Attila the Hun (400 – 453) is the most famous of the barbarian conquerors who destroyed the Roman Empire. He was the last and greatest leader of the Huns and built an empire covering Germany and most of Eastern Europe. Known as the ‘Scourge of God’, the name of Attila stirs fear to this day.
The Huns arrived in Ukraine in AD 370. Steppe nomads from the Eurasian interior, Huns practised cranial deformation and scarred the cheeks of their boys so they could not grow beards. Masters of mounted archery and psychological warfare, they terrified the peoples of Europe.
Rome, at the time, was still rich but split between east and west, ruled by weak men and overly reliant on barbarians to fight its wars. In the early 400s Germanic peoples like the Goths and Vandals, whose very names were bywords for terror and destruction, flooded the empire’s borders by force. The migrations shook Rome to its core. The Huns were behind it all.
The Hunnic Empire in AD 450
Attila was born in modern-day Hungary in 406. He shared the Hunnic crown with his brother Bleda until he murdered him and took over. Attila threw his armies against the Eastern Empire until they paid him off. His army included not only Huns but Skirians, Gepids, Sarmatians, Lombards and Ostrogoths – any peoples willing to join. By AD 450 he ruled Rome’s barbarian frontier.
Priscus was the only writer to have met Attila in person. He describes him as short but fierce, humble but ambitious, kind to his friends but ruthless to his foes. While his commanders lavished in Roman silver, Attila ate with wooden plates and utensils and dressed in a humble nomad’s robes. Like Dracula, he impaled his enemies on wooden stakes.
In 451, Attila went west. Honoria, a Roman princess cloistered to an older man wrote to the king, offering herself as his bride, and all Gaul as her dowry. Attila’s army crossed the Rhine. As he marched on Orleans, Aetius, a Roman commander who had spent his boyhood a hostage amongst the Huns, forged an unlikely alliance with Rome’s old enemies the Visigoths. They defeated Attila’s army at the Catalaunian Plains, near modern-day Chalons. Attila withdrew to Germany and licked his wounds.
Next, he invaded Italy. Attila razed the city of Aquileia and marched on Rome. Pope Leo met Attila and persuaded him not to go further. Legend has it he reminded him of Alaric the Goth, who died shortly after sacking the eternal city in 410. God would punish Attila with the same fate were he to follow in Alaric’s footsteps. Attila did retreat, though it was less likely Leo’s words and more an outbreak of malaria in the ranks.
Attila the Hun’s mistake was never building a legacy. Centuries later Genghis Khan recognised that for steppe conquerors to survive, they had to adapt. He named an heir and adopted the customs of the conquered. Attila did not. He was content to remain a marauder for life, moving from place to place, burning cities and taking loot. When he died, the vassal tribes broke away and his sons and generals destroyed the empire fighting over the scraps. The last of the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 466. The rest joined other tribes or vanished eastward.
Attila the Hun bears a mixed legacy. He is loved in Germany and Hungary but hated in Italy and France. The Hungarians, despite arriving 800 years later, see him as an ancestral spirit.
The Western Roman Empire outlived Attila but fell in 476 when the Germanic general Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Both their fathers had ridden with Attila the Hun.
Sources: John Man – Attila, the Barbarian King who Challenged Rome