“He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumors noised abroad concerning him.”
That is a contemporary description of Attila, the man who transformed the Huns from a gathering of nomadic tribes into an empire that dominated the world with an unsurpassed speed and fierceness.
They say that the flame which burns twice as bright burns half as long and this is an apt metaphor for the Hunnic Empire – they seemingly appeared out of nowhere and almost immediately became a force to be reckoned with, defeating all the nations that stood in their way. Even the Roman Empire learned to fear Attila, a man they called Flagellum dei, or “The Scourge of God.”
But then Attila died and the Hunnic Empire collapsed, just as fast as it sprang to life. Even so, their impact was still felt, as the Hunnic invasions caused a period of great migrations, where Germanic tribes headed out west to escape the wrath of the Huns. The Goths, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons; them and many more packed up and settled new lands where their descendants can still be found today. But, of course, most of these lands already belonged to the Romans who would not give them up without a fight. The wars between these two sides directly led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It becomes evident that the Hunnic invasions under Attila changed the landscape of the world forever.
Attila’s year of birth is one big question mark. Dates have been suggested that range from the late 4th century to the early 5th century AD. Based on the events in his life, some scholars believe that 395 AD is the most probable birth year, while others think that 406 AD is more likely. So it could have been one, the other, or anywhere in between.
That same uncertainty extends to Attila’s people, the Huns. They were a warrior, nomadic nation, so they didn’t really leave behind texts, or monuments, or cities which we could study to understand their culture. In the western historical record, they simply appeared toward the end of the 4th century when they decided to cross the Volga River and expand into Eastern and Central Europe. Historians have debated their origin and even the language that they spoke, but they don’t know anything with absolute certainty. One popular idea suggests some kind of link with an earlier nomadic people originating in Mongolia and attested in ancient Chinese sources as the Xiongnu. They had lived in the region as early as the 3rd century BC and had gone to war against the Chinese Han Dynasty for over 200 years before, eventually, suffering a decisive defeat. Some argue that the Xiongnu were, in fact, the Huns, while others believe there was, at least, some continuity between the tribes, but again we stress that this is mainly speculation.
When it comes to Attila himself, we find a scarcity of reliable sources. One major contributor was Priscus of Panium, a Roman diplomat and historian who was not only alive during the Hun’s reign, but actually met Attila as part of a diplomatic mission to his court. Priscus’s work did not survive in its entirety, but it was quoted by later historians such as Jordanes and Cassiodorus, so we have fragments of it included in other texts that did survive. One juicy bit provided by Priscus is a description of Attila:
“He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to supplicants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection. He was short of stature with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with gray; and he had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion, showing the evidences of his origin. And though his temper was such that he always had great self-confidence, yet his assurance was increased by finding the sword of Mars, always esteemed sacred among the kings of the Scythians.”
Rise to Power
When the Huns first came to Europe, they were not unified yet as a single force. They were still made up of loosely-affiliated clans that each had their own king. Their first major conquest were the Alans, who were followed by plenty of other small and obscure tribes that had the misfortune of being in the way. As the Huns made advances into Europe, they began encountering Gothic nations like the Thervingi and Greuthungi. These, too, proved no match for the invading hordes and were forced to retreat further to the west. It was only a matter of time before they ran into Roman territory.
Speaking of the Romans, we should make a quick mention of their situation. By this point, the power of the Roman Empire was fading. It was no longer the juggernaut it used to be that held dominion over most of Europe, plus parts of Asia and Africa. It had unofficially been divided into the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, meaning that it had two political administrations, two emperors, and two capitals – the Eastern Roman, also known as the Byzantine Empire, was headquartered at Constantinople, while the Western Roman Empire no longer used Rome as its seat of power, but rather Mediolanum aka Milan.
It should be pointed out that this division between east and west was done retroactively by modern scholars to create a more evident distinction between the two political entities. Romans from that time would have still considered themselves simply citizens of a single empire. The division was also done with the benefit of hindsight, since historians knew that the Western Roman Empire would collapse completely in the late 5th century, while the Byzantine Empire (which is another term applied retroactively, by the way) would last for another thousand years.
Anyway, the Goths sought refuge in Roman lands. At first, the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens gave them permission to settle, probably looking at them as a cheap army. However, the land they were given was not sufficient to hold all the people fleeing the Huns. Food shortages led to riots and revolts which, in 376, blossomed into a fully-fledged war, one of the many such conflicts between the Goths and the Romans.
Of course, while all of this was going on, the Huns made their own incursions. They attacked the parts of the Eastern Roman Empire that corresponded to Western Asia such as Cappadocia and Syria. They probably also tried their luck against the Sasanian or Neo-Persian Empire, but encountered a rare defeat and were driven back into Europe.
At times, the Huns were employed as mercenaries by the Romans to fight the Goths. One notable example was in 406 AD, when King Radagaisus led an army of Ostrogoths to invade Italy. The Romans used Huns, Alans, and other Goths as mercenaries to help them win the war.
Over the following decades, the Romans and the Huns had an uneasy alliance, although both sides occasionally broke it and attacked one another. Something more important happened, though. The Huns became a united force under a man named Ruga or sometimes Rugila. He either ruled alone as supreme king, aided by his brother Octar, or they were co-rulers and each brother held dominion over half of their territory. Either way, Octar was the first to die around 430 AD so, at least for a while, Ruga was the sole ruler of the Huns.
Ruga had another brother and his name was Mundzuk and he had two sons: Bleda and Attila. We’re not sure if Ruga lacked any sons of his own or how the ascension process worked, but when Ruga died in 434 AD, his two nephews became the new rulers of the Huns.
Attila VS the Eastern Roman Empire
Bleda and Attila were now in charge of the lands of the Huns which were steadily growing to become quite the empire. In fact, by the time Attila died, his Hunnic Empire rivaled the Roman one in size. As far as the power dynamics between him and his brother, we’re not entirely sure. It is possible that they had an arrangement similar to Ruga and Octar, where each sibling held dominion over half the empire. But it is also possible that the Huns regarded only one of them as their supreme chieftain. Whatever the relationship was, it continued for 11 years until Bleda’s death around 445 AD. Those circumstances, it won’t surprise you to discover, are also somewhat uncertain, although the classic sources claim that Attila killed his brother to assume sole control of the Huns. We turn to Priscus again who wrote that “Bleda, king of the Huns, was assassinated as a result of the plots of his brother Attila.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Let’s start with the beginning of Attila’s reign. The first issue that needed to be dealt with were the Romans. At that time, Rome was relatively neutral with the Huns under Ruga, but they had to consider that his nephews might have other ideas. The Romans were already paying the Huns tribute and, as it turned out, they were willing to pay quite a bit more in exchange for peace. In 435, the two sides signed the Treaty of Margus which was quite favorable to the Huns. The Roman Empire would pay them a fixed annual tribute of 700 pounds of gold, which was double what they were paying before. They also vowed to return Hunnic refugees and to avoid entering alliances with enemies of the Huns.
This was a pretty sweet deal for Attilla so, for the moment, he sought no conflict with the Romans. Instead, he thought he would invade Persia again and try to take down the Sasanian Empire, hoping to succeed where his predecessors failed. We don’t have solid sources on this part of his reign since the Romans weren’t involved, but suffice to say that Attila was defeated and was forced to retreat back to Europe.
There, his first target was Gundahar, King of Burgundy. Also known as Gunther or Gunnar, the king became a character in popular legends and appears both in the Nordic collection of poems called the Poetic Edda and the Germanic Song of the Nibelungs. The legendary version of King Gundahar was slain in battle in 437 by Attila himself. The historical one – it’s far less likely. The Romans were the primary enemies of the Burgundians, while the Huns served as auxiliary mercenaries per their treaty.
The Burgundians had crossed into Roman Gaul and invaded the province of Belgica Prima. Naturally, the Romans fought back and, with the help of the Huns, defeated their foe in battle. Afterwards, they continued their push and destroyed the Kingdom of Burgundy. The man in charge of the army was Flavius Aetius, a powerful and influential general during the last days of the Western Roman Empire. Because of this, he was nicknamed the “Last of the Romans” and historian Edward Gibbon described him as being “universally celebrated as the terror of the Barbarians and the support of the republic.” We highlight him now because he will play a more important role later on.
Of course, everyone knew that the peace treaty between the two powers would not last long. In 441, the Huns crossed the Danube and attacked the Eastern Roman Empire, plundering the provinces of Moesia and Illyricum. Obviously, this meant an end to the Treaty of Margus, but the Huns claimed that the Romans actually broke it first. Whether or not this was true or merely an excuse to loot & pillage, we cannot say. The timing was somewhat suspicious as the Huns decided to attack right after Roman Emperor Theodosius II relocated the garrisons defending that border to send them to fight the Vandals in Africa. The most likely explanation was simply that Attila saw a weakness and decided to exploit it.
He was quite successful in that regard. The Huns pillaged several Roman cities and even razed a few to the ground. By 443, Theodosius was ready to sign a new treaty, even more beneficial to the Huns. This satisfied Attila who, once again, retreated into the heart of his empire. Certain historians argue that some undocumented emergency might have appeared which required Attila’s attention; otherwise he would have had no reason to stop the invasion since his army had the clear advantage. This is also the point where Bleda died and Attila became sole chieftain of the Huns. We can only speculate over a possible connection between the two.
Whether or not the Romans actually paid their tribute is uncertain. It is probable that they simply stalled for a few years, trying to strengthen their defences for the inevitable time when the Huns invaded again. This happened in 447, when Attila led his army into the Eastern Roman Empire again and ravaged all of the provinces located in the Balkans. One contemporary source claimed that the Huns captured over a hundred cities, going all the way to Thermopylae in Greece before turning back. These might have been necessary sacrifices, as the Romans concluded that they needed to gather all their forces into one powerful army, instead of letting them die bit by bit trying to defend each city.
The invasion culminated in the Battle of the Utus in Dacia Ripensis, near the modern day river Vit in Bulgaria. The Romans were led by Arnegisclus, who held the position of magister militum, the highest military rank in the empire at the time. Arnegisclus died in battle and the Romans were defeated by the Huns, but not without causing some serious casualties.
Afterwards, Attila had his eyes set on the grandest prize possible – Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, the famed Walls of Constantinople, plus Roman reinforcements arriving from Asia Minor, plus all the losses the Huns sustained in the Battle of the Utus meant that Attila was not strong enough to take the city. He realized this so he didn’t even try. Instead, he signed a new peace treaty. This time, the tribute paid to Attila was triple what it was at first – 2,100 pounds of gold each year, plus a number of other concessions.
Attila VS the Western Roman Empire
With another conflict ended, the Huns retired to the Great Hungarian Plains, but only long enough to regain their strength and numbers before marching out for war once more. They set out again in 450, but this time they did not attack the Eastern Roman Empire. Instead, Attila focused his attention on its western counterpart.
This was a somewhat surprising decision. Did Attila not want to conquer Constantinople anymore? Emperor Theodosius died that same year and he was followed on the throne by Marcian. The latter used to be a general and took a markedly different approach to dealing with the Huns as he immediately ended the treaty between them and stopped all payments. Not that he needed one, but this would have been the perfect justification for Attila to attack the Eastern Roman Empire once more, but he did not deviate from his invasion plans of the west. According to historian Jordanes, Attila wanted to go that way because he also intended to attack the Visigoths, not just the Romans. He may or may not have been doing this at the request of Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, who showered the leader of the Huns with gifts and incited him against Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, for his own personal revenge.
Attila’s expressed reason for invading the Western Roman Empire was a strange and unique one. Emperor in the west was Valentinian III. He had a sister named Honoria who was engaged to marry a senator named Bassus Herculanus. This marriage had been arranged by her brother, but Honoria had no desire to go through with it, so, of all the people in the world, she sought out help from Attila the Hun, sending him a note and a ring.
Now, we don’t know what was written in the note and what kind of help Honoria was expecting, but Attila chose to interpret her proposal as an offer of marriage. Not only that, but he felt he was due half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. He even sent a messenger to Valentinian to confirm that the proposal had been legitimate and that Attila would come to claim what was his. It’s doubtful that the Hun actually cared about the marriage or that he actually expected the Roman emperor to just hand over half his empire. This was most likely just another convenient excuse for him to wage war.
In 451, Attila invaded Roman Gaul. Jordanes claimed his army numbered half a million men, but modern historians place it lower at around 200,000. Either way, it was a formidable force that quickly slaughtered all those who stood in its way. Cities like Trier and Metz were captured and plundered almost with no opposition.
You know that old saying – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?” That is how the Romans felt, as well, because Valentinian requested the help of the nearby Gothic factions who would have almost certainly been fighting the Roman Empire were it not for the Huns. He sent an embassy with this message:
“Bravest of nations, it is the part of prudence for us to unite against the lord of the earth who wishes to enslave the whole world; who requires no just cause for battle, but supposes whatever he does is right. He measures his ambition by his might. License satisfies his pride. Despising law and right, he shows himself an enemy to Nature herself. And thus he, who clearly is the common foe of each, deserves the hatred of all.”
The Franks, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Alans, and especially the Visigoths led by King Theodoric all realized that they were just as much in danger from the Huns as the Romans were so they agreed to form an alliance to fight Attila and his army.
Defeat & Death
The Roman who led the charge against the Huns was Flavius Aetius, the same commander who once fought alongside them against the Burgundians. He led a coalition of nations and met the Huns at the Battle of Châlons, also known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, on June 20, 451 AD.
Up until that point, this had been one of the bloodiest military conflicts in history, as eyewitnesses reported the plains filling up with thousands of bodies piled one on top of another. They also said that, within the Hunnic camp, Attila had made a massive funeral pyre for himself and was prepared to throw himself on it to burn alive rather than be captured.
Historians have varied opinions on the outcome of this conflict and its historical impact, but most would agree that the Romans and the Visigoths won the battle, although with heavy casualties. King Theodoric fell in battle and his son, Thorismund, wanted to invade the camp and wipe out the Huns once and for all. They probably could have done it, too, were it not for Aetius actually intervening on behalf of Attila and convincing the young Thorismund that, as the new King of the Visigoths, he needed to return to their capital of Toulouse and consolidate his power against his plotting brothers.
Why would Aetius do such a thing when he had the opportunity to rid himself of the Huns? It’s because he feared that the Visigoths had the potential to turn into an even more dangerous foe, one who was a lot closer to his borders. As long as Attila was around, he served as a useful common enemy who united the Romans and the Goths.
So Attila was able to retreat, living to fight another day. And fight he did, as less than a year had passed before the Huns returned to attack the Western Roman Empire again. This time, they went straight into Italy, clearly intent on pillaging the most significant Roman settlements. The city of Aquileia endured the worst of it, being almost completely razed to the ground. Afterwards, the Huns continued into the province of Venetia where they plundered more settlements. According to tradition, this led to the founding of the city of Venice. It was settled by refugees who left other cities to escape the Huns, and they correctly surmised that Attila’s cavalries would not follow them into the lagoon that encloses Venice.
Without Gothic muscle, the Romans were not capable of stopping Attila. Eventually, the emperor sent multiple envoys to try and secure peace with the Huns and one of them was Pope Leo I. Contemporary sources gave Leo the credit for convincing Attila to turn back, after having been impressed with Leo’s words and his piety. The exact details of their meeting are unknown, but modern historians give more practical reasons for Attila’s withdrawal, such as a lack of resources due to a famine, a disease which spread among his soldiers, and the fact that an army from the Eastern Roman Empire crossed the Danube and launched a counterattack on Hunnic settlements.
Whatever the reason, Attila would have assuredly invaded once more given the opportunity. However, his life came to a sudden end in 453 AD, while celebrating his marriage to a new wife named Ildico. According to ancient historian Priscus, the leader of the Huns fell on his bed in a drunken stupor with his head tilted back and choked on his own blood, either from a burst blood vessel or from a very powerful nosebleed. Alternative hypotheses have been put forward, such as Ildico assassinating him or Attila dying of internal bleeding caused by excessive drinking.
In mourning, all the Hun soldiers cut their long hair and slashed their cheeks “so that the greatest of all warriors should be mourned not with tears or the wailing of women but with the blood of men.” According to their traditions, it was really important for their chieftain’s burial place to be anonymous. Of course, they never had a chieftain greater than Attila so he was placed inside three coffins – a gold one, inside a silver one, inside an iron one. The coffin was then buried in a river bed and the people who did it were then killed so that there would be nobody left alive who knew the final resting place of Attila the Hun.