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Attila the Hun
406 - 453


Attila, also known as Attila the Hun or the Scourge of God was Khan of the Huns from 434 until his death. He was leader of the Hunnic Empire which stretched from Germany to the Ural River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea (see map below). During his rule he was one of the most fearsome of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires' enemies: he invaded the Balkans twice, he marched through Gaul (modern day France) as far as Orleans before being defeated at the Battle of Chalons; and he drove the western emperor Valentinian III from his capital at Ravenna in 452. He reached Constantinople and Rome but refrained from attacking either city.

In much of Western Europe, he is remembered as the epitome of cruelty and rapacity. In contrast, some histories lionize him as a great and noble king, and he plays major roles in three Norse sagas.


Background

The origin of the European Huns has been the subject of debate for centuries; however it can be said with general agreement that they were a confederation of Central Asian and European tribes, many of them horse nomads. Many experts think they were a Turkic people, descended from the warlike Xiongnu (or Hsiung-nu) tribes that menaced China as early as the 5th century BC, and perhaps much earlier. The first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi, built part of the Great Wall to keep the Xiongnu out.

Their united power appeared or began to form in Europe in the 4th century. They achieved military superiority over their neighbours (most of them highly cultured and civilized) by their readiness for combat, unusual mobility, and weapons including the composite bow.


Shared kingship

By 432 the Huns were united under Rugila. His death in 434 left his nephews Attila and Bleda (the sons of his brother Mundzuk) in control over all the united Hun tribes. At the time of their accession, the Huns were bargaining with Byzantine emperor Theodosius II's envoys over the return of several renegade tribes who had taken refuge within the Byzantine Empire. The following year Attila and Bleda met with the imperial legation at Margus (present-day Požarevac) and, all seated on horseback in the Hunnic manner, negotiated a successful treaty: the Romans agreed not only to return the fugitive tribes (who had been a welcome aid against the Vandals), but also to double their previous tribute of 350 Roman pounds (ca. 114.5 kg) of gold, open their markets to Hunnish traders, and pay a ransom of eight solidi for each Roman taken prisoner by the Huns. The Huns, satisfied with the treaty, decamped from the empire and returned to their home, perhaps to consolidate and strengthen their empire. Theodosius used this opportunity to strengthen the walls of Constantinople, building the city's first sea wall, and to build up his border defenses along the Danube.

Huns remained out of Roman sight for the next 5 years as they tried to invade the Persian Empire. A defeat in Armenia by the Sassanid Persians caused them to abandon this attempt and return their attentions to Europe. In 440 they reappeared on the borders of the Roman Empire, attacking the merchants at the market on the north bank of the Danube that had been established by the treaty. They crossed the Danube and laid waste to Illyrian cities and forts on the river, among them, according to Priscus, Viminacium, which was a city of the Moesians in Illyria. Their advance began at Margus, for when the Romans discussed handing over the offending bishop, he slipped away secretly to the Huns and betrayed the city to them.

Theodosius had stripped the river's defenses in response to the Vandal Geiseric's capture of Carthage in 440 and the Sassanid Yazdegerd II's invasion of Armenia in 441. This left Attila and Bleda a clear path through Illyria into the Balkans, which they invaded in 441. The Hunnish army, having sacked Margus and Viminacium, took Singidunum (modern Belgrade) and Sirmium before halting. A lull followed in 442 and during this time Theodosius recalled his troops from North Africa and ordered a large new issue of coins to finance operations against the Huns. Having made these preparations, he thought it safe to refuse the Hunnish kings' demands.

Attila responded by renewing their campaign in 443. Striking along the Danube, they overran the military centers of Ratiara and successfully besieged Naissus (modern Niš) with battering rams and rolling towers—military sophistication that was new to the Hun repertory—then pushing along the Nisava they took Serdica (Sofia), Philippolis (Plovdiv), and Arcadiopolis. They encountered and destroyed the Roman force outside Constantinople and were stopped by their lack of siege equipment. Theodosius admitted defeat and sent the court official Anatolius to negotiate peace terms, which were harsher than the previous treaty: the Emperor agreed to hand over 6,000 Roman pounds (ca. 1,963 kg) of gold as punishment for having disobeyed the terms of the treaty during the invasion; the yearly tribute was tripled, rising to 2,100 Roman pounds (ca. 687 kg) in gold; and the ransom for each Roman prisoner rose to 12 solidi.

Their demands met for a time, the Hun kings withdrew into the interior of their empire. According to Jordanes (following Priscus), sometime during the peace following the Huns' withdrawal from Byzantium (probably around 445), Bleda died (killed by his brother, according to the classical sources), and Attila took the throne for himself.


Sole ruler

In 447 Attila again rode south into the empire through Moesia.The Roman army under the Gothic magister militum Arnegisclus met him on the river Vid and was defeated, though not without inflicting heavy losses. The Huns were left unopposed and rampaged through the Balkans as far as Thermopylae. Constantinople itself was saved by the intervention of the prefect Flavius Constantinus who organized the reconstruction of the walls that had been previously damaged by earthquakes, and, in some places, to construct a new line of fortification in front of the old. An account of this invasion survives:

The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers.
— Callinicus, in his Life of Saint Hypatius

Attila demanded, as a condition of peace, that the Romans should continue paying tribute in gold and evacuate a strip of land stretching three hundred miles east from Singidunum (modern Belgrade) and up to a hundred miles south of the Danube. Negotiations continued for approximately three years. The historian Priscus was sent as emissary to Attila's encampment in 448, and the fragments of his reports preserved by Jordanes offer the best glimpse of Attila among his numerous wives, his Scythian fool, and his Moorish dwarf, impassive and unadorned amid the splendor of the courtiers:

A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the latchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.

"The floor of the room was covered with woollen mats for walking on," Priscus noted.

During these three years, according to a legend recounted by Jordanes, Attila discovered the "Sword of Mars":

The historian Priscus says it was discovered under the following circumstances: "When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.
— Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths ch. XXXV


Attila in the west

In 450 Attila had proclaimed his intent to attack the powerful Visigoth kingdom of Toulouse, making an alliance with Emperor Valentinian III in order to do so. He had previously been on good terms with the western Roman Empire and its de facto ruler Flavius AŽtius. Aetius had spent a brief exile among the Huns in 433, and the troops Attila provided against the Goths and Bagaudae had helped earn him the largely honorary title of magister militum in the west. The gifts and diplomatic efforts of Geiseric, who opposed and feared the Visigoths, may also have influenced Attila's plans.

However Valentinian's sister Honoria, in order to escape her forced betrothal to a Roman senator, had sent the Hunnish king a plea for help—and her engagement ring—in the spring of 450. Though Honoria may not have intended a proposal of marriage, Attila chose to interpret her message as such. He accepted, asking for half of the western Empire as dowry. When Valentinian discovered the plan, only the influence of his mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile, rather than kill, Honoria. He also wrote to Attila strenuously denying the legitimacy of the supposed marriage proposal. Attila, not convinced, sent an embassy to Ravenna to proclaim that Honoria was innocent, that the proposal had been legitimate, and that he would come to claim what was rightfully his.

Meanwhile the king of the Salian Franks had died and the succession struggle between his two sons drove a rift between Attila and Aetius; Attila supported the elder son, while Aetius supported the younger. Attila gathered his vassals—Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, Burgundians, among others—and begun his march west. In 451 he arrived in Belgica with an army exaggerated by Jordanes to half a million strong. J.B. Bury believes that Attila's intent, by the time he marched west, was to extend his kingdom—already the strongest on the continent—across Gaul to the Atlantic Ocean.

On April 7, he captured Metz, and Aetius moved to oppose him, gathering troops from among the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Celts. A mission by Avitus, and Attila's continued westward advance, convinced the Visigoth king Theodoric I (Theodorid) to ally with the Romans. The combined armies reached Orleans ahead of Attila, thus checking and turning back the Hunnish advance. Aetius gave chase and caught the Huns at a place usually assumed to be near Ch‚lons-en-Champagne. The two armies clashed in the Battle of Chalons, whose outcome is commonly, though erroneously, considered to be a victory for the Gothic-Roman alliance. Theodoric was killed in the fighting and Aetius failed to press his advantage, according to Gibbon because he feared the consequences of an overwhelming Visogothic triumph as much as he did a defeat. From Aetius' point of view, the best outcome was what occurred: Theodoric died, Attila was in retreat and disarray, and the Romans had the benefit of appearing victorious. Perhaps Sir Edward Creasy best summarized Aetius's intentions at the Battle of Chalons:

It is probable that the crafty AŽtius was unwilling to be too victorious. He dreaded the glory which his allies the Visigoths had acquired, and feared that Rome might find a second Alaric in Prince Thorismund, who had signalized himself in the battle, and had been chosen on the field to succeed his father, Theodoric. He persuaded the young king to return at once to his capital, and thus relieved himself at the same time of the presence of a dangerous friend, as well as of a formidable though beaten foe.

Gibbon states the majority view also quite eloquently: "(Attila's) retreat across the Rhine confessed the last victory which was achieved in the name of the Western Roman Empire." The Gothic-Roman alliance quickly dissolved.


Invasion of Italy and death

Attila returned in 452 to claim his marriage to Honoria anew, invading and ravaging Italy along the way. The city of Venice was founded as a result of these attacks when the residents fled to small islands in the Venetian Lagoon. His army sacked numerous cities and razed Aquileia completely, leaving no trace of it behind. Legend has it he built a castle on top of a hill north of Aquileia to watch the city burn, thus founding the town of Udine, where the castle can still be found. Valentinian fled from Ravenna to Rome; Aetius remained in the field but lacked the strength to offer battle. Gibbon however says Aetius never showed his greatness more clearly than in managing to harass and slow Attila's advance with only a shadow force. Attila finally halted at the Po.

At the wish of Emperor Valentinian III, Pope Leo I, accompanied by the Consul Avienus and the Prefect Trigetius, met Attila at Mincio in the vicinity of Mantua, and obtained from him the promise that he would withdraw from Italy and negotiate peace with the emperor. Prosper of Aquitaine's pious "fable which has been represented by the pencil of Raphael and the chisel of Algardi" (as Gibbon called it) says that the Pope, aided by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, convinced him to turn away from the city. Priscus reports that superstitious fear of the fate of Alaric—who died shortly after sacking Rome in 410—gave him pause.

After Attila left Italy and returned to his palace across the Danube, he planned to strike at Constantinople again and reclaim the tribute which Marcian had cut off. (Marcian was the successor of Theodosius and had ceased paying tribute in late 450 while Attila was occupied in the west; multiple invasions by the Huns and others had left the Balkans with little to plunder.) However Attila died in the early months of 453. The conventional account, from Priscus, says that at a feast celebrating his latest marriage to the beautiful and young Ildico (if uncorrupted, the name suggests a Gothic origin) he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. An alternative theory is that he succumbed to internal bleeding after heavy drinking.

Another story of his death, first recorded 80 years after the fact by the Roman chronicler Count Marcellinus, reports that "Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife." The Volsunga saga and the Poetic Edda also claim that King Atli (Attila) died at the hands of his wife, Gudrun. Most scholars reject these accounts as no more than romantic fables, preferring instead the version given by Attila's contemporary Priscus. The "official" account by Priscus, however, has recently come under renewed scrutiny by Michael A. Babcock. Based on detailed philological analysis, Babcock concludes that the account of natural death, given by Priscus, was an ecclesiastical "cover story" and that Emperor Marcian (who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 450-457) was the political force behind Attila's death.

Jordanes says, "the greatest of all warriors should be mourned with no feminine lamentations and with no tears, but with the blood of men." His horsemen galloped in circles around the silken tent where Attila lay in state, singing in his dirge, according to Cassiodorus and Jordanes, "Who can rate this as death, when none believes it calls for vengeance?" then celebrated a strava (lamentation) over his burial place with great feasting. Legend says that he was laid to rest in a triple coffin made of gold, silver, and iron, along with some of the spoils of his conquests. His men diverted a section of the Tisza, buried the coffin under the riverbed, and then were killed to keep the exact location a secret.

His sons Ellac (his appointed successor), Dengizich, and Ernakh fought over the division of his legacy, specifically which vassal kings would belong to which brother. As a consequence they were divided, defeated and scattered the following year in the Battle of Nedao by the Ostrogoths and the Gepids under Ardaric. According to Jordanes, Ardaric, who was once Atilla's most prized chieftain, turned against the feuding brothers when he felt that they were treating the nations they ruled as slaves.

Attila's many children and relatives are known by name and some even by deeds, but soon valid genealogical sources all but dry up and there seems to be no verifiable way to trace Attila's descendants. This hasn't stopped many genealogists from attempting to reconstruct a valid line of descent for various medieval rulers. One of the most credible claims has been that of the tsars of Bulgaria (see Nominalia of the Bulgarian khans). A popular, but ultimately unconfirmed attempt tries to relate Attila to Charlemagne (see Attila the Hun to Charlemagne).


Appearance, character, and name

There is no surviving first-person account of Attila's appearance. We do have a possible second hand source, however, provided by Jordanes, who claimed Priscus described Attila as:

"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 tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin."

Attila is known in Western history and tradition as the grim "Scourge of God", and his name has become a byword for cruelty and barbarism. Some of this may have arisen from confusion between him and later steppe warlords such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. All are considered to be cruel, clever, and blood-thirsty lovers of battle and pillage. The reality of his character is probably more complex. The Huns of Attila's era had been mingling with Roman civilization for some time, largely through the Germanic foederati of the border, so that by the time of Theodosius's embassy in 448 Priscus could identify two primary languages among the Huns, Gothic and Hunnic, with some people knowing Latin and Greek. Priscus also recounts his meeting with an eastern Roman captive who had so fully assimilated into the Huns' way of life that he had no desire to return to his former country, and the Byzantine historian's description of Attila's humility and simplicity is unambiguous in its admiration.

The origin of Attila's name is not known with confidence, because very little is known about Hunnic names. In the Hunnic language Danube-Bulgarian, the etymology "oceanic (universal) ruler" has been proposed. Others believe that the name may be Gothic (or Gepid), from the word atta ("father") and the diminutive suffix -ila. Attila was not a rare name in Central Europe prior to Attila making his mark on history; the historical record shows numerous persons with the name preceding him. 'Attila' has many variants: Atli and Atle in Norse, ∆tla, Attle and Atlee in English, Attila/Atilla/Etele in Hungarian (all the three name variants are used in Hungary; Attila is the most popular variant), Etzel in modern German or Attila, Atila or Atilla in modern Turkish. Also the word possibly originates from Turkic Atyl/Atal/Atil (ancient name of Volga river) with adjective suffix -ly. (Compare also Turkic medieval notable title atalyk - "senior as father")
 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008