate and wine from a wooden goblet.
   His clothing, Priscus notes, was plain but clean. His sword, boots, and bridle were without elaborate ornamentation. Attila had numerous wives and an even larger number of children.
   In the year 435, Attila and his brother Bleda ascended to the throne of the Huns, succeeding their uncle Ruga. It was Ruga who enjoyed the first successes against the Roman Empire, invading the empire, threatening the capital, and extracting tribute from the emperor. Ruga, in the 420s, brought cohesion to the disparate bands that made up the Hunnish confederation and imposed unity of purpose on these tribes. Ruga also imposed a treaty on the empire, demanding not only tribute but also the return of Huns who had deserted and joined the imperial army. This was a most serious demand for the empire, which had come to rely on the service of Hunnish soldiers. It also proved critical to Attila, who exploited the terms to his advantage.
   As king, Attila immediately took the offensive and negotiated a new treaty - the Treaty of Margus - with the empire, which became the cornerstone for relations with the empire for the rest of his reign. According to the new treaty, the amount of tribute paid to the Huns was doubled from 350 pounds of gold a year to 700 pounds. Huns who had deserted were to be returned to Attila or ransomed at the value of a Roman solider. (The fate of returned deserters was not pleasant, as the example of two royal deserters who were sent back by the Romans and crucified by Attila suggests.) Constantinople was not to make treaties with the enemies of the Huns and had to guarantee that fairs be held along the frontier between the two powers. Attila also extended the size of the empire he inherited by waging war on the barbarian tribes on his northern and eastern frontier during the later 430s.
   In response to the refusal of the emperor, Theodosius II, to honor the terms of the Treaty of Margus - he suddenly ceased the payment of tribute - Attila invaded the empire. Seizing the opportunity to harass the empire while Theodosius II was engaged with the Persians, Attila inflicted great damage on imperial territory. He razed a number of important cities, including Singidunum (Belgrade) and Serdica (Sofia). Another city, Naissus (Nis), was badly devastated; the stench of death was so great that no one could enter the city, and human bones filled the Danube River. He won a series of battles in 443 and threatened the city of Constantinople itself. His numerous victories forced the empire to renegotiate its treaty with the Huns. The annual subsidy was raised to 2,100 pounds of gold, with a one-time payment of 6,000 pounds of gold to cover the missed payments.
   The early successes of Attila, however, were suddenly interrupted. The terror inspired by the great Hunnish horsemen no longer seemed so great, and they no longer acquired the spoils of war they once did. Epidemic or rebellion may have struck the empire of the Huns. The armies were no longer successful in battle. And the emperor once again refused to make the tribute payments to the Huns. Following these setbacks, Attila murdered his brother Bleda in 444. It may have been an assassination motivated solely by the lust for power, but it is also possible that Bleda was blamed for the misfortunes that had struck the Huns. Bleda's incompetence may have caused the military setbacks. He was clearly a rex inutilis, a "useless king," or even worse, a king who had lost the favor of the gods. Whatever the reason for the assassination, Bleda's murder left Attila in sole control of the empire.
   Shortly after the murder of his brother, Attila once again took the offensive and invaded the Eastern Empire a second time. This invasion was even greater than the previous campaign and led to even greater devastation. Although suffering heavy losses himself, Attila inflicted severe defeats on imperial armies. He laid waste to large sections of the Balkans and had led his armies to Thermopylae by 447 when the emperor pleaded for peace. The treaty renewed the terms of the earlier treaties. The Empire was to renew annual payments of 2,100 pounds of gold. It was forced to ransom Roman captives and to promise to return Huns who had deserted and to stop accepting them into the empire and its army. The empire also ceded a significant portion of its Danubian province to Attila.
   In 450 Attila was once again on the warpath, but this time it was the Western Empire that felt the wrath of God's scourge. There are several factors that inspired Attila to attack the imperial West, not the least of which was its military weakness. The Vandal king, Gaiseric, fearful of the power of the Visigoths, encouraged Attila's western focus. The death of Theodosius II in 450 also contributed to Attila's decision to attack the empire again, because the new emperor, Marcian, refused to pay the tribute or make any other concessions to the Huns. Finally, there is the interesting case of Honoria, daughter of Galla Placidia and sister of the emperor Valentinian. She had led a dissolute life and was caught with a servant. He was executed, and she was betrothed to a trustworthy senator - that is, one who posed no threat to the emperor. To avoid marrying a senator she detested and to acquire a protector, Honoria sent a ring to Attila. The great king interpreted this as a proposal of marriage and demanded that Honoria be turned over and that she be given half of the territory of the Western Empire. Although there was some interest in turning Honoria over to the king of the Huns, Marcian's refusal to pay the tribute pushed Attila to take his bride by force.
   The preparations for the invasion were extensive, and Attila entered Gaul in the Western Empire with a massive army, counted at between 300,000 and 700,000 men by contemporary sources. Although these numbers are probably exaggerated, it is certain that Attila led an army of great size into the Western Empire. His army contained a large number of allied and subject peoples, including Alans, Burgundians, Heruls, Ostrogoths, Ripuarian Franks, Sarmatians, Suevi, and Vandals led by Gaiseric, as well as his own Huns. He faced a great alliance of Romans and Burgundians, Celts, Salian Franks, and Visigoths, all led by the Roman military commander, Aëtius, who had long relied on the Huns for the imperial army. Despite the great alliance against him, Attila enjoyed success early in the campaign and sacked the important cities of Rheims, Metz, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Trier. His efforts to seize Orléans in the summer of 451, however, failed. Aëtius managed to secure the city before Attila's arrival, and rather than waste time and men on a prolonged siege, Attila withdrew. Although a wise tactical move, Attila's withdrawal provided the Romans with a victory and raised their morale.
   Attila's own morale was undermined by the loss at Orléans, as well as by a soothsayer who predicted that the impending battle would prove disastrous for the Huns, even though a great rival would die. Nonetheless, Attila prepared for a showdown with his enemy, and on June 20 on the plains between Troyes and Châlons, the two armies fought a great battle that some have seen as one of the decisive battles of world history. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (also known as the Battle of Maurica, or of Châlons) was a terrible, bloody battle in which, according to Jordanes, 165,000 men died. The fighting was so ferocious in this battle of nations that the ancients report that a small stream near the field grew to a raging torrent from the blood of the combatants.
   The battle for a time went so poorly for the Huns that Attila prepared a funeral pyre for himself should it come to that. But the death of the Visigoth Theodoric staved off the destruction of the Huns, and Attila was able to withdraw from the field of battle and leave Gaul. Aëtius, victorious, decided not to pursue his foe, perhaps because he did not wish to destroy the Huns, who were an important counterbalance to Rome's other barbarian rivals. Aëtius's use of the Huns in his army no doubt also kept him from destroying his rival's army. Attila was like a wounded animal at this point, more ferocious because of his own injury, and any pursuit could have led to a devastating counterattack that would have destroyed the army of Aëtius and opened the Western Empire to Attila.
   Attila may have been beaten near Châlons, but he was a determined enemy and planned an even greater invasion in 452. Attila crossed the Alps and led his armies on a grand invasion of Italy that brought devastation to the north of the peninsula and threatened the ancient capital, Rome. Aëtius was unable to rally his allies among the Alans and Visigoths and thus had insufficient forces to challenge the great army of the Huns. As a result much of northern Italy suffered heavy damage from the Huns. Many cities were pillaged and destroyed. The city of Aquileia was razed to the ground, and its inhabitants, according to tradition, fled into the lagoons of the Adriatic and founded Venice. According to one early account, the cities of Milan and Pavia were completely destroyed and left depopulated. Attila's armies sacked Verona and Vicentia as well and extorted a ransom from the people of Ticinum to spare that city. Unchecked by imperial armies, Attila set up court in northern Italy, probably at Milan. He was met there by two Roman senators and Pope Leo I, known as the Great; the eloquence and prestige of the elderly pontiff is alleged to have convinced Attila to withdraw from Italy. According to papal tradition, it was not Leo alone who persuaded the king to leave the peninsula; the heavenly hosts, led by the apostles Peter and Paul, threatened Attila with death if he disobeyed the papal commands. The plague afflicting the army of the Huns and the threat of an imperial army from the east no doubt also influenced Attila's decision to withdraw.
   Once again, despite military setbacks, Attila planned further campaigns against the empire, including a massive invasion of the Eastern Empire in 453. His plans, however, were cut short by his own death. He was found dead with his new wife the morning after his wedding. There were rumors that his wife had poisoned him. He may have celebrated his marriage too enthusiastically and, in a drunken stupor, drowned in his own nosebleed. Or he may have suffered a fatal stroke. Whatever the cause, the mighty king was dead, and he was buried in great state. His body was borne by the best horsemen of the Huns into an open field, where it was laid to rest. The body was placed in a tent of the finest Chinese silk, and a great revel, the strava, took place around it. The Huns rode around the tent, chanting a dirge, tearing out their hair, and gashing their faces. The body was then placed in three nested coffins bound with gold, silver, and iron. It was buried with great wealth, including gem-encrusted weapons, and the slaves who prepared Attila's tomb were killed so that its whereabouts would remain unknown.
   The empire of the Huns did not long survive its greatest king. None of Attila's many sons had the abilities of their father, and fraternal squabbling worsened a bad situation. The many subject peoples revolted and brought down the empire. Rome surely rejoiced. Despite its rapid demise, the empire of Attila had posed a grave threat to the empire of Rome. His ambition and military prowess challenged Rome, and he nearly succeeded in taking control of the Western Empire. His untimely death cut short even greater plans of conquest that could have proved devastating to the Roman Empire, and despite his ultimate failure Attila remains one of the best known and greatest of Rome's foes.
   See also
 ♦ Baüml, FranzH., and Marianna Birnbaum. Attila: The Man and His Image. Budapest: Corvina, 1993.
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. Vol. 1. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ Thompson, Edward A. A History of Attila and the Huns. Oxford: Clarendon, 1948.
 ♦ --- . The Huns. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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