Who was Attila the Hun, the barbarian ruler who terrorised the Romans?

Attila the Hun, later branded as “the scourge of God”, is one of history’s most infamous characters, standing as the ultimate barbarian. In the fifth century he controlled a huge territory and menaced the Roman Empire. Yet the leader who wanted to rule the world failed to translate his military achievements into a successful and long-lasting empire, and although described as being “born into the world to shake nations”, Attila would eventually bow to diplomacy. So why his fearsome reputation? Here, historians Miles Russell and John Man explore the life and legacy of Attila the Hun…

Attila the Hun

Who was Attila the Hun?

Attila the Hun (c406–453) was the leader of the ancient nomadic people known as the Huns from 434 to 453 AD and ruler of the Hunnic Empire. He was a powerful warlord and an astute politician, keeping a diverse confederation of tribes together for decades. He was also a successful crime lord, extorting money from his enemies with a ruthlessness that exceeded any later mafia don, says Miles Russell.

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Unfortunately we know very little of the man himself, for the Huns failed to write their own version of history. In fact, ‘Attila’ may not have been his real name, for ‘Ata-ila’ may be translated as ‘Little-Father’, akin perhaps to the title ‘Atatürk’ (the ‘Father of the Turks’) later given to Mustafa Kemal, first president of Turkey. For information surrounding Attila’s life and world-view, we have to rely on the writing of his bitterest enemies, the Romans.

Born into Hunnic aristocracy early in the fifth century, Attila and his elder brother Bleda were nephews of King Rugila. The Huns were a nomadic, pastoralist society who, from the fourth century AD, had been migrating west towards the Roman Empire. Growing up, Bleda and Attila would have learnt to ride almost as soon as they could walk. They would also have been trained as archers, for the Huns were renowned for being able to dispatch arrows with great accuracy from horseback in battle. He was certainly known to have had many wives, polygamy helping to bind the Hunnic clans together.

When King Rugila died in 434, he was succeeded by his nephews. We don’t know how Bleda and Attila got on, but they seem to have at least tolerated each other, successfully co-ruling for over a decade. In 445, however, Bleda was dead. Some hinted at Attila’s involvement and, whilst there is no direct evidence, dispatching his brother in a bid for power would certainly fit what we later know of his character.

How did get his fearsome reputation?

Attila is one of history’s most notorious personalities: bogey-man, “God’s Scourge”, brutishness personified, the vilest of the barbarians who tore at the flesh of the decaying Roman Empire in the mid-fifth century AD. Yet given what he achieved, it is hard to understand why, says John Man. His empire was at its height for a mere eight years, never included more than a few acres of Roman soil, and vanished instantly after his death in 453. He was, in the end, a failure. So why his fearsome reputation?

Part of the answer lies in the bare bones of Attila’s rise. The Huns sprang from obscurity on the steppes of Central Asia in the fourth century. Possibly, their ancestors were a people called the Xiongnu – Hun-nu in Mongolian – who ruled a sizeable empire in Mongolia for 300 years, until China broke them apart in the second century AD. If the Huns were the Xiongnu, they seem to have forgotten their former glory as they moved westwards. They first came to the attention of the Greeks in about 375 as pastoral nomads and experts in mounted archery, able to shoot with extraordinary accuracy and power while at full gallop. In 378, they joined Goths to destroy a Roman army at Adrianople (present-day Edirne, in Turkey).

Rome’s days of glory were already in the past. For a century, the empire had been falling apart. Its two halves, western and eastern, Latin and Greek, had been increasingly at odds since Constantine founded Constantinople – the “New Rome” – in 330. The split grew after each half acquired its own emperor in 364. Ties of family and history were not enough to defend a divided empire against the menace of Germanic tribes pressing in from beyond the Rhine and Danube. This barbarian threat intensified when the Huns, with their very different Turkish roots, emerged from what is now the Ukraine. Their skills carried them into modern-day Hungary, where in due course Attila killed his co-ruler and brother Bleda to seize sole power in 444 or 445. Other tribes were soon co-opted as allies, allowing Attila to deploy forces the like of which no one had ever seen before, his mounted warriors being reinforced with infantry and siege-machines.

Attila the Hun timeline

378
The Huns take part in the Battle of Adrianople, in which the Goths defeat the Romans. Soon afterwards, the Huns cross the Carpathians into Hungary
 
395
The Huns raid the Eastern Roman Empire through the Caucasus, devastating towns in Syria and Turkey
 
c400
The Huns dominate much of Hungary and Romania. Birth of Attila
 
c435
Death of the Hun king Ruga, Attila’s uncle. Attila becomes joint ruler with his brother Bleda
 
444 or 445
Attila murders Bleda and becomes sole ruler, establishing a permanent base near today’s Szeged, on the Tisza in southern Hungary
 
440–41
Attila’s first Balkan campaign, raiding into Pannonia and Moesia, seizing several cities in the Danube region, including Singidunum (modern Belgrade)
 
447
Attila’s second Balkan campaign. Earthquake damages the walls of Constantinople. Huns besiege and take Naissus and many other cities, and (probably) advance to Constantinople, to find the walls have been repaired. Emperor Theodosius sues for peace, agrees annual tribute to Huns of 2,100 pounds of gold
 
449
Priscus accompanies embassy from Constantinople to Attila’s headquarters. The envoy includes would-be assassins. Attila foils the plot
 
451
Attila advances up the Danube to the Rhine, marches along the Moselle and invades Gaul. His advance is stopped by Aetius at Orleans. He retreats, is defeated by Aetius at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains, but is allowed to escape
 
452
Attila invades northern Italy. He takes Aquileia, and advances along the Po Valley. Famine and disease force a retreat
 
453
Death of Attila
 
454
The Hun empire shatters. Western Roman Emperor Valentinian murders the popular military leader Aetius

How big was his empire?

By the mid-fifth century, Attila had created an empire that reached from the Baltic to the Balkans, from the Rhine to the Black Sea. Then from his headquarters in southern Hungary he struck deep into Rome’s eastern and western parts, in four major campaigns and several minor ones. Hun warriors who crossed the Balkans on their way to Constantinople in 441 could have watered their horses in the Loire in 451, and then the next year bathed in the Po.

In reality, however, this immense ‘empire’ was no more than a loose coalition of tribes, bound together by the genius and military prowess of Attila, says Miles Russell. Priscus, an envoy sent from Constantinople to Attila’s court, came face to face with the King, and observed that “he was a very wise counsellor, merciful to those who sought it and loyal to those he had accepted as friends”. In fact, so generous could he be to his supporters that, Priscus noted, many considered life with the Huns to be better than in the Roman Empire; corruption, injustice and taxation all being unknown. While Attila lived, his empire was a successful business operation.

The Huns soon discovered that large amounts of cash could be extorted from the Roman Empire merely from threats, both direct and implied. Throughout the 420s and 30s, the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II paid the Huns 350lb of gold a year just to stay away. By 442, this had increased to 1,000lb. When, in 447, Theodosius refused to pay, Attila took an army directly into the Balkans and began burning towns. Theodosius swiftly capitulated, immediately agreeing to settle arrears and restart payment, Attila raising the annual sum to 2,100lb of gold. The Hunnic King was evidently not a man to cross.

Mindful of the effect that Roman luxuries could have on his people, Attila tightly controlled all movement across the frontier. He decreed that no Hun could settle within the Roman world nor serve in its army, all ‘deserters’ being returned to him for punishment by the subservient Roman state. Instructing the emperor Theodosius to create a no-man’s-land along the border, Attila was able to limit any form of direct contact, this early ‘Iron Curtain’ establishing cultural apartheid between Roman and Hun. Now Roman envoys had to come directly to Attila’s capital at Margus (Požarevac, near Belgrade) in order to negotiate treaties and pay protection money.

Priscus, who provides an eyewitness account to life inside Attila’s court, notes that, after being kept waiting for a number of days, ambassadors were invited to a banquet in the great hall. Here Attila, dressed simply and without ornament, sat on a raised couch at the head of the company. According to Priscus, the guests all received “a luxurious meal, served on silver plate”, but Attila, ever aware of theatrical nature of the feast, “ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher”. His cup too was of wood, whilst the visitors drank from goblets of gold.

A painting depicting Attila the Hun invading Rome watched by heavenly figures
A painting depicting Attila the Hun invading Rome watched by heavenly figures. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How power-hungry was he?

From the few facts that can be established one thing is clear – we are dealing with an astonishing personality who grips the imagination, says John Man. Driven by overweening ambition and an addiction to booty, Attila attempted far more than he could ever achieve. Set on ruling as much of the world as he could grab, his ambition drove him to risk everything against overwhelming odds. In 447, he was at the towering and utterly impenetrable walls of Constantinople, perhaps hoping to take advantage of damage caused by a recent earthquake. Too late: by the time he got there across the Balkans, the walls had been repaired.

The evidence suggests that Attila’s ambition was not simply personal. It was a political necessity. To keep his restless chieftains happy, he needed loot. At first that meant raids; then war; and finally, as his empire grew, large-scale conquest.

But conquest would bring challenges of a different order. Attila would need to learn the arts of government, such as record keeping, taxation, and administration. Unless he fundamentally changed his people’s culture, built cities and joined the western world, his empire would never be secure from the threat of war and possible defeat. Attila employed secretaries and envoys to play at politics, but as an illiterate barbarian war-leader he could not contemplate a settled life. This was the dilemma that Genghis Khan solved 800 years later, but not Attila. His only answer was war, and more war. So in 450 he conceived the idea of turning on the west. Nothing revealed his addiction to war more than the astonishing way in which he justified it.

The story concerns Honoria, sister of the emperor Valentinian III, both of whom were based at the court in Ravenna. Honoria was an ambitious young woman, jealous of her brother, with her own apartments and entourage, but no real authority. Bored by her life of wealth, she had an affair with her chamberlain, Eugenius.

The affair was discovered, Eugenius executed, and Honoria betrothed to a rich consul. In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon portrays Honoria as a dizzy teenager. In fact she was a scheming thirty-something. Seething with rage, she determined to exact vengeance on her brother and take power for herself. Knowing that Attila had plans to invade Gaul, she sent off a loyal eunuch, Hyacinthus, to Attila, asking him to rescue her from a loathsome marriage, promising cash. Hyacinthus carried her ring as a pledge of good faith, with the implication that she was willing to become Attila’s wife. Honoria’s actions were discovered. On his return, Hyacinthus was beheaded.

Who were the Huns?

Possibly originating from Mongolia, the Huns were a terrifying prospect for Rome. Most barbarian migrants desired food, land and territorial security, travelling in large, slow-moving groups. The Huns were different, being highly mobile and, for the Romans, who had little contact with the Asian Steppe, of unusual Worse, from a Roman perspective, they were unrepentantly pagan, displaying little desire to settle down and behave.

Rome’s predominantly Christian society viewed the Huns with a mixture of horror and fascination. The Roman historian Jordanes described them as “little, foul, emaciated creatures possessing only the shadow of speech; monsters with faces made of shapeless collops of flesh” whilst Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were always untrustworthy and unpredictable. Living their entire life on horseback, Ammianus observed that they possessed only rudimentary cooking skills, eating either roots or animal flesh “which they warm by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses”.

One evident truth Ammianus records was that the Huns were “immoderately covetous of gold”. Positioned at the northern fringe of the Roman world, they were a near and present danger, able to extort a large amount of the precious metal from their Mediterranean neighbours.

The Roman Empire of the fifth century was divided into two. To the east an emperor ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul), whilst the West, a territory badly affected by invasion and civil war, was nominally held together by an emperor based in northern Italy. In theory, both leaders worked together for the good of the Empire; in reality, however, the relationship was strained, division being less of an amicable uncoupling, more a traumatic and acrimonious divorce. A disunited Empire played well for the Huns, for Rome divided meant that no single opponent was strong enough to stand against them.

What happened next?

Meanwhile Attila had been preparing for invasion. He had to move fast to forestall an attack from Constantinople, and he found the perfect excuse in Honoria’s crazy offer. He sent a series of messages to Valentinian, with ever wilder demands: make Honoria co-ruler, said one message; a second ordered Valentinian to hand over half his empire as Honoria’s dowry; a third envoy bore the insulting words: “My master has ordered you, through me, to prepare your palace for him”. Valentinian rejected these demands, and Attila had his excuse.

In the spring of AD 451, Attila crossed the river Rhine at the head of a vast army. The reasons for this sudden change of strategy, from extortion to military intervention, are unclear. It may be that, in order to stay in power, he required a major demonstration of strength. Alternatively, it may be that he felt the Western Roman Empire simply hadn’t paid him enough respect (or gold). History tells us that the catalyst was the letter from Honoria (detailed above). Whatever the true reason, the Huns were now inside the Empire, burning, looting and killing large numbers of civilians.

He was two-thirds of the way across France, perhaps aiming to cut Gaul in half, when a joint Roman and Visigothic force stopped him at Orléans. By then Attila’s army was too overstretched to fight. He retreated, until he was forced to give battle on the Catalaunian Plains, the great open expanses that lie between Châlons and Troyes.

On the morning of 20 June 451, both sides clashed on the Catalaunian Plains, near Troyes, northeast France. More than 160,000 died on either side, the Roman historian Jordanes noting the fields were “piled high with bodies” and the rivers “swollen with blood”. It was close, but the Huns were beaten.

Attila and the Huns in battle with the Romans under Aetius in 451
The Huns, under their leader Attila, in battle with Romans, under Aetius, on 20 June 451. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Here, Attila was preparing to immolate himself on a pyre of wooden saddles, when his opponent, the great Roman general Aetius, allowed him to go free. Why? Possibly because he felt that the Huns may yet prove useful to him, says Miles Russell. Perhaps he was simply letting a respected opponent retreat with honour intact. Aetius had spent his youth as a hostage with the Huns and had grown up with Attila. Even though the two men were on opposing sides, they evidently had great respect for one another. Another possibility, says John Man, is that Aetius feared that Attila’s fall would mean the resurgence of the Visigoths, Rome’s old enemies and now their current ally, so he got rid of both of them, the Visigoths back to their homeland in southwest France, Attila to Hungary.

Whatever the reason, allowing Attila to go free would ultimately prove to be a costly mistake. Attila could not be content with this stroke of luck, because he was out of cash with which to keep his troops happy. The following year, Attila returned with an even larger army, this time striking deep into northern Italy, aiming at Rome itself. In the event, having taken a dozen cities in the Po valley, the Huns were stopped by disease and famine, not by military defeat, and returned to Hungary for the last time.

Attila’s retreat from Italy

Following the destruction of Aquileia, the Western emperor Valentinian sent ambassadors to Attila hoping to negotiate terms. Among the envoys was Leo, Bishop of Rome. We don’t know what was said at the meeting, but when it finished, the Huns simply packed up and left. This was spun by the Church as “The Great Miracle”, Rome saved by the word of God and the bravery of Leo, his representative on Earth, and was immortalised in a painting by Raphael. Here, the saintly Leo defiantly stares Attila down, whilst behind him Saints Peter and Paul descend from heaven, fully armed and up for a fight. Upon seeing this, the satanic Attila recoils in abject terror.

The reality was perhaps more down-to-earth. The Emperor offered a complete and unconditional surrender, agreeing to all of Attila’s demands, promising him Honoria as a wife and offering a dowry to be paid in gold. Attila, on his part, was probably also keen to leave Italy, for not only was the campaign taking its toll (food was short and disease rife), but also his army was starting to fall apart.

Hungary’s hero: what nationality was Attila the Hun?

Hungary was founded by Árpád, who led his Magyar people over the Carpathians in 896. Yet there is, deep in the Hungarian psyche, the shrewd suspicion that Árpád was only reclaiming land staked out 450 years before by Attila. That is the story related in the 13th-century chronicle, Gesta Hungarorum. By the 15th century, Attila had become a sort of Hungarian Charlemagne, the forefather not only of the Arpads but of Hungary’s greatest king, Matthias Corvinus, praised by his courtiers as the second Attila.

Until recently, Hungarian histories often reproduced a pseudo-biblical family tree, in which Attila begat four generations of descendants, who at last begat Árpád, (although each of them would have produced his heir at the age of 100). To Hungarians, he was a Hungarian at heart, and they honour him. Attila is a common boy’s name and many towns have streets named after him.)

How did he die?

The retreat from Italy marked the beginning of the end for Attila. In 453, shortly after his retreat from Italy, he took a new wife to add to the many he already had. Her name was Ildico, and she was probably a Germanic princess. During the marriage night, when, Jordanes tells us, “he had given himself up to excessive joy”, Attila suffered a seizure. In the morning, appalled attendants found him dead, with Ildico weeping beside him beneath her head-scarf. Our source, Jordanes, mentions an effusion of blood, which had apparently filled the king’s lungs and drowned him. Later stories circulated of a drunken fit, or a heart attack brought on by sexual excess, or even murder at Ildico’s hands. The most probable explanation, says John Man, is that veins in his gullet, enlarged by years of drinking, burst, but failed to wake him from a drunken sleep.

But there is an alternative theory as to how he died. Miles Russell says: “Given that Attila was renowned for moderation (at least as far as alcohol was concerned), it is more likely that he was assassinated.”

Attila’s death deprived the Huns of a great and charismatic leader. Within a few years, their empire had disintegrated. It may have been no more than a violent, short-lived robber state, but the impact of the Hunnic Empire upon the political, religious and cultural institutions of Europe was profound. The meeting between Leo and Attila proved a turning point for the Western Empire, demonstrating that it was the Bishop of Rome who wielded ultimate power. Arguably, it was this that cemented the status of the papacy and ended the secular supremacy of the emperors.

Where was he buried?

Attila’s burial is the subject of further mystery. The sources mention that the Huns did something with three metals, gold, silver and iron, which eventually inspired a legend that he was buried inside a triple coffin. (This became popular currency, especially after a novel, Geza Gardonyi’s The Invisible Man (1902), brought the legend vividly to life, yet almost certainly, the coffin was of wood, containing at most a few personal relics, with small symbolic clasps of the three metals.)

And then came the burial itself, in secret and carried out “in the earth”, not in a tumulus, with the pall-bearers supposedly being slain to keep the site a secret. This part may be true, for slaves could have acted as grave-diggers and then been despatched, leaving only a few leaders to guard the secret.

A secret it remains. There are no Hun burial mounds, nor were there traditional royal cemeteries, because the Huns had not been in residence long enough. Secrets, of course, inspire legends. Treasure-seekers still dream of finding a tomb filled with treasures, and a gold-silver-and-iron coffin.

A barbarian king at the gates, high drama, intrigue, murder, and mystery: no wonder Attila remains an archetype today, his shade caught by an Amin here, a Saddam there. Their qualities are Attila’s: devious, ruthless, scary, mercurial, sometimes charming, good at finding yes-men to do their bidding, and never master of the events they unleash. That is the force exemplified by Attila in our minds. His epitaph, reported by Priscus, sums him up. He plundered widely, and “died safe among his own people, happy, rejoicing, without any pain. Who therefore can think of this as death, seeing as no one thinks it calls for vengeance?”

That’s the best his people can say of him – that he was a successful robber-baron and died without giving them an excuse to kill in revenge for his death. As one expert, Otto Maenchen-Helfen, says, it sounds “like an epitaph for an American gangster”.

And he could have been so much more, says John Man. With a little more diplomacy and a commitment to administration he could have seized all northern Europe, had Honoria in marriage, created a dynasty that ruled from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the Alps to the Baltic.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University and the author of 15 books.

John Man is a historian and travel writer with a special interest in Mongolia. He is the author of Attila The Hun: A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome (Bantam, 2006)

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This article amalgamates two features, published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine and the March 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine, written respectively by Miles Russell and John Man